The recent announcement from Mozilla Corporation that it is laying off almost a quarter of its work force has many, including myself, thinking about how we as a society go about ensuring the continued existence of the fundamental digital infrastructure on which so much of modern life depends. The continued funding of open source software, and therefore its long-term sustainability, has been a perennial question for developers, the for-profit companies that rely on open source libraries, and even some of the large philanthropic foundations.
In the face of disasters both sudden and creeping brought about by climate change, I’ve been struck by the connections between the difficult future that we are facing, the tenets and technologies of decentralization, and the need for resilience in our communities and communications. There is a convincing argument to be made that our warming world demands the local-first and interconnected systems that our distributed community is developing. Disaster Response This past summer, Pacific Gas and Electric, which provides power to residents of California, announced that it was going to disconnect large portions of the California power grid in certain weather conditions in an effort to lower the risk of starting wild fires.
Internet users have been trained over the past decade or so to believe the argument that the services we have grown to think of as “the internet” are expensive to run and that the only way to pay for those services is to let ourselves be tracked everywhere in the service of advertising. Our concepts of privacy, particularly when we talk about laws and regulations, are often presumed to take place solely within this frame.
The past months have been a whirlwind of scandals, Zuckerberg testimony, and Twitter discussion about privacy online and the prospects for competitors to the major internet platforms. Much of the conversation on competition has centered on the prospects for data portability and standardized interoperability, to make it easier for users of one social network to pull up stakes and move to another and bring their data and access to their friends with them.
Earlier this year, a group out of the MIT Media Lab published a research paper called “Defending Internet Freedom through Decentralization: Back to the Future?” which is well worth reading. The paper recognizes the threat to the open internet posed by the growing centralization of services and data within a handful of companies. The same group, consisting of Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula, and Ethan Zuckerman, also published an opinion piece in Wired called “Decentralized Social Networks Sound Great.
Its all too easy as 2017 draws to a close to simply call the whole civilization thing a failed experiment and plan to hibernate for 2018 (at least). The world, it appears, is coming apart at the seams. In politics, we seem more divided than at any time in the past few generations. This is true here in the US, of course, but also abroad in Brexit, the Russian “liberation” of Crimea, and the flaring up of feelings of independence in Catalonia.