Discussing decentralization on the W3C TAG mailing list

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The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main international standards organization for the Web. The W3C Technical Architecture Group (TAG) is a special working group chartered, as its name conveys, with stewardship of the Web architecture.

The hi:project was referenced in a recent posting to the TAG mailing list by Henry Story of Co-operating Systems, and I followed up with a couple of posts, reproduced here with additional hyperlinks to aid those less familiar with the concepts:

In response to this article in The Guardian – Iran’s blogfather: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are killing the web – Henry presents a way of thinking about the centralisation problem in layers:

  1. IPv4/6 information layer: any machine can talk to any machine to retrieve data; a pure p2p layer
  2. Web of Documents: any document can link to any other document; a pure p2p layer
  3. Web Applications: most data driven apps are not cross domain.

He writes:

It is at layer 3 that currently the problem is being felt, and for many people this may seem very weird: how can you have decentralisation at lower layers, and not higher ones? How come bytes can flow around the internet in a peer to peer manner but data does not? How come there are so many services that exist in any of a number of categories that don’t interoperate?

… We have hyper text but not hyper data.

I took Henry’s cue…

8 Jan 2016

Jon ‘Maddog’ Hall noted that our project effectively reverses the current client server power asymmetry, effectively democratising the server (server in the browser; define browser) to the point where the distinction might well dissolve. Especially of course when combined with the likes of a linked data platform.

The HI (human interface as opposed to UI) is wholly compatible with the EFF’s Game Plan for Ending Global Mass Surveillance, specifically: “Create a global movement that encourages user-side encryption.”

We’re keeping close to SoLiD since the SOCIAM all-hands at Oxford in September. As you can see from our latest blog post (by Andrei Sambra, intro by me), we’re running with this way of describing things right now …

Solid decouples the app from the data, and the hi:project decouples the interface from the app.

And this post explains why we might, just might, if we can get this thing off the ground, why we might be a trojan horse for the adoption of SoLiD.

The project encourages decentralization at the application layer, although it doesn’t contribute to ameliorating the weaknesses of DNS / HTTP you describe in your post Mark [Mark Nottingham, TAG] (we are attracted however to distributing the hi:components IPFS style for sure). But we do have another objective at heart …

We’re cognisant that none of us aspire to redecentralize for decentralization’s sake. As I noted in this guest post to the Drucker Forum ahead of the 7th Global Drucker Forum last year:

The ultimate information technology challenge is the care and maintenance of a digital infrastructure that can help us rise up to so-called super wicked problems, collectively. Given the growing appreciation of the nature of complexity and the complexity of nature, we know we’re in the domain of systems thinking and sustainability – the health and resilience of living systems including our planet, our societies, and our organisations.

Sustainability requires healthy, distributed networks, with both diversity and individual agency, to facilitate the emergence of collective intelligence. It is these qualities our digital technologies must enable and encourage.

The hi:project aims then to contribute to redecentralization, but just as importantly it’s directed squarely at liberating individual agency too by helping to solve personal data & privacy, helping secure a citizen-centric Internet of Things, and transforming accessibility & digital inclusion.

12 Jan 2016

I received a number of private messages following my first post here, so I’m encouraged to follow up, particularly because I just stumbled upon this post by Adobe’s Scott Belsky from 2014 which complements the thread started here by Henry:

The Interface Layer: Where Design Commoditizes Tech.

A new cohort of design-driven companies are adding a layer of convenience between us and the underlying services and utilities that improve our lives. This could change everything.

Behold the power of the “Interface Layer,” it’s not just about great design, it is about the integration of the actions that make life easier and the commoditization of the services underneath. It is more than a layer, it is a shift in the economy that is led by designers rather than cable executives, tech titans, and logistics masterminds. It is a “closed” user experience built on top of a wide open and hotly competitive ecosystem of services.

… Running Scott’s perspective through the lens of the hi:project, we see three types of outcome:

  1. A heterogeneous market of proprietary interface layer applications
  2. Current centralizing mechanics lead to the consolidation of the interface layer under the ownership of the platform duopoly
  3. The ‘design’ of the interface layer is open and distributed.

The first of these is Belsky’s hypothesis, yet despite his enthusiasm it is unsustainable in my opinion. As tech analyst Benedict Evans points out:

it’s the operating system itself that’s the internet services platform, far more than the browser, and the platform is not neutral.

The first of these then will naturally cede to the second with the mediating duopoly in question being the dominant OS vendors (as the OS vendors demonstrate how ‘helpful’ they can be, and the de-appification continues). Facebook may make it a triopoly, but they’ll be the also-rans in this respect if they manage to hang in there.

The hi:project exists because our team and our “champions” don’t like outcome 2 here. We don’t think it’s healthy. To be honest, I’m not sure everyone I know at the OS vendors in question would be singing the praises of outcome 2 unconditionally either.

Mark [Mark Nottingham], you write:

Personally, I’m very interested, but the Web as currently designed and implemented heavily encourages centralisation, and changing it is likely harder than just starting something new.

Is the web of data and SoLiD that ‘something new’, particularly if we can also enable unmediated (as in by a company rather than by one’s own software agent) interaction and sense-making, seeding such capability with the billions of web users through the companies that already feature in their digital lives for good old-fashioned commercial imperative?

Take the global consumer packaged goods companies. I can’t claim that my discussions with individuals at these companies is representative of the companies’ overall position, but they’ve nearly always been intermediated from their billions of end-customers – firstly by the likes of Tesco and Walmart, more recently by Google, Apple and Facebook. They had a glimmer of the potential for disintermediation back in the early days of all things ‘social’, but to my knowledge those I’ve spoken with haven’t been offered anything other than the hi:project to establish direct disintermediated data-oriented relationships with consumers / collaborators; a relationship where each and everyone of us has agency. I can’t think of an organisation that would lose in this situation.

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