The World Wide Web turns 30 today and those of us who spend large chunks of our lives using the internet are fittingly having a personal crisis. We’re reflecting on how the hell we got here, god, how much of our twenties we wasted, how much we wish we could go back to the early days, and what the hell is going to happen next. Social media has been littered with screenshots of early days HTML websites with jazzy coloured backgrounds and music on auto-play and people lamenting “Jesus Christ, how did this become such a mess?”
One of the latter lamenters is Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web, which, for most people, is, to all intents and purposes, the internet. In an open letter about the state of the internet in 2019, Berners-Lee admitted that the behemoth he created may very well have turned into a monster:
“And while the web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.”
He listed his “three sources of dysfunction” plaguing the internet today: “deliberate, malicious intent” (eg state-sponsored hacking), “system design that creates perverse intentions” (eg ad-based models that reward clickbait and misinformation), and “unintended consequences of benevolent design” (eg polarising online debates). He calls for research, laws, and redesigns to address these issues, and through these methods argues that these problems could be eradicated.
To anyone who’s spent time on essentially any platform that allows people to post their unfiltered thoughts, these issues will likely ring true. Berners-Lee’s analysis is pretty spot-on, and also highlights how entrenched these three problems are in the foundations of how people use the internet today. However, there is an issue with his prescription. Although well-considered and probably the best advice we’re going to get, Berners-Lee approaches the internet as though it’s something that’s actually fixable. And the reality is that we are likely drastically, cluelessly, far, far too late.
It’s instructive here to draw parallels with climate change. Scientists say, on the whole, that we are well past the time where we can prevent climate change entirely, but with some dramatic measures, we could keep ourselves from living in some post-apocalyptic desert hellscape by the end of this century. That being said, that’s the best case scenario, and many believe that it is too complex to make these grand, sweeping changes in the time they need to happen – that there are too many governments, bodies, and companies who would need to make changes all together to make a real impact that, realistically, won’t. Therefore, they think it’s a lot more likely that we’ll end up simply destroying the planet and burning ourselves to a crisp sometime in the next fifty years.
This is the problem we have with the internet. Online spaces have long been the havens of insidious trends, toxic ideas, dubious data-mining, and ripe for radicalisation. This is not something that just began now, or in 2016, or in 2008 – it has been the bedrock of the internet since it expanded from being a space with a few thousand people to being one used by billions. The idea that with even heavy-handed changes the internet could be overhauled to look hugely different to how it looks today is nearly impossible and would involve so many moving entities not just working together, but giving up what makes them profitable. Will the hope for a better internet win over Google’s bottom line? Will the idea of a fair online environment convince advertisers who rely on digital ad space? While the optimist in all of us would like to say “yes”, we know better than to expect it.
At the end of Berners-Lee’s open letter, he links to a “Contract for the Web” that was originally launched at the 2018 Web Summit in Lisbon. More of a petition than an actual contract, it calls for people to sign on to creating a set of rules for the internet in line with his suggested solutions to his three big internet issues. However, like Berners-Lee’s best intentions, a petition to better the internet will be inevitably too small an effort to overcome the power of big tech companies, the enmeshed nature of the internet’s tribal discourse, how much companies and advertisers rely on the way the internet gets monetised as is, and the three decades of this behaviour that has made things the way they are.
The reality is: the internet is probably an unfixable problem. And while that shouldn’t deter us from making those small incremental changes, we should fully expect that the internet’s status quo will roughly be maintained through many, many more anniversaries.