Twenty-five years ago, on December 3, 1997, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee spoke at the W3C meeting in London. His talk featured his vision of the early Internet, its early development, and his thoughts on the future of the Internet.
One idea that Berners-Lee brought up in his speech — an idea he’d been mulling over for more than a year — was undeniably brilliant. It makes every browser say, “Oh, huh?” proposed to be equipped with what he called button. The idea was that we would start building trust through signed metadata as we moved around the web. In a sense, our ordinary web browsing will create a huge accumulation of crowd-sourced credibility. “When we have that, we’ll be able to ask the computer not just for information, but why we should believe it,” he said.
Imagine saying, “Oh, huh?” button in your browser. Here you are looking at a fantastic deal that could be yours for just entering a credit card number and clicking a button. Oh yeah?, you think. “Oh yeah?” you press the button. button. You’re asking your browser why you should believe this. He, in turn, can challenge the server to provide some credentials: perhaps a signature for a document, or a list of documents that say what that key corresponds to. Those documents will be signed. Your browser probes the server for a way to convince you that the page is valid for purchase. Perhaps it will come out with an endorsement from a magazine, which in turn is endorsed by a friend. It may be approved by the seller’s bank, which in turn approves from your bank. He may not find any reason for you to actually believe what you read.
“Oh yeah?” It should be noted that the button was not actually for checking information or finding the “truth”. Berners-Lee did not suggest that ontological certainty would arise from a web mob’s ranking of websites that disseminated the most accurate information. Rather, “Oh, yeah?” button would suggest a more paradigmatic truth, namely a reasonable approximation of whether anything you read on the internet is generally considered reliable by most people.
“Oh yeah?” button was an early warning that we would have to be more skeptical in cyberspace in the future. It was also an admission that the internet would be used to trick us with some regularity in the future. Politicians, salesmen, criminals, villains and liars will multiply and we need an easy way to counter them while reading our daily information.
If that had happened, many of the ills that plague the Internet and social media today—think: accusations of “fake news,” disinformation campaigns, and stalking—could have been solved in the first place.
However, in the end, “Oh, huh?” button is never installed in our browsers. Too many factors conspired against it. In Berners-Lee’s original example, he pointed out the direct problem of advertising. As the Internet became increasingly commercial, the idea that a simple click of a button could reveal the paradigmatic truth about any product’s advertised claims represented an almost existential threat to its usefulness as a sales tool. “Oh yeah?” As the Internet evolved into social media, the button could also lead to increased tension and controversy. Imagine telling your crazy uncle that your browser says, “Oh, huh?” what anger will flare up if you report what he said. button informed you of his latest Facebook conspiracy.
“Oh yeah?” Button, for all his admirable skepticism, also contained an important flaw that would only be revealed in the algorithmic age. Because each of our browsers will independently collect signed metadata based on our different web usage, each “Oh, yeah?” buttons would present us with different, unique paradigmatic truths. Just as no two social media feeds are exactly the same, it’s likely that they’ll both be like, “Oh, huh?” buttons will return the same findings. Berners-Lee, as early as 1997, was very optimistic about the possibilities of collecting and distributing shared reality in the future. We now know that we prefer social media algorithms that guide us into worlds where our biases and beliefs do not require skepticism. Why would someone say, “Oh, yeah?” wants to press the button. Button to check hilarious political memes that confirm exactly what they are already right? Why spoil the fun?
In retrospect, we ended up thinking, “Oh, huh?” Button for the “Like” button. And it was great wrong.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.