Is Contact Tracing the dWeb's Killer App?
The dWeb is a great idea: we all recognize the need for more safety and decentralization online. Indeed, the potential applications seem endless and exciting; and never more needed in today’s climate.
Could it be used for secure online voting? to stop the spread of fake news? to protect the identities of political activists and other vulnerable people online? to rescue our personal data from the grubby hands of global social media corporations? The answer seems to be yes, the decentralised web can quite possibly be used to help solve these issues.
These are some of the major social and political issues of our times, so why is the dWeb not being championed, resourced and implemented worldwide? Is the fact that the widespread decentralization of data poses such a threat to Big Government and Big Tech the reason for its still relative obscurity? The answer is more complicated than that.
What’s Preventing the dWeb from Going Mainstream?
One of the key problems posed by the dWeb is how it is going to be funded. Without the lure of abundant user data to bring in advertisers, who is going to pay for all this? While it’s not necessarily something which should be a huge stumbling block from the outset—when the current internet was conceived, no one could have imagined that user data would go on to become more valuable than gold, after all—it is somewhat of a chicken-and-egg situation. If the user base doesn’t become more widespread, then more money isn’t going to be invested, yet in its current format, it’s still not user-friendly enough to attract the multitudes.
Part of the problem is that we have been spoiled rotten with ever-increasing wifi speeds which load content in the blink of an eye, genius UX design that knows what you want to do before you do, and AI that carries it out without you having to lift a finger. Are we prepared to go back to using glitchy, less-than-perfect applications? We have already shown ourselves to be more than willing to hand over ever-increasing amounts of personal data for the most insignificant of rewards (ever said OK to cookies to save the 5 seconds it would take to change the settings?)
This suggests that, if users are going to start using the technology, the promise of secure browsing and protected identities, whilst a draw, isn’t enough. The dWeb can’t be sold as just a decentralized version of the internet we know, because users are just going to be frustrated by having to learn another tool. What is needed is something that the dWeb can deliver that they can’t live without.
Like social media for the web 2.0 or the camera feature for mobile phones, the dWeb needs its killer app to really get people to understand what it’s for.
Finding the dWeb’s Killer App
For those of you who are old enough, cast your minds back to the first time someone told you about the internet. Chances are, you used it to set up a Hotmail account and not much else. If someone told you back then, that in 20 years' time you’d be living your life on it, you’d probably be thinking how much email one person could possibly send. Nobody knew back then all the possibilities that would emerge from the internet because many of these possibilities only became apparent once a critical mass had signed up to use it. Only a few people understood its potential, the rest of us just signed up for an email account.
The same thing needs to happen with the dWeb: the majority of users don’t want to have to get their heads around the full potential of the technology, they want it to give them something that they didn’t realize they needed and that they can’t get elsewhere, and they need for everyone else to be on there too. Until that moment, the dWeb is going to be stuck on the fringes.
Perhaps this is the moment for the solution we didn’t know we needed. In many ways, there couldn’t be a more perfect time for a “compassionate technology” that puts control in the hands of the people. At a time of global division, when all sides are united in their distrust of centralized power, isn’t this the perfect moment for the dWeb to explode? Maybe we don’t know it yet but the dWeb is about to go mainstream.
The Spread of Coronavirus and Search for a Solution
As we enter the final quarter of 2020, a year that has been obliterated by COVID-19, we still look no closer to getting a handle on the global health pandemic. Whilst some countries see their cases continue to climb, others struggle to contend with a second wave whilst trying to reopen, others try to figure out how to deal with the economic ramifications.
With most experts agreeing that we are still almost a year away from a vaccine, even when it makes its appearance, there are questions over how it will be manufactured on a wide enough scale and made available to those in the most need, rather than to those with the deepest pockets. On top of that are the anti-vaxxer brigade: what began as a fringe group of conspiracy theorists now seems to have gone mainstream, with almost 50% of Americans polled saying they would not take a vaccine for coronavirus. Without widespread acceptance, even when a vaccine does become available, the virus will continue to spread and mutate.
In the meantime, what is becoming more apparent is the need to get a handle on and contain the spread of the virus, whilst trying to keep the economy going and maintain a sense of normality for the population. The virus, or variants of it, looks like it may be here to stay for the near future and those countries who have found a way to adjust to ‘the new normal’ are the ones who have been affected the least. We can look to Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand and Singapore for examples of how careful management and control has been able to minimize damage both in terms of health and the economy. All countries have focused heavily on track-and-trace to quickly find cases and deal with them. These systems require both investment by governments and also buy-in from the general population, something which is proving particularly difficult in some nations where such technology is viewed as a covert means of mass surveillance. Both the UK and Australia’s attempts at launching their own, centralized track-and-trace apps have proved unsuccessful after failing to gain widespread acceptance. Meanwhile, in the US, human efforts at contact tracing have been thwarted by an uncooperative and suspicious population.
In the UK, Google and Apple have stepped forward as the unlikely solution to privacy concerns, by offering a contract tracing app using decentralized technology to protect sensitive user data. Unsurprisingly, the offer was met with some level of distrust but, increasingly it is looking like the collaboration may offer the most feasible solution to the complex task of contact tracing.
Another company offering a decentralized contact-tracing app is blockchain platform Nodle, who may have more credibility in terms of data protection and we may end up seeing a kind of hybrid deal between the two proposals.
What is very promising about all these conversations is that they are bringing decentralized technology into the public conversation. Complex issues can enter into mainstream consciousness through necessity, and the COVID-19 pandemic and the search for a solution may just have brought about the conditions whereby the decentralized web finally goes mainstream.