Reweaving the Web

Tech / February 16, 2018

The movement to decentralize the Internet

Illustration: Kevin Whipple

Last spring, the government of Turkey did a terrible thing: It blocked its citizens’ access to Wikipedia on national security grounds. But then, one of the more amazing and wonderful things in Internet history happened: Activists, using a new open-source protocol called the Interplanetary File System, mirrored the Turkish and Kurdish versions of Wikipedia and published it in a way that no government could thwart—and virtually anyone with an Internet connection and a browser could access.

Aside from a story in the Observer blog, the event was wholly unnoticed in the media. But if one were looking for a moment that signaled the next big phase of the Internet, this was it: The decentralized web was at last an honest-to-goodness thing, and there is no going back. Hallelujah.

You’ve probably been hearing about the decentralized web, aka Internet 2.0, in bits and pieces—especially if you’ve gotten into the whole crypto thing. But, like most people, you probably haven’t yet taken the time to understand it. This stuff is fairly complicated, and hardly anyone is covering it in the exciting yet intelligible way it deserves. And besides, speculating in cryptocurrency takes little more than a gambler’s appetite for risk.

Replumbing the Web: Protocol Labs’s Interplanetary File System is making Wikipedia unblockable.

But whether you’re a crypto speculator or not, ignore the decentralize-the-web movement at your peril. If you thought the Internet changed everything, wait until Internet 2.0 gets done reworking the global economy. The future, as TechCrunch put it a year ago, is the decentralized web.

Steven Johnson‘s magazine cover story “Beyond the Bitcoin Bubble,” in The New York Times a few weeks ago, is an excellent place to start. It’s worth reading slowly and more than once. His thesis is that the Internet was built on open-source protocols that facilitated such generic but groundbreaking things as email, web browsing, and search. But, though the protocols were intended to promote a decentralized world, and empowered people, it didn’t turn out like that.  Private companies built popular applications on the open infrastructure and power gradually began to concentrate in the hands of a few companies that have come to dominate the Internet—Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, among others.

Along the way, we lost our privacy, media became devalued, our ability to differentiate truth from fiction increasingly has become imperiled, and we’re rapidly descending into a Black Mirror dystopia. But fear not: the decentralized web advocates are trying to fix all that.

With the advent of the distributed-ledger technology known as blockchain, and the creation of Bitcoin, true decentralization began to take off.

What [Bitcoin inventor Satoshi] Nakamoto ushered into the world was a way of agreeing on the contents of a database without anyone being “in charge” of the database, and a way of compensating people for helping make that database more valuable, without those people being on an official payroll or owning shares in a corporate entity. Together, those two ideas solved the distributed-database problem and the funding problem. Suddenly there was a way of supporting open protocols that wasn’t available during the infancy of Facebook and Twitter. Steven Johnson, writing in The New York Times

Blockchain technology, which uses encryption to create a record of transactions that anyone can see but no one can tamper with, allowed Bitcoin to exist without a bank, or any other central authority, backing it up. But as it’s turned out, blockchain tech has the potential to disrupt virtually anything with a middle man—banks, real estate, social networks, retail stores, media. In fact, companies themselves could disappear and be replaced by groups of people who come together to work on projects, which they complete, then move on to wholly different endeavors. (Read “The slow death of the firm.“)

All this falls under the rubric of the decentralized web, which is emerging like a movement and a rallying cry for hundreds, if not thousands, of developers and do-gooders, who want to put the Information Revolution back on track as a force to empower us.

A lot of the most interesting decentralize-the-web work is being built on Ethereum, which is better imagined as an operating system than its valuable cryptocurrency, Ether. Ethereum has the audacious goal of building a decentralized “world computer” on the Internet that runs distributed applications known as DApps.

While we are in still in early innings, you can see some interesting work being done already. Mastodon, is a decentralized Twitter killer; YouTube, eBay and Spotify are under attack by blockchain upstarts; and companies such as Po.et and Civil are building token-based, blockchain publishing platforms that aspire to create sustainable business models for journalism.

Naturally, there are skeptics that the decentralized web will live up to its promise. A recent investigation by researchers at MIT’s Media Lab concluded that, though laudable, decentralized systems face major problems.

 “…Though censorship-resistance and decentralization are noble goals that will undoubtedly appeal to tech-savvy and politically inclined users, most users are not ideologically motivated and have no interest in shouldering the additional cost and responsibility of running these complex systems directly. They will want to engage with the Web through friendlier, third-party publishing platforms, and these platforms will suffer from the same forces that drive consolidation today.” Via MIT Report, Back to the Future: The Decentralized Web

Johnson, whose article for the Times was bullish, also points out that even in the early days of the Web, people found an immediate, compelling use for it—email, myriad websites, new forms of entertainment. “Today, the hype cycles are so accelerated that billions of dollars are chasing a technology that almost no one outside the cryptocommunity understands, much less uses,” he says.

But we need this. I don’t know about you, but between Apple, Google and Amazon, I am 100% owned. And while I trust those companies today, who knows how they will behave a decade from now, if their business goes sour and they need to continue showing double-digit returns to Wall Street. Humans are fallible. Blockchain doesn’t depend on the vicissitudes of business.

The early web was also initially dismissed by many people as a fad—”the CB radio of the 1990s.” So let’s give this some time. Meanwhile, the problems with Internet 1.0 worsen daily, making it ripe for disruption. And, the developers at Protocol Labs, whose Interplanetary File System protocol is picking up steam, is working on making all of Wikipedia impervious to blocking anywhere on the planet. History is on our side.

Quick Flips

All those crypto miners buying up specialized graphics cards are hampering the search for alien life. But meanwhile, Kepler just discovered 100 new exoplanets…Google’s driverless car company, Waymo, is taking on Uber, reports Quartz…Design flaw uncovered at Apple‘s new HQ in Cupertino: Employees keep walking into glass walls…Bowing to legal pressure from Getty Images, Google drops its “View Image” button. Internet is angry…Was this helicopter crash landing due to a civilian drone? It would be the first in the U.S…And, finally, here are some cheesecake pics of the interior of Tesla’s upcoming $35,000 Model 3.

Keep flipping,
JQ

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