A crisis of faith in the Web

Published on 2023-12-12

"Mozilla’s now director of public policy once asked me, with a straight face, why I was giving them a hard time and holding Mozilla to a higher standard: “we’re just another Silicon Valley tech company.”

But that’s not what you tell people publicly, is it, Mozilla?

Still, it’s time y’all got this.

Mozilla is a half-billion-dollar for-profit corporation – whose CEO makes >$3M/yr – that has a foundation do its PR."

Aral Balkan on Mozilla's role in Big Tech

What am I even doing, calling myself a web developer.

Sometimes I fear by merely logging on I'm like the class-traitor equivalent of the neo-Luddite retrominimalist anti-solutionist degrowther left. It's pretty damn depressing to think that there's not even a reliable way to get on the internet without sacrificing either your dignity or, well, access to most websites produced after 2005.

The web I've learned to love is not that. The web most people live with today is the web that I have thus far managed (struggled, even) to put up and coexist with. It genuinely scares me a little every time I have to interact with someone else's web browser. It's not healthy.

I've long thought that despite all the problems of the web today, the Good Stuff was still out there, and that's all that mattered. A Neocities revolution in the imperial periphery. But I don't know! What's that worth if the only way to access it is Google Chrome? Or, perhaps worse according to some, Firefox?

I suppose I don't need Firefox for all the websites I enjoy browsing the most. I could probably get away with netsurf or lynx or, worst comes to worst, I could finally take the time to compile LibreWolf. But that's not most people's reality. That's not the world I'm building as I promote myself as a "web developer" to employers. I've been creeping down the stack for years because of it. At the very least, I feel like I've got to be constantly looking over my shoulder, questioning whether or not what I'm doing will make things better or worse. Is merely building websites problematic? For all intensive purposes, the Web doesn't belong to us. As the W3C and their masters have repeatedly demonstrated, we're playing someone else's game.

In this sense, Gemini is kind of like an escape. Importantly, it's not a solution; at least, it's not a solution in its current form. A million people have already pointed out that Gemini isn't all that friendly to people who aren't actively interested in technology, and I definitely feel that. I don't think I'd ever be able to convince my friends outside CS to use it. I'm not even sure if it'd be worth trying. It's nice, and I really like it here, but it doesn't feel like a "solution."

I was wondering if maybe people like us are just really bad at advancing solutions in general. Like, people don't generally mobilize against tech companies in the same way they do, say, oil and gas companies, despite how we all seem to pretend they will if we just post enough about it. When we do advance solutions, they always seem to fall in the tradition of the free software movement, which has infamously only served other computer people and companies.

I suspect, though, that the problem actually has very little to do with technology itself. Computers are a tool of much more powerful forces, and so long as they act the way they do, we'll get the web as we have it today. If that's the case, then it'd seem like we're coming at this from the completely wrong angle. Firefox isn't the problem, it's capitalism. If you're fighting Chrome, then your playbook is going to look a lot different than it would if you were fighting Capital. In reality, Chrome is just a single symptom of a much larger problem.

It looks like there are many "fronts" to this battle, and it's sad to see so much energy going into getting individuals to switch to a different, less reliable, more challenging platform. It's just not nearly as effective.

I'd love to see a publicly-funded web browser project, as Aral Balkan has discussed before. I'd probably throw some of my own money at it if I had some to spare.

I think there's still some things to love about the web as it exists today. They're getting harder to find, but when you find them, it's always worthwhile. For now, that's probably enough to keep me from taking up COBOL.

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