WWW: This is not the internet we imagined
Thirty years after inventing the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee wants to reinvent it, said John Thornhill in the Financial Times. On the anniversary of his world-changing creation last week, Berners-Lee, the scientist who in 1989 created the technical standards that made the web possible, has grown “increasingly distressed” over the exploitation of the internet for “surveillance capitalism, electoral manipulation, and cybercrime.” Since 2015, he has been working to design a new data platform, called Solid. Its goal is to “re-decentralize” the web, “returning ownership of data to the users who generate it.” If he succeeds, “his latest accomplishment may yet be considered almost as significant as his first.” But the odds are stacked against him.
Unfortunately, Berners-Lee’s ideas seem “detached from the reality we currently live in,” said Bryan Menegus in Gizmodo.com. It would definitely be better if the web giants tried to “support the best in humanity and challenge the worst.” But hoping companies like Facebook will do that is idealistic in the face of data that shows that’s not what users want. Sir Tim “can’t have it both ways,” said Harry de Quetteville in The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). When you invent something that the whole world uses, you can’t turn around and “lament the fact that it is not always used as you would wish.” It’s easy to sit and rage against Big Tech. But this “lofty attitude” is the reason British scientists like Sir Tim had so little say in shaping how the internet grew.
It’s not just Berners-Lee who doesn’t like what he invented, said Jonathan Tepper in The American Conservative. Vint Cerf, the researcher who conceived the technical ideas behind the internet in the 1970s, thought its beauty was that “it’s not controlled by any one group.” Now “the internet has become the opposite of what it was intended to be.” It’s a “dystopia” governed by a few big companies. Since 2014, more than half of all traffic to websites has come from just two sources: Facebook and Google. That’s when the free internet died.
You can’t celebrate the web’s birthday without acknowledging its shortcomings, said Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic. There were critics of the internet even in 1995. They shared prescient concerns before the rise of Facebook, Amazon, and Google, and sounded alarms about the weakening of nation-states and strengthening of transnational corporations. Some, like author Ellen Ullman, even predicted that the on-demand economy would produce antisocial behavior, since we would no longer have to “involve anyone else in the satisfaction of our needs.” These points are worth remembering, and they “inoculate against nostalgia.” If we want a better internet, we can’t just look back “at what we loved about the early days.” ■