“All Gaul is divided into three parts.” Julius Caesar said that. “The World Wide Web is effectively dead.” I said that.
Within a decade, there may be three webs: a largely unregulated one for the USA and a coalition of the willing, a heavily regulated one for the European Union, and a Big Brother clone as the opiate of the masses in places like China and India.
When that happens — and it is already happening — the delirious dream that digital descendants of the Whole Earth Catalog had for an opening up of the conversation between all nations and peoples will be as dead as the rest of the hippie dream, victim of a combination of commercial misbehavior and governmental intervention and intimidation.
It didn’t have to be this way. When English scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989 while working at CERN in Geneva — eat your heart out, Al Gore — he imagined an intricate information management system connecting research institutions and their data via a “web” of hypertext documents.
The first website came out just before Christmas in 1990. A self-described web project, it was a far cry from cat videos on YouTube and monthly diaper deliveries via Alexa-summoned drones from Amazon. Berners-Lee’s magic potion was the marriage of hypertext to the Internet. Its uniform resource locator, or URL system, was a sort of Zip Code to the internet, enabling users and sites to find one another. All hell followed in its wake.
Beyond great connectivity and a global flea market, the resulting behemoth not only swallowed up bricks-and-mortar retail, but began to distort political process, drive kids to suicide due to cyber bullying, and socially mediate violence in Myanmar. Egypt, Iran and China have had a field day perfecting surveillance and censorship techniques on the web. In China, it is known as “the Great Firewall.” The European Union, with its statist approach, has adopted General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR — not without cause, as Facebook has confronted.
In their own ways, regulated Europe and repressive China are already apart from the web that we know. With not only its indigenous Baidu browser but, should it launch shortly as expected, Google’s Dragonfly browser with its built-in controls for backseat drivers in Beijing, China is captured in a web of its own.
Following China’s lead, Modi’s India recently announced a plan to suppress content on the web. Worldwide, The New York Times has tabulated more than 50 countries with laws to police the web. Short-lived digital freedom is on the run.
The balkanization of the internet is a threat not only to commerce and the trade in ideas that we count on to help promulgate democracy around the world, but to the very world order that has prevailed since World War II.
If European Union regulations discourage American media and marketing, the actions of China, India and others are even more rain from the data cloud. Freedom of speech is withdrawing behind web walls. We are seeing a world in which open communication is tumbling to autocratic regulation. In a troubled climate of populism and economic stagnation, pocketbook fears can trump cultural openings born in better times.
If some Americans still yearn for an imaginary past, with our historical xenophobia reinforced by anti-immigrant punditry, it is not surprising that the European Union is going its own way. In China, they have replaced loudspeakers in town squares, as I witnessed in the early ‘80s, with online propaganda such as the aptly named app “Study the Great Nation,” touting “Xi Jinping Thought.” President Xi takes up where Mao left off.
Where was it written that one web would link the world with a digital umbilical cord? Perhaps the Chinese system of “Belts and Roads” across Asia, more bringing it to the world than the world to it, may become a more successful regional model in a 21st century scenario in which the flow of ideas and culture from D.C. and Hollywood no longer carries cultural heft.
Our forefathers may have deluded themselves after all, and our version of the shining “City upon a Hill” seen in the parables may have been exactly that: fake news, a parable not representative of any manifest destiny for American freedoms.
An unfettered press and access to unfiltered information are ever in short supply in the wider world. If “the medium is the massage,” as Marshall McLuhan said, then we may be losing mass in media.
“Oh! What a tangled web we weave.” Sir Walter Scott said that more than two centuries ago.
Lost in poetic mien, as I ponder, weak and weary, the internet’s untangling, I wonder if Poe’s Raven is perching at our door. Will a World Wide Web be nevermore? As my wife, Stacey, likes to say: maybe, maybe not.
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.