Book Review: How the Internet Happened

Cover of "How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone" by Brian McCullough.

How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone (2018: Liveright) is the result of Brian McCullough’s researching and hosting the Internet History Podcast for the last few years.

The book’s subtitle tells you a little bit of what the book does and doesn’t cover: This is not about building the network and connecting the academics in the 1960s and 1970s. It is not a social history of the Internet, nor does it cover much of the open-source movement that underlies so much of what the internet is today.

What you will get in this book is a clear sense of how a military/academic network of mainframe computers and terminals familiar to very few became an essential part of most people’s lives. The narrative is often informed by the people at the center of the transformation. Among the topics covered:

  • The transition from proprietary commercial online services to the open World Wide Web
  • The browser wars of the 1990s
  • How the mainstream media botched online news in the early days
  • Amazon, eBay and the birth of online commerce
  • How we began to think of the internet as the “New Economy,” immune from business cycles, and how that bubble burst
  • The origins of online search
  • The birth of digital music and the copyright wars that ensued
  • The rise of blogging and social media after the bubble burst
  • A brief history of how Apple went from near-bankruptcy to being the wealthiest corporation on Earth

McCullough also tells us how Google managed to survive the dot-bomb crash of 2000-01 to become one of today’s dominant companies. This happened almost by accident.

The new version of AdWords had advertisers bid against competitors’ ads, but Google’s system was not simply pay-for-placement. Ever enamoured with math and the power of algorithms, Google ingtroduced an important new ranking factor for the ads it called a “Quality Score.” In essence, Google’s system took into account how often that ad was actually clicked on, in addition to how much an advertiser was willing to pay per click. … Over time, more money would come in from a 5-cent ad that was clicked on 25 times—than from a dollar ad that was only clicked on once.

Brian McCullough, How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone p.230

What this means is that Google discovered the importance of learning everything about its users (meaning: you and I), because they could make money from that knowledge. To fully understand, you should check out Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. I’m reading that now, and will probably have a lot to say about it when I finish. Right now, I can tell you it succeeds in altering one’s perception of what’s wrong with Big Tech.

McCullough is more interested in the businesses that built the web, you’ll get a lot of stock prices, investment numbers, and net worth of the founders. If you liked the National Geographic Channel series, “Valley of the Boom,” you will enjoy the more detailed stories. All the main subplots get at least a mention. If the docudrama elements turned you off, you’ll appreciate the research and storytelling that McCullough delivers.

What scares me most about this book is that, for better or worse, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg comes off the best of all the book’s founders, as the person who (accidentally) really had the purest vision. Once he figured that out, he refused to sell out. That worked out, didn’t it?

I’ve read a lot about the history of the internet, and How the Internet Happened is one of the better ones. I started listening to McCullough’s podcast, which continues on, as a result of this book, and learned a bit from both the source interviews and the collected text. You likely will too.

2nd Decentralized Web Summit Brings Piles of Working Code

Honestly, for a while there, I thought the movement for a decentralized web was quietly fading away. There wasn’t a followup to the 2016 Decentralized Web Summit, and hardly anyone outside of a television sitcom seemed to be talking about these ideas, much less building alternatives.

Well, I am here to happily admit I was wrong. Truth is, it takes time to build software that might change the world. The second Decentralized Web Summit happened at the beginning of August, again in San Francisco. I didn’t go, but followed it intensely from afar. The sponsoring Internet Archive promised “working code” as a theme, and it delivered. The summit opened with a “science fair,” where 70 different projects showed off what they’d been working on, and there were enough people to walk around and see the presentations!

Wendy Hanamura of the Internet Archive reported that 800 people registered for the conference. I don’t know what expectations organizers had, but that sounds like a lot of people to this observer!

Time to follow Mozilla

It’s really exciting to see how heavily involved folks at the Mozilla open-source browser project are with solving the problem of decentralization.

Before the Summit began, the Mozilla Hacks blog for developers started a series of posts “Introducing the DWeb.” Since then, every Wednesday the blog features a developer of a decentralized project describing the project. As of this writing, three projects received exposure:

Mozilla Chair Mitchell Baker also gave a keynote address at the Summit, “Revitalizing the Web.”

I am really looking forward to a version of Firefox that supports the decentralized Dat protocol that Beaker uses.

Where was the tech media?

Startling that more mainstream journalists weren’t there. Vanity Fair profiled Tim Berners-Lee the week before, but as I write this, there were no reporters like Dan Gillmor and Kevin Marks writing stories for Fast Company as in 2016. I could be wrong, of course.

In the meantime, I can point you to a pair of good conference summaries:

Computing.co.uk: A nice summary from John Leonard

TheNewStack

More summit resources

As you can see, a lot happened. As I watch more video and otherwise catch up with what happened in San Francisco, I’ll keep reporting here. I’m also looking forward to playing with MIT’s Solid protocol, which I almost didn’t mention!

In the meantime: You can pretty much watch the whole conference in bits here. You can also spend some time following the #DWebSummit hashtag on Twitter.

Two more keynotes to bring to your attention:

  • Cory Doctorow always gives a thought-provoking talk, this one focusing on the question of “big tech.” I would have loved to seen any interaction he had with Tim Berners-Lee during the summit.
  • Host Brewster Kahle (founder of the Internet Archive) gave a laid-back talk about how we got ourselves into this mess, and how we can get ourselves out.

This is all to say that I am more confident that we may be at the dawn of another age on the Web than I was six months ago. I’ll still be writing about it, here and elsewhere.

Were you at the Decentralized Web Summit? What’s the most important thing I missed? If you weren’t there, do you wish you had been? Thoughts on the prospects of decentralizing the web on a mass scale are also appreciated.

More Thoughts on a Decentralized Web

Last week, Tara Vancil from the Beaker Browser project posted a timely set of tweets about how supporters of a decentralized web talk to people about it.

In Plain English…

Some good ideas here, especially when aiming to win developers over to the cause. I truly hope this doesn’t come off as “mansplaining,” but in more common terms, more people might understand the benefits she raises in the first tweet:

  • Algorithmic transparency: You should be able to describe why you see what you see online. Content providers (including social networks) should also be able to describe what the rules are when they display some posts over others. Algorithms used in web development should be based on open standards. It should also be transparently easy to determine whether Internet Service Providers are providing fast lanes for preferred sites.
  • Customizable apps: You as a user should have control over what your software does. You should define what information you share and with whom.  The providers of a web service should not collect information about you that you don’t explicitly approve. The same terms go for Internet Service Providers, should you choose to use one.
  • Member-defined communities: In a decentralized web, you don’t need a service like Facebook or Google Plus to engage with other people like you. If everyone has a website, and used web standards to Mention and Comment on posts made by friends, colleagues or total strangers, that’s a decentralized community. In the early days of the Web, people set up “WebRings” of sites sharing similar topics. Rings helped users to find information on things they cared about. These sites often engaged in conversation with each other.  Sounds a bit like what people use Facebook for today.
  • Permissionless publishing: This is the essence of the Open Web. Anyone can publish anything online without getting someone’s approval first. Of course, this central value is a mixed blessing when some people, companies, and political entities (parties, interest groups, governments and the like) are not morally committed to publishing the truth. We need to remember that this has always been true. There’s a reason “It has to be true!  I read it on the Internet!” is a cliché.

Descriptive Names

Of Vancil’s more descriptive names, I’m OK with all of them, with a slight preference for “person-first.” All of them might get a befuddled reaction (“huh?”) at first, but should spark further conversation. The idea of putting people first will generate more smiles at first hearing, and may generate more ideas for how to put people first, which makes for a more productive discussion about what the web means with either developers or other persons.

Good News: Second Decentralized Web Summit

Speaking of conversations, there’s a venue for that! A second Decentralized Web Summit is happening this summer! As you may know, the drive to (re)decentralize the web gained a bit of public attention two years ago when some of the web’s founders convened the first Summit at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. The same folks are preparing a second gathering at the Internet Archive on July 31 – August 2. Visit the conference site to get on the Updates mailing list.

Announcement of the 2nd Decentralized Web SummitI hate when conferences skip a year, especially after the first time. It seems like nothing is moving forward. I’m glad to be proven wrong. The theme for the conference is “Global Visions / Working Code.” Certainly a hopeful theme. The conference founders (not-so-coincidentally present at the web’s creation) will give keynote addresses, including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, Mozilla Board Chair Mitchell Baker, and Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle.

They will be joined by some of the people building that working code: Juan Benet, the founder of the Interplanetary File System (IPFS), and leaders of the DAT Project, a data sharing protocol, on which you can build applications (like the Beaker Browser) and connect with other people. While none of these leaders are named in this announcement, I suspect (and hope) that Tara Vancil will be among them.

Assuming the conference will follow a similar schedule as its predecessor, the keynotes will be followed by workshops and other opportunities for participants to learn, discuss and collaborate. I hope more can come out of it.

Do these new terms help you understand the promise and the value of a decentralized, “people-first” web? What stumbling blocks do you foresee? Is this the future, or a futile bid for a world that has become hopeless? Thoughts, critiques, support and well-reasoned denunciations welcome in the Comments section. 

 

 

Yes, you can communicate on Twitter!

Topsy's collection of @WorkingWriter's first tweets

I have a story to tell. There may be lessons to learn, but I guess we’ll see.

One Little Tweet

It started a few nights ago, when Twitter called my attention to this post by Zeynep Tufekci about Facebook:

She was responding to this post by someone you may have heard of:

I shared Dr Tufekci’s post, but thought it might be a little wordy, so I rephrased it a little:

See those numbers next to the heart and speech bubble? In the 11 years and 1 week I’ve been on Twitter, I don’t think I’ve gotten that kind of feedback for any single post. Twitter even followed up with an analytics report! Over 20,000 sets of eyeballs saw my little sentence! If you’re reading this post because you saw the tweet, Welcome!

But the endorphin-goosing traffic of social media love was just the beginning.

A Twitter Conversation

So while my iPod is giving me minute-by-minute updates of all the people who connected with my words (a wonderful thing to happen to any professional writer), I also suddenly receive feedback of a somewhat different sort: “Straight up wrong.”

At least it wasn’t a personal attack from some white nationalist. After my pride recovered a little, I offered a brief response:

BTW, Cory is a total stranger to me. He studies math in Stanford, California. If he goes to the school with the same name as the town, you might conclude that he’s way smarter than I am. You’d probably be right. It is still a little thrilling to have a conversation online about something — anything — important.

He responded:

I didn’t think I was pushing a “they don’t sell (data) at all anymore” idea, but rather something else:

If you think Twitter has become a place where conversation is no longer possible, and is only a place where conflict over politics gets ever more heated, I offer this small miracle in evidence:

Thanks, Cory Griffith! Mathematicians can still be human.

Conclusions

There is hope that the world can learn something from this Facebook atrocity. If we can have online conversations that don’t end in flame wars, that’s a great thing. If we can understand the real problem with Facebook’s vacuuming up of their users’ personal information, so much the better.

This isn’t the first time Facebook has gotten in hot water over this. It might be the last, but that’s up to us. That’s for another post, though. In the meantime, do read the Guardian story that Cory linked to when I was “straight up wrong.” They’ve been doing some fabulous work on this story overall. If you can, send them some cash to help pay the writers, editors, printers and web people too.

Let me close with the same words I finished my chat with Cory on:

Some questions come to mind: How did I handle this conversation? Is there something I could have done better? Have you been involved in online conversation, flame war, or something in between. What communication lessons can you share from them? Of course, comments on Facebook’s data practices and business model are welcome here (and on the Michael McCallister Facebook page) too.  

How can we win the fight for the Web?

This paper launched the Decentralized Web Summit. It's signed by its author, Brewster Kahle, Tim Berners-Lee, and Vint Cerf.

On the 29th birthday of the World Wide Web, its father, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, posted a warning about its future.

Berners-Lee leads off with some exciting news: “This year marks a milestone in the web’s history: for the first time, we will cross the tipping point when more than half of the world’s population will be online.” Then poses two questions we need answers for:

  1. How do we get the other half of the world connected?
  2. Are we sure the rest of the world wants to connect to the web we have today?

He pledges the Web Foundation to fight to get everyone online, and “make sure the web works for people.”

The post (which also appears in The Guardian and Axios.com, and possibly elsewhere) is correct, as far as it goes, but a strategy to win the goals he’s looking for is lacking.

In this post, I want to focus on the latter goal. Of course, we want to get everyone on the planet online, but it will require a social movement to preserve the Web as something that works for people. Social movements aren’t easy to build.

Sir Tim explains the problem

There’s some really good stuff here (emphasis added):

The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.

These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors. They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industry’s top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last.

What’s more, 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.

His solution is a bit hazier. “Let’s assemble the brightest minds from business, technology, government, civil society, the arts and academia to tackle the threats to the web’s future.”

Bright Minds Not Enough

Smart people will be needed to save the web, but a successful movement will need all kinds of people. Case in point: The 2016 Decentralized Web Summit. A bunch of brilliant people gathered at the Internet Archive for two days. Founders of the internet (including Berners-Lee) met with younger developers of the incipient decentralized web.

The first day had the founders of the internet offer a set of keynote addresses pointing the way forward, and describing what had gone wrong with their brainchildren in the last 25 years.

The second day focused on workshops where developers of different decentralized projects got to meet with each other and get a sense of what was coming. Some reporters attended to document the event, and some other people (including me) got very excited about the possibilities. You can read more about it here.

Two years later, and progress has been limited, though anger at the state of the internet rises. The danger of its domination by what Farhad Manjoo calls “the Frightful Five”: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft (occasionally joined by Twitter) is just one component of what’s been called the “techlash.”

Why has progress been so limited? I will argue that the value and benefits of the decentralized web have not been communicated to enough people. Many people have an uneasiness about a corporate-dominated online future but feel powerless to stop it. A vision of a solution and a plan to achieve the vision can relieve that feeling of powerlessness. That’s when we can change the internet for the better.

So how do we get there? Let’s start with some basic principles.

Principles for a pro-Web movement

pexels-photo-270404.jpegAs I write this, tens of thousands of young people in the United States walked out of some 3000 schools this morning at 10 AM to mark the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They presented concrete demands for changes in the law to prevent any more school shootings. They believe that when people act, politicians will move.

They have lessons to teach us, even for people who want to change something as ubiquitous — and obscure — as the internet. Some brief thoughts on what to do.

Focus

While there are plenty of organizations out there that seek to broadly change the world, sometimes you need a smaller, tighter group concentrated on one issue. The fight for the open, democratic, decentralized web should have such an organization or coalition of organizations.

Global Scope

earth-blue-planet-globe-planet-87651.jpegThe internet is a global network of networks, and the fight to preserve and extend it should be a World Wide Web. And not necessarily led by the usual suspects from the industrialized global North.

Action-Oriented

Opponents of the student walkout tried to pose an alternative, suggesting that instead of “walking out” of school as citizens in a democracy, people should “walk up” to a stranger;  try making more friends with unpopular kids who might grow up to be a shooter someday.  The two ideas aren’t exactly counterposed — citizens can still make more friends. The kids understood that politicians still play a role.

The fight to preserve net neutrality in the US (which, incidentally, involved a lot of young people) aimed to bring ordinary folk together. Anyone trying to preserve and extend the internet should also aim to involve and activate as many people as possible.

Bottom-Up Democracy

Involving people in a fight they don’t have a stake in is a recipe for failure. Sure, get those smart people into a room to discuss what may need to be done, but the folks who will take that campaign forward need to understand and buy into it. That isn’t a technological solution, it’s a participative activity.

Let’s move forward.

What do you think? How could you see getting involved in the fight for a better web? Is a meeting of “the best and the brightest” all we can do to preserve, democratize and extend the internet?  Are there other principles we need to win? Say your peace below.