If you have noticed over the past decade, the net has become far less diverse. Far less anarchistic. Far more concentrated, with a few sites like Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook and other big media ventures concentrating most of the traffic.
Even worse, they provide their own pages for what were once independent offerings. Facebook has a page for every place, author, brand, etc. Wikipedia offers a dumbed-down summary of any topic in the world, usually plagiarized from independent pages. What we’re seeing is a massive centralization of content.
However, this is pair and partner to a greater centralization which is occurring through the protocols we use, how we route our traffic and how commerce and government shape the topography of the net.
Recently, I found the good folks at Redecentralize.org. They are forming a hacker-driven movement to decentralize the net that has slowly become more centralized during our lifetimes.
I was lucky enough to speak to Francis Irving of Redecentralize for the following interview.
The net was originally decentralized. What caused it to centralize?
In my view, I think it was the success of the web.
Before that, things were quite decentralized – for example NNTP and Email were higher level federated application protocols.
The web then came along and turned out to be very usable, but of its nature as a client/server protocol, the successful companies built on top of it have centralized servers (e.g. Google, Facebook).
On the good side, the web is fantastic and decentralized publishing, and made the Internet accessible to all. On the bad side, it naturally leads to central architectures.
Could anything have stopped this centralization?
Potentially other protocols winning the race against HTTP. They didn’t though, probably for good reason.
Another way would have been a campaign similar to the Free Software campaign, but instead for open protocols. Make them fashionable, get the geeks pushing them. Early 1990s would have been the time.
We should have been making eCommerce protocols, rather than implementing everything over HTTP and HTML.
What is the relationship, if any, between centralization and consumerism?
I think that consumerism is related, but not entirely. Even the non-consumerist uses of the web are quite centralized — everything from Github to Wikipedia.
You’re working toward “re-decentralizing” the net. What does this mean?
It’s just a way of saying “decentralizing” which acknowledges that there are cycles happening here.
Things always go from central (e.g. Mainframe) to decentalized (e.g. Personal Computers) to centralized again (e.g. Web).
It happens at lots of layers in a complex way. If the current system is centralized though, it opens itself up to decentralized disruption.
If you achieve your goal, what will net use be like for the average person?
- They would feel in control of their privacy. The cost of spying would have increased enough (but still be possible enough to stop terrorists), and data not be shared to a central server, that nobody would be worried about their personal conversations or business deals being stolen.
- They would find everything worked more resiliently. If on a train or in a mountain, applications would carry on functioning and sync whenever they got connectivity. Or, more importantly but more rarely, they could make phone calls during hurricanes, and still send emails to each other when a war cut of the Internet connection to the US.
- They would find everything would be cheaper. There’d be lots more higher level protocols – so companies like eBay and Amazon couldn’t gain essentially monopolies. So the cost of commerce would be that bit less. (This isn’t so much less than now, but less than when shareholders force the monopolies to squeeze the pips)
- They would find the network more inspiring. It would feel like it was for them, rather than for advertisers. It would have an energy — new ideas and applications and possibilities bubbling up — like we felt on the web 5 or 10 years ago.
How did your group come together, and how did your members hit on the idea of “re-decentralizing”?
From my point of view, I’ve been watching the Unhosted project for a while, and read the writings of Danny O’Brien on the edges of the network some years ago.
More recently, I’ve been researching resilience, as I don’t think as a society our tech copes well with natural disasters. In doing so, I came across a few more decentralized projects.
I also came across new protocols — Nicholas Tollervey introducing me to Kademlia. On top of BitCoin and GFShare. There are quite a few, all genuinely game changing and as yet mainly unused.
It seemed clear to me something interesting was going on — a load of geeks working away. It feels like the early days of the web, or the early days of the free software movement.
The word “redecentralize” just kept falling into my consciousness.
Ross and Ira I know from living in Liverpool, and from the Open Data movement respectively, were thinking about similar things and so we formed Redecentralize.org.
Your method is using software to re-shape the net, which seems like the gentlest possible method. To what degree is this hampered by the voluntary nature of software use? Or does that not apply, if a more competitive product emerges?
The mainstream doesn’t voluntarily use software. They are “forced” to use software that is both of a reasonable standard, and dominant enough that it can afford to be well maintained and that they hear about it.
I don’t think we can decentralize it voluntarily overnight. It’ll be a slow project — think more something like the original “Spread Firefox” campaign.
Or, more like the free software movement. It took a couple of decades for open source to be the dominant way of developing the stack underneath new software.
In the 1980s, computer companies were highly centralized with one firm making hardware, OS and software. It seems the cell phone revolution has gotten us closer to that model again, just as on the internet certain large companies own most of the big properties and influence others with non-profits. Is there a “pendulum swinging back” moment where this centralization process becomes inefficient?
Right now, their inefficiencies are at the edges, most people won’t notice them.
And that’s kind of the point – that’s what makes it an interesting, open field right now.
Those with passion will gradually move from the web to new areas.
Partly that will be 3D printing and DIY bio. But I also think it will be the next generation of network technologies.
And the place that gets the passionate geeks will develop the most innovative things — most likely to disrupt as time passes.
What do you think is the relationship between services like Wikipedia and Facebook, which standardize web content, and centralization?
Wikipedia is sort of necessarily central, although it could have a sync-based article viewing and updating system. It would have to be as easy to use though.
Facebook suffers in terms of privacy from being decentralized. Also, it makes people feel very out of control socially. This can be fixed in a centralized way though too — look at Whats App, for example, which feels much more controlled.
To replace things like Facebook, you need standard protocols instead.
Look at email to see that that is possible.
Can you tell us a little bit about your plans for the near future, and how a small hacker group (say, in Houston) could contribute toward the goal of re-decentralizing the net?
Pick some, try them out, file bugs and give feedback, and if you like any of them contribute code!
Redcentralize.org would also like help — suggestions of interviews, volunteers to run the website or organize a more indepth podcast, or run a Redecentalize news service.
Email us firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to help!