Too much has been lost already. The glue that holds humanity’s knowledge together is coming undone.
Sixty years ago the futurist Arthur C. Clarke observed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
The internet—how we both communicate with one another and together preserve the intellectual products of human civilization—fits Clarke’s observation well. In Steve Jobs’s words, “it just works,” as readily as clicking, tapping, or speaking.
And every bit as much aligned with the vicissitudes of magic, when the internet doesn’t work, the reasons are typically so arcane that explanations for it are about as useful as trying to pick apart a failed spell.
Underpinning our vast and simple-seeming digital networks are technologies that, if they hadn’t already been invented, probably wouldn’t unfold the same way again. They are artifacts of a very particular circumstance, and it’s unlikely that in an alternate timeline they would have been designed the same way.
The internet’s distinct architecture arose from a distinct constraint and a distinct freedom: First, its academically minded designers didn’t have or expect to raise massive amounts of capital to build the network; and second, they didn’t want or expect to make money from their invention.
The internet’s framers thus had no money to simply roll out a uniform centralized network the way that, for example, FedEx metabolized a capital outlay of tens of millions of dollars to deploy liveried planes, trucks, people, and drop-off boxes, creating a single point-to-point delivery system. Instead, they settled on the equivalent of rules for how to bolt existing networks together.
Rather than a single centralized network modeled after the legacy telephone system, operated by a government or a few massive utilities, the internet was designed to allow any device anywhere to interoperate with any other device, allowing any provider able to bring whatever networking capacity it had to the growing party.
And because the network’s creators did not mean to monetize, much less monopolize, any of it, the key was for desirable content to be provided naturally by the network’s users, some of whom would act as content producers or hosts, setting up watering holes for others to frequent.
Unlike the briefly ascendant proprietary networks such as CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy, content and network would be separated. Indeed, the internet had and has no main menu, no CEO, no public stock offering, no formal organization at all.
There are only engineers who meet every so often to refine its suggested communications protocols that hardware and software makers, and network builders, are then free to take up as they please.
So the internet was a recipe for mortar, with an invitation for anyone, and everyone, to bring their own bricks. Tim Berners-Lee took up the invite and invented the protocols for the World Wide Web, an application to run on the internet.
If your computer spoke “web” by running a browser, then it could speak with servers that also spoke web, naturally enough known as websites. Pages on sites could contain links to all sorts of things that would, by definition, be but a click away, and might in practice be found at servers anywhere else in the world, hosted by people or organizations not only not affiliated with the linking webpage, but entirely unaware of its existence.
And webpages themselves might be assembled from multiple sources before they displayed as a single unit, facilitating the rise of ad networks that could be called on by websites to insert surveillance beacons and ads on the fly, as pages were pulled together at the moment someone sought to view them.
And like the internet’s own designers, Berners-Lee gave away his protocols to the world for free—enabling a design that omitted any form of centralized management or control, since there was no usage to track by a World Wide Web, Inc., for the purposes of billing.
The web, like the internet, is a collective hallucination, a set of independent efforts united by common technological protocols to appear as a seamless, magical whole.
This absence of central control, or even easy central monitoring, has long been celebrated as an instrument of grassroots democracy and freedom. It’s not trivial to censor a network as organic and decentralized as the internet.
But more recently, these features have been understood to facilitate vectors for individual harassment and societal destabilization, with no easy gating points through which to remove or label malicious work not under the umbrellas of the major social-media platforms, or to quickly identify their sources.
While both assessments have power to them, they each gloss over a key feature of the distributed web and internet: Their designs naturally create gaps of responsibility for maintaining valuable content that others rely on.
Links work seamlessly until they don’t. And as tangible counterparts to online work fade, these gaps represent actual holes in humanity’s knowledge.