In the forward (1946) to a new print of Aldous Huxley’s 1931 opus A Brave New World, Aldous wrote. “Only a large scale popular movement toward decentralization and self-help can arrest the present tendency toward statism. At present, there is no sign that such a movement will take place”.
Whether it is believed we are headed to the dystopian future illustrated in A Brave New World or not, I believe it could be argued we are headed toward a form of statism over our experiences. Statism as defined is “a political system in which the state has substantial centralized control over social and economic affairs”. Maybe political systems within democratic nations have remained relatively safe but it appears a system in which the web has substantial centralized control over social and economic affairs is seemingly creeping into reality.
Imagine living in a world without technology and one day a switch was turned on for public and private entities to listen to what you say and hear, watch what you see and read, and monitor where you go. Now imagine if the information collected was used to filter what you see and hear to influence the decisions you make and the actions you take? Would this be OK? I would imagine not but this is the web as we know it today. A reality introduced, not at the flip of a switch, but slowly over time luring users through the carrot of convenience over clarity of thought. A connection of experiences depositing primal needs, desires, and frustrations of users into a centralized repository optimized to the bottom line of the provider over the user. At least this is what appears to be rising to the surface of a centralized web.
What makes the web different from other information systems of the telephone, TV, or radio? On the web, we are increasingly connected to both each other and centralized providers like no other time in history exposing our collective intelligence to the threats of mass influence. Some may argue this could lead to oppression of our will but at the least I believe it is leading to a repression of our potential.
When we engage with content on the web or through apps, we are providing data points representative of our lives lived to those not invited to the party. What if these data points were under the control of our own personal domain rather than the centralized authority of ISPs (AT&T, Comcast, Verizon), edge providers (Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon), advertising networks/servers (Doubleclick, OpenX), and browsers (Chrome, IE, Safari)? What if we were given the tools to render relevance and context on our own terms? To be more participant than a passenger in building better relationships with other users, products, services, and information?
This is the plan from the founder of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee and the team at the startup Inrupt to re-imagine the web as a decentralized connection between users to build better bridges between personal domains. Personal domains controlled through Personal Online Data Stores (PODS) evolving from Mr. Berners Lee’s work on the Solid framework at MIT. Why is this important? Because the web is becoming too powerful of a force in the human experience to be controlled by handfuls of ISP’s, edge providers, advertising networks, and browsers.
If a few social networks were able to disrupt a presidential election what is down the road when our cars, refrigerators, eyeglasses, or even our thoughts are connected? Do we want a future powered by a centralized web feeding at the trough of big public data to influence consumer behavior? Or do we want a future powered by a decentralized web empowering consumer behavior through a private connection to take back the reins of our own experiences?
Where do the opportunities lie in building off a decentralized, personalized, and private framework? Inrupt is looking to find out by inviting a community of developers and innovators to build applications to securely move personal data into and out of Solid PODS to help provide agency over user experiences. Isn’t it time we had the toolset to gain control over our interactions with media companies, organizations, or even our government?
We now have the opportunity to move the user to the front seat of the exchange through a decentralized connection. A new reality important not only for the user but the communities they engage with. History has much to tell about extremes rendered through communities under centralized control. Now is the time to rethink the web of the future so we don’t repeat the mistakes of our past.
I write on the intersection of technology and human interests and do not have an affiliation with Inrupt.
Learn more about Inrupt and the Solid Framework.