The Dream of a Global Internet Is Dead
Trump’s ban on Chinese apps is part of a tide of digital nationalism
Welcome back to Pattern Matching, OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context.
“The dream behind the Web,” wrote the person who invented it, “is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished.”
That was Tim Berners-Lee, writing in 1997, eight years after he proposed the idea that would become the World Wide Web. He went on: “There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialize. That was that once the state of our interactions was on line, we could then use computers to help us analyse it, make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together.”
At the time, Berners-Lee felt that the first part of his dream — a common global information space — had been largely realized. The second part — that much of real life would move online, such that computers could analyze and reshape it — had “yet to happen,” he conceded, though there were “signs and plans that make us confident.”
Today, we know that the second part of his dream was realized as well, though not necessarily in the ways he had hoped. Distinctions between real life and the internet have collapsed, especially since the pandemic, and as a result our interactions have become more trackable and analyzable. That tracking and analysis, however, has turned out to be more often a tool of manipulation, division, and exploitation than of cooperation for the greater good.
Meanwhile, the first part of Berners-Lee’s dream has quietly eroded even as the second has come to dark fruition. The open Web, as a universal venue for interaction, has been gradually supplanted by self-contained platforms controlled by giant corporations, like iOS, Android, Facebook, Amazon.