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These days all the young kids love Google. All the older kids too actually. Heck, pretty much everybody loves Google. I don’t.

A little bit of (my own) history

Sure, I used Google for years. Started somewhere in 1999, after having been a happy AltaVista user. At the time, there were no doubts Google had made some major breakthroughs in search. So of course I switched to Google. And then, there was this other nice side to it: it was the new kid on the block, a nice little company, very far from any corporate behemoth.

Nowadays however, it is in my view the most dangerous corporation on the planet, and definitely much worse than any corporate behemoth I might have worried about in the late 90’s or early 2000’s. And it is absolutely adored by everyone, with the most vocal lovers being people who probably don’t even recall a time before Google.

What does Google do exactly?

Google does search, obviously. It also, and this is not an exhaustive list:

  • Provides hosted email (Gmail)
  • Provides maps & geolocalisation (Google maps)
  • Provides hosted RSS feed management (Google Reader)
  • Provides an operating system (Android)
  • Provides a web browser (Chrome)
  • Provides an office productivity suite (Google docs)

A comparison point

Now, the fact a company provides lots of services is not a bad thing of course. Rather the contrary. The issue is with what puts Google apart from most other players in the same markets. I’ll contrast with Microsoft here, but the argument holds when contrasting with many other companies.

You see, a universal fact about companies is that they want your money – and there’s certainly nothing objectionable to that. What makes companies different from one another, is how they seek to get your money.

Microsoft is interested in your workflow (I see raised eyebrows). The way Microsoft wants to make itself valuable to you, and hence entice you into giving them money, is by defining how you work. What they want, is to make sure that every time you have a task to carry out, you will use (and hopefully pay for) a Microsoft product. Want to use a computer? Here’s Windows for you. Want to write a document or make some calculations? Here’s Office. Email? Outlook/Exchange. Build internal collaboration in your company? SharePoint. Find something? Bing. Play a video game? Xbox.

What matters to Microsoft is what you do. Not exactly the specifics of what you do – they couldn’t care less whether you’re writing internal memos or the next great American novel in MS Word – but how you do it, what tasks are involved.

And then it will monetize those tasks. This can be done directly by making you pay for software, or indirectly. In the indirect method, you get something free, say, internet search. Well, it just so happens that the tight integration of the whole suite of free applications with other paying applications makes said paying applications more attractive.

Never said this monetization of free apps was so effective mind you, but that’s their strategy. They’re interested in your tasks, your workflow.

Back to Google

Now Google provides pretty much the same products and services as Microsoft. So their model is pretty similar, right?

Wrong. Couldn’t be more different.

Google’s revenue comes, nearly exclusively, from advertisement. For all analytical purposes, Google can be seen as an advertisement firm. And ever since the sector came into existence, advertisers have only ever been interested in one thing.

Your data.

Who you are. What you do. Why you do it. How much money that brings you. What books you read. What you like. What you don’t like.

They want to know everything about you.

For those who aren’t following, the reason they want this is to be able to target their ads to you in the most efficient way possible, in order to maximize clicks on the ads, and thus maximize advertising revenue.

It just so happens that Google has all that information on you. After all:

  • It can read you email (Gmail)
  • It knows where you are and where you like to go (Google maps)
  • It knows what you like and are interested in (Google search and Reader)
  • It knows what you do and what data you generate (Google apps)
  • It could know how much relative time you spend on any task (Android)

 

This is an advertisement’s agency ultimate goal.

It just so happens that this also any totalitarian state’s wet dream come true.

Don’t be evil!

Ah yes, the famous unofficial motto of Google is “don’t be evil”. That should be reassuring, right?

Well, I don’t know about you, but that motto, if anything, makes me worry even more. That somebody in a corporate environment could even consider that a motto speaks volumes. Let me give you an example.

What would you think about one of your kid’s teachers telling you his main goal in his work is “don’t rape the kids”? Would you be reassured? Or very much worried that somebody needs to state the obvious like that to exorcise some inner compulsion?

I feel the same about Google.

The track record

The good news is, as far as I’m aware, Google hasn’t yet launched into massive scale exploitation of the data it has at it’s disposal, nor has it transformed into some evil big brother.

Yet.

There are some worrying trends, and not only based on the sheer amount of data Google has at it’s disposal.

Google has already been actively seeking collaboration with government for years. And not just for nice stuff, either, for war. Yup, all that nifty Google earth technology has already been purposefully adapted for warfare. That means killing people. It doesn’t get much more evil than that in my book.

Google is also keen on collaborating with the NSA. Oh sure, in this case the aim is that the NSA help Google secure it’s network and work against cybercrime, and not that NSA access Google’s data. But as arguably the organisation with the largest wealth of information on people, Google collaborating with a spying agency makes me nervous.

Oh yeah, and by the way, isn’t it just a tad worrying that Google’s data repositories apparently need securing? So these guys have all your data, but can’t protect it? Because, in case you haven’t been paying attention, that’s what triggered the whole China debacle recently. Actually, China deserves a section of it’s own.

The China thing

People are so busy lauding Google’s courage for pulling out of China these days, that they tend to forget what really happened.

In 2006, Google readily complied with Chinese requests to self-censor it’s contents. They did it in a heartbeat.

Now don’t get me wrong, I definitely think it’s better for oppressed people to get some access to information rather than none at all, so in the long run, I believe Google’s move there was for the best. But what I found worrying was Google’s eagerness to go and adapt their “don’t be evil” motto to fit it’s actions. Far from demonstrating they were a principled company, Google showed it’s principles were highly negotiable based on what they felt was needed at a precise moment in time.

Then, recently, their Chinese infrastructure got hacked into. Fearing for their interests, they pulled out of China. If you bought into Google’s spin that this was because they had a change of heart about Chinese censorship, you’re a fool.

This last event is telling in two ways. First, it confirms that Google really doesn’t care about what is evil or not. If providing censored content was less evil than providing none in 2006, this remains so in 2010. So clearly, it’s all about their own interest, and not whatever is evil.

Second, it shows Google is not all that good at securing it’s data. And that’s downright terrifying. Because even if Google doesn’t do anything bad it has with the data it has collected, if this falls into the wrong hands (especially governmental ones), we’re in for some very bad trouble. Think 1984.

In a nutshell

Google has exactly the kind of data necessary to make an Orwellian hell come true. It has proven that it’s corporate culture is anything but principled, and more than willing to cooperate with governments, including for nefarious purposes such as killing people. On top of that, it has proven unable to secure the very sensitive data it has access to.

If despite all this you are still entrusting your data to Google, I guess you really love Big Brother.

When you start infringing on people’s rights, you start a vicious circle where you need to infringe on more and more rights as time goes by, to try to make your infringements possible. Take immigration for instance. 

Nowadays, immigration is limited. You need a country’s approval to go there. This is a very serious limitation on one of the most important freedoms there is: the one to move around as you damn well please. For millennia, there was no limiting that. But in recent decades, it has become near universal practice to limit immigration. Why is that?

You see, the post-war world has come up with one of the most massive non-sustainable rights infringements there is: social security. Ok, it’s all fine and dandy to have this nice idea to help out people in need, but the catch is that somebody has to pay for that. So to make it work, governments infringe on the property rights of their citizens. Indeed, to try to make it work, governments tax the hell out of their citizens.

The problem is, social security becomes attractive for people from less well-off countries. Before social security, they would immigrate when there were job opportunities, therefore contributing to society’s well-being – a win-win situation. But with social security, they also have an incentive to immigrate even when there aren’t any job opportunities, if social security can provide them with a better standard of living than their own country.

This puts an even higher burden on public finances, as financing the scam that is social security becomes harder.

So, to avoid making the unsustainability of social security too obvious too soon, governments limit immigration. And this is an unacceptable limitation of people’s liberty of movement.

As an aside

Another line of reasoning holds that immigration is a problem for cultural reasons, with integration/assimilation being the tough part. While that might have some truth, the fact is that when triggered by (real) economic opportunity, integration/assimilation quickly follows immigration – just look at the history of the US or 60’s immigration in Europe.

Cultural problems only ensue when immigration is spurred by social security incentives without real economic opportunity. In that case, the fatal mix of massive immigration without the integrating factor of working alongside locals creates cultural ghettos and associated problems.

Hence, without the social security incentives, immigration would mechanically lower, and integration/assimilation would be much easier.

In a nutshell

Infringing the people’s property rights to support the scam that is social security leads to infringing people’s freedom of movement. This is a universal trend – infringement of basic rights leads to ever more infringements. Hence why basic rights shouldn’t be messed with. Unfortunately, that message seems lost on politicians…

In the past few months, there have been lots of discussions about the necessity for political representatives to reflect their constituencies not only in terms of the ideas they defend, but also in terms of social categories in the broadest sense. Since that one has been floated around recently – and because it is worryingly popular – I’ll take as example the case of  feminine representation. Be aware that I consider however that my arguments hold in discussions about representing any social category.

A prime example of this concern was the nomination of the President of the European Council and of the High Representative for foreign affairs. During the build-up to the actual nominations, it was frequently stated that a major goal during the nominations was to ensure correct gender representation. And this, in turn, greatly impacted the choice of the person for the latter role. The consequence of this is that the nominated person might be representative of her constituency, but is just not fit for job – she doesn’t have the credentials to do it right. Aiming for “representativeness of representatives” can only lead to mediocre representatives.

This is lunacy raised to an art form. Here’s why.

The goal of representation in the political arena

It seems lost on many people that the goal of representation in the political arena is to represent the will of We the People. Put in other words, the aim is to represents people’s ideas, not who or what they are. This is not some sort of marketing oriented statistical population selection. Politics is not about reflecting what people look like, how they live or what they do. It’s about what they believe is good for society.

People are people

Couldn’t resist the urge to quote a Depeche Mode song. Anyway, people, however you may wish to categorize them for whatever dark purpose, are individuals. They have their own life, make their own choices, hold their own ideas.

Thinking that a specific characterization – gender, race, hair colour or shoe size – will adequately capture a set of common ideas is basically denying that people are complex entities, for sure influenced by a certain amount of determinations, but essentially defined by their own free will.

Some will feel the need to argue for social determinations, or even genetics, and try to convince us that free will is an illusion. Well, apart from my total rejection of such metaphysics, you can’t escape the single obvious fact, observable in everyday life, that there is no single social category that can adequately provide for the prediction of a person’s beliefs. Case in point: the single person with which I hold the most common beliefs is my dearly beloved. And apart from the obvious fact she is a woman and I’m not, we have enormous differences in our social backgrounds.

So at the very least, even if someone were to hold on to the dangerously mistaken notion that free will is an illusion and our beliefs are determined, they would have to admit this determination is chaotic and thus, unpredictable.

Social categories are represented anyway

By the way, in the political arena at least, social categories are represented. In case somebody didn’t notice, voting rights in our societies are not limited to any specific social category (except children and sometimes convicts). So, to take the example of women, holding that our representatives should comprise more women “to express the voice of women” is clearly absurd. The voice of women has already been expressed – in ballots.

And for those who have decidedly not been paying attention, there have been high-profile women in politics for decades, both across the world (Thatcher, Gandhi, Clinton or Meir to name but a few) and closer to home (just look at party presidents in Belgium).

Do you really want to represent all social groups?

Just for fun, let’s imagine the idea that our representatives should exactly reflect the social categories of their constituencies is correct. What would that mean, and where would we stop?

How about ensuring hair colours are adequately represented? Sexual orientations (with obvious implications as to full disclosure of all sexual practices)? Shoe sizes? Illnesses and ailments? Criminal records (criminals are entitled to be represented too after all)? Homeless politicians? Politicians in a coma?

Of course, there could be no such thing as professional politicians, because all professional categories would need to be represented.

And then, of course, most of our representatives would need to be morons, because, let’s face it, most people just aren’t that smart.

Actually, that last one might be achieved already.

The root cause of this idea

At the end of day, people who fuss about how representatives do not match the general population usually have a hidden (often to themselves as well) agenda. And that is trying to get more representation by people they (wrongly) believe will share their ideas. Just can’t accept that their ideas aren’t the dominant ones.

Actually, I can’t either, but I don’t kid myself about it, nor do I try to mess with the system under false pretences.

Final side-note

Of course, if representation were done at a much lower level, this kind of argument would basically disappear. With representation at a very low level and direct democracy as much as possible, there would be little room left to complain about not being heard – you would be heard loud and clear.

Because, guess what? The person that can best represent me is myself.

So, web 3.0 huh. What’s that going to be? Lots of speculation, most of it is worthless, so might as well add my own (just as worthless) speculation.

My view of Web 3.0 is really the web as an API. Nothing really all that new, and yet potential new uses may abound.

Background

Many people nowadays seem to forget that the web is only a small portion of the internet. A specific subset of the functionality offered by a global network supporting multiple protocols on top of a basic transportation layer (TCP/IP, in case you were sleeping, or are not that technical in which case you are forgiven).

The thing is, when you come to think of it, the web is a very basic application: it’s not that much more than just a huge document repository, shared across many, many, many servers. It obviously has some very nifty features, which made it the formidable powerhouse it is today. Nothing even comes close to hyperlinks in this regard. Without those, the web would be an irrelevant piece of computing history and nobody would bother anymore.

However, the one feature that enabled the web 2.0 revolution is extensibility. Being able to build lots of nice stuff on top of the web is what allowed stuff like Ajax, RSS & the like to be added on to enable more powerful applications than just simply a static document you can read and which contains links to other potentially interesting documents.

Interestingly, as illustrated by the yesteryear trend of mashups, one of the key functionalities enabled by these extensions to the web, is the access and edition of data away from the original web pages. You can have your tweets appearing on your blogs. You can use twitter to update your facebook status via twitter. You can embed YouTube videos just about anywhere.

Consequences

For a while, the main consequence of this was web 2.0. In many ways, web 2.0 was a way of making much of networked computing browser-centric. Long gone are the days of using a text editor (or any specialized application) to edit a webpage. Wikis and other frameworks have done away with that, at least for casual users. Even for corporations, portal solutions have made lots of editing more browser-centric. Web apps à la Gmail, Google docs and the like have made even tasks like email or document edition browser-centric. That was in my view a funny move. At the end of the day, the whole web app play is about painstakingly replicating the advanced features of desktop applications in a browser. All those who cried genius about Gmail apparently never used Outlook, or Thunderbird for that matter. Both applications kick Gmail’s ass big time as far as amount and depth of functionality are concerned. But web 2.0 enthusiasts never seemed to notice.

Web 3.0, in my view, will illustrate the opposite move. For highly connected people making the most of what the web has to offer these days – and that’s a lot – the browser doesn’t really cut it anymore. A few illustrations of this:

  • Twitter is probably the best example of this. Typically, Twitter is a tool with a low signal to noise ratio. Any even half serious twitter user will follow at least dozens of people, with only a fraction of the exchanged messages being useful to him. To handle this, many Twitter users have started using Twitter clients, whether lightweight or full blown applications with powerful features.
  • Facebook is likely going the same way, if application availability is any indication.
  • Even pure webmail operators have offered, for already quite some time, the possibility to use standalone mail clients.
  • Serious RSS users have been using RSS readers for years.

 

These are only a few examples, and as such are not yet indicative of any web 3.0 trend. Web 3.0 kicks in when re-centralizing of these features occurs in a desktop client. The best example of this is the Sobees (lite or desktop) software, but I’m sure there are other examples out there.

What Sobees does (very well, I might add), is centralize your use of social networks, and further, of most Web 2.0 applications. Within one application specifically designed for this purpose (unlike the web browser or even the web page), you can access and update your Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn accounts – soon your RSS feeds.

Thanks to the fact the application is dedicated and custom-tailored to the purpose it is built for, it is extremely powerful and flexible, allowing you to manage all of this web-related information in exactly the way you want. You are no longer constrained by some web application designer’s view of what is a good way to access/update your data. All usability aspects such as font sizes, panel location etc. are configurable, as are themes and connectivity options. Of course, if you’re afraid of tweaking, it comes with a sane default configuration, so don’t fret.

I see this kind of application as being a big trend of the future, and a big part of web 3.0. Powerful centralization of data, tailored to a user’s needs, and, significantly, disconnected from a browser.

I think this will all become even more interesting when the disconnect from browsers becomes greater. I could typically imagine this kind of application including a simple web rendering engine in order to be able to consult links and the like directly in the application. Add email to boot, and you suddenly have a nearly central place to consult all of the most important things you could want to consult on the web. Why would you even bother directly opening a web browser?

So, amusingly enough, the future of the web may reduce the importance of the web (browser). Got to love the irony.

Dreaming of clouds?

Does this mean the browser is destined for the trash pile of history? Hardly. While I do believe it’s importance will wane in the long term, the browser is here to stay – if only because display in a simple web browser will likely always remain an internet lingua franca, and a good way to easily consult anything you want. Amusingly enough, while twitter or facebook desktop client popularity is almost certainly due to the fact people got used to clients on smartphones, I see the smartphone being a long hold-out for web browsers. In a small device, a simple barebones web browser will always remain the most efficient way of consulting a lot websites, even if that becomes less true in the desktop world.

Likewise, I believe there is a case for web-centric computing and maybe even web-centric operating systems. While I hold anyone seriously believing that Chrome OS will be massively adopted and spell out the future of operating systems to be a crackpot, I think that kind of approach will definitely have it’s uses. Think highly mobile sales people. Medical professionals. Waiters in restaurants. Policemen. The list goes on. The key here is extreme portability (in the physical sense), cases where hardware is a hindrance. But as a rule? Hardware gets more powerful and cheaper everyday, what would I really gain in giving mine up to entrust all my data and applications to some service provider? The cloud will be used – it already is – but it will be far from being the only place actual computing takes place. By a long shot.

In a nutshell

Web 3.0 will not be about the browser anymore. The browser is becoming an antiquated access method to the amount and variety of data available to us today. The browser will continue to exist of course, but only as one among several other more appealing ways of consuming the internet. Timeframe? Three to five years. The bets are on.

[UPDATE]

@spyrosm pointed out I should at least reference other existing views of web 3.0, so here are a few:

  • Semantic web. A popular view, but technical feasibility has been brought into question. My own experience leads me to believe it will never happen.
  • Web services & Software as a service. Very close to what I suggest, much more realistic in my view.
  • Virtual web/3D web. Basically a GUI overhaul with some functionality added on top. I question the business model and actual benefits. Still, there could be useful applications.
  • Cloud computing. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the cloud, I see the cloud addressing larger issues than just web experience.
  • The growing up of web 2.0. Basically the idea of web 2.0, with it’s growing pains taken away. A realistic view, probably, largely due to the fact that it is not overly ambitious – which is a good thing in my opinion.

 

The most interesting thing is probably the existence of many differing views, which reminds us that labels are only that, labels. In other words, don’t get too excited about buzzwords such as web 3.0, they’re only shorthand for complex phenomena, and only capture a part of the reality. Just like language itself.

Democracy is, sure enough, as the old Churchill quote goes, the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be improved.

The thing that worries me about democracy is that, when practised on a large scale, it destroys the very thing which makes it desirable: the possibility of dissent through three means:

  1. Excessive intermediation
  2. Destruction of local specificities
  3. Levelling of opinion

 

But before going on to those three means, what do I mean by “practised on large scale”? Well, basically, when one democratic entity is too large. Your typical example would be Europe, governed by the European Union. But Belgium fits the bill too. What exactly is the right size, I’m not sure, but it’s definitely smaller than most countries.

Anyway, on to how things go awry.

Excessive intermediation

This one is only really obvious in very large democratic units, usually when some sort of federation is going on. Between “We the People” and whoever our government is, there are just too many levels of representation.

But it’s not just that our “elected” representative elects a representative who elects a representative who actually governs. It goes quite further.

At the end of the day, the election concept is based on the idea that you are going to vote for somebody who will, at least broadly speaking, represent your views. Someone with you’ll agree most of the time.

The problem is, I don’t know that many people with whom I agree most of the time. And none of them is a politician.

So basically, the issue is the scope of the mandate we give our elected leaders. I don’t know many people with whom I agree most of the time, but I know a lot of people with whom I mostly agree on economic issues. Or social issues. Or defence issues. Or health issues. You get the idea.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could vote for actual ideas instead of people? And specific ones too, where you wouldn’t have to accept the bundle that is a party’s program, which you are bound not to agree with in full.

Removing excessive intermediation would help that.

Destruction of local specificities

Obviously, if you go more than a few kilometres away from where you live, the average concerns of the people will start to change. Not necessarily dramatically, but they will vary. If you go hundreds or thousand of kilometres away, radical change is likely. The concerns of the Greeks just now are rather different from those of, say the Germans.

Yet through large scale democracy, these differences are necessarily brushed away, or, at the very least, compromised about.

The consequences are clear. The desires of some will be sacrificed in name of the desires of others, or, more likely, nobody’s desires will be met, and some compromise will leave everybody unhappy.

Some of these differences might be conjunctural, but some could be more permanent. This means structural disagreements will lead either to permanent dissatisfaction of large numbers of people, or to structural modification of opinions as people tire of being unhappy. Which leads us to the last element.

Levelling of opinion

Through both media and normative uniformity, large-scale democracy tends to level opinions. Extremes are quietly pushed aside. It becomes ever more difficult to escape conformity. Because as regulation becomes unified, so do the reasonings behind them. And these in turn get loudly communicated.

The thing about Big, is that it can – and does – impose it’s views. A belief shared by millions of people remains just that: a belief. But it does look a lot like a truth, and those who have no beliefs or have doubts about their own beliefs will be all the more likely to adopt that belief.

It’s positive reinforcement really. You are encouraged to share the beliefs of your fellow citizens.

Of course, it’s nice to share beliefs. But I like to share them based on more than just group-think. I like to share them based on reasoning, constructive criticism, challenges. But in a large forum, there is no room for that. There is room only for slogans. Mass appeal.

In a nutshell

In a nutshell, democracy on a large scale erases differences. And not in the good way. Very gently, like an overbearing kindergarten teacher, it instils in people the need to conform. And erases personality, displacing any possibility of anything more than symbolic dissent.

So what?

So, will I just complain? Well, since I’m a grumpy old man, I’ll do whatever I please, thank you very much. But no, here are at least a few outlines of solutions (don’t complain about the fact these are nothing more than outlines, it gives me stuff to think and write about later):

  • First, obviously, the locus of power should be brought much closer to the people. How close, not sure, but definitely low. I’m thinking town level or something.
  • Second, have people discuss ideas. Enable them to vote on issues. Why not referendums? It works for the Swiss. Could work for others too.
  • Third, test-drive new ideas. Let people not pay that new tax. See what happens. If they don’t pay it, they don’t want it.

 

Sound a lot like “direct democracy”? Sure. That’s the only real one there is…