Returning to Ground from the Web's Clouds

The Net as we know it today first became visible to me in March 1994, when I was among several hundred other tech types gathered at Esther Dyson's PC Forum conference in Arizona. On stage was John Gage of Sun Microsystems, projecting a Mosaic Web browser from a flaky Macintosh Duo, identical to the one on my lap. His access was to Sun over dial-up.

Everybody in the audience knew about the Net, and some of us had been on it one way or another, but few of us had seen it in the fullness John demonstrated there. (At that date, there were a sum total of just three Internet Service Providers.) James Fallows was in the crowd, and he described it this way for The Atlantic:

In the past year millions of people have heard about the Internet, but few people outside academia or the computer industry have had a clear idea of what it is or how it works. The Internet is, in effect, a way of combining computers all over the world into one big computer, which you seemingly control from your desk. When connected to the Internet, you can boldly prowl through computers in Singapore, Buenos Aires, and Seattle as if their contents resided on your own machine.

In the most riveting presentation of the conference, John Gage, of Sun Microsystems, demonstrated the World Wide Web, the gee-whizziest portion of the Internet, in which electronic files contain not only text but also graphics and sound and video clips. Using Mosaic, a free piece of "navigator" software that made moving around the Web possible, Gage clicked on icons on his screen exactly as if he were choosing programs or directories on his own hard disk. He quickly connected to a Norwegian computer center that had been collecting results during the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer and checked out a score, duplicating what Internet users had done by the millions every day during the games, when CBS-TV was notoriously late and America-centric in reporting results.

Note the terms here. John used Mosaic to "control", "boldly prowl" and "navigate" his way around the Web, which was the "gee-whizziest portion" of the Net.

That portion has since become conflated with the whole thing. Today we use browsers to do far more than navigate the Web. Protocols that once required separate apps—file transfer, e-mail, instant messaging—are now handled by browsers as well. We now also can use browsers to watch television, listen to radio and read publications. It's hard to name anything a computer can do that isn't also doable (and done) in a browser. Serving up most of those capabilities are utility Web services, provided by Amazon, Apple, Dropbox, Evernote, Google, Yahoo and many more, each with their own clouds. The growth of the Web, atop the Net, also has provided a conceptual bridge from computers to smartphones and tablets. Today nearly every mobile app would be useless without a back-end cloud.

While relying on the Web and its clouds has increased the range of things we can do on the Net, our freedom to act independently has declined. The browser that started out as a car on the "information superhighway" has become a shopping cart that gets re-skinned with every commercial site it visits, carrying away tracking beacons that report our activities back to centralized servers over which we have little if any control. The wizards among us might be adept at maintaining some degree of liberty from surveillance, but most muggles are either clueless about the risks or make do with advertising and tracking blockers. This is less easy in the mobile world, where apps are more rented than owned, and most are maintained by vendor-side services.

Thus, we've traded our freedom for the conveniences of centralization. The cure for that is decentralization: making the Net personal, like it promised to be in the first place—and still is, deep down.

It should help to remember that the Web is polycentric while the Net is decentralized. By polycentric, I mean server-based: every server is a center. So, even though Tim Berners-Lee wanted the Web to be what he called "a distributed hypertext system" for "universal linked information", what he designed was servers "generating a hypertext representation", as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Servers Generating a Hypertext Representation

Today this looks like your e-mail on a Google server—or your photos on Instagram or your tweets on Twitter. There's nothing wrong with any of those, just something missing: your independence and autonomy.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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