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://VRMday2014a.eventbrite.com

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

5 comments

  1. Brett Slatkin’s avatar

    Thanks for the post, Doc. I think it’s a good assessment.

    I love the open web. I want this all to work. We tried hard with PubSubHubbub. I respect Aral and I’m happy he’s focusing his attention on it. But I won’t be signing the manifesto in its current form. My problem is that it’s all about avoiding negatives. My motivation for the indieweb comes from positive things, which I explain here:

    http://www.onebigfluke.com/2012/07/focusing-on-positives-why-i-have-my-own.html

    Otherwise, I haven’t been able to reconcile this part of Aral’s whole push: “Indie, the Indie Spaceship Logo, Indie Phone, Indie OS, Indie Cloud, Empowering Humans, and Deeply Empowering are trademarks of Article 12 Limited.”

    How can you trademark “indie”? Doesn’t everyone see the irony here? Maybe it’d make sense if it was owned by a foundation.

    Today my bets are on the organic communities of indiewebcamp.com and camlistore.org.

  2. Katherine Warman Kern’s avatar

    Doc,

    i like it.

    And I like that you recognize that Independents can benefit from not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    Importantly, even “Corporate America” recognizes that better ideas emerge when Indies have the freedom from the constraints of “Corporate America.”

    But we need to be realistic about the realities of an independent life vs. “Corporate America”.

    Snowden has proven that “free” isn’t sustainable.

    The high failure rate of “good enough” start-ups, built for free by relying only on your personal network (see B above) limits diversity of expertise and shared knowledge.

    The lack of business structures to protect collaborating independents has inhibited expanding horizons through a distributed network (see C above) of more diverse skill sets, generations, and cultures.

    There are no easy answers.

    Importantly, during this “figuring it out” stage – conflict is natural. I agree with Brett that a positive perspective is critical. Importantly, everything has multiple perspectives.

    Let’s do it!

    K-

  3. Aral Balkan’s avatar

    Hey Brett,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    The goal of Indie Tech is to focus on the positives of enabling everyone (not just enthusiasts) to own their own data. And by that, I mean to enable them to enjoy the dames privileges that you currently enjoy of having your own web site / timeline. The goal is to enable people who do not have your technical abilities to do the same by creating consumer products that come with beautiful defaults and allow this out of the box.

    The reason the so-called negatives must be stated is because we need to raise awareness about why this is important. There are several natural others (Google, Facebook, etc.) here and it does not benefit anyone to hide who they are. I can see, of course, how it might be a conflict of interest for someone who works at Google or Facebook to sign the manifesto and I can empathise with this. It does not mean, however, that we can overlook the primary role they play — we are revolting against a status quo that these companies are responsible for perpetuating.

    We need to be able to explain to people Why exactly they should go to all this trouble to create alternative solutions and businesses — what’s the problem? The problem is Google. The problem is Facebook. The problem is the monopoly of the business model of corporate surveillance that they, and many others, share. Unless we can articulate the problem and unless we can clearly explain the ramifications of the current monopoly of this business model, we cannot expect people to invest time, effort, and other resources in creating alternatives. We also cannot simply expect everyone to be aware of the issues — especially when there are millions being spent by the likes of Google and Facebook to lobby governments, etc. They are leading the discourse on these topics in the public sphere today and that needs to change.

    That all said, I would love to hear your feedback on what you feel could be improved in the manifesto. I’m always open to, and highly appreciate, constructive criticism. Please feel free to email me anytime at aral@aralbalkan.com

    You also mention the trademark line on the Indie Phone web site: the only reason that exists is to discourage dilution of the Indie Phone name. As you know, Firefox, Mozilla, etc., are also trademarks. I cannot make a browser today and call it Firefox. Similarly, if someone makes a phone and calls it Indie Phone that would be a huge setback for us after building awareness of the name. I feel that the real point of contention might be the Indie (capital ‘I’) trademark. Indie is the name that Article 12 Ltd is currently trading under. This is something that has come up before and I also just spoke to Jeremy Keith about it who raised similar concerns. I can see why this could be seen as problematic. It was never my intention to try and lay any sort of universal claim to the word ‘indie’ (and that’s not how trademarks work anyway). Regardless, I don’t think the benefit of using Indie as the trading name for Article 12 Ltd (it is snappy and easy to remember and we need every advantage when going up against companies with names like ‘Google’ and ‘Apple’ which are accessible and easy to remember) is worth the confusion and fear/uncertainty/doubt that it might cause. So we’re going to drop it and use the current company name (Article 12, named after Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — the right to privacy) or simply change the name of the company to Indie Phone Ltd. I hope this will lay your fears about using the name indie in Indie Tech to rest :)

    (I’ve now removed Indie from the list of trademarks on the site. Also, I’m very open to the idea of a foundation — I simply have no experience in this area and I’m currently looking into it.)

    I’m also a huge fan and supporter of the Indie Web community (I’ve sponsored and helped organise an Indie Web Camp here in Brighton and hope to continue doing so) and I love what Brad is doing with Camlistore.

    That said, neither of those projects, by themselves, are going to magically result in seamless, beautiful end-user products that can compete with the products of Google or Apple. (The theory of ‘trickle down technology’ does not work.) What they can do is to contribute hugely valuable parts of the equation.

    So it is not a matter of having either this or that. We need Indie Web Camp. We need Camlistore. And we need Indie Tech and consumer alternatives like Indie Phone also.

    Without Indie Tech to create competitive consumer products, all we will have are toys for enthusiasts. These will in no way threaten Google or Facebook‘s dominance in the consumer market. (And this is one of the reasons why they are happy to sponsor such projects. They are not directly competing with them and it’s great PR.) Again, it’s great that we have these projects as they are creating excellent infrastructure that we can possibly make use of when creating consumer solutions. But we also need efforts that are squarely focused on creating easy-to-use, beautiful consumer products. That is what Indie Tech brings to the table. And that is no small thing.

    I look forward to hopefully hearing your constructive criticism and thoughts on the manifesto and I hope that we will one day see you as a signatory.

  4. Don Marti’s avatar

    The browser is half of indie, but the other half is outbound publishing.

    What’s the opposite of economies of scale? If you’re indie and have “1000 true fans” then it’s easier to administer your indie site than to administer a site for 1 billion people. But it’s not a million times easier.

    There’s a centralizing force — as your indie site gets out of date, overrun with spam, or you just can’t figure out how to do the content update you need — you get tempted to say the hell with it and make your site a static page with a link to Big Social Site. Or just put it on GitHub Pages or something.

    Where’s the decentralizing force?

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