Danielle Robinson is the co-executive director of Code for Science & Society, a nonprofit that supports and incubates open-source projects in the public interest. CS&S works with projects across domains to help open technologies develop sustainably, including the Dat Project, where she serves on the project governance team. Andy Pressman is principal at Rumors, a design studio that builds products, interfaces, and identities. They happen to be married and, honestly, did not predict that their work worlds would ever collide. Read more.
When we ask whether a better internet is possible, we should first ask: for whom? For the past 25 years, corporate entities have been shaping the development of the web to align with their own interests, resulting in online experiences designed for large-scale needs like broadcasting, searching, and selling. These actions rely on the aggregation of content and users, offering global access at the cost of privacy and ownership, largely with the goal of selling advertising. So for certain corporations, today’s internet couldn’t be better.
Yet as the corporate web continues to support walled-garden platforms like Facebook and Google, artists, activists, and technologists have actively been creating a new web powered by decentralized technology. Put simply, the decentralized web shares data between individual computers, rather than relying on servers like Amazon’s, which power so much of today’s web. It’s messy, evolving, and often broke (in every sense of the word), but through the use of peer-to-peer (p2p) protocols, the decentralized web puts online ownership and control back into the hands of individual people.
On the corporate web, we interact with content publishers and aggregators, like Facebook or Tumblr, by uploading content to their servers and relying on them to make our content findable on their platform. On the decentralized web, p2p protocols allow data to be stored across a network and accessed from many locations interchangeably. One such protocol is Dat, which was originally developed six years ago as a data sharing tool for researchers, but quickly spread to activist circles and artists drawn to its handmade, exploratory nature.
One point of access to a Dat network is an experimental p2p web browser called Beaker Browser, which enables users to build and serve websites directly from their own laptop. There’s no need to trust a social network or corporate platform with your information; instead, it can be accessed by anyone who knows the site’s unique identifier (dat:// link). Since it’s hosted from your laptop, your site is only accessible as long as your laptop is connected to the internet. Close the laptop and the website can’t be found—that is, unless peers (friends, services, enemies) “seed” them to keep them online.
If in the last few decades the web has been shaped by corporations, the next few will hopefully be shaped by artists and thinkers with the capacity to look beyond today’s web and create tools that protect privacy, defend marginalized communities, and push the limits of how the web behaves. Internet artist and Mozilla Open Web Fellow Darius Kazemi, for example, explores how online communities might be built in an intentional manner, where trust between users is required, explicit, and not automated. Other artists working in this space include Taeyoon Choi, whose Decentralized Web of Care event at the Whitney on March 27 will explore “alternative methods of communicating via peer-to-peer protocols,” and Laurel Schwulst, who has built a unique online space to ponder the values of the decentralized web.
On the decentralized web, creators are able to experiment without the oversight of big tech companies. Dat and other decentralized web ecosystems like Scuttlebutt and IPFS have created an extendable universe where code can be freely shared and modified (see Dark Crystal, a place for secrets). But there is a flip side: once seeded, content can become nearly impossible to track down and delete. This is an advantage for those who want a to use decentralized networks to make always-accessible backups of humanity’s digital archive, but poses problems for personal data, harassment, and fake news.
In order for decentralization to be a foundational layer to a better web—one that limits censorship while still protecting the most vulnerable communities—we need more people understanding and using it. Decisions made today will shape how it functions, who it serves, and its cultural norms for years to come. In that respect, it’s critical to keep growing decentralized web communities open to new voices, limit the influence of corporate interests, continually explore risks at the technical and social level, and continue to push our conception of what the web is and who it should serve.
Will the decentralized web be better than what we have now, or will it succumb to the same poisonous structures and tendencies? We don’t know. All that’s certain is that it’s something new, with unique dangers and possibilities, and we have an opportunity to make it better than what came before.
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