Why the Web Is Dying

Interview with Hossein Derakhshan.

Angela MaielloIn 2001 after 9/11 you started your own blog, giving birth to what has been defined the Iranian blog revolution.  What was the rule of the blogging activity in the definition or reconfiguration of public space? 

Hossein Derakhshan: I think hyperlink was key to that vibrant space. Both as in the form of blogrolls which gave you access to a list of blogs or websites which that person found worthy. And also in the form of conversation, where you would discuss a post by quoting from it and linking to it. Comments are a conversation between readers and authors. But links were between authors and authors. It is this latter type of conversation which has become more difficult without hyperlinks.

A. M.: One of the elements that gave a lot of popularity and attention to your blog was the fact that it was the first Persian-language blog. How do you explain this?

H. D.: My english blog was nothing compared to the Persian one. And yes, being a pioneer definitely helped my status. But there were other pioneers who never reached that status. As a journalist, I knew how to write to attract readers and I wrote shorter and more frequent posts in the beginning. I also was trying to promote other blogs and kept a huge list. So it sort of became the starting point of everyday surfing for many Iranians. I also had a crucial role to introduce Unicode to Iranians when there were almost no website using it. 

A.M.: Like the protagonist of the Koranic story you told in your post, once released, you found a very different web-based world.  What was your first impression?  Due to the development of mobile technologies and the diffusion of social network, we live in a kind of hybrid world. What do you think about it and how this has an impact on the blog activity?

H.O.: Good question. The internet started from Pentagon, but it became quickly a utopian project by anti-capitalist technologist or academics. But gradually as its political and economic potentials were revealed, states and corporations jumped on it to control and benefit from it. When I was in prison, the tipping point for this shift happened. And the Web, as the dominant technological form based on the internet, is now dying, as a result of both mobile apps and social networks.Internet still exists as the infrastructure. But instead of being an interconnected of websites, it is now comprised of a collection of disconnected mobile apps. From a sociological point of view, we see a shift in terms of dominant values of the internet too. In web, diversity and interconnectivity, archivability and durability, searchability and openness, and decentralisation were dominant values. Now newness and spontaneity, popularity and image are dominant values.One interesting comparison is that in blogs you rarely had a picture of the author. They were more about substance and quality than appearance. Now all social networks force users to upload a profile picture. That reflects a shift in dominant values. I’m not saying it is bad, but it’s a change. The new internet has become very personalised, according to American individualism. Maybe one could even argue that internet is becoming more and more American dominated in many ways. It wasn’t the case before in many ways.

 A.M.: I think that the problem of the switch from a text-based web to an image-based text is crucial to our question. You wrote: «The future of the web is television».  The Facebook Timeline, the success of Instagram and of other similar applications show us that images are acquiring an increasingly importance on the web.  Do you think that this necessarily coincides with an impoverishment of the web critical potential? Don’t you think that we could make a critical use of images on the web?

H.O.: Don’t think so. Images are much less capable to convey complex intellectual messages than text. After all, alphabet was invented to enable humans a more sophisticated communication system. Going back to images is a regression in history. Text was so powerful that literacy was a huge privilege only reserved for an elite minority in the world. Masses were deprived from alphabet because of its subversive power. Modern democracy is founded on text literacy. Now with dominance of images we’re producing an oral society. US pioneers in this trend. And that’s why democracy in its tv-dominated culture is in serious decline. It’s happening in many other countries rapidly as well.

A.M.: What can be the alternative today?

H.O.: I think the stream is not intrinsically like what it is now. There can be many kinds of stream with different founding social values and thereby different algorithms. But first, algorithms should become open and transparent. This needs policy and the state. Then they have to become customizable. You must be able to choose for instance between people-centred, news-centred, pro-comfort, pro-challenge, etc. kind of algorithms. The dominant existing algorithms should not be supposed as natural. There can be many alternatives.

A.M.: In the web we have to save what should be, in your opinion, the rules of participation? Following your reflection, right now we live in a kind of regime of the sharing which guarantees the regime of  surveillance. What can be a good practice as users, which means as citizens of this new kind of public space?  And what kind of liberty this space gives us?

H.O.: I don’t really think web can be saved without saving the hyperlink. And I don’t see any attempt to revive the hyperlink. But since according to Foucault, where there is power, there is resistance, we have to find the potential points of resistance. One way is to confuse the algorithms by showing inconsistent preferences. By following people or pages we disagree with or liking posts we don’t like, I think, we can reach a level of diversity which is otherwise impossible. Also perhaps coders and hackers can find ways to manipulate and customize algorithms by creating publicly available plugins for Facebook, Twitter, etc. But I’m not sure if they are open enough to do so. It would be great if it were possible.

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