Yesterday, the world changed.
In the midst of our continuously chaotic news cycle, word arrived that world wide web inventor and engineer Tim Berners-Lee had officially launched Solid (an open source project) and Inrupt (his new company w/co founder John Bruce).
Part of what makes the announcement significant is how intensely data privacy has been churning the internet and mobile web over the last year.
Google and Apple are reacting to newly enacted GDPR standards, Facebook is radically reshaping their developer ecosystem/platform due to a series of major data breaches, Twitter continues to struggle with bots, trolls, and doxxing, and LinkedIn has quietly been growing and likely hoping no one notices it was built on the same ground as its competitors.
Those changes are happening in a series of interconnected ecosystems collectively worth hundreds of billions of dollars…and the how, when, and where of data use underpins all of it.
But to understand why something like Solid is important, you have to first understand a picture that’s much bigger than the walled off gardens of each tech giant.
For over a decade, Berners-Lee has talked about the promise of the early web, and how our current set of technologies failed in executing that vision. Instead of a “one-way pipeline” where people are consumers, the intention is for Solid to foster a “read-write web where users can interact and innovate, collaborate and share.”
It’s a much needed realignment, not just of data access and privacy, but also of how we view identity on the web. And while the actual concept sounds simple, there are a lot of technologies that had to mature for it to happen.
One is that the majority of users of the web don’t have programming experience, so development had to advance to the point where the building blocks were reliable and verifiable to the point that anyone could utilize them, which we are finally nearing and Solid appears to be in line with.
Another maturation: around 2000 to 2005 when Facebook arrived and the consumer grade web kicked into high gear, it was built with a fundamental flaw in how people understood the relationship between humans, data, and technology. Programmers, investors, and the Wall Street money that arrived by default put data (and meaning) into a centralized database with inflexible categories.
They then created platforms and apps that traded that data and meaning, but failed to put it into the hands of users, to let them be the ones to drive platform growth. There are many problems with this approach, not the least of which was missing the opportunity to continue what the early web made possible.
The web that was
To understand what Berners-Lee and others call “the promise of the early web,” you have to first understand both what it did (functionally) and how it felt (the experience).
With all of the money, power, and politics driving Silicon Valley these days, it’s easy to forget what that was like in the early days when Geocities, Angelfire, Tripod, and yes, even LiveJournal to some extent, enabled us to discover and link our many worlds.
Frank Chimero aptly describes the early web in a 2015 blog post, The Web’s Grain, as a sort of free space where web design connects people infinitely, instead of controlling them…
Olia Lialina, a designer, net artist, writer, and media researcher, references this same idea in several essays over the last decade, most notably Turing Complete User, Rich User Experience, UX and Desktopization of War, and Not Art&Tech, all of which deal with what happens when we hide the relationship between users and interfaces, in the process divorcing users from navigating and creating their own experience.
Hiding the OS with the advent of Siri, Alexa and Hey Google may make it easy for companies to market products, but there’s a much bigger risk involved, as Lialina notes…
“We are giving up our last rights and freedoms for “experiences,” for the questionable comfort of “natural interaction.” But there is no natural interaction, and there are no invisible computers, there only hidden ones.”
In other words, when we both centralize everything we know about users and remove their ability to make choices, we lose that edgelessness Chimero described, powerful both in design and functionality. In the early web, sites and links could lead you almost anywhere, a far cry from the walled gardens and algorithmic “experience optimization” that we have now.
The web that will be
What we need, then, is a web that places the power to cultivate that edgelessness in the hands of users, and I believe Solid and Inrupt are attempting exactly that.
But, what are the underlying principles of this new kind of web?
Clearly there is still a lot that needs to be explored, as Berners-Lee has acknowledged, and as noted by William Mougayar last month with respect to blockchain technologies.
Below are a few principles, centered on the user, that recognize the value of those vast interconnection the early web was capable of, while returning power into the hands of people.
Value isn’t in nodes, it’s in the connections between them - this is one of the simplest + most important reasons we need something like Solid. We’ve built massive platforms that place the power in the dots and not the lines of our various network maps and algorithms. It sounds overly simplistic, but it’s true, and you can see it in any map of a modern social network.
Think about it this way: the value was never in the nodes, it was always about the relationship between them, and we’ve had mostly crude ways of expressing or valuing them (though some new research on the “nearest neighbor” problem does suggest we’re close to unsticking this).
The passport must be accessible, and owned by the user - the promise of the early web described by Lialina, Chimero, Berners Lee and others may remind you of a little boat on the ocean, looking for other boats (or land). This is a good thing for a number of a reasons, the least of which is that it exactly matches the reality of human experience. We are, outside of cultural, ethnic, and national borders, each of us an entity of our own collection and making.
In a digital world where we acknowledge that promise, returning ownership to the user is critical. One aspect that’s already in process: the blockchain uses public ledgers/hashing to ensure transparency. But decentralization and centralization isn’t an either/or, there is a level of centralization that makes sense but should never have been in the hands of companies. It should have been in the hands of users.
We must acknowledge that “all things hidden” vs. “all things visible” is too binary to sustain a web that is “read-write” - innovation and creativity in the digital world are no different than the physical world. It’s tempting to suggest that radical transparency will fix all of our problems, but not all things and behaviors are designed to be observed. We need a clear relationship between things that are publicly shared and validated, and those that can and should remain private (and, to Lialina's point, perhaps we should leave a great deal more of this decision to the user and not the platform).
Social sciences practices and standards must be included - through the work of Danah Boyd, Zeynep Tufekci, and others, we have plenty of evidence that programmers/developers alone can’t make these decisions without risking user safety. The growth can be fast, but there must be a scientific approach, and both open source projects and web architecture need smart people looking at the sociological, technological, and psychological impacts of how tools are built, and evolve.
To quote many a tech CEO or product manager: we need to be more iterative in how we research and study platforms plus tech ecosystem change.
All that being said, will the current tech giants embrace an approach that’s so antithetical to their current corporate structure and revenue model? Doubtful.
Will there be enough embracing and development of these principles in the same way that Berners-Lee and others evolved the early web? I sure hope so, and it does look promising.
There is tremendous growth possible, but it has to be growth with purpose. We must, as Olia Lialina notes, make sure “to take time to formulate questions that cannot be answered by monopolies or by observing the monopolies.”