The Web Falls Apart

The web's circle has expanded to contain the entire world. But the centre is not holding.

The basic foundation that underlies the web really does seem to be in trouble:

When a system like the web is breaking down, surely there must be one cause to blame, a single evil to root down, a villain that can be fought and beaten. It’s only human nature.

Consequently, we have all been picking our preferred antagonist whose defeat will solve everything and restore the web to glory:

Everybody is blaming everybody else.

I have a theory that we’re all kind of right—that chaos like this is what happens when a system starts to break down. The web has grown and evolved into a shape that cannot be held and is not sustainable. Everything starts to fall apart.

We cannot turn around the web’s decline by fixing any one of these issues. We need to fix them all, which is impossible, because they are symptoms, not causes, and the underlying cause is simply that the web has become too complex for it to be held together with the effort, work, and energy that’s available.

We are, in all likelihood, looking at the very beginning of the collapse of the web in its current form.

What do you mean by collapse?

Collapse, as viewed in the present work, is a political process. It may, and often does, have consequences in such areas as economics, art, and literature, but it is fundamentally a matter of the sociopolitical sphere. A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. The term ‘established level’ is important.

[…]

Collapse is manifest in such things as:

  • a lower degree of stratification and social differentation;
  • less economic and occupational specialisation, of individuals, groups, and territories;
  • less centralised control; that is, less regulation and integration of diverse economic and political groups by elites;
  • less behavioural control and regimentation;
  • less investment in the epiphenomena of complexity, those elements that define the concept of ‘civilization’: monumental architecture, artistic and literary achievements, and the like;
  • less flow of information between individuals, between political and economic groups, and between a center and its periphery;
  • less sharing, trading, and redistribution of resources;
  • less overall coordination and organization of individuals and groups;
  • a smaller territory integrated within a single political unit.

Not all collapsing societies, to be sure, will be equally characterzed by each item on this list, and the list is by no means complete. Some societies that come under this definition have not possessed all of these features.

The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter (page 4)

The web doesn’t exhibit that many of these characteristics at the moment and it won’t come to exhibit all of them. But we are seeing the rise of the full-stack developer—master of nothing, practitioner of all; the web has begun to fragment along national lines; and economic and political groups online are so divided that they might as well be on separate planets. The web has become the place where information goes to choke to death—lungs full of scum—in stagnant and isolated ponds.

You can’t prevent this decline by fixing any one problem any more than you could prevent the decline of the Roman empire by fixing its sewer systems.

People are desperate to try anyway because they have a lot to gain by keeping the web platform gravy train going for as long as is possible. The web is also the closest we’ve gotten so far to an open and transparent universal computing platform. Unfortunately, its openness is also why it’s being plundered so hard.

The Web Isn’t Dying

This isn’t a “the web is doomed, DOOMED, I tells ya” kind of blog post. It’s more in the “the web in its current form isn’t sustainable and will collapse into a simpler, more sustainable form, possibly several” genre. Collapse doesn’t mean that it’s all going away—sociopolitical collapses usually don’t work that way. Most of the damage is likely in the collapse itself, when the system is breaking down into simpler components.

(I could argue here that the reason why it’s breaking down now is that it was fueled and held together by the global dominance of the American hegemony. When that began to slip, so did the web. But I’m not going to. Maybe some other day.)

The web itself will always be interesting, even when it’s only the next many small things instead of the next big thing. The big worry is the collateral damage caused by its decline. Most of us don’t appreciate just how much of the web is held together not by technology but by sociopolitical duck tape and bailing wire and that’s likely where most of the harm will take place. The web has become the backbone of all of our media and communications and as it declines, it has the potential to take our public discourse with it, and when public discourse goes, so do our democracies.

I honestly have no idea on how to mitigate this harm or even how long the decline is going to take. My hope is that if we can make the less complex, more distributed aspects of the web safer and more robust, they will be more likely to thrive when the situation has forced the web as a whole to break up and simplify. The IndieWeb movement feels like a good start. The basic principles of RESTful APIs are likely to survive whatever happens. Hypermedia based on HTML, CSS, and JS is probably going to outlast native-mimicking web apps. There might even be some niches where web apps are still competitive against native apps. It’ll be a different world, but some aspects of it will be the same.

Probably… Maybe. If we’re lucky.

Thankfully, we have some time—possibly quite a bit of time compared to the web’s usual hyper-accelerated pace—for us to figure out what to do.

Maybe the most optimistic take is that I’m just completely wrong about this and everything will be fine—we’re just experiencing a hiccup in the web’s road to triumph.

I hope so.

Update: when I said that the web isn’t dying, I meant it

On the distinction of ‘dying’ and ‘collapsing’ in this context: the Roman empire only ‘died’ from the perspective of those who benefited from the its massive consolidation of power in the hands of the few. All of the cities and communities that made up the Roman Empire continued to exist after its fall. In many cases the situation of those living in those communities improved because their society was no longer saddled with the cost of keeping up an incredibly complex and costly empire.

(This is a sweeping generalisation, I know. Think of it more as a metaphor than an accurate history lesson.)

So, the web is only dying for Google and Facebook whose power hinges on them being the only organisations capable of navigating the web’s complexity and openness to consolidate the web’s massive economic power into the hands of an advertising duopoly.

To the rest of us it’s just falling apart. Many, if not most, of the pieces will still be there afterwards. And most of the damage of the falling apart is likely to be done by Google and Facebook as they try to maintain their grasp on power, not realising that their grasp is actually a chokehold on society and public discourse.