Decentralising Internet

Paris Marx writing for Reconnected:

Hermosillo was not the only voice pushing back against the libertarian framing of cyberspace. In 1996, technology historian Jennifer S. Light compared the talk of “cyberoptimists” about virtual communities to city planners’ earlier optimistic predictions about shopping malls. As the automobile colonized U.S. cities in the 1950s, planners promised that malls would be enclosed public spaces to replace Main Streets. But as Light pointed out, the transition to suburban malls brought new inequities of access and limited the space’s functions to those that served commercial interests. The same went for virtual communities where, under private ownership, “these agora function only in their commercial sense; the sense of the market space as site for civic life is subject to strict controls.” Commercial “communities” prioritized business interests over facilitating the participation of marginalized voices, promoting education and productive exchanges, and facilitating the democratic governance of digital spaces.

This is a fascinating historical context around the history of the Internet. The earlier adopters and consequently ideals around “libertarian” concepts shaped the western constructs. It is effortless to turn wolly eyed around “upholding the principles of democracy” while weaponizing it against the own populace. These ideas have been used to seek legitimacy around going to wars with the “commies”. This blog isn’t about geopolitics, but history abounds. As such, most countries have started walling off their access depending on their political ideology.

There has been a gradual consolidation of the Internet. Most users equate going “on line” with Facebook or Twitter and search with Google, while ignoring the alternatives. It is a complex mixture of ignorance, hubris, lack of motivation and curiosity, or plain insufficient effort to engage with the “technology”. Besides, technology isn’t consumer facing technology, but a broader domain which incorporates manufacturing as well.

Here the author adds:

The vulnerability of the digital advertising model offers an opportunity to imagine a different kind of network, rooted in an alternative political agenda; one that elevates social benefit over corporate profit. But that won’t happen automatically. Without coordinated action for a better internet, the move away from digital advertising may simply lead to a further monetization of our networked interactions. The so-called creator economy is helping normalize a renewed emphasis on micropayments and subscription models, and the dominant social media platforms have followed suit with new monetization features, such as Twitter’s Super Follows and Facebook’s Bulletin. Beyond new apps and services, there’s a growing effort to graft an infrastructure of monetization onto the internet itself: Web3, a vision that Drew Austin describes as “a blockchain-based internet that works less like an open network circulating ‘free information’ and more like an expansive matrix of built-in ownership and payment infrastructure.”

There is still significant hullabaloo around “web 2.0” which I believe originated in 2005. It was the talk around the platforms (Facebook/Google’s Orkut) etc. It was a marketing hype where the same set of people were chiming around “democratisation” of access. It never happened. Digital advertising requires successful tracking of user habits. Despite public snafus around breach of trust and user data, the platforms have gone dominant (fuelled by legislation) and political support. It helps them quash any meaningful “competition” and indulge in abhorrent HR practices.

My concern is around the same platforms with incendiary algorithms that build in biases by default and consumer tech being repurposed for healthcare. Any policy principle must first understand the political context, and then define the role to foster competition, not stifle it. Despite the rise of “blockchains”, it doesn’t have a trickle down benefit, as it only concentrates the dominance of the platforms even more.

Here’s more:

Web3 is a technological solution that does not contend with how power is distributed in the real world. It does not aim to produce a more equitable means of networking society; rather, it seeks to forestall the political struggles that pursuing that aim would actually require. Like other “decentralized” concepts, it is readily available for co-optation. Silicon Valley billionaires are already openly hailing cryptocurrency as a right-wing technology, while Amazon recently launched its own “distributed” network consisting of its own products. Bitcoin’s infrastructure is controlled by just a few major companies, and in the same way that Google financialized digital ad markets, Web3 seeks to extend the logic of financialization to even more of our digital interactions.

The most notable exception is China, where the “Great Firewall” is at work. This set of technologies and legislation is often framed solely as an attempt to limit the Chinese populace’s access to sensitive information or communication about controversial topics — which is undoubtedly true and a problem — but its economic implications are arguably more important. China’s protectionist measures, paired with generous state funding, have allowed it to develop a domestic tech industry that has grown to rival that of the U.S. — something other countries are seeking to emulate.

(emphasis mine)

Like I mentioned before, decentralisation is not the panacea, but will be opposed, as it would diffuse efforts to “surveil”. Splinternet is for real. The dominance of platforms is due to the data they accrue. It has rankled regulators and political class alike- if they can’t push the genie back in the bottle- they will work together to cripple it. It has been the dominant context of times – more power begets power in a feedback cycle. AI will accelerate it; like adding fuel to the smouldering fire.

Community owned networks or infrastructure is the way to go; as the notion around having “friends and family” having outlived its purpose. Besides, understanding the nature of the beast is the first step to control it. That’s why I encourage others to understand AI as a platform- it is just another fancy way to use maths and statistics but devolve a higher level of understanding around policy (and algorithms). If you know it, you can control it.

I am not a techno-optimist, by any stretch of imagination. I don’t use the blog to “reimagine” the future. However, a natural progression of the Internet will be to share the same power structures that control us. Google and Facebook (or any other technology firm) is here to stay. It is better to have public stakes in them (as a community resource) and make them work for us, rather than a select group of investors. In essence, make them public utilities. I understand it would go against the grain of ideas around “VC funding”, but they serve no useful purpose creating artificial stocks. From basic economic principles, none of them are into manufacturing. The only make money.

Here’s what the author says the same thing but slightly differently:

After commenting on how we’ve idealized the early web, McNeil writes that “when I think I feel nostalgic for the internet before social media consolidation, what I am actually experiencing is a longing for an internet that is better, for internet communities that haven’t come into being yet.” Clearly, this is not just about decentralization; it’s about thinking through the outcomes we want to see and building institutions — and only later technologies — in service of those political goals. Instead of hoping a particular network design will be immune from corporate control, we can build a better internet by first building the political power necessary to make it a reality

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