Cory Doctorow's Web3 Rallying Cry: 'Seize the Means of Computation'

The sci-fi author exhorted Consensus 2021 attendees to take back power for internet users from a tech cartel whose leaders “can fit around one table.”

AccessTimeIconMay 27, 2021 at 2:46 a.m. UTC
Updated May 29, 2023 at 12:09 p.m. UTC

To Cory Doctorow, internet users have become serfs to the barons and nobles of Silicon Valley – and it’s up to 21st century digital Robin Hoods to liberate them.

“We live in this world where bandits run amok, wanting to do terrible things to you and your data,” the science fiction author, blogger and privacy advocate said Wednesday night at Consensus 2021. “But rather than defending yourself, you can ally yourself with a warlord like Apple or Google or Facebook or Salesforce.”

In this “feudal security model” (a phrase Doctorow attributed to cryptography legend Bruce Schneier), when the masses try to vote with their dollars or their clicks, as they would in a free market, they can’t escape the oligopoly power of tech giants. 

“Both implicit and explicit forms of collusion, combined with a monopoly rent by not having to compete, allows firms to really structure markets and create policies that advantage them,” he said.

For example, one of the oldest web behemoths, Yahoo, "wanted to have a roach motel, not an interoperable piece of an ecosystem, and that enclosure game was played through acquisitions.” 

More recently, “people left Facebook in droves for Instagram. And Mark Zuckerberg, … a man who constantly trips over his own [overconfidence], said, ‘Hey, we need to buy Instagram.’” Which Facebook did in 2012. 

By 2017, when then-President Donald J. Trump hosted a meeting of CEOs at Trump Tower, “the whole tech industry leadership fit around one table,” Doctorow said.

And while he blamed the concentration of power in no small part on weakened antitrust enforcement in the U.S. since the Ronald Reagan administration, Doctorow said a legislative solution, such as mandating data portability, could take too long. 

“Lawmaking moves at the speed of lawmaking, and tech moves at the speed of tech,” he said.

Hence, he made an impassioned case for a largely bottom-up solution: Web 3.

'Adversarial interoperability'

The term Web 3 refers broadly to a movement to re-decentralize the internet, replacing the current hub-and-spoke architecture with something more distributed and closer to the old model of clients and servers. Blockchain and cryptocurrency are an epiphenomenon of this push, and arguably may help achieve the goals, though are not necessarily essential to it (more than that later).

“Web 3 is really attuned to the problem of freedom,” Doctorow said, later calling on listeners, after Karl Marx, to “seize the means of computation.”

Interoperability, or the ability of different computer systems to exchange information with each other, is a big part of this vision for Doctorow. 

“Once everyone's on Facebook, that's a strong reason to join Facebook unless you can talk to Facebook without being a member of Facebook,” Doctorow explained. “And then you can talk to your friends without having Mark Zuckerberg looking at your underwear.”

But since Facebook and its ilk cannot be relied upon to support interoperability, and could find sneaky ways to get around regulatory mandates to do so, “I think we need adversarial interoperability, the hacker mentality,” Doctorow said.

Adversarial interoperability describes applications or code that can “plug into” existing software without permission of the company. 

For example, Doctorow described a scenario where a company “nerfs down,” or weakens, users’ access to their own data through application programming interfaces (APIs). Hackers could then “suddenly deploy like, a million bots and scrapers and reverse engineers” who would “add their own post-hoc APIs.”

This would leave the tech Goliaths “mired in awful guerilla warfare that has totally unquantifiable risks that they can never plan for,” disincentivizing them from pulling such stunts, Doctorow went on. 

In this way, he envisions Web 3 “giving us back not ‘move fast and break things’ [Zuckerberg’s infamous motto] but rather that everything can interoperate and if they tell you that this won't plug into that, it doesn't mean you have to take their word for it. That to me feels like an exciting watershed.”

Skeptical on cryptocurrency

Doctorow is a special adviser to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. His recent book, “How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism,” outlines his idea that the tech monopolies we see today will not persist beyond 2030, thanks to Web 3 and decentralized applications.

His interlocutor on Wednesday was Steven Waterhouse, CEO of Orchid, a crypto-powered virtual private network (VPN) that is an early use case for how decentralized networks can strengthen internet privacy.

Orchid offers a VPN built on the Ethereum blockchain where users can employ its native ERC-20 token, OXT, to pay for bandwidth from a global network of nodes. Anyone making a staked deposit of Orchid tokens shares surplus bandwidth in the service of creating a peer-to-peer ecosystem for internet privacy.

But there was little if any crypto shilling during Waterhouse’s conversation with Doctorow, who sounded a tad skeptical about how much digital currency can help bring the internet back to its freewheeling roots.

“I don't think blockchain and cryptos are going to make everyone so rich that they all have FU money and don't have to pay attention to what the law says,” Doctorow said. “That can't be our answer because there are 5 billion or 7 billion people on Earth. I'm no economist, but I think if everyone has FU money it stops being FU money. At that point, that's just normal, non-FU money.”



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