That Old Anonymous Web

People are jerks.

At least you might think that if you ever spent any time reading through the comments section of any online article that have a decent readership. People harass one another, start arguments by nitpicking silly iota, and inevitably, someone brings up a comparison to Hitler.

I used to think folks were so crummy to one another because of a sociological phenomenon wherein people act worse when they feel anonymous – as though no one is going to catch them. As researcher Philip G. Zimbardo states:

You minimize social responsibility,” he explained. “Nobody knows who you are, so therefore you are not individually liable. There’s also a group effect when all of you are masked. It provides a fear in other people because they can’t see you, and you lose your humanity.

I reasoned that, since people are fairly anonymous on the Internet – I mean, who uses their real name for chat forums? – we all unleash some of our inner nasty.

And everyone used to talk about the web being an anonymous place – the Wild West. You can learn anything, do anything, be anybody. No one had to know what you were up to. It was amazing.

However, we no longer think of the web as anonymous. In fact, it is largely the opposite: the web is a gigantic big-government deployed tracking device. It is unstoppable, unrelenting, and everywhere. It knows where you are now, where you were yesterday, what you bought, what you wrote (or spoke!) to whom, and even does a fair job predicting what you will want and say and where you will be tomorrow.

Google Tracking me

That’s a tad unsettling. But we’ve digested it wholly because, hey, who doesn’t want a super computer in their pocket that can recommend the best carnitas taco within 1.3 miles of my current location!

The web has indeed transformed from this great big anonymous landscape into the all-knowing eye. That does not have to be bad, I guess? But knowing people and bureaucracy, it probably is.

Ongoing, the movement afoot is to opt out of the web – not cut the cord but to use only non-traceable, encrypted devices and software packages. It is doable, but difficult and cumbersome. And even that does not defeat the growing list of municipal “real world” cameras tracking vehicle license plates and pedestrian traffic. Sure, there is this wild jacket. But what about a warm sunny day? Is there photo bomb lotion so we can go without the coat?

Not everyone minds being tracked. But many will continue to stand firm in the effort against vastly well-funded resources – both private and federal – that bend towards knowing, hoarding, and tracking information.

All that data – about each of us on the granular level and meta level. Here we are, countless numbers of us without a plan or clue about who we are or what we want out of life. A little ironic.

The web is no longer wild and free. It is no longer anonymous, despite whatever efforts we deploy.

Oh, and you know, people writing about Hitler in the comment sections are still jerks. Now we just know who they are in real life.

How the Web Will Be Different

There is so much to think about. On a surface level, it’s important to acknowledge that the web — the way we access it, how we use it, and how we build for it — will all be dramatically different in five or ten years than what we have today. If you are looking, you can see fissures in the large platforms many people use now for websites, caused somewhat by our “grab-and-go” mentality, but also by some remarkable user-experience and design work on the part of this constantly churning ecosystem of new, web startup ventures.

And another piece is that people are moving away from the web being an archive or personal history, maybe in recognition that we all change as we grow older, or maybe because the web is becoming cluttered with outdated, incorrect information without any linear map to show the progression of knowledge. But for whatever reason folks are moving in the direction of a “forgetful web”. We will soon want the web to erase things we’ve posted a year, or five, or ten years ago, instead of keeping it online and searchable for the rest of our lives. Remember the heated political argument you engaged in with an old college classmate on Facebook during the second Bush campaign? Time for that to dissapear.

These big Content Management Systems that are popular today are going to be breaking apart for lack of use or consumer appetite, I think, or maybe spun out into smaller component divisions. Not everyone needs a large assembly line-CMS behind their two page website, potentially slowing down load time. In their place, we will probably see a host of tightly integrated, internet-based services that users can pull together for ad-hoc information displays.

I am not using the word “website” because that term won’t be as relevant in five or ten years. For example, the metaphor of a web “page” will transfer over for a little while, but I doubt it will linger as more and more people are viewing web information that is output through contact lenses, their car dashboard, 3-D printers, or virtual holo displays. A whole website? What’s that?

Instead, folks will be walking around with static Internet Protocol addresses being broadcast from tiny transmitters embedded in their necks or from a bracelet or other wearable. Information they capture from their phones or Google-glass-like product, and post or broadcast … will be indexed in a short-lived solid state cache memory system and viewable from that address, temporarily. Only items flagged permanent will be directed to an Amazon AWS server or similar for long-term storage. That will be their “website”. The DNS system will still function as it does today to continue providing memorable URLs.

These ad-hoc displays are already being put together by folks. They just are not as mobile-driven yet as they will become. Think about how some people today integrate Instagram and Twitter and Tumblr and AdSense and Giphy and Facebook Messenger and Soundcloud into a single platform accessible via a unique URL. All of these independent information services are coming together in a structure that the user demands; at any point, they can be pulled apart and disappear, be replaced, or left idle. Sure, it’s a web page, but … is it? Isn’t it already more than the traditional web page that we’ve come to know?

What that means for those in this front-end web development industry with me is that, well, the writing is on the wall. We either need to become skilled in handling the Application Protocol Interfaces (the APIs) that undergrid the ability of these tiny services to all seamlessly and (visually) beautifully communicate with each other, or we will be regulated to a footnoted “bump” in the Bureau of Labor & Statistics annual jobs report. Maybe some will move on to become managers of the new crop of web workers; of course the designers’ jobs will always be safe; but the front-end development folks, well, that work is not what I would lean on for a solid retirement plan.

Then there’s the layers of abstraction to think about. What used to be HTML became CSS, which became SASS or LESS, and at each stage there have emerged countless systems and frameworks meant to handle rapid prototyping and development, and each system has a learning curve and peculiar dependencies or supporting components. And that’s just one of the fundamental pieces — we can’t forget JavaScript and its offspring. With each new iteration of these pieces, we have seemed to move away from the core languages — each step is doing the job of the initial language cleaner, quicker, (messier?) faster … mostly in a good way. As we get deeper into each new layer, we are further removed from the original languages of the web.

Today, it is possible for a front-end developer to custom-build a website without really touching HTML, CSS, or JavaScript. They are working in ‘children’ of those languages like the aforementioned SASS or JQuery, and letting technology do the dirty work. I think it is really remarkable. In the same way that today’s TV repair service probably does not know a thing about a vacuum tube, the future web worker likely won’t know a thing about HTML or JavaScript or PHP. And that lack of trade knowledge will be totally appropriate.

That’s a really fun way to think about the future of the web — how we will broadcast to it and implications for the day-to-day laborers behind it.

There are some other, less fun but basic questions hanging in the air around the future of the web.

  • How are our cities preparing physical infrastructure to be ready to harness the future web? Are we relying on the likes of Comcast, the “world’s most hated company” to do it for us? While some cities are spinning up municipal broadband, most cities are not.
  • How are we preparing our human capital? Is the current public school curriculum sufficient to build the next generation of web technologists? Is there balance between the consumption of these new technology devices and an understanding in how they are put together and made, the hardware and programming behind them? Or is that all just magic?
  • How are we preparing to absorb the future impact of disasters relating to a massive “offline” event or the all-too-common wide scale cyber information theft from regional information hubs (hospitals, universities, city government offices, etc)?

Already, we may have popularized the concept of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s “Internet of Things” running across the web — an entire host of dumb devices connected through the web, performing routine, maybe singular tasks on our behalf. We seem comfortable with the idea of being completely enmeshed within this “web” of information and services wrapped all around us.

The future of the web is going to be an amazing place. And it is coming faster than some have expected. My hope is that we stay informed through it all, more than simply being consumers with a “Tide Detergent” Amazon button that we press when we need more product. I hope we understand how all these transactions are occurring across the various protocols and wifi channels and banking interactions — from the moment we press or click or snap, to the moment the box is dropped off by the robot drone carrier on our front porch.

Why? Because it matters that we control the technology instead of being controlled by it. It isn’t magic. It’s real and while it is wonderful to feel awe from it, we need to also own it and keep it tamed.