On the web we want

This week’s reading for the introductory module revolves around the world wide web and its future. We use it every day, but we hardly think about where it came from, or even what it really is. We also don’t consider the implications of using it, feeding our data into it and selling ourselves to the big corporations for entertainment.

Just recently, I listened to Jaron Lanier on Sam Harris’ Waking up Podcast about Digital Humanism [1] and what Lanier said about the carelessness with which we sell our data rang very true for me. There are many things we don’t like to pay a lot of money for, but we are paying with our personal data for a little bit of entertainment – the price for this might be too high.

Jaron Lanier is a great critic of social media and the way we use the internet, and I think it is very worth listening to him and having a look at his work. Studying Digital Arts and Humanities, which places a great emphasis on social networking and getting oneself out there requires a critical stance towards the technologies we are using.

Tim Berners-Lee’s idea of a ‘Magna Carta for the web‘ [2], which he proposed at the 25th anniversary of the world wide web, back in 2014 is something worth considering – even more so: I think it is with great urgency that we should be more thoughtful.

The internet and the web offer countless opportunities to earn money, for everyone. So it is no wonder that the big players in this world try to take influence, politically and economically. For all its great opportunities, the web also opens up possibilities for bad actors to gain control, to make money illegally, to threaten, bully, censor, influence, spread harmful ideologies. We are aware mostly aware or the danger posed by hackers, scammers, bad actors – but what about governments and companies? What about the people we are supposed to trust? We need to be more aware of the way the web is being used by them, their interactions with it and their desire to make it work in their favor. I times of fake news and digital censorship, we have to be thoughtful of what kind of web we want and how we want it to be used.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, is an inspiring personality in this respect. From the start, he had a vision of an egalitarian, free, open and neutral space. He never tried to sell it, although he could have made a fortune, and he has been fighting for his vision for over 25 years now. Yet, not many people have heard of his “web we want” campaign or are even aware of it. It is an uncomfortable movement for many companies and governments, especially for the “gatekeepers” like Facebook and Google. Berners-Lee’s idea of a Magna Carta would introduce official law texts and regulations of the web, which can be individually crafted by each country in line with their individual culture and regulations. This is a great idea, however, I think it would still leave room for totalitarian and anti-democratic countries countries to pursue their harmful goals.

Another idea is to introduce a De-centralized Web or DWeb [3], which would function without centralized services and providers, who can interfere with the data that is being processed. Of course, this is strongly opposed by powerful people with vested interests and it would also be a huge financial, organizational and technical challenge.

What I take from all this is that change is in sight and there are more and more people thinking about how much we are willing to pay for using the web. As a student of Digital Arts and Humanities, I follow this development with great interest and I want to play an active role in shaping the future of the web and thus the future of our cultures.

[1] Sam Harris 2018. Waking Up with Sam Harris #136 – Digital Humanism (with Jaron Lanier), YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XY8DVk1aM44.

[2]Berners-Lee, T. 2014. A Magna Carta for the web, https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_berners_lee_a_magna_carta_for_the_web.

[3] Corbyn, Z. 2018. Decentralisation: The Next Big Step for the World Wide Web. The Guardian. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/sep/08/decentralisation-next-big-step-for-the-world-wide-web-dweb-data-internet-censorship-brewster-kahle [Accessed October 18, 2018].

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