Got word yesterday that Kim Cameron had passed.

Hit me hard. Kim was a loving and loved friend. He was also a brilliant and influential thinker and technologist.

That’s Kim, above, speaking at the 2018 EIC conference in Germany. His topics were The Laws of Identity on the Blockchain and Informational Self-Determination in a Post Facebook/Cambridge Analytica Era (in the Ownership of Data track).

The laws were seven:

  1. User control and consent
  2. Minimum disclosure for a constrained use
  3. Justifiable parties
  4. Directed identity (meaning pairwise, known only to the person and the other party)
  5. Pluralism of operators
  6. Human integration
  7. Consistent experience across contexts

He wrote these in 2004, when he was still early in his tenure as Microsoft’s chief architect for identity (one of several similar titles he held at the company). Perhaps more than anyone at Microsoft—or at any big company—Kim pushed constantly toward openness, inclusivity, compatibility, cooperation, and the need for individual agency and scale. His laws, and other contributions to tech, are still only beginning to have full influence. Kim was way ahead of his time, and its a terrible shame that his own is up. He died of cancer on November 30.

But Kim was so much more—and other—than his work. He was a great musician, teacher (in French and English), thinker, epicure, traveler, father, husband, and friend. As a companion, he was always fun, as well as curious, passionate, caring, gracious. Pick a flattering adjective and it likely applies.

I am reminded of what a friend said of Amos Tversky, another genius of seemingly boundless vitality who died too soon: “Death is unrepresentative of him.”

That’s one reason it’s hard to think of Kim in the past tense, and why I resisted the urge to update Kim’s Wikipedia page earlier today. (Somebody has done that now, I see.)

We all get our closing parentheses. I’ve gone longer without closing mine than Kim did before closing his. That also makes me sad, not that I’m in a hurry. Being old means knowing you’re in the exit line, but okay with others cutting in. I just wish this time it wasn’t Kim.

Britt Blaser says life is like a loaf of bread. It’s one loaf no matter how many slices are in it. Some people get a few slices, others many. For the sake of us all, I wish Kim had more.

Here is an album of photos of Kim, going back to 2005 at Esther Dyson’s PC Forum, where we had the first gathering of what would become the Internet Identity Workshop, the 34th of which is coming up next Spring. As with many other things in the world, it wouldn’t be the same—or here at all—without Kim.

Bonus links:

Wikipedia

In Students are told not to use Wikipedia for research. But it’s a trustworthy source, Rachel Cunneen and Mathieu O’Niel nicely unpack their case for the headline. In a online polylogue in response to that piece, I wrote,

“You always have a choice: to help or to hurt.” That’s what my mom told me, a zillion years ago. It applies to everything we do, pretty much.

The purpose of Wikipedia is to help. Almost entirely, it does. It is a work of positive construction without equal or substitute. That some use it to hurt, or to spread false information, does not diminish Wikipedia’s worth as a resource.

The trick for researchers using Wikipedia as a resource is not a difficult one: don’t cite it. Dig down in references, make sure those are good, and move on from there. It’s not complicated.

Since that topic and comment are due to slide down into the Web’s great forgettery (where Google searches do not go), I thought I’d share it here.

Going west

Long ago a person dear to me disappeared for what would become eight years. When this happened I was given comfort and perspective by his maternal grandfather, a professor of history whose study concentrated on the American South after the Civil War.

“You know what the most common record of young men was, after the Civil War?” he asked.

“You mean census records?”

“Yes, and church records, family histories, all that.”

“I don’t know.”

“Two words: Went west.”

He went on to explain that that, except for the natives here in the U.S., nearly all of our ancestors had gone west. Literally or metaphorically, voluntarily or not, they went west.

More importantly, most were not going back. Many, perhaps most, were hardly heard from again in the places they left. The break from the past in countless places was sadly complete for those left behind. All that remained were those two words.

Went west.

This fact, he said, is at the heart of American rootlessness.

“We are the least rooted civilization on Earth,” he said. “This is why we have weaker family values than any other country.”

This is also why he also thought political talk about “family values” was especially ironic. We may have those values, but they tend not to keep us from going west anyway.

This comes to mind because I am haunted by Harry Chapin‘s song, “Cat’s in the Cradle.” It’s hard not to be moved by it.


The worldwide shipping crisis is bad. Here are some reasons:

  1. “Just in time” manufacturing, shipping, delivery, and logistics. For several decades, the whole supply system has been optimized for “lean” everything. On the whole, no part of it fully comprehends breakdowns outside the scope of immediate upstream or downstream dependencies.
  2. The pandemic, which has been depriving nearly every sector of labor, intelligence, leadership, data, and much else, since early last year.
  3. Catastrophes. The largest of these was the 2021 Suez Canal Obstruction, which has had countless effects upstream and down.
  4. Competing narratives. Humans can’t help reducing all complex situations to stories, all of which require protagonists, problems, and movement toward resolution. It’s how our minds are built, and why it’s hard to look more deeply and broadly at any issue and why it’s here. (For more on that, see Where Journalism Fails.)
  5. Corruption. This is endemic to every complex economy: construction, online advertising, high finance, whatever. It happens here too. (And, like incompetence, it tends to worsen in a crisis.)
  6. Bureacracies & non-harmonized regulations. More about this below*.
  7. Complicating secondary and tertiary effects. The most obvious of these is inflation. Says here, “the spot rate for a 40-foot shipping container from Shanghai to Los Angeles rising from about $3,500 last year to $12,500 as of the end of September.” I’ve since heard numbers as high as $50,000. And, of course, inflation also happens for other reasons, which further complicates things.

To wrap one’s head around all of those (and more), it might help to start with Aristotle’s four “causes” (which might also be translated as “explanations”). Wikipedia illustrates these with a wooden dining table:

  • Its material cause is wood.
  • Its efficient cause is carpentry.
  • Its final cause is dining.
  • Its formal cause (what gives it form) is design.

Of those, formal cause is what matters most. That’s because, without knowledge of what a table is, it wouldn’t get made.

But the worldwide supply chain (which is less a single chain than braided rivers spreading outward from many sources through countless deltas) is impossible to reduce to any one formal cause. Mining, manufacturing, harvesting, shipping on sea and land, distribution, wholesale and retail sales are all involved, and specialized in their own ways, dependencies withstanding.

I suggest, however, that the most formal of the supply chain problem’s causes is also what’s required to sort out and solve it: digital technology and the Internet. From What does the Internet make of us?, sourcing the McLuhans:

“People don’t want to know the cause of anything”, Marshall said (and Eric quotes, in Media and Formal Cause). “They do not want to know why radio caused Hitler and Gandhi alike. They do not want to know that print caused anything whatever. As users of these media, they wish merely to get inside…”

We are all inside a digital environment that is making each of us while also making our systems. This can’t be reversed. But it can be understood, at least to some degree. And that understanding can be applied.

How? Well, Marshall McLuhan—who died in 1980—saw in the rise of computing the retrieval of what he called “perfect memory—total and exact.” (Laws of Media, 1988.) So, wouldn’t it be nice if we could apply that power to the totality of the world’s supply chains, subsuming and transcending the scope and interests of any part, whether those parts be truckers, laws, standards, and the rest—and do it in real time? Global aviation has some of this, but it’s also a much simpler system than the braided rivers between global supply and global demand.

Is there something like that? I don’t yet know. Closest I’ve found is the UN’s IMO (International Maritime Organizaiton), and that only covers “the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine and atmospheric pollution by ships.” Not very encompassing, that. If any of ya’ll know more, fill us in.

[*Added 18 October] Just attended a talk by Oswald KuylerManaging Director of the International Chamber of Commerce‘s Digital Standards initiative, on an “Integrated Approach” by his and allied organizations that addresses “digital islands,” “no single view of available standards” both open and closed, “limited investments into training, change management and adoption,” “lack of enabling rules and regulations,” “outdated regulation,” “privacy law barriers,” “trade standard adoption gaps,” “costly technical integration,” “fragmentation” that “prevents paperless trade,” and other factors. Yet he also says the whole thing is “bent but not broken,” and that (says one slide) “trade and supply chain prove more resilient than imagined.”

Another relevant .org is the International Chamber of Shipping.

By the way, Heather Cox Richardson (whose newsletter I highly recommend) yesterday summarized what the Biden administration is trying to do about all this:

Biden also announced today a deal among a number of different players to try to relieve the supply chain slowdowns that have built up as people turned to online shopping during the pandemic. Those slowdowns threaten the delivery of packages for the holidays, and Biden has pulled together government officials, labor unions, and company ownership to solve the backup.

The Port of Los Angeles, which handles 40% of the container traffic coming into the U.S., has had container ships stuck offshore for weeks. In June, Biden put together a Supply Chain Disruption Task Force, which has hammered out a deal. The port is going to begin operating around the clock, seven days a week. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has agreed to fill extra shifts. And major retailers, including Walmart, FedEx, UPS, Samsung, Home Depot, and Target, have agreed to move quickly to clear their goods out of the dock areas, speeding up operations to do it and committing to putting teams to work extra hours.

“The supply chain is essentially in the hands of the private sector,” a White House official told Donna Littlejohn of the Los Angeles Daily News, “so we need the private sector…to help solve these problems.” But Biden has brokered a deal among the different stakeholders to end what was becoming a crisis.

Hopefully helpful, but not sufficient.

Bonus link: a view of worldwide marine shipping. (Zoom in and out, and slide in any direction for a great way to spend some useful time.)

The photo is of Newark’s container port, viewed from an arriving flight at EWR, in 2009.

There’s an economic theory here: Free customers are more valuable than captive onesto themselves, to the companies they deal with, and to the marketplace. If that’s true, the intention economy will prove it. If not, we’ll stay stuck in the attention economy, where the belief that captive customers are more valuable than free ones prevails.

Let me explain.

The attention economy is not native to human attention. It’s native to businesses that  seek to grab and manipulate buyers’ attention. This includes the businesses themselves and their agents. Both see human attention as a “resource” as passive and ready for extraction as oil and coal. The primary actors in this economy—purveyors and customers of marketing and advertising services—typically talk about human beings not only as mere “users” and “consumers,” but as “targets” to “acquire,” “manage,” “control” and “lock in.” They are also oblivious to the irony that this is the same language used by those who own cattle and slaves.

While attention-grabbing has been around for as long as we’ve had yelling, in our digital age the fields of practice (abbreviated martech and adtech) have become so vast and varied that nobody (really, nobody) can get their head around everything that’s going on in them. (Examples of attempts are here, here and here.)

One thing we know for sure is that martech and adtech rationalize taking advantage of absent personal privacy tech in the hands of their targets. What we need there are the digital equivalents of the privacy tech we call clothing and shelter in the physical world. We also need means to signal our privacy preferences, to obtain agreements to those, and to audit compliance and resolve disputes. As it stands in the attention economy, privacy is a weak promise made separately by websites and services that are highly incentivised not to provide it. Tracking prophylaxis in browsers is some help, but itworks differently for every browser and it’s hard to tell what’s actually going on.

Another thing we know for sure is that the attention economy is thick with fraud, malware, and worse. For a view of how much worse, look at any adtech-supported website through PageXray and see the hundreds or thousands of ways sthe site and its invisible partners are trying to track you. (For example, here’s what Smithsonian Magazine‘s site does.)

We also know that lawmaking to stop adtech’s harms (e.g. GDPR and CCPA) has thus far mostly caused inconvenience for you and me (how many “consent” notices have interrupted your web surfing today?)—while creating a vast new industry devoted to making tracking as easy as legally possible. Look up GDPR+compliance and you’ll get way over 100 million results. Almost all of those will be for companies selling other companies ways to obey the letter of privacy law while violating its spirit.

Yet all that bad shit is also a red herring, misdirecting attention away from the inefficiencies of an economy that depends on unwelcome surveillance and algorithmic guesswork about what people might want.

Think about this: even if you apply all the machine learning and artificial intelligence in the world to all the personal data that might be harvested, you still can’t beat what’s possible when the targets of that surveillance have their own ways to contact and inform sellers of what they actually want and don’t want, plus ways to form genuine relationships and express genuine (rather than coerced) loyalty, and to do all of that at scale.

We don’t have that yet. But when we do, it will be an intention economy. Here are the opening paragraphs of The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012):

This book stands with the customer. This is out of necessity, not sympathy. Over the coming years, customers will be emancipated from systems built to control them. They will become free and independent actors in the marketplace, equipped to tell vendors what they want, how they want it, where and when—even how much they’d like to pay—outside of any vendor’s system of customer control. Customers will be able to form and break relationships with vendors, on customers’ own terms, and not just on the take-it-or-leave-it terms that have been pro forma since Industry won the Industrial Revolution.

Customer power will be personal, not just collective.  Each customer will come to market equipped with his or her own means for collecting and storing personal data, expressing demand, making choices, setting preferences, proffering terms of engagement, offering payments and participating in relationships—whether those relationships are shallow or deep, and whether they last for moments or years. Those means will be standardized. No vendor will control them.

Demand will no longer be expressed only in the forms of cash, collective appetites, or the inferences of crunched data over which the individual has little or no control. Demand will be personal. This means customers will be in charge of personal information they share with all parties, including vendors.

Customers will have their own means for storing and sharing their own data, and their own tools for engaging with vendors and other parties.  With these tools customers will run their own loyalty programs—ones in which vendors will be the members. Customers will no longer need to carry around vendor-issued loyalty cards and key tags. This means vendors’ loyalty programs will be based on genuine loyalty by customers, and will benefit from a far greater range of information than tracking customer behavior alone can provide.

Thus relationship management will go both ways. Just as vendors today are able to manage relationships with customers and third parties, customers tomorrow will be able to manage relationships with vendors and fourth parties, which are companies that serve as agents of customer demand, from the customer’s side of the marketplace.

Relationships between customers and vendors will be voluntary and genuine, with loyalty anchored in mutual respect and concern, rather than coercion. So, rather than “targeting,” “capturing,” “acquiring,” “managing,” “locking in” and “owning” customers, as if they were slaves or cattle, vendors will earn the respect of customers who are now free to bring far more to the market’s table than the old vendor-based systems ever contemplated, much less allowed.

Likewise, rather than guessing what might get the attention of consumers—or what might “drive” them like cattle—vendors will respond to actual intentions of customers. Once customers’ expressions of intent become abundant and clear, the range of economic interplay between supply and demand will widen, and its sum will increase. The result we will call the Intention Economy.

This new economy will outperform the Attention Economy that has shaped marketing and sales since the dawn of advertising. Customer intentions, well-expressed and understood, will improve marketing and sales, because both will work with better information, and both will be spared the cost and effort wasted on guesses about what customers might want, and flooding media with messages that miss their marks. Advertising will also improve.

The volume, variety and relevance of information coming from customers in the Intention Economy will strip the gears of systems built for controlling customer behavior, or for limiting customer input. The quality of that information will also obsolete or re-purpose the guesswork mills of marketing, fed by crumb-trails of data shed by customers’ mobile gear and Web browsers. “Mining” of customer data will still be useful to vendors, though less so than intention-based data provided directly by customers.

In economic terms, there will be high opportunity costs for vendors that ignore useful signaling coming from customers. There will also be high opportunity gains for companies that take advantage of growing customer independence and empowerment.

But this hasn’t happened yet. Why?

Let’s start with supply and demand, which is roughly about price. Wikipedia: “the relationship between the price of a given good or product and the willingness of people to either buy or sell it.” But that wasn’t the original idea. “Supply and demand” was first expressed as “demand and supply” by Sir James Denham-Steuart in An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Oeconomy, written in 1767. To Sir James, demand and supply wasn’t about price. Specifically, “it must constantly appear reciprocal. If I demand a pair of shoes, the shoemaker either demands money or something else for his own use.” Also, “The nature of demand is to encourage industry.”

Nine years later, in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, a more visible bulb in the Scottish Enlightenment, wrote, “The real and effectual discipline which is exercised over a workman is that of his customers. It is the fear of losing their employment which restrains his frauds and corrects his negligence.” Again, nothing about price.

But neither of those guys lived to see the industrial age take off. When that happened, demand became an effect of supply, rather than a cause of it. Supply came to run whole markets on a massive scale, with makers and distributors of goods able to serve countless customers in parallel. The industrial age also ubiquitized standard-form contracts of adhesion binding all customers to one supplier with a single “agreement.”

But, had Sir James and Adam lived into the current millennium, they would have seen that it is now possible, thanks to digital technologies and the Internet, for customers to achieve scale across many companies, with efficiencies not imaginable in the pre-digital industrial age.

For example, it should be possible for a customer to express her intentions—say, “I need a stroller for twins downtown this afternoon”—to whole markets, but without being trapped inside any one company’s walled garden. In other words, not only inside Amazon, eBay or Craigslist. This is called intentcasting, and among its virtues is what Kim Cameron calls “minimum disclosure for constrained purposes” to “justifiable parties” through a choice among a “plurality of operators.”

Likewise, there is no reason why websites and services can’t agree to your privacy policy, and your terms of engagement. In legal terms, you should be able to operate as the first party, and to proffer your own terms, to which sites and services can agree (or, as privacy laws now say, consent) as second parties. That this is barely thinkable is a legacy of a time that has sadly not yet left us: one in which only companies can enjoy that kind of scale. Yet it would clearly be a convenience to have privacy as normalized in the online world as it is in the offline one. But we’re slowly getting there; for example with Customer Commons’ P2B1, aka #NoStalking term, which readers can proffer and publishers can agree agree to. It says “Just give me ads not based on tracking me.” Also with the IEEE’s P7012 Standard for Machine Readable Personal Privacy Terms working group.

Same with subscriptions. A person should be able to keep track of all her regular payments for subscription services, to keep track of new and better deals as they come along, to express to service providers her intentions toward those new deals, and to cancel or unsubscribe. There are lots of tools for this today, for example TruebillBobbyMoney DashboardMintSubscript MeBillTracker ProTrimSubbyCard DueSiftSubMan, and Subscript Me. There are also subscription management systems offered by PaypalAmazonApple and Google (e.g. with Google Sheets and Google Doc templates). But all of them to one degree or another are based more on the felt need by those suppliers for customer captivity than for customer independence.

As Customer Commons unpacks it here, there are many largely or entirely empty market spaces that are wide open for free and independent customers: identity, shopping (e.g. with shopping carts of your own to take from site to site), loyalty (of the genuine kind), property ownership (the real Internet of Things), and payments, for example.

It is possible to fill all those spaces if we have the capacity to—as Sir James put it—encourage industry, restrain fraud and correct negligence. While there is some progress in some of those areas, the going is still slow on the global scale. After all, The Intention Economy is nine years old and we still don’t have it yet. Is it just not possible, or are we starting in the wrong places?

I think it’s the latter.

Way back in 1995, when the Internet first showed up on both of our desktops, my wife Joyce said, “The sweet spot of the Internet isn’t global. It’s local.” That was the gist of my TEDx Santa Barbara talk in 2018. It’s also why Joyce and I are now in Bloomington, Indiana, working with the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University on deploying a new way for demand and supply to inform each other and get business rolling—and to start locally. It’s called the Byway, and it works outside of the old supply-controlled industrial model. Here’s an FAQ. Please feel free to add questions in the comments here.


The title image is by the great Hugh Macleod, and was commissioned in 2004 for a startup he and I both served and is now long gone.

 

The Matrix 4.0

The original Matrix is my favorite movie. Not because it was the best movie. Rather because it’s the most important, at least for our Digital Age. (It’s also among the most rewatchable. Hear that, Ringer? Rewatch the whole series before Christmas.)

And now the fourth Matrix is coming out: The Matrix Resurrections. Here’s the @TheMatrixMovie‘s new pinned tweet of the first trailer.

Yeah, it’s a sequel, and sequels tend to sag. Even The Godfather Part 2. (But that one only sagged in the relative sense, since Part 1 was perfect.)

If anything bothers me about this next Matrix it’s that what had seemed an untouchable Classic is now a Franchise. Not a bad beast, the Franchise. Just different: same genus, different species.

Given the way these things go, my expectations are low and my hopes high.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering why Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, and Lilly Wachowski don’t return in Resurrections. Not being critical here. Just curious.

Bonus link: a must-see from 2014.

Also, from my old blog in 2003:

William Blaze has an interesting take on the political agenda of The Matrix Franchise.

My own thoughts about the original Matrix (that it was a metaphor for marketing, basically) are here, here and here.†

That was back when blogging was blogging. Which it will be again, at least for some of us, when Dave Winer is finished rebooting the practice with Drummer.

† I know those two links are duplicates, but I don’t have the time to hunt down the originals. And Google is no help, because it ignores lots of old material, including much of my first seven years of blogging.

Passwords are hell.

Worse, to make your hundreds of passwords safe as possible, they should be nearly impossible for others to discover—and for you to remember.

Unless you’re a wizard, this all but requires using a password manager.†

Think about how hard that job is. First, it’s impossible for developers of password managers to do everything right:

  • Most of their customers and users need to have logins and passwords for hundreds of sites and services on the Web and elsewhere in the networked world
  • Every one of those sites and services has its own gauntlet of methods for registering logins and passwords, and for remembering and changing them
  • Every one of those sites and services has its own unique user interfaces, each with its own peculiarities
  • All of those UIs change, sometimes often.

Keeping up with that mess while also keeping personal data safe from both user error and determined bad actors, is about as tall as an order can get. And then you have to do all that work for each of the millions of customers you’ll need if you’re going to make the kind of money required to keep abreast of those problems and providing the solutions required.

So here’s the thing: the best we can do with passwords is the best that password managers can do. That’s your horizon right there.

Unless we can get past logins and passwords somehow.

And I don’t think we can. Not in the client-server ecosystem that the Web has become, and that industry never stopped being, since long before the Internet came along. That’s the real hell. Passwords are just a symptom.

We need to work around it. That’s my work now. Stay tuned here, here, and here for more on that.


† We need to fix that Wikipedia page.

My parents (that’s them, Eleanor and Allen Searls) were married on 17 August 1946, seventy-five years and two days ago. I would have posted something then, but I was busy—though not too busy to drop something in Facebook, where much of the readership for this blog, plus the writership of others listed in my old blogroll, has drifted in the Age of Social Media. Alas, blogging is less social than Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the chatterteriat. But that doesn’t stop me from blogging anyway.

The wedding took place in Minneapolis, for the convenience of Mom’s family of second and third generation Swedish members of the homesteading diaspora, scattered then around Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin. Pop was from New Jersey, and all his immediate kin were there and in New York. After the wedding the couple came east to briefly occupy the home they rented in North Bergen, New Jersey while mostly hanging at Grandma Searls’ house in Fort Lee (where Pop grew up with his two sisters), and then a short drive west of there in Maywood, where Jan and I grew up. I was born less than a year later, and my sister Jan less than two years after that.

In a comment under my Facebook post, Jan writes,

Mom from ND and Pop from NJ met in Alaska in the middle of WWII. He’d already served in the Costal Artillery in the early 30s but after D-Day came home to join up. They courted by mail after the war while he was with SHAEFE (he loved that acronym: Supreme HQ Allied Expeditionary Forces Europe), and Mom with the Red Cross at a Naval Hospital in Oregon. When he got home, she flew to NJ for 6 days of courtship – at a small shack at the NJ shore with Pop’s entire family! He came to MN the night before the wedding. They fell in love with the dream of having a family and future together, and always said they really fell in love with each other on their honeymoon and were devoted to each other. Mom was 33, Pop was 38, and they’d already lived lives of adventure, full of friends and family. We grew up knowing were blessed to have them as our parents.

I’ve added links. The Shack is still there, by the way.

Alas, Mom passed in ’03 and Pop in ’79. But they were exceptionally fine parents and grandparents. Not all kids are so lucky.

So, a belated toast, in pixels.

The Web is a haystack.

This isn’t what Tim Berners-Lee had in mind when he invented the Web. Nor is it what Jerry Yang and David Filo had in mind when they invented Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web, which later became Yahoo. Jerry and David’s model for the Web was a library, and Yahoo was to be the first catalog for it. This made sense, given the prevailing conceptual frames for the Web at the time: real estate and publishing.

Both of those are still with us today. We frame the Web as real estate when we speak of “sites” with “locations” in “domains” with “addresses” you can “visit” and “browse”—then shift to publishing when we speak of “files” and “pages,” that we “author,” “edit,” “post,” “publish,” “syndicate” and store in “folders” within a “directory.” Both frames suggest durability, if not permanence. Again, kind of like a library.

But once we added personal movement (“surf,” “browse”) and a vehicle for it (the browser), the Web became a World Wide Free-for-all. Literally. Anyone could publish, change and remove whatever they pleased, whenever they pleased. The same went for organizations of every kind, all over the world. And everyone with a browser could find their way to and through all of those spaces and places, and enjoy whatever “content” publishers chose to put there. Thus the Web grew into billions of sites, pages, images, databases, videos, and other stuff, with most of it changing constantly.

The result was a heaving heap of fuck-all.*

How big is it? According to WorldWebSize.comGoogle currently indexes about 41 billion pages, and Bing about 9 billion. They also peaked together at about 68 billion pages in late 2019. The Web is surely larger than that, but that’s the practical limit because search engines are the practical way to find pieces of straw in that thing. Will the haystack be less of one when approached by other search engines, such as the new ad-less (subscription-funded) Neeva? Nope. Search engines do not give the Web a card catalog. They certify its nature as a haystack.

So that’s one practical limit. There are others, but they’re hard to see when the level of optionality on the Web is almost indescribably vast. But we can see a few limits by asking some questions:

  1. Why do you always have to accept websites’ terms? And why do you have no record of your own of what you accepted, or when‚ or anything?
  2. Why do you have no way to proffer your own terms, to which websites can agree?
  3. Why did Do Not Track, which was never more than a polite request not to be tracked off a website, get no respect from 99.x% of the world’s websites? And how the hell did Do Not Track turn into the Tracking Preference Expression at the W2C, where the standard never did get fully baked?
  4. Why, after Do Not Track failed, did hundreds of millions—or perhaps billions—of people start blocking ads, tracking or both, on the Web, amounting to the biggest boycott in world history? And then why did the advertising world, including nearly all advertisers, their agents, and their dependents in publishing, treat this as a problem rather than a clear and gigantic message from the marketplace?
  5. Why are the choices presented to you by websites called your choices, when all those choices are provided by them? And why don’t you give them choices?
  6. Why would Apple’s way of making you private on your phone be to “Ask App Not to Track,” rather than “Tell App Not to Track,” or “Prevent App From Tracking You”?
  7. Why does the GDPR call people “data subjects” rather than people, or human beings, and then assign the roles “data controller” and “data processor” only to other parties?*
  8. Why are nearly all the 200+million results in a search for GDPR+compliance about how companies can obey the letter of the law while violating its spirit by continuing to track people through the giant loophole you see in every cookie notice?
  9. Why does the CCPA give you the right to ask to have back personal data others have gathered about you on the Web, rather than forbid its collection in the first place? (Imagine a law that assumes that all farmers’ horses are gone from their barns, but gives those farmers a right to demand horses back from those who took them. It’s kinda like that.)
  10. Why, 22 years after The Cluetrain Manifesto said, we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it. —is that statement still not true?
  11. Why, 9 years after Harvard Business Review Press published The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, has that not happened? (Really, what are you in charge of in the marketplace that isn’t inside companies’ silos and platforms?)

It’s easy to blame the cookie, which Lou Montulli invented in 1994 as a way for sites to remember their visitors by planting reminder files—cookies—in visitors’ browsers. Cookies also gave visitors a way to remember where they were when they last visited. For sites that require logins, cookies take care of that as well.

What matters, however, is not the cookie. It’s what makes the cookie necessary in the first place: the Web’s architecture. It’s called client-server, and is represented graphically like this:

client-server model

This architecture was born in the era of centralized mainframes, which “users” accessed through client devices called “dumb terminals”:

On the Web, as it was in the old mainframe world, we clients—mere users—are as subordinate to servers as are calves to cows:

(In fact I’ve been told that client-server was originally a euphemism for “slave-master.” Whether true or not, it makes sense.)

In the client-server paradigm, our agency—our ability to act with effect in the world—is restricted to what servers allow or provide for us. Our choices are what they provide. We are independent only to the degree that we can also be clients to other servers. In this paradigm, a free market is “your choice of captor.”

Want privacy? You have to ask for it. And, if you go to the trouble of doing that—which you have to do separately with every site and service you encounter (each a mainframe of its own)—your client doesn’t keep a record of what you “agreed” to. The server does. Good luck finding whatever it is the server or its third parties remember about that agreement.

Want to control how your data (or data about you) gets processed by the servers of the world? Good luck with that too. Again, Europe’s GDPR says “natural persons” are just “data subjects,” while “data controllers” and “data processors” are roles reserved for servers.

Want a shopping cart of your own to take from site to site? My wife asked for that in 1995. It’s still barely thinkable in 2021. Want a dashboard for your life where you can gather all your expenses, investments, property records, health information, calendars, contacts, and other personal information? She asked for that too, and we still don’t have it, except to the degree that large server operators (e.g. Google, Apple, Microsoft) give us pieces of it, hosted in their clouds, and rigged to keep you captive to their systems.

That’s why we don’t yet have an Internet of Things (IoT), but rather an Apple of Things, a Google of Things, and an Amazon of Things.

Is it possible to do stuff on the Web that isn’t client-server? Perhaps some techies among us can provide examples, but practically speaking, here’s what matters: If it’s not thinkable by the owners of the servers we depend on, it doesn’t get made.

From our position at the bottom of the Web’s haystack, it’s hard to imagine there might be a world where it’s possible for us to have full agency: to not be just users of clients enslaved to as many servers as we deal with every day.

But that world exists. It’s called the Internet, and it can support a helluva lot more than the Web, with many ways to interact other than those possible in the client-server world alone.

Digital technology as we know it has only been around for a few decades, and the Internet for maybe half that time. Mobile computers that run apps and presume connectivity everywhere have only been with us for a decade or less. And all of those will be with us for many decades, centuries, or millennia to come. We are not going to stop living digital lives, any more than we are going to stop speaking, writing, or using mathematics. Digital technology and the Internet are granted wishes that won’t go back into the genie’s bottle.

So yes, the Web is wonderful, but not boundlessly so. It has limits. Thanks to the client-server architecture that prevails there, full personal agency is not a grace of life on the Web. For the thirty-plus years of the Web’s existence, and for its foreseeable future, we will never have more agency than its servers allow clients and users.

It’s time to think and build outside the haystack. Models for that do exist, and some have been around a long time.

Email, for example. While you can look at your email on the Web, or use a Web-based email service (such as Gmail), email itself is independent of those. My own searls.com email has been at servers in my home, on racks elsewhere, and in a hired cloud. I can move it anywhere I want. You can move yours as well. All the services I hire to host my email are substitutable. That’s just one way we can enjoy full agency on the Internet.

My own work outside the Web is currently happening at Customer Commons, on what we call the Byway. Go there and follow along as we work to toward better answers to the questions above than you’ll get from inside the haystack.

[Later…] More on the Web as a haystack is in FILE NOT FOUND: A generation that grew up with Google is forcing professors to rethink their lesson plans, by Monica Chin (@mcsquared96) in The Verge, and Students don’t know what files and folders are, professors say, by Jody MacGregor in PC Gamer, which sources Monica’s report.


*I originally had “heaving haystack of fuck-all” here, but some remember it as the more alliterative “heaving heap of fuck-all.” So I decided to swap them. If comments actually worked here, I’d ask for a vote. But feel free to write me instead, at first name at last name dot com.

 

On Quora, here’s my answer to What are the worst design trends in modern cars?—updated by our family’s experience with a new Toyota that features even more indicators than the bunch above::::

Based on driving lots of late-model rental cars, here’s a list:

  1. Entertainment systems that are hard to use and dangerous on the road. (Few are good. Most are bad. Some are truly awful.)
  2. Making AM and FM listening harder than ever. Some of this is by putting too many functions in too many menus you have to poke at. (While driving, knobs and switches beat buttons for usability. Ask a pilot.) Some of it is by burying antennas in windows, which will never work as well as a whip antenna (preferably the retractable kind that can survive a car wash). But a thumbs-up to cars offering HD Radio, which adds many more stations to FM and far better sound to AM (on the sadly too few stations that feature it).
  3. Way too much optionality among features with non-obvious meanings that you control through buttons with whaaa? symbols or half-buried menus that can be as dangerous to navigate while driving as it is to finger-text on one’s cell phone. For example, a loaded 2021 Toyota Camry Hybrid has TSS w/PD, HUD, DRCC, LDA w/SA, LTA, AHB, PCS, RCD, RSA, BSM. RCTA, RCTB, VSC, EV, ECO, plus other stuff that’s a bit more spelled out, such as TRAC, Qi Wireless Charger and Birds Eye View Camera. And those are in addition to the usual indicators: shifter position, odometer, outside temperature, etc. Many of these unclear functions are displayed only or mainly in the “Meters/Multi-Information Display” you view through or over your steering wheel. Since there is no way the display can give you a full view of all these functions in all their possible states, you move around your selections and menus through buttons on the steering wheel that you mash with your left thumb. And that’s just one model of one car. (Which we happen to almost have: ours is a 2020 model.)
  4. Poor visibility out the back corners, thanks to extra-wide roof pillars and fake-muscle styling that narrows the shapes of the cars’ aft windows.
  5. No place to mount a phone. I mean, why have Apple’s CarPlay and/or Android Auto and not have a place to mount a phone? (Yes, there are aftermarket things with suction cups, but most new cars lack a surface other than the windshield that will hold a cup sucked.)
  6. Trunks with plenty of space but too small an opening, so it’s hard to get large or odd-shaped items in there.
  7. Low-profile and performance tires, which handle nicely but can ride rough and transmit lots of road noise.
  8. Too much black. On the dashboard platform under windshields, black makes sense because you don’t want a light color reflecting off the windshield. But black is used way too much in trim. Worse, black steering wheels parked in the sun can get too hot to hold. And black leather or vinyl seats can fry your ass.
  9. Giant grills—especially ones that resemble the mouths of manta rays. (I’m looking at you, Lexus.)
  10. The tendency of headlight lenses to develop cataracts. My ’05 Subaru has them. My daughter’s newer Honda Civic has worse ones. Could be newer models don’t do that, but it’s actually dangerous and needs to be gone.

Comments still don’t work here, so instead tweet about it or write me directly: first name at last name dot com.

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