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Decentralize It!

Getting away from mega-platforms

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Very centralized

There’s a good research report that was just published. It’s called “Defending​ ​Internet​ ​Freedom​ ​through​ ​Decentralization: Back​ ​to​ ​the​ ​Future?” (That’s a PDF so watch yourself.) It’s by Chelsea​ ​Barabas, Neha​ ​Narula, and Ethan​ ​Zuckerman, under the auspices of The​ ​Center​ ​for​ ​Civic​ ​Media​ ​& The​ ​Digital​ ​Currency​ ​Initiative at the MIT​ ​Media​ ​Lab.

What is decentralization? Take the web: Anyone can set up a web page and link to any other web page. That’s decentralized. Anyone can make a search engine to find those web pages. That’s centralized. The search engine can add blogging. That’s Google + Blogger. Now it’s both a publisher and a search engine. It has more power. Decentralized things are harder to manage and use. Centralized things end up easy to use and make money for relatively few people. (I’ve written a little more about what “platforms” are if you’re curious.)

The web is inherently decentralized, which has made it much easier for large companies to create large, centralized platforms. It’s a paradox and very thorny. I’m writing this on a centralized platform called Medium. Clap!

God bless the authors of this paper, they don’t make you wade through. They pop up with recommendations by page 5:

We advise investors — whether motivated by civic or fiscal concerns — both to watch this space closely and to advocate for the pre-conditions that we believe will enable a healthier marketplace for online publishing. A precondition for the success of these distributed platforms is a shift towards user-controlled data, the ownership of a user’s social graph and her intellectual property created online. It will be difficult for new platforms to develop without widespread support for efforts towards data portability and rights over data ownership. Data portability also enables new models for aggregation.

Small, thoughtfully curated news sources will be made more powerful by having access to the user data currently locked inside mega-platforms, but right now, federated clients that interoperate between different platforms are borderline illegal — fixing this may require adjusting overly broad regulations, like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. We believe that these user-controlled data rights are essential to develop a more robust market and allow new efforts to emerge from existing communities. Though individual users might not directly care about or understand these rights, their adoption will free developers to create applications that leverage users’ existing data, so that they can provide compelling, interesting new experiences, even with a small user base.

The rest is good too. I’m not done reading the whole thing—it goes into specific, decentralized technologies, which is really helpful—but those are sensible recommendations.

I have a buddy named Jim whom I’ve known for 25 years and every couple years we hang out and talk about old computers, and literature, and music history, and just general nerd stuff. And we’ve been on email chains together, Facebook posts, chats, Slacks, etc., etc. But it’s all sort of ephemeral.

And I keep thinking, it’d be fun to share digital stuff with Jim, by which I mean, I want to have a little safe piracy zone that is one or two or five people. And I don’t want it in the cloud, or on Twitter, or even on Facebook Messenger, because I want to get away from that mess and send Jim various things I found on archive.org and old software and what have you.

Then I look at Raspberry Pi Zeros with Wi-Fi built in and I keep thinking, what would it take to just have a little web server that was only for three or four people, at home? Instead of borrowing computer time from other people I could just buy a $10 computer the size of a stick of gum. Which next year could be a $7 computer, and eventually a $1 computer. It could run a Dropbox-alike, something like OwnCloud. It’s easy in theory but kind of a pain in practice.

  • I’d need to know how to open ports on my home router.
  • I’d need to be able to get the headless device onto WiFi.
  • I’d need a place to plug it in, plugs are hard to come by.
  • It needs to physically be somewhere.
  • It would need a case.
  • You need to buy an SD card with Linux on it.
  • And on and on.

The world doesn’t want us to run web servers at home. But I do. I really think we should run web servers from gumstick computers at home.

What I want is like, 5 of these little computers and whenever I see a truly trusted friend, I just give them one. And they take it home, and plug it in somewhere, and now we’re on the same, secure network together. Sharing files and with a little messageboard. Maybe after 5 computers the network can’t get any bigger. And if you unplug one your whole archive goes down. I don’t know. I’m riffing here.

Anyway, that’d be fun. There’s a whole world of fun potential consumer products that let people do computer things that don’t involve reading ads on Facebook or viewing promoted tweets. No one tells you that, but there is. And it’s just as interesting as the big centralized services. And one day something will come along that people think is fun and it will blow big holes in the centralized services, and then that thing will start centralizing itself, and the whole weird process will begin anew. Part of me worries, because centralized web services pay a lot of bills. But part of me cannot wait.