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The weakened web

In response to my article yesterday about how the web isn’t dying, a few people shared some related articles that I thought were worth mentioning.

The Web Falls Apart

In The Web Falls Apart, Baldur Bjarnason discusses how the web is expanding to include ever more people, but that it’s center is collapsing in on itself.

The basic foundation that underlies the web really does seem to be in trouble:

  • It’s failing to compete with native, both for user and dev mind share.
  • Where it does dominate—as the primary format for media—it’s predominantly encapsulated in a compromised in-app browser that’s built into various social media apps and comes loaded with spy software that tracks whatever you do or read on the web.
  • Which makes it an unmitigated privacy disaster.
  • Tech as a whole has become the willing tool of a panopticon surveillance state but the web is a much bigger contributor and enabler than it should ever have been.
  • Ads as a business model is destroying the user experience, skewing public discourse, and weakening the very fabric of our democracies. While the web isn’t the sole culprit, it is one of the biggest contributors.
  • Many countries, democracies and dictatorships alike, are starting to exert more and more direct control over what their citizens can read, see, or publish on the web.

I don’t disagree with any that, really.

And while I, as a tech savvy man in the US, can do things like select a more privacy-minded browser, update my DNS service, setup a VPN, and install ad blockers, the average web user doesn’t always know how to do those things, or that they should.

So, what does that mean for the web? According to Baldur, it means the web is likely to collapse on itself at some point.

We are, in all likelihood, looking at the very beginning of the collapse of the web in its current form…

This isn’t a “the web is doomed, DOOMED, I tells ya” kind of blog post. It’s more in the “the web in its current form isn’t sustainable and will collapse into a simpler, more sustainable form, possibly several” genre. Collapse doesn’t mean that it’s all going away—sociopolitical collapses usually don’t work that way. Most of the damage is likely in the collapse itself, when the system is breaking down into simpler components.

Baldur is quick to point out that he doesn’t think the web is dying. More going through a metamorphosis.

Go read the whole article. It’s fantastic.

Hypertext as an Agent of Change

Hypertext as an Agent of Change is the transcript of an amazing talk that Mandy Brown gave at the dConstruct Conference in 2014.

Mandy explores the history of knowledge, and what innovations like the printing press meant for global enlightenment.

Prior to the printing press, every astronomical table had to be copied by hand, inevitably introducing errors. If you spotted an error and wanted to correct it, you had to recopy the entire table, likely creating as many errors as you fixed.

And then someone else would come along and make a copy of your copy, and then a copy of that, and soon every copy of the data you labored over would be uniquely inaccurate.

Print changed all that. In The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein describes the press as introducing “typographical fixity.” With print, each copy made in a single run was perfectly identical to every other copy. The drift that happened with scribal texts—when each copy would subtly change and drift away from the original—was eliminated.

If an error was discovered in a printed book, it could be corrected in a subsequent printing. For the first time in human history, new copies of a text actually improved rather than deteriorated.

Mandy then digs into how the web expands on what the printing press started.

If print gives us fixity, what does hypertext give us?

And the speed with which that fixed text is shared is directly related to our ability to learn faster than we ever could before. News can be disseminated, corrected, re-shared, and confirmed several times over in the span of minutes or hours. It can be analyzed and contextualized within the day. A law can be drafted in response before the next sunrise. A community can formulate a plan and begin to act on it within the week.

But hypertext brings with it something else, too: that speed and fidelity give rise to a transparency of iteration and revision previously unavailable. Not only can I rapidly evolve a text, but I can also expose that evolution and let others participate within it. I can open up the collaboration wider than I could before.

But this technology also has a dark side.

It doesn’t just helps us move forward. It also reinforces, echoes, and amplifies the toxic elements of our current world.

We like to think the systems that we build are neutral ground: anyone can sign up for Twitter or Facebook, anyone can reach the network, therefore everyone has an equal voice.

But the technology we build inherits the social and political systems of the world we inhabit: it is not a pristine, perfect, clear-eyed utopia. It is as messy, sexist, racist, and fucked up as we are.

This is difficult but it is important: either we and the technology that we build work against the systems that prolong inequality or we perpetuate them.

Once again, this is an amazing article and you should go read the whole thing.

What does this mean for you?

So, if you care about this stuff—about the web in general, and about making the world better specifically—what can you do?

To me, a few things.

  1. Put accessibility and performance first.
  2. Don’t collect data about your users that’s not 100% essential to a product’s functionality.
  3. Come up with revenue models that don’t involve advertising.
  4. Own your content.
  5. Take a stand on how your code is used and require people in your communities to not be toxic assholes.

I’m sure there are others. What did I miss?