It is now clear that the Big Tech oligarchies have become the primary enemies of the American future.
In less than two decades, the original, radically decentralized Internet has been transformed into a handful of corporate silos that contain within themselves hundreds of millions, and even billions, of people for whom these silos are now the Internet. The price for “free” software and services turns out to be very high: continuous surveillance, increasingly coercive censorship, and social control.
It is also clear that we are at the beginning of a radical decentralization of this system.
The current wave of technical innovation consists of the rapid creation of decentralized software, decentralized web services, and even serious attempts to decentralize the Internet itself.
The blockchain revolution is the most obvious step in this direction. A blockchain guarantees that any information that is embedded on the chain can never be altered, at least not without prohibitive cost. The blockchain revolution revolves around the use of “smart contracts,” written in computer code, that interpret and enforce themselves. No third parties, like lawyers and judges, need apply. Well, you will need coders who are lawyers to write the contracts.
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are the first real blockchains. Bitcoin cannot be altered, counterfeited, or inflated because the cryptographic code that is each Bitcoin is embedded on the Bitcoin blockchain and therefore cannot be altered. Nor can its ownership be transferred except according to the unalterable rules embedded on the blockchain. The stealing of Bitcoins, although generating headlines, takes place only when the Bitcoin code is stored “off-chain.”
But the real key to the overthrow of Big Tech is not the creation of blockchains. The real key lies in the question of who controls the Internet user’s online identity.
The power of Big Tech is their ability to continuously track, to permanently record, and to continually analyze everything that every individual does online, and not just on their websites, but across the Internet. Because of the reach of the major search engines, almost everything that we do online can be tracked, recorded, and analyzed. Everyone is continually spied upon, except for those few who have taken the steps to at least reduce that spying.
But what if Big Tech suddenly could no longer track you online? What if Facebook could only provide you with software that could not track any of your interactions using that software? What if all your interactions online were encrypted so that you could not be identified unless you wanted to be?
Big Tech would disappear from the face of the earth.
But how close are we to this kind of revolution?
Recently, Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world-wide web, announced a new company called Inrupt, which will promote the use of a computer language named Solid. Solid allows software developers to create a “Solid Pod,” which will contain user identities that will be completely under the user’s control.
Another project, called Blockstack, already exists as a decentralized web browser. When you use the Blockstack browser, your personal identity and information, as well as other features, are fully under your control. A blockchain is being used as a depository. There are a number of working applications. A large website called OpenBazaar is a decentralized online marketplace that uses the Blockstack identity system. OpenBazaar is not owned by anyone. You download the software and either set up a store or shop in an existing store. Escrow systems are available to guarantee deliveries and payments. And all payments are made in cryptocurrencies.
Blockstack has its own domain name registry. To go to a Blockstack website means to use a name that you cannot find on the regular Internet. And the BNS (the Blockstack Name System), unlike the Internet’s domain registry, is a decentralized system.
However, the startup called Urbit is undoubtedly the most ambitious attempt to create a new Internet. For the moment, Urbit is keeping a low profile. Although Urbit provides detailed information about itself, this information tends toward the technical. And since Urbit is being constructed using a radically new kind of software, even that technical information tends to confuse those with conventional software expertise. Urbit is a different kind of animal.
The key difference between Blockstack and Urbit is that the Blockstack browser replaces the top layer of the current Internet protocol in its control of your identity. But Urbit is creating a complete replacement for the Internet, although it will continue to run “on top” of the basic protocol. More radically, Urbit plans to completely erase the difference between the software that runs its Internet and the software that will run your personal computer. The Urbit computer operating system and the Urbit Internet form a single software program. Every other Internet protocol (for example, the email protocol) as well as every software program is to be merged in this single system. It is the user of the personal computer who will control this system.
To say that this is ambitious would be to understate the matter. Using today’s software, it is would be an impossible task. Today, our computer operating systems alone consist of millions of lines of code. The interoperability of a computer operating system with other software and with Internet protocols would create an unending maze of code that would be impossible to complete or implement.
However, Urbit’s core is a completely new system of code. It is also a vast simplification of code. And merging today’s separate software systems into a single program is also a radical simplification. Nor is Urbit merely a theoretical idea. Urbit exists and is in prolonged testing. Amazingly, Urbit is only thirty thousand lines of code.
According to Galen Wolfe-Pauly, the CEO of Tlon, Urbit’s parent company:
Urbit is a complete, clean-slate system software stack: a non-lambda interpreter (Nock), a functional language (Hoon), and an event-driven OS (Arvo), with its own encrypted protocol (Ames), typed revision control (Clay), reactive web server (Eyre) and functional build system (Ford). The full system, including basic apps, is only 30,000 lines of Hoon.
Urbit is a network. And the network is divided into three basic levels. The first two control the underlying code. At this level, the users are divided into Galaxies and Stars. The third level, called Planets, is everyone else. At its fullest implementation, Urbit can accommodate 256 Galaxies, 65,536 stars (or 256 stars per galaxy), and a little over four billion Planets (or 65,536 planets per star).
Thus the single point of centralization in the Urbit system lies in the necessity to be able to repair and to update the underlying kernel. And this is the job of Galaxies and Stars. However, adopting code changes is a matter of choice. If a Planet, for example, does not like the governance of its Star, it can change Stars. And Stars can change Galaxies. Urbit is a floating, digital republic.
Urbit is a fascinating project, but at this point a very private project. It is not known when it will be officially opened to the public.
Jefferson White has a website at jeffersonwhite.com. He is most recently the author of Destroying Progressivism: A Strategy, an overview of the radical decentralization being created by the current technological revolution.