Evilcorp’s broken promise and DWeb

May 22, 2019 0 By Toby Worth

Unless you’re a young or fairly light internet user, you’re probably aware of the slow transition of the web from its origins as a free-for-all village marketplace to its current state as a multi-faceted front for one of a small number of very, very large companies.  e.g. Google, Facebook and Amazon etc.  For the sake of brevity, we’ll call them EvilCorp, because 1) Google promised they wouldn’t be evil and then sold themselves to themselves so they could change their mind about that. and 2) Mr. Robot is hella-cool.  To be fair, they didn’t really act any differently than any other company has for the past century.  Grow as fast as possible and smash our competitors.

OK, so what’s the problem?  The problem is, in the land of open sharing and collaboration WE are their competitors.  We are the other parties that are trying to share, to be heard, to be represented equally, to have access to express freely and to be accessible to anyone, anywhere.  But we’ve slowly given up the rights to that and are nailing the door shut to anything like progressive change (in the US they have even erected a huge concrete wall up in front of that nailed door – see Net Neutrality).  In short: EvilCorp’s dominance is bleeding the life from small businesses, setting high costs for creative upstarts and polarising information into tribalist echo-chambers.  It’s also, slowly, killing freedom of expression (not that you’d know it from all the bitching).

Oatmeal cartoon about Facebook being the gatekeeper to publicity.

This isn’t a new problem. But it is one of the ones being solved by dapps.

Lords of the internet

One thing to note that is that with any of the Big Data collectors, the main value comes from you.  The user.  You provide content AND traffic, filling their storage with information about you and even content to show others.  When they have enough of it, they advertise on their platforms while you use their ‘free’ service.  The content creators, in some cases, will be paid a tiny fraction of that advertising revenue; but for the most part, people posting content online will have nothing to show for it while EvilCorp grows bigger and bigger by the day.

The culmination of the race for internet dominance is basically a few greedy companies trying to ‘be’ the web, so they can extract money from anyone who wants to use the internet in the way it was originally designed (as a free and open way to share knowledge and information).  They are claiming themselves the lords of the internet and very soon, they will start collecting taxes.  You can already feel this in the absurd number of adverts you get as a long-time user of Youtube, for instance (though this depends on whether they think of you as a spender).

What most people don’t realise is that EvilCorps algorithms don’t work as a way of making sure you’re always seeing the really cool stuff your friends post, that’s just an occasional chocolate-drop, their aim is to drive *their* narrative which is a mandate of total domination of your e-time 1) keep you scrolling… 2) keep showing you adverts and 3) keep pushing their agenda as the de-facto entry-point to the WWW.  Facebook is ‘the internet’ to more than 50% of new users.  FB are making it harder and harder to leave their site completely.  Not using the FB, Twitter etc. apps is a good start. If you’re wondering why they are pushing the apps so hard, it is to get you where they want you.  In a quiet, cosy room where they have you all to themselves.

Evil Robot Us-es

EvilCorps algorithms are present in everything they do.  Your search results are filtered by them (despite this being the whole reason we originally loved Google), your Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram feeds are curated by them.  If you don’t get out and look around once in a while, your entire view of the world could literally be shaped by a few corporation’s requirements of what a good consumer should think (perversely, this would mostly be fuelled by our own input).

It’s not an in-your-face attempt to subvert you into an EvilCorp lackey, it’s just not that Machiavellian, the sad truth is that it’s just a blindly-implemented way to use basic human behaviour for profit.  Drip-feeding you ‘good bitch’ dopamine while you consume their primary product: Adverts and sponsored news-inclusion (AKA driving someone else’s narrative).   The end product is that you’ll be living in an echo-chamber, less and less aware of conflicting ideas, fuelling tribalism and unwittingly contributing to the widening gap between the lower and upper classes.  Seems far-fetched?  Don’t worry about it.  Keep scrolling.

Fuck. That.

Lets step back a bit

Dwell a moment on these tired but sage morsels:

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

“Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

“Who watches the watchmen?”

“If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

These are all at least decades-old words of wisdom (yes, even the Spiderman one).  Despite that, they are seemingly unheeded and yet highly relevant to the current state of the internet (but only because we have allowed EvilCorp to gain great power, even dominance of a humanitarian tool) as we have self-established gate-keepers appointed only by capitalist ideals.  At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, we have essentially drip-traded our own futures for convenience and a small fix of feel-good funnies.

Corporations are, for the most part, psychopaths with massive egos and petabytes of charm.

There’s a common thought pattern that ‘science will solve it’ and ‘things will turn out alright, people are essentially good’, which seems to be the go-to wish that inaction will be sufficient action.  Sure, maybe, just maybe that might be enough.  I mean, Zuckerberg was just in court, right?  He’s had his wrist slapped and he’s going to accept the ‘great responsibility’ his power has brought him, right?   Google will probably be next, showing evidence-based news stories in their feeds, then maybe Uber will start seeing themselves as a force for good, bringing home old ladies from the shops and picking up hitchhikers?  Yeah?  Right?

Nope.  What we have consistently seen is decidedly not a humanitarian effort to improve their offerings.  In no way (that wasn’t legally demanded after heavy losses in court) has any of these publicly-limited company put decency, truth and honesty above their profits.  Corporations are, for the most part, psychopaths with massive egos and petabytes of charm.  This is, in large part, due to being beholden to their investors who invest for, y’know, profit.  So there better be more where that’s coming from.

Yeah, OK, but what can I do?

The new, decentralised web runs on ‘Dapps’ (Decentralised Apps).  They focus on storing and hosting their content on the USER’S devices, not on a single-owner’s device (or cluster of servers, more to the point).  They distribute the content around our networks, overlapping hosted resources to build a real web of social sharing.  This gives us resilience (reliability), speed and, ultimately control.

It’s like the difference between everyone asking one very popular guy’s opinions or asking all the people they know.  That guy can be bought, shot or stupid, but your social network can’t.  At least, not unless you let it.

So, firstly, just be aware of these changes.  See the problem they are solving (or trying to limit its effects) and maybe help out a little by trying a dapp and helping them with feedback.  We have good people working on it, you can wait for the solutions to become reality, but show support for them when they do.  If you’re a coder, then they can use your help.

Understanding the promise of a decentralised web is paramount to its success.  Imaging the possibilities of rescinding control of social sharing from EvilCorp and instead giving it to you and me, the rightful owners.

Home-Grown AI

We can write or download and apply our own choice of algorithms for deciding what of our network’s content will be viewed as most important today.  The quiet curation of our network’s feeds shouldn’t be left to a single individual company’s whim.  It should be left up to each and every person to decide what they feed their mind with.  If you want 100% cat videos, then so be it.  If you want a highly democratic ‘Top 1 from every friend’ feed, then so be it.  More of a mix-n-match person?  There’s an algo for that.  Soon, we’ll be importing feed-filtering algorithms like we’re applying Snapchat filters.  There will even be an Algo-store where you can get reviews and share your own creations.  Much of it will be standard, but WE will own the code, be it private custom formulae or open-source algos.

Knowing me, knowing you, AH-HA!

In the impassioned words of Alan Partridge: “Sunday, bloody Sunday”.  We’re the best judge of what we want on any given day and if we want 100% ball-shattering skate vids after a heavy Saturday night, just to get the stomach muscles working then add that to my schedule.  Monday morning?  Better prioritise motivational speeches and feats of soaring human spirit.  Got that one friend who always knows just what to say?  Give them a priority weighting and make sure you never miss a post. Want to know what a group of friends thinks about a certain event?  Create the group  and just add tags to notify on certain keywords.

Of course, some of this is possible with existing social networks, but for the most part it’s outside your control and subject to change whenever it suits that network’s interests.  The most valuable principle of the decentralised web is having you stay in control, relinquishing it if you so desire, but able to take it back again when it suits you.  You can craft your online experience, to make it more meaningful and more informative over time, becoming YOUR personally tailored web.

You can start getting involved by downloading and trying out some of the tools that are being written to decentralise the web (moving away from the huge data-silos of EvilCorp and putting the power to host this content into the user’s hands/computers).

Checking out the new DAT-based browser, Beaker, by the brilliant Tara Vencil and Paul Frazee:

https://beakerbrowser.com/

If you’re developmentally challenged inclined then have a look at DAT protocol, IPFS, Blockchain contracts and some of the other Decentralised Web technologies.

Scuttlebutt is a social network just starting to take off.  It’s applying the best core ideas of Dapps, where you host your own content and store your friend’s content so you can view it offline (and share it with other friend’s, if they wish!).

Checkout Scuttlebutt (SSB) via the DWeb champion, Andre Staltz:

https://staltz.com/an-off-grid-social-network.html

Andre is working on his own SSB-based chat client, called Manyverse, which is coming along nicely:

https://www.manyver.se/

What do we really want?

We need an open web again.  We want to be free, to do what we wanna do.

We don’t want EvilCorp to own the web and dictate what is seen and when.

We don’t want posts being deleted just because it casts EvilCorp’s friends in a bad light.

We want access to the best cat/dog/fail gifs the world has to offer.

We want the quality of the feed to be relevant and personalised.

We want to be able to put it down when that’s enough, not drip-fed click-bait as our attention starts to wain.

We want to retain ownership over our content.

We want to know about the best value products, not the ones that pay the most to EvilCorp’s ad coffers.

We want to retain the intimacy and social aspects of friend networks.

We want to know what is really going on in the world at large.

In short: we want the best of both worlds.  We want the value that comes from global sourcing and the fascinating insights that come from having the entire world’s opinions a click away.

Pros and Cons and Pros

Some people’s pros are another’s cons, so see for yourself…

When you share something and it’s good, other people will share it and those people will actually SEE it without you having to pay for it!  That’s the way it SHOULD work!

See where your content is, how it’s being used and control access to it.  Don’t just post it and surrender your rights.

It’s not a platform for paying mega-bucks and having your work seen instantly by MarketingBudget/CostPerView people.  It’s a system based on merit and social validation.  If it sucks or is a rip-off, you probably won’t hear about it (we don’t have any cure for ‘social engineering’ yet).

It’s still being built and some of the features we want aren’t written yet, so we have to be patient.

It’s a terrifying change for the current ads-based system and there is going to be friction.  We don’t yet know what this might entail, but expect fear-mongering at the very least.  Just know that while no system is perfectly secure, this system will be no different to the internet as it is today in terms of a requirement to be as secure as possible, for everyone.  The vast majority of security tools and practices will remain viable and intact, but we will need new ones, just as we do with any new development.