Notes on “How P2P Will Save the World”

Notes on Steal This Show S02E13 “How P2P Will Save the World” in which Jamie King interviews Berkman Center fellow and researcher in decentralized collaboration Samer Hassan.

NOTE: Paraphrasing and synthesis ahead…

Decentralized collaboration for social movements, for collaborative communities, for social activism

Issues with centralized cloud services
- Privacy and surveillance — their ability to see what docs and apps you’re storing on their servers
- Censorship — their ability to remove things they don’t like
- Predatory ToS
- Reliance on the legislation of one particular place, generally California. Doesn’t care about your local legislation, culture or context

“There is no cloud, it’s just someone else’s computer”
 — Hassan

Cloud based centralized tool v. decentralized tool

SH~ Take email
In facebook there is one entity that is controlling everything going through facebook. If I want to communicate with you on facebook and I don’t have a facebook account, I have to create a facebook account to communicate with you. It’s not interoperable with any other service.
With email, I don’t care where you have your email provider. All email providers are compatible with one another, are interoperable with one another, because they’re using a decentralized protocol. There is no one central entity that controls all of the emails that are sent. It doesn’t matter how big some parts are, like gmail. Structurally, there is no central control of the structure.

JK~ But I read an article by Benjamin Mako Hill
that so many people use gmail that, obvs so many people use it that gmail has surveillance capacity, that even if you’re not using gmail, they are, and as you send and receive emails with them google has that surveillance capacity anyway. Hill runs his own email server and found that 57% of his emails went through gmail. Their big innovation was never empty your inbox.

“Why delete anything when you have so much space?”
 — Asshole (Ed.)

…and so we get “shadow profiles.”

We use N-1 for the same reason that we’re vegetarian. It’s because of conviction.

Dirty” and “Clean” Tools

JK~ The neo-liberal agenda
provided the lowcost air travel that enabled the anti-globalist travel, the cheap travel to fight the agenda enabling occupy and others. The tools don’t matter when you consider the emergent movements that grow on top of them.

SH~ The first open source tools
were built by proprietary tools, necessarily.

JK~Like urban squatting,
rather than being autonomous, building an Earth ship or whatever, you’ve opened an empty place in the urban sprawl and use the resources around you — skip-dive, rewire the electricity. You use the “dirty” stuff, even though it’s connected to the city, not autonomous, but you build on top of the existing system.

SH~ Post Snowden, we’re living in a moment
where the values that a lot of people have aren’t aligned with those of the tools that exist.

Post Snowden, people are seeking encryption, seeking decentralized systems, that people’s emerging values aren’t met by the existing tools

Build stuff not just for the super ideologically committed, not just for the hard core activist.
…it can use a lot dirty stuff, and something from the co-op.

Stallman was right

JK~ Free as in freedom software is essential
Control of your operating system is super important. In America now people are scared of the government, and there is a real chance that control of your operating system could become an issue.

SH~ Not just gov’t., but collaboration
between private corporations and government.

JK~ Like Palantir and DHS
collaborating to round up immigrants. Reminiscent of IBM and the Nazis.

SH~ We’re obviously changing and transitioning,
the question is to where. We’re in a multidimensional crisis where the situation seems dramatic, but this could lead to a situation that no one can expect.

Trump Trump Trump

JK~ 4Chan meme creation + reddit meme replication
+ reddit alt-right + twitter messaging. It had seemed like government was captured. Actors swapping on a stage. We’d had Obama and Blair, who’d promised a 3rd way, and it just wound up being neoliberalism +1. That seemed to be all you could get. The end of history and all that. It doesn’t matter what you vote for, you’re just gonna get another puppet. And then Trump comes on and you realized it’s all to play for. Like that could have been Bernie Sanders. We’re in a moment where a lot of weird things can happen.

“Traditionally you’d need unions and churches. Now you just need Pepe the Frog and you can get a proper little fascist movement on the go”
 — King

Fight the power

SH~ So, if we’re doing this marvelous stuff,
with mostly centralized communications platforms, we’re basically exchanging messages, we’re not building together, facebook is not made for that, we don’t build stuff, we communicate and coordinate protest, or change opinion. But we can do much more. If we are doing this with such basic technology, with narrowly minded technologies, what can we do with really empowering technologies that are decentralized?

JK~ How do you get people to create stuff
that exists outside of the numbing app ecology, that’s super limiting?

SH~ Developer tools take for granted centralization,
and they build from there. We’re building a platform to facilitate app development on a decentralized system — SwellRT. A platform cooperativism approach. As opposed to large centralized, predatory platforms with governance in California, where both the communities that are using the software and the workers are disempowered, where the elites of the corporation has the decision making power. Let’s think of how we can use the classical model of co-ops for the platform economy.

Amazon and Uber. Monopoly gangbusters. Come in with a ton of money and drive everyone out of business. Frictionless capitalism and (market) domination

SH~ Remember IE dominated the market once
There was no way Netscape could compete. Mozilla emerged with Firefox and it had a model which was structurally better. You could have addons customizing your experience, and being open source, something IE couldn’t provide. It wasn’t just a different technology, it was a different paradigm, being open source allowed an incredible boom of contributions of different addons, much more than a centralized organization could provide. Doesn’t matter how many devs MSFT hired, they couldn’t compete with the tens of thousands of volunteers that were generating their own addons to adapt FF to their own experience. And FF just wiped IE out.

JK~ Given the right application, decentralization can
confer such fantastic advantages it’ll decimate the competition.

SH~ So we’re building JetPad
A google docs alternative running on SwellRT. It’s not going to be better, technically than google docs. But, in talking with many institutions, particularly public institutions, they cannot rely on google services, because of legal reasons, because of privacy reasons, they can not rely on google for their own documents. Talking about the Spanish or French public administrations. They cannot just ship all of their data to google. By law, they cannot. So they are not using any collaboration options. Because all the options are California based. So when you tell them there’s a platform that is decentralized in a federated way, so you could have your own servers, structurally google can’t provide this. They can’t provide you with your own cloud with your own data. Because their business model is very far from that.

JK~ There are other realities
that can’t be serviced by the Silicon Valley power structure.

SH~ Find your niche and from there you grow
The way facebook created a niche in its super exclusive college access, and then grew outside. Once you have a niche where the competition can’t enter, then you have an opportunity to outflank them.

What would be the killer app that would draw people to these things?

SH~ There are those who don’t want to be surveilled. But there’s also
people who want to build, who want to use these tools, to use the Internet not just in a passive way but to actually start building communities, to start building the world to come.

(Ed.~ And look what happened when we used the existing system
in a passive way, to mediate our democratic conversations, allowed the system and its values to structure our speech…)

JK~ What everyone’s saying is so woefully unambitious
In the sense that ‘this is fucking madness,’ the situation this country is in is completely insane. And what should happen next should be precisely the question of ‘listen, we really need to redesign democracy here.’ We really need to think about this, because whatever side you’re on… If you’re on the Trump side and you think that the media lies, and total capture, you’re not far wrong if you think the mainstream media is totally captured. That’s the problem for liberals, they have a hard time answering that question honestly. They do hate Trump. They do wanna take him down. They probably are making stuff up.
And on the other hand, you’re on the liberal side and you think that Trump rose to power on a wave of dangerous populism based on emergent online networks and weird meme generation.
So whatever way you look at it it seems to be that this is an amazing moment to ask the biggest question about how we make decisions as a polity, as a citizenry. Doesn’t it feel like this is the moment [for some of these decentralized tools]?

Some decentralized tools (in addition to JetPad and SwellRT)

A social network build on platform coopertavism. From New Zealand, a project out of the Enspiral Network, born from the Occupy movement. And it just works.

Do we need these new tools to help us decide how to run countries, nation-states, large communities?
An app directory for tools that give the power back to its users, the way the web was built originally.