#674: Tech, Law, Culture, & Markets: A Holistic Look at the Decentralized Web Summit

Lessig-Pathetic-Dot-TheoryIn “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace,” Lawrence Lessig wrote about four socioeconomic regulators of society as being the law, cultural norms, economic markets, and architecture/code (i.e. technology). All of these four factors combine in order to dictate the larger dynamics of our society.

Part of what gets advocates of the blockchain so excited is that these cryptographic technologies are enabling new forms of exchanges of value economic, but also socially and politically. With self-governance systems and collective action mechanisms being formalized within governance systems in the blockchain, this is allowing for groups of people to take more control of their lives independent from the interests of large centralized institutions like corporations who are acting like monopolies.

The Decentralized Web Summit was a gathering of some of the most innovative thinkers in this larger movement to use blockchain technologies to help decentralize the Internet, and the gathering was deeply informed by Lessig’s four regulators of the Tech, Law, Culture, & Markets.

I talked with the architect of the gathering Wendy Hanamura about how she used Lessig’s framework to orchestrate a historic gathering of visionary architects of decentralization.


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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So last week, I went to the Decentralized Web Summit in San Francisco, and I was moderating a panel session that was looking at the intersection between virtual reality and some of these decentralized web technologies, whether it's self-sovereign identity or cryptocurrencies or these new governance models. There's going to be this confluence of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and blockchain technologies that are on this convergence path, and they're all going to be happening within the context of these virtual worlds. But right now we have this huge battle between the centralization that's happening within both governments and within technology, but also this counterweight of these decentralized initiatives. And the big open question is, what are going to be the economic models to be able to sustain this? Is it going to be as reliable as the affordances of the economies of scale that you get from centralization? And what are the architectures and the protocols that you can actually build this cooperative ecosystem of different companies that are collaborating with each other so you don't have this consolidation of power that is a zero-sum game that we currently have in our economic system? Because you have different things that are being virtualized within these cryptocurrencies, then do you start to have new economies? You have these threats of anybody at any moment being able to fork off your code, which means that you have to try to collaborate with a group of people. So there's new behaviors that are going to be happening with these types of both cryptocurrencies, but also in virtual worlds and virtual economies. And so Wendy Hanamura, she's the Director of Partnerships at the Internet Archive, and she kind of takes us through a brief history of this initiative of the Decentralized Web Summit, which was really catalyzed by Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive, trying to bring together a number of different foundations from like Mozilla, Open Society, the Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. They're investing all this money to be able to think about these deeper issues of what is a more equitable decentralized web future look like. Now, there are so many open questions about whether or not this is even going to be feasible or possible, but just looking at what's happening within the context of either the political or technological world today, we see that there's so many abuses of power when it comes to those centralized entities, and that it's been a lot of different services that they've been able to provide over the years, but yet there's the costs and the trade-offs of privacy and the centralization of power and centralization and control, that I think is really catalyzing this alternative movement of people that are thinking about other ways. Now, I've been doing the Voices of VR podcast as well as the Voices of AI podcast, and blockchain and cryptocurrencies was something that is its own world. And this summit, the Decentralized Web Summit, was kind of like my first time to really dive in and to talk to people who really are thinking about things from an open source protocol layer and not just kind of like this, you know, pump and dump type of cryptocurrency. Let's see how we can use these new technologies to enrich ourselves. These are people at the Decentralized Web Summit that are really trying to think about, you know, the entire ecosystem and trying to actually come up with some new systems that are going to potentially change the way that we relate to each other. So I talked to Wendy about both the history and origin of the Decentralized Web Summit, but also kind of an overview of some of the major topics that were being covered there. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Wendy happened on Wednesday, August 1st, 2018 at the Decentralized Web Summit in San Francisco, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:03:42.167] Wendy Hanamura: My name is Wendy Honomura, and I'm the Director of Partnerships at the Internet Archive, and it has been my remarkable pleasure to be working on this issue of how to create a decentralized web. Back in 2015, We attended the very first decentralized conference. It was a tiny little thing in San Francisco at the Red Vic called Get D. It was brought to us by our friends in Berlin from the Yolacom company, a remarkable guy named Joaquin Locamp. He first brought the idea of decentralization here to San Francisco. It was maybe 20 people. And then what happened next, Kent, was that in 2015, five of the most visionary and interesting foundations did something called NetGain. Mozilla Foundation, Open Society, MacArthur, Knight, and Ford said, if we pulled our resources and thought of a moonshot for the internet, what would you do with those unlimited resources? And they brought together an interesting group of people to answer that question in five-minute Ignite Talks. One of them was Brewster Kahle, my boss at the Internet Archive. And Brewster, I think they thought, was going to talk about the Library of Alexandria for the digital age, but he said, ah, Brewster, you talk about that all the time. What would you really do? What would a moonshot be? And he said, oh, well, I would build a decentralized At that point, we were calling it the distributed web. He said, I see all these little pieces that could come together into a greater whole. So that became a five-minute talk, which then morphed into a 40-minute talk, which morphed into a white paper. And by 2016, people who had similar ideas had found us. Juan Bonet dropped by, Trent McConaughey of BigchainDB dropped by from Berlin, and we started to see the people who were also building this dream. And early in 2016, Brewster came to me and said, you know, Andy, the greatest danger for the decentralized web is that people will want to shut it down when they get a sense of its potential. So let's give these new generation coders a little room to run. Let's do something where we get the old guard to hand the baton to the new guard. And that alone could give them a year or two of running room. I said, oh, well, that's a communications goal. I could do that. That's my field. So we did. We invited Tim Berners-Lee, who said yes, and Vint Cerf, who said yes, and Mitchell Baker, who said yes. And we had some of the leading lights of the original internet, the original web, who are still vital and working. They came, and they handed a baton, in a way, to Juan Benet and to many, many, many others building those early protocols. And we had the New York Times that did a front page article about this, and so we thought, okay, we won, because whenever anyone Googles this, they're going to see Tim Berners-Lee's stamp of approval. And I think that has given them a little bit of room.

[00:06:55.953] Kent Bye: Well, just talking to different architects of the decentralized future, there seems to be a lot of open questions of logistics and how is this going to work, not only technologically, but also economically. And so there is the benefits of centralized systems, of economies of scale, and it's cheaper, and so they have a competitive advantage. And so from your perspective, though, what are some of the biggest pain points of that centralization that you think is driving this decentralized initiative with the community here at the Decentralized Web Summit?

[00:07:25.153] Wendy Hanamura: I remember back in 2015, I did a session trying to brand the decentralized web. I was in Amsterdam and this great outfit decided they would give us a day of free work. We were struggling because they said, well, people cared about their privacy. They would be guarding it right now. But fast forward two years and suddenly we are all so much more aware of how much we are bought and sold the minute we get online. Nobody today has to be convinced that every move we make is monetized and sold, that we are the commodity of the current web, that the services of Google and Facebook are not cheap and they're being paid for by our attention. We are in an attention economy as Tristan Harris would tell us and I think many of us have decided that that is not good for us, that we do need privacy, we need security, we need self-sovereign data, as they like to say. Why are we handing that over? We're handing it over because the monetization scheme, the sustaining scheme for this web is advertising. Well, there has to be a better way. There has to be a different way. That's what I think these folks are going to eventually start talking about. Right now, they're still trying to build some working code. You will see at this conference, though, some pretty remarkable hacks at how to make this sustainable. The talk by Joseph Poon. I would not miss that one. It is a ground-shaking, radical idea of how to flip markets on their head. He's announcing it here. I will say no more.

[00:09:14.438] Kent Bye: I was just talking to Vint Cerf about this very issue, which is, you know, Google is one of the major companies that are out there, and they've been able to provide all sorts of amazing services that are providing access to all this information and knowledge, but perhaps it's at the cost of our privacy and this surveillance capitalism business model. But one of the things that Vint said is that, you know, in some ways you have to find a way to pay for these things. and that there's a certain amount of stability that comes from that. And so these decentralized systems may not ultimately prove to change some of these fundamental economic models, which is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There may be ways that we can put our intention and to use these decentralized technologies to willfully redistribute wealth, but just without changing anything else, there could be subject to the same market dynamics, which is to say that without sort of really thinking about that underlying way to pay for all of this, then what is going to make this decentralized web viable? I think there's this sort of fundamental economic issues that I, in talking to these different people, I wonder, like, what is the thing that's going to bootstrap this and actually make it viable?

[00:10:18.815] Wendy Hanamura: A couple of answers to that come to mind. One, the great hope for the media platforms of decentralized tech are that there could become some kind of viable micropayments process. If you go listen to the talks by alexandria.io, they have token payments in small, small amounts for media artists who decide to put their art on Alexandria. That is a possibility. The other thing that I think is changing is that in the first web, if you wanted to build something, you needed capital to hire coders and do all those things. And so you would go to a VC and they would give you capital, and then they had a lot of say in the direction of your technology. They were looking for return on dollar. Of course, that is the way it works. Today, look at the folks at Protocol or Zcash or Blockstack. How are they raising money? Some of them are raising money by doing ICOs and those ICOs have brought as much as 200 million. I heard about an ICO token that brought in four billion dollars. So that is a lot of run room that is not driven necessarily by VC capital. In the growth phase, you don't need VCs anymore. You can go directly to token sale. Now, token holders will probably have their own demands over time, but where the money was going to go to the top layer, to the apps, because that's where the data was, now you're seeing money filtered down to the protocol builders, which is quite unique. Now, when they have that money, how do they stop from becoming some Mark Zuckerberg too? That is a good question and that's why so much of this conference is about governance. Many smart people told me that the big question right now for these young builders is how are they going to govern themselves? How do you govern a community that is filled with token cash? How do you make that all work? No one knows but they are asking the right questions and there are many people who have good hearts and the best of intentions. We'll see.

[00:12:33.726] Kent Bye: Well, one of the things that I see with all technologies is that it's a reflection of the human experience. And I kind of see that here at the Decentralized Web Summit, which is that there's a whole plurality of different topics and issues that people are talking about here. But I'm just curious, since you've been involved in helping organize this, if you could give a bit of a tour or an overview of the landscape of the big hot topics that you think are really being covered here at this Decentralized Web Summit.

[00:13:00.364] Wendy Hanamura: I am the architect of this summit. I thought a lot about the words of Larry Lessig, who wrote quite famously that there are four regulators of society. There is technology, but there's also the markets, the laws, and the norms. And by norms, I think Larry meant values. Technology alone is not going to change us. Technology alone will not save us. It has to be technology working with the laws, working with policies, working with the markets, and with the people who have the right norms. So we decided to do a conference that was bigger than just technology. So you have quite a bit of technical oomph in the house, but you also have some of the great legal minds, the great policy makers. You have people with a lot of experience thinking about governance and decentralized governance. Can you use the blockchain to do governance? And finally, the markets. We reached out to some people doing very interesting things with market capital. And I think, although I cannot disclose it myself, you'll find it quite an interesting hack at that. But the norms, what are going to be our values? How are we going to talk about this? One of my prime goals was to start talking about this decentralized web in a way that anyone could see themselves in it. So that meant we needed to stop talking about DHTs and every kind of acronym known to man, many of which I had to Google, by the way, because when the speakers submitted to me, it was all in acronyms. Can we talk about the web we need? Can we talk about the web we deserve? Can we talk about a web that is a marketplace, a web that is a public square, a web that cares about people? I think those are words everyone can appreciate. So if I were to take you on a tour of this conference, you would see six amazingly different tracks. There's the law and policy track, where you can look at the landscape of laws that are either governing us or will govern us soon. You can look at how GDPR is impacting people who care about privacy in the EU and now need to build technology that complies with that. There's a governance track. If there's a central question there, I think it is how do we build governance of these new organizations that don't just end up winner-take-all all over again. There is the D-Web 101 track. If you're new to this space, if you're a teacher, if you're a student, you need to get a foothold in all of this. So we convinced some of the great, great thinkers of identity, of the decentralized internet, Munib Ali, of sharding and crypto economics, Carl Florsch, to teach basic classes for people. You can build an internet, decentralized internet, using Raspberry Pis with Toronto Mesh, built on top of IPFS. I mean, it's kind of remarkable. You don't have to be a genius coder to learn something here. And then the creative track. Wow, I wish I could walk you through the vault level of this place. It is phenomenal. This place once held a third of all currency in the United States when it was a gold economy and California was booming in the gold rush. And so we thought it was quite symbolic in this crypto era to be back here at the Mint. But walk vault to vault, you'll see films playing. You'll see a remarkable new exhibit by Sam Hart. about secrets. You'll see this incredible garden that allows people to archive the artifacts coming out of these sessions and seed them. You'll see a library of the source books that influenced our speakers. Ted Nelson's favorite books. The book on blockchain and the law by Primavera De Filippi, who's speaking later today. You can go to the decentralized virtual world and see what it looks like when you don't have to leave all your assets in Second Life and leave them to a company that may or may not be here someday later on. And there's pop-up rooms because you know what? You can't schedule everything great, so there should be rooms just for the impulse talk, the impulse workshop, the meeting that shakes the world that we didn't know about. I think what we tried to do is a little bit of social engineering. If you take coders, and you take people working in solidarity with people around the global south, and you take lawyers, and you take scholars, and you take artists, and you mash them all up in this incredible building. With a lot of heart and a lot of good intention, can that change the course of the decentralized web just a little? Because when you extrapolate out 10 years, that is going to be tremendous change. If one protocol builder thinks, wow, in Africa, I need to build this in a certain way because they're getting stopped all the time to see if there are encrypted tools on their phones. Well, you know what? That's going to make a big, big, big difference. that's what we're hoping for. And we won't know whether we were successful for a decade, but I feel like it's just magical.

[00:18:36.928] Kent Bye: Yeah, it definitely feels like it's a historic gathering, which is what Vint Cerf told me. And it's an auspicious time for a lot of this community to be coming together. And for you in this larger summit, what do you see as some of the either biggest open problems to be solved or open questions to be answered?

[00:18:54.625] Wendy Hanamura: We talked to a lot of our participants beforehand and we asked them, what would make this valuable time for you? And they said, help us identify the roadblock issues and work on them together. Help us take off our t-shirts of protocol labs and block stack and that and made safe and work together builder to builder. And what are those 13 issues then that we need to tackle? Naming. The holy grail that we've never been able to solve, identity and reputation. How do you manage keys in a decentralized system? So access and private key management. Storage. I know that's a big open topic, but there's a lot of issues around storage. How do we make this persistent? How do we archive? It's relatively easy to decentralize static data, you know, a video or a book, but how do you do it when the data is changing all the time? How do you address mutable data at scale? How do you look at UX and UI in the decentralized web when you have one backend but multiple frontends? There are 13 questions we identified and we brought together some really good facilitators and had them come up with plans and then you see at this conference roundtables. So if you are interested in helping to solve the questions of identity, go to that one, contribute. If you are curious about archiving the web. If you have something to contribute, go to that one. It's just a roundtable. People talking, people trying to make progress. We have storytellers in each of those, so that we're going to put out reports by September 1, so that anyone can learn from the knowledge that was gathered. We want there to be lots of momentum going forward for the people who carry on this work. There are 13 problems we identified. There's probably a thousand more that you can think of. But the consensus was, after talking to many, many, many builders, that these were some of the core ones.

[00:21:01.830] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you think is kind of the ultimate potential of all these decentralized systems and what they might be able to enable?

[00:21:11.465] Wendy Hanamura: What we can imagine is a web that encourages creativity without spying on us, a web that cares about us. We can imagine a web that is a public square once again. We can imagine a system in which artists and creators of content get micropayments right then and there without intermediaries. We can imagine a web that is backed up because copies of it exist in many, many places. So if one server goes down, it doesn't mean a whole body of work goes down. We can imagine a web that cannot be censored by a single government. Right now, the Internet Archive is not available in many parts of China, in some parts of India, in Turkey, in some parts of Russia. usually for a very minor little beef over one video. Should people lose the access to four million books because of that? Well, without a single point of control, that would be much, much harder to do. But I don't want to be utopic about this. A decentralized web could also lead to many, many losers, many, many ills if we don't do this very carefully. So right now, if you talk to the builders, and I know you are, Kent, they're saying, hey, let us just get a little work in code going. But you're right to be asking the questions, what are the great wins possible, but what are the great losses that must be avoided as we build this up? These are early days. They're exciting days. And we just want everyone's good intentions and good thoughts, because we've been through this a couple times now. What can we learn?

[00:22:51.253] Kent Bye: Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. So thank you. Thank you. So that was Wendy Hanamura. She's the director of partnerships at the Internet Archive, and she's the architect of the Decentralized Web Summit. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, so the thing that Wendy talks about, this quote from Lawrence Lessig is something that I ended up citing so much throughout the course of the Decentralized Web Summit, just because it's a framework that I think really makes a lot of sense. So Lawrence Lessig wrote Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, and in there he talks about the four regulators to society. There's the economic markets, which are the aggregation of individuals' choices that are coming up to collective behavior that results in the free market. There's the laws that are put forth by the governments to be able to both regulate different aspects of society. There's the cultural norms, which are the values and the things that collectively, what are the things that people are valuing and how does that get embedded both in the cultural in terms of norms that are driving behavior, but also embedded within the laws as well as reflected in the markets, but also in the technology and the code. These are the architecture that is allowing people to communicate and connect to each other in new ways and which enables new types of behavior. And so what I see with the decentralized Web Summit is that they're taking things like cryptocurrencies and being able to say, hey, maybe there's some new economic behaviors that we can Maybe get a little bit more insight as to how value is exchanged between different people and we can start to perhaps Embed our values within the technology a little bit more by doing things like smart contracts but also having a little bit more transparency and just in general finding new ways to redistribute wealth amongst large groups of people and And in looking at the entire ecosystem of technology, it's hard to just look at technology in isolation, in absence of looking at the overarching laws that are helping govern that, the cultural norms that are being reflected in how people are using technology, but also in the markets and being able to either have competition in different ways. I think we tend to want to think that things can be solved with algorithms and we can just code our way out of some of these cultural issues. But I think that looking at this model from Lawrence Lessig, it's really some combination of all these things. It's the technology, the laws, and the markets, and the norms. And what I see is that with the Decentralized Web Summit, I see evidence that there's these experiments that are happening. One way that it was described to me by Joseph Poon, which I'll be diving into the interview that I did with him later, which Wendy mentioned that I should definitely check out what he has to say. He's saying that, you know, it's tough to model human behavior and you can only start to model it when you're actually going live. It'd be almost like playing a poker game, but playing with fake money. If you play poker with fake money, then that's going to change the way that you actually play the game. You have basically nothing to lose. But when you're talking about human incentives and behavior, when you are playing with something that is essentially the equivalent of that fake money, then you're not going to get a true reflection of what's going to happen. And so what I'm seeing at the Decentralized Web Summit is that there's all these different companies that are trying to do these various different experiments to see what is going to work and see how they're going to be able to shift the existing dynamics, which is this consolidation of power in different ways. So I'll be going through a number of different interviews from the Decentralized Web Summit and really kind of unpacking different insights, because I think there's a lot of like primary metaphors in order to kind of understand the context of this virtual future that we have, both in terms of virtual currencies, but also in virtual reality. Because virtual reality is this layer of reality that is disconnected from the normal resource constraints, then you can have new economic behaviors of gift economies and being able to do open source technologies. And Cory Doctorow, I did an interview with him from his sci-fi novel called Walk Away, which is really projecting out into the future and looking at how this kind of open source maker type of ethos could be embedded into a culture. And what does that look like in 5 to 10, 15 years in the future when you have a society that has some of these open source principles kind of embedded within the context of their culture? And I think with the cryptocurrencies and the Decentralized Web Summit, I'm starting to see some of those types of behaviors. And they're also difficult to wrap your mind around. And so I just really had to immerse myself. And I ended up doing about 31 interviews in the two and a half days that I was at the Decentralized Web Summit. And I'm going to highlight, I think, some of the biggest things that I took away from that summit on the Voices of VR podcast. But really, eventually, this would justify its own podcast. I think I'm just going to get through these podcasts now with the intention of showing how the intersection between these decentralized web technologies as well as the virtual reality are kind of on this convergence path. In fact, they're already kind of meeting together. So I'll be kind of exploring that through some of the panel discussions and other interviews that I've been doing over the last couple of months. So that's all that I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends. This is a good episode just to kind of share out just to look at the larger ecosystem of what's happening in technology today. And this is independent journalism. And if you enjoy this type of coverage, then please do support me on my Patreon at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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