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Monday Morning Moan - Sir Tim Berners-Lee wants a Solid bond in your heart

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton January 24, 2022
SirTimBL - the inventor of the World Wide Web - talks up his big idea to give users control over their own data. Can it work?

Image of Sir Tim Berners-Lee
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The founding vision of the Web was that it should be for everyone and anyone - a "universal metasystem", says its prime mover, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. That idea took off throughout the 1990s and the rest is history. In 1989 at CERN, however, Sir Tim was driven by his observation that IT companies designed systems that required users to choose a particular network or operating system, or to organize their data in a specific way.

But nearly 35 years later, with "slightly more than half the world using the Web", we exist in a world dominated by cloud platforms, social networks, and ecosystems that have built fiefdoms and walled gardens on the Web, organizing user data into vast commercial silos. In a sense, we have become these companies' products.

Speaking at the Fujitsu ActivateNow Technology Summit 2022, he said:

The Web has produced a lot of benefits for the world, especially now with the pandemic. If you're going to work from home, then you need to have the Web. But we also saw that, in 2016 for example, the Web was being used to manipulate people with targeted advertising, with political messages used to subtly change people, to make them vote for things which are not in their best interests.

Sir Tim believes that the root of the problem is less about the messages themselves - people are free to send them - but the lack of data privacy and user control on social platforms. After all, they are largely driven by advertising. Google and Facebook may talk about connecting people and directing them to information, but their revenues come from advertisers' privileged doorways into users' Likes. Privacy and user ownership of personal data is the last thing those companies want.

Where's all my private data, it's stored by the social networks I use. So, I'm on one network for doing things with photographs, another one for my professional life, and so on. So, the problem is it's stuck in those networks, and I can't really use it [elsewhere]. […] I can't just do simple things because my data is stuck in these silos. We have a lack of empowerment of the individual, so that simple things that people need to do with their own data are blocked by the silo.

To address these issues, Sir Tim is pushing the open-source Solid protocol and movement via his Inrupt venture ("The future is still so much bigger than the past"). In this way, he believes, the Web can return to its founding vision of being a network of shared benefit for everyone.

Users control which entities or apps can access their data, apps can access rich stores of data from any Pods, but only with user permission, while the virtual containers themselves store data in an interoperable format and give users permission controls. He's been talking up the concept since 2016.

The Solid protocol allows you to split off your apps from your storage. You could have a Solid Pod for work, for example, a Solid Pod for home. These Solid puzzle pieces where you have control over who gets to show, to see, the data. So, imagine that all your health data, the moment you go for a test in the hospital, the results go into your Solid Pod, or your bank statement, or if somebody uses your credit card, or a transaction, it goes into your Solid Pod. When you go for a run around the block, then that exercise data goes into your Solid.

As a person you've got this, these Solid Pods have got a huge amount of information about you. The Solid world is one in which it's flipped the right way so you're in charge. It's flipped so that you have access to the data, and you can take insights from it in the same way that large companies get insights about you now. You can run apps which give you a huge amount of insight about your life.

Wishful thinking? 

The idea makes logical sense, but there are problems with it. First, and most important, it comes very late in the day - almost certainly too late to have a big enough installed base, unless nations or trading blocs support it. Second, didn't Sir Tim rail against systems that push people to organize their data in a particular way? And third, for the average consumer it sounds like friction and hard work; it seems almost quaint. It isn't any of those things, but branding is important.

Veteran observers of British politics might recall Conservative Prime Minister John Major - who replaced Margaret Thatcher in 1990 - talking about the "hard ecu". Major was describing the currency that became the euro, but his choice of words was designed to put British citizens off the idea. And it worked. Who wanted a hard ecu in their pockets?

In a world of passive consumption and seamless, low-friction apps, a Solid Pod - virtual though it may be - sounds like the hard ecu of the technology world. Of course, back when Sir Tim was switching on his Web server, the euro was a great idea - at least in principle. A single currency that allows European nations to trade seamlessly? Madness! (Please don't @ me with the problems caused by the euro.)

More, isn't the Solid concept a bit like those sci-fi dramas where the solution to The Bad Thing is to hit the reset button, thus returning the universe to its former state, to that ‘other country' of our possible past - the one that held a brighter future? Yes, but doesn't everyone secretly want to hit that reset button?

Deep down, doesn't everyone wish Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was a dismal failure, sat alone in a café like a human Flat White with just an NFT of a bunny to talk to? Doesn't everyone secretly wish that Spotify's Daniel Ek was as poor as the average songwriter, rather than investing their dreams in AI weapons? Doesn't everyone wish Google had cluttered up its homepage with junk, dark modes, popup videos, and ads so we could finally stop using it? Isn't the only reason we don't want Jeff Bezos' tiny space penis to explode on lift-off the fact that we're all waiting for our Amazon deliveries?

But don't write off Sir Tim's concept just yet: it would be a mistake to assume that the man who gave us the Web - an innovator who, among other things, is an MIT professor, an Oxford Professional Fellow, and Director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) - doesn't know what he's talking about, or that he doesn't have connections.

People come to us, both large companies who want to partner with us, and governments. Governments come to us because they realise if their citizens each had Solid Pod for all their health data or information about what skills they have, then they would have a skills inventory of the whole country. People would be able to trade jobs and upgrade.

My take

It sounds ideal, perhaps, though any authoritarian government probably sees Sir Tim as a canary in a coal mine to seize back control from Big Tech.

Sir Tim is a brilliant, decent, committed innovator. Every one of us should treasure him and, if there was any justice in the world, he would be the one genius nobody minded being a billionaire. But he isn't a billionaire, and that is to his credit: he pursued ideas, standards, openness, and hope, not personal wealth. He's still doing it and we love him.

I've long thought that Solid, or something like it - the personal API was a promising concept a few years back - could be a valuable corporate social responsibility (CSR) tool. Users could lend their personal data to projects they supported and withdraw it for concepts or ventures they did not.

But the flipside is obvious: ultimately, we are all primitive, pleasure-driven apes. We love terrible ideas. We adore things that are bad for us. We're lazy and we appreciate having things made easy by dumb, badly designed platforms. We want to live in echo chambers, so we can hear our own beautiful voices shouting back at us, telling us we're brilliant and that other guy is a dork. We vote for politicians to entertain us, even if every shred of data suggests those people are imbeciles.

Just check your news feed.

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