breaking open the walled garden

Illustration of garden furniture in front of a wall

Last time I traveled to Berlin for a conference and some workshops, I thought it would be nice to catch up with old friends who live there. But who had moved there recently, and who had already moved away?

I went on Facebook, and easily found individual friends and where they live, but there just wasn’t a way to get a list of all my friends who live in Berlin. I knew it must be possible somehow, because the data is right there on individual profiles, but Facebook just showed me ads, and old photos of other friends visiting Berlin.

Isn’t the point of a social network to help me find my friends? Maybe I’m too stupid to use it effectively? At the same time, someone could easily send an ad to all my friends who live in Berlin. Hold on — maybe Facebook isn’t really trying to help me connect with my friends after all?

But this isn’t about Facebook specifically. The wider issue is that so much of the digital infrastructure built by Big Tech is centralized, closed, and controlled. Sure, we can talk about all the accomplishments, the many millions of users, all the money made and the economic impact. At the same time we have to take a deep, hard look at the structures and business models they’re building. Closed networks can win in the short term, but open systems almost always prevail.

Imagine Facebook as an open protocol, instead of a closed platform. Imagine using your favorite app to stay in touch with your friends on any other app, sharing messages, photos, and contact information, without needing to use multiple closed apps. Imagine if the focus was on really staying in touch with people, and not on ads.

If you think about it, most major infrastructure is open and accessible in some sense or another. And you don’t even think about it. Look around at all the amazing technologies that are so familiar that we don’t even think of them as technologies anymore. The buildings we live in, the clothing we wear, the way we cook our food, and the way we transfer ideas with written words. We use these open technologies every day, and only dedicated professionals think of them as technologies at all.

I am not proposing communist utopia here: it is fine to start a company and make a profit. But a street doesn’t force you to drive a certain car. Food doesn’t force you to prepare it in a certain way. Books don’t force you to log in or subscribe. Big Tech forces these kinds of limitations on us. We’ve lost the interoperability. This is why we have so many apps on our phones that basically do the same thing.

Interoperability offers a better experience for everybody, while reducing our reliance to any single platform. If Facebook provided the best way to stay in touch with friends, I’d even pay for it!

Interoperability is not a new idea. Some of the most important pieces of computing were originally designed to be completely open and distributed. Just think of the internet and its underlying open protocols. And remember that openness does not necessarily mean free — there are plenty of ways to make a buck.

Think about email: We don’t expect Google to refuse an email from a different email provider. It just works — there’s no need to have a Google account. This is one of the basic reasons email has been so successful.

You know, we’re not any smarter than our ancestors — we just have better tools and infrastructure. Suppose you were born 5,000 years ago. You wouldn’t be born into nothing, but into an existing culture. You’d learn the accepted language, behaviors, and ways of thinking about the world. We are bound by the limitations of the time and space in which we exist.

No matter how intelligent you were, you couldn’t have invented any tool, idea, or technology we’re using today. Culture shapes how we think. It affects our beliefs, our customs, and our language. The methods and infrastructure of the time define what a society is capable of. We can build from there, but we live our lives bound to the context we are born into. We’re trapped within the borders of our world.

Even though we’re no smarter than our ancestors, humanity's cumulative knowledge has allowed us to expand on the tools and inventions of the past. We live in a world with technology that our ancestors couldn’t have imagined, even though it was built on the backs of their small innovations.

We have created structures that force tech companies to become closed platforms and walled gardens. But we can change our thinking about how we want computing to look. Protecting our turf only impedes our ability to solve problems collaboratively. If we can re-examine those basic assumptions and chart a different course, we can leverage the full potential of the systems that we have today.

There’s just no way around the need for interoperability and open standards.

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My letters are about long-lasting, sustainable change that fundamentally amplifies our human capabilities and raises our collective intelligence through generations. Would love to have you on board.