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The Distributed Would-be Web 3.0

The transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 should inform any future upgrade.

The cryptocoin community wants to make Web 3.0 some kind of distributed-systems push where everything self-assembles and auto-contracts and has to depend on proof-of-whatever in order to function. Not exactly sure what it has to do with the web itself, but they’re trying to call it Web 3.0.

With the Web-version meme being resurged, it’s a good time to consider what Web 1.0 was, what Web 2.0 was, and what Web 3.0 could be.

Web 1.0

Actually unversioned, the original web had design limits imposed by the technology and computing speed of the day. It was full of proprietary extensions and oddities like blink and marquee and embedded MIDIs.

At this stage, many companies were still trying to get online at all. Websites still had “under construction” and “pardon our progress” type stuff. There was the Blue Ribbon Campaign to keep free speech online.

But the applications and systems of Web 1.0 were limited in certain respects. They were static, often not built by the server but hand-written. We were served simpler pages for a simpler time.

Web 2.0

In one word, Web 2.0 was about AJAX, which was actually six words: asynchronous javascript and extensible markup language. Rather than every user interaction triggering a pageload, it would rewrite parts of the document on the fly.

The utility of the term Web 2.0 was the fact that it pointed to user-facing changes. Under the hood there have been other changes in how the web works, but they were more gradual, and they didn’t have the same kind of surfer-facing impact.

The rise of web applications is basically forgotten. It has completely blended in to our brains. Nobody thinks twice when we see new content appear in a feed or when moving mail around in a web interface without intervening page-loads.

As we try to formulate what Web 3.0 could be, it’s important to recognize the type of shift it implied when we went from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0. It represented a change that helped on both sides: users got nicer pages, and developers could send small chunks rather than rebuild the entire page with every action.

The Distributed Web 3.0

The cryptocoin community’s version is a distributed system. Different parts of current applications could be handled by independent services, with coordination happening by magic and smart contracts. Smart contracts are a way that computers can sell or buy resources without human intervention.

Let’s say you break the system into a few parts:

  • Content
  • Language
  • UI or design
  • Advertising

The user wants to look at some piece of content. They request it from a distribution system, which sees the user speaks a different language than the content. It invokes a translation service first, before requesting a design appropriate for the user’s preferences (print or mobile or desktop or VR). Finally the design site-agent asks for appropriate advertising given the user’s location, language, whatever other factors. The user gets back their hyper-custom piece of content.

It’s hard to see what a smart-contract, proof-of-whatever would really deliver users over our current systems. It’s not to say that distributed applications aren’t a nice idea where they make sense. It is simply that it doesn’t seem to have the same kind of win-times-N benefits that the previous revolution did.

Security, reproducibility, caching, all sorts of questions come forth with a distributed web. They may be solved, but even if they are, they don’t provide an AJAX-style gain to users.

For other purposes, there are similar questions for distributed systems. How a distributed equivalent of Amazon might operate, for example. It would need some kind of curation mechanism, which Amazon is already pretty bad at. But where is the curation mechanism for a distributed marketplace? Any reasonable approach could be adopted agnostic of whether it applied to a distributed site or one like Amazon.

In some ways, due to technological maturity and, more importantly, business and social adoption, there may never be a true Web 3.0. Seeing how the tracking and advertising industries have metastasized, the web itself is less inviting all the time. One might look to Gemini, a successor to the old Gopher protocol, rather than try to breathe fresh life into an increasingly dystopian web.

What is Data Infrastructure?

In place of hot air about the definition of infrastructure, some thoughts about data infrastructure.

Data infrastructure is something like a road, or maybe a bridge. It’s a set of standards that allows data systems and consumers of data to operate without too much effort. DNS, the domain system, is infrastructure, translating readable names into numeric addresses and adding a layer of abstraction to things so that addresses can change. With paved land and spans, you don’t have to load sacks on a burro to carry goods through an untamed land, up and down hills, fording rivers, gazing at the stars and bouncing from landmark to landmark to find your way. Data infrastructure should work the same way. The modern internet needs more data infrastructure.

In email, we have the problem of spam. To deal with spam, many systems have been developed to filter it, to block spammers, and so on. It isn’t perfect, but it generally works. But we haven’t generalized that infrastructure to other problems. Some things, like anti-virus scanning of mail, uses some of the same systems, but each is generally its own thing. Other places, we see ad blockers and browsers have lists of malicious websites to warn users. Some data infrastructure exists here, but could be more generalized.

Other places, we see no real data infrastructure. Several times per year I read about journalists and others who are targets of harassment campaigns online. The social systems lack the same kind of filter technologies that email has. But it could be generalized. It should be generalized.

Identity, the ability to create a digitally-signed identity and authenticate with websites, would be a great and welcome form of data infrastructure. It has risks if it lets government censors snuff out dissent, but that already happens too often. A correctly described identity system would allow for multiple identities or multiple expressions of an identity depending on where and how it’s used.

The advertising industry already tries to create identity tokens, but users have limited control over them. Some laws get passed to try to give control, and now every website has to tell you about cookies, but you still don’t have control, you just have an extra piece of cyber garbage floating atop every website.

Infrastructure lowers friction. Building websites has a key barrier: user-sign-up. The easier it becomes for a user to sign-up, the less advantage incumbents have. That is paramount for competitiveness in many online spaces. This and other barriers are the sort that data infrastructure should break down, in the same way that the transcontinental railroad and other major infrastructure projects opened up lands for new cities and new economies.

Other commerce-related data infrastructure changes would be welcome. One is simple resource links that are platform-agnostic. They would let you link to a song without linking to a particular music service. Or link to a video game without pointing at a specific store. That kind of infrastructure helps to allow competition without forcing fans to show favorites or act as advertisers without their consent.

As the internet matures, opportunities arise to define and build data infrastructure. It took humans thousands of years to figure out roads and city planning (and we still get it wrong sometimes), but as we settle into patterns of use and behavior, and as we continue to have more data capacities, we need to be looking at ways to generalize our tools into outright infrastructure that supports the smooth flow of activities of all sorts.

What are the internet’s rivers that we can send boats down? Where are its mountains, requiring us to seek passes or blast tunnels? What will be the critical pieces of infrastructure that let computers do more work, rather than pretend to be a fancy form of paper?

Re: FW: [JOKE] Thoughts About Memes

Why are memes so prevalent?

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s there was a phenomenon of older relatives sending quackery to peoples’ email. These were wide in variety, including Neiman Marcus cookie recipe spam (Snopes: 3 November 1999: “Is the Neiman Marcus Cookie Story True?”), captioned images, and jokes, and they were almost always a transcript of forwards from across the internet, lasting for years and years.

And lots of them were political, and they were corny, and why did said relative have your email address, anyway?

But history likes to trick us. It likes to take a thing and twist it around and spit it back at us. So the same dreck that clogged our inboxes was inexplicably made cool once everyone left email in favor of Facebook and other social media platforms. The meme was born.

I don’t know what it means. Surely others have noted this FWD-to-meme evolution and how the former was as uncool as could be and the latter is seen as a form of net-cred. My best guess is that the elders impersonated youngsters on various zines and boards and whatevers, disguising their forward spam as coming from fellow youths. Now we have politicians memeing it up on their Twitter accounts, and nobody is running away from the damned things as last-year or overdone.

What, just because they’re funny?! Laughing gas is funny, too, but you don’t see people sending laughing gas over the internet!

Memes have always existed. Once upon a time folks would clip memes from the funny pages or newspapers or magazines. But they were always on the kitschy end of the thing, not some everyday, always-on device that would overrun real discussions.

These days, serious posts have the replies jammed full of videos of people making reactive faces. Use your words, people! I always ask myself, are there really people who go through and watch all those videos, anyway? God knows.

Some people had Monty Python and the Holy Grail memorized. I’m sure such people still exist, with different source material. On the other hand, the Christians and Jews and Muslims have been line-and-versing their memes out for centuries.

It strikes me as odd that we have this kind of short-circuit in our brains that says if you can encapsulate some idea in this trendy way, it suddenly takes on some special character. Like an advertising jingle that gets stuck in your head.

There are various possibilities for the rise of memes. One is that it’s platform metrics that drive them. Engagement, the mere reply or acknowledgment of a piece of content, is seen as key. Memes are a cheap way to engage, and the platforms like that.

There are others that say in our hyperconnected world nobody has time to think. Busy Twitch chats are full of stamp spam because nobody could usefully converse at 1000 lines/second. On the other hand, someone’s got time to make all those fancy plates of food showing up on Instagram (or are they just output from a generative adversarial network?).

One other possibility is they are a sign of the singularity. That as culture sublimates into the digital realm, human interactions become more and more patterned upon how consciousness directly relates the world to itself, with very id-based reactions to everything, and therefore the expressivity of a networked world naturally devolves into visceral-first communications.

Who knows?