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).
We’re excited to gather technologists, creatives and visionaries together for an amazing 4-day weekend, July 18-21, at the first DWeb Camp. As we work to build a better internet in this beautiful natural location, it’s a chance to consider the impact that our technology has on societies, ecosystems and the world.
To explore the significant role we play in these complex systems, DWeb Camp will feature a series of wellness workshops to help us deepen our connection with each other and our ecosystem at large. For many, life on the internet can become disembodying over time; we lose our grounding in the reality of the natural environment. What happens when we think about our networks in the context of both the digital and physical realms?
DWeb Camp takes place on farm land that has a unique history. The stewards of this farm are cultivating new methods of growing food and generating energy. The farm is not just a pretty backdrop–we hope it will catalyze some meaningful discussions about our connections to each other and the planet.
At DWeb Camp, anyone can propose a workshop or discussion—there will be plenty of time for self-organizing. In the meantime, here are some workshops focusing on wellness that you can look forward to:
Regenerative Agriculture: This isa system of farming principles and practices that increase biodiversity, enrich soils and improve watersheds. Our hosts are building a regenerative farm that can capture carbon and water in soil, reversing the global trends of CO2 accumulation.
Learn how the farm is using no-till gardening, beneficial insects, and microbiology to nourish the soil. Get your hands dirty transplanting crops while workshop leaders, Cassie and Jared, teach us about these regenerative practices that actually improve the planet.
Permaculture: Are mushroom spawn and worm casings your jam? Then join Cassie and Jared in a hands-on lesson on using King Stropharia mushrooms to create the richest soil for your garden. They’ll show you how to build a kitchen compost worm bin so your soil can be as rich as theirs!
Decentralized Renewable Energy: The Farm is on a path to installing an energy super-system: integrating wind, solar and water to produce more energy than they need for themselves. Joshua Tree, founder of Butterfly Power, will lead a workshop from Powerhouse 1, his mobile renewable energy trailer. How can each of us offset our own carbon footprint? If you bring a solar kit, Joshua Tree will help you install a solar panel on your car or RV, while exploring the future of mobile renewable energy. Order your solar kit ahead of time to do your own or help someone else!
Grow Your Own Edible Mushrooms: Growing edible mushrooms is easy and fun. Expert mycologist, Stephanie Manara, will show you how to inoculate a log for different types of mushrooms, leading to multiple years worth of edible fungi! Take yours home or put together a mushroom grow kit to spread in your garden later. Along the way, Stephanie will share the benefits, science and lore of mycelia!
Plant Walk: With paper microscopes in hand, take a guided tour of the native plants and seeds at the Farm. Seed saving is one of the most powerful skills a farmer (or backyard gardener) can practice. Learn how to become a seed steward from Steve Peters, founder of the Organic Seed Alliance. The planet’s seed diversity is rapidly decreasing, but we can change that starting right in our own backyards.
Fermentation: For centuries, our ancestors have understood the benefits of fermentation—from food preservation to using microbes for good gut health. Cassie will lead a workshop on fermenting vegetables for probiotic health and delicious cuisine.
Farm Tour: Hop in a 4-wheel drive vehicle with Bill, the Farm’s resident historian. He’ll trace the land’s roots, from the Amah Mutsun tribe through today’s vision for these largely uncultivated 700 acres. From ocean to forest, creek to lake, Bill will share the story of this amazing stretch of Pacific coast land.
Making Honey: Experience the bees of the Pacific Coast and help make a batch of Lion’s Mane Mushroom honey. Tasting is encouraged!
Hemp Workshop: What other plant can be transformed into a medicine, paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, or animal feed? For 10,000 years, hemp has been woven into useful products. The Farm is soon to be a center for thriving hemp production. Josh West takes you on a tour through history, a green house and the many uses of this versatile plant.
Cacao Ceremony: Cacao is a fruit best known for its use in producing chocolate. But cacao is also a natural stimulant that can lead you to a warming, heart-opening experience. Matt Siegel, founder of the Envision Festival, will lead participants through a ceremony using Ecuadorian, fair-trade cacao. Come open your heart and increase your ability to connect—to yourself, to others and to the planet.
Stargazing and Myths: Take a hike up the hill to one of the area’s great stargazing spots. Weather permitting, Joanna and Ben will show you how to identify the constellations and share myths that the Greeks spun out of the stars.