Simon Petherick heads to the wild frontier of the web and finds the co-operative movement taking on a new form in cyberspace. (This article out in the latest edition of The Idler, May/June 2020, available here – https://www.idler.co.uk/join/ and here – https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/.
Do you think at some point in the not-too-distant future, we’ll look back on our 2020 selves and ask: what on earth were 2.45 billion of us doing on Facebook; 330 million scribbling on Twitter; 1 billion snapping away on Instagram? Because let’s be clear: what we’re doing here is giving away our content – our photos, our witticisms, our philosophical conjectures – to people we don’t know and who are using our content to make themselves very wealthy through selling advertising and user profile data. Nick Clegg – remember him? – is now effectively an advertising salesman.
The internet was once imagined by Tim Berners Lee and his colleagues as an open space for the sharing of information. He felt so strongly about this that he refused to apply for a patent in his invention, arguing that the internet should always be a public, open space. That space is no longer open, it’s owned – and not by us. Amazon Web Services now delivers more profit to the North American giant than all of its online retail activities. BP, for example, has just migrated all of its online data to AWS, so bear in mind next time you use one of their handy loyalty cards when you top up with petrol, old Jeff Bezos will be quietly filing your data in his back room.
In other countries, the internet is owned by the state – China famously is able literally to turn the internet off when it wishes to, and regularly does so when President Xi Jinping is making a specific public tour to part of the country. But back here in the West, Google (which two years ago quietly removed its founding strapline “Don’t Be Evil” from its internal Code of Conduct for what many say are self-explanatory reasons) is so closely entwined with the American military and government apparatus that it is difficult to see how they can be viewed as separate entities.
So maybe it’s worth our spending a little time exploring the potential for a different direction for the internet, one that is perhaps closer to the vision of its founding parents?
One way of doing that is to use the language of the Commons, first set down at the time of Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest: the idea of public spaces which are owned by the community and managed by the people through a mutually agreed set of operating principles.
David Bollier (http://www.bollier.org/) of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics in the US is one of the most incisive thinkers today on the subject of the Commons with a new book out, Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons (New Society Publishing, 2019.
“How can you fight the power of Facebook? The same question could have been asked about how we might fight the Soviet Union or how we could fight against capitalism; the adversary is so daunting. Right now, we as subjective human beings with diverse concerns are being turned into fodder for the market machine. And the fields of engagement have shifted recently. There still remains a struggle between those who would like to monetise and capitalise on social activity but I see it less now as a struggle between the old industrial proprietory models and the open model, and more a contest between the open model as colonised by capitalism and the Commons alternatives.
“The whole framing of social media as public spaces versus private spaces is misleading; the public/private binary presumes that the State should be the guardians of the public spaces and that corporations may control the “private,” but this binary simply doesn’t describe social reality any longer. The Commons breaks the binary by offering a third, self-organized, peer-governed space outside of state or market control. I see the Commons as a way of trying to deal with social media problems through distributing power as opposed to centralising it through the Market/State.”
So how do we convert the internet back to a space that is both owned and controlled by us, the users? Matthew Lawrence is a Director at the UK’s Common Wealth lobby (https://common-wealth.co.uk/) which has recently published a manifesto for a British Digital Co-operative which, it suggests will “legally be established by Parliament as a public cooperative whose members are the citizens and residents of the United Kingdom. The responsibility for managing this cooperative will be borne jointly by its workforce and by the public.”
For Lawrence, “the thinking behind the BDC is that, without some clear institutional support, possibly investment, then there is always going to be a bias towards a privately-owned digital realm. Therefore, we need the equivalent of the BBC to nurture digital spaces. It’s not enough to hope for organic shape, politics need to reshape them.”
This puts him and Common Wealth slightly at odds with the more cerebral approach of Bollier, who has deliberately put distance between his thinking and the conventional political guardians of alternative thought. “The left has experienced a failure of imagination,” Bollier claims, “a lack of courage, a wilful blindness to a deeper psychic, cultural and social energy. There’s a profound alienation and lack of belonging in the modern world. I want a deeper sense of sovereign vision for our future.”
Given that we’re experiencing a certain amount of jaundice about the BBC – even the football commentator Gary Lineker thinks the licence fee should be scrapped – the idea of a quasi-governmental body nurturing the internet doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. Maybe we should be going back to the kind of people who started this whole thing in the first place: geeks.
I cycle down to a Holochain (https://holo.host/) MeetUp in Morden, south London, and meet with Holo’s charming Community Engagement Manager Eric Bear (“you can call me Eric or Bear”) and Mamading Ceesay, Holo’s thoughtful Systems Administrator. I try and keep up with their speculations on how Holochain can restore sovereignty to the web.
Think back to those raggedy days of Napster and BitTorrent when teenagers were uploading music files into the ethernet and in return, were downloading other files. It was called file-sharing, and for a while before the lawyers shut it down, it was a way of getting hold of music and games and films without going through an established vendor. Mary Camacho, the Executive Director of Holo, dismisses this: “previous peer-to-peer models like Napster or BitTorrent were essentially about cheating the system, about finding ways to get around paying for music.”
So what Holochain is about is creating an internet which is not based on data being centralised in one place – Amazon’s servers, Google’s, Apple’s, the Chinese Government’s – but is about data being held on innumerable mini servers which belong to individuals all over the world. Holochain creates a software language which enables each individual to act as an identified agent for the transfer and holding of data. So I might upload a picture of my cat for you to admire, you might upload a song you’d like people to purchase. I might authorise my picture to be used in a number of scenarios managed by Apps which use Holochain software, you might give authority for your song to be downloaded. But if anyone misuses the picture, or tries to link your song with, say, an anti-Semitic trope, the bad agent who is doing this can be identified within the system and blocked.
Mary Camacho takes up the case: “The most significant thing Holochain is doing is inverting the paradigm so that you own your data, not someone else.”
These are early days, so there are not many practical models yet released by the Holo techies but if you want to keep tabs on some of their interesting experiments, then take a look at Junto https://junto.foundation/ – a social media platform start-up that’s using the Holochain infrastructure or Humm https://humm.earth/ – another Holochain-based experiment, this time in collective publishing. Neither of these is quite ready for you to leap in and use, but if you’re interested in this area they’re worth keeping an eye on.
Holochain is just one example of attempts to reclaim what we’ve lost. Other interesting experiments are Mastodon (https://joinmastodon.org/) which currently has over four million users of its social network; Diaspora (https://diasporafoundation.org/) which allows you to make longer blog posts to share; NextCloud (https://nextcloud.com/) which claims to give you control over how your data is stored; Peertube (https://joinpeertube.org/) has 20,000 users owning and sharing 100,000 videos; Scuttlebutt (https://scuttlebutt.nz/) is more of a co-operative approach to the sharing of data.
A lot of these projects arise out of a notion called the Fediverse (https://fediverse.party/) which, like Holochain, use a multiplicity of servers to break down notions of central control. The idea is that by decentralizing content you deprive advertisers of a controlled and quantifiable audience, and therefore take away the attractiveness of these social media platforms to acquisitive capital.
If one of your concerns is about privacy, then WhatsApp, the current text tool of choice in the world, is now challenged by other models such as Signal (https://www.signal.org/) which has Edward Snowden on its homepage extolling the virtues of its improved privacy. Or you can go the whole hog and move your email away from Google and Apple servers and on to an encrypted network such as Proton (https://protonmail.com/) which makes a virtue of the fact that its servers are located in Switzerland and protected by Swiss privacy laws.
Another way to begin to explore alternative internet models is by geography. Mat Lawrence of Common Wealth points to a geographic devolution as one of the other alternative processes within the digital sphere. Highlighting the Scottish National Party’s digital policy he references also other geographic digital ventures: Guifi in Barcelona (https://guifi.net/es/), co-operative digital ventures in Ghent and Bristol, Liverpool and Amersterdam. There are plenty of operators in these areas trying to establish democratically owned internet spaces which are not sitting on privately-owned web spaces and you may well find some interesting folk dibbling around in these areas close to where you live.
Oh, and obviously it goes without saying that there is also this safe space for the liberty-minded individual: https://www.idler.co.uk/.
So it’s possible that, pace Gil Scott Heron, the revolution won’t be televised, it will be decentralised. And this process won’t be immediate: all the thinkers I spoke to for this piece stressed how long a game this will be. Bollier talks about people slowly being drawn to Commons-based alternatives like the filaments of a magnet; Camacho is sensibly modest about Holo’s role: “We’re part of the process, it will be slow-going.” For a long time yet, if you’re wanting to know which obscure pub that 1970s band you loved once are playing in next month, you’re probably going to be including Facebook in your search. But maybe we should all be thinking more practically about limiting our usage of these monolithic social media monsters and considering other ways of interacting.
The Idler’s editor appears to have weaned himself off Twitter but then he has his regular subscription email to his readers to get things off his chest. If you’d like to do the same but don’t really want that Mark Zuckerberg looking over your shoulder as you type, then the encouraging news is that the future is out there. We just have to go and find it.