But why is the web the way it is? By Paul Clarke - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53878695

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.

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Spike
Member

Yes, ad-funded Google, and especially volunteer-powered DuckDuckGo, are not “gatekeepers” but concierges. You can get around on the Internet without using a search engine, and in fact you can code in Javascript without reading textbooks or attending lectures; it’s just trial-and-error slow. And Facebook and Twitter are destinations. Disapproval of specific sites does not mean there is something wrong with the architecture. A “decentralized” Internet will make me review terms of using the Internet of my choice, especially whether it lets me reach the websites I want to reach. And what if I want to reach a big-corporation website after… Read more »

Rhoda Klapp
Member
Rhoda Klapp

Well, we might be able to operate multiple ids. Something identifiable as me for google and facebook and the ones who want to sell my data, and another few for general net use where we don’t want to be tracked and targeted. Yes, I know I can do that now with a little effort but Joe Public can’t, and even if I did it I would always be wondering whether it worked. Also a truly decentralised web would be less vulnerable to various nexus (nexi?) being hit. That fence may be there for a reason, but it isn’t necessarily a… Read more »

Spike
Member

Thank you for thinking of Joe Public, but this is the same Joe who has for decades been explicitly giving up personal information, with no restrictions on re-use, for a “chance to win a prize!” without wanting to know what the chances are.

BB01
Member
BB01

Isn’t there already a ‘decentralised’ web, VPN?

Trying to solve a problem already solved?

bloke in spain
Member
bloke in spain

Chesterton’s Fence is entirely the wrong analogy. You don’t have to remove the fence. Closer would be; there’s this field over there – with Chesterton’s Fence guarding it. And this other field over there with no fence around it. So let’s go play in the unfenced field. You can have your field. We can have our’s.
The backbone of the internet’s just communication links. Cables, fibres, wireless… At the moment Internet 1.0 is running on it. Nothing to prevent an internet 2.0 using he same links occupying the same information space. If enough people prefer Internet 2.0, it’ll supersede Internet 1.0

Spike
Member

Oh, but Chesterton’s Fence is not about a fence (and is not an analogy for things with fences). It is about taking time to learn before dismantling.

Of course the Internet does not prohibit building a network with some of the same attributes, and additional ones. On the other hand, nothing about analog television precluded HDTV, nor empowered HDTV to compel all Americans to convert. Only the Racketeers in Congress did that, and it was not a matter of people’s preference.