Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Permanent Web 1: History, IPFS, and Ethereum

Nineteen Eighty-Four (Signet Books ed., 1954). Image Source: Flavor Wire.

This blog asks how we can record and write history in the new Millennium, given the volume of information, the ephemeral nature of the World Wide Web (evident in link rot and dead Websites), and the problem that data and authorship can be changed. There is an additional problem of interpretation of data. From my blog's statement of intention:
"This blog is an experiment in writing real-time history, which deals with the impact of digital communications on our understanding of history. There are serious problems emerging in social media, in which opinions are confused with facts, data and sources are available but potentially manipulated, and historical interpretive authority derives from hit counts and technical algorithms determining audience traffic. These problems demand an ongoing and increasingly rigorous reappraisal of historical method and historiography, to take into account the impacts of online behaviour and virtual perception."
As the Internet evolves, a disturbing trend has emerged which confirms the worst predictions of author George Orwell. The impermanent Web, as it now exists, enables manipulations of centralized information which effectively destroy history, common values, societal stability and our whole grasp of reality. With Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell understood that the stability of history, and of our ability to write verified history, depends on - and further shapes - a society's underlying structural organization, its politics, and the degree to which an individual within that system can form autonomous thoughts and emotions. Nineteen Eighty-Four's political horror hinges on a love story and asks whether love can blossom and endure against a pure, anti-historical tyranny, or whether it will be crushed as sexcrime.

Peter Cushing played Winston and Yvonne Mitchell played Julia in the 1953-1954 BBC dramatization of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Watch it here. Image Source: Speaker to Animals.

Orwell promised that the destruction of history, information impermanence and propaganda manipulation rely on and reinforce two conditions: first, psychological authoritarianism, a precondition for real world totalitarianism; and second, the centralization of information. Orwell's protagonist, Winston Smith, addresses his secret diary to any reader who is free from the past or future: "To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone — to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone."

If there is no correction in the current state of affairs, our impermanent Web threatens to become aggressively anti-historical and ensure frightening Orwellian outcomes. This is why open source coders, hackers and independent designers are trying to think about the Web in a new way. They want to redevelop it to create two results: first, they want to build a permanent Web, where all files and information are perpetually recorded, maintained, encrypted, public, and protected; second, they want to decentralize, and then distribute, big data power. That would allow future generations to question any information presented as historical facts. With a permanent, decentralized Web, anyone in the future will be able to check the archived data for themselves, no matter who they are, and no matter where they are.

This new possibility is appearing in the cryptocurrency and peer-to-peer technology spheres, through mergers of cryptocurrency technology with a collaborative information protocol called Interplanetary File System, also known by its acronym IPFS. (IPFS is not to be confused with Google's Interplanetary Internet Protocols, which are being designed at NASA for Mars colonization; I first blogged about InterPlaNet in 2011, here.)

I want to thank Chris Ellis for bringing IPFS to my attention. Ellis is a great, original thinker in the Bitcoin industry and founder of ProTip and the Fullnode Project. His technical and philosophical meditations on the combination of a new Web network protocol with cryptocurrencies enabled me to think of their broader implications in historical terms. You can see my 2014 interview with Ellis here; my earlier discussion on Bitcoin crowdfunding of creative and intellectual projects with Protip is here.

After talking to Ellis, I wondered if a distributed, permanent historic archive heralds as big a shift as did the historic separation of church and state. Over the past decade, the Internet has shaken nation-states to their foundations. There are many examples of mass protests sparked by social media, notably in 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt (see related posts here and here). Anti-corruption activists such as Alexey Navalny test the weak spots in the authority and apparatus of the Russian state with live online broadcasts to a global community of real-time witnesses. For a recent example, see Navalny's crowdfunding campaign to develop live camera feeds at intersections and prevent roadside police intimidation, here. Global communications naturally erode nation-state divisions.

However, we have entered a new stage in this trend. It is fascinating to consider that the manner in which information is organized and communicated determines its durability, and its political and governmental impact, over time. Our current Web is impermanent and builds addresses associated with nation-states or centralized organizations. IPFS builds cryptographic addresses associated with the information at the address. It is 'content-addressed,' not nationally-, corporately- or institutionally-addressed. That change builds a distributed information network, which might decouple the nation from the state, and remake states into entities with no geopolitical identities. The alternative is 'techno-community-states' of various types.

Images Source: Altcoin Today.

For an example, see the Twitter hashtag #BlockchainsNotBorders, dominated by the project, BitNation: "Welcome to Governance 2.0: Borderless Decentralized Voluntary." On 19 February 2016, BitNation released the world’s first 'virtual nation' constitution on top of the blockchain of the cryptocurrency Ethereum. Altcoin Today sampled the anarcho-capitalist libertarian rhetoric associated with this project's separation of nation and state:
By using borderless technology in the form of smart contracts, BitNation wants to remove geographical apartheid of individual nation states. Doing so will lead to governance services that are more transparent, cheaper, and overall better for the end user.

The concept of do-it-yourself governance may seem strange to some people, but the BitNation team is very confident in what they are trying to accomplish. While there is still a lot of work to be done before DIY governance becomes a mainstream trend, the team is currently focusing on security and dispute resolution. Ethereum smart contracts will play a big role in his department, according to BitNation founder Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof.

What makes these Ethereum smart contracts useful is how they bring a new layer of decentralization to the world. Unlike most services being used today, such as social media and email, BitNation’s governance 2.0 will not involve central authorities or governments. Needless to say, this model of governance is completely different to the centralized system of representative democracy most of the Western world is accustomed to.

Tempelhof feels that democracy is a massive failure, and the concept is – according to her – fundamentally flawed. Democracy as most people know it means governments give residents a variety of choices to vote on, without them having a say in the matter of what choices are offered. BitNation wants to change this by introducing democratic autonomous organizations (DAOs).

This concept needs some further explaining, however, as these Democratic Autonomous Organizations exist entirely on the Ethereum blockchain. From a governance point of view, decisions will be made by a group of parties who can decide on contracting people to do work, distributing assets, and even appointing shares. Two significant examples of a DAO can be found in Slock.it and DigixDAO. ... Tempelhof explained it as follows:
‘Decentralized’ means there is no single point of failure, like there is no central bank. If you look at Uber for example, they have got into trouble in Europe, they have been banned in France – but if Uber had been a DAO there would have been no bank accounts to freeze, nothing for regulators to ban. Decentralized also means personal autonomy. We decide what we do. Nobody tells us. And being borderless means that we are not confined by a passport to live in an area of war or famine. That’s as wrong as judging people on the color of their skin or sexual preference.
Another 'Governance 2.0' report from last year was entitled, Bitnation, Horizon and Blocknet join forces to deliver the world’s first platform for do-it-yourself governance services to 2.5 billion people across developing markets, using Bitcoin 2.0 technology (13 March 2015):
Bitnation, which is known mostly for its groundbreaking pilots including organizing the world’s first Blockchain Marriage and the world’s first World Citizenship ID on the blockchain, which has drawn attention from, amongst others, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, TechCrunch, Wired, and The New York Times. Bitnation aims to provide governance services in frontier and emerging markets, where it is needed the most. There are 2.5 billion unbanked in the world, the “System D” economy – the grey, unregulated markets – is a 10 trillion dollar economy, and 80% of the world’s population currently live in developing markets. Bitnation’s Founder and CEO, Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof, worked for 7 years in challenging frontier environments, like Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and other countries, primarily with assessing people’s perception and experience of governance.
After the BitNation announcement that you can 'Create Your Own Nation in 140 Lines of Code,' performed in an online live event from an Irish pub in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on 15 February 2016, one could step back and consider Orwell again.

Nineteen Eighty-Four asked how the individual's heart and soul could survive inside a totalitarian state. Orwell also pondered how information systems helped to construct, and were thereby reflected in, the governmental structure employed by political authority. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the two questions are intimately related. It is through systems of emotions, morality, thought and communications that we bind mentalities to power. This is why where once religion dominated the God-sourced monarchical state, the disciplines of history, philosophy and politics replaced religion in the era of the secular nation-state.

Of those three modern disciplines, aspiring technocrats have fixated on politics to develop their visions of  'techno-community-states.' But when history and philosophy are absent or only superficially considered, politics fares poorly in shotgun weddings with technology. We need all three disciplines together, and the help of other fields, to understand how tech-communities might be defined and connected to statehood, if at all. Chris Ellis, in conversation, preferred not to label the new permanent Web politically. His priority is to put "the technology into people's hands so that they get to have a say. Everyone gets their own narrative now. [And] it will be irrefutable that someone said [what they said]." He believes that it is better to allow time to tell whose narrative ends up being correct, rather than forcing older political theories onto the current evolution of the technosphere and its unprecedented circumstances and possibilities.

That is only partly true, because future truths don't spontaneously manifest themselves. There are always present-day conflicts to find a dominant narrative, and future corrections can be very difficult. Future historians will be actors who will help to decide which narrative ends up being 'correct' - in the sense of being the closest reflection of our Millennial reality, while also being relevant to future considerations - and for how long. But what is at least promised now, is that there actually will be future historians to make those analyses, as opposed to Winston Smiths, working in the Records Department of a future Ministry of Information. These are the overarching questions to the technical overview that follows; those questions will be explored in subsequent posts in this series on the Permanent Web.

The explanation on Ethereum starts at 2:25; the discussion on IPFS starts at 4:26; from The Daily Decrypt interview with Ethereum Director of Integration Taylor Gerring (26 January 2016). Gerring emphasized that Ethereum allows users to develop applications which sit on the cryptocurrency's blockchain. Video Source: Youtube.

In the January 2016 video above, The Daily Decrypt interviewed Ethereum cryptocurrency dev Taylor Gerring to explain what Ethereum is and how it might be combined with IPFS to build and incentivize a permanent Web. All data on IPFS are perpetually recorded online by means of peer-to-peer network distribution; and every single subsequent change to a given file is also permanently recorded by means of the amended file acquiring a new encrypted addresses, which can be indexed by a blockchain. This IPFS combination with cryptocurrency technology would establish a standing historical archive of online information. The encrypted addresses for any piece of information would ensure that that information could not be manipulated without the manipulation being noted in another encrypted process. Proponents in the open source coding community claim that this combination will build a new Web to function as the Web should have, from the start.