A new and interesting research report has been published by Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula, Ethan Zuckerman, in a group effort between The Center for Civic Media & The Digital Currency Initiative @ MIT Media Lab. The title is Defending Internet Freedom through Decentralization: Back to the Future?
It is a long report, with 113 pages and lots of important references. There are so many aspects, ideas and themes to discuss, and I’m not trying to go in detail in this post. However, over the past few days, I have been researching and I’m happy to see a renewed interest in creating new and open discussions about the Internet, the web and how we can build interoperable solutions.
So, with this post, I intend to slowly digest (and update it several times) some of the subjects introduced by the report and give some of my views about it.
Therefore, this post probably will not make any sense in the beginning, as I’m trying to gather multiple concepts that are somewhat related. Please bare with me. For now this is just an evolving list of topics I intend to research and understand more about.
Decentralized vs Centralized Web
The idea of decentralization is quickly evolving. The concepts introduced by Brewster Kahle in his article “Locking the Web Open: A Call for a Decentralized Web” are central to this discussion and are gaining momentum. Even the popular HBO show Silicon Valley has joined the movement 🙂
The efforts that are being made in events such as the Decentralized Web Summit are critical for these discussions to continue.
The report mentions the “growing excitement around the area of decentralized systems”, and uses Bitcoin and other digital currencies to expose its arguments. When thinking about these new systems, the report talks about Appcoins, a digital currency framework that enables users to financially participate in ownership of platforms and protocols.
It is interesting to note that this is not a new idea. To anyone that has studied and followed the history of the Internet more closely will know that Ted Nelson (a controversial figure and founder of the early infrastructure of the Internet – which the report does not mention), already had this notion of micro-payments. Watch this video, with Jaron Lanier trying to explain this point better than I can.
The implementation of block-chain systems fits perfectly with the early concepts of the Internet. Now, we just need to make sure that it does not suffer from the corporate domination the web suffered.
The report does not dive too deep in the realm of the mobile web. It doesn’t even mention the efforts being made by the movement of progressive web apps. However, it does mention the challenge of native applications. “With the advent of mobile, developers are moving beyond the web and HTML in favor of building ‘native’ applications, which can run faster and be more responsive on mobile hardware. Mobile application developers build to operate on two major mobile platform operating systems and APIs — Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.”
I personally believe apps as we know today are going to disappear, if a decentralized web indeed emerges. In fact, I think the word “App” is a bad construct. We should move away from “Apps” to platforms, solutions or experiences. Apps lead to an idea of a self-contained entity, that might or not be connected with other resources.
When I think of Apps, I immediately think about old CD-ROMs from the early 90’s. Self-contained programs that were only connected to the web to obtain or share data (and the only successful ones were mostly games – any similarities here?). In many ways, CD-ROMs (now an almost archaic medium) were controlled experiences, to escape the real connected world provided by the Internet and the open web with hyperlinks.
Please don’t get me wrong on this one. Software is not going anywhere. Obviously we are still going to have massive developments on the web and outside of it. I just think that we will slowly transition from the App Store model (that was immensely successful for the past decade) into a new one. There’s a great deal of opportunity here and we should all explore it.
Open source won the world. There is no doubt about that. Now, as the web evolves to a third-decade of open source there is still a good deal of questions and challenges ahead. Recently, I watched a presentation by Simon Phipps on this matter, and I think it is a good starting point to understand new waves and trends.
I would also like to see a renaissance of the growing importance of Internet and web-related foundations (and less fighting between them). Entities such as the W3C, the Wikimedia Foundation, Creative Commons, the The Internet Archive, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, The Free Software Foundation, the Open Source Initiative, Mozilla, the WordPress Foundation and many others helped to shape the web we want, and we need to embrace more of these initiatives.
Own your content
If we are going to move away from big corporate solutions such as Facebook, Google and the power of closed social networks, we need better solutions to own our digital content. The report states that “There are some projects that aim to help users utilize their websites as a way of creating a user-owned identity and using that to authenticate with third party websites.”
From all projects and active communities I could gather, the one that is really interesting right now is the IndieWeb. I encourage people to learn more about it and participate.
If you reached the end of this post, you are a very brave person. I know its very confusing, missing references and does not make any sense. But it is just an initial attempt to look at this new report and compile multiple ideas that fit into the same conversation.