Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Maybe A Different Sort of Web (2017-07-17)
As massive corporations continue their ongoing efforts to end democratic oversight and decision-making one issue at a time, and daft australian prime ministers claim they can overrule mathematics, it is well worth thinking a bit more about what the web and the internet more widely should be and indeed could be, rather than the dangerously centralized system we have now. For those whose immediate response is that there are more serious issues to worry about, I agree. I also happen to think that sometimes the best way to approach more serious issues bravely is to work your way out of thought grooves on the ones that are not quite as serious. However, I am not certain that the ongoing effort to render the internet at large into little more than a massive surveillance system that will inevitably become a major tool in the arsenal of those who wish to deny human rights to most of the planet if left unopposed doesn't rank among serious matters to consider, though it may not count as the most acute emergency for a given person or community.
The trouble with the internet and the web as they stand right now is that their infrastructure is centralized, and the creation and distribution methods for data on them are wholly keyed to that. This has always struck me as a curious weakness to allow in what is quite a significant amount of infrastructure now that phone calls are being massively routed through it whether anybody wants that to happen or not. Single point of failure systems are problematic for the very feature that defines them. As such, the internet is replicating the problematic and wasteful infrastructure approach all over again of centralized electricity generation, water treatment, and so on. A degree of centralization can come in handy, but we always have to ask, who benefits by extensive centralization, and does increased centralization detract from democratic control and management of the system, let alone ability to respond to change?
The basic parts and software for breaking centralization and making a more effective internet are already available, I suspect. For decentralized mesh nets, we can buy or build Library Boxen or the various related low power digital file distribution tools based on free software and low powered, easily acquired parts. For file sharing and web publishing on a secure peer-to-peer basis, there is the beaker browser project , which already sounds intriguing. There are already several decentralized search engines, with the one that again is based on free software being YaCy.net. I think that there is also plenty of opportunity to break the mental hegemony of blog platforms and similar "services" that imply writing web pages is so hard you can't possibly do it yourself. My hope is that this would be an approach to the internet that would militate against ad pollution and spyware of all kinds, let alone the ransomware and other problems at large right now. This needn't and probably wouldn't end the centralized parts of the internet at least right away, because there are too many massive ad companies propping it up. For that part of the internet, it should not be difficult to find or compile the equivalent to the stripped down version of Firefox, Icecat. Boycotting inappropriate, insecure, and ignorant bandwidth eating ads – or at least making sure a person may always do so if they choose – on any version of the internet and web is essential.
I think it would be quite intriguing to see how a more decentralized approach to the web and the internet more widely will turn out, and how they will be different from and similar to their centralized counterparts. In the decentralized version, will some of the problems related to it being too easy to vandalize and be an asshole be mitigated by the fact that so many people would be more directly involved as participants? After all, peer-to-peer sharing has already been around long enough that issues such as poisoned file distribution and the like have workable solutions. Could an email client that applies many of the underlying principles in beaker's security model finally end the reign of centralized, insecure email servers for individuals? Let alone no longer losing the internet altogether simply because somebody managed to cut a single critical cable or the power went out, since a network of Library Boxen for example can be run using small-scale energy sources from batteries to solar panels, and that would allow basic service provision that uses the internet to continue with almost no interruption. This one is close to my heart, living in an area prone to windstorms and earthquakes, where you're supposed to get updates specific to your neighbourhood when the power goes out by – you guessed it – looking it up on the internet.