In the future, the web must be open

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On stage at this year's Great Wide Open conference, Steven Klabnik made a sobering proclamation.

"We have completely failed non-programmers and their ability to use computers," he said.

Klabnik works for marketplace payment company Balanced, where he is—and how awesome is this?—Philosopher in Residence. His job, he says, "is to pay attention to where things are going and also think about where we should be going."

So for years, Klabnik has been thinking about web standards, the technical protocols that govern the way anyone accesses the World Wide Web. Much of the web's lingua franca, (HTML, CSS, JavaScript), has been standardized—that is, people who write software for the World Wide Web have come to an agreement about the way certain technologies should work and the way they'll implement those technologies. A webpage appears the same on both Mozilla's Firefox and Google's Chrome because those companies have agreed to program their browsers in accordance with the official rules for displaying that page.

Open-minded folks like Klabnik think standards are vital to the future of the web. And the web, in turn, is vital to the future of humanity.

"The web is something that is very human," Klabnik said. "It's not owned by a company. It's not controlled by a particular corporate interest. The web is something that we have all built for humanity."

In recent years, the web has evolved. And as it changes, Klabnik said, so too should the way we think about standardizing it.

"The web has been undergoing this identity crisis in the last couple years," he said, "whereas it was originally a way to share documents with people, and has now kind of accidentally turned into a universal application runtime. And those things are very, very different."

In other words, the web is now a platform, an environment common to users traditionally barred from working together because of software incompatibilities (think of the rift between Mac OS and Windows in the early 1990s). But imagining the web as a platform means turning the traditional standardization process on its head, Klabnik said.

Currently, browser vendors dictate the features they'd like to become standards. They argue and debate the merits of implementing a feature in a particular way, and eventually (in weeks, months, even years) reach an agreement about a standard way to handle that feature. Then they inform web standards bodies (like the W3C) of the new rules; these bodies, in turn, tell web developers how to incorporate those standards into tools like browsers.

Klabnik wants to see the process reversed: web developers and standards bodies should be telling vendors what to do. This way, everyone can be sure that only web standards not tied to specific corporate agendas get ratified.

By sticking to business as usual, developers are failing users, Klabnik said. They also continue to make life more complicated for those users. The web makes dealing with clunky relics of bygone computing days (like filesystems) unnecessay, because it hides those elements from users and instead foregrounds the tasks people want to accomplish. Eventually, Klabnik says, all computing will function as web browsing does—hence the subtitle of his talk, "Browsers are Eating the World" (a riff on Marc Andreesen's quip about software in general). But as the web occupies an increasingly central role in people's lives, the rules by which we control it become more important, too.

Klabnik doesn't want anyone to forget that.

"I would love to see more of us pay attention to standards, he said. "Since they define our universe, it'd be nice to have some role in defining that universe too."

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Steve Klabink is a Developer and Philospoher in Residence at Balanced, as well as a prolific Open Source contributor. He's a Rails Core Committer and contributes heavily to Rust's documentation. When he's not reading Deleuze, he's writing and has "Designing with Hypermedia API's", "Rust for Rubyists", and "Rails 4 in Action" to his credit.

Bryan Behrenshausen
Bryan formerly managed the Open Organization section of, which features stories about the ways open values and principles are changing how we think about organizational culture and design. He's worked on since 2011. Find him online as semioticrobotic.

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