April 20, 2014

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Aral Balkan is doing a bang-up job getting Indie rolling as an adjectival meme. He’s doing it with his Indie PhoneIndie Tech Manifesto and a talk titled Free is a Lie.

To put the Indie movement in context, it helps to realize that it’s been on the tech road at least since 1964, when Paul Baranone of the Internet’s architects, gave us this design for a network:

Meaning the one on the right. The one on the left was common in those days and the one in the middle was considered inevitable. But the one on the right was radical. First, it reduced to one the “attack surface” of the network. Take out one node or one link and the rest stayed up. Second, it also served as the handy design spec for the protocols that now define the Internet. Aral, the Indie Phone and the IndieManifesto are all about the one on the right: Distributed. So, for that matter, is The Cluetrain Manifesto. For example:

That was Chris Locke’s line. “Markets are conversations” (one of my lines) and “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy” (one of David Weinberger’s) also come from the same spot.

Marketing comes from A and B. Never C. Thus, as Jakob Nielsen told me after Cluetrain came out, “You guys defected from marketing. You sided with markets, against marketing.” Meaning we sided with individual human beings, as well as society in general. But certainly not with marketing — even though all three of us made a living in marketing. Perhaps not surprisingly, Cluetrain became, and remains, a favorite of marketers, many of which continue to defect. (Bonus link.)

Independent, sovereign, autonomous, personal and heterarchical are all adjectives for what one gets from a distributed network. (This may call forth an acronym, or at least an initialism.) By whatever name it is an essential camp, because each of us is all six of those things (including distributed). We need tech that enables those things and gives us full agency.

We won’t get them from the centralizers of the world. Or decentralizers that don’t go all the way from B to C. We need new stuff that comes from the truly personal side: from C. It helps that C — distributed — is also central to the mentality, ethos and methodologies of hacking (in the positive senses of the word).

Ever since the Net went viral in the mid-’90s, we’ve built out “solutions” mostly on the models of A and B: of centralized and decentralized. But too rarely all the way to C: the fully personal. This is understandable, given the flywheels of industry, which have the heft of Jupiter and have been spinning ever since Industry won the Industrial Revolution.

But one fully personal exception stands out: the browser. It was born to be the best instrument of individuality we could have, even though it has lately become more of a shopping cart than a car. (That was one point of Earth to Mozilla: Come back home.) If we want the browser to be fully personal (e.g. private) again — as it was in the first place, before commercial imperatives were laid upon it, and the Web looked like a library (which one would browse) rather than a shopping mall — Mozilla is our best hope for making that happen. There are no other candidates. And it’s clear to me that they do want to work toward that goal.

We won’t get rid of centralization and hierarchy. Nor should we, because there are many things centralization and hierarchy do best, and we need them to operate civilization. Our personal tools also need to engage with many of them. But we also can’t expect either centralization or decentralization to give us distributed solutions, any more than we can get government or business to give us individuality, or for hierarchy to give us heterarchy. The best we’ll get from them is respect: for us, and for the new tools we bring to the market’s table.

Aral is right when he tweets that Mozilla’s dependence on Google is an elephant in the room. It’s an obvious issue. But the distributed mentality and ethos is alive and well inside Mozilla — and, for that matter, Google. I suspect it even resides in some corner of Mark Zuckerberg’s cerebrum. (He’s too much of a hacker for it not to be there.) Dismissing Mozilla as a tool of Google throws out babies with bathwater — important and essential ones, I believe.

Meanwhile we need a name for the movement that’s happening here, and I think Aral’s right that “Indie” might be it. “Distributed” sounds like what happens at the end of a supply chain. “Heterarchical” is good, but has five syllables and sounds too academic. “Sovereign” is only three syllables (or two, depending) and is gaining some currency, but it more commonly applies to countries than to people. “Personal” is good, but maybe too common. And the Indie Web is already catching on in tech circles. And indie itself is already established as a nickname for “independent.”  So I like it.

I would also like to see the whole topic come up at VRM Day and IIW, which run from 5 to 8 May in Mountain View. The links for those:


http://iiworkshop.org (register at http://bit.ly/1hWpNn5)