OneWebDay: A toast to the net

The internet is a wondrous anomaly, a technical and creative achievement grander than the Tower of Babel, an infinite tangle of knowledge, ideals, data, entertainment, beauty, trivia, terror, news, noise, hubris, despair. It’s a cultural blender, a mixmaster archive crammed with visions, twits and everyday things.

I’ve been thinking about the net, and its vastness, in anticipation of OneWebDay on Sept. 22. That’s an informal, loosely organized global celebration of the World Wide Web. This year the organizers are trying to focus attention on policies that can make the web available to more people. You can find a variety of events, meetings and parties in cities around the world, or organize your own, on the OneWebDay web site.

This year I’m supporting the effort as a OneWebDay Ambassador. I hope you’ll find a local event, chime in, or simply think about whether OneWebDay makes any sense. I’d like to know what you think of it.


OneWebDay, if it matters, can raise awareness of important policy issues – like Net Neutrality and the Digital Divide – that aren’t on most people’s minds every day. If the only people who care about OneWebDay are the ones who already care about those issues, then the day is pointless.

The name of the day itself has me thinking about the paradox of the networked culture. The web is hardly unified, the people who use it certainly aren’t, and as much as our assorted digital networks may connect us, they also divide us. I’m not sure I’d want it any other way.

I love the web and the idea that we may use it to carve a path toward a better future for more people. I also love the competitive market that has encouraged entrepreneurs to imagine new uses for the web, some of which may be part of the formula for a better future.

But I don’t know that the web will get us there – or, really, that the web, one for all and all for one, is as worthy a cause as earth, or Earth Day. Some days I need to turn off the web, tune out, drop out. I never feel that way about the planet – and don’t need a special day to think about it.

OneWebDay is a paradox. The web seems boundless, endless, limitless, but really it’s just vast, overwhelming and confusing. It doesn’t know everything, or everyone. It doesn’t go everywhere. Some people don’t use it, billions can’t, and while that’s a tasty social and business challenge for policy- and market-makers, it pales against life-or-death challenges like lack of clean water, hunger and infectious diseases – all of which are symptoms of what economist Jeffrey Sachs calls extreme poverty – the deepest, most desperate kind of poverty. I’d like to see amazing wireless broadband networks everywhere – but not before there’s a decent water supply, shelter, food, vaccines, education and peace on the ground. I don’t want the web to be used for better war reporting. I want it to be used to stop wars.

Maybe a better, faster, cheaper, vaster web will help us achieve these things – I’m encouraged by projects like Charity:Water and Twestival; by code-saavy activists like those from the Sunlight Foundation, which uses technology to shed more light on how government works; and by daring, on-the-ground digital media makers like those from Witness, who use video and photography on the web to document and oppose human rights abuses.

Yet the web, so vast already, deep in insight, full of promise, also churns in a great race for dominance and control. So, today, Google dominates online search and advertising built around it; Paypal dominates online commerce and transactions; Facebook dominates social networking and photo sharing; Twitter dominates microblogging; and governments vie for control of the Internet itself – and access to whatever anyone may say or do with it. Key telecom companies and governments dominate the unseen wires and fibres that pump all our data from one place to another, and devices that can monitor and filter what we say, what we see.

The net is at once open and vast as well as closed and constrained by physical limits, economic inequities and unseen forces.

This paradox of the net is at the heart of a movement of policy and tech activists who have been talking about the Digital Divide since the early days of the web. The divide, rarely mentioned in business settings, is about haves and have-nots, and in the digital culture access to the network is a bright line of political and economic division, much like access to clean water, education or a safe, secure home. In the U.S. and other developed countries, access of some sort is now widespread – at least 63% of adult Americans had some sort of broadband at home in 2009 – and that’s far less than the 95 percent who have access in South Korea.

Where ever you live, the quality of your web access – in terms of speed, convenience, freedom and the sophistication of users – remains unequal. China has the world’s biggest online audience, but the Chinese Internet, like other forms of media, is monitored and controlled by government censors. Twitter may have helped us keep up with riots in Tehran this summer – but we’re hearing less now about the trials and punishments of arrested protesters. I’m thinking about them as OneWebDay approaches.

The genius of the web has always been the hyperlink – the way we point from one idea to the next. That simple notion, coded 20 years ago into a language that both computers and people can understand, spawned a torrent of technical and social innovation – truly a creative explosion that not only redefined business and culture but gave rise to a new canvas for creativity itself. The slogan of the blogging platform WordPress captures that spirit: Code is Poetry.

I’m thinking of OneWebDay in those terms, as a vast experiment in collaborative art. Artists help us understand the world, challenge perceptions and shine light on our inner lives, on the most personal and subjective perspectives of the human experience. A few are celebrated. Most toil in obscurity. In some ways it feels like the web has turned us all into performance artists. Some of us know it, some don’t.

Seen in that light, OneWebDay seems well worth a toast. Its promise remains limitless. I can’t wait to see what’s next. The Digital Renaissance has only just begun.

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