Protopia of the Web

At the Progressive Web App Dev Summit in Amsterdam Jeremy Keith asked a panel consisting of representatives across Google (Chrome), Mozilla, Microsoft (Edge), Samsung (SBrowser), and Opera about the dystopian future that the Web may find itself in.

What if the Web dies out entirely? What if it finds a niche but it akin to radio compared to the world of TV? Radio is a fantastic medium and podcasting has brought back a renaissance of sorts, however the time spent listening to pure audio is dwarfed compared to time spent watching video, especially given that the audio capability is there too.

The analogy breaks down of course, because the capabilities that the Web and native have overlap much more readily and this overlap is growing. There are trade offs between the user platforms, based on both the natural focus of capabilities and the fact that one is a meta platform that lives atop others. Both sides can try to take the best from each other, but there are some universals.

We then talked a little about the utopian future. The Web that rules all.

We love black and white, but it never matches reality.

Utopia can never exist. Everything in life is a result of trade offs, so how could you have the best of every side?

Kevin Kelly talks about the state of protopia:

Protopia is a state that is better than today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualize. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.

The constant drive that society has to improve. In the present it is hard to feel the massive changes that are happening to humanity, and sometimes you could argue there are step backs, but he argues that we are heading in the right direction.

There are no large releases for our world. We don’t sit in stasis and then once a year ship World 1234.9.34 (we would use semver right? ;). In many ways we are running countless A/B tests:

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” — William Gibson

The Web ties to reality unlike many other platforms. The browsers are shipping much more constantly, and there are many of them, allowing for more iterative change. Elsewhere you tend to have the larger release cycles.

The same is mimicked elsewhere in the ecosystem. The Web itself is changing constantly and A/B testing and updates are baked in to our way of working. Native apps are getting more capabilities here, and some developers have created work around to enable more seamless updates (whether via meta platforms such as React Native or WebView, or through DSLs that script native views).

Not having big releases can be a weakness. There is no WWDC unveiling of the future. The ecosystem has to deal with the constant change, which has a cost.

It also means that we need to highlight our important moments through history. Instead of “behold the next version” we end up with “look at what is now possible”. We peak at the future with standards and open source code. What we lose in surprise we gain in the fact that anyone can collaborate and participate much earlier in the process.

The protopias that we have in computing and in life in general is so very messy. We each see different realities and can our individual consciousnesses can only parse so much of them.

Now and then I certainly worry about what the future will bring our species, and the role that technology will play. Innovations can touch lives at unprecedented scale. This power is amazing as well as scary. I hope that we push forward together on the amazing journey to the protopian land.

There is no utopia, and that is ok, as long as we keep improving and crank the flywheel. The world is better than even in so many ways, but there is so much more we need to do for people.

It has been helpful to think about the path to a better future over the long run at a time where my mother land (UK) has gone through a painful vote on a topic that can have ramifications around the world. As saddened as I am at the result, I know that I must push on, and that this may be a kink in the road of progress.

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