Wasn’t The Internet Supposed to Unleash an Innovation Explosion?

“One of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.

And that’s what a computer is to me… the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”

– Steve Jobs (1990)

The Internet was expected to unleash a torrent of latent creative power, as ordinary people acquired the power to build and share anything online. Over its early years, the Internet delivered. All kinds of cool craziness sprouted on the Internet. It blossomed as a wild west of creativity and strangeness.

Sadly, over the past two decades, mega corporations have taken over the Internet and made it a passive entertainment medium, where those mega corporations guide us to content and advertising they want to push into our brains, much like television. Where’s the innovation? Where’s the creativity? Where’s the self-expression? Where’s the strangeness?

Part of the problem is that corporations profit when people behave as passive information recepticles and eager consumers.

Another part of the problem is that creating content on the Internet remains frightfully difficult. In its early days, anyone could cobble together some HTML and maybe a little CSS (blink tags, anyone?) and a touch of JavaScript and share their creation with the world. In 2020, Internet programming is exceedingly complicated… and I say that as a professional programmer. Learning to build a modern, dynamic, professional website can take years.

What happened to me yesterday illustrates how hard the Internet has become, and the role of both corporate greed and technical complexity in killing the dream of the Internet as a farmer’s market for sharing ideas.

Let’s Encrypt is fabulous and fabulously free service that makes it relatively painless to get a free SSL certificate for any website you want to serve up securely on port 443. In 2020, every webpage should be served up over HTTPS over port 443 using an SSL cert unless it’s totally innocuous static content. Even then, Google and other search engines will lower your page ranking if you’re serving up pages insecurely. So, this is essentially required today. Something that is required of all websites should be easy, right? Read on…

To use Let’s Encrypt, you must prove you own the domain name you’re requesting a certificate for by passing some tests that require you to tweak your website. Let’s Encrypt requests changes then tests your website by connecting to it over the standard non-encrypted HTTP port 80 (since you don’t yet have an SSL certificate).

I spent most of Saturday trying to use Let’s Encrypt to generate SSL certificates. I figured this would take 15 to 30 minutes, but it wound up taking the entire day. I implemented about five different solutions, each of which should have worked but all of which failed.

Around 10:00 pm, I finally discovered the problem after realizing the problem wasn’t my server code. I Googled for networking-related issues and discovered that my ISP (Internet Service Provider) – Optimum – blocks port 80! Although I had been able to connect to my website over port 80 (since I connect to it directly on my home computer without going over Optimum’s network), no one else – most importantly Let’s Encrypt – could because Optimum blocks it by default!

Unless you pay for “Boost,” you can’t unblock your port 80, so any Optimum user who can’t afford to upgrade from basic Internet access can be only a passive Internet consumer, not a website creator.

Luckily, I was able to unblock port 80 (after wasting a day because I hadn’t imagined it might be blocked). But Optimum provides only really weak outbound Internet speeds, and customers can’t buy anything faster. Their service is very good for consuming the Internet, but absolutely horrible for serving up content over the Web.

I just ran Speedtest.net and am currently getting 326MB on downloads and 33MB on uploads. With Optimum, I can’t pay for faster uploads. It’s just not possible, so I couldn’t run a popular website.

Even worse, thanks to our corrupt system, which allows legislators to effectively grant monopoly power in exchange for campaign contributions, Optimum effectively is an ISP monopoly in my town. My only other option (aside from terrible Internet access via satellite or wifi) is Frontier, which tells me it can get me “speeds as fast as 18M,” which is about 18 times slower than the 300M I’m getting (on downloads) from Optimum. I have no other options.

Beyond self-expression, the ability to serve up content over the Internet is essential to businesses of all size in 2020. Slow Internet speeds are a competitive disadvantage, and fast Internet is an advantage. In Austin, TX, there are five ISPs offering 1,000MB / 1GB Internet for $35 to $70 month. Just this month, Oracle, Tesla, and Hewlett Packard all announced they’re moving to Austin, TX.

JavaScript remains the only browser-native programming language, and it and its ecosystm are way too complicated. Even on “Hacker News,” where tech bros love to brag about their brilliance, admissions that JavaScript is unnecessarily confusing are easy to find: “if only the tooling was too complicated, it would not be too bad. IMAO the entire front-end JS world is one big pile of MISERY… [I]t only gets more complex and tiresome every day… [Besides], JS is deprecated, it’s Typescript now!”.

The ability to create and share content over the Internet should be universal in 2020, not a privilege available only to those lucky enough to live somewhere where politicians haven’t sold their souls for telecom company campaign contributions and have devoted years to studying the unnecessarily complex intricacies of JavaScript.

(With appreciation to Lars Kienle for the photo on Unsplash)