Web of the People
Whether you think of web3 as the advent of peer-to-peer protocols, coin-operated blockchains or autocomplete-AI synthesizers, change is coming.
Yet I find myself unable to race along on the newest ride. Not because of some nostalgic attachment or fear of the unknown; I simply refuse to move on to the next thing until we've finished what we started. Before diving head-first into web3 and AI, I'm gonna take my sweet time settling into web1 and-a-half, i.e. what the nascent web could have been had it not been co-opted by careless tech bros and capital glut.
We talk about inventions like digital social networks as if they're inherently bad designs. Actually the idea of a web-scale address book was and remains great, but the environment it originally grew up in was rotten to the core.
That environment was advertising-driven surveillance states, the subsequent attention economy, and monopolization as standard business practice. You can plant seeds in that ground and watch in amazement as saplings shoot up high in record time, but the resulting produce is an empty husk of a plant, devoid of nutrients.
What has come out of this deeply corrupt, monocultural environment as a foundation for digital flourishing is the enshittified platform; an extractive mono crop that from inception is kept on artificial life support through massive amounts of external energy, incessantly sucked out from its surroundings in parasitical fashion.
Platforms built within these environmental constraints are not designed to produce real value to their users, which to them are expendable units of energy input. Instead they aim to provide so-called free products of novelty and convenience that make users dependent on the platform to the point of chronic addiction, placing them under the platform’s control. And that control knob is slowly but surely turned up to be ever more oppressive as the lock-in dynamics of addiction and network effects compound.
It’s a game of antagonistic domination as opposed to mutualistic service:
Domination game = centrally manipulate users (mind-hack) into co-dependent servitude to the platform.
Mutualism game = collectively manipulate the platform (system-hack) to serve its interdependent tenants.
What keeps me up at night when looking at the impending AI revolution is that these tools are growing up in that same corrupt environment, riddled with malicious incentives and inhumane narratives. The supposed alignment problem of AI is in my view directly correlated with the misalignment of growth-obsessed industrialization in a planet that is increasingly inhospitable to dignified human life.
The technical challenges of AI alignment are real, but meaningless in the absence of a societal reckoning to mend the foundations on top of which this profoundly disruptive tech is being built.
Enshittified social networks came awfully close to upending civilized society as we know it. Enshittified AI will be game over.
Sadly, we can’t travel back in time and stop the trickle-down shit storm of Reagonomics from ever picking up wind. However, we have one last chance to overwrite those dirty specters of the past, undoing the unimaginable damage done in the past half century by extractive robber barons.
This is where the ‘old web’ comes in. Our current moment feels like a unique opportunity to reclaim the foundational web applications of the 2000s that were captured and black-boxed into proprietary packaging before the open web even had a chance to breathe.
Complicit media institutions hailed the monopolists as genius saviors. We should have known better than to trust the hooded man speaking in riddles, however casual-presenting. It took us a while, but we finally see the feudal platform lords for the egotistical man-children they always were.
Feigning humility, the tech-barons would say they were ‘standing on the shoulders of [their fellow] giants’, when in reality their bloodied scaffolding was made entirely on the backs of nameless, uncredited workers. As we delight in calling bullshit on the creators of our rapidly degrading web platforms, it’s high time we call bullshit on their still-erect creations as well.
Every additional minute spent playing their deceitful games is keeping the attention-hoarding monster alive with yet another delicious morsel of your energy. And given just a little more time and sustenance, that ego-of-man meets heartless-machine monstrosity will successfully transform into a demonic creature of such overwhelming power that resistance will be futile.
This is our do-or-die moment; the last of many before it. The preceding big one in modern day memory was the fight to control the narrative of our planet-scale ecological collapse. The ecologists lost that fight to big oil, and millions of human beings have perished in relative silence as a result. The loss of animals and organic life at large is in the many billions.
As the platforms we internet-natives grew up with are becoming boring legacy software and the profiteers avert their attention to the AI boom, now is our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to recapture the control that was taken away from us.
In the right hands – the hands of the netizens – yesteryear's technologies of social coordination remain as revolutionary as ever. We just never got to experience these tools as magical extensions of humanity. In the current paradigm, the social media platforms strictly use and abuse your attention to amass centralized power and deepen their moats.
Bit by bit the tech was seized from us, and just so the tech shall be reclaimed anew.
Reclaim your mind. Reclaim your identity. Reclaim your contacts. Reclaim your spaces. Reclaim your community. Reclaim your agency.
How? By opening it all up: APIs, clients, protocols and algorithms.
Albert Wenger (author of World after Capital): https://continuations.com/post/172413445510/we-need-mandatory-enduser-apis-for-social-and
For years now I have been writing and speaking about the “Right to be represented by a bot.” We as endusers need to be able to run software on our behalf that interacts with systems such as Facebook. More recently I have phrased this as “Any system with 1 million+ users should by law be required to issue users with personal API keys.”
Why does that make a difference? Because with an API key I can have an intermediary software layer that operates on my behalf. And that layer can connect me with friends and family that are split up across multiple social networks. This would allow for real competition to Facebook to arise. And once there is competition there is a strong check on behavior as a future #DeleteFacebook campaign would be far more impactful.
Cory Doctorow (author of Chokepoint Capitalism): https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2019/10/adversarial-interoperability
For a really competitive, innovative, dynamic marketplace, you need adversarial interoperability: that’s when you create a new product or service that plugs into the existing ones without the permission of the companies that make them. Think of third-party printer ink, alternative app stores, or independent repair shops that use compatible parts from rival manufacturers to fix your car or your phone or your tractor.
Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure: The Three-Legged Stool: A Manifesto for a Smaller, Denser Internet https://publicinfrastructure.org/2023/03/29/the-three-legged-stool/ https://publicinfrastructure.org/2022/11/09/gobo-2-0-all-your-social-media-in-one-place/
We believe Gobo [a service-agnostic social media client] needs to allow users to:
- Read and post to multiple social networks from one open source client.
- Pick and choose between algorithms for filtering and sorting the posts from all these networks.
- Design (and potentially share) different algorithms for filtering and sorting.
- Use third-party services to assist in filtering and sorting.
- Audit the performance of these different algorithms as well as the third party services.
A lot of this interoperability is becoming enforceable by law in the EU: https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/policies/digital-services-act-package
Web platform openness is not some utopian dream: The entirety of the web’s infrastructure is open source. The proprietary apps that have come to control our autonomy are brittle layers of obfuscated code sprinkled on top. There’s no magic trick to those services as we’ve already got commercially viable alternatives for all of them, providing irrefutable proof that the hostile data-prison business practices of the market leaders are utterly unnecessary.
While the hype chasers busy themselves with the next big thing, skating feverishly towards where they think the puck is going, I'm gonna go have a chat with the stadium’s hot dog sellers about the merits of unionization.