It’s Time to Rebuild the Internet
July 11, 2019
I’m trying to change the way we interact with our screens. But first, a little history:
Over the past fifty-odd years, human interaction with technology has rapidly increased. The term “technology” itself, which used to be synonymous with the innovations that made production faster and more efficient, has started to refer more generally to the computer screens that have more and more commanded our attention since the “dot.com” fever of the late 1990s. Introduced commercially in the 1980s, computers were seen as methods to efficiently do work (ex. Apple’s real breakthrough with the Macintosh was effectively to replace the typewriter with its word processor) and foster new experiments via the nascent Internet as well as video gaming.
As computers became increasingly commercial and gateways to new markets, the Internet gave humans a new (and instantaneous) way to connect with one another as well as with information. Next, mobile phones started to emerge, adding to an age of ever-evolving technology. With these new tools at the world’s disposal, late 20th/early 21st century humanity became the most connected, and interconnected, population ever.
However, with the rapid expansion of new products and related services came a slew of privacy and protocol issues that were largely unforeseen. For example, while the rise of social networking helped people connect with one another, a few “unicorns”, such as Facebook, suddenly had access to, and control of, an enormous amount of user data. While certain regulatory groups, such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)and the European Union’s GDPR, attempted to govern the internet, the “World-Wide-Web” is still a relatively unregulated territory. Anybody can buy a domain and upload any content. With enough skill, passion, and determination, any kid in a garage can create a billion dollar company. Any company can control and sell your personal data.
No doubt powerful and transformative, the Internet nonetheless has spawned a slew of privacy, misinformation, and monopolistic issues that leave it at a vexing crossroad. Here are a few major issues that I feel most urgently need to be addressed:
When a user goes online(through a browser or an app), they are presented with a plethora of different options. The user knows that their work files are stored in Google Drive, their work conversations are in Slack, research in JSTOR, wish lists on Amazon, so on and so forth. While the user might understand which site serves which purpose and where they need to go in order to get certain tasks done, the path the user has to take in order to interact with multiple different interfaces can be confusing. Little does the user’s Google Drive account know that the actual research being done for work that’s stored in one folder is being done on another website.
So, not only does the user have to continually work to find the content that they want, but each piece of data that they search for lives and operates within its own environment. The lack of personalization and direction given to the user can make it too confusing not only to do the simplest tasks, but to interact with their content how they’re supposed to. What if the user had an easier way to view all of their content, no matter where it’s coming from? What if the user operated within an interface that was designed to help them get tasks done? Computers are supposed to help make it easier for users to get tasks done and keep track of/create content, however it feels as if they keep unintentionally getting in the user’s way. If we start to redesign and combine the interfaces in which users interact with their devices(primarily connecting to the internet), then we can work towards making these interfaces more humane.
Over the past decade, everyday life has become more and more reliant on technology. All of our vital information — from medical records to work files to conservations with loved ones — increasingly happen- and are stored- online. However, users have become unwittingly dependent on tech/social media corporations, such as Facebook and Google, to properly and safely manage their data. While hundreds of millions have come to rely on a handful of mega-providers, showing how powerful they are and how integral they’ve become in everyday life, centralizing and controlling (IE owning)a user’s content is not only a security flaw but a design flaw in the system
In terms of security, having everyone’s data stored in one place by one company makes that company a prime target for data theft, degradation, and other types of attack. It limits how much control the user has over their own data. While most people don’t have the expertise or desire to set up, host, and maintain their own personal servers/databases, everyone wants some level of assurance that their data won’t be lost, compromised, or stolen. From a design standpoint, individuals are left with the only option that all of their data for one account resides in one place, while the data from another account resides elsewhere. Optimally, each person should/would be able to use and edit their own content via one interface, anywhere and anytime.
Done properly, this could give the user more control over their personal content while minimizing the risk of getting hacked. It would be necessary that the user’s data be under their control per se; more likely the data just wouldn’t be on their own desktop or private server. Some new configuration, for example, a peer-to-peer blockchain network, would be the likely solution.)
The internet is an endless repository of content, yet the way most of us interact with it is very two-dimensional. Search engines are set up to read your query and feed back a list of responses. Browser history is really just a list of sites you viewed, at one time. None of this data is set up dynamically: when you viewed it, what type of content it is, and in what context you searched something matters. We need to incorporate this type of intelligence into how the user finds and uses content. A true humane interface, the type of system we should be building, makes it easy for the user to complete simple tasks and responds to their behavior. In my view, your browser/desktop/“front-end” needs to start responding to all of this data — YOUR data — and making it truly useful for you.
At present, this might be the way someone opens tabs on their browser to start their work day: the user opens Gmail in one tab, Google Drive in another, searches for Trello in the next, and continues on a topic of research from the prior day. The user’s activity is already being tracked by their browser, ISP, and search engine. Why can’t their usage and trends get tracked to better enhance their personal workflow? For example, suppose that before an individual initially used the internet they first had to create an account that would log them into any website, store all of their personal data(passwords, work files, browsing history, bookmarked sites, social media accounts, etc.) and track the way that they used the web.
Instead of the user using a linear search(query-based) to find content, the browser could recommend that the user open a certain workspace (based on past usage and/or learned personal preferences) or suggest that the user goes to ‘x’ website that is in line with the research that they were doing some other day. We’ve seen artificial intelligence enhance user-flow, most notably through IoT devices(such as Amazon Echo) and mobile devices. Why can’t a similar standard be developed for internet usage across platforms? Why can’t there exist a truly personalized front-end that is unique to each user?
— — — — — —
Given how developed the internet already is, changing the interface from the ground up presents many new challenges and has to be done carefully. First, an interface needs to be researched and designed in order to give users the most humane experience possible — responding to their actions and making it easy to get tasks done without getting in their way. In addition, we need to make sure that we work in accordance with others on the internet in order to build an interface that can work with everyone. This includes working to change how data is stored and how current internet protocols work.
While we have larger aspirations at Stecknologies, reworking this sector of the internet is important not only for our future development, but also to ensure that developers and users alike have a more powerful and safe playing field, especially given the economic growth that the Internet can stimulate. Here’s how we’re going to help:
1. We’re building a new browser that tracks the user’s workflow.
Our journey is a long one, but we need to fight each battle one at a time. We not only want to increase the technology that we and others in the developer community can use, but we want to launch products that can instantly positively affect the daily lives of users. While still holding true to the core ideals of improving personalization, security, and responsiveness, we are building a browser that tracks the user’s workflow. Here are a few key features:
- No tabs — flows are created around particular tasks that you do in your browser. As you create new actions, sites and files that are related are added to similar flows centered around actions. This makes it easier to track your work and gives the user a less cluttered screen.
- When the user starts a new action, the browser tracks their ‘flow’ — the progression of sites that they use and the importance of each site — and saves it to a workspace. Users can also upload important files and documents to ensure that all of their content for one topic lives in one place
- After the user has gotten familiar with their workspace, the browser starts to give the user analytics — how much time they spend per workspace, what sorts of sites they use when, and what sorts of things they might want to try searching
- User content is stored in a decentralized account powered by blockchain technology
2. We’re planning to build a new operating system.
As we work towards reworking the building blocks of the internet, we want to build components that are helpful on their own, but can come together to make a larger, more powerful(and humane) interface. The operating system is the driver of the device — yes, it runs many programs that the user will never interact with, but it also controls the interface that the user is presented with from the ground up. It is important to add these core concepts of personalization, security, and responsiveness to the operating system for many reasons. Here are just a few:
- It will make it easier to transport user data across interfaces, whether it’s a mobile device, laptop, IoT device, or even broader, less personal network
- It will incorporate modern design practices into the operating system and remove a layer of inconsistent styling, further slowing the user down
- It will redesign software whose GUI has been rooted in the same principles for 20+ years
- It will make it easier to let developers edit parts of the OS that had been rather untouched for a very long time
3. We’re calling out to the community to help.
There are many communities that are also working towards building a better internet. For example, both Blockstack and Solid(which was founded by the creator of the Internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee) are working towards creating frameworks that empower developers to build decentralized apps. In addition, the W3C(World Wide Web Consortium) and Mozilla, creators of the popular browser Firefox, publish reports and hold conferences on improving the health of the internet.
In the space of productivity and workflow efficiency, multiple tools, such as Dropbox’s latest workspace update and Notion, are working towards making it easier for users to find and edit their content.
While we are actively observing activities in these communities and looking for ways to contribute, we would love to connect with anyone who wants to chat or help us get closer to achieving our mission of creating a universal, humane interface.