It was never supposed to end up this way, with the internet’s information superhighway passing through centralized gateways around the world. But, as is often the case with sprawling, unplanned projects, it just… did. Now, the platform and the cloud dominate the marketspace, buying up or driving out competition through sheer accessibility and convenience.
The fundamental cause of the internet’s current state is that like so many things in human history, nobody realized what it was going to be until it got there. ARPANET had planners. The internet just sort of happened. Sure, there were individuals and organisations working towards their own somewhat interrelated goals, but there was no steering committee. Things were done for expediency at the time, and sort of got absorbed into the foundation without too much thought. After all, they worked, didn’t they?
It was a form of spontaneous creation, powered by lowest-common denominator consensus. If everyone could agree that a certain solution more-or-less worked to fill all their needs, then great! Let’s do it and get on with the real work. However, over time, expedience became standard, and then fundamental — and suddenly quick-fix workarounds were indispensable to running our new information delivery infrastructure.
And here we are.
Gone are the days of the wild web, where interaction was effectively permissionless and no central authority held sway. Now, most of us have unprecedented access to the internet, but we do it through a handful of key players. While some of these players are trading convenience for oligopoly (as consumers, we do love a monolithic platform! Where else will we get simple email, social networking, file storage, etc.), others are working from a position of structural domination — as anyone who’s tried to access the internet without an ISP these days can tell you. Convenience is great, but it can also be a vulnerability.
Fighting with giants, or tilting at windmills?
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, genuine knight, inventor of the web, and decentralisation advocate has been vocal in his criticism of the centralised status-quo. As he said last year.
The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.
The irony of this being published on Medium is strong, but his point is excellent. So long as power consolidates itself with no recourse from the user, the gatekeepers will continue to grow stronger until we have forgotten the original ideal of open, permissionless communication. Medium notwithstanding, Berners-Lee has once again taken a stand to change things, and has launched Solid and Inrupt, two powerful tools to reclaim users’ rights from the megaplatforms.
However, Solid still relies on the conventional, centralised web — something that even Berner-Lee has taken issue with. In a previous letter on Net Neutrality, he takes issue with the lack of freedom of choice in providers:
To reach its full potential, the internet must remain a permissionless space for creativity, innovation and free expression. In today’s world, companies can’t operate without internet, and access to it is controlled by just a few providers.
Removing the gates
To truly remove the gatekeepers, we can’t just remove the gates — we must remove the walls. By bringing decentralisation back to the internet, we remove the barriers that monolithic institutions tend to impose. When no one player can control the network — be it through access, compute, or platform — then players compete from a more even standpoint. The big must answer the challenges of the small, instead of silencing them with scale.
This isn’t without its issues, of course. Decentralisation in the internet will require new and different forms of governance, but don’t all new ideas require new ways of thinking? As with all things, we as a community of users, and a society at large, will adapt.
At Catalyst, we want to make the decentralised internet viable through high speed, low weight nodes and democratic compensation, and full compatibility with the user experience in place. It’s a long road to full
decentralisation, but we believe that we’re setting out on the right foot. To quote Sir Tim one more time,
The web is for everyone and collectively we hold the power to change it. It won’t be easy. But if we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want.
It’s as much a credo as a call to action, but we’ll be doing our part.