At FOSDEM 2013 yesterday, I participated in a panel discussion about the importance of decentralized communication technologies. Naturally, this is a topic that has been near and dear to my heart ever since Jeremie drew me into the Jabber project with his vision of freedom of conversation back in 1999 (yes, we in the XMPP developer community have been building distributed technologies for over 14 years now!). Although increasingly XMPP is used for machine-to-machine communication, the human element is never far from my thoughts.
While our little panel was on stage exploring the topic, I experienced an epiphany: much of the confusion and opportunity around communication technologies comes from the dual meaning of the word 'free' (once the video is released, you might even be able to see a light bulb go off over my head at that point in the session!). Because we humans love to communicate, we quickly adopt any tool that enables us to talk in new ways: letter-writing, calling, faxing, instant messaging, videochatting, microblogging, social networking, and who knows what next. Unfortunately, as my friend Simon Tennant of Buddycloud noted during the panel, it's often easier for a small group of people to build the first widely-used version of a communications technology in the form of a centralized silo like Compuserve or ICQ or Twitter or Skype or Facebook. The result is an explosion of communication (which these days is often monetarily free and thus extremely popular) but a diminution of freedom.
Wait, doesn't all that communication enhance freedom? What about the role of free services like Twitter in the overthrow of dictators around the world? Yes, enabling people to talk for free can enable them to talk about (and take action towards) greater freedom. Unfortunately, it's also relatively easy for the authorities to block centralized services or even, in extreme instances, to disconnect from the Internet entirely. More fundamentally, centralized services that are cost-free are not without costs of their own because they inherently limit opportunities for innovation and are often explicitly subject to restrictions that serve those who run the silo instead of those who use it or wish to extend it (one form of this is the familiar recognition that "if you're not paying, you are the product"). Thus a federated, distributed, decentralized alternative is bound to emerge eventually.
That "eventually" part is key: decentralized systems are harder to build for reasons both technical (it's not easy to get federation, identity, or security right), structural (cf. Metcalfe's Law), and cultural (humans like to flock together in a single place and come to identify with the centralized silo at some level -- "hey, are you on Compuserve / ICQ / Twitter / Skype / Facebook?" or more pointedly "why are you using that weird alternative thingie when everyone else is on Compuserve / ICQ / Twitter / Skype / Facebook?").
The decentralized alternative is built slowly and methodically by people who are passionate about a kind of freedom that is unfamiliar to those who don't hail from the tribe of coders or hackers (in the true sense) or tinkerers: the freedom to connect one system to another, to extend a technology in creative ways, to add new features, to solve new problems, to scratch an itch that the builders of the silo never imagined or don't care about or haven't prioritized yet. In the centralized world of the silo, either you simply can't do that kind of thing or (in a nod to true freedom) the silo-masters offer a "developer program" that makes it expensive or difficult or otherwise limited. The creative coders out there chafe at such restrictions and decide to make something better that leaves the legacy silo behind. This happens too often not to be a pattern that will emerge again in the future, no matter how powerful the centralized systems of today might seem.
As I've written before, the concept of freedom (which is cognate with "friend") grows out of the phenomenon of community: at root it means to be a member of a tribe that is independent, a group that is not in thrall to some other group, a community that governs itself. Notice how decentralized technologies for Internet communication emerge out of the tribe of coders, typically within a very small group of people who don't want to kowtow to the powers that be (the original Jabber team fit this model precisely). It's this founding group that designs a real alternative to the centralized silo.
Yet as we discussed on the panel at FOSDEM, designing an alternative communications technology is merely the first step on the long, hard road to freedom of conversation. The next step is to package that technology so other communities can use it to free themselves from the silo. (Even in the Jabber/XMPP community we are still at this relatively early stage, although we have travelled farther down the road to freedom than most other decentralized communication technologies.)
The time has come for the various tribes of coders to make it truly easy for families, schools, companies, co-ops, clubs, churches, and other small groups to run their own services for email, IM, video chat, microblogging, and social networking. Some of our technologies aren't quite ready for wider use in this way, so we might need to start by convincing other groups of geeks such as open-source projects and technically-minded companies to adopt our technologies first. But we need to start down the road so that in time everyone can benefit from the freedom-enhancing technologies we've been developing for so many years.
Yesterday morning before the panel discussion at FOSDEM I launched a website where we can provide information that will help to make this vision a reality: FreeYourSpeech.org. We intend to review and recommend user-friendly software, write how-tos and installation guides, enable cross-pollination among open-source projects, discuss knotty issues like identity and security that cut across technology boundaries, and lay the groundwork for greater freedom of conversation over the Internet.
In a different context, Ayn Rand once said "Those who fight for the future live in it today." And William Gibson once said "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed yet." Put those two together, and you realize that those of us who build decentralized communication technologies must not only enjoy living in the future of truly free communication while we wait for the future to distribute itself. Instead, we must be the ones to actively distribute that future among folks who aren't nearly as geeky as we are: our families, our friends, our schools, our companies, and the many other small groups that form the backbone of a truly civil society.
Let's get to work!
UPDATE 2013-02-08: The video is now available at http://video.fosdem.org/2013/maintracks/Janson under "Free, open, secure, and convenient communications".
Peter Saint-Andre > Journal