Archive for 2015

Redecentralize 15

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

Redecentralize 2015 collage from the Hi Project

I’ve been on the edges of Redecentralize for a while now.

I watched with interest when Ross started compiling the Alternative Internet list back in 2013. Even though my only contribution was to somewhat snarkily add Books to the list, it was, and remains a fascinating list of new technologies, the impact of which we won’t fully understand for a long minute yet.

A little later I sat in a downtown Geneva bar with Ira, Ross and Francis, discussing Ben Franklin and his habit of founding charter based civic institutions – the backdrop to the holy Redecentralize trinity of Privacy, Resiliance & Fun taking form.

At the tail end of 2013 – as the Snowden revelations just kept on coming, and we all started to internalise the fact that we were living in an international surveillance state of hitherto unimaginable pervasiveness – Redecentralize started to form itself into a community.

There were regular meetups in London, full of smart people who came together over a fascination with fresh developments in decentralizing tech, and a shared belief that somehow things could be different.

Although I may have turned up to the meetings – even helped to book rooms – I was only ever a tourist.

More of that later though.

Because just a few weeks ago, the Redecentralize community gathered itself in Soho, London for a full blown two day conference – pulled together from nothing in just a couple of months thanks to the heroic volunteer efforts of Ira, Blaine, Jeremy, Erika, & co.

What even is a Redecentralize?

The first thing that strikes you is the sheer breadth of the Redecentralize movement. Self hosted email, political theory, blockchains, backup, web standards, journalism, messaging apps and much more besides.

As is the case with all broad churches, this can make it hard to figure out what exactly is bringing all of these things together. Talking to people over the weekend, the two most common seemed to be curiosity and politics.

For some, Redecentralize is interesting because much of the tech is so new – and for them, the intellectual exercise is simply fascinating.

Point at a thing and then ask
“What happens if I Blockchain that?”

(Feel free to substitute Distributed Hash Table, IPFS, et cetera for Blockchain.)

For most of the rest, the motivation seems to stem from a deep unease with the way in which our societies are organised. A feeling that the individual is disenfranchised, that we are less equal, less autonomous than we should be.

Technology has a profound ability to alter these structures – to re-write the rulebook. For people searching for a way to increase autonomy and reduce inequality, decentralization technologies often feel like they have the potential to be the early building blocks.

Which is where I start to get interested – for the most part I could care less about the technical details of decentralization tech.

But, where is the button?

One of the interesting things about this space – with such a deeply philosophical-political motivation for it’s existence – was the almost complete absence of conversations operating on those levels.

Rather, we seemed to spend our time dwelling on the How, without first setting out Why. When we jump straight to the hows of technology, it makes it hard to figure out what this is for – it leaves us asking So what?

I think that’s what Ade was getting at when she exclaimed:

If we’re going to help people, we really need to stop with the fetishization of complexity and technical details.

My paraphrasing – apologies for errors therein

This is where something like Redecentralize as institution could help out redecentralization as movement.

Going beyond mapping the space of emerging decentralization technologies and popularising them to a wider audience, the value of bringing people together at events like Redecentralize 2015 is unlikely to be sharing the technical details of protocols, platforms or standards. Rather, it affords the opportunity to debate the deeper questions, to figure out what motivates us, what change we want to see in the world, and why that world might be better.

So what.

So that’s what I want to see more of at the next event.

The so what track. Which would ban acronyms, and encourage us to forge alliances with people who want to see the same changes in the world as we do.

Here’s what the schedule might look like:

  1. Autonomy – a primer: A brief history of the moral and political philosophy of autonomy, what it means for us in everyday life, and how we can achieve it.
  2. How to talk about the ethics of tech: All technology is created, and operates within an ethical famework. Sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. As a collective, technologists don’t do well at talking about that context. Let’s try and find some better ways to talk about the moral choices we make when we build things.

  3. Why Decentralize?: A group exploration of when it helps to decentralize, and why. Understanding the dangers of centralization, as well as what you lose when you decentralize.
  4. Defending Decentralization: Plenty of technologies that look like they disrupt existing power structures in a way that makes us more equal have the potential to create dynamics of power just as polarised as the things they “disrupt”. How do we design social and legal governance structures that protect us against future power grabs?

Maybe that sounds like it could be your kind of thing? (Suggestions for more here very welcome!) If so, then maybe I’ll see you at Redecentralize 2016…