Slow modems

The internet doesn’t have to be this way. It seems like the structure we live with and struggle with and sometimes work against is pre-ordained and obvious, but much of it is the result of the origin of the consumer net.

Slow modems in particular.

When the WELL and AOL and other services began to define how billions of people would eventually connect, the physics were clear:

We had incredibly slow connections

We had dumb, underpowered computers

That meant that a central server was essential, and the person who owned that server was likely to want to make a profit.

Which led to:

  • Subsidized cost of signing up
  • Ongoing cost (in ads or fees) of staying
  • Emphasis on network effects to spread the word
  • Emphasis on lock-in to maximize profitability to pay for the subsidized sign up

And so we ended up with the following expectations:

  • Anonymous or multiple accounts
  • No transferability of data (it belongs to the host, not you)
  • Surveillance/trading privacy for convenience
  • More invasive ads
  • Aversion to adversarial interoperability

In 2022, just about everyone online has a connection speed at least 1,000 times faster than the original consumer dial-up modems, and a computer that is as powerful (even if it’s a phone) as those original hosts.

If we cared enough, we could imagine a federated internet. One where the control and the power doesn’t lie with a single corporate titan with whims, with lock in and with spam, but with individuals showing up much more like we do in real life, owning our words and our data and our participation.

[PS I’m not currently allowed to tweet that this blog is automatically retweeted at Mastodon. And hosted here for the foreseeable future–Wordpress is celebrating 20 years of consistent performance this year. Federation and open source and owning your own words in a low-noise environment feels far more resilient than the alternative.]