by John Kendall Hawkins
“To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”
– All Souls Unitarian Church Covenant
“O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!”
Marmion, Walter Scott
The URL Sea
Last time we saw Tim Berners-Lee (TimBL), he was weeping by the information highway, google-eyed clowns in honking cars passing by — spam, assorted junk, broken links, tossed at his feet — on their way to the URL Sea to do some phishing for ids and IDs. Working at the CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland, St. TimBL “decided that high energy physics needed a networked hypertext system and CERN was an ideal site for the development of wide-area hypertext ideas.” See the blue ‘weeping’ links above? TimBL, the Unitarian-Universalist, did that for science — provided an electronic pathway to further information — and then, because he was so chuffed by its success, he served it up as the Web, for free, to the whole wide world in 1989.
The Internet, originally a product of the US military, and around since the 60s, was virtually unknown to the general public. It was an electronic data system that allowed universities and government agencies to share information in a sometimes clunky and often inefficient fashion. The World Wide Web brought structure and efficiency, its underlying coding language (HTML) and delivery protocol (HTTP) made it easier for would-be data hosts to build websites using applications like WhatYouSeeIsWhatYouGet (WYSIWYG).
People went to work immediately building that Library. Some people swear that they never saw so much free porn in their lives. I myself loved ‘link surfing’ — each day presented a new hypertext adventure. TimBL was hailed as a Martin Luther King (think, decentralization) , Gutenberg (publishing), and, alas, Robert Oppenheimer (a Bomb that could change everything).
Thirty years later: What a mess. What was supposed to serve humanity by accelerating particles of data around the globe to create a kind of Library of Alexandria that people could help build with data, as well as borrow from at will, seems to have gone as disastrously wrong as its ancient predecessor. Flamers everywhere, advertising retinues, more and more centralization of data, the Internet as a battlefield between States which has militarized the data stream and turned it into a security risk requiring constant monitoring. TimBL looks at the highway today and sees lovely tumbling papyrus scrolls strewn everywhere, like trash. Humanity is being served up to the appetites of Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Corporates sizing up our desires, Intels seizing on our souls.
Not only has the Web become the feeding grounds of predatory corporates and spooks, but global governments have stepped in to regulate it in a number of ways — including the UN’s ITU body that seeks standards and protocols for current and emerging communivction technologies; the US release of ICANN, which some people feel intentionally releases the US from First Amendment obligations; net neutrality issues, with its pay-for-play implications; new link laws that would make a service provider legally responsible for content links — be they code of conduct issues or copyright issues; search engine manipulation; and Internet kill switches, to name some of the looming weaving of the Web….
TimBL is appalled to see such interference with his brainchild. In addition to the strangleholds described above, the Web has brought out some of the worst facets of human personality and chased away the better angels of our nature (someone I know said they saw poor Ralph Nader loping away from it all in tears, idle tears). We have turned into trolls who burn our own bridges, clowns who never say clever, spies for the government here and spies for government there, and super-viced by yet other spooks and spies. Our Victorian unitarian TimBL has watched the Web turn into the Grand Bizarre porno hub. Enquire has become the Enquirer. Even the Lady of Shalott has not been able to handle Lancelot galloping hotly by on his way back from shovelling chivalry in France — with a feather in his cap.
Enough! cried TimBL.This is not my beautiful Internet — this is not my beautiful Web. All that hivemindedness. Was TimBL criminally naive to believe that his mosaic catalogue would not inevitably — you know, given the human condition — backslide toward baal once the language of the Web could be exploited? Jeez, didn’t he read Animal Farm? Freedom today, totalitarianism tomorrow. He almost went Sam Kinison (and who woulda blamed him?), after the events of 2016. But TimBL fought back — quietly, efficiently and with a new Web paradigm for his links that he calls Solid. Like a Marvel Comics character who actually does good, TimBL slipped into a phone booth and — made a call to D Central Eyes.
Hey, Kids, Let’s Play ‘Alan J. Qaeda’
Well, 1989 was a watershed year, a year of decentralization. Not only did the Berlin Wall come down, but even the Stasi trees were lopt. TimBL did his WWW thing with decentralizing hypertext. And, of course, 1989 was the year that US-backed al Qaeda was born, an Islamic jihadist organizatiuon notoriously difficult to infiltrate and destroy, onnaccounta it was decentralized; if you whacked one mole, another popped up. Plus, they wouldn’t wear uniforms on the battlefield to make it easier for American forces to atrocify, necessitating their designation as “non-state enemy combatants,” meaning ‘the gloves’ came off, ‘we make history now’, and the happy double-tap regime began. Kids started playing Cowboys and al-Qaeda.
TimBL wants nothing to do with things like that. He has begun to see that we, the netizens of the Web, have begun to be treated as if we were all al-Qaeda suspects in the War on Terror, the non-uniform diversity of our private lives an implicit threat to the State, requiring constant surveillance, by any and all means necessary, to protect the central governing forces of the Internet. In this sense, the War on Terror is a war on decentralization and privacy, and those who would reject this premise end up on watch lists. TimBL’s become a militant, but politely so. He’s been pushing for a Bill of Rights that would protect our cyber activities, because the “open, neutral” vision he had of the Web 30 years ago is on life-support.
“There are people working in the lab trying to imagine how the Web could be different. How society on the Web could look different. What could happen if we give people privacy and we give people control of their data,” Berners-Lee told Vanity Fair in 2018. “We are 3/5 building a whole eco-system.”
TimBL essentially wants to start over again and build a new Internet — or, at least, provide an escape path for anyone who values the sacrosanctity of his or her privacy. He calls it Solid. And in many ways it’s just a return to the good old days of decentralized link-to-link information. (Raise your hand if you can remember Usenet, peer-to-peer networks, the miracle of torrents — but most importantly the personal control of your own data.) TimBL introduces the concept of the POD, a storage container, of sorts, for all of your personal data that can be held on a USB stick or stored on a Web server.
“Think of your Solid POD as your own private website,” proclaims the site. And if you go to your POD you’ll see a webpage that looks like a control panel, where you manage various data and apps, while providing levels of access to others. At first look, it seems like a daunting task to move from the current iteration of the Web to TimBL’s Solid configuration. “You don’t have to have any coding skills.,” he told Vanity Fair. A good place to get a feel for what’s being developed at Solid is to check out their forum, see what they’re discussing.
But it remains an open question whether it will catch on and replace the ‘empire burlesque’ of monetized algorithms and government gathering of private data. What if the government wants to infiltrate and seek out “Terror” on Solid servers? Who would switch? Might it just revert back to early version of the Web, used by only networks of academics, scientists, journalists, etc., but no real numbers of ordinary people, a kind of snobnet? For TimBL, it’s now or never: 4 billion people online, which is a critical milestone.
Researcher Steve Wilson, asks BBC News, “Even if people could control their personal data, what does Solid do about all the data created about us behind our backs?” Good question, and more importantly, what about all the mountains of data we’ve handed over to Them in our online experiences already — since, say, 1998, when Google was founded? But chances are good that conditioned responders will just lay down tracks– back to the sugar shack.
Saving Private Normal
TimBL means well, and his stated intentions are the key: He wants to restore democracy, freedom and privacy, which he sees as crucial to the Decentralization Project. Such needs are also crucial to Humanity, the evolutionary project that now sees us, as Nietzsche imagined, somewhere between beasts and supermen (or machines). So, TimBL’s recovery of the Web, while wonderful, can be seen as part of a growing movement to breaking away from central control, in general, going off grid: mesh telephony, cryptocat messaging, survival kits, even zany invisibility wear. Again, stuff al Qaeda might do. We need to figure out how to hide from the Internet of Things, which, when you think about it, can make existence so hellish, as if the world were suddenly constructed of molecules made of eyeball atoms reporting on you from every possible angle, inside and out. Like you woke up one morning and found out that Dali was god.
All of this — TimBL to invisibility — seems indicative of a paradigm shift, an instinctual understanding that our habitat is in collapse mode, that our greatest tool for survival — consciousness — is in peril. There’s no guarantee that people will want to be rescued. Lest we forget, despite everything, Ryan could not be coaxed into going home.
Failed States of Conscience
Midway through The Internet Is Not the Answer, Andrew Keen sums up the Question his book presumes to address: ‘What can help us create a better world in the digital age?’ It is with an acerbic wit, perspective and profound dismay that Keen dismisses the Internet as the revolutionary vehicle for progressing human civilization that it started out to be. Instead, he argues, it has become a counter-revolutionary means for extending the age old venal sins of greed, excess, and unchecked profligacy.
Keen leads the reader through three stages in the journey toward his unsettling conclusions – Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and Web 3.0, which roughly correspond to the past, present and future of the Internet’s development. He begins with Web 1.0, reminding us of the Internet’s paranoia-driven beginnings. There might not be the online environment we have all come to depend on if not for the US military panic over the Soviet launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1959, which demonstrated an unimagined first-strike capability and made militarists aware of the catastrophic vulnerabilities of the national telecommunications system.
Keen details the discovery and implementation of two still-key electronic protocols – TCP/IP – that would allow any two computers anywhere in the world to speak and share with one another. It was rather like a Westphalian treaty for data, which provided standardization of rules – protocols – making communication uniform and universal, as the system reduced all human languages to logical data bits. Once generals were certain they’d developed a system of networked computers capable of reliably talking to one another even in the event of nuclear war – they called it ARPANET – they breathed a sigh of relief from within the padded walls of the Cold War policy known as Mutally Assured Destruction (MAD).
Out of this early Shakespearean web of paranoia emerged Web 2.0 and the equally Shakespearean (and middle class) conceit of human progress out of tragic consequences. To wit, enter Tim Berners-Lee and his good-intentioned development toward a free worldwide open system of information sharing, known as the World Wide Web. Keen reminds us that some Twenty Five years ago when scientist Berners-Lee premiered his idea of a World Wide Web of computers and their data stores, he was motivated by a scientist’s fear of forgetting amidst the constant storm of complex thoughts; but the Web would never forget and what’s more would open to the world the vast stores of information ‘out there’ and needing only the connective tissue of hypertext to become available online to all.
Says Keen, it was a rosy picture Berners-Lee and his legions of idealistic acolytes painted of the human-computer symbiosis to come – one that would lead to bounding human progress, great new economic opportunities, and the fine-tuning of a global system of informed participatory democracy. But then came the psychopaths, packs of salivating Macbeths, and opportunity, and the idealists were invited over for a sleepover. We know the rest.
In his Web 3.0 scenario, Keen notes that the executives of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Instagram came to town wearing white hats and broad smiles but riding black steeds. Keen conjures up an almost-idyllic late Twentieth century American middle class town these riders enter, citing what New York Times columnist George Packer calls a period noted for “state universities, progressive taxation, interstate highways, collective bargaining, health insurance for the elderly, credible news organization,” as well as publicly funded research; in short, a system that the Internet might have helped tweak and fine tune. Instead, Keen now sees that all as an exploded dream, and calls out the four riders for special condemnation for giving us a world more and more controlled by algorithms, and for inspiring the dark spirits in the shadows of government to co-opt the predictive analyses of the riders in order to create a perhaps now-ungovernable global surveillance state.
Such institutionalized profligacy, excess and unaccountability has, in turn, led to the rise of a monster elite headquartered in Silicon Valley, who control the workings of the Internet and more and more control the workings of human life as it becomes ever more digitalized. This elite, says Keen, is so dangerously dissociated from ordinary human endeavors that they hold FailCons, where they gather in Homeric fireside chats and tell war stories of “Epic. F*ck%ng. Failure” that led to their ultimate success. Of course, the Trojan War has a whole new meaning amongst the geek fraternity.
The Internet has turned into a ‘winner-take-all’ Wild West, says Keen. “It creates a surreal economy in which we are not only the creator of the networked product, but also the product itself.” We are all unwitting workers in “data factories” who work not for sweatshop wages but for nothing, he says, and when Google perfects its artificial intelligence plans, the human-computer symbiosis that began wit so much optimism, will be more akin to the same old master-slave relationship that history is built upon, a “feudal system” of 1% Haves and a vast reservoir of succulent Have-Nots. “By thinking like us,” writes Keen of the exploitative algorithms, “by being able to join the dots in our mind, Google will own us.” They will soon become the unregulated controllers of our collective destiny.
The principal picture of cultural and socio-economic erosion brought about by the Internet’s failure to live up to its early promise could not have been more graphically summed up than it is in his bleak section on what became of the city of Rochester, New York, once the home town of the sprawling and vibrant Kodak film industry, and now a ghost town of boarded up houses and stores, where the murder rate is 340% higher than the national average, where the marrow of the city has been sucked clean by the virtual vampires of Algorithmia. It’s so bad there that when Keen went to snap a picture outside Kodak headquarters he was told by a guard, “No photos allowed.” As Keen sums up the situation in Rochester, “[W]hat happens if the devastation is not only permanent, but also the defining feature of our now twenty-five-year old digital economy? What happens if the tragedy in Rochester is actually a sneak preview of our collective future…?” It’s hard to see a silver nitrate lining in all this.
As the elite hold Caligula-esque parties on football field-sized yachts, where they are served food and beverages by squadrons of waiters naked but for their aprons, and tell their tall tales of Narcissitic genius, while the climate burns all around them and the populace sinks into deeper depravities, it’s hard to avoid thinking of Nero fiddling as it all falls down. Or more aptly, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Instagram in an echo chamber, playing a string quartet grosse fugue that somehow makes sense to them, even if its complexity eludes mere dilettantes and aficionados. Or maybe they are as they seem, to Keen and many others, akin to the Four Riders of the Apocalypse finally come to reclaim the “Epic. F*ck%ng. Failure” of human civilization.