Transforming Ourselves to Transform Our Networks

DWeb Camp is created by and for radical internet experimenters who are building a more decentralized, people-powered digital future

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“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
— R. Buckminster Fuller

“To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.”
— Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change

Over a year ago I scribbled these quotes onto a whiteboard in my bedroom. You might know Buckminster Fuller, but chances are you haven’t heard of Grace Lee Boggs. A Chinese-American activist philosopher based in Detroit, she was a pillar of the Black freedom struggle through the 20th century. In her view, systemic injustices were rooted in people’s collective actions, which were in turn based on their closely-held beliefs. That’s why Boggs advocated for people to challenge themselves and to make room for the imagination. She believed that a better world could only be built by individuals who do the work to build better selves.

I put these quotes up on my wall, together, because they seemed to encompass a shift in my own theory of change. As a digital commons activist, I used to think along the lines of Fuller — that by simply building a “new model” for the Web, we can make the current dominant institutions obsolete. But the models are not enough. In the decentralized web (DWeb) movement, many innovative technologies have emerged with the promise of building new models for the Web. Yet nearly all of them maintain the status quo. Why is that?

The technologies recreate the same dynamics of power embodied in centralized networks. While the tech may be new and innovative, there is usually very little examination of how the people who build the tech organize themselves. Decentralization technologies will be just as extractive and unethical if we assume that the same types of organizations can create something technologically revolutionary.

This is why DWeb Camp is so significant. To me, this event is about bringing the people behind decentralized technologies together, and reflect, as peers and co-creators, on how we shape the networks and applications we’re building. It’s about recognizing how personal and interpersonal dynamics need to be explored in the same way we experiment and build new networking technologies.

Technology alone gets us nowhere

Libra coin is an extreme example that what matters most with decentralization is how people are organized across the network. Facebook has developed Libra to be a cryptocurrency that makes digital financial transactions seamless. The problem is that Facebook and many powerful corporate subsidiaries, such as Uber, Stripe, and PayPal, would be the entities that governed the currency.

Sure, it’s decentralized in the technical sense. Libra would be operated jointly (at least initially) by 27 partners. But it’s still corporations setting the rules and policing its use. Corporations are extremely centralized and top-down. Not only that, Facebook has a track record of making terrible, short-sighted decisions when it comes to their social media platform.

Maybe some would say that Libra is a success story for the decentralized Web. To me, it’s a horrifying atrocity. It’s not about user empowerment. It’s not about building an inclusive, participatory system. It’s still a way for the most centralized and extractive economic system — the corporation — to mediate our digital relationships.

This is why we need to ask ourselves what aspects of “decentralization” are meaningful to us.

Beyond DWeb: Decentralizing Power

In large part, DWeb people tend to point to the failures of centralized communication networks and the applications used on them. In both these spheres, powerful corporate and state actors are able to colonize users’ attention, data, and their entire relationship to digital information due to the concentrated nature of these systems.

The DWeb movement began around the idea that we need to “lock the Web open” for good, using tech that’s inherently distributed. For many of us, the DWeb movement has grown beyond the idea of creating a decentralized World Wide Web. The term has come to include all manner of decentralized infrastructure across all layers of the network stack.

But by itself, the concept of decentralization alone is not radical enough.

Decentralization has become something of a defining principle, when it’s really more of a feature. It’s presented as a negation of what currently is: those rapacious, domineering corporations and governments that epitomize the dangers of centralization. However, “decentralization” does not strictly prescribe nor suggest any type of social organization. It doesn’t point us toward any meaningful principles about how people in such a network should relate to each other.

This is why Libra coin, even as a decentralized technology, feels so offensive. We need to move beyond the superficiality of decentralization and think about the people and communities who build and use networks. What are the motivations, objectives, and personal values of those who create the technologies and continue to make decisions about how they work?

If we believe that decentralization is fundamentally better, that means those of us who build and maintain these networks and applications need to be more accountable to what “we” create. “We” ought to be anyone who can or wants to take part in these next webs of information and community. Hopefully, that would include a large number of people of all corners of the planet.

Our networked communication needs to allow people to share information in a way that both empowers individuals and builds solidarity within and between communities. People should have the agency to create systems that address the unique challenges in their lives. That’s not possible if we focus on the tech alone.

Transform Ourselves to Transform our Networks

Working towards building the networks of our dreams will be difficult and messy. It’ll take so much trial and error. It will be an ongoing process. But that’s okay! It’s important that we experiment and try new things. We just have to try and do everything in our power not to recreate the problematic circumstances that led to the defective internet we have now.

Let’s talk about how we want to govern, then experiment with how to make decisions together. Let’s create strong guiding principles, such as transparency, inclusiveness, and restorative justice — as opposed to criminal justice — then try to embed our principles into our code and user license agreements.

As we experiment, we have to be willing to accept the limits of our knowledge and expertise. We have to be as attentive and empathetic as possible. Let’s reflect on the failures of the Iinternet, and see how we can start from a place of genuine humility. We need to do this as individuals just as much as we do this as a community of DWebbers.

The great thing about DWeb Camp is that it will be full of fearless experimenters. The event has attracted people who are actively trying things out. These folks can’t wait to see how our digital networks can serve communities better.

Personally, I’m most excited to meet those who approach technological development from a point of individual and collective empowerment. Who strive to liberate themselves from oppressive systems. Who, at the same time, fight for those who are marginalized by society because they would have the most to gain. These are people who challenge themselves to become more “‘human’ human beings” — the types of people Boggs would say are transforming themselves to transform the world.

We think of DWeb Camp as an experiment itself. It’s an experiment in expanding our imagination about what the internet would look like if it were more inclusive, empowering, resilient, and fun. It’s a space for people to play, share, and explore ideas with others who share their curiosity about how “decentralization” is a starting point to build a better Web.

Let’s see what happens!

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