The overhead of performing even simple tasks online is getting larger and larger. I question the security of almost all these supposedly "secure" messaging systems. And I'm tired of the 'Utopia of Rules' mindset pervasive in every organization. It's exhausting how they expect customers to constantly adapt to their needs.

Playing Kerplunk

I don't know if you recall the game Kerplunk. It's a classic children's game that has been around for decades. I remember playing it with my sister. The basic setup involves a transparent plastic tube, a number of sticks, and marbles. The sticks are threaded through the tube to form a web or nest at the bottom on which the marbles rest. We'd take turns removing a stick at a time, trying not to let any marbles fall through the web and out of the tube. At some point, the remaining sticks can't hold the marbles and everything falls down.

The modern web reminds me more and more of a big Kerplunk game and I think the marbles are about to fall. What started out as an easier way to do things like shop, bank, and get health care information has become increasingly complex over time. More and more of the email I receive seems to be simply directing me to log into some bespoke system to retrieve a message or engage in some workflow. And even with a password manager, the act of logging in is often a chore with different user interfaces, custom MFA requirements, and weird rules for passwords. Once you're on the system, session time-outs induce their own form of anxiety since stepping away for a few minutes to attend to something else might require going through the whole Kafkaesque process all over again. The modern web has turned into a dystopian theater of the absurd where even reading a simple appointment reminder from your doctor requires several minutes of stress-inducing interaction with baroque systems and processes.

And it's not just doctors, of course, banks, government agencies, hospitals, ecommerce sites, and customer service systems all adopt these special purpose messaging systems. If you ask these organizations why they use bespoke messaging systems, they'll list things like "timely and improved communication," "convenience," and "privacy and security." But the real reason is that it's more convenient for them because these systems are integrated with their backends and make their processes more manageable. There's certainly nothing about them that's more convenient, timely, or better than email for their customers1.

I also question the privacy and security premise. Email can be insecure. And your email provider can see the contents of your emails. But the messaging system run by your doctor or bank is likely less secure than the email systems run by Apple, Google, and the others. And achieving privacy by making everything incompatible so that you have to use a different system for each correspondent is like chopping off your finger to prevent hangnails.

How did we get here? Bureaucracy. Not just government bureaucracy, but bureaucracy of all kinds. In Utopia of Rules2, David Graeber talks about how power imbalances force the less powerful group to perform what he calls interpretive labor, the work of understanding and implementing what's better or more convenient for the more powerful partner. People are not equal participants in online interactions. We don't have the tools to be fully embodied online3. Because of this we are forced to play by the rules organizations online who are digitally embodied with servers, identity systems, customer management systems, and so on. And part of that is being forced to use their inconvenient and anemic messaging systems.

What's the answer? People need tools. I think digital wallets (a bad name for an important tool), autonomic (peer) identifiers with strong cryptography, and verifiable credentials are a huge step forward. These tools provide the means for people to be peers online rather that mere ghosts in someone else's machine. That's why I insist on using the term self-sovereign rather than decentralized to describe these systems. Cogito Ergo Sum.


  1. For a deeper dive into why one-off messaging systems are never as good as email, see Rich Sharing and Personal Channels. Email and other useful messaging systems exhibit a property called rich sharing that makes them much more robust that the simple idea of "sharing a message" would bring to mind.
  2. If you're interested in power imbalances and how they come about, I can't recommend Graeber's book highly enough. He had such a keen understanding of this problem and wrote about it in a way that's both informative and entertaining.
  3. I talk about this in more detail in Chapter 17 of Learning Digital Identity when I discuss authentic digital relationships.

Photo Credit: Playing Kerplunk from DALL-E (public domain) Prompt: Draw a picture of a boy and girl playing kerplunk that's 1200x500 pixels

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Last modified: Mon Apr 15 13:44:52 2024.