IndieWeb thoughts (1): The future has arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

Every time I visit I inevitably start thinking about Internet and IndieWeb culture, and examining my own attitudes and assumptions. I’ve been fomenting these thoughts below for a while. Then Robin Sloan‘s newsletter comes along this week and sums it up nicely with this disturbing quote.

In the near future, people will pay for services designed to help them filter and navigate a news environment that has been intentionally polluted—a sky dark with chaff.

Robin Sloan’s newsletter, week 27

The IndieWeb adage goes, “own your own content”. People will pay for their own domain, for apps that promote their privacy, for drones (once human, now digital) to filter and screen out the world. The desire to sit outside the silos of centralized control, to remain autonomous, and to achieve this by buying these privileges and rights, strikes me as a Western, liberal, middle/upper-class sensibility.

I love the cyberpunk genre. William Gibson said, “The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” While cyberpunk a la Neuromancer, Blade Runner and Deus Ex haven’t arrived in the physical world yet, I can see it has already arrived in cyberspace, and the communities are already stratifying along class lines. Already, the language of the IndieWeb suggests that the masses (not-us) will be found inside the ghettos of Facebook and Twitter, while the elites (us) flee into their private domains to discourse with each other through IndieWeb channels. They can afford it financially, intellectually/educationally; have the time to indulge in such (pleasure) leisure to tinker with code and software; and more importantly, speak the language of code.

Who has the brainspace to be concerned about privacy, leisure time enough to learn codespeak and tinker with one’s private Internet space, and the wherewithal to do something about it? –The Western middle class.

Being able to exist outside the silos of the Net is a privilege. Anyone who can own a personal domain is, in some ways, already amongst the elite of the Internet. It’s not the elite of Twitter or ‘influencers’ within their own silos, it’s a different sort of elite, segregated by private domains (finances) and codespeak (linguistics/culture).

I suppose it’s human nature and human civilization to stratify life into the haves and have-nots. The Net is already an inequitable place, stratified along lines of attention/fame/popularity, but statements like the quote above smack of bringing the existing class divides of society into the Internet. Class inequity is one of the hardest divides to perceive and cross, because the borders are invisible, unspoken/assumed, and embedded in worldview and semantics. And we know how hard it is to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, spend time within their headspace and language and culture, especially if they’re of a different socioeconomic class as you.

As I look at the IndieWeb, these questions arise. Should the IndieWeb be egalitarian? Must it be egalitarian? Can it be egalitarian, and what will it look like if it was? This raises interesting and uncomfortable implications. The IndieWeb strikes me as a distinctly Western response, and an upper/middle-class one, to the cultural climate of the current Net. I have difficulty imagining how it would arise in a non-Western culture like China. It would look substantially different.

I know I’m currently incapable of seeing outside my glass box (Westernized, liberal, autonomous, middle/upper-class) right now. Cyberspace, and the tools therein, would look very different from someone from a different national and cultural sensibility. Maybe my concern is of no consequence to them.

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