Could decentralizing online life make it more compatible with human life?
Dominic Tarr is a computer programmer who grew up on a remote farm in New Zealand. Down in the antipodes, isolation is even more isolating. Getting goods, people, and information to and from Australasia for families like Tarr’s has always been difficult. Bad, unreliable internet service is a particular challenge. Australia and New Zealand are first-world countries with third-world latency.
Today, Tarr lives on a sailboat—another Kiwi staple, alongside sheep and distance. Connectivity is worse on the boat than on the farm, and even less reliable. But that’s by design rather than by misfortune. Tarr started living on the boat after burning out at a previous job and discovering that the peripatetic lifestyle suited him. Unreliable and sporadic internet connectivity became an interesting engineering challenge. What if isolation and disconnection could actually be desirable conditions for a computer network?
He built something called Secure Scuttlebutt, or SSB. It’s a decentralized system for sending messages to a specific community, rather than the global internet. It works by word of mouth. Instead of posting to an online service like Facebook or Twitter, Scuttlebutt applications hold onto their data locally. When a user runs into a friend, the system automatically synchronizes its stored updates with them via local-network transfer—or even by USB stick. Then the friend does likewise, and word spreads, slowly and deliberately.
For the contemporary internet user, it sounds like a bizarre proposition. Why make communication slower, inefficient, and reliant on random interactions between other people? But Tarr and others building SSB applications think it might solve many of the problems of today’s internet, giving people better and more granular control of their lives online and off.
But the likelier uses for SSB might end up being much more commonplace. For one, it works offline. In many parts of the world, access to reliable, affordable networking is a bigger challenge than access to computing. In India, for example, phones are ubiquitous, but network access is costly and slow. Technology companies have proposed solutions that double down on centralization. Google developed weather-balloon wifi to deliver access to Africa and Asia, and Facebook offered free internet on the subcontinent. Scuttlebutt might provide a simpler option with fewer strings and greater utility.
Connectivity loss also affects the first world, especially for those on the move. When in a subway or on a transcontinental flight—or even in a hotel room—networks are frequently unavailable or unreliable. Many services don’t work at all when a device is offline, even just to show what’s been downloaded since the last connection. They certainly don’t let you author new material offline. The cost and complexity of mobile roaming abroad also hampers always-on network usage. And even when accessible and affordable, constant connectivity has become a burden. Today, people often stay online not because they want to be there, but because there’s no way to avoid it.
Security and privacy offer further rationales for a system like SSB. Cyberattacks are common, and more organizations might want to decouple that data, even when encrypted, from the public internet. Decents might offer a solution. And when it comes to privacy, perhaps the best way to protect one’s personal information is to share it selectively for specific purposes. Services like Snapchat and Signal have already demonstrated a public preference for such behavior.
These rationales all derive from a bigger one: Centralized services are easy to use, but they offer one-size-fits all solutions. Why should a social network for a school or a family or a neighborhood work the same way as one meant for corporate advertisers, or governmental officials, or journalists? Even if Scuttlebutt never catches on, it shows that the future online might be far more customized and diverse than the present. And not just in its appearance, like MySpace or Geocities. But also in its functionality, its means of access, and its membership.
Perhaps the most compelling vision of the technological future is also the most modest. Today, Secure Scuttlebutt is both esoteric and unrefined. For those who aren’t already forking git repositories and hanging out in freenode on IRC, SSB will feel like a curiosity for eccentric technology geeks. But that’s also how the web once seemed, and Google, and Twitter, all the rest, even if it’s hard to remember when those systems were obscure rather than infrastructural.
In 19th-century Britain, the Church of England’s role as host of the official religion of the United Kingdom came under scrutiny. The Liberal Party’s drive to separate church and state had become viable, as industrialism, nationalism, and secularism rose to prominence. Decoupling the Anglican church from the state was called disestablishment, and its proponents were known as disestablishmentarians. In turn, conservative opposition to disestablishment was called antidisestablishmentarianism. Disestablishment was eventually achieved in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, but not in England. In the process, antidisestablishmentarianism became the longest non-technical word in the English language—and a nebulous koan with which to shake a fist against the Man.
Lost in the modern misuse of antidisestablishmentarianism is the way it chains historical contingencies. The antidisestablishmentarians weren’t just proponents of the state church. They were opponents to those who hoped to decouple it from the state at a particular moment in time.
Secure Scuttlebutt exemplifies a similar principle, one that some fellow travelers in the decentralized software community have called counterantidisintermediation. The 20th century saw the rise of intermediation: centralized media systems run by corporations and governments. When the web became popular in the mid-1990s, it promised disintermediation—allowing individuals to reach one another directly, without middlemen. But harnessing disintermediation proved hard for ordinary people, and corporations like Google and Facebook discovered they could build huge wealth facilitating those interactions in aggregate. That’s antidisintermediation. Today, decentralized software projects oppose the centralized control of online media. That’s counterantidisintermediation.
The tech entrepreneur and activist Anil Dash has eulogized “the web we lost.” For Dash, that’s the disintermediationist 1990s. But the internet of that era couldn’t work today, even if the world wanted it back. History moves forward, and people must respond to present conditions. Whether via Secure Scuttlebutt or something else, counterantidisintermediationalism could become the driving political, economic, and technical worldview of the near future. If successful, it might find various political and economic implementations. Bitcoin-style anarcho-capitalism is one. Another is its opposite, leftist collectivist anarchism (Dmytri Kleiner, who helped popularize the term counterantidisintermediationalism, calls himself a “venture communist”).[*] Another is Dominic Tarr’s equal-opportunity, technical agnosticism, a centrist take that sheds the baggage of anarchy entirely.
Tarr’s pitch is appealing, and a poetic consequence of the counterantidisintermediationalist philosophy. Governments and corporations probably shouldn’t be trusted to contain and manage all of modern life. But neither should extremists, left or right, who happen to know how to program computers. A truly decentralized infrastructure wouldn’t just diversify control of its technical operation. It would also diversify political, economic, and cultural goals.
In an age awash with venture capitalists and billionaires, anarcho-capitalists and conspiracy theorists, oligarchs and neo-authoritarians, perhaps the most compelling vision of the technological future is also the most modest. Scuttlebutt offers one model of that humility. Diverse groups of people networked in equally diverse, and even mutually-contradictory ways—for profit, for community, for anarchy, for globalism, and for localism, among others. No revolution whatsoever. Just people of all stripes, in places of all kinds, who sometimes use computers together.