There’s a rather breathless movement among the tech types who think about such things as the internet – the rest of us just use it of course – excited about the idea that we might build a decentralised internet. All rather odd, given that the original intention was indeed to have a decentralised communications method. But more than that they’ve – as so many do – forgotten about Chesterton’s Fence. That is, they’ve entirely failed to think about why the ‘net and the web are as they are. That’s not a great attribute in those who would redesign or replace it.
The story that broke earlier last month that Google would again cooperate with Chinese authorities to run a censored version of its search engine, something the tech giant has neither confirmed nor denied, had ironic timing. The same day, a group of 800 web builders and others – among them Tim Berners-Lee, who created the world wide web – were meeting in San Francisco to discuss a grand idea to circumvent internet gatekeepers like Google and Facebook. The event they had gathered for was the Decentralised Web Summit, held from 31 July to 2 August, and hosted by the Internet Archive. The proponents of the so-called decentralised web – or DWeb – want a new, better web where the entire planet’s population can communicate without having to rely on big companies that amass our data for profit and make it easier for governments to conduct surveillance. And its proponents have got projects and apps that are beginning to function, funding that is flowing and social momentum behind them.
Well, OK, there’s no human advance that ever happens without some nutters first dreaming of it. But we do have this Chesterton’s Fence problem. Which is, when we walk in the country and find a fence we cannot just insist that the fence is not necessary. Only if we work out why it was first placed there can we consider whether that first reason still applies. If it doesn’t then fine, away wi’ it. But if it does, well, we’ve either got to produce a different solution to the problem or leave the fence where it is.
So, why do we have these gatekeepers? Not that they actually are of course, you can get onto the net without using any of them at all. But why do we have Facebook and Google? Because we internet users find them useful, that’s why. They’re not an imposition upon us after all, they’ve grown because we voluntarily use them.
And why do we use them? Well, with Google, it’s because we’d really rather like a map to all that stuff out there. Facebook, why not have a set of tools which make it easier to communicate?
Hmm, so, the tools arose because people find them useful. And now we’re to have an internet which doesn’t have these tools. So, what’s going to happen? Well, people are going to build tools which provide a map, which make communication easy. And we’re going to end up in entirely the same place again given that network effects will still be in place.
Whoever has the better map will gain more users, leading to the funding to make that map better again – attracting more users. A social media site gains more users simply because it has more users – we can communicate with more people. Those effects aren’t going to disappear.
So, what value this new decentralised web? Well, might be different people who are the gatekeepers but we’re still going to have them. So, actually, not a lot. The reason being that the internet we’ve got started out decentralised and the current set of gatekeepers just provided a better set of tools to allow people to negotiate it. That need’s not going to go away therefore nor is the gatekeeping position.