In the year 2015, 4 years before the global explosion of privacy-awareness dialogues, starting in the wake of facebook’s Cambridge analytical scandal, a blog post written by an anonymous developer, who uses the internet handle go1dfish appeared online. It contained the details of a new software architecture for a radically new social aggregator, resistant to unilateral censorship, while robustly supporting volunteer content curation and moderation appeared online.
The approach was simple, radical and elegant. It was to design a new, fully decentralized, peer to peer information relaying web client that can run across most modern browsers with no installation requirements. The more the people running the client on their browsers, the stronger gets the capability of the network, to host, store and fetch information between the different running client instances. This was the birthing concept of this new, open source, fully decentralized peer to peer content management system.
Fast forward to October 2018, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, The inventor of the World Wide Web and one of Time Magazine’s ‘100 Most Important People of the 20th Century, revealed his new company ‘Inrupt’, that has been operating in stealth mode for 9 months. Their flagship product ‘Solid’ is up and running in collaboration with the experts of MIT. To quote FastCompany, “its mission is to turbocharge a broader movement afoot, among developers around the world, to decentralize the web and take back power from the forces that have profited from centralizing it.”
Here is a rare and exclusive interview (PART 1), by Priya Kuber, with go1dfish, where he discusses his philosophy, tech, and his vision for the future of the decentralised web.
Q. Not a lot is known about you online, could you speak a little more about your journey towards launching this decentralized peer to peer web-app?
A. In 2015, I started thinking about building something like notabug.io. My frustration goes back further than that though. I had become hopelessly addicted to reddit at a time when it was largely unmoderated and even more of a wild west of online free speech (especially as it relates to politics) than it is now. I watched a formerly libertarian administered site slowly degrade with more authoritarian censorship first at the hands of the mods, and later the site admins.
It started as frustration when mods shifted the character of their communities, but later morphed into feelings of betrayal as the admins started censoring more content directly in the form of subreddit bans.
Many today lump those who value free speech in together with the alt-right; but it was my questioning of removals of “Occupy Wall Street” related content that led to my ban from the subreddit r/politics and caused me to focus even more strongly on exposing what was going on with the moderation and administration of reddit. The OWS movement (and “Operation Grab Ass” before it) had organized heavily on reddit and had given me great hope of the potential for platforms like reddit to be agents of positive social change.
Seeing the moderators of the most prominent political communities on reddit (who used to allow free form discourse) steadily restrict the community was rather depressing and I wanted to do anything I could to highlight and improve this situation.
I built bots to detect and highlight the censorship, which eventually morphed into a reddit client built to highlight removals at https://ceddit.com
I watched a formerly libertarian administered site slowly degrade with more authoritarian censorship first at the hands of the mods, and later the site admins.
To me, the censorship of anyone damages us all. I was banned by Wil Wheaton banned me for tweeting this link to him.
I grew up knowing that people like the Westboro Baptists and Nazi demonstrators had abhorrent views, but comfortable in the fact that they were still able to say them and I felt this culture of permissiveness for radical speech on the internet slipping away.
Q. What are some of the core philosophical beliefs that you hold? What drives you?
A. Individual freedom and nonviolence are my overriding philosophies. This leads me to reject the legitimacy of the State and many would call me an anarcho-capitalist; but I also recognize the dangers of power accumulated privately. I prefer the term voluntaryism because it describes the root of what I believe. That interactions between (any two or more) people should always be voluntary.
Thinking a little more, Anarcho Capitalist is technically accurate description of my philosophy but I don’t consider myself pro-capitalism, as is usually associated with AnCaps. I see capitalism as more a description of human nature rather than something to be supported or ascribed to.
A consequence more than a plan of action or ideology. The “information theory of capitalism” intrigues me, but this to me speaks more of decentralized systems in general and not capitalism specifically.
On forums like Reddit, when a post has removed the effort of the contributor is involuntarily undone; the content is effectively erased from view an inaccessible to anyone. This to me represents a minor act of aggression and it’s something to be avoided. Curation is necessary to find interesting things, but too often curation is equated and implemented as censorship.
Q. When was the first time you heard about “Decentralized applications”?
A. The first decentralized app I remember participating in was BitTorrent, it was the first that gave a glimpse of the idea of the users of a service contributing back to its own infrastructure in the process of using it and it’s something I’d like to replicate with notabug.
As a youth I also downloaded my fair share of movies (and linux distros) through it and saw how difficult it can be for even powerful interests to shut down decentralized infrastructure.
After that, there was a pretty long lul (from my perspective) in the decentralized space up until bitcoin shook things up with the blockchain. The blockchain is incredibly exciting as a way to fulfill the same.
Q. Could you talk a bit more about how was your childhood on the internet was like? Any specific inspirations that have formed your key belief systems?
A. I always liked the anonymity that the internet provided because it allows people to present themselves as truly equal. The things that divide us, like gender, race, etc have no meaning when people are anonymous. As someone who grew up with red hair and looked different, I was bullied a lot at school. So anonymity on the internet was very appealing to me. Lightly speaking, On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.
Reddit was psuedo-anonymous, IRC (Internet Relay Chat) as well. I used to hang out a lot in IRC but it’s kind of died out in favor of things like discord these days; I want to see a move back to open platforms.
I always was really enamored with the stories of the founding of the US/revolution and incredibly disappointed as I observed that the reality of our nation bears no resemblance to the ideals of its founding. I also had a very good social studies teacher who loved freedom and was a staunch libertarian in retrospect despite being a former law enforcement officer and preacher. I hope to capture some of the IRC community spirit in notabug with the chat features.
Q. Why is blockchain exciting to you and how do you see this new technology merging with decentralized applications?
A. Blockchains are exciting because they allow for shared consensus making in a verifiable way. It potentially opens the door to new approaches to governing organizations and can be (used as) an infrastructure for building decentralized apps.
But I think the association with currency (which is integral to the blockchain idea and not really separable) leads to a tunnel vision in the development of Dapps currently where all the focus is on the token and not the application. ‘OpenBazaar’ is one example of a project doing it right; they are purposefully avoiding creating a token because it is not necessary.
Q. The industry is divided into two schools of thoughts, one loves blockchain, the other declares it as a hype, what’s your take on this matter? Any examples that you see around?
A. I don’t think I want to call out specific projects in a bad way, and honestly no specific example comes to mind; it’s more an example of everyone trying to fit blockchain into whatever industry.
I think steem (Steem is a cryptocurrency used to power the platform Steemit – an incentivized blockchain social media platform), is a good example. I had similar thoughts to design the incentive structure, years back when I first started thinking about the problem but I think the financial incentives distort the network; at least compared to reddit.
But then again, if we compare it to something like youtube it makes more sense to have that kind of economic incentive structure, I guess.
I’ve tried to ignore the ICO market for the most part; largely it’s used as a means of selling stock while trying (increasingly without success) to avoid regulation. I am no fan of the SEC, but using blockchain to avoid regulation by just relabeling something isn’t all that compelling.
Blockchain is useful for subverting authority to the extent that your activities remain anonymous; but this doesn’t go well with people’s desire to seek investment. I think the most successful ICO’s have been and will be gambling related because you can do that in a totally automated and anonymous way and the pressure of regulation helps to create a market. But those aren’t all that interesting from a tech or social perspective either, unless you consider using an Ayn Rand-style crypto-lottery to fund something like a crypto-ubi in lieu of taxation. This would be interesting to develop but I try to avoid angering the well-armed (*chuckles*). I mean the state here. Lotteries are interesting as a non-coercive alternative to taxation, but one that regulation prevents the exploration of.
I think there is currently too much focus on quick economic wins in the DApp space ever since bitcoin/blockchain re-invigorated (but also dominated it).
Q. How would you describe the right kind of blockchain stack?
A. The right stack is different for every application, but a common pitfall (and one that I myself originally fell into) was thinking that blockchain was absolutely necessary for anything interesting decentralized. It is not.
It’s only necessary when you need a strongly consistent state across all peers; and for many applications that may not even be desirable.
Priya: In the centralized world of the facebooks and googles of the world, what organizations would you say, are fighting the good fight for digital freedom?
There are a few organizations that are still strongly in the right place. EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) has always been a visible figure in fighting important digital rights battles. What really sealed the deal for me was their fight (with Mark Klein) against AT&T’s cooperation with the NSA to wiretap backbone internet connections (exposed in 2006 way before snowden)
In terms of sites; Voat.co, as a platform, is very unrestricted but the circumstances of its growth have led to a concentration of what is accurately described as the ‘worst of Reddit’, and this concentration becomes a self-sustaining power. The great thing about Reddit was that it was a pretty free speech place, but at such a scale that such obscure voices were not able to dominate.
Voat is a free speech focused Reddit alternative, I am on it because the admin seems committed to freedom of speech and have been on it since 2015 when Reddit took a clearer turn towards censorship.
Priya: For the betterment of the web of tomorrow, what is the advantage of developing decentralized applications versus centralized applications?
I think one of the main advantages (and what bittorrent originally hinted at) is the ability to create large active systems with minimal investment or resources that are self sustaining with user growth.
But my pie in the sky dream is decentralization and cryptography reducing the power of the State by empowering individuals against it.
I’d like to see a decentralized, voluntary stateless Universal Basic Income that bootstraps an alternative to the welfare state while simultaneously distributing a common cryptocurrency to reduce (or at least highlight) the hidden power our government exerts through monetary control.
This will be my next project if I ever finish notabug and notabug will likely be useful for administering it.
Q. What skills can people contribute to join and support you well in this movement? What would help you move this movement forward?
Mainly what is needed is a critical mass of content contributors to avoid the self-reinforcing groupthink that happened in the case of the service ‘voat’. I’m also planning some RSS integration features to notabug, that may help to combat the groupthink this as well.
Voat, is currently seen as a deplorable place that people don’t want to support because of the people who dominate the discussion there, some even don’t want to support Reddit because they allow r/the_donald but people generally don’t think about BitTorrent this way though I’m sure it’s used to spread some very nasty things.
My hope is for people to see notabug more as a platform in this manner than as a specific site. (Contd…)