Does the Web Need to Be Decentralized?

A meetup friend asked me what I thought of the recent article(s) going around discussing Tim Berners-Lee’s push to decentralize the web.

Berners-Lee’s background is pretty well outlined in the TechCrunch article but, needless to say, he’s got some academic bonafides and now he hopes to course-correct the web by taking it out of the hands of all the major players and putting it into the hands of the users.

He plans on doing this by using Solid, an open-source set of conventions and tools that are meant to used to build decentralized web applications.

Solid sounds interesting but the articles are just puff-pieces that allow Berners-Lee to leverage his past-work and the nascent distrust of Facebook and Google to discuss his start-up inrupt.

I usually dismiss most companies with mission statements like “making the world better through technology” as being naive. But it did get me thinking about what decentralization could look like.

On the surface, there is some appeal to decentralization:

  • Avoids vendor lock in (and the tendencies towards monopolies, walled gardens, surveillance, and other abuses of privilege that go along with that)

  • Promotes healthy competition and diversity in app development -- because the user's data is separated from a particular service provider or application, users are free to choose their preferred way of interacting with their data

  • The user, instead of the service provider, owns all of their own data

  • Helps prevent data loss (in case a provider gets acquired, or decides to discontinue a particular service)

  • Encourages the use of standard inter-operable data formats, which provides a richer user experience

(taken from https://github.com/solid/solid-tutorial-intro)

But there is always a cost that is associated with it. 

I think technical people often forget how difficult it is for non-technical people to get up-to-speed with new technology.   

If a user "owns all their own data" that means that they are responsible for knowing how that data should be used and protected. But most non-technical people have no idea what that involves. Heck, most people have a hard time navigating outside of the desktop or Start Menu of their computer! So someone "owning all their own data" will involve the time and effort learning what that even means. And most people will conclude that it makes more sense to outsource that to someone else.  

That's exactly what I do with any number of things in my life that I don't understand.

  • growing the food I eat

  • fixing my car

  • doing my taxes

  • repairing the plumbing in my bathroom.

The key is finding someone you can trust - specifically, someone whose interests and business model are transparent enough for you to understand the nature of your transaction with them. You should be suspicious whenever you use a product or service and it isn’t obvious how the business is getting paid.

That is fairly straightforward with brick-and-mortal businesses but that doesn’t mean it's easy. It can be a real nightmare finding a mechanic or plumber you trust.

So overall I’m fairly skeptical that a startup pushing a new framework will be able to re-invent the web.

Why Start-ups / Rock Bands fail

Why Start-ups / Rock Bands fail

Survivorship bias in the start-up world makes it difficult to learn from other people's mistakes.

Most advice you get comes from people who have overcome incredible odds and have also been extremely lucky. Success stories rarely seem to discuss higher than normal divorce rates among entrepreneurs or how most successful entrepreneurs rely on family or spouse to support them.

Rock bands are the same way.  You mostly hear from magical bands that have been very lucky, had solid connection and are mostly competent. You sometimes even hear about bands that were unsung in their day and are re-discovered later. You rarely hear about the bands that kick around their hometown for 15 years and for some reason or other fail to build a substantial following.