This post is part of CoinDesk's 2019 Year in Review, a collection of 100 op-eds, interviews and takes on the state of blockchain and the world. Galen Wolfe-Pauly is the co-founder of Tlon, the company behind Urbit.
It’s vogue to say the internet is broken, even if there’s little consensus on how to fix it.
Enter Galen Wolfe-Pauly, who thinks the root cause of online dysfunction is the over-reliance on monolithic service providers like Facebook, Twitter and Amazon. Many would agree.
His solution, Urbit, is an attempt to decentralize the web starting from first principles. The project allows users to run their own servers and own their data. In theory, this would democratize the current digital-fiefdoms controlled by Zuckerberg, Dorsey, Bezos, et al.
Whether the public will throw its weight behind Urbit is up for debate. Built using two custom-designed programming languages, Urbit remains esoteric even for those with a background in computer science. Potentially worse – the project is the brainchild of Curtis Yarvin, also known as Mencius Moldbug, whose blogging in the early 21st century has inspired global neoreactionary and alt-right uprisings. Yarvin left the project and Tlon in early 2019.
On the fringes of Silicon Valley and under the big tent of decentralized tech, CoinDesk spoke with Wolfe-Pauly to hear his side of the story.
What struck you as the most important theme of the past year?
I think the most impactful issue has been the bear market, which I find super refreshing. Having worked on this stuff for a long time and watching the craziness of late-2017, I think it’s much healthier for things to have contracted a bit.
Do you think a bear market will weed out people who aren’t “true believers?”
I don’t know if I believe that in the abstract, but it may be true to some degree. I’m not such a fundamentalist that people should only be in crypto because they believe in some set of values. I believe people should use the stuff because it has actual value. But I think the excesses of speculation, or presence of obsessive people who are just speculating, is not great. That ethos and attitude and the way it affects the conversation is just anathema to me. I want stuff that people actually use.
If there isn’t an obvious financial reward will developers ditch the industry?
I don’t completely buy this idea that crypto will accelerate the open source project because developers make money. There’s some truth to that. But there’s a limit. There’s a point where the number goes up and it may be detrimental to developers. Certainly you want them to hang around, but you don’t want the ethos to be impacted in such a way that people can’t focus on the fundamentals of what they’re doing.
You’ve been in San Francisco for about a decade. How do you think the ethos and mentality of the Valley has changed?
I’ve been on the fringes of the technology since I was a kid. I feel like those fringes today are very much the same. It’s the same sort of cypherpunks. Silicon Valley has definitely become a power center in a global sense in a way that it didn’t used to be. I find that to be a good thing, or at least not entirely dysfunctional.
Is the tech industry moving towards consolidation?
I think the tech industry has no choice but to remain centralized until people working on projects like Urbit or in the blockchain ecosystem building things like IPFS [InterPlanetary File System - a peer-to-peer network for storing and sharing data] can deliver infrastructure that’s as easy or easier to use than the existing stack.
What do you make of the midway model, highly centralized entities using decentralized platforms?
WeChat offers an unbundled version of what would otherwise be highly centralized platforms. It’s good for options and flexibility. But WeChat also has this “one weird trick,” in the Buzzfeed sense, that they use to their advantage: the Chinese government is on their side. That’s their biggest wedge. While I think flexibility and consumer choice is a great advantage, WeChat is not an open system that anyone can build on, nor is it secure or private.
Could you talk about the issue of centralization with an eye to the debate over no-platforming?
Deplatforming is such a funny thing. I think most deplatforming isn’t really a legal free speech issue. It’s a byproduct of trying to get everyone in the world to share spaces. When you get millions of people who don’t agree with each other to speak in public all of the time, these sort of inhumane algorithmic systems have to be put in place to keep order. From a user experience perspective, it sucks. But from the standpoint of these platforms, there’s no way around it. Until you have a decentralized system where it’s possible for people to form their own small communities that can self moderate, it will go on forever.
Does that make discussions over free speech pointless?
Most web platforms are engineered to broadcast to the whole world. One effect of throwing people into a position of addressing the whole world is they want to test the limits of what they can say. Because there’s nothing to lose, my account costs nothing, no one really knows who I am. It’s not a question of whether humans are capable of conducting themselves civilly. It’s that Facebook and Twitter have constructed a way for people to trivially be assholes to each other, which is great if the goal is to attract a lot of eyeballs to sell a lot of ads.
If these companies weren’t as reliant on ad revenue, and could monetize through something like a Basic Attention Token, would that alleviate some of the issues?
I think we need to separate what are effectively broadcast technologies from communication technologies. Influencers and content producers delivering content looks like TV to me. Advertising isn’t a bad way to monetize newspaper or broadcast like content platforms, but the problem is that advertising becomes part of the way people are trying to communicate, and stay in touch. You don’t get to dictate the way communication happens. Subredditors can’t take their subreddit and leave, and you can’t take your Slack group and leave. But from the messaging perspective it’s gotten pretty good with Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp.