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Web 2.0 and Tim O'Reilly as Marshal Tito

Forward to the (distributed) revolution

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Comment As the Web 2.0 bandwagon continues its rapidly accelerating path downhill towards the inevitable crash we find ourselves at another turning point in the development of the networked world.

Ten years ago we were faced with a choice between the controlled homogeneity of the ‘information superhighway’ or the many and various delights of the unsupervised Internet, and we chose wisely.

Now we must decide whether to put our faith in Ajaxified snakeoil or to look beyond the interface to distributed systems, scalable solutions and a network architecture that will support the needs and aspirations of the next five billion users.

The choice may seem obvious, but the pull towards the dark side is powerful.

Many believe that the best way forward is the one sketched out by Google, Yahoo! and Amazon as they offer tempting APIs and non-standard data formats to enthusiastic developers keen to add some scripted magic to even the most banal website. Others look to social networks, virtual worlds, user-generated content and the end of mainstream media as markers on the way to the promised metaverse, the land of prims and money.

The wrong question

Over it all stretches the 'Web 2.0' banner, a magical incantation that will bring attention, funding and respect to any programmer able to weave a little Ajax into their interface. It seems that it only takes a browser that can interpret JavaScript and a server that will let a page call for packaged data through XMLHttpRequest and we can have all the benefits of distributed systems without the need to write too much code or rethink the way that the different components of a service communicate with each other.

If Web 2.0 is the answer then we are clearly asking the wrong question, and we must not be fooled by the cool sites and apparently open APIs. Most of the effort is – literally – window dressing, designed to attract venture capitalists to poorly-considered startups and get hold of enough first-round funding to build either a respectable user base or enough barely runnable alpha code to provide Google or Yahoo! with yet another tasty snack. We need to take a wider view of what is going on.

Back in the 1870s Karl Marx outlined the steps through which he believed a capitalist society needed to pass before it could reach socialism. After the revolution came the dictatorship of the proletariat, a painful but necessary stage of oppression and correction, during which the organs of the state would whither away as humanity achieved its true potential and coercion became unnecessary.

Web 2.0 marks the dictatorship of the presentation layer, a triumph of appearance over architecture that any good computer scientist should immediately dismiss as unsustainable.

Ajax is touted as the answer for developers who want to offer users a richer client experience without having to go the trouble of writing a real application, but if the long term goal is to turn the network from a series of tubes connecting clients and servers into a distributed computing environment then we cannot rely on Javascript and XML since they do not offer the stability, scalability or effective resource discovery that we need.

There is a massive difference between rewriting Web pages on the fly with Javascript and reengineering the network to support message passing between distributed objects, a difference that too many Web 2.0 advocates seem willing to ignore. It may have been twenty years since Sun Microsystems trademarked the phrase ‘the network is the computer’ but we’re still a decade off delivering, and if we stick with Ajax there is a real danger that we will never get there.

The impossible dream

Yet this is the dream, one promoted relentlessly by Tim O’Reilly and his acolytes since the term was first coined in 2003. Thanks to their efforts, and those of other cheerleaders for the 'new paradigm', there is now a real danger that continued investment in Web 2.0 companies will turn O’Reilly’s dream into our nightmare.

If that happens then the oligarchy who benefit most from the stale socialising of Flickr and YouTube will have held back the transition to distributed systems just as the old men in Soviet Russia and the People’s Republic of China retained power and held back the transition to true socialism that Marx had predicted.

Fortunately, O’Reilly seems less of a psychopath than Mao or Stalin, and is perhaps closer to the pragmatic Yugoslavian leader Marshal Tito, who carefully steered a path between the USSR and the West for decades.

O’Reilly has already announced that Web 2.0 is really about business opportunities and new markets rather the emerging collective intelligence of humanity he preached from the barricades last year, so perhaps he will have the sense to move his followers away from Ajax towards something grounded in decent engineering.

If we can unlearn the lessons of the old Web and transcend its stateless protocols to achieve real distributed processing over a managed, trustworthy network then the possibilities truly are remarkable.

We can start to build hybrid applications that use modular code and distributed services, some local, some remote. We can introduce yet another level of abstraction – always the solution to any computer science problem – and get our codebase away from processor dependency.

We can build a network that doesn’t care or notice if your libraries are local or remote because the stuff you use regularly is always where you need it to be, cached on your local storage when needed, on a remote server when you’re online. And we can do it all without ceding control to Google, Amazon or even Microsoft.

If we sort out our interfaces and interactions we can may even be able to put our heads into the screen, be part of the metaverse, enter cyberspace and interact fully and equally with agents, people, sims and any other machine- or human-generated intelligence. But this will not happen if we follow the Web 2.0 fantasy and put our trust in cool but ultimately shallow tricks with the presentation of data. The time has come to stand up and be counted, and we need people who can count in hex and see beyond the Web 2.0 hype. ®

Bill Thompson is a technology critic and essayist. His website is here.

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