Book Review: Beyond the Valley

Beyond the Valley: How Innovators around the World Are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow, by Ramesh Srinivasan (2019, The MIT Press)

Beyond the Valley is an important look at what’s wrong with the internet’s control by Big Tech. UCLA information studies professor Ramesh Srinavasan also offers practical examples of possible remedies.

How it’s all gone wrong

The first part of the book is all about the disasters we’ve uncovered in recent years. Remember these lowlights?

  • When right-wing political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica took data generated from millions of Facebook “personality tests” to develop profiles for micro-targeted advertising. Those profiles then helped Brexit campaigners in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump in the US.
  • Google’s journey away from its original “don’t be evil” motto
  • Amazon’s bullying of vendors, union-busting activities and tax evasion
  • Apple’s attempts to dominate how you listen to music
  • A variety of problems with artificial intelligence

Srinavasan warns that the technology companies will always choose profits over people. The history to date has not been positive.

As robots replace more workers, companies have no interest in how those replaced workers will survive. He suggests that a universal basic income (UBI) such as that proposed by 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang may mitigate the problem.

Perhaps you read about Amazon’s Rekognition facial recognition software. The ACLU of Northern California compared a database of criminal mugshots with photos of members of Congress. Srinavasan writes “For Congress as a whole the error rate was 5 percent, but for nonwhite members of Congress the error rate was 39 percent.”

Problems with technology and the internet aren’t limited to North America, of course. Repressive regimes use a variety of techniques and policies to enforce their rule. Srinavasan especially attacks China’s surveillance state and its social credit regime. The latter is the government’s policy of monitoring people’s behavior online and assigns “credit scores” to determine how well you contribute to society. Cross the government too often, or associate with people who do, and suddenly you can’t ride the bus as often.

Srinavasan explains: “A poor credit score that comes from expressing ‘bad’ speech online, smoking cigarettes, or playing too many video games could result in a range of punishments, from losing one’s freedom to travel, to public humiliation.”

Hope for the future?

Beyond the Valley isn’t all gloom and doom. The last part of the book looks to a variety of potential solutions, and alternative visions, to promote democratic control of the internet.

Among the options described:

Those of us who have been watching the movement for a (re)decentralized internet know that some enthusiasm for this idea comes from Libertarian circles, who hope to finance (and profit from) a decentralized web on the blockchain.

Srinavasan and journalist Adam Reese collaborated on a chapter about blockchain. They describe several projects and conclude (like me) that “We have no illusions about blockchain saving the world. All the same, these networks’ decentralized architectures make them potentially valuable tools for building grassroots solutions that support the needs of ordinary users. … we’ll keep our eyes open for emerging voices and continue to listen to those who talk past the hype.”

As with any academic work, Beyond the Valley is extensively documented with books, articles (both journalistic and scholarly), and web links (though I wish he had included more links to the projects and organizations he’s covered). Yet it is easy enough to read for most people.

Srinavasan doesn’t offer any panaceas, but some hopes for the future. . If you have any curiosity about how to solve the problems and inadequacies of the internet, it’s worth reading. I expect to be mining that bibliography for a while.

Book Review: How the Internet Happened

Word cloud of terms related to net neutrality
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.

Inrupt: A Watershed for the Decentralized Web?

Diagram of a decentralized web developed by Paul Baran in 1964

When Tim Berners-Lee launches a new project for the World Wide Web, it has an impact. Saturday morning I woke up to the news that Sir Tim had a new project. With an interview with Fast Company and a new website, Inrupt was born, and everything might change.

Inrupt is a startup company that will support the Solid project that Berners-Lee and his research group at MIT has been working on for a few years. Berners-Lee’s business partner, John W. Bruce writes:

Inrupt’s mission is to ensure that Solid becomes widely adopted by developers, businesses, and eventually … everyone; that it becomes part of the fabric of the web.

I love the basic idea of Solid, where you store all your relevant information in a “personal online data store,” or POD, and make your own decisions about what information you share online. If you want to tell people that you’re going to some concert tonight on some online service, go ahead and share it with that service’s Solid app. When you decide that you’re embarrassed that you ever liked that performer, you can revoke that permission, and it disappears, everywhere you shared it.

 

Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid POD (Personal Online Data store), via Fast Company

 

I’m really excited that Inrupt wants to build the ecosystem around Solid, get more developers, more apps. Ultimately, that should lead to more users, presumably leading to an Internet closer to the Web founders’ original vision.

Reactions

When I read the Fast Company piece, and read the Inrupt home page, I admit that I thought “This is really on the right track, and where do I send my resume?” I even filled out the contact form at Inrupt (before I saw the mailing list subscription link) suggesting that when they started thinking about user docs, they should keep me in mind! And yes, I’m following them on LinkedIn too.

After reading every word on their website (OK, maybe I skipped some of the developer parts), I asked myself whether Inrupt was just a way for Sir Tim to cash in on his invention. Not that there’s anything technically wrong with that, but there is a downside.

Just a year or so after caving to the Copyright Cartel on the Digital Rights Management (”Encrypted Media Enclosures”) standard at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), you have to wonder whether Berners-Lee has just become another corporate pawn.

Child of Silicon Valley

I don’t know much about John Bruce, Inrupt’s CEO. I’ll be doing more research.

What I do know is this: Inrupt seems to be following one of the traditional Silicon Valley funding paths. Charismatic founder starts company, sucks up a ton of venture capital to stimulate growth, then either goes public with an Initial Public Offering (IPO) or a sale to another big company. When successful, the end game makes the founder rich, and the venture capitalists even richer.

The Inrupt website describes John Bruce thusly:

John led four start-ups, three of which resulted in global acquisitions. John will apply his decades of strategic business leadership and experience with leading software and service companies to launch Inrupt and the next phase of the web.

There’s nothing wrong with this experience, either. I worry though.

Yet, there are more than a few companies in the world of free and open source software that manage to make money without projecting evil onto the landscape: Automattic, Mozilla Corp, Red Hat, and SUSE come immediately to mind.

I’d rest a little bit easier if Inrupt declared itself a Public Benefit Corporation, which bylaws aims to put social good ahead of profit.

I’ll be watching Inrupt’s progress with hope, mixed with a little bit of dread.

Very interested in hearing what you think about Inrupt, Solid, and their prospects. Leave a comment, or otherwise get in touch.

 

2nd Decentralized Web Summit Brings Piles of Working Code

Diagram of a decentralized web developed by Paul Baran in 1964

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

Diagram of a decentralized web developed by Paul Baran in 1964

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.