25 years ago, on Dec. 3, 1997, the founder 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.
Another idea that Berners-Lee put forward in his speech—an idea that he had been thinking about for more than a year—was undeniably brilliant. He suggested that all browsers be equipped with what he called the “Oh, Yeah?” button. The idea was that we would all start building trust with signed metadata as we navigate the web. In a sense, our regular web browsing can create a huge accumulation of loyalty from the masses. “If we have this, we will be able to ask the computer not only to find information, but why we should believe it,” he said.
Just think “Oh, yeah?” button in your browser. Here you are looking for a great deal that can be yours just by entering a credit card number and clicking a button. Really?, you think. He presses “Oh, yes?” button. You ask your browser why you should believe it. In turn, it can challenge the server to provide some information: perhaps, a document signature or a list of documents that indicate what that key is good for. Those documents will be signed. Your browser probes the server, looking for a way to convince you that the page is trustworthy for purchase. Maybe it will come with an endorsement from a magazine, endorsed by a friend. It will probably come with an authorization from the merchant’s bank, which in turn has an authorization from your bank. Perhaps he will find no reason to believe what he is reading at all.
“Oh, yes?” The button, it should be noted, wasn’t really about verifying information or finding the “truth.” Berners-Lee was not suggesting that ontological certainty could come from the ranking of a web group of websites that disseminate the most accurate information. Instead, the “Oh, Yeah?” button can suggest a surprising fact—that is, a reasonable estimate of whether something you read on the web was considered credible by most people.
“Oh, yes?” button represents an early warning that we will all need to be more skeptical in cyberspace in the future. And it was an acknowledgment that the web, in the future, would be used to deceive us in general. Politicians, salesmen, criminals, criminals, and liars can be common, and we will need an easy way to deal with them in our daily search for information.
If it had, so many of the ills plaguing the web and social media today—think: alleged “fake news”, disinformation campaigns, and phishing—would not have been solved in the first place.
However, in the end, “Oh, Yes?” button was not included in our browsers. There are too many factors conspiring against it. In Berners-Lee’s first example, he noted its direct challenge to marketing. As the web grows increasingly commercial, the idea that a simple click of a button can reveal the surprising truth about any product’s advertised claims represents an imminent danger to its use as a sales vehicle. “Oh, yes?” button can also cause a lot of tension and controversy as the web evolves into social media. Imagine the outrage if you let your crazy uncle know that your browser says “Oh, Yeah?” button informed you of his latest Facebook conspiracy.
“Oh, yes?” the button, for all its admirable skepticism, also contains a fundamental flaw that would only be revealed in the algorithmic era. Because each of our browsers can independently collect signature metadata based on our unique web usage, each of our “Oh, Yeah?” buttons can present different, unique paradigmatic truths. Just as no two social media feeds are exactly the same, there are probably no two “Oh, Yeah?” buttons will return the same findings. Berners-Lee, back in 1997, was very optimistic about the possibility of gathering and spreading shared truth in the future. We now know that we are choosing social media algorithms that are ushering in a world where our biases and beliefs need not be questioned. Why would anyone want to click “Oh, Yes?” button to check a hilarious political meme that reaffirms what they already know to be true? Why spoil the fun?
In retrospect, we finally traded “Oh, Yeah?” “Like” button. And that was great error.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that explores emerging technology, public policy, and society.