I’ve long been a member of the indieweb, a community based around encouraging people to own their spaces on the web rather than trusting their content to centralized services that may spy on them, use their content for their own ends, or randomly go out of business. Indieweb technologies do a good job of undercutting supplier power over identity online without imposing a single technological approach, business model, or product.
I believe strongly in the indieweb principles of distributed ownership, control, and independence. For me, the important thing is that this is how we get to a diverse web. A web where everyone can define not just what they write but how they present is by definition far more expressive, diverse, and interesting than one where most online content and identities must be squished into templates created by a handful of companies based on their financial needs. In other words, the open web is far superior to a medium controlled by corporations in order to sell ads. The former encourages expression; the latter encourages consumerist conformity.
Of course, these same dynamics aren’t limited to the web, and this conflict didn’t originate there. Yes, a website that you control for your own purposes has far more possibilities than one controlled by corporations for their financial gain. A web full of diverse content and identities is richer and fuller. But you can just as easily swap out the word “website” for “life”: a life that you control for your own purposes has far more possibilities than one controlled by corporations for their financial gain, too. A world full of diverse people is richer and fuller.
Consider identity. There are a set of norms, established over centuries, over how we describe ourselves; we’re expected to fit into boxes around gender, religion, orientation, and so on. But these boxes necessarily don’t describe people in full, and depending on your true identity, may be uncomfortably inaccurate. So these days, it’s becoming more acceptable to define your own gender (and accompanying descriptive pronouns), orientation, personality, etc - and rightly so. Once again it comes down to the expressive self vs the templated self. There’s no need to keep ourselves to the template, so if it doesn’t fit, why not shed it? Who wrote these templates anyway? (The answer, of course, is the people who they fit most cleanly, and who would benefit the most from broad adherence.) People talk about “identity politics”, but they’re the politics of who gets to define who you are. You should.
I’ve been thinking a lot about radicalism lately. While there have been protests over the last few years over racial inequality, systemic injustices, reproductive rights, and the rise of Christian nationalism, most people have been relatively docile. These are changes that either affect you today or will affect you soon, so the relative quiet has seemed strange to me. But the answer is obvious: I mean, who has the time? Really, who?
The most pervasive templates going are the ones that seek to define how people create a life for themselves, enforced by a context that makes it impossible to do just about anything else. Millions upon millions of people get up at the crack of dawn to go to work, commute in their cars for an hour a day, put in their hours, potentially go to a second job and do the same, and then go to bed to do it all again the next day. It’s sold as the right way to do things, but when the pay you take home barely covers your costs, and when you’re forced to work until you die, there’s very little life left. It’s an exploitative culture that enforces conformity, and in doing so is inherently undemocratic. A thriving democracy is one where citizens can express themselves, protest for what they think is right, and enact change through building community - which is impossible if everyone has no time to do anything but work, and is too scared that they will lose their jobs to break conformity. This way of living isn’t for us; in the same way that the web is templated to the decisions made by big corporations like Facebook so they can sell more ads, the way we live is templated to the needs of large financial interests, too.
Who should get to choose how you live? You should. But just as many people argue for the conformist vision of identity, there are scores of people ready to argue that the exploitative version of labor is the right one.
Let’s continue to use the web as an analogy. It’s an open platform, run in the public interest by a changing group of people, on which we can build our own identities, profiles, content, tools, and businesses. Standards are established through a kind of social contract between entities. This is the way I see government, too: contrary to, say, a libertarian view of the world, I think we need a common infrastructure to build on top of. Representative democratic government is (assuming an engaged electorate and free and open elections) an expression of the will of the people. More than that, it’s infrastructure for us to build on: a common layer built in the public interest, upon which we can grow and build. A platform.
What’s a part of that platform has a direct relationship to what can be built. If the web didn’t define links, we’d spend all our time thinking of new ways to build them. But the web does define links, and we can spend our time building much more advanced interfaces and specifications because we don’t have to worry about them. If government didn’t provide roads, we’d have to spend our time worrying about what basic transit links looked like; the same goes for public transport, education, or healthcare. We can reach for the stars and be far more ambitious when our basic needs are taken care of. But those needs must be open and in the public interest, rather than proprietary and designed for profit. (What would the web look like if link tags had been owned by AOL rather than by the commons?)
Perhaps it’s a tortured analogy, but in a way it’s not an analogy at all: the way the web evolved is a reflection of the larger societal dynamics around it. We can create an indieweb movement, and our websites may be free and open. But the real work is to create a free and open culture that serves everyone, where everyone has the right and freedom to be themselves, and where we can all reach for the stars together.
The principles of openness, collaboration, independence, expression, and distributed ownership are not just about software. Really they’re not about software at all. At their best, they’re a glimpse at what a different kind of life might look like. One where everyone can be free.