Let’s welcome Eseohe “Ese” Ojo to the Decentralized Web community! We’re thrilled to have Ese (pronounced “essay”, she/her) as the new DWeb Projects Organizer. She will be working to foster dialogue and build networks among those building a web that is more private, reliable, secure and open. She will also help steward the DWeb website as a resource hub for readings, guides, and events related to the Decentralized Web.
We did a short interview with Ese, where we asked her about her professional background, her thoughts on the connections between digital rights, human rights, and the environment, as well as what it is about the DWeb space that brings her hope.
Mai: Can you first tell us about your professional background and what you’ve been working on more recently?
Ese: I have a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and in May 2020, graduated with a master’s degree in Public Policy and Global Affairs as an African Leader of Tomorrow Scholar from the University of British Columbia. During my undergraduate studies in Nigeria, I took a combination of Law and International Relations courses and developed an interest in human rights and international law. I began working in the non-profit sector after graduation on a range of issues including digital rights, freedom of expression, access to information, academic freedom, gender, democracy, good governance and open government.
Mai: Given your background in human rights and digital policy, as well as with your current work in climate organizing, how do you think these issues are intersected?
Ese: I think these are all interconnected. I began working on environmental issues having worked on other human rights issues previously because I realised and agreed with the assertion that a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment of other fundamental rights and freedoms.
When it comes to digital rights and right now, as I’m learning more about the decentralised web, I see a lot of parallels. I believe that the original vision for the web and the vision for the decentralized web is meant to be inclusive, private, reliable, secure, and open. It is often said and reaffirmed that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.” Achieving all of this requires that special attention is paid to what harms we see offline are being reproduced online and even beyond this, what new ones are being created by these spaces. We can only achieve this if everyone in the community is committed to doing their part in small and big ways to create, protect, and defend the world and the web we want.
Mai: What aspects of the decentralized web bring you hope? Are there specific projects or examples that come to mind that demonstrate to you how decentralized technologies can better secure our human rights both online and offline?
The potential for peer-to-peer relationships and control by many rather than a select few holds a lot of promise. I am hopeful that this will bring about alternative solutions to the problems we face now and mean greater, more meaningful access for many. I also hope that this community can learn from the mistakes already made as we work together to build something better — not just in comparison to what already exists but looking beyond to fill some of the gaps too. I am still exploring projects and examples of decentralized technologies and look forward to learning more about them.
Mai: Let me ask you a final, less serious question then! What do you like to do for fun, online and offline?
If my head isn’t buried in a book, I can typically be found rewatching Downton Abbey or Pride and Prejudice. On a rare sunny Vancouver day, I enjoy soaking up some sun at the beach, park, or sea wall.
Kelsey Bresemanis a Rita Allen Civic Science Fellow at the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, where she works on environmental accountability, data ownership models, and intentional community. Kelsey has founded and managed tech startups, and has a history of activist leadership for progressive causes. She has a B.S. in Neural Engineering from Olin College and is currently working on a M.S. in Data Science from UT Austin.
I originally entered the decentralized web space through a problem with trust and power. I’m a member of the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI), an organization that sprang up in the wake of the Trump administration in an effort to prevent a climate-denialist administration from reducing public access to critical government-held data about the environment. In the EDGI working group then called Archiving, we were looking at ways to back up datasets such that scientists would be able to use them as proof — implying a strong chain of provenance — even if the original source were to remove access.
The question was, how could we ensure that data for the protection of the environment was owned by the people in a trustworthy way? The decentralized web offered broad distribution and a blockchain-backed provenance. So the decentralized web can — at least theoretically — help to protect the environment through the preservation of critical data.
The basic pattern is the same across the technologies: proof-of-work is an inherently and intentionally energy-inefficient process that is the basis for Bitcoin’s stability as a currency; as the value of the currency rises, mining (which performs the energy-intensive proof-of-work process) becomes financially incentivized; high energy consumption increases carbon emissions, oil and coal extraction and burning, and so on. And so, decentralized web technology contributes to the destruction of habitability on our planet. Most articles you’ll find about this discuss cryptocurrency and NFTs, but our use case of decentralized and highly duplicated file storage isn’t immune. Aren’t we asking for more files to be stored on more servers, with more aggregate uptime and thus more energy use?
In this context, do we now need to protect the environment more directly from the decentralized web?
We believe projects should aim to minimize ecological harm and avoid technologies that worsen environmental health.
We value systems that work towards reducing energy consumption and device resource requirements, while increasing device lifespan by allowing repair, recycling, and recovery.
Though this principle could apply equally to any project — of course we should minimize ecological harm — it’s worth a brief exploration of the implications in the decentralized web space.
Energy use is an acknowledged issue with the decentralized web, and especially decentralized ledger (cryptocurrency) technologies, so there is a fair amount of writing in this space. Here, I’ll break down the most common takes I’ve seen folks bring up to address the ecological (usually energy-centric) impacts of this tech:
Carbon-Neutralize the Approach
This is the idea that the high energy use of decentralized web technologies is okay as long as you make sure the energy comes from renewable resources. In practice, this looks like the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, the Crypto Climate Accord, or the Energy Web Foundation: leveraging the collective power of energy users to create a demand for low-carbon energy that triggers a transition of the grid to renewable infrastructure. You’ll often see the phrase “net zero” — we’ll emit carbon, but then try to balance it out.
Transition to renewables is absolutely necessary, but as an answer to high energy use, it falls short. In grid-level discussions of renewable energy adoption, we see a lot of celebration that renewables are a growing percentage of our energy source. For example, U.S. states set “renewable portfolio standards” (RPS) defining a percent-renewable energy source for their grid infrastructure, and it’s fairly common for states to exceed their targets. California, for example, had a goal of 33% renewables by 2020 which they had already exceeded by 2018.
What often gets passed over however, is that year over year, energy demand grows so much that this typically means a growth across all sectors of energy generation, from solar to coal. What we’re celebrating, then, is not a displacement of coal/actual reduction in carbon emissions, but that new demand is being covered by proportionally more renewable sources than we’re used to.
And of course, even renewable infrastructure has an ecological cost (e.g. materials extraction) — so though decarbonization of our energy infrastructure is an important objective, any proposed solution that doesn’t attempt to decrease energy demand is underwhelming.
Try Something with Less Energy
As mentioned above, cryptocurrencies traditionally rely on energy-intensive proof-of-work as a mechanism for stability. Like the gold standard, the currency works because it is difficult to obtain, and increasingly so over time. Also like the gold standard, it’s something we may have the choice to move on from, hopefully in ways that serve our values.
The most famous foray into this change is proof-of-stake. Proof-of-work relies upon calculations that increase in complexity as the blockchain grows, requiring miners to purchase hardware and electricity as a cost of mining. Proof-of-stake is a more direct form of reinvestment; it ties up a miner’s existing coins as stake against the transaction.
Proof-of-stake is most touted for its much lower energy profile than proof-of-work. Altcoin uses it; Ethereum is switching to it; Bitcoin may or may not ever make that transition. These choices tend to be values-based. Proof-of-work’s original claim to fame was as a solution to the problem of double spending, where the same coins could be spent twice, destroying the integrity of the currency. Adherents to proof-of-work over proof-of-stake cite the importance of Bitcoin’s long-running stability across years of worldwide usage. Proof-of-stake is newer and less widespread; it’s impossible to declare it equally reliable yet, though it seems plausible that it might be. If so, the energy reduction would be worthwhile.
Make a Judgment Based on Values and Worth
Rather than asking in isolation how much carbon emissions decentralized web technologies create, many re-frame to draw a baseline. They ask, how do emissions from cryptocurrencies compare to emissions from traditional banking?
I haven’t come across a truly excellent breakdown of ecological cost for cryptocurrencies versus centralized banking, or even a hint of an attempt to compare emissions per dollar equivalent. However, there does exist some good comparative discussion, both of the costs of the two industries and of the value they provide (here’s an article from NASDAQ, for example).
I’m pleased to see the discussion. Cryptocurrencies are in many ways a practical protest against the power and control of traditional banks and government control. If the aim is to disrupt and displace, it’s important to compare the impacts of the two industries.
There’s much to critique in traditional banking. Quite apart from the ecological costs of day-to-day business, fossil fuel divestment has been a critical strategy of the climate movement, whether at the university endowment level or the personal ask to stop using Wells Fargo in response to their financial involvement in the Dakota Access Pipeline. People argue from both ecological and justice perspectives that disruption of traditional banking is a net positive. Others accept the ecological cost of decentralized finance tech as worthwhile, even if only for the trust and security of a chain of provenance.
When we create something new, we hope to make a meaningful improvement. We hope at worst that the cost of our prototype yields something worthwhile: an important learning. It should encapsulate a way of thinking that is different, in some critical way, from what exists. I remain attracted to the decentralized web space because I see so many people in it who are both thoughtful and taking action. People are reading books about power, about money, about justice, and making new protocols — both technical and human — that seem like they could fundamentally change the way our world works, and the way we work together within it.
But how can you know what is a sci-fi fantasy and what is grounded truth? As an expatriate of the Silicon Valley tech world, I know how easy it can be to get embroiled in the pitch: working so hard to earnestly convey that your startup is the key to changing the world. It’s a machismo-filled drive to oversell in order to stand out, to raise your VC seed, such that you yourself become over-convinced that the niche technology you’re developing is the one true way to save the world.
Take a second. Breathe. Think about busyness as a tool of oppression: the urgency that keeps you from ascertaining the full truth, taking the time to determine which systems are most in need of dismantlement. I know, I’m a radical; this is our language. But from what I’ve seen, most people get into DWeb for reasons that are at root more political than technological: you want some kind of change, some kind of power to people (decentralization), some kind of accountability (blockchain) and some way to claim identity-centric control (crypto). Admitting that, it’s not too much more radical to double-check the theory of change: do our technologies really serve the goods they claim to? How, and how can we ensure they do?
The DWeb principle at hand doesn’t make a value judgment with respect to energy use; its entreaty is awareness. It takes conscious work to think through the potential impacts of your (technical) choices, and I would ask that of you: slow down. Think it through. Make a decision about worth and value, rather than letting the flash and urgency of innovation sweep through you. The only way to know is to take the time to find out.
In his 1976 paper “Communication and Cultural Domination,” sociologist and media critic Herbert Schiller warned of a future in which the cultural lives of individuals around the globe would be shaped and dictated by a small number of private media interests. The domination of US tech corporations in the online world today is the grim fulfillment of that prophecy.
Access to the vast store of collective human knowledge is increasingly predicated on the surrender of our rights of privacy, free association, and digital autonomy to gatekeepers like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, whose entire business models depend on the normalization of surveillance capitalism. And digital colonization — the violent and repressive imposition of Western values and taxonomies — is a fundamental component of their success.
“The internet is implicated in contemporary power structures, its promise tarnished by unaccountable digital corporations, data extractivism, the marketisation of democracy and network capitalism’s connivance with surveillance states.”
(Anita Gurumurthy and Nandini Chami, “Towards a political practice of empowerment in digital times: a feminist commentary from the global South”)
Realizing the potential of the web to democratize the advance of human knowledge while preserving cultural autonomy and promoting universal human rights requires more than a begrudging (and often patronizing) nod to “global perspectives” interpreted through the lens of the Silicon Valley ethos. Achieving just outcomes requires actively prioritizing both equal access and equitable participation across social and cultural boundaries.
And this begins with centering the foundational principles of mutual respect, trust, and equity.
Achieving mutual respect is essential for effective communication and collaboration, and plays an especially critical role in conflict resolution.
It is important to distinguish between respect and tolerance. Tolerance is the privilege of the powerful: it is the granting of permission to deviate from the norms of the majority. And it comes with the unspoken threat that this permission can be revoked at any time. Asking the powerless to accept mere “tolerance” is asking them to endure their oppression for the comfort or convenience of their oppressors.
“That is the problem with toleration: others determine if they tolerate you, which rules and norms you need to meet in order to be allowed to participate.”
(Petra De Sutter and Bruno De Lille, “Wij willen niet getolereerd worden, wij willen respect”)
Honoring and respecting personal, social, and cultural differences in our digital communities starts with defining clear and consensual social contracts that establish the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of participation.
Codes of conduct are important in creating and sustaining an environment of mutual respect, but in order to be effective they must be enforced consistently and fairly. This requires the additional layer of clear and transparent governance. Fostering a culture of mutual respect starts with making social contracts explicit, continually reassessing their impact, and evolving their conditions to address changes both within a community and in the world at large.
Sustaining a culture that respects our differences, rather than simply tolerating them, creates opportunities to leverage the richness and diversity of our communities for the greater good.
Building trust begins with an expectation of positive intent, and develops over time through mutual accountability. Trust is earned and sustained by accepting responsibility for our actions and their outcomes.
“Without trust, conflict is politics. With trust, conflict is the pursuit of truth.”
(Patrick Lencioni, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”)
Social scientists recognize two main forms of trust: cognitive trust and affective trust.
Cognitive trust is valued predominantly in Western cultures and is based on confidence in someone else’s skills and reliability. It is fostered by a continual display of competence and reliability, and is essentially transactional.
Affective trust is more prevalent in the Global South and Asia. This form of trust develops from a sense of emotional closeness, demonstrations of empathy, or even feelings of friendship. It is relational rather than transactional.
As with respect, trust must be considered within the context of power dynamics. Distrust toward those with power often has little or no real consequence to them, but withholding trust from the disadvantaged or disenfranchised only magnifies the impact of systemic inequalities. This is why it’s essential that those with power earn and sustain trust through what they do, while, in turn, extending trust to others by accepting and recognizing them for who they are.
Trust in a global context requires acknowledging, valuing, and developing both kinds of trust in our communities.
Equity is difficult to define, because there are so few examples of true equity in our world to draw from. One way of thinking about equity is a lack of disparity in agency across racial, ethnic, gendered, and other dimensions. The meaningful pursuit of equity requires interrupting the societal, institutional, and interpersonal injustices that sustain these disparities.
“New manifestations of racism and other forms of oppression continue to emerge and outpace our mechanisms and capacities to solve them… To be achieved and sustained, equity needs to be thought of as a structural and systemic concept.”
(Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide, Annie E. Casey Foundation)
Equity is not synonymous with equality. Equality assumes that everyone has the same needs and can succeed given the same opportunities. Meritocracy, widely heralded in the online world as a force for equality, is founded on the idea that our differences are irrelevant to success, rather than a contributor to success. This dangerously flawed premise, combined with an unwillingness to acknowledge intrinsic power imbalances, has only served to compound the impact of deeply-rooted disparities in the digital world.
Inequity is not a problem that can be solved from first principles. Those with power cannot define what is or is not equitable. Deciding what’s best for the marginalized, rather than meaningfully empowering them to make these determinations for themselves, is itself a manifestation of inequity. Racism and other forms of oppression are self-perpetuating and constantly evolve in response to efforts to mitigate them, so strategies for addressing these issues must also evolve and adapt. Focusing exclusively on “quick fixes,” for example, outreach without corresponding investments in cultural and structural change, often do more harm than good.
Injustice cannot be cured by mere consultation, engagement, or representation. To effect meaningful change, those whose authority and privilege are sustained by inequity must yield power and distribute agency to those who are most impacted by systemic disparities.
Closing the Circle
The values of respect, trust, and equity are interconnected and inseparable. Putting them into practice means continually reassessing and re-imagining what a just world might look like. It means acknowledging that the same technologies we create and use with the intent of realizing these ideals, can (and will) be abused to instead sustain and magnify systemic injustice — at an otherwise unimaginable scale.
Values that are expressed but that do not guide our actions are merely performative. Real progress can only come about when we go beyond our good intentions, and take responsibility for impact and outcomes. Ultimately, we are accountable not only to our collaborators and our users, but also to our broader global society.
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.”