The internet has become an extractive and fragile monoculture. But we can revitalize it using lessons learned by ecologists.

Our online spaces are not ecosystems, though tech firms love that word. They’re plantations; highly concentrated and controlled environments...

We all know this. We see it each time we reach for our phones. But what most people have missed is how this concentration reaches deep into the internet’s infrastructure — the pipes and protocols, cables and networks, search engines and browsers. These structures determine how we build and use the internet, now and in the future.

They’ve concentrated into a series of near-planetary duopolies.

Two kinds of everything may be enough to fill a fictional ark and repopulate a ruined world, but can’t run an open, global “network of networks” where everyone has the same chance to innovate and compete.

The internet made the tech giants possible. Their services have scaled globally, via its open, interoperable core. But for the past decade, they’ve also worked to enclose the varied, competing and often open-source or collectively provided services the internet is built on into their proprietary domains. Although this improves their operational efficiency, it also ensures that the flourishing conditions of their own emergence aren’t repeated by potential competitors. For tech giants, the long period of open internet evolution is over. Their internet is not an ecosystem. It’s a zoo.

Up close, internet concentration seems too intricate to untangle; from far away, it seems too difficult to deal with. But what if we thought of the internet not as a doomsday “hyperobject,” but as a damaged and struggling ecosystem facing destruction? What if we looked at it not with helpless horror at the eldritch encroachment of its current controllers, but with compassion, constructiveness and hope?

Rewilding “aims to restore healthy ecosystems by creating wild, biodiverse spaces,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. More ambitious and risk-tolerant than traditional conservation, it targets entire ecosystems to make space for complex food webs and the emergence of unexpected interspecies relations. It’s less interested in saving specific endangered species. Individual species are just ecosystem components, and focusing on components loses sight of the whole. Ecosystems flourish through multiple points of contact between their many elements, just like computer networks. And like in computer networks, ecosystem interactions are multifaceted and generative.

Whatever we do, the internet isn’t returning to old-school then-common interfaces like FTP and Gopher, or organizations operating their own mail servers again instead of off-the-shelf solutions like G-Suite. But some of what we need is already here, especially on the web. Look at the resurgence of RSS feeds, email newsletters and blogs, as we discover (yet again) that relying on one app to host global conversations creates a single point of failure and control. New systems are growing, like the Fediverse with its federated islands, or Bluesky with algorithmic choice and composable moderation.

We don’t know what the future holds. Our job is to keep open as much opportunity as we can, trusting that those who come later will use it. Instead of setting purity tests for which kind of internet is most like the original, we can test changes against the values of the original design. Do new standards protect the network’s “generality,” i.e. its ability to support multiple uses, or is functionality limited to optimize efficiency for the biggest tech firms?

...our internet took off because it was designed as a general-purpose network, built to connect anyone.

Our internet was built to be complex and unbiddable, to do things we cannot yet imagine.

Internet infrastructure is a degraded ecosystem, but it’s also a built environment, like a city. Its unpredictability makes it generative, worthwhile and deeply human.

We need to stop thinking of internet infrastructure as too hard to fix. It’s the underlying system we use for nearly everything we do.

Rewilding the internet connects and grows what people are doing across regulation, standards-setting and new ways of organizing and building infrastructure, to tell a shared story of where we want to go. It’s a shared vision with many strategies. The instruments we need to shift away from extractive technological monocultures are at hand or ready to be built.

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