How a Web That Lost Its Way Can Find a New One

The web has arguably been the biggest driver of economic and technological innovation in the 30 years since its invention. It has not only lowered barriers to publishing information and accessing that information, it has also changed peer-to-peer communication, in all senses of the term, across the globe. It has almost entirely swallowed whole media industries — publishing, television and cinema — while completely mainstreaming the notion of e-commerce and online payments.

For most of these 30 years, the web has been able to transform the world in an almost radically open-source way. For example, the HTML source code of any web page can be easily accessed through the browser. Any user can take a “look under the hood” in a way that wouldn’t have been possible through a “skinned” web, as it appeared in its earliest versions through service providers like America Online, CompuServe or Prodigy. In its earliest days, the web rewarded those companies that drove active engagement, interactivity, decentralization and a customized experience that was a 180-degree change from the most popular medium that preceded it — the passive television. 

However, there is another edge to that sword: While decentralized services won out during the web’s first growth phase, the need for that model to scale to everyone on the planet required the participation and success of a second wave of centralized gatekeepers to sustain growth. During that growth, the web has become so sufficiently complex that the ordinary user must rely on these monolithic services to interact and stay connected on the modern web, trusting that they will also safeguard and avoid abusing personal data. These new gatekeepers — companies like Amazon, Google and Netflix — have also created a new generation of passive interaction that is closer to the television model. 

If you think about it, the web has become a digital version of a layered, feudal society. The new kings are the services that control large portions of the front-end or back-end of the web, like Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon. Knights and barons are the enablers of these large services, like root certificate authorities and the domain name systems, controlling the leased “property” of the web.

And the rest of us? Why, we’re the serfs, of course.

Buying digital serfs with the illusion of “cheap” freedom

Like feudalism before it, which emerged as a means to bring some structure to society after the collapse of the Eastern Hemisphere’s largest empires, the congealing of the web around these powers emerged from a need to bring structured usability to the technology’s “wild west.”

Take Facebook. During its initial growth phase, Facebook presented users with a proposition that seemed to make sense at the time: Instead of building your personal website or a brand website, which required self-hosting, or relying on a limited shared hosting service, Facebook could be used to host that same content with a process only slightly more difficult than the press of a button. This model replicated throughout the web’s second decade and first half of the third decade, when the market demanded this larger scale for web production and consumption. The America Online “walled garden” approach started making a little more sense for “no fuss, no muss” content creation and hosting.

Concurrently, Amazon also figured out that, on the back end, letting people share managed virtual machine instances presented good savings all around. Today, we call that “the cloud,” though in reality, it’s not all that dispersed. Every piece of the cloud is still cont