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Web Attack #2 report

A Critical Conversation about the Future of the Internet - 30.06

The future of the Internet. That’s not easy. “And yet you can make it simple,” begins Fredo De Smet this second Web Attack. “We need three things. The technology to do it differently. The imagination to come up with a different approach. And also an ecosystem, some kind of growing movement.”

We’ll find that technology together with Ruben Verborgh. He is a professor at UGent and an expert in decentralizing the web.

We find imagination together with Femke Snelting. She is also a researcher. And artist, curator and artistic director of Constant vzw. The latter is an association for art and media. Together with artists, technologists, academic researchers,… she has been thinking – for more than 20 years – about the state of technology in the world. And how we, as people, relate to technology.

And the ecosystem, that’s you. You who reads this. Or you who were in one of the video booths of this Web Attack.

The third way out

Once the web was a public place. A free place itself (A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace by John Perry Barlow ever read?) without loopholes and small print. That is different nowadays. The www is dominated by the big players, from Silicon Valley or from China. And in Europe it seems like we’re just muddling between those two giants. And yet there is a movement. A new option: the third way out.

According to Ruben, this third road is called Solid. That is the name of the project that Tim Berners-Lee started at MIT. Yes, Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web. The man, as Ruben says, ‘spent most of his career protecting that invention’. When he set up a 2018 major project as a rescue, he came to Ruben for a piece of code. You read that right. The new generation of the net is being created here in Flanders. And by moving away from a world full of scattered data, as it is now. Each individual gets a personal data vault, with which you can do whatever you want.

Femke talks about federation networks. Competing with the big boys is a utopia. That is why she works at Constant vzw on smaller cases and ditto tools. So federation networks. Each with their own rules and protocols, but still with a common goal.

Technology is not neutral. What would it mean if we took this proposition seriously? Femke’s wondering. And also what would we want? Do we even know? At Constant vzw Femke experimented with a self-made antenna and picked up signals from the ISS. She then converted those signals into sound waves. In this way she not only made technology visible, but also audible.

And so the encounter between technology and culture becomes very tangible.

How do we proceed?
Create a bigger movement, yes, but how?

The question of consciousness was asked. What is the role of the media? And should we increase that awareness of how we handle data? With media and culture makers at the table, that seems like a logical argument. But to what extent is this enough?

Besides awareness, Femke and Ruben also argue for practical applications. We have thought long enough in theory. Time for action. And we shouldn’t be too ambitious. Starting with small use cases is enough. That’s where we can make the difference by devising applications that can have a major impact. These applications can convince people to make the switch.