The Six Broken Promises of the Internet as the Web turns 30

2019 marks 30 years since the World Wide Web was first envisioned.  It was back in March 1989 that Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal to his employers at CERN for a radical new networked hypertext system for sharing information.  The system he designed piggybacked on Internet infrastructure which was already growing rapidly and took advantage of the availability of micro-computers.  He programmed and delivered a first working web server, web browser and website between September and December 1990 on a NeXT cube.

The first web browser, running on the NeXTSTEP operating system
The first web browser, running on the NeXTSTEP operating system

Robert Cailliau, another hypertext visionary at CERN and Nicola Pellow soon helped develop web browsers for other operating systems including the Apple Mac System 7. Berners-Lee and Cailliau worked together to promote the technology more widely outside of the research and academia world, leading to the Web being released free to use by all in April 1993, the year NCSA Mosaic, the first popular web browser was introduced.

The People’s Internet is born

For me, the release of the World Wide Web is the point at which the Internet made the shift from being at the service of programs, programmers, files and machines, and became the People’s Internet designed to serve humans.  It wasn’t until 1994 that I started the switch to coding for the web myself.  Creating technological solutions is an important part of my life.  I’ve been close to the action over the years as the Web has enabled many new things that had been the remit of science fiction until then.  The Web spawned whole new industries, eventually driving the rise of smartphones and their apps, and I believe it has a lot more to offer. 

Recently though, I looked back at the expectations I had in previous decades, at what was believed in our professional circles and the mainstream press: a brighter future with the internet and the World Wide Web, and I realised we’ve been robbed.  It isn’t that the technological innovation has been lacking, on the contrary, but our acceptance of the changes to our daily lives that promised to be for the better has seriously backfired.  Berners-Lee himself in 2018 expressed his disappointment in an open letter at how “a handful of huge companies control how ideas and opinions are shared”.

What follows is what I see as the six great broken promises of the People’s Internet, in contrast with viewpoints of the founders of the World Wide Web.

1. The Internet will connect us to long lost friends and relatives.

Reality: Maybe, but the Internet has destroyed real closeness at home between family members.  Family dinners and together-time are polluted by the need to react to a smartphone notification or complete a level.  Some babies and tiny children will be made to stare at an iPad so they don’t disrupt a meal with friends.  Often those shared meals have become a thing of the past as we each eat in front of our own screen.  We’ve even become less good at relating with people in the workplace, or keeping in touch with close friends. 

Common Sense Media and University of Southern California (USC) led a study on 1200 parents and their teenage children in three countries that found mobile phones provoke conflict and argument every day in a fifth of Britain’s families, and more than half of parents and almost two thirds of teenagers always or very often felt the need to respond immediately to texts and other notifications.

British children think their parents are addicted to phones.  British parents think the same of their children.  So are the family members to blame?  Corporations have spent astounding sums on researching human psychology and computer interfaces, to come up with devices such as the iPhone and platforms like Facebook and YouTube, giving them that just-right, feel-good aspect that makes them hard to let go of.  Forget cigarettes and alcohol.  This may be the first time an industry has managed to create a brand new type of addiction for the masses.

Newspapers printing
Staying informed

2. We’ll be better informed.  We’ll decide the type of news we want see and have access to many more news outlets

Reality: The news selection algorithms are so good they shield us from alternative points of view.  The sources are so varied they include totally unreliable news outlets, and fake news.  Because our attention is so lucrative to the companies providing this news, their algorithms work out the best way to get us to keep coming back.  And that’s not through the quality of the information; rather through how sensational it is, such that I’m likely to be pushed to view more extreme content. 

Organisations can pay money to feed us the kind of news that will alter our behaviour, not just to make us buy things, but to radicalise us or fulfil political aims.  Companies such as Google and Facebook take the money and get that work done using A.I. systems which do all the thinking such their managers and developers can’t be held responsible for doing anything unethical.  Tim Berners-Lee says “The fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale. In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data.”

3. Internet dating will help us all find a soul mate

Reality: In gyms and at hairdressers we all strive to conform to the same ideal beauty.  There are plenty of fish in the sea and most seem to be at our fingertips.  However we’ve swiped to reject so many people, people that in another time we would have loved to meet.  A picture didn’t do them justice or we never heard their voice.  Never properly interacted with them, touched their hand… The range and attractiveness of candidates is huge but the selections we make when overwhelmed with options tend to be less wise than in a real-world more restricted setting. 

When a potential match is made, there can be a long period of online chat.  Professor Joseph B Walther of UCSB notes that that people are more likely to disclose information about themselves, more quickly, online.  Research has shown that we like another person more, the more they disclose to us and the more we disclose to them.  These lengthy conversations often delay the real world meeting, which may then be a disappointment.  The person turns out to be scarily different from their meticulously maintained profile, a bit of a fake, who is good at selfies but not much else!

It follows that all those non-dating apps, which simply aim to put like-minded people in touch with one another for mutual gain, improving society’s connections, are also failing.  They are undermined by similar problems.  We think that we could do better, and we fear to commit to the face-to-face meeting, eventually giving up.  By widening our options, technology is helping us miss more opportunities than ever before.

4. With social networking we’ll have more fun and more events to enjoy

Reality: It’s true, there are more parties and events, there’s more excitement, but are we happy?  We have such high expectations now.  Feeling good depends on going to that event, posting that photo, “Liking” other people’s photos, keeping in touch with that group’s posts, so we work hard at social networking, diverting ever more time from other tasks. 

Our profile has become so important that we’re constantly buying expensive clothes, changing our face or our body, planning the next awesome Facebook post, to keep up.  In fact no matter how “perfect” we become, we always have that Fear of Missing Out.  At this rate we’ll never find happiness.

This fits with what’s happening in the brain.  Many of our social network achievements are rewarded by a dopamine spike: we feel good, excited even – it’s what Facebook wants.  I crave that feeling so I’ll do it again.  But these dopamine highs disrupt the serotonin levels, the chemical that would make us stable, contented, long-term-happy people, which explains how excitement seekers sometimes never feel happy. 

As Robert Cailliau put it “I’m not on Twitter, nor Facebook, or LinkedIn, or any of these systems, because they suck in your soul and they will not let you go. Try to get out of any of them, and you will see. They are just like some religions where apostasy is punished by death.”

Robert Cailliau and the world's first web server
Robert Cailliau and the world’s first web server

5. Technology will set us free.  We’ll be able to work anywhere

Reality: We can reach anyone, anytime, anywhere.  And they can get our immediate attention at the most inappropriate times.  Many of us find it hard to free ourselves from work, as colleagues, managers or clients can always get our attention. 

Somehow we’ve allowed the news, Twitter, email and social network notifications to follow us wherever we go as well, such that we can never really free our minds from responsibilities or distractions.  We’re like Pavlov’s dog.  What used to be quality time (coffee with a friend, time with children or at the movies) is being polluted by the way we’re now conditioned, without prompting, to check our social media accounts.  Have you ever felt that unexpected feeling of wellbeing at the end of day out spent with a smartphone that ran out of juice that morning? 

The constant distractions we’ve grown accustomed to are not just annoying.  They lessen the enjoyment of real-world meetings with friends.  They shorten our attention span and curtail our ability to be creative, observant and to achieve great things with our minds.

Dad distracted by phone
cosmo_71 Flickr

6. The Internet will make kids smarter.  New devices and apps will give them all the answers, and a head-start with technology

Reality: Grown-ups can start being productive with their first iPhone or Android device in minutes, seconds sometimes. Children and teens are typically faster still.  It’s weird to think any child will need a technological head start. 

As for making them smarter, early exposure to technology is more likely to create a dependence on non-educational content such as YouTube, games or social networking.  The time taken by these activities will encroach on school work, and on the creative and imaginative play which fuels their intelligence. 

The mental health effects these activities have on people are exacerbated by the fact that the child’s brain is forming connections at an outstanding rate.  The child feels empowered by this device that’s made hard things easy. Because of how we’ve evolved, the brain will want to focus on that at the expense of other learning.

Screen use in children is being linked to depression, self-harm and suicide outcomes, due to how children measure themselves against others on social networks and video channels, and due to cyber-bullying, and how, when searching for solutions to their typical teenage anxieties, they end up automatically begin recommended content that reinforces negative thoughts and acts.

As Sir Tim puts it “If you put a drop of love into Twitter it seems to decay but if you put in a drop of hatred you feel it actually propagates much more strongly.  And you wonder, ‘Well is that because of the way that Twitter as a medium has been built?’”

It’s no wonder that today’s children have trouble with their school work, and adjusting to the “real world”.

Fixing the web

“I was devastated.” Tim Berners-Lee is giving an interview in Washington in 2018, after the revelations of Russian hackers subverting major social networking platforms to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential elections.  “We demonstrated that the web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places”.  He points the finger at the monopolies and their increasingly centralised Web, which he says “has ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.”

Sir Tim Berners-Lee
Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Sir Tim wants us to fight back against the algorithms, the corporations, the monopolies, and reclaim the web as belonging to us, to humans.  The idea is to de-centralise the web.  He’s often used his celebrity status to call individuals to stand up for their rights, but now he’s gone back to what he knows well, leading a growing team of like-minded developers on a new project named “Solid”.  Its aim is to provide a new set of tools and conventions for building decentralised social applications based on linked data principles.

In the Solid world, users will have the freedom to choose where their data resides and who has access to it.  Applications are decoupled from the data they produce, meaning you are free to leave one platform at any time, and you will take your data and your social connections with you to other apps and other data storage servers.  In a world where many WhatsApp and Instagram users are despairing about those apps merging with Facebook, you can see the appeal.

For software developers, this means breaking into an existing social network market dominated by larger companies becomes achievable, as users can bring their existing data to you if they like your ideas.

You may find it reassuring that we’re not alone in seeing the cracks that are threatening the People’s Internet, and that visionaries like Tim Berners-Lee are working hard to rebuild parts of it better.  But no doubt the web giants will fight back, and there will be a lot more that will need fixing or rebuilding.  

As we pass the milestone of half the world’s population connected to the Internet, it will be down to us as decision makers, creatives and individuals to put in the time, put in the thought, make efforts, vote with our feet and make our voices heard to create a refreshed Internet that works for us.

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