Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Geeks need to Grow Up

Dave Barry's Python script for identi.ca includes a "--public" option. Evan, the main guy behind identi.ca, has said he'd like a way to treat posts as private, and/or allow different licenses. (Currently all posts are public, and people are free to share and remix content, giving attribution.)

Meanwhile, Tim Berners-Lee is advocating an open web.

Think back. Dissolve yourself in time. June 1999, RFC 2616: Hypertext Transfer Protocol 1.1. Anyone got any comments for us?

Point is this: The evolution of the internet has fundamentally moved on. Where before we had RFCs, now we have competition. Where we had comments, now we have privatised ideas versus open source communities. Functionality is segregated; fragmented into shards; embedded in competitive tribes whether they be for profit, or for principle. Not only do we have myriad new APIs spawning all over the web now, we have imitator APIs, chameleon APIs, and APIs to talk to the APIS.

And we flock to them. We, as geeks, are intent upon "collecting the set", flagging down every passing service with its own "novel" idea for communication. We are delighting in shards, gawping at the tiny rainbows venturing out of them for the blink of an eyelid. We praise the rainbow-makers. But we have forgotten about the Sun.

At OpenTech on Saturday, David Birch gave a talk on Digital Money, and berated the audience for having done "bugger all" for it in the last 10 years. And he's right - cypherpunk is dead, and we're left to play with our toys. Left scrabbling after the latest, privatest, faddiest service. What has Facebook got us? The Wispa bar. Again. The Grand Confectionary Revolution in full swing.

Unfortunately, there's more than one definition of "open". We are moving towards a definition that defines it in terms of freeness, but freeness-of-beer. "Private" openness, with control of access ultimately being an individual thing. (And not just "private" as in "for profit" - open sourcers forking both ideas from closed sourcers, and code from open sourcers, also leads to fragmentation and individualism.)

Nor does "freeness of speech" cut it either. We have freeness of speech, and it's not that different to freeness of beer: realise that code is both speech and functionality, and observe that code is given away for nothing. So we have free beer and free speech. But we are still more fragmented than ever. Geeks cope with fragments by building tools - tools to collate all the rainbows. (Non-geeks, however, just get confused by all the colours.)

Is this hallucinatory polemic? Hasn't there always been "competition" even amongst standards? (Think Gopher, FTP, BBSes...) Maybe. But then again, maybe not. MySpace and Facebook are still way bigger than Twitter or Identi.ca or any of the rest. And they're very, very private. They own you, pwn you - even qwn you.

Individualism - Fragmentation - Liberalism - Squabbling. Whatever you want to call it. The fact is that the "open" web is now playing catch up with the "closed" one. But there's so much bickering about how the "open" web" should work, that all the people that it should matter to - all the "ordinary" people - are far better off just going to whichever company has the most bucks to buy up a start-up or 2, and advertise their 2.0 socks off.

Here's the final, turn-it-around question then: What will the web look like in 10 years' time? Where will we keep our data, our identity? Who will control the communications? And who will we be able to talk to without being legally blackmailed over what we say, and whether someone else owns it?

We have to ask this. 'Cos right now, I'm just hearing a whole bunch of bickering.

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