Not that long ago, when the internet was still in its infancy, it was a place of naive comforts and limitless potential – a playground for an emergent digital elite. Since then, it has matured into something entirely different: a playing field for society as a whole – a complicated system of interdependencies that is difficult to predict or even relate to.
Even Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet, has been quite vocal lately about the difference between his initial vision and how things turned out. And while the internet’s “Big Four” companies are at the forefront of digital innovation, they do so from as a single centralised unit – as benevolent dictators, so to speak.
But what if there was a better way to structure the internet, one that might enable digital democracy to become a real possibility? What if we had a truly decentralised web?
Major changes such as these are usually ignored, statistical improbabilities beyond the horizons of the currently accepted baseline. But then something miraculous happens; seemingly overnight, change sweeps the landscape. We wake up in a new world, where this novelty no longer asks for your permission to exist, but imposes itself without apology.
Nobody envisioned that the internet would ever be more than a means for universities to exchange research, or for the military to have secure communications, yet here we are. And in just the same way, the Internet 2.0 might look significantly different than we could ever imagine.
Information, language, and data ownership
There’s an entire branch of psychology dedicated to the idea that what we think is directly influenced by the language we use, shaping who we become.
Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) explores the underlying mechanisms that make this happen, and it may be that such learnings can be applied to the online world. By thinking laterally, we could discover alternative ways of consuming information; just as form follows function in nature, could the online world evolve to reflect the tech stack on which it’s built?
50 years ago, we as individuals would have been the sole owners of all the documented information about us, other than the Tax Office. Now, not so much.
The internet that we know and love now stores our information on a scale only possible due to the way it centralises data. From Google and Facebook to banks and online stores (and of course the Tax Office), everyone has a file on us, tracking our online interactions and saving the data in their centralised databases.
While we may no longer be the sole proprietors of our data, the current system is useful, most notably by granting us access to better services, often at no extra cost.
On a decentralised web, users would own their data, and could leverage it as a new unit of value. Known as the blockchain economy, this system would allow you to choose how online services are granted access to your data, in a very granular way, from the same unified interface. Facebook would need to expressly seek permission for collecting your likes, shares and dislikes, for every piece of content you own.
Permission granted, not given
Blockchain has the potential to unlock an amazing array of opportunities for building new and transformative online structures. And while the idea of a decentralised web hasn’t yet reached the mainstream, it’s just one of those many wonderful and slightly scary things that may come out of this new technology.
If you owned all of your data, you could turn permissions on and off on the go, based on your own personal preferences, protecting your anonymity and enabling you to participate in truly peer-to-peer social networks.
This isn’t just a hypothetical future either – this technology stack exists now, particularly in Crypto technology, where the authenticity of every transaction, data security and the “paper trail” are paramount.
There are some missing pieces of the puzzle though. For example, this system would require decentralised storage to allow you to store and access your data securely in multiple places.
Currently we have IPFS (short for the “Inter-Planetary File System”), which despite sounding like a reference to a ’70s sci-fi movie, actually exists. A direct upgrade to the HTTP protocols used by websites today, IPFS enables data to be transferred over the in a highly secured way, while also pulling permissions from your distributed, personal data caches.
Another interesting thing about IPFS is the way it looks up information – it’s quite similar to the natural way we humans function: if I were recommending a book to you, I’d mention its title, author and the year it was released. You’d then know exactly how to find copies of this book, no matter where in the world you were. This how IPFS works.
HTTP, on the other hand, would direct you to the third shelf on the left, in the west wing of the National Library of Australia, on the second floor. The information itself is correct, but isn’t particularly useful to you unless you’re in exactly the right place.
IPFS makes it possible to identify any information on the internet in a content-addressed way, identifying it by describing what the content is, with the expectation that it could exist in many places. Think of it as the digital infrastructure of the future.
The challenge: human (mis)behaviour
This new world is understandably difficult for us to visualise – especially for media owners. Just as publishing has evolved from being about creating content and now often involves curating content, it may be that media will again pivot as apps become views, facilitating the process of finding the right piece of information for your personal tailored slice of reality.
It’s an exciting time to be alive and to witness more and more new technology surfacing every day. But technology is built by humans, and as such it comes bundled with the unconscious bias of its creators, something that is not always apparent until you see platforms taking a wrong turn.
Decentralisation would provide an alternative to this current system of centralised authorities and single sources of truth; Tim Berners-Lee was right when he said, “The web is already decentralised. The problem is the dominance of one search engine, one big social network, one Twitter for microblogging. We don’t have a technology problem; we have a social problem”.