Legos, Airplanes and the Future of the Web

IN THE UNITED STATES we have a two-party system — well, technically. There’s the Democrats, the Republicans, and then the dozens of mini parties within and outside the main Parties, not to mention the multitudes of non-affiliated, disenfranchised and disillusioned.

But for all its failings, Democracy is an open system which, for the most part, works. It beats the opposite, that being a closed system akin to oligarchy or monarchy. We can do better with our current form of Democracy, but I’d rather let everyone have a voice even if I disagree, rather than have no voice at all.

The Internet now faces a similar choice — stay open, as World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee intended, or revert to a more closed system of apps and pay walls, akin to the ‘80s when CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL reigned.

I admit, this is an over-simplification of a complex issue. Like the two major political parties, the truth rarely lies at the extremes but rather somewhere in the middle.

Nevertheless, in our desire to bring order to our virtual universe, we are in danger of losing our ability to innovate.

As with an election, we have a choice here, too: we can either play with Legos or build model airplanes.

Legos — the real kind, before they came pre-packaged with directions on how to build an Imperial Cruiser — left everything to the imagination. Legos are open, endless, iterative and collaborative. Legos are a doorway to innovation.

Model airplanes, however, require deliberateness and order (not to mention a lot of rubber cement and a cool temper.) If you stray from the model or the approved directions, the plane won’t fly. Model airplanes are finite; they have rules and are largely solitary endeavors.

The Web is the ultimate Lego set, a digital tapestry of zeros and ones capable of endless discovery. Yet all this potential is tempered by the sheer volume of information, and it’s this overload which, in part, has prompted the rise of apps and walled-off social gardens.

I believe both Legos and model airplanes can co-exist — neither needs to spell the death of the Web or stem innovation.

You can have the Apple approach where all apps for the iPhone, iPad and soon Mac store need to meet certain stands and approvals, both technical and societal — and you can also have apps for the Android mobile platform and Mozilla app store, where developers have more freedom to play with their digital Legos and create without constraint.

The Internet needs the Web, as do the millions in developing countries who still rely on the open Web for information and education. Not everyone has an iTunes account and a credit card.

The Web’s beauty is in its simplicity — a universal digital language that crosses borders with the ease of sunlight. And its strength is in its freedom, in the unknown potential of what it is and yet could be.

I know if I follow the directions, my model airplane will fly on the first try. But given the choice, I’d rather have the freedom to experiment and learn from the crash.

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