The Web Must Die
This post is about Freedom
By Caleb James DeLisle
March 23, 2014 CC-BY-SA firstname.lastname@example.org Originally posted here.
In the early days of the Internet, if I wanted to tell you something, my computer would communicate with yours using a protocol called SMTP, most people know this as E-Mail. Even though I might use America Online and you might use CompuServe, we could still send E-Mail because both service providers knew how to talk SMTP. If I wanted to tell a whole bunch of people something, I would have used what is known as NNTP, it’s a cousin of SMTP except instead of telling only you, NNTP would tell anyone who was interested. There was a world wide federation of NNTP servers each of whom allowed their users to subscribe to interesting “groups” and then begin receiving whatever was published in those groups. It was like a glorious printing press with no master and anyone could step up on the soapbox!
If we wanted to have a real time text chat conversation, we would use IRC, a protocol which allows clients like you and me to connect to servers, and servers to connect to other servers. IRC, NNTP and SMTP servers were usually operated by Internet Service Providers who often had tenuous relationships with one another so while they could usually agree to curb the most egregious of violations, by and large free speech won out over family values.
Then something happened.
Along came HTTP and The World Wide Web. It was great for businesses because they could finally have an electronic storefront which looked however they wanted it to. Ward Cunningham invented the Wiki, a collaborative knowledge base where information could persist, long outlasting the temporary NNTP post. Slashdot devised a system of voting on news to crowdsource the process of filtering by importance. Information was being held to a higher standard, data was curated instead of just being thrown around and competition made user interfaces ever easier for non-technical people. As the amount of information on the web ballooned out of control, a number of services tried to make it searchable by downloading every page they could find and grouping them by keyword. These had mixed results but when a university project applied popularity to the search ranking problem, the results improved dramatically and thus Google was born.
In the short 15 years that followed, something disturbing has begun to happen. Human interaction over the Internet has shifted from open standards and open protocols into the hands of a few dozen Silicon Valley tech companies. No longer do people send ordinary emails, instead they send Facebook Messages, no longer can I just grab you on IRC, instead people use Google Chat or Twitter Messages. Even Bittorrent is no longer the premiere video publication medium having been largely replaced by YouTube.
While an email provider might turn you off, as long as you were not an evil spammer, you could always get another one. The publication of the snuffle algorithm, by which Dan Bernstein famously broke the US cryptography blockade, was over NNTP and though it began the legal case Bernstein vs. The United States, never did his NNTP server even consider disconnecting him. When the communist hardliners attempted a coup in the final days of the USSR, the news leaked past The Iron Curtain over none other than IRC. Today we hear of people losing a Facebook or Twitter account over a picture of a bare breast, a bad word or an inflammatory political comment. In an arbitrary decision by a faceless bureaucrat with no right of appeal, *click*, no more account, no more friends, no more you.
This story has a very personal element for me. Three years ago I began a software project called cjdns, it was designed to replace the aging routing infrastructure of the Internet with a more secure and egalitarian solution. Something which wouldn’t require these central Internet Authorities that nobody has ever heard of. At the beginning of 2012, cjdns functioned well enough that I and a few hundred others began networking computers together and Hyperboria was born.
Most of Hyperboria’s usage revolved around an IRC network, in general people didn’t bother to put up web services or they setup simple text-only websites. There was one person in this community who really stood out. To this day I admire his design skill. He made sites which were really as usable as the alternatives on the web and I proudly showed his sites to people who asked what was Hyperboria. Where most people made Hyperboria something to do in their spare time, for him it was a second job. He really did toil away day and night to make his services the greatest thing on earth.
But behind this creative genius was what I eventually discovered to be a crazed power junkey with a delusions of Hyperboria as the next Internet and himself as the next Mark Zuckerman. This reality I tried so hard not to accept, walking on eggshells every time we had a disagreement. Always trying to give him the benefit of the doubt as he lied, evaded questions and made up excuses for what can only be explained as a pathological thirst for dominance over other people. On some level I knew what was happening, but I carefully kept myself from asking too much, from digging too deep, because the milk and honey were flowing and the answers just might leave me feeling obligated to right the matter, even if Hyperboria should burn as a result. When he steadfastly refused to transfer control of an important server which had gone dormant due to his inability to pay, the cracks in his facade had become too big to ignore and while what happens next we cannot know, I don’t expect my old email address, email@example.com , to last very long.
The question overarching all of this is how in 3 years could our little Internet made just for a group of friends become sick with the disease of centralized control? I have now twice in my lifetime witnessed the unfolding of this pathology, once on the Internet and once again in Hyperboria. While there are many possible sources of this injustice, I blame the protocol.
Totalitarianism is simply the default state of the client/server model.
And so I say: If we are to avoid a future where Google and their ilk mediate every human interaction, subtly directing us, molding us as they see fit and cleansing us of “undesirable thought patterns”, The Web Must Die.
Strange words for a person such as myself. Everything I have worked for in my adult life was to make the Internet, and therefor The Web, stronger. Today I see things differently. The national firewalls which always seemed so dangerous as they isolate and radicalize populations, now seem like quaint half hearted speed-bumps on Facebook’s path to world domination. For the first time in perhaps 10 years, I don’t care much about the NSA. The NSA for all their money and power, lacks the intellectual capital to out-maneuver the Web Giants who will stop at nothing to keep their precious datasets secret.
In the Web Future, the NSA and indeed all state spying apparatus will be little more than historical amusements. Google will tell you what you need to think, even if you are a world leader.
What happens next?
I don’t know where the answers will come from, if they come at all, but I can tell you that they won’t come from me. Long ago I vowed never to become a superhero, never to be the person who saves the rotten Babylonian World from one villain after another every Saturday morning. I’ll keep on designing communications systems for myself and the handful of misfits I call friends but that’s just a source of personal amusement.
You dear reader have a choice. You can close the tab and forget everything I said, you can Like this article, upvote it, tweet it and get angry for a few minutes until the next bandwagon comes along, or you can take the time to actually understand the machines that are on your desk and in your pocket. The Titans are not going to keep reminding you of this battle as they so cleverly do when the evil empire is a threat to them, and I don’t really expect these words to be remembered long after the next celebrity faux pas goes viral, but if you remember one thing, remember this:
Once upon a time it was illegal to teach a slave how to read. The master class knew how powerless a person is when they are illiterate. Today our world runs on silicon and bits, the written language of the day is code and in this sea of information, anyone who remains illiterate does so by choice.
If you are not willing to learn the language of the machines that control our world, or to discover the lost protocols which predated The Invasion of The Web, or even to make a show of determination by closing your Facebook, Twitter and Reddit accounts; you are not worth saving, you are the problem.
Part 2: In the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king
I have a few words for ‘us’, the technologically literate, the people who can talk to the machines. I suppose most programmers learned more or less the same way I did. At a time when the machines were new and untrusted, we, the socially inept, the awkward, the isolated, the weird kids who just happened to have access to a machine began to explore. We learned how they worked and how to make them do things. Metaphorically speaking, we befriended them. How could we have known that just 20 years later, those silicon crystals would take over the planet and like the stuff of a science fiction story, they’d remember us.
Today we are in a stratified society and the machines have put us at the top. We are the high priests and the electronic rain makers. We should be sick to think of the job offers, the on-site gourmet chefs, the massage therapists, and the absurd salaries which are the gifts that the money elite bring to court the princesses we have become.
It has been said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Look at what we are, as we hide in our private IRC channels and mailing lists from the unwashed masses. Think of how we toss Open Source Bread from our ivory towers and imagine ourselves such philanthropists without once considering that those down there really should be up here. Although I cannot speak for my peers on this, I can say without reservation that privilege has made me into an asshole. I look down my nose at all the people whose lives revolve around how they dress, what kind of car they drive and who won “the game”. Watching these people so predictably interact with our creations, running like mice down all of the little passageways just as they were designed, this has left me with little interest in them except as parts to be used in the construction of socio-technological machines. But if the people really are so useless then even the most cleverly designed system has no purpose.
This is not who I want to be. Though I refuse to compromise my standards, I want to believe in humanity. So if the responsibility should fall on them for failing to learn, it should fall dually on us for failing to teach, or more correctly, failing to empower. For it is the body of wisdom which these people have but cannot express which is the greatest loss.
Today the world is not governed by people, it’s governed by ideas and only a fantastically small minority of the people ever participate in their creation. This is why whenever more than three or four of us gather in one place, Intelligence Agents come bearing flowers, chocolates and business cards. They know we can make their wildest dreams come true. We can also be their worst nightmare, for example, when we choose to devise systems which formalize the process of whistle-blowing. What’s incredible is the fact that in this bizarre technocratic world, the vast majority of people simply do not participate. It’s as if people think that political leaders just fall from the sky, and what we call “voting” is a hobby that pasty white males do at night while listening to electronic music.
I want to introduce a concept, I’m calling it Teaching Freedom. If we keep giving people freedom, they will continue to squander it, abuse it, or trade it away to the first man with a hat and something shiny in his hands. We’ve already seen what the unenlightened can do with access to pseudoanonymous cryptocurrency. If we teach people to code, they’ll write some scripts, maybe work on a project or use their newfound skill to get paid more. Teaching Freedom is about giving people an understanding of what it means to be actively engaged in the shaping of society and if we do it right, they’ll demand to know how to code. They’ll demand to know law and to understand politics and economics and every other system which runs our world. Even if they don’t produce the next great invention, they’ll at least understand the political statement one makes when they log in to Facebook or Twitter.
So if the web must die, and I believe it must, we must Teach Freedom to the people, to de-userize and reawaken them. But once they have woken up and the client/server model is dead, what will replace it? Can we imagine a distributed database storing all the world’s information on nodes which are paid in cryptocurrency? Can we imagine a common decentralized computation platform, capable of providing every service we have now and so many more that are to come. Can we imagine being able to just fork a website and make changes to our copy? Can we imagine forking a web service as advanced as Google search?
Of course we can, this is why we rule the world.
And as a final note, I thought of a word, it’s like cryptocurrency but more all-encompassing. Unlike bitcoin, it’s a system where the rules can be changed. This word is cryptodemocracy. I don’t know what it means yet but I like it.
Originally posted on: Written on February 4, 2015, WednesdayLooking for older posts? Check the Articles archive!