The ideology at the heart of the web
There are events in the cultural calendar that lead people to call a futurist. For the last 24 hours my phone has been buzzing with researchers for radio stations, wanting a comment on what the next thirty years of the web might look like, on this, the 30th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for a new scheme for information management.
Berners-Lee has naturally featured at the heart of these conversations, with clips of his chat with Rory Cellan-Jones preceding my own interviews. Berners-Lee is concerned about the fragmentation of the web and internet, into often proprietary and less-open segments that stymie the web’s evolved purpose: universal access to knowledge. Whether it’s China’s restricted version of the internet, or the polluted conversation spheres of Facebook and YouTube, these closed rooms are anathema to this ideal. Inside them, access to information is limited, monetised, or otherwise leveraged for control. But there’s something more fundamental about these operations that I think offends the Web’s creator and perhaps should concern all of us.
Each one of these domains can succeed in its less-noble goals because it is in some way closed. Building walls creates a smaller territory that can be more easily controlled. This is great for innovation: if you’re only trying to shape a smaller space you can do so much more quickly. Hence the speed at which Facebook and others can introduce features – “moving fast and breaking things”. The walls give you control over access, locking people in and keeping others out.
Where it gets really pernicious is when you give users the ability to build their own walls. This is something the author Matt Haig pointed out about Twitter recently:
Twitter is fundamentally designed to encourage tribalism. The nature of it. The way we can ‘follow’ some and ‘block’ others. The way the most intense, emotional posts become the most seen. Love and disgust are the main emotions. It is designed to exploit the tribal instinct.
— Matt Haig (@matthaig1) March 12, 2019
Tribalism is the right word, and it’s not just Twitter. Every attempt to Balkanise the web and its offshoots is effectively an attempt to create, or support for others attempts, to reinforce tribal boundaries, based on politics, culture, race, or any other factor. These may not be the intentions but they are definitely counter to the objective of the web: a single, shared, global resource.
Berners-Lee’s work throughout the last thirty years has been about connecting humanity to the web: half the world remains offline. It’s a noble goal because of the inherent value of access to knowledge. But what underpins it is a recognition that we are a single group, in spite of our differences. A global web breaks down barriers rather than builds them. It forces us to confront the fact that we have much more in common than separating us. And it creates a platform for sharing knowledge and truths at a time when that couldn’t be more important, particularly with looming issues like climate change that can only really be tackled with political will underpinned by understanding.
When we consider the next thirty years of the web, even before we get into the media through which we access it, we have to consider whether we will protect this ideology of a single resource for all people, or whether instead we want to create a platform predicated on division.