The closing of the internet

Entropy is a fact of life. As soon as rules and standards are established, their meaning begins to erode and is replaced by new things. As these new things increase possibilities, a tendency toward the safety of a mean takes over. Soon normalization occurs, and with that, heat death.

Such is the case of the internet. Once a frontier — the most sacred of all American myths — it has evolved into a cyberspace that supports safety, commerce and personal boundaries, which means that now it is a polite but standardized place. Normalization follows, and then heat death.

Some are noticing how in the name of safety and security we have traded a space of any kind of possibility for the type of standardized environment offered by both commercial entities and managed governments:

Go to a Facebook profile, and ponder what we have now. Instead of having adventures into the great unknowns of the web, we instead now spend most of our time on social networks: boring, suburban gated communities, where everybody’s “profile” looks exactly the same, and presents exactly the same content, in the same arrangement. Rarely do we create things on these networks; Instead, we consume, and report on our consumption. The uniformity and blandness rival something out of a Soviet bloc residential apartments corridor. And now adding to that analogy, we’ve found out that our government is actually spying on us while we’re doing it, in ways the Stasi could only dream of. The web we have today is a sad, pathetic, consumption-oriented digital iron curtain, and we need to change that. – Kyle Drake, “Making the web fun again,” The Neocities Blog, June 28th, 2013

The force that in theory sets us free, competition, has a dark side which occurs when it becomes a slugging match between titans. In particular, competition between the web’s largest entities has led to a reduction in variety and dominance by a handful of big sites. Their policies determine the future of the internet, but even more alarmingly, the competition between them drives the web toward a state of uniformity:

Google Reader is just the latest casualty of the war that Facebook started, seemingly accidentally: the battle to own everything.5 While Google did technically “own” Reader and could make some use of the huge amount of news and attention data flowing through it, it conflicted with their far more important Google+ strategy: they need everyone reading and sharing everything through Google+ so they can compete with Facebook for ad-targeting data, ad dollars, growth, and relevance.

RSS represents the antithesis of this new world: it’s completely open, decentralized, and owned by nobody, just like the web itself. It allows anyone, large or small, to build something new and disrupt anyone else they’d like because nobody has to fly six salespeople out first to work out a partnership with anyone else’s salespeople. – Marco Arment, “Lockdown,” July 3, 2013

As Arment illustrates, RSS and the older hacker-friendly protocols of the net are the truly open way. However, openness comes with a price, which is ambiguity. You never really know who’s on the other end of the connection, or what any given web page is going to do, which is why originally the web was designed to be a non-interactive space for publication, not interactive commerce and socialization.

The question for the future is how do we take this managed space and make it into an anarchic web again? One solution is to be like Neocities.org and offer sites in free-form HTML; another might be to subvert Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus by using them exclusively to post links to open sites, and thus to force them into the role that RSS once served: an index of standardized content on a unstandardized, lovingly anarchic network of sites.

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