Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"The coming digital anarchy"

That's the title of a long and very interesting article in the Telegraph.  It examines the growth of anarchy - the deliberate assault on the 'old guard', the gatekeepers of technology on the Internet - and how it may radically change the way we interact with the Web, each other, companies, and even governments.  Here's an excerpt - lengthy, but one can't leave out too much without making it impossibly dense and impenetrable.  The article itself is much longer.

Social networks, search engines and online retailers have grown rich by soaking up our personal data and distilling it into valuable databases used to surgically target advertising.

As the adage goes: “If you’re not paying, then you’re the product”. You don’t pay a penny for Google’s search engine, email or calendar products. What you do provide, though, is data on every aspect of your life: who you know; where you go; what you enjoy eating, wearing, watching.

An unimaginable amount of information is being analysed and exploited by companies in order to screw money out of us. But rather than having to collect it, we are handing it to them in return for a simple, free way to chat to our friends, share pictures or send emails.

Behind the laid-back, let’s-play-table-football facade of Silicon Valley firms lies a sneakiness and paranoia that, critics say, verges on the sociopathic. This is hardly surprising. The giant dotcoms stand to lose billions of dollars and even kick-start a US recession if the internet becomes too unstable for them to manage. But, in addition, they need to take advantage of digital instability in order to shaft their rivals.

“These guys are control freaks who see themselves as ‘disruptive’, to quote one of their favourite words,” says a California-based analyst. “It’s a very combustible mixture particularly when you consider the endless, endless uncertainty they face every day.”

. . .

Now we need to put our finger on a really important paradox that lies at the heart of the coming digital anarchy.

The hidden power of the Facebooks, Twitters and Googles of this world is inspiring digital anarchists to destroy the smug, jargon-infested giants of Silicon Valley. But who are these hackers? They’re unlikely to be career criminals who identify themselves by their black hats. On the contrary, they may well have picked up their techniques while working in Palo Alto.

In some cases, the very same people who helped create these mega-corporations are now working on “disruptive technologies” to replace them.

. . .

It’s difficult to generalise about motives when the membranes separating control and anarchy, creativity and disruption, greed and philanthropy have become so alarmingly thin. Remember that the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley and its many global franchises are usually young enough to be impressionable and excitable. Yes, some of them they may qualify as utopians – but, like utopians throughout history, they are ready to use destructive tactics to reach their goal.

What is that goal? Right now, and put simply, it’s to create what they regard as “incorruptible” versions of the websites, networks and financial institutions which we all rely on every day – to remove the man in the middle and any ulterior motives he may have.

The new digital anarchists – who are as likely to wear Gant chinos as hoodies, and wouldn’t be seen dead in an Anonymous mask – are in the mood to punish Facebook, Google, Twitter, PayPal, eBay, you name it, for their arrogance. Indeed, they may have encountered this arrogance close up by working for them. That’s enough of a motive for the great digital unravelling.

. . .

Our first taste of this decentralised power happened to be a currency, Bitcoin, but it could equally have been a stock exchange, a social network or an electronic voting system.

Jeff Garzik, the Bitcoin developer, tells me that the blockchain technology is “the biggest thing since the internet – a catalyst for change in all areas of our lives”.

He’s currently fundraising to put Bitcoin satellites into space to rebroadcast the latest version of the blockchain around the world for those without reliable internet connections. That’s how strongly he believes in it.

“Currency is simply the first application of Bitcoin's decentralised technology,” he tells me from his Atlanta home. “Bitcoin is many layers of an onion. Peel back one layer, and a new and amazing layer awaits underneath to discover.”

When power is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful people there is a risk of catastrophe, corruption and chaos, he warns. Decentralising a system hands power to immutable mathematics.

And then the game really changes.

Remember those luxurious glass offices built by ICANN in order to emphasise its “transparency”? These days an awful lot of anxiety is flooding in along with the sunlight.

ICANN’s vice-like grip on domain names is now looking more tenuous than ever before. Currently the group decides which top-level domains can exist ( for example) and hands out a licence to sell addresses underneath them (such as to commercial registrars. You pay an annual fee to “own” a domain name.

ICANN then runs a system called DNS which maps these easily remembered domain names to the IP addresses where websites actually reside. Unless your users are willing to remember a long string of numbers such as, you have to buy into the domain name system.

Until Namecoin.

This crypto-currency is based on Bitcoin, but instead of acting like money it acts like internet addresses. It has claimed the .bit domain as its own and anybody with Namecoin can use it to reserve an address.

And once you have it, it cannot be taken away: nobody can charge you an annual fee. Suddenly, a small part of ICANN’s monopoly could disappear. For the first time, there is a viable alternative.

Now let’s make a leap of imagination. It turns out that whole companies are also vulnerable to being replaced by Bitcoin offshoots.

There's much more at the link.

This is really interesting reading.  Much of it may be speculation, but if even a tenth of what the author suggests comes to pass, it'll have a profound impact on the way we live and interact with each other.



smithgift said...

Interesting article, but I'm skeptical about (most) of the ideas it describes. Having spent a lot of time lurking in Bitcoin forums, I'm familiar with most of the concepts.

I think cryptocurrencies are the way of the future, if for no other reason than programs can interact with them without need of a human. That said, humans are still required (not just helpful, required) for certain things.

For example, while I think Ethereum is interesting, I can't imagine it replacing lawyers. At some point, smart contracts need to interact with the real world.

Also, I can't imagine a world of crypto-anarchy being anything other than a warzone between people with robots. I was going to write a (SF) book on the subject, but currently I'm busy with other things.

John D said...

Some of these ideas are great, some not so much.

The liquid democracy concept is particularly suspect. It would easily become a scaled-up version of Athens in the time of Socrates and Plato. Like that city-state, anyone persuasively sharing ideas that are "bad" would quickly face a popular vote on his fitness to live. Most people would never face the real possibility of the scenario until a delivery drone leaves a vial of hemlock on their porch.

John D. said...

Also, Antonopolous at clearly has no grasp of the philosophy of representative government if he thinks that it was simply a "solution to a scaling problem". A blind spot here, shared among the leaders in the movement, can only lead to poor outcomes.

America's founders were deeply concerned over the education of future voters for good reason.