A truly distributed Web will require different kinds of companies. Today, tech startups rely on types of financing that demand an “exit” in one of two forms: an acquisition by a bigger company or an IPO on Wall Street. Both options help drive us toward radical centralization of power, no matter how decentralized our technology may seem. In his powerful essay “Distribute Commons, Not Commodities,” Schneider suggests a new way forward. Instead of creating another top-1% who hold increasingly concentrated power, what if start-ups committed to distributing value to the community contributing to it?
At the June Meetup, Schneider described the idea of “Exit to Community,” and presented real-world scenarios where distributed benefits are working.
Watch Nathan’s talk here:
Lightning Talk Speakers
Guo Liu, Co-Founder and CTO of Matters.Matters is a social network of content creators, mostly consisting of journalists, novelists, and critics. It’s a decentralized content publishing and discussion platform for creators to publish, manage, license, and monetize their work. Guo shared the lessons they’ve learned while designing and migrating the network to decentralized architecture.
Watch Guo’s talk here:
Ana Jamborcic, Product Strategist at Social Roots. Ana guides product direction with a steady eye on the intersection of business value and approaches to complex social problems that are innovative, applied, useful, usable, collaborative, sensible, and more.
Christina Bowen, Knowledge Ecologist at Social Roots. Christina integrates tech and human processes with living systems principles to support healthy teamwork and information flows that lead towards more sensible futures.
Watch Ana and Christina’s talk here:
Santiago Bazerque is the creator of Hyper Hyper Space, an open-source, not-for-profit effort to create distributed applications using web browsers as full peers. He discussed how the design concepts that inspired TCP/IP, the original internetworking protocols, can be applied to the design of dapps. He also shared his experience using the browser as a platform for experimenting with new dweb protocols.
Watch Santiago’s talk here:
Mix Irving is the Senior Developer at Āhau, an indigenous knowledge management system, built in New Zealand, designed for offline, data sovereignty first. Mix dipped into the platform’s theory of change and gave us a small peek at the tech stack built on scuttlebutt, hypercore, and graphql. First generation kiwi, with roots in England / Scotland, Mix lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara / Wellington with two small kids, a partner, and a cat.
Watch Mix’s talk here:
Vera Winters is a member of Flancia, a collective formed to carry out social experiments based on input from its members. They use a platform they developed called the agora to determine the desires of the collective. Vera has worked in open source for over a decade and is passionate about decentralized systems and organizations.
In his sweeping book Fulfillment, Alec MacGillis tours the America that Amazon has re-made. Many of his stories are about warehouse workers in places once home to unionized manufacturing jobs that paid multiples more than what Amazon doles out today. MacGillis focuses on what is, instead of what could be. Yet one passage stuck with me especially, a signpost of what might have been, of where this whole mess might have instead led:
as the former U.S. labor secretary Robert Reich noted, if Amazon employees owned the same proportion of their employer’s stock as Sears workers did in the 1950s–a quarter of the company–each would, by 2020, own shares worth nearly $400,000.
From Fulfillment by Alec MacGillis
The tech economy has generated wealth like the world has never seen, producing the richest companies and individuals in history. All this wealth, as MacGillis and Reich remind us, could have been distributed differently. It could have produced a revival of prosperity as data centers and logistics routes began populating the Rust Belt. Regions now home to endemic poverty could have had a critical mass of upwardly mobile consumers. Instead, a relatively small coterie of elite technologists get stock options, founders start space companies, and everyone else can hardly afford to enjoy the tech their labor makes possible.
DWeb Principle: Distributed Benefits
The DWeb Principles call for “distributed benefits.” Companies like Amazon remind us why. The people contributing their work, their data, and their imagination to make technology valuable should receive value in return. All of us, no matter what we contribute, should benefit because a truly distributed web should be a commons for everyone.
Long before calls for a distributed web, there was a political philosophy called “distributism”–an outgrowth of Catholic social teaching in the Gilded Age. As they confronted the horrors of factory labor and recognized the advance of automation, distributists recognized that if you distribute ownership, distributed control over technology will follow. More than focusing on the design of the technology, they were concerned with how it is owned.
For years now, I’ve been working with tech startups that are trying to build on the long tradition of cooperative business–businesses owned and governed by the people who use them, rather than outside investors just seeking to turn a profit. This isn’t easy, because the dominant venture capital investment model encourages centralized power and centralized benefits above all else. VCs push companies to “exit” into either an acquisition by a bigger company or an IPO on Wall Street. Lately, my collaborators and I have been working to advance the possibility of a new option: “exit to community,” or E2C for short.
Exit to Community (E2C)
In the E2C vision, successful startups would aim toward becoming owned not by a new round of speculative investors but by the people who love and rely on them. This isn’t as out-there as it might sound. Since the 1970s, thousands of companies have become employee-owned through Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), often using bank loans that don’t cost employees a cent upfront. Cooperative businesses like Ace Hardware and the original Visa enabled small businesses to control national-scale networks. New blockchain-based tokens could introduce even more possibilities for enabling users to co-own their tech.
As the E2C idea spreads, I have started to worry about how some are interpreting it. When people think of communities owning companies, more and more, they think of something like GameStop — swarms of small investors pumping and dumping stock on apps like Robinhood. That is not what I mean. I do not hope for a world where we are all crypto day-traders; that’s a job best left to well-governed robots. Finance is hard, single-minded work mostly detached from reality. And in decentralized finance (or DeFi), as in most financial markets, a few players will likely reap most of the wealth.
“Speculation is a game of profiting at the expense of whoever comes later, pilfering from other people’s grandkids. Community ownership, in contrast, means that those who come after us can share the benefits of what we have built.”
I fear the distributed benefits that a lot of DWeb projects envision are of the GameStop sort. Everything becomes a market: storage space, processing power, code contributions — the works. Crypto-tokens matter less for what they are for than what they might someday be worth. Speculation is a game of profiting at the expense of whoever comes later, pilfering from other people’s grandkids. Community ownership, in contrast, means that those who come after us can share the benefits of what we have built.
Open Source software has in some respects modeled a world where we don’t need money to motivate us, where we don’t hide behind artificial scarcity and needless monopolies. The cooperative tradition involves shared ownership and shared wealth, but rather than encouraging speculation, it invites solidarity. Co-op shares usually can’t be traded on an exchange. They are, so to speak, true utility tokens, but with long-term benefits. Cooperativism is the ultimate HODL.
Wrap Markets in Democracies
The old offline world had a pretty sensible idea: When you want to set up markets, enclose them in a democracy that sets the rules. Wall Street was even more dangerous than it is today, before elected governments put limits on what it could do. Flea markets follow the rules of the cities where they operate. This is a principle that DWeb projects should strive for as well.
Consider, for instance, the blockchain project Cambiatus, which has helped communities in Latin America set up their own cryptocurrencies. Before deploying the tech, Cambiatus works with the communities to develop goals and governance processes; the crypto serves the communities, rather than the other way around. Here in the United States, the labor-market startup Opolis is wrapping its token economy within the overarching legal structure of a cooperative. (I recently became a member — my first co-op membership paid for with crypto!) With these kinds of democracy-first designs, we can steer our distributions of benefit more toward the common good than toward the cleverest gamblers.
The six-figure dream of front-line worker-owners is not a fantasy. One of my favorite breweries here in Colorado, New Belgium, was recently acquired by a multinational beer company. This was a disappointing outcome to those of us who prize local business. But it was not the usual corporate acquisition. Rather than leaving workers in the lurch, as buyouts usually do, New Belgium’s current and former employees saw six-figure payments, at least. Why? It was 100% employee owned, through a trust the employees shared. From the CEO to the forklift drivers, the wealth that they had created, in the end, was theirs, together.
For too long, we have hoped that distributed technology would produce distributed power. Again and again, the tech alone doesn’t cut it. The web won’t be truly distributed until the wealth it creates is.
At the May 2021 DWeb Meetup, we heard from three artists and a technologist each involved with NFTs or Nonfungible Tokens. They offer differing perspectives about the potential and pitfalls of this new technological boom.
Watch the recording of the event, find an in-depth NFT Reading List and learn more about the speakers below.
Why is it everywhere you turn, you see a new notice about NFTs or Non-Fungible Tokens?
NFTs certify the provenance of digital artifacts by tying them to a blockchain. That verification enables owners of the work to auction them off to the highest bidders. From digital artworks auctioned in galleries to Jack Dorsey’s first tweet, these verifiable objects are going for tens of millions of dollars in cryptocurrency.
But at what cost?
Enthusiasts say this is groundbreaking for digital artists who will finally have a way to sell their art and make a living from their work. Critics say that NFTs are worthless at best and destructive at worst.
Will NFTs change our access to culture online? Are NFTs sustainable or secure in our decentralized infrastructure? Are NFTs and blockchains as a whole a threat to our environment?
On May 4, we gathered technologists, artists, and leaders in the art world to discuss the pros and cons of this new technological boom. Watch the video to see how an NFT is made and visit a virtual reality environment made up entirely of NFTs. You’ll meet a technologist/artist who explains why not all NFTs are created equally or have the same environmental impact. And you’ll learn why creating an NFT doesn’t guarantee the media will persist forever.
Jin (above) is a hacker artist and VR dev exploring the convergence of web, gaming, social networks, and decentralization. After having read Snow Crash, he’s been obsessed with Metaverse engineering. He is currently building the Webaverse.
Molly Mackinlay (above) leads Protocol Lab’s design and development teams for the IPFS Project (a peer-to-peer network and protocol designed to make the web faster, safer, and more open), the Filecoin Network’s lotus implementation (a distributed storage marketplace to preserve humanity’s information), and libp2p (a modular p2p networking library used by IPFS, Filecoin, and Ethereum).
Ruth Catlow (above) is an artist, curator, and co-founder, co-director of Furtherfield, a community and network for arts, technology and social change since 1997. Furtherfield’s public gallery and lab venues in London, provide a physical interface for exhibitions, events and workshops. Their online hub provides a forum for exchange, collaboration and critical review for international artists, technologists and activists to strengthen the expressive and democratic potential of shared techno-social landscape.
Sarah Friend (above) is an artist and software engineer, specializing in blockchain and the p2p web. She is a participant in the Berlin Program for Artists, a co-curator of Ender Gallery, an artist residency taking place inside the game Minecraft, an alumni of Recurse Centre, and an organiser of Our Networks, a conference on all aspects of the distributed web.
Visit GetDWeb.net to learn more about the decentralized web. You can also follow us on Twitter at @GetDWeb for ongoing updates.
The March 2021 DWeb Meetup featured a presentation by Marta Belcher, Board Chair of the new Filecoin Foundation (FF) & Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web (FFDW). The mission of the FFDW is to ensure the permanent preservation of humanity’s most important information by stewarding the development of open-source software and open protocols for decentralized data storage and retrieval networks. Her presentation begins at 06:30.
We also heard the latest from nine other projects across the DWeb Ecosystem:
STACKS — Co-Founder, Muneeb Ali, shared lessons from the five years leading up to the Stacks 2.0 main net launch in January. Stacks enables you to build decentralized apps and smart contracts on top of Bitcoin. Muneeb’s presentation begins at 26:21.
JOLOCOM — Kai Wagner from the Berlin-based Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI) firm is part of two winning teams in a 48M Euro German innovation competition to build the SDI Projects. Jolocom shared how developers can integrate into their platform-agnostic SSI technology to reach millions of EU citizens across 40 use cases poised to scale. Kai’s presentation begins at 37:14.
KEYKO.IO — Dimitri De Jonghe presented the Keyko project’s “Arts Progression Now” to onboard, build and deploy Web3 solutions that empower artists. This entails leveraging the power of decentralization, blockchain and tokens to explore new value paradigms for artists. Dimitri’s presentation begins at 51:46.
DISCO PROJECT— Irene López de Vallejo presented DisCO’s approach to people working together to create value in ways that are cooperative, commons-oriented and rooted in feminist economics. DisCOs are amplified by the power of Distributed Ledger/Blockchain technologies, harnessing the utility of tech without being completely tech-centric. Irene’s presentation begins at 1:00:20.
PLANETARY.SOCIAL — The decentralized social media app built on the Secure Scuttlebutt Protocol launched in January 2021. Founder Evan Henshaw-Plath discussed what it took to launch a design-focused DWeb social media app. Evan’s presentation begins at 1:07:12.
SKYNET — Decentralized storage for everyone built on the Sia blockchain network. Evangelist Daniel Helm & VP Manasi Vora showed us how developers can take advantage of decentralized storage and web applications, without any of the headaches. Daniel and Manasi’s presentation begins at 1:14:30.
DISTRIBUTED PRESS — Founder Benedict Lau & team have built an open-source tool to help everyone publish to the distributed web. This publishing tool makes it easy for creators to seed content to DWeb ecosystems from IPFS, Hypercore and beyond. Benedict’s presentation begins at 1:22:10.
COMPOST MAG — Founder Mai Ishikawa Sutton & the COMPOST Magazine team have just launched their first edition of a magazine highlighting the best of the digital commons. Available both over the World Wide Web and the DWeb, COMPOST is an experiment in new forms of collaboration, payment, and creative publishing. Mai’s presentation begins at 1:28:36.
DWEB PRINCIPLES “ROAST & TOAST” — John Ryan & Mauve hosted our first “roast and toast” — applauding a project for its alignment with DWeb principles and prodding it toward areas of improvement. With gentle humor and abundant goodwill, we tested COMPOST against the values we all aspire to. This segment begins at 1:36:50.
For a long time, we’ve felt that the growing, diverse, global community interested in building the decentralized Web needed an entry point. A portal into the events, concepts, voices, and resources critical to moving the Decentralized Web forward.
This is why we created, getdweb.net, to serve as a portal, a welcoming entry point for people to learn and share strategies, analysis, and tools around how to build a decentralized Web.
It began at DWeb Camp 2019, when designer Iryna Nezhynska of Jolocom led a workshop to imagine what form that portal should take. Over the next 18 months, Iryna steered a dedicated group of DWeb volunteers through a process to create this new website. If you are new to the DWeb, it should help you learn about its core concepts. If you are a seasoned coder, it should point you to opportunities nearby. For our nine local nodes, it should be a clearinghouse and archive for past and future events.
As stewards, we felt that we needed to crystallize the shared vision of this community, to demonstrate how and why we are building a Decentralized Web. Our aim is to identify our guiding principles through discussion and distill them into a living document that we can point to. It is to create a set of practical guiding values as we design and build the Web of the future.
Since 2016, a global community of developers, organizers, entrepreneurs, and academics have gathered to share ideas and approaches to building a Decentralized Web. The DWeb they dreamt of would stand in stark contrast to today’s Web, where a handful of powerful, centralized corporations rule over our data, social networks, and network infrastructure. The DWeb would enable people to have control over their own digital lives. In order to “lock the Web open,” DWeb infrastructure would be distributed itself, in ways that could be foolproof against concentrated control. And as Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle also said, it’s a Web that needs to be more “private, secure, and fun”.
While several thousand people have participated in DWeb-related events and discussions organized by the Internet Archive, we still lacked a general consensus about the principles we collectively stand for. What values do we share beyond giving people more control, and not being “centralized”? What specific features did DWeb projects need to have to be considered, well, DWeb? These were the underlying questions that motivated us to create these DWeb Principles.
What are the shared values of the DWeb community?
The Internet Archive has been one of the lead organizers of DWeb events since 2014. As one of the world’s largest repositories of online knowledge and culture, the Internet Archive has a stake in ensuring that the Web remains free and open. It has brought together those who are transparent about their approaches and are interested in engaging across projects to learn and collaborate.
It would have been impossible to capture what the DWeb means for everyone in these principles. That’s why from the onset, this project was meant to exemplify the values of a specific group of people—those who continue to show up and engage in these conversations about the DWeb. That includes large organizations, community networks, individual developers, policy people, artists, and journalists. Each in their own way, they’re creating building blocks of a Decentralized Web that actively invites participation.
Why create yet another set of principles?
As stewards, we felt that we needed to crystallize the shared vision of this community, to demonstrate how and why we are building a Decentralized Web. Our aim is to identify our guiding principles through discussion and distill them into a living document that we can point to. It is to create a set of practical guiding values as we design and build the Web of the future.
But beyond the document itself, the objective is to help set some ethical norms for the DWeb. If we all see ourselves as contributors to the Web, we hope these values will help people examine what they are building and for what purpose. It is to inspire projects that are driven by these values, and to hold each other accountable to ensure we continue to uphold them.
How We Developed DWeb Principles Version 1.0
John Conor Ryan and I began to work on these principles beginning in May 2020. Wendy Hanamura, Director of Partnerships at the Internet Archive, asked us jointly to lead this project. Though we agreed on many things, we also brought starkly different perspectives and experiences around what it meant to build tech for good. Those differences created a healthy environment for open exchange.
So how do you develop something as centralized as a unified set of principles for a diverse, decentralized group? In order to have something to work with, the two of us began by creating a draft ourselves. It was meant to be a starting point, a mound of clay that could be reformed and moulded by active participants in the DWeb space.
From there, we went through several rounds of reshaping, with the editing process involving over 30 individuals. These were the phases of its development:
Phase 1: Initial Draft — The stewards of the project, Mai and John, drafted a rough document for the DWeb community to discuss and consider. It was commented on and edited by other contributors. (May – Jun 2020)
Phase 2: First Feedback — Introduced the project to individuals in the DWeb community and solicited their comments and ideas. Presented the working draft at the DWeb Meetup on July 29, 2020. (Jun – Sep 2020)
Phase 3: Focus Groups — Held a series of focus group conversations with DWeb community members about the Principles to discuss intent, purpose, and future application (Sep – Dec 2020).
Phase 4: Revise Principles — Incorporate feedback from focus group discussions into the draft Principles. (Dec 2020)
Phase 5: Second Feedback & Gather Support — Solicit final round of feedback on the Principles. (Jan 2021)
Phase 6: Publish the Principles — Launch the first version of the Principles on the DWeb website. Hold DWeb Meet-up to launch the new website and present Principles. (Feb 2021)
Every single word in this document was thoroughly and repeatedly dissected and examined. What were the implications of certain terminologies? For example, what is presumed when we use the word “empower” versus “enable”? Why did we decide not to use the term “user”, and instead opt for “people” or “individual”? We worked with the contributors to be as deliberate as possible with our language.
It was through this process that we illuminated something crucial about the aims of the Decentralized Web community: That it is about more than the technical infrastructure, it is about social and organizational norms and aspirations. Technical specifications can enable or prevent certain outcomes, of course. But what is fundamental and subversive about this Decentralized Web movement is that it is about elevating both individual and collective human agency. It is about creating more just and equitable relations between people, and creating networks that help us address the urgent challenges, not exacerbate them.
A large part of this project was reflecting on the inherited dynamics that we take for granted with the internet we have today. By putting into words our shared ideals for a better web of the future, we had to shed certain assumptions about what constitutes success.
Our contributors continued to point to other sets of principles that articulate values raised in this one, but often with more depth and clarity. We decided that it was important to acknowledge those other principles. The DWeb Principles are not designed to supplant these other frameworks, nor does pointing to them mean that all of those in this DWeb community agree with all that is said in them. It is meant to signify that we are not alone in our pursuit for more fun, equitable, and secure networked systems, and stand alongside these other communities’ efforts.
This process resulted in five overarching principles, with sub points that expand upon them. The principles are ordered from specific to general, beginning with more explicit technical features of a DWeb:
1) Technology for Human Agency 2) Distributed Benefits 3) Mutual Respect 4) Humanity 5) Ecological Awareness
What Comes Next
We hope this is an accurate snapshot of the types of concerns that this DWeb community engages with and upholds as we strive to build better networks. We hope people will read it, share it, and even take what they agree with and remix it if they’d like. If someone were to be inspired by these principles, adapt it for their own needs and put forth their own version, we would see that as a success on its own.
Being explicit about what a project stands for is a big first step in establishing trust, not just among its contributors, but also with the people who use their tools and services. A strong value statement allows others to hold organizations accountable, to ensure that they continue striving for their highest aspirations while doing all they can to avoid making harmful tradeoffs.
At least knowing where projects stand for, at least knowing what they care about, is a big first step in our ability to know which projects are worth investing in with our time, energy and attention. These principles define what values the DWeb community stands for, not just what it stands against. We hope this document will help guide those who are already creating the building blocks of the DWeb, and appeal to those who want to join the movement to build better, more resilient decentralized webs of connection and knowledge.
Mai Ishikawa Sutton is a co-founder and editor of COMPOST, an online decentralized magazine about the digital commons, Associate Producer of DWeb Projects and DWeb Camp 2019, and Digital Commons Fellow with the Commons Network. Their previous projects and employers include People’s Open Network, Oakland Public Library, Shareable, and Electronic Frontier Foundation.
John Conor Ryan has focused on corporate strategy, while thinking as a mathematician and physicist, looking at ways to succeed where the technology is new and difficult, and the path to success not evident. He previously was part of the People Centered Internet project, with Vint Cerf and MeiLin Fung, and with the One Laptop Per Child project his wife co-led. John has more recently cofounded two startups based on decentralized technologies.
Even amidst the COVID lock down, builders of the Decentralized Web have hit new milestones with their projects this year. At our last DWeb Meetup of 2020, we heard from a dozen projects about their breakthroughs, challenges, and roadmaps for the coming year.
As with all of our DWeb Meetups, these lightning talks provided an opportunity for us to learn from others and explore potential partnerships and collaboration. We had rounds of 5 minute talks with 2 minutes of Q&A in Zoom.
Here were the speakers (and the times when they appear in the video):
Maria Bustillos, Co-Founder, Brick House Co-operative (1:00:40)
Mauve Signweaver, Agregore (1:10:12)
Tom Trowbridge, Co-founder, Fluence Labs (1:17:42)
Travis Vachon, ItMe.company (1:27:01)
Brandon Wallace, Plan Systems.org (1:35:03)
Michael Toomim, Braid (1:44:35)
Descriptions of Speakers and Their Lightning Talks
1. Dietrich Ayala, Ecosystem Lead, IPFS
Big is Small is Big: IPFS Usage, Users and Use-cases in 2020
As adoption and availability of IPFS grew in 2020, we saw it used across a broad spectrum of applications, varying widely in industry category, use-case, architecture and more. IPFS ecosystem lead Dietrich Ayala will speedrun through a sampling of these, sharing what was learned and how our users are guiding the IPFS project into 2021
It’s hard to get started building a decentralized application. Even if you’ve been building them for years, it’s hard to get them adopted. Decentralized applications operate differently than centralized ones — and we need new tools that developers and designers can use to understand how to build applications. Simply Secure is now producing a library of resources, assets, and patterns to support the design and development of better user-facing applications that are backed by decentralized architecture.
Founded in 2014, GUN is an open source cybersecurity protocol for synchronizing graph data in decentralized mesh networks. It is as easy as Firebase yet supports end-to-end encryption and uses “CRDT” algorithms instead of a Blockchain.
In 2020, GUN hit 200M+ downloads with 30M monthly active users. The project is powered by 2 full time staff, 10 part-time volunteers, and 100+ contributors.
“At the DWeb Camp in 2019 I led a brainstorming session on how we can build a cloud providing the same openness and freedoms to users and developers as open source. One year and a pandemic later, I’m excited to finally release the first step in pursuit of that vision: “ensembles”, git repositories that package open cloud services.
They are designed to be the building blocks of an open and decentralized cloud infrastructure: reproducible, relocatable and shareable. Decentralization is obtained via a notion of a persistent identity that is defined not by a network location but rather a reproducible state.”
6. Paul Frazee, Founder, Breaker Browser
Beaker Browser 1.0: Share P2P Websites
“Unless there was a disaster between my talk-submission and Thursday, then Beaker Browser 1.0 is now available! Join us for a quick overview of building and sharing peer-to-peer Websites with this newest release.”
7. Maria Bustillos, Co-Founder, Brick House Co-operative
Decorporatizing the Public Sphere
Megaplatforms from Amazon to Facebook to Penguin Random House have flattened and centralized the human imagination. Netizens know that something is draining out of our world, that there’s less variety, less brilliance, and fewer surprises, in our movies, music, and writing. But it’s not clear to most that this cultural deterioration is the result of a breakneck form of capitalism enabled by technology.
The Brick House Cooperative, launching December 8th, is addressing this problem as writers and artists, ‘from the other side’. They’re looking to join forces with technologists and others interested in decorporatizing media. Maria will also share how her previous experience with Civil, a blockchain-based media platform that aimed to fund journalism, will inform her work with The Brick House.
Agregore is a local-first web browser which aims to simplify application development across different peer-to-peer protocols while staying as minimal and customizable as possible. Through Agregore, Mauve is trying to address the issue of web browsers not having access to full peer-to-peer protocols. They want to make creating local-first apps easier by simplifying the programming interface and app distribution method.
Fluence Labs was established in 2017 by 3 founders, Dmitry Kurinskiy, Tom Trowbridge and Evgeny Ponomarev. They started in 2017 and spent a lot of time researching and experimenting with decentralized computing. Just recently, in November 2020 they launched Phase 1 of Fluence: the decentralized computing protocol that allows applications to build on each other, share data and users. They call it an open application platform.
The goal of Fluence is to enable the next wave of internet innovation by turning the competition into collaboration. Fluence creates an open alternative to proprietary platforms, enabling developers to build with confidence and be fairly compensated for usage.
Self Determination for our Digital Bodies with Solid
Centralized tech monopolies and other large corporations capture the vast majority of the value of the world’s data in 2020. In order to create the conditions necessary to return this value to the world’s users, we need new politico-technical-social institutions that give users the ability to provide and retract informed consent over the ways their data is used. itme is building the world’s first cooperatively owned and operated data union built on Tim Berners-Lee’s new Solid web standard to let users reassemble their digital bodies and capture the value of the data they create.
PLAN Systems is a technology 501(c)(3) founded in 2018 by two U.S. veterans in Austin TX., including Drew O’Meara, inventor of G-Force realtime audio reactive music visualizations. Their development effort centers on building a framework of open protocols and universally accessible interfaces designed for privacy, real time collaboration, data visualization, and secure data storage & portability. November was a critical milestone, demonstrating PLAN (pre-alpha) running on 4 major platforms across desktop and mobile devices.
Email them at info [at] plan-systems.org to learn more and get involved.
“At 2019’s Dwebcamp, a group of us found a back room and spontaneously designed a shared protocol for distributed synchronization. Tim Berners-Lee walked by, and thought it would be a great addition to the web.
We will report on what’s happened since!
We presented the protocol to the IETF’s HTTP Working Group in Montreal, and received a surprisingly enthusiastic reception. We are now building software on the protocol, to show how HTTP can be extended into a distributed shared fabric for local-first applications, users, and systems, with great debugging and tooling.”
Many of us know that the Internet is broken, so how do we build something better? On September 22, DWeb San Francisco invited a panel of experts to share their views on the most viable paths forward. The panelists included author & EFF advisor Cory Doctorow, Matrix.org co-founder Amandine Le Pape, decentralized social media researcher Jay Graber, and TechDirt’s Mike Masnick. They covered a range of approaches — including technical, regulatory, and organizational — that could bring us towards a future where our networks are more resilient, participatory, and decentralized.
Developer, and founder of Happening, Jay Graber, shared her insights on what she found hopeful about the decentralized web ecosystem, and some of the challenges that some of these protocols still need to grapple with moving forward.
Chief Operating Officer of Element and Co-founder of the Matrix.org Foundation, Amandine Le Pape, shared what she learned as Matrix built a new open standard for real-time communication from the ground up, as well as her ideas on how to counter the information silos of the big centralized platforms.
Journalist and co-founder of Techdirt, Mike Masnick, shared about the way people were realizing the need for change, and also some of his skepticism about how some proposed regulations to enforce interoperability may harm start-ups and other less-resourced projects. Masnick’s 2019 white paper, “Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech” has been an influential call to arms for the decentralized tech community.
As Mike Masnick writes:
At a time when so many proposals for how to deal with the big internet companies seem focused on spite and anger at those companies, rather than thoughtful discussions of how we get to what’s coming next, at the very least I’m hopeful that others can be inspired…to come up with their own ideas for a better, more proactive approach to a future internet.
Ultimately, that vision—building a better Internet and Web—is the North Star that the DWeb community aims for.
People’s access to accurate, reliable information is always essential. Of course, it becomes ever more critical during a global pandemic like COVID.
But giving people “internet access” alone is not enough. For information to be useful to people, the means of access cannot be a one-way street. Information is social. Information must be contextualized. What are the spoken languages, levels of reading literacy, ways of life, and the legacies of systemic oppression? Community networks take a holistic approach to information and communication technology. Instead of seeing people as passive users, people are active participants, co-creating media through collaborative processes, thereby making it more inherently more accessible than content produced elsewhere.
These are some of the main takeaways from the DWeb Meetup on July 29, 2020. Four DWeb Camp 2019 Global Fellows shared how their community networks in South Africa, Brazil and India are adapting to COVID. Though they can connect to the World Wide Web, the fact that these networks maintain steady connectivity between local nodes with locally-hosted content is in many ways more valuable than their internet access.
So how do their community networks steward connectivity and information in this way? How do they work with their communities to produce local knowledge that feeds their networks?
Community Networks Contextualize Information
Sol Luca de Tena, director of Zenzeleni Networks Non-Profit Corporation (NPC), spoke with us from Cape Town, South Africa. Zenzeleni Networks supports and seeds cooperatively-owned community networks. There are currently two community networks, Zenzeleni Mankosi Cooperative and Zenzeleni Zithulele Cooperative. Together they cover 19 villages and are the first legally-recognized community networks that are owned and governed by their members in South Africa.
She described how the problem in rural South Africa went beyond having access to reliable information. The public health information regarding COVID was not even useful given the realities of people, especially given that it was not even available in their languages:
“So imagine in your [urban] setting, all the [COVID safety] guidelines that are being published by the government and by doctors, are about how to stay safe when using a communal tap. How to stay safe when taking your cattle out, or tending for your crops. Amidst the anxiety of knowing what to do, what’s real, what’s not. When the information is not contextual, and it’s not even in your first, or second, or third language, imagine the strain that creates.”
The Zenzeleni community networks serve areas where, over the last decade, its network was largely built alongside its energy infrastructure. Its lack of public services and infrastructure was a direct legacy of underdevelopment due to the Apartheid regime. When national and international health guidelines on COVID assume access to running water and other amenities, it just was not helpful or relevant.
“Our Stories, Our Internet”
Two of Zenzeleni’s initiatives were started to address this. The first was the Digital Community Notice Board. Though they had already zero-rated many websites for health and educational resources, they were finding that it was difficult to filter and make sense of it. The Notice Board curates information from credible sources, carries videos in local languages, and empowers people to filter information that is relevant to them.
The second project Sol shared with us was Amabali Wethu, Intanethi Yethu (“Our Stories, Our Internet”) Challenge. It came out of the need for more content that is locally-created by indigenous black community members. The challenge calls for content in audio and visual formats and makes the content freely available on the networks across 65 hotspots. Those who create the works can win cash prizes to incentivize people to contribute and help people financially.
Sol emphasized that we need to think about tech as being not separate from people’s lives. The internet is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. Our networks ought to come out of our communities, and be designed according to actual felt needs.
Nodes that Bond
Marcela Guerra joined us from Monteiro Lobato, in the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo. She helps with her neighborhood association, Portal Sem Porteiras, whose main project is operating a local community mesh network. The network uses Altermundi’s Libre Routers for its 18 nodes and has over 200+ devices connected. They use Pirania, a captive portal system also built by Altermundi, to moderate the use of the network and gather micropayments to help pay for the ISP connection.
Marcela discussed the organizational hurdles of maintaining the network. With more than 12 people volunteering to maintain it, they made big changes to the way they organized themselves and have made its management more decentralized. They split themselves into five territories, where each group of volunteers is responsible for the connectivity issue of each area’s network.
But as a community network, she said, the work can get very personal. Marcela said that neighbors often knock on the doors of network maintainers when they need internet connection. So they created a virtual channel with a made-up character to help answer those queries. A person is actually answering them behind the scenes, but the character helps to prevent people from getting attached to specific people.
Of course, since all the volunteers are members of the communities themselves, it can be difficult to manage their time and priorities when you live there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Marcela said that they’re trying to get more involved and are working on better governance so they can consider all their members’ perspectives and adapt as best they can.
In the meantime, they are opening a new physical location, a hub, for their community network. It’s a well-ventilated house where people can exchange knowledge and take care of personal business — to pay their bills, use a printer, and other tasks people need specialized devices to do.
The other project Marcela coordinates is called Nodes that Bond, which works to shift women’s relationships with technology. They used to have in-person monthly women’s circles to build trust and connection with each other, which was important as they shared personal stories and shaped what they wanted to be able to do with their community network.
Since the pandemic began however, they replaced the women’s circles with a podcast that collects testimonials on various subjects. Some of the episodes help women navigate tech documentation, and others help them as they go through a digital security orientation. She is now working with her team on an audio novella based on research from 2019 about local women’s stories of domestic violence. In order to anonymize the women’s identities, the novella will weave those into one story of a fictional woman.
Marcela combines creativity and practical approaches to ensure her local network is both sustainable and accessible to the women and underserved in her community.
Scrap Laptops + Raspberry Pis + Kolibri
Hiure Queiroz, tech lead of Coolab, supports the creation and maintenance of community networks in his local area. Like most places in the world, education in his community has been hugely impacted by COVID. He talked about how he is using the local mesh (which Marcela mentioned runs on Libre Routers) to provide educational resources to students.
Hiure is relying on Kolibri, an offline educational application built by Learning Equality, which he said was the best app he found for peer-to-peer networks. He is equipping scrapped laptops with Raspberry Pis to wirelessly mesh the devices to build the peer-to-peer network. He named these devices “Frankenberries”. Students and teachers can then use the Frankenberriess to access the educational materials on Kolibri.
Previously, students had to read and access educational materials on their parents’ mobile phones. With the Frankenberry laptops, students can more easily read and interact with the materials. Hiure is holding study groups with students and teachers to train them in using this system.
In order to meet the urgent educational needs of his community under COVID, Hiure is building devices and fashioning them with the materials teachers require to teach their students. Just as important to this is the training he is holding to onboard them.
Building Local Knowledge with Hypermedia and Mesh Mash Networks
Last but not least was TB Dinesh, who presented his work with Janastu, and Servelots. He is building free and open source technologies to address the needs of populations in the Global South, particularly indigenous communities and those experiencing systemic inequity and prejudice. Dinesh’s passion is building the tools for a truly inclusive Web, one that takes into account that still a large population of the world have low reading literacy.
Dinesh is based in a village that lies on top of a hill next to a valley, about one hour from the city of Bangalore in India. A mesh network connects his village to other villages across the valley.
Janastu has built a radio storytelling platform atop that mesh network, enabling people to share their stories and knowledge using audio and visual media. They converted old phone booths into nodes for the radio, called Namdu1Radio. They are equipped with Raspberry Pis that allow people to walk up to listen to other people’s recordings or record their own with a push of a button. Dinesh noted that making the technology approachable this way is crucial. By making use of familiar infrastructure, like a phone booth, you can more easily embed new technology.
But archiving this material in ways that low literacy people can contribute, was another challenge they wanted to address. Dinesh and his team have created hypermedia archives, using image-based web annotation technology to connect audio to other audio. Like hypertext, where text documents are interconnected with other text documents through links, hypermedia does the same using media. The archive tool allows people to drag-and-drop images to associate them to audio files.
Their hypermedia project has been underway for several years. What have they had to change since the COVID lockdowns? This year, Janastu was planning to go to another village and build out their mesh network, radio, and hypermedia archive in an area 2000km away. The pandemic forced them to indefinitely postpone that project.
Now Dinesh and his team are building what he calls a “mesh mash” — a mesh network with an overlay or logical network. Since building out the physical mesh network is difficult under the lockdown, they are enabling other devices, such as laptops or tablets connected through mobile cell service, to be part of the mesh.
They use IPv6 identifiers to allow those devices to connect and access the other nodes on the network. The mesh mash uses Syncthing to keep files synchronized and up-to-date across the mesh network. They use Yggdrasil to configure log-ins and host video streamed workshops that are broadcast across the network.
Dinesh is currently building out Papad, the audio annotation tool. Like the hypermedia archives, the images can be dragged and dropped to related audio files. People can also add text tags to add another layer of annotation. For example, if an audio recording is about a math lesson, someone could find an image of numbers and arithmetic operators and add that to the audio file. This is all updated and available across the mesh network.
This allows people to not only contribute their knowledge and stories to the mesh network. It empowers people to organize and archive this shared knowledge so it’s discoverable, all without needing to be able to read or write. This shared hypermedia archive enables people to connect across similar interests, share recipes, and even offer gig services across the villages.
Dinesh’s projects emerge out of a passion for creating technology that is community maintained and developed. He believes in the potential of technology, combined with locally-available resources and knowledge, to bring about local futures that are more equitable and self-determining.
As COVID spread throughout the world, even those in the most internet-connected, developed cities were susceptible to misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news. Here in the United States, COVID has exposed deep deficiencies in how we access accurate, reliable information, especially about what we each must do to mitigate this crisis in our communities.
The Global Fellows showed us how their communities are taking control of their network infrastructure, to make the information that is shared on their networks more relevant, accessible, and valuable for themselves. It’s easy to become disillusioned with the centralized, top-down, and profit-based systems that those of us in urban and developed areas have come to rely on for our news and information. Seeing how the Global Fellows are innovating to create homegrown technologies to address immediate information and education challenges is truly awe-inspiring.
What they are showing us is that “decentralization” is not only a matter of developing technology that is not centrally managed. It’s about building community, meeting people where they are, and approaching technology not as an end unto itself, but a means to address the real challenges that people face.
One of the most promising aspects of the decentralized Web (DWeb) is that it’s a movement that envisions a world in which anyone can be empowered to build their own communication networks.
But DWeb is about something more than just internet connectivity. For many, 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.
What this means for people who live in areas where internet connectivity is scant or nonexistent is that it’s no longer simply a matter of connecting them to the mainstream global internet. People can build local networks and web applications that fit the needs and desires of their own communities. They can redefine the utility of networked communication by listening to what people need and designing tools and applications to address them.
We identified some of these remarkable social-tech innovators and have invited ten of them to join us at DWeb Camp. They are coming from all corners of the world to share their experience building decentralized networks and applications. Our hope is that they too will learn about tools and approaches to decentralization that can help inform and support the awe-inspiring work they do on the ground.
The following are bios of this year’s DWeb Global Fellows.
Angelica Blevins + Zach Mandeville
Angelica and Zach are artists, coders, and solarpunks living in New Zealand. They met over a mutual appreciation of each others’ work — Angelica’s comics and Zach’s zines — which sparked a romance that led to marriage. Their path to decentralized tech came from burnout and depression, caused largely by Web 2.0 and the damaging extractive quality it has on artists. As they sought technical autonomy in how they developed and shared work, the initial joy of creation was sparked again. The internet was no longer a trigger for depression, but a wellspring of joy. There was also a strong mystic history and presence in these technologies that both were drawn to, and wanted to fuel more.
They are now active community members in Scuttlebutt and love building arty and dumb things in Beaker. Their passion is in helping our decentralized spaces support artistic communities as much as it supports technical ones, to draw out the magical element already present in our code, and to help spread the empowering joy they found in these spaces to people who feel outside of tech culture.
Hiure holds an undergraduate degree in physics and a Masters degree in materials science from the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA) and is a founding partner of Sítio do Astronauta in São Paulo, Brazil. Hiure is a very dedicated researcher, responsible for some important technical developments and solutions currently provided by Coolab. He is interested in the study and development of science and technologies through the promotion of seminars and workshops inspired by the do-it-yourself culture. In these meetings he introduces handcrafted tools, simple materials and electronics in order to potentiate the construction of things which could function to facilitate solutions in everyday life.
Kanyon is Costanoan Ohlone-Mutsun and Chumash; she also goes by her given Native name, “Coyote Woman”. She is proud of her heritage and her native name (though it comes with its own back story), and is very active in the Native Community. She is an Artist, Poet, Published Author, Activist, Student and Teacher. The daughter of Ann-Marie Sayers, she was raised in Indian Canyon, trust land of her family, which currently is one of the few spaces in Central California available for the Indigenous community for ceremony. Kanyon’s art has been featured at the De Young Museum, The Somarts Gallery, Gathering Tribes, Snag Magazine, and numerous Powwows and Indigenous Gatherings. She is a recent graduate of the Art Institute of California, Sunnyvale, obtaining her Associate and Bachelor of Science degrees in Web Design and Interactive Media. She is motivated to learn, teach, start conversations around decolonization and re-indigenization, permaculture and to continue doing what she loves: Art.
Luandro is a developer who does regular contributions to projects aimed at decentralizing communication such as Libre Router and Secure Scuttlebutt. He’s been living in Moinho, quilombola village, in Brazil for over five years building a community network with his neighbors.
Marcela is a craftswoman with a focus on technological appropriation and object-making through workshops and immersive experiences. She holds a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from UNESP in São Paulo, and is part of the collective Sítio do Astronauta, which investigates and develops non-disciplinary technologies that amplify learning skills and enable artistic expression.
Since 2016 she has lived in the Souzas neighbourhood in Monteiro Lobato, São Paulo, Brazil where she contributes to a number of local initiatives: the “Cassava Festival,” an independent festival organized by the Souzas neighborhood community; the “Espaço do Fazer”, an open laboratory for research, creation and development of projects, located inside the Pandavas Institute; and the “Associação Portal sem Porteiras”, a non-profit association that seeks to develop alternative forms of accessing and producing information.
Currently, Marcela is the chairwoman of the Associação Portal sem Porteiras and member of its communication council, where she explores experimental methodologies to help enable the community to develop a critical sense in the processing of information produced by new media.
Merlin Van Lawick
Merlin was born in Dar es Salaam of Dutch, English and Mwela, Tanzanian decent. His diverse heritage has aided his open-mindedness and respect for cultural diversity. After finishing his A level education, he made up his mind to pursue a unique path outside of university, in which his fulfillment is a commitment to others and to the environment. He is presently in charge of developing the Pugu Environment Center, affiliated with the organization founded by his grandmother, The Jane Goodall Institute (JGI).
Merlin is committed to the emerging decentralized application technology and the potential of transparent, open-sourced and consensus tech-based solutions. He co-founded Afriplains Digital Technologies with the intent to provide resources to young talent. He recognizes that this emerging technology can address not only socioeconomic challenges and public empowerment but form an interconnected web between diverse cultures, eventually moving toward an evolution of a better-connected global consciousness.
Soledad Luca de Tena
Sol has spent her life living and working between South Africa and Spain, and calls both countries home. She has over a decade of experience in strategic project management within technology development, capacity building, social impact and policy — with a focus on utilizing technologies to address environmental and social challenges. She develops collaboration networks between often diverse interests, including communities, academia, industry and administration, and shapes projects that respond to critical needs. Sol is passionate about creating positive, meaningful change through equitable, sustainable interventions.
She is currently a director of Zenzeleni Networks NPC, South Africa’s first community network, as well as the vice-chair of the Internet Society’s global Community Networks Special Interest Group (CNSIG).
Dinesh, as part of Janastu and Servelots groups, has been exploring tech engagements for “Indian/South needs” through a rural research lab (iruway.janastu.org) near Bangalore., India Research activities have been generally oriented towards Web content accessibility issues for the low-literate users. Decentralized local mesh networks, indigenous archives, and Web Annotation tools frame the context of his work.
Dinesh returned to Bangalore from Palo Alto about 20 years ago for the development of “Pantoto Communities – community owned community knowledge” — software that helped non tech-savvy domain experts at small organizations do knowledge management without depending on high-cost tech resources. After meeting a number of people and organizations working on a wide range of societal issues, Janastu and Servelots became an R&D body for these groups. While the Pantoto idea is still active in spirit, its now being imagined as decentralized archives with Web Annotations tools to help link data, re-narrate content for low literates, and to enable mesh-based participatory services.
Tzu-Tung Lee (李紫彤)
Tzu-Tung is a conceptual artist focusing on decolonizing art and political hegemony (tzutung.com). She surfs between performances, web-art, on-site installations, experimental films and creates her works in contemporary art, academia and political domains. On 2019, she co-found ARThon, Taiwan first hackathon for artists, and its trans-disciplinary community Tinyverse (arthon.cc).