In what ways does this technology increase people's agency?

    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.

    Source: The Web Is For User Agency | Robin Berjon

    Switching to Arc

    It’s not often I’ll post tools here, but after a few days of using it, I’m sold on the Arc browser.

    My web browser history over the last quarter of a century goes something like: Netscape Navigator –> Internet Explorer –> Firefox –> Chrome –> Brave –> Arc.

    Perhaps I should record a screencast, but the three things I like most about Arc are:

    • Build in 'Spaces' (for client projects, etc.)
    • Split screen view
    • Easel (clip *live* parts of web pages)
    Like Brave, it's based on Chromium, so all of the Chrome web extensions I've been using just work. Awesome. There's lots of reviews on YouTube.

    Experience a calmer, more personal internet in this browser designed for you. Let go of the clicks, the clutter, the distractions.
    Source: Arc | The Browser Company

    Spring '83

    John Johnston put me onto this via a comment on my personal blog. Spring ‘83 is a protocol developed by Robin Sloan, multi-talented developer, olive farm owner, and author of novels such as Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

    The internet these days is much less fun and weird than it used to be, which is sad. Here’s an example of the protocol in action at the site spring83.mozz.us and you can have a play about at The Oakland Follower Sentinel by creating your own keypair (see the blue sidebar!)

    For me, the recent resurgence of the email newsletter feels not much like a renaissance, and more like a massing of exhausted refugees in the last reliable shelter. I’m glad we have it; but email cannot be the end of the story, either.

    I’m dissembling a bit. The truth is, I reject Twitter, RSS, and email also because … I am hyped up to invent things!

    So it came to pass that I found myself dreaming about designs that might satisfy my requirements, while also supporting new interactions, new ways of relating, new aesthetics. At the same time, I read a ton about the early days of the internet. I devoured oral histories; I dug into old protocols.

    The crucial spark was RFC 865, published by the great Jon Postel in May 1983. The modern TCP/IP internet had only just come online that January, can you believe it? RFC 865 describes a Quote of the Day Protocol:

    A server listens for TCP connections on TCP port 17. Once a connection is established a short message is sent out the connection (and any data received is thrown away). The service closes the connection after sending the quote.
    That’s it. That’s the protocol.

    I read RFC 865, and I thought about May 1983. How the internet might have felt at that moment. Jon Postel maintained its simple DNS by hand. There was a time when, you wanted a computer to have a name on the internet, you emailed Jon.

    There’s a way of thinking about, and with, the internet of that era that isn’t mere nostalgia, but rather a conjuring of the deep opportunities and excitements of this global machine. I’ll say it again. There are so many ways people might relate to one another online, so many ways exchange and conviviality might be organized.

    Spring ‘83 isn’t over yet.

    Source: Specifying Spring ‘83 | Robin Sloan

    The future of the web, according to Mozilla

    There’s nothing particularly wrong with this document. It’s just not very exciting. Maybe that’s OK.

    Mozilla's mission is to ensure that the Internet is a global public resource, open and accessible to all. We believe in an Internet that puts people first, where individuals can shape their own experience and are empowered, safe, and independent.

    The Internet itself is low-level infrastructure — a connective backbone upon which other things are built. It’s essential that this backbone remains healthy, but it’s also not enough. People don’t experience the Internet directly. Rather, they experience it through the technology, products, and ecosystems built on top of it. The most important such system is the Web, which is by far the largest open communication system ever built.

    This document describes our vision for the Web and how we intend to pursue that vision. We don’t have all the answers today, and we expect this vision to evolve over time as we identify new challenges and opportunities. We welcome collaboration — both in realizing this vision, and in expanding it in service of our mission.

    Source: Mozilla’s vision for the evolution of the Web

    Criminals' right to be forgotten

    This is interesting: the Associated Press are no longer going to name people involved in minor crimes. I have to agree with their rationale.

    These minor stories, which only cover an arrest, have long lives on the internet. AP’s broad distribution network can make it difficult for the suspects named in such items to later gain employment or just move on in their lives.

    Broadly speaking, when evaluating such stories, we should consider first whether the story is worthy of our news report, and if distributing it is indeed useful to our members and customers. If the answer is yes, in keeping with AP’s commitment to fairness, we now will no longer name suspects in brief stories about minor crimes in which there is little chance AP will provide coverage beyond the initial arrest.

    Source: AP Definitive Source | Why we’re no longer naming suspects in minor crime stories

    The end of cookie banners?

    This is the draft a new standard (spec) to hopefully get rid of those annoying cookie banners. We went through all of this with Do Not Track, so let’s see if this approach ends up working… 🤞

    ADPC is a proposed automated mechanism for the communication of users’ privacy decisions. It aims to empower users to protect their online choices in a human-centric, easy and enforceable manner. ADPC also supports online publishers and service providers to comply with data protection and consumer protection regulations.
    Source: ADPC: A Human-centric and Enforceable Privacy Specification

    Nostalgia, friction, and read/write literacy 

    I probably need to revisit this (and the references) but I really enjoyed reading Silvio Lorusso’s essay on computer agency and behaviour.

    Alan Kay’s pioneering work on interfaces was guided by the idea that the computer should be a medium rather than a vehicle, its function not pre-established (like that of the car or the television) but reformulable by the user (like in the case of paper and clay). For Kay, the computer had to be a general-purpose device. He also elaborated a notion of computer literacy which would include the ability to read the content of a medium (the tools and materials generated by others) but also the ability to write in a medium. Writing on the computer medium would not only include the production of materials, but also of tools. That is for Kay authentic computer literacy: “In print writing, the tools you generate are rhetorical; they demonstrate and convince. In computer writing, the tools you generate are processes; they simulate and decide.”
    Source: The User Condition, Silvio Lorusso

    Interoperability for browser plugins

    This is good news, especially as I’ve noticed recently a lot of developers of browser plugins just creating stuff for Chrome.

    The WebExtensions Community Group has two goals:
    • Make extension creation easier for developers by specifying a consistent model and common core of functionality, APIs, and permissions.
    • Outline an architecture that enhances performance and is even more secure and resistant to abuse.
    The group doesn't want to specify every aspect of the web extensions platform or stifle innovation. Each browser vendor will continue to operate independently with their own policies.
    Source: Apple, Mozilla, Google, Microsoft form group to standardize browser plug-ins | AppleInsider

    Screenshot culture

    I’d love to see a longer article about this because discussing the role screenshots play in our increasingly-digitally-mediated culture is fascinating to me. Especially as they’re so easy to fake.

    screenshots around an eye
    But the most important trait of screenshots now is that they’re slippery: A personal exchange can become a meme or a weapon; a random moment can turn into a work of art or mutate into a callout. The alt-lit community—the internet’s short-lived literary movement—was founded by people who used screenshots of text messages, Gchat conversations, and Snapchats to make poems and digital art. It was later blown up by alleged sexual predators who were exposed via screenshots of their other messages, which circulated on Tumblr and Twitter. The rapper 50 Cent published text-message screenshots on Instagram in which he berated Randall Emmett, the husband of a Vanderpump Rules cast member, for being late on a debt payment, but no one remembers that original tough talk. They remember that Emmett wrote “I’m sorry fofty” over and over, inexplicably, a phrase that lives forever on Etsy—you can get it on a T-shirt, a tote, a wine glass, a onesie. (I received a sparkling im sorry fofty coaster for my birthday last year.)

    These transformations lend a spectral quality to screenshots: Corry calls them the “evidentiary technique haunting the online realm.” Her recent paper examines the case of the former New York representative Anthony Weiner, who was humiliated by the leak of a lewd Twitter message in 2011, leading to his resignation from Congress. Two years later, more screenshots of more NSFW online messages leaked to the press, effectively ending his run for New York City mayor; and three years after that, it happened again, becoming an unexpected and wild tabloid story in the run-up to the 2016 election. (Weiner was later convicted of a felony for sending explicit messages to a 15-year-old, and served 18 months in prison.) Reporting on his downfall suggested that a lack of tech savvy played a role: If Weiner had known anything about anything, he would have come up with some better operational security. He was condemned for his predatory behavior, but also mocked for “not knowing how to use the internet,” Corry told me—a shame on top of a shame. How could you be so clueless as to not fear the ever-lurking screenshot?

    Source: Screenshots, the Gremlins of the Internet - The Atlantic

    The world's most popular websites, mapped

    Years ago, iA had a map of the web which was much smaller and less intricate than this. My son had it up on his bedroom wall. The digital world is a lot more complex and a lot less English-speaking that it once was!

    “As internet access has spread rapidly throughout developing countries in the last decade, the popularity of non-English websites has increased considerably—about a third of the world’s most visited 50 websites are based in China, with Tmall, QQ, Baidu, or Sohu surpassing Amazon, Yahoo, and even Facebook in terms of traffic,” Vargic says. “There is also a much larger [number] of popular Indonesian, Indian, Iranian, Brazilian, and other sites than even [a few] years ago.”
    Source: Think you know the world's most popular websites? Think again | Fast Company

    It would not be better if things happened to men just as they wish

    🕸️ A plan to redesign the internet could make apps that no one controls ⁠— "Rewinding the internet is not about nostalgia. The dominance of a few companies, and the ad-tech industry that supports them, has distorted the way we communicate—pulling public discourse into a gravity well of hate speech and misinformation—and upended basic norms of privacy. There are few places online beyond the reach of these tech giants, and few apps or services that thrive outside of their ecosystems."

    It is, inevitably, focused on crypto tokens, which provide an economic incentive. If only there was a way to fix things that didn't seem to be driven by making the inventors obscenely rich?


    🤯 Can’t Get You Out of My Head review – Adam Curtis's 'emotional history' is dazzling — "Whether you are convinced or not by the working hypothesis, Can’t Get You Out of My Head is a rush. It is vanishingly rare to be confronted by work so dense, so widely searching and ambitious in scope, so intelligent and respectful of the audience’s intelligence, too. It is rare, also, to watch a project over which one person has evidently been given complete creative freedom and control without any sense of self-indulgence creeping in."

    Adam Curtis' documentary 'Hypernormalisation' blew my mind, and I'm already enjoying the first of these six hour-long documentaries.


    💸 Why Mastercard is bringing crypto onto its network — "We are preparing right now for the future of crypto and payments, announcing that this year Mastercard will start supporting select cryptocurrencies directly on our network. This is a big change that will require a lot of work. We will be very thoughtful about which assets we support based on our principles for digital currencies, which focus on consumer protections and compliance."

    Companies like Mastercard haven't got much of a choice here: they have to either get with the program or risk being replaced. Hopefully it will help simplify what is a confusing picture at the moment. I've had problems recently withdrawing money from cryptocurrency exchanges to my bank accounts.


    👉 Hovering over decline and clicking accept — "There's so much written about self-care. And much of it starts from a good place but falls apart the moment things get hectic. But this idea of Past You working in service of Future You isn't a one-off. It's not a massage you sneak in one Friday morning. The secret hope that 60 minutes of hot rocks will counteract 12 hours a day hunched over a laptop."

    Some good advice in here from the Nightingales, whose book is also worth a read.


    👨‍💻 Praxis and the Indieweb — "If a movement has at its core a significant barrier to entry, then it is always exclusionary. While we’ve already seen that the movement has barriers at ability and personality, it is also true that, as of 2021, there is a significant barrier in terms of monetary resources."

    As I said a year ago in this microcast, I have issues with the IndieWeb and why I'm more of a fan of decentralisation through federation.


    Quotation-as-title by Heraclitus. Image by Saad Chaudhry.

    Why the internet is less weird these days

    I can remember sneakily accessing the web when I was about fifteen. It was a pretty crazy place, the likes of which you only really see these days in the far-flung corners of the regular internet or on the dark web.

    Back then, there were conspiracy theories, there was porn, and there was all kinds of weirdness and wonderfulness that I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced growing up in a northern mining town. Some of it may have been inappropriate, but in the main it opened my eyes to the wider world.

    In this Engadget article, Violet Blue points out that the demise of the open web means we’ve also lost meaningful free speech:

    It's critical... to understand that apps won, and the open internet lost. In 2013, most users accessing the internet went to mobile and stayed that way. People don't actually browse the internet anymore, and we are in a free-speech nightmare.

    Because of Steve Jobs, adult and sex apps are super-banned from Apple’s conservative walled garden. This, combined with Google’s censorious push to purge its Play Store of sex has quietly, insidiously formed a censored duopoly controlled by two companies that make Morality in Media very, very happy. Facebook, even though technically a darknet, rounded it out.

    A very real problem for society at the moment is that we simultaneously want to encourage free-thinking and diversity while at the same time protecting people from distasteful content. I’m not sure what the answer is, but outsourcing the decision to tech companies probably isn’t the answer.

    In 1997, Ann Powers wrote an essay called "In Defense of Nasty Art." It took progressives to task for not defending rap music because it was "obscene" and sexually graphic. Powers puts it mildly when she states, "Their apprehension makes the fight to preserve freedom of expression seem hollow." This is an old problem. So it's no surprise that the same websites forbidding, banning, and blocking "sexually suggestive" art content also claim to care about free speech.
    As a parent of a 12 year-old boy and eight year-old girl, I check the PEGI age ratings for the games they play. I also trust Common Sense Media to tell me about the content of films they want to watch, and I'm careful about what they can and can't access on the web.

    Violet Blue’s article is a short one, so focuses on the tech companies, but the real issue here is one level down. The problem is neoliberalism. As Byung-Chul Han comments in Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Powerwhich I’m reading at the moment:

    Neoliberalism represents a highly efficient, indeed an intelligent, system for exploiting freedom. Everything that belongs to practices and expressive forms of liberty –emotion, play and communication –comes to be exploited.
    Almost everything is free at the point of access these days, which means, in the oft-repeated phrase, that we are the product. This means that in order to extract maximum value, nobody can be offended. I'm not so sure that I want to live in an inoffensive future.

    Source: Engadget (via Noticing)

    What did the web used to be like?

    One of the things it’s easy to forget when you’ve been online for the last 20-plus years is that not everyone is in the same boat. Not only are there adults who never experienced the last millennium, but varying internet adoption rates mean that, for some people, centralised services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are synonymous with the web.

    Stories are important. That’s why I appreciated this Hacker News thread with the perfect title and sub-title:

    Ask HN: What was the Internet like before corporations got their hands on it? What was the Internet like in its purest form? Was it mainly information sharing, and if so, how reliable was the information?
    There's lots to unpack here: corporate takeover of online spaces, veracity of information provided, and what the 'purest form' of the internet actually is/was.

    Inevitably, given the readership of Hacker News, the top-voted post is technical (and slightly boastful):

    1990. Not very many people had even heard of it. Some of us who'd gotten tired of wardialing and Telenet/Tymnet might have had friends in local universities who clued us in with our first hacked accounts, usually accessed by first dialing into university DECServers or X.25 networks. Overseas links from NSFNet could be as slow as 128kbit and you were encouraged to curtail your anonymous FTP use accordingly. Yes you could chat and play MUDs, but you could also hack so many different things. And admins were often relatively cool as long as you didn't use their machines as staging points to hack more things. If you got your hands on an outdial modem or x.25 gateway, you were sitting pretty sweet (until someone examined the bill and kicked you out). It really helped to be conversant in not just Unix, but also VMS, IBM VM/CMS, and maybe even Primenet. When Phrack came out, you immediately read it and removed it from your mail spool, not just because it was enormous, but because admins would see it and label you a troublemaker.

    We knew what the future was, but it was largely a secret. We learned Unix from library books and honed skills on hacked accounts, without any ethical issue because we honestly felt we were preparing ourselves and others for a future where this kind of thing should be available to everyone.

    We just didn’t foresee it being wirelessly available at McDonalds, for free. That part still surprises me.

    I’ve already detailed my early computing history (up to 2009) for a project that asked for my input. I’ll not rehash it here, but the summary is that I got my first PC when I was 15 for Christmas 1995, and (because my parents wouldn’t let me) secretly started going online soon after.

    My memory of this from an information-sharing point of view was that you had to be very careful about what you read. Because the web was smaller, and it was only the people who were really interested in getting their stuff out there who had websites, there was a lot of crazy conspiracy theories. I’m kind of glad that I went on as a reasonably-mature teenager rather than a tween.

    Although I’ve very happy to be able to make my living primarily online, I suppose I feel a bit like this commenter:

    This will probably come across as Get Of My Lawn type of comment. What I remember most about internet pre Facebook in particular and maybe Pre-smart phones. It was mostly a place for geeks. Geeks wrote blogs or had personal websites. Non geek stuff was more limited. It felt like a place where the geeks that were semi socially outcast kind of ran the place.

    Today the internet feels like the real world where the popular people in the real world are the most popular people online. Where all the things that I felt like I escaped from on the net before I can no longer avoid.

    I’m not saying that’s bad. I think it’s awesome that my non tech friends and family can connect and or share their lives and thoughts easily where as before there was a barrier to entry. I’m only pointing out that, at least for me, it changed. It was a place I liked or felt connected to or something, maybe like I was “in the know” or I can’t put my finger on it. To now where I have no such feelings.

    Maybe it’s the same feeling as liking something before it’s popular and it loses that feeling of specialness once everyone else is into it. (which is probably a bad feeling to begin with)

    Another commenter pointed to a short blog post he wrote on the subject, where he talks about how things were better when everyone was anonymous:

    When it was anonymous, your name wasn’t attached to everything you did online. Everyone went by a handle. This means you could start a Geocities site and carve out your own niche space online, people could befriend and follow you who normally wouldn’t, and even the strangest of us found a home. All sorts of whacky, impossible things were possible because we weren’t bound by societal norms that plague our daily existence.
    I get that, but I think that things that make sense and are sustainable for the few, aren't necessarily so for the many. There's nothing wrong with nostalgia and telling stories about how things used to be, but as someone who used to teach the American West, there is (for better or worse) a parallel there with the evolution of the web.

    The closest place to how the web was that I currently experience is Mastodon. It’s fully of geeks, marginalised groups, and weird/wacky ideas. You’d love it.

    Source: Hacker News


    Old web screenshot compilation image via Vice

    Cory Doctorow on Big Tech, monopolies, and decentralisation

    I’m not one to watch a 30-minute video, as usually it’s faster and more interesting to read the transcription. I’ll always make an exception, however, for Cory Doctorow who not only speaks almost as fast as I can read, but is so enthusiastic and passionate about his work that it’s a lot more satisfying to see him speak.

    You have to watch his keynote at the Decentralized Web Summit last month. It’s not only a history lesson and a warning, but he puts in ways that really make you see what the problem is. Inspiring stuff.

    Source: Boing Boing

    A portal into a decentralised universe

    You may recognise Cloudflare’s name from their provision of of ‘snapshots’ of websites that are currently experiencing problems. They do this through what’s called ‘distributed DNS’ which some of the issues around centralisation of the web. I use their 1.1.1.1 DNS service via Blokada on my smartphone to improve speed and privacy.

    The ultimate goal, as we seek to move away from proprietary silos run by big tech companies (what I tend to call ‘SaaS with shareholders’), is to re-decentralise the web. I’ve already experimented with this, after speaking at a conference in Barcelona on the subject last October, and experimenting with my own ‘uncensorable’ blog using ZeroNet.

    Up to now, however, it hasn’t been easy to jump from the regular ‘ol web (the one you’re used to browsing using https) and the distributed web (DWeb). You need a gateway to use a regular web browser with the DWeb. I set up one of these last year and quickly had to take it down as it was expensive to run!

    I’m delighted, therefore, to see that Cloudflare have launched an IPFS gateway. IPFS stands for ‘InterPlanetary File System’ and is a “peer-to-peer hypermedia protocol to make the web faster, safer, and more open”. It does lots of cool stuff around redundancy and resilience that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say, it’s the future.

    Today we’re excited to introduce Cloudflare’s IPFS Gateway, an easy way to access content from the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) that doesn’t require installing and running any special software on your computer. We hope that our gateway, hosted at cloudflare-ipfs.com, will serve as the platform for many new highly-reliable and security-enhanced web applications. The IPFS Gateway is the first product to be released as part of our Distributed Web Gateway project, which will eventually encompass all of our efforts to support new distributed web technologies.
    As I mentioned above, one of the issues with having a decentralised blog or website is that people can't access it on the regular web. This changes that, and hopefully in a way where we don't just end up with a new type of centralisation:
    IPFS gateways are third-party nodes that fetch content from the IPFS network and serve it to you over HTTPS. To use a gateway, you don’t need to download any software or type any code. You simply open up a browser and type in the gateway’s name and the hash of the content you’re looking for, and the gateway will serve the content in your browser.
    We're thinking about how IPFS could be used with the MoodleNet project I'm leading. If we're building a decentralised resource-centric social network it makes sense for those resources to be accessed in a decentralised way! Developments such as this make that much more likely to happen sometime soon.

    Source: Cloudflare blog

    (Related: The Guardian on the DWeb, and Fred Wilson’s take on Cloudflare’s IPFS gateway)

    xkcd on conversational dynamics

    xkcd cartoon

    Source: xkcd

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