“Oh yes?” Tim Berners-Lee’s button could have changed the Internet.

Twenty-five years ago, on December 3, 1997, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, gave a speech at the W3C meeting in London. His talk was notable for his review of the early web, its early development, and his thoughts on the future of the web.

An idea that Berners-Lee posited in his speech: an idea he had been thinking about it for over a year– was undeniably brilliant. He suggested that every browser come with what she called “Oh yeah?” button. The idea was that we would all start building trust through signed metadata as we moved around the web. In a sense, our regular web browsing would create a giant mass trust buildup. “When we have this, we’ll be able to ask the computer not just for information, but why we should believe it,” she said.

Imagine an “Oh yeah?” button on your browser. There you are looking at an amazing deal that can be yours just for the input of a credit card number and the click of a button. Oh yeah?, you think. Press the “Oh yeah?” button. You are asking your browser why you should believe it. In turn, it can ask the server to supply some credentials: perhaps, a signature for the document or a list of documents expressing what that key is for. These documents will be signed. Your browser searches the server, looking for a way to convince you that the page is trustworthy for a purchase. Perhaps it will come out with the approval of a magazine, which in turn was approved by a friend. Perhaps it will come up with an approval from the seller’s bank, which in turn has an approval from your bank. Perhaps he will not find any reason to really believe what you are reading.

The “Oh yeah?” button, it should be noted, wasn’t really about verifying information or locating “truth”. Berners-Lee wasn’t suggesting that ontological certainty would come from the web mob’s ranking of websites that distributed the most accurate information. Rather, the “Oh yeah?” button would suggest a more paradigmatic truth, which is a reasonable approximation that something you read on the web is generally considered credible by most people.

The “Oh yeah?” button was an early warning that we should all be more skeptical of cyberspace in the future. It was also an admission that the web was likely to be used to deceive us with some regularity in the future. Politicians, salesmen, criminals, miscreants and liars would abound and we would need an easy way to counter them in our daily reading of information.

Had that happened, so many woes plaguing the web and social media today — think: “fake news” accusations, disinformation campaigns, and catfishing — could have been addressed from the start.

Yet, in the end, the “Oh yeah?” button has never been installed on our browsers. Too many factors have conspired against it. In Berners-Lee’s original example, he noted his direct challenge to advertising. As the web became increasingly commercial, the idea that a simple click of a button could reveal the paradigmatic truth about any product’s advertised claims posed an almost existential threat to its usefulness as a sales vehicle. The “Oh yeah?” button may also have resulted in increased tension and arguments as the web evolved towards social media. Imagine the anger that would ignite if you let your crazy uncle know what your browser “Oh yeah?” button informed you of his latest conspiracy on Facebook.

The “Oh yeah?” button, for all its admirable skepticism, also contained a major flaw that would only be revealed in the algorithmic age. Since each of our browsers would independently accumulate signed metadata based on our distinct use of the web, each of our “Oh yeah?” buttons would present us with distinct and unique paradigmatic truths. Just like no two completely identical social media feeds, chances are no two “Oh yeah?” buttons would return identical results. Berners-Lee, way back in 1997, was too optimistic about the possibility of accumulating and distributing a shared reality in the future. We now know that we prefer social media algorithms that funnel us into worlds where our biases and beliefs require no skepticism. Why would anyone want to click an “Oh, yeah?” button to check hilarious political meme that reconfirms exactly what they already know is true? Why spoil the fun?

In retrospect, we finally exchanged the “Oh, yeah?” button for “Like” button.. And that was huge mistake.

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