Last night I was lucky enough attend a meetup hosted by Redecentralize.org at Newspeak House in East London. This included a talk by one of the organisation’s founders, followed by “project speed dating session”, which provided attendees with rapid-fire eight minute introductions to six projects in the diverse decentralisation space. These included the distributed computing network Holochain, the BBC’s plan to return control of data to users, the decentralised chat network Matrix, the “smart contract” platform Mattereum, the “decentralised secure gossip platform” Scuttlebutt, and the boldly-named Interplanetary Filesystem. I’ll discuss the keynote as well as briefly summarise what I heard from each of the projects.
There were perhaps thirty or forty people in attendance, in Newspeak House’s industrial-chic open space, on Bethnal Green Road. We chatted or played a miniature version of jenga over drinks the event generously provided, until the arrival of the pizza. After eating and a few more minutes meeting the other attendees, we sat down for a talk by Irina Bolychevsky (who goes by “Ira” or her handle @shevski). Ira gave an impassioned and eloquent speech on the origins of the organisation: In 2013 she, along with Frances Irving and Ross Jones, started Redecentralize.org, which is both the centre of a movement and a research policy institute. Its stated mission is to “fight for a better digital world, which serves the needs of people above companies, and protects privacy, choice and autonomy.” They have goals in three areas: resilience, privacy, and choice. They aim to raise awareness of alternatives and to connect projects to one another, as well as to spread the word to users.
We seek a world of open platforms and protocols with real choices of applications and services for people. We care about privacy, transparency and autonomy. Our tools and organisations should fundamentally be accountable and resilient.
The internet, they observed, had by 2013 lost the sense of decentralised free discourse with which it had begun. For many people their interaction had dwindled down to just a handful of websites, and new or non-technical users were sometimes prone to the problematic (but all-too-easy) misunderstanding that Facebook was the internet. Alongside this reduction in website diversity, massive e-mail services like Gmail were beginning to take such a market share that even e-mail — the archetypal decentralised service — had strayed far from its federated origins.
At the same time, even if one had serious concerns about the direction this was going, one couldn’t ignore services like Facebook without paying a social price: foregoing Facebook could result not just in puzzled looks, but in not being invited to parties or events. Nor could one very well reject the byzantine terms and conditions presented by the latest smartphone, after purchase, when one turns on the phone. And Amazon’s convenience and economies of scale were already killing whole industries. In short, opting out was becoming increasingly unrealistic, and individual resistance seemed impotent and futile.
“This type of centralization gives people less and less freedom, less and less choice.”
Moreover, centralisation not only creates obvious single points of failure, as well as a lack of resiliency, but centralised data is more easily hackable. As the innumerable data breaches over the years have shown, a big corporation’s glossy pages promising security and privacy may appear reassuring from the outside, but they can hide indefensibly awful security on the inside. Apart from the tiny percentage who are hackers themselves, users have virtually zero insight into a company’s security until they get an email about their data being compromised — and of course, without external pressure, companies are reluctant to disclose such breaches.
This leads to another important point about regulation. Ira pointed to the enormous burden put on users, who are expected to read the arcane and impenetrable terms and conditions for all the critical services they use to conduct their lives. This is unrealistic, unsustainable, and unfair. She drew comparisons to building safety and clean water: It would be insane to require people to inspect every building they entered just to be sure it wouldn’t collapse on them, just as it would be inconceivable to require people to carry around testing devices to check if tap water was safe to drink. And yet that is essentially the attitude taken towards users in the digital domain. Communication services are increasingly critical to people’s lives and well-being. The onus should not be on the users to gain the vast technical knowledge required to verify online security, any more than they should be required to learn architecture or chemistry to ensure their physical safety.
If savvy users felt uncomfortable in 2013, by October 2015 there was enough of a quorum of concerned citizens to make for a successful conference in London. The effort was praised by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and its success was emulated by the subsequent Decentralized Web Summit. Since then, with the increasingly mainstream popularity of Bitcoin, and its underlying decentralised “blockchain” technology, as well as the massive privacy and ownership concerns arising from the political maelstrom that was 2016, decentralisation is a more important topic than ever.
But this new interest, of course, has yet to produce a utopia. A poll last year found that 81% of users polled don’t trust Facebook, despite their user base now topping two billion. Ira also pointed to rising concerns with surveillance capitalism, digital monopolies, and broken trust, which mar our ever-more digital lives. “Even banks are monetising data.” Users are thus put into a position where they are not only not the owners of their data, but they are not even the primary users of their data, with the power shifting to advertisers (or more insidious forces) who pay for access to it.
My friends and I had separately discussed some of these issues in a recent discussion in London on freedom, part of an ongoing series of intellectual discussions I’m hosting called Through a Glass Darkly. In particular, to Benjamin Constant’s idea that fighting individual oppressive groups is fruitless, because oppression arises naturally from any concentration of power.
“The critical services we depend on are not designed with our best interests in mind.”
Despite this rather bleak state of affairs, her speech ended on an optimistic note: “It doesn’t have to be this way.” Redecentralize.org will continue to fight for autonomy, choice, and privacy. The organisation intends to do this by supporting an alternative digital ecosystem which is diverse, interoperable, and privacy-focused, by raising awareness, and by recommending policy. They are soliciting help with organisation and fundraising efforts as well as via patronage, and they are actively looking for partners and for people to spread the word.
Decentralised speed dating
After a break, attendees were invited to hear from each of six different projects working on decentralisation from very different angles. The format was “speed dating”: A group would listen to an intense eight minute intro to a project, after which a loud gong was rung, and each group rotated to the next project’s table. I’ll briefly cover the projects in the order in which I heard from them. While the format was exciting, it also meant that there was little time to go into depth about the projects, so my understanding of each project may be incomplete.
The first project was Holochain. This is a project designed to address blockchain shortcomings in scalability and energy consumption. It provides a framework for creating decentralised, lightweight, forking apps, which use an agent-centric, rather than blockchain’s data-centric, approach. If that leaves you dazed, you may not be alone, as one of the more informative articles I found about it is called “WTF is Holochain“. The first major application of Holochain appears to be a cloud hosting service called Holo.
The second was given by Bill Thompson at the BBC. It was encouraging to hear that the BBC shared some of Ira’s concerns about the consequences of centralisation. The BBC is committed to finding ways to divest itself of users’ personal data, which is commendable. They are currently working on a way to re-decentralise user data, so that it is never stored by the BBC, and in a way that would allow that data to be used by other services, who would also not store it. For instance: information about what you watch on iPlayer would be stored on your computer, not their servers, and could be used to give you Netflix recommendations as well, without Netflix ever storing your data either. Even more exciting than solving this technical challenge was the BBC’s commitment to using three of their advantages to further the cause of decentralisation:
- They have the clout to bring the right people into the conversation.
- They regard themselves as an engineering organisation, and employ excellent engineers who can work on aspects of decentralisation.
- They can promote the cause of decentralisation directly through their media outlets.
Next up was Matrix, which is a secure, decentralized chat network. Their offering is working now and looks impressive, with clear inspiration from its intended targets, Slack and Discord. Their pitch was that not only is their offering free, with end-to-end encryption and giving users control of their own data, but their network can even bridge these other chat services. In other words, Matrix users can seamlessly chat to people on Slack, Discord, IRC, XMPP, and so on, without requiring users of those other services to switch to Matrix. Better still, they’ve got a one-click import for Atlassian’s Hipchat which is being discontinued and absorbed by Slack in February.
Fourth was Mattereum, which proposes joint ownership physical property, enforced through blockchain smart contracts. So for example, rather than setting up a company to jointly buy a house, Mattereum would act as an intermediary which would form a company. That company would be legally required to enforce and adhere to the smart contracts, which the users would write in software. This allows for arbitrary rules of ownership, like: if no one is using the house, and some third-party passes some pre-defined test, they will be granted keys to the property for a certain amount of time. Mattereum’s first application will be to buy a $9m Stradivarius, though apparently none of the team actually play violin. CEO Vinay Gupta, who arrived after the presentations, said that the launch would be in January or February.
Next was Scuttlebutt, a decentralised, secure “gossip” platform. I hadn’t heard of this social network, even though I’m on Mastodon, a federated replacement for Twitter. Scuttlebutt is truly peer-to-peer, without Mastodon’s federation, but it appears that an identity is currently tied to a single device. I’m planning to try it out soon.
The final presentation I saw was for IPFS, the so-called Interplanetary Filesystem. This proposes to replace HTTP and provide a method for storing data redundantly across many devices. This will make the web faster, safer, and more open. I’m also planning to try that software out this weekend.
Overall, the projects were ambitious and optimistic. The evening as a whole felt like a breath of fresh air amongst the bad news that has been plaguing technology for the past few years. I look forward to Redecentralize.org’s future events, including a conference they’re planning for 2019.
Originally published at msls.net on December 7, 2018.