Did We Build the Wrong Web?

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Photograph by the author

As software architects we often get wrapped up in ‘the moment’ and are so focused on the immediate project deliverables and achieving the next milestone or sale that we rarely step back to consider the bigger picture and wider ethical implications of what we are doing. I doubt many of us really think whether the application or system we are contributing to in some way is really one we should be involved in or indeed is one that should be built at all.

To be clear, I’m not just talking here about software systems for the defence industry such as guided missiles, fighter planes or warships which clearly have one very definite purpose. I’m assuming that people who do work on such systems have thought, at least at some point in their life, about the implications of what they are doing and have justified it to themselves. Most times this will be something along the lines of these systems being used for defence and if we don’t have them the bad guys will surely come and get us. After all, the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD) fueled the cold war in this way for the best part of fifty years.

Instead, I’m talking about systems which whilst on the face of it are perfectly innocuous, over time grow into behemoths far bigger than was ever intended and evolve into something completely different from their original purpose.

Obviously the biggest system we are are all dealing with, and the one which has had a profound effect on all of our lives, whether we work to develop it or just use it, is the World Wide Web.

The Web is now in its third decade so is well clear of those tumultuous teenage years of trying to figure out its purpose in life and should now be entering a period of growing maturity and and understanding of where it fits in the world. It should be pretty much ‘grown up’ in fact. However the problem with growing up is that in your early years at least you are greatly influenced, for better or worse, by your parents.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, father of the web, in his book Weaving the Web says of its origin:

“I articulated the vision, wrote the first Web programs, and came up with the now pervasive acronyms URL, HTTP, HTML, and , of course World Wide Web. But many other people, most of them unknown, contributed essential ingredients, in much the same, almost random fashion. A group of individuals holding a common dream and working together at a distance brought about a great change.”

One of the “unknown” people (at least outside of the field of information technology) was Ted Nelson. Ted coined the term hypertext in his 1965 paper Complex Information Processing: A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate and founded  Project Xanadu (in 1960) in which all the worlds information could be published in hypertext and all quotes, references etc would be linked to more information and the original source of that information. Most crucially, for Nelson, was the fact that because every quotation had a link back to its source the original author of that quotation could be compensated in some small way (i.e. using what we now term micro-payments). Berners-Lee borrowed Nelson’s vision for hypertext which is what allows all the links you see in this post to work, however with one important omission.

Nelson himself has stated that some aspects of Project Xanadu are being fulfilled by the Web, but sees it as a gross over-simplification of his original vision:

“HTML is precisely what we were trying to PREVENT— ever-breaking links, links going outward only, quotes you can’t follow to their origins, no version management, no rights management.”

The last of these omissions (i.e. no rights management) is possibly one of the greatest oversights in the otherwise beautiful idea of the Web. Why?

Jaron Lanier the computer scientist, composer and author explains the difference between the Web and what Nelson proposed in Project Xanadu in his book Who Owns the Future as follows:

“A core technical difference between a Nelsonian network and what we have become familiar with online is that [Nelson’s] network links were two-way instead of one-way. In a network with two-way links, each node knows what other nodes are linked to it. … Two-way linking would preserve context. It’s a small simple change in how online information should be stored that couldn’t have vaster implications for culture and the economy.”

 

So what are the cultural and economic implications that Lanier describes?

In both Who Owns the Future and his earlier book You Are Not a Gadget Lanier articulates a number of concerns about how technology, and more specifically certain technologists, are leading us down a road to a dystopian future where not only will most middle class jobs be almost completely wiped out but we will all be subservient to a small number of what Lanier terms siren servers. Lanier defines a siren server as “an elite computer or coordinated collection of computers, on a network characterised by narcissism, hyper amplified risk aversion, and extreme information asymmetry”. He goes on to make the following observation about them:

“Siren servers gather data from the network, often without having to pay for it. The data is analysed using the most powerful available computers, run by the very best available technical people. The results of the analysis are kept secret, but are used to manipulate the rest of the world to advantage.”

Lanier’s two books tend to ramble a bit but nonetheless contain a number of important ideas.

Idea #1: Is the one stated above that because we essentially rushed into building the Web without thinking of the implications of what we were doing we have built up a huge amount of technical debt which could well be impossible to eradicate.

Idea #2: The really big siren servers (i.e. Facebook, Google, Twitter et al) have encouraged us to upload the most intimate details of our lives and in return given us an apparently ‘free’ service. This however has encouraged us to not want to pay for any services, or pay very little for them. This makes it difficult for any of the workers who create the now digitised information (e.g. journalists, photographers and musicians) to earn a decent living. This is ultimately an economically unsustainable situation however because once those information creators are put out of business who will create original content? The world cannot run on Facebook posts and tweets alone. As the musician David Byrne says here:

“The Internet has laid out a cornucopia of riches before us. I can read newspapers from all over the world, for example—and often for free!—but I have to wonder if that feast will be short-lived if no one is paying for the production of the content we are gorging on.”

Idea #3: The world is becoming overly machine centric and people are too ready to hand over a large part of their lives to the new tech elite. These new sirenic entrepreneurs as Lanier calls them not only know far too much about us but can use the data we provide to modify our behaviour. This may either be deliberately in the case of an infamous experiment carried out by Facebook or in unintended ways we as a society are only just beginning to understand.

 

Idea #4: Is that the siren servers are imposing a commercial asymmetry on all of us. When we used to buy our information packaged in a physical form it was ours to do with as we wished. If we wanted to share a book, or give away a CD or even sell a valuable record for a profit we were perfectly at liberty to do so. Now all information is digital however we can no longer do that. As Lanier says “with an ebook you are no longer a first-class commercial citizen but instead have tenuous rights within someone else’s company store.” If you want to use a different reading device or connect over a different cloud in most cases you will lose access to your purchase.

There can be little doubt that the Web has had a huge transformative impact on all of our lives in the 21st century. We now have access to more information than it’s possible to assimilate the tiniest fraction of in a human lifetime. We can reach out to almost any citizen in almost any part of the world at any time of the day or night. We can perform commercial transactions faster than ever would have been thought possible even 25 years ago and we have access to new tools and processes that genuinely are transforming our lives for the better. This however all comes at a cost even when access to all these bounties is apparently free. As architects and developers who help shape this brave new world should we not take responsibility to not only point out where we may be going wrong but also suggest ways in which we should improve things? This is something I intend to look at in some future posts.

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