Technological change has a tendency to look inevitable in retrospect – “It steam-engines when it’s steam-engine time.” Likely this is true in many cases, but I often think we underestimate the alarming degree of contingency lurking behind ‘inevitable’ developments. To illustrate this point, I’m going to sketch an all-too-plausible alternate history in which the World Wide Web never happened.
The divergence point for this history is in 1983-1984, when the leadership of DARPA lied through its teeth to Congress about who was being allowed access to the Internet. The pretense being maintained was that only direct affiliates of government-sponsored, authorized research programs were being allowed on. DARPA knew very well this wasn’t true; they had a broader vision of where the Internet might lead, one that wouldn’t be realized for another ten years. They viewed the yeasty, chaotic culture of casual use by all manner of ‘randoms’ (unauthorized people including, at the time, me) as what would later be called a technology incubator – a vast Petri dish from which amazing serendipities would spring in due time.
This optimistic view was entirely correct. One such serendipity was the invention of the World Wide Web; another, though the causal connections take a bit more work to trace, was the emergence of open-source software as a conscious movement. But what if DARPA had been caught in that lie, funding for its network research scaled back, and a serious effort made to kick randoms off the early net?
It seems all too likely that internetworking research would have stalled out or reverted to the status of an academic toy and laboratory demonstration. There was increasing demand for wide-area digital communications at the time, but it was being mostly met by pre-Internet timesharing services like CompuServe, AOL, and Genie. Those are barely remembered now because the Web steamrollered them flat in the late 1990s – but the Web depended on the TCP/IP stack and internetworking. Without internetworking, no Web, and without that…
Welcome to a world of walled gardens. Your digital universe is a collection of competing fiefdoms run by CompuServe, AOL, Genie, and later entrants that came into the fray as demand rose, many of them run by big media companies. Each network has its own protocols, its own addressing conventions, and its own rigidly proprietary access software. You get the services they choose to offer and that’s it – there’s no end-to-end, no access to the bitstream.
You can only do the equivalent of email and instant-messaging with people on the same provider you are using. Inter-provider gateways are buggy and often nonexistent – some providers think they add attractiveness to potential customers, others think they can shoulder smaller networks aside by making them relatively inaccessible. You see a lot of read-only gateways that allow you to pull messages and content from other providers but not export your own, and there are frequent interdictions of these by targeted providers who view these one-ways as leeching. People who use the nets heavily need to have half a dozen different accounts, sets of credentials, and email-address equivalents.
Any equivalent of user-controlled websites barely exists; they’re an expensive premium service not available on all networks, and subject to “acceptable use policies” that pretty much exclude any content the provider doesn’t like. And, again, they’re only viewable by others using the same access software from the same provider. There is no hyperlinking across providers. And certainly no search engines!
There may not even be hyperlinking within most of the walled gardens, because the whole model of a universal flat document space indexed by URIs never developed. A few scattered groups of visionaries like Ted Nelson and the Xanadu Project have the idea, but nobody else understands what they’re driving at.
Blogs? Forget about it. Again, something like a public-diary or mini-magazine publishing format may be available from some providers, but…no hyperlinks. And there are certainly no third-party blog engines like WordPress or Moveable Type. Audiences are badly fragmented by the walls between providers, and providers exert heavy control over content; if you post something “offensive” on your magazine, your provider will protect its corporate reputation by shutting you down.
Gradually, over time, the smaller providers are merging or being squeezed out of the market. While this cuts down on the number of accounts serious net users need to have, it also means the content-controlling power of the big-provider oligopoly is becoming more difficult to evade. And the kinds of services available, far from broadening over time, are actually narrowing. A nostalgia for the less fettered early days is already developing, but it’s helpless – the big providers say the niche services are unprofitable resource hogs because not enough people want them enough to pay the add-on fees required to sustain them, and who can argue?
Even as late as 2011, if you suggested music or movie streaming you’d be dismissed as a loon; the bandwidth isn’t there, because the Internet boom and the big fiber build-out never happened. Networking gear is several generations less advanced, and evolving much more slowly because its market is orders of magnitude smaller. Only the Federal government and handful of Fortune 50 corporations have fiber/coax backbones, and none of those can talk to each other. Ordinary joes have to deal with X.25 over copper and even worse. Even acoustic-coupler modems, a half-forgotten joke in our timeline, are still live technology in this one.
Smartphones? Google? Pandora Radio? File-sharing? Craigslist? Facebook? Dream on. It’s not just that the technological infrastructure can’t support these things, the conceptual infrastructure is absent. Well, we might have something vaguely like smartphones, but they’d be hardware instantiations of some single provider’s access software. Sealed boxes, no tethering or hotspotting. For that matter I’m far from sure there’d even be anything like WiFi yet in alternate 2011.
There’s a recognizable version of the hacker culture, but the population explosion of the 1990s never happened; it’s basically frozen in amber at about the stage when we were exchanging tiny source archives via USENET postings. There’s no Linux because there’s no net! Without cheap communications, the social engine needed to support large-scale open-source developments never spins up, and the open-source software catalog amounts to little more than a small range of toy programs. Spared the competitive pressure, proprietary operating systems and applications suck even worse.
The news isn’t all bad. There are still jobs for travel agents, and this future doesn’t have a spam problem; that may be the one single advantage of the provider oligopoly’s grip on online content. But compared to the Internet we have, the overall picture is pretty damn bleak.
If you think on-line advertising is obnoxious today, imagine what it would be like if the provider’s access software could shove whatever it chose at you at any time – no alternate browsers, no popup blockers, no escape. Hackers in this alternate history spend a lot of their time trying to write “universal” (cross-provider) clients with user-controlled filtering, but the providers view this as a threat to their business models and conduct an arms race, changing access protocols for greater ‘security’ as often as they can get their ordinary users to download client updates. Using a reverse-engineered client is a violation of your terms of service and can get your account canceled.
The few people trying to build more open public networks are widely dismissed as scruffy anarchists intent on creating havens for hate groups and child porn. But they’re doomed, anyway; the economic and technological base on which to erect their dreams simply doesn’t exist.
It could have been like this. The better outcome we got was not inevitable. Maybe, now, you’ll appreciate it a little more than you have.