[Video] The Open Web: A Global Public Good

I’m happy to share my keynote presentation from the 2018 Yale Digital Conference this summer, where I was kindly given the invitation to talk big picture about what I’ve done with my career, and how Pantheon fits into the grand scheme of things:

The TL;DR:

  • The open web is the first global public good we have created, bigger than any company or country. It’s the best way to connect people and allow them to organize around the world.

  • However, many of its early proponents (including yours truly) were naively optimistic about how well and quickly it would work on its own. As we’ve seen, progress isn’t guaranteed and setbacks are inevitable.

  • In spite of all the problems and risks, another world is still possible—but only if we work together to make it happen. Making the open web more resilient, effective, and accessible is our challenge now.

Some further thoughts related to the talk:

History Doesn’t Repeat Itself; It Rhymes

One of the central metaphors in this talk, and in discussions of the web in general, is the printing press. It’s an obvious and pretty accurate historical comparison, except the web is far more powerful. While printing presses democratized knowledge considerably, they still required a large capital investment, and took quite a while to disseminate information through the universe.

By contrast, the web is accessible to anyone with a phone. While that’s not literally everyone, we’re headed in that direction. And the speed which with we can connect and share is effectively instantaneous, unlike in the era of print where physical copies of stuff have to be lugged around. Universal accessibility and instantaneous availability are only possible because of the massive shared investment we’ve all made in networks, devices, protocols, and software.

That’s what I mean when I say the open web is a global public good. Something that is built and co-maintained by many different parties around the world, and openly available. This common infrastructure has power and potential that one could never expect from privately run print shops.

And so the metaphor of the printing press is in some ways apt, but in others only serves to heighten expectations. We’re talking about what was (in hindsight) one of the most pivotal technologies for the development of human civilization, and this new thing is like that but on steroids!

Renaissance or Dark Age?

It’s natural for true believers in this vision to think the renaissance is right around the corner. We did it! We connected the world! Now to sit back, relax, and watch the golden era unfold.

Obviously it hasn’t worked out like that. And it didn’t work out like that historically either. The immediate aftermath of movable type sweeping through Europe in the 1500’s was decades of brutal religious warfare. When the monopoly on knowledge crumbles, chaos can easily result.

We definitely don’t want that, but nor do we want to regress, to go back to the way things used to be. It might feel safer than our present moment of fake news, online harassment, and epistemic crisis, but retreating to the safety of yesterday’s institutions is a fool’s path. That way lies another dark age, where progress grinds to a halt in the name of tradition.

Moving forward won’t be easy. We’ll have to contend with state and corporate actors who would like to subvert the open web and turn it into a source or rent, or worse a tool for surveillance and control. That is unacceptable. To build towards an open web renaissance, we’ll need to reclaim our agency and independence.

While there’s a place for shareholder value and national interests within it, the Open Web is fundamentally by, for, and of the people. The task at hand now is to enable more people to do better things with it more quickly. We must outmaneuver those who would enclose it in a walled garden, place it under state control, or pollute it with garbage, noise, and bile.

All of this is the work of a generation, and again is fundamentally more about us as people than it is about any specific technology, software, or tool. It’s a privilege to work in this space, and it was a real pleasure to get to speak on this topic at Yale. I look forward to visiting again with an update on our progress in this grand effort!

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