Twenty-five years ago, on December 3, 1997, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, gave a talk at the W3C meeting in London. His talk was notable for its examination of the beginnings of the web, its early development, and thoughts on the future of the web.
One idea Berners-Lee posed in his speech — one he’d been mulling over for over a year — was undeniably brilliant. He suggested that every browser be equipped with what he called the “Oh, Yeah?” button. The idea was that we would all begin to build trust through signed metadata as we moved across the web. In a sense, our normal web browsing would create a gigantic buildup of credibility from the crowd. “When we have that, we can ask the computer not just for information, but why we should believe it,” he said.
Imagine an “Oh, yeah?” your browser button. There you are looking at a fantastic offer that can be yours just for entering a credit card number and the click of a button. Oh yeah?, you think. You press the “Oh, yeah?” button. You ask your browser why you should believe it. In turn, it can ask the server to provide credentials: perhaps a signature for the document or a list of documents that express what this key is for. These documents will be signed. Your browser rummages through the server, looking for a way to convince you that the page is trustworthy for a purchase. Maybe he’ll find a magazine endorsement, which in turn has been endorsed by a friend. Maybe it will come with an endorsement from the seller’s bank, which in turn has an endorsement from your bank. Maybe he won’t find any reason for you to actually believe what you read.
The “Oh, yeah?” It should be noted that the button was not really about verifying information or locating the “truth”. Berners-Lee was not suggesting that ontological certainty would arise from the web’s crowd ranking of the websites that carried the most accurate information. Rather, the “Oh, yeah?” would suggest a more paradigmatic truth, that is, a reasonable approximation of whether something you read on the web was generally considered credible by most people.
The “Oh, yeah?” represented an early warning that we would all need to be more skeptical in cyberspace in the future. It was also an admission that the web, in the future, would likely be used to fool us with some regularity. Politicians, salesmen, criminals, disbelievers and liars would abound, and we would need an easy way to counter them in our daily news reading.
If that had happened, so many of the ills plaguing the web and social media today — think accusations of “fake news,” disinformation campaigns, and catfishing — could have been solved from the start.
Yet ultimately the “Oh, yeah?” button has never been installed on our browsers. Too many factors conspired against it. In Berners-Lee’s original example, he noted his direct challenge to publicity. As the Web became increasingly commercial, the idea that a click of a button could reveal paradigmatic truth about any product’s advertised claims posed an almost existential threat to its usefulness as a vehicle of sale. The “Oh, yeah?” The button might also have led to an increase in tension and argument as the web evolved into social media. Imagine the anger that would ignite if you let your crazy uncle know what your browser “Oh, yeah?” button informed you of its latest Facebook conspiracy.
The “Oh, yeah?” button, for all its admirable skepticism, also contained a significant flaw that would only be revealed in the algorithmic age. Since each of our browsers would independently accumulate signed metadata based on our distinct use of the web, each of our “Oh, yeah?” the buttons would present distinct and unique paradigmatic truths to us. Just like no two social media feeds are completely identical, there probably aren’t two “Oh, yeah?” the buttons would return identical results. Berners-Lee, in 1997, was overly optimistic about the possibility of accumulating and distributing shared reality in the future. We now know that we prefer social media algorithms funneling us into worlds where our biases and beliefs require no skepticism. Why would anyone want to click an “Oh, yeah?” button to check out the hilarious political meme reconfirming exactly what they already know to be true? Why spoil the fun?
Looking back, we finally exchanged the “Oh, yeah? » button for the “Like” button. And it was a huge mistake.
Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy and society.
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