There’s a renewed interest in a more contextual, associative, networked future for the internet. One that breaks us from restrictive digital gardens. One that’s healthier, freer and safer. This piece includes a curated set of provocations based on community discussions in a limited working group focused on why the internet is broken and what needs to change.
Today’s digital public spaces amplify the inequities of physical public space. It’s a game of the top 1% driven by who can generate the most “viral” content. Systems that rely on the virality of user-generated content fundamentally lead to an even more skewed and inequitable future.
Today’s content platforms have a back-catalog problem. The content is delivered in ephemeral formats and creators lose out on opportunities to monetize their back catalogs. Incentivizing more discoverability and search within the archives will lead to more evergreen content and less content designed for virality or disposability.
The web is not finished. We have forgotten that the web was built only yesterday by a small, bold group of privileged men. They are not magical men. They are not distinctly different to anyone reading this, despite the grand technological-saviour narratives we spin about them. They had access to the right information and resources at the right time. They were told they had the right to build whatever they wanted.
If you don’t look, sound, and act like them, it’s likely no one is going to tell you that you also have the right to build whatever you want. You don’t fit into our current cultural narratives. Until we start telling different stories about who gets to edit, revise, and expand the web, the right people won’t show up to do it.
Metaphors have a deep impact on the interaction constraints between us and the technology we use. To evolve to more meaningful and equitable digital interactions, we must be cautious in choosing better ones, as a collective.
Building a better relationship between the internet, computing and people presupposes an inner revolution. As in M. C. Escher’s “Drawing Hands,” the riddle guarding the threshold is: where is the creative agency? The internet is a tool that reflects us, its creators. It is a tool that reflects the current state of our (consensus) knowledge — of, for instance, the nature of the human being, the value and meaning of human existence, the role of institutions vis a vis the individual. Our creations reflect and reinforce a worldview in which the creative faculties of the human being are placed in service of the accumulation of power. Imagine a socio-economic architecture in which the potential of the human being is consecrated as the greatest asset! Our conception of the human being would need to be other than what it is. The creative agency must first be seen, and seen clearly. (“By whom?” asks Escher.) Otherwise, its creations will take on the status of idols.
Today’s platforms practice UCD (User-Centered Design) — where the user is a consumer, not a creator. Platforms over-optimize around the consumer experience and force creators to adapt their work to cater to the platform. It should be the opposite. Creators often struggle with the extra work on top of their practice: visual artists should not have the burden to adapt their work to perform well on Instagram. We must shift from User-centered Design to Creator-First Design.
The future of the internet has the potential to determine the future of humanity. Our lives are increasingly shifting to digital realms and spaces. VR and AR are set to become mainstream in the coming decade. And so will the metaverse.
Like their physical counterparts, these virtual landscapes stand to influence and mold all of us. This is a big opportunity in many ways, but it is also a danger. Will the metaverse also be built to exploit our insecurities and promote divisiveness for financial and power gains? What is going to be our guiding principle?
When Alice ventured into Wonderland, she was asked by a haughty Caterpillar, “Who are you?”. Hesitant in her reply, Alice struggled to explain herself. After consuming several reality-altering potions, she no longer was sure if she was her ‘true’ self.
As venturers of the Internet, we similarly teeter along a shifting sense of our own identity. Our Internet-selves exist within various narrative threads from fake authenticity, herd logic to genuine connections. We oscillate along a precipitous path between being data-driven in the knowledge we find to a form of informational madness. Each byte of information we take in alters our thinking. We should be more careful about what we consume. We must find the equilibrium between chaos and rigidity, lest we find ourselves becoming the Red Queen we didn’t want to be.