This is a reasonably long article, part of a series by Robin Berjon about the future of the internet. I like the bit where he mentions that “people who claim not to practice any philosophical inspection of their actions are just sleepwalking someone else’s philosophy”. I think that’s spot on.
Ultimately, Berjon is arguing that the best we can hope for in a client/server model of Web architecture is a benevolent dictatorship. Instead, we should “push power to the edges” and “replace external authority with self-certifying systems”. It’s hard to disagree.
Whenever something is automated, you lose some control over it. Sometimes that loss of control improves your life because exerting control is work, and sometimes it worsens your life because it reduces your autonomy. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to know which is which and, even more unfortunately, there is a strong ideological commitment, particularly in AI circles, to the belief that all automation, any automation is good since it frees you to do other things (though what other things are supposed to be left is never clearly specified).
One way to think about good automation is that it should be an interface to a process afforded to the same agent that was in charge of that process, and that that interface should be “a constraint that deconstrains.” But that’s a pretty abstract way of looking at automation, tying it to evolvability, and frankly I’ve been sitting with it for weeks and still feel fuzzy about how to use it in practice to design something. Instead, when we’re designing new parts of the Web and need to articulate how to make them good even though they will be automating something, I think that we’re better served (for now) by a principle that is more rule-of-thumby and directional, but that can nevertheless be grounded in both solid philosophy and established practices that we can borrow from an existing pragmatic field.
That principle is user agency. I take it as my starting point that when we say that we want to build a better Web our guiding star is to improve user agency and that user agency is what the Web is for… Instead of looking for an impossible tech definition, I see the Web as an ethical (or, really, political) project. Stated more explicitly:
The Web is the set of digital networked technologies that work to increase user agency.
At a high level, the question to always ask is “in what ways does this technology increase people’s agency?” This can take place in different ways, for instance by increasing people’s health, supporting their ability for critical reflection, developing meaningful work and play, or improving their participation in choices that govern their environment. The goal is to help each person be the author of their life, which is to say to have authority over their choices.