Back in 1990 a select group of computer scientists in the post-industrial world witnessed the birth of a powerful communications tool, something that had been in the offing under various technical guises since the Second World War. But it took a radical leap of faith to conceive of this tool as serving a progressive human function rather than a covert institutional one. Unsurprisingly, Tim Berners-Lee has it best:
“The world wide web went live, on my physical desktop in Geneva, Switzerland, in December 1990. It consisted of one Web site and one browser, which happened to be on the same computer. The simple setup demonstrated a profound concept: that any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere. In this spirit, the Web spread quickly from the grassroots up.” (Source)
The keywords in Berners-Lee’s genesis story are ‘share’ and ‘grassroots’, and further on in the article he speaks of principles of egalitarianism and freedom. The main thrust of his article is to warn netizens of the growing affront to these liberal foundations by means of network control and domination by the few over the many. What is written out of his brief history of the Web however, is the oft-stated but underrated fact that it was the commercialization of access to the Web that enabled it to ‘spread quickly’ – AOL et al.
From the beginning, general access to this new ‘promised land’ was gated, which immediately reduced the scope of the project from “any person…anywhere” to ‘certain people in certain places’; and the purpose of a commercial gateway is at once to derive income from the ‘content’ within the space it encloses, but also (and more fundamental) to validate the demarcation of commercial territory. The name assigned to the unit of commercial territory on the Web was ‘domain’ and the people presiding over the domains were called ‘Web masters’. The power structures inscribed in this lexicon are telling.
A quick glance at my Mac dictionary tells me that the etymology of the word ‘domain’ is traceable to the Old French (pre 1400) ‘demeine’, which means ‘belonging to a lord’. The medieval European usage usage of the term refers to ‘land held by nobility from the Crown in exchange for military service; vassals were in turn tenants of the nobles, while the peasants were obliged to live on their lord’s land and give him homage, labor, and a share of the produce, notionally in exchange for military protection’.
The concept of the Internet domain, put into practice as early as 1985, was in a broad analogous sense a feudal system without the ruling king at the top of the pyramid. On a territorial level, domains were the very ‘fragmented islands’ that Berners-Lee is warning against in his article. But the structure was tolerable because of one key attribute that kept domain borders from becoming completely hermetic: hypertext. That is, the ability to connect content in network form through hyperlinked artifacts. Hypertext was a key line of defense against territorial ‘colonisation’.
The problem is that the founders of the Web were still thinking of the ‘domain’ in terms of a territory that could not out-proportion the larger system of which it was part. The domain was completely dependent on the network for validation. But what they had yet to consider was the possibility of a single domain becoming so vast in size and activity that it would no longer need validation because it would become its own network. This is the case of Facebook.
In essence, what Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook team have done is to create another model of the Internet, a second Web, one that restores the ‘crown’ and is able to derive income from the ‘content’ within its borders. The spectre of monolithic power is skillfully de-centered (as it was in the feudal model) through recourse to the much abused term ‘social network’.
The task that we face in the second decade of this new millennium is becoming increasingly clear: it is the reaffirmation of democratic power on the Internet. That is to say, a re-imagining of the Web inline with the egalitarian aspirations set out at its inception. This, I submit, can only happen through the dismantling of the commercial gateways that demarcate its territory. The primary function of the Web must cease to be a commercial space with a market value, and instead must return to its guiding principle of a free-flowing platform for human interchange, within which commercial enterprises will exist, but not as the default function.
One way that we might achieve this without regulation and coercion of domains within the existing system is to use the Facebook model to altruistic ends. That is to say, to set a new Web in motion whose momentum overwhelms the commercial boundaries of the existing system. A model has already been set for this in Wikipedia. It would take only a small step to apply wiki principles towards a social Web.
One of the most interesting things about the Web back in the early 90s was the potential to write – in virtual time and space – a history of humanity that had failed to be written in physical time and space, i.e. one without usurpation, exploitation and abuse; one in which the individual would be truly equal, in which speech would be free and capital would not be the dominant cultural driver. The influence of the one over the other should not be underestimated. And since we now have the tools within reach to forge a Web according to our collective will, is it not our obligation not to repeat history?