What Distributed Apps Mean for Data Commons and Collaborative Cities

Digital liberation advocate Emaline Friedman participated in the Data Commons workshop. She wrote about it on her blog, and she allowed us to re-post her essay.

On October 25th, the European Commons Assembly, in partnership with the Transeuropa festival, kicked off in Madrid. In preparing to participate in a working group called “Data Commons and the Collaborative City” I thought a good deal about what it means to run distributed applications for data commons (and the collaborative cities they could facilitate). Hold tight, cause this is quite different from my last post.

While technical comparisons hold great value for navigating the field of projects, I see how the comparative process can also create a sort of crypto-competitive fog that obscures the raisons d’être of these projects that are just as powerful as the work that goes into them. My overarching interest is in the social, political, and economic realities to which great tech poses just one meaningful mode of resistance.

Data commons are all about coordinating data, and coordinating data is a key way of affecting society and cultural practices. Coordinating data stabilizes and collectivizes frames of reference, and sets parameters for mobilizing these frames as the valuable resources they truly are. A good deal of this currently happens through web applications that operate under a data capitalist business model. The simplest way to describe the latter might be “the service is free because your data is the product sold to third parties.” In the real-time bait-and-switch from consumer to consumed, these frames of reference tacitly wield both ideological and executive power.

I’d say that there’s a pretty easy way to detect profit-motive — when an app’s features and optimizations don’t quite target conceivable changes that users can tell would make them WAY more useful for solving offline-life’s problems. All this is to say that front and back-end app design is also a good bit of the governance of the group being coordinated, and we have become acclimated to taking our cues from technologists, marketeers, profiteers (in collusion with state entities to varying and unknown degrees).

Change is hard

The big question is: how to garner the wherewithal to actually adopt new patterns? Despite the fact that so many users feel vaguely out of control of their net use, a habit is a habit, and change is a deeply intimate, even spiritual question. Think revolutionary seizures of control, 12-step groups, escaping domestic abuse, etc. Generally speaking I’m immensely turned off by the esoteric and mystical components woven through the culture of many tech groups. My current group is not an especially flagrant offender, though it does prompt the use of an archetypal system that falls quite easily into reductive stereotyping. Others I’ve spoken to have relayed horror stories about uses of ancient symbolic systems, like astrology and numerology, to ward off dissent, or at least channel it toward individuals’ failings (i.e. “Perhaps you have not yet confronted your shadow and so have a hard time accepting that…”).

But I digress. This is part of a much longer story that I only want to nod at here. What I do want to get to, though, is a sort of Marxist spirituality based in resistance to commodification (unwanted “fixing” of the lively and dynamic) and alienation (loneliness, and personal growth stunted by non-conscientious timing and management of work/life flows). Such resistance, it seems to me, is simultaneously an affirmation of ownership not defined by property relations, but by engendered responsibility.

And this responsibility simply doesn’t stick when we consider ourselves in a vacuum, as the isolated, individual users/consumers that often comprises the physical reality of computing instances. Leibniz’s monads, each of us, plugging away in front of our little terminals. We are offered infinite instances to exert our will, and define ourselves, but these are held, not by other people invested in this effort, but by algorithms that hold us to it in mockingly rigid ways we’d never accept from people (“Oh, you say you want auto updates? Let’s do that NOW, what you’re in the middle of be damned!”). There are plenty of behaviorist readings of data factories’ (particularly Facebook and Google’s) grip on us, too — I’m thinking Nicholas Carr’s work spelling out the programmed manipulation of well-timed notifications, and the like. But when we stop thinking of ourselves as monads and Pavlov’s dogs, there’s that feeling of logging on and the sheer fact that we keep going back.

Call it what you will, a sign of exploitation, learned helplessness, a testament to corporate influence, or the addictive quality of dazzling interfaces. It seems as though all the completely accurate criticism of the major web platforms doesn’t really mute that shiny feeling of open-ended promise of a supportive community. We know someone will be online to help ward off late-night existential dread, provide last-minute shelter, or a ride when it turns out that the trains stopped running earlier than anticipated.

The true love/hate messiness of social media, service platforms, and other web apps must be addressed honestly and in full to move forward the unequivocal benefits they afford and resist the equally undeniable violations. This is the perplexing nexus where convenience, safety, and community meet labor exploitation, surveillance, and the private sector’s subtle info-war launched against us all (sometimes called “neoliberalism”).

It seems to me that a better source of inspiration for the engendered responsibility I’m gesturing toward could be the fact that we already contribute with overwhelming honesty, judiciousness, and care. We already take the time to help our Airbnb guests beyond what the app requires we do. We already write down our door’s entry code on a piece of paper for them, suddenly “forgetting” about our supposed security needs that the company’s server fulfills, in favor of doing what makes sense between people.

I treat this, admittedly optimistically, as enacted knowledge of what could be. As data commons, these services stand to increase our expressive capacity to be heard and valued (by oneself and others), increase our sensory capacity to be aware and accepting of always-changing conditions, and bring to fruition the mutual aid that can grow from these capacities. These promises grow dimmer as algorithmic control makes creating proper boundaries impossible, trust related to the “when”, “where”, and “why” of being heard and valued cannot take root for want of transparency, social “chilling” sets in, and sensationalist stories impede intentions to focus…

Enter distributed apps

As I see it, distributed apps justify thinking of all apps as “data commons” (rather than just, say, Wikipedia) because they are run by their members. Through architecture designed to distribute the power of ownership, management, and implementation across users, the apps are held by users themselves. An app is distributed because everyone who uses it holds a copy of its constitution, so to speak, its code, and the data the user generates by electing to follow these rules. Adding security and validation through peered methods, we get the following conditions:

(1) holding of a copy of application

(2) options for varying degrees of participation in community governance, starting with the above — simply electing to try out its coded rules to see whether or not it fits particular needs

(3) tried, and thus informed, choice of which data-coordination community(ies) we’re involved in, including the app in question and whatever other communities to which we decide to bring data generated elsewhere

(4) public validation of data such that it can be recognized (heard) within data-coordination communities

Beyond decentralization

When I started working in this space what really clicked for me was hearing decentralized AND distributed. Decentralized tools (for communication, accounting, and coordination) are not held by default through a central agency, be it that of restrictive governments, private companies, or whoever else. Great. That’s a sort of obvious solution, akin, perhaps, to a teenager who wants to run away from home to get mom and dad off their back. It may feel like the problem is solved, but distance from where power lives does not entail any meaningful empowerment that ensures what comes next won’t be even more pernicious (ever see John Waters’ early films about kids leaving home only to find themselves in casual prostitution and drug rings?). We could arrive at the same conclusion just by taking the words, “decentralization”, and “distribution” at face value. If we seek a less exploitative net, or greater possibilities for common-ing and coordinating, we can’t just decentralize the power I’ve written about. We have to distribute it, too.

So, while decentralized networks may very well be an evolutionary outgrowth of the way our society currently structures its data economy, “web 3.0”, but by no means solves the problems of web 2.0. Coming up soon will be a post addressing more closely a bunch of beautiful responses to an open-ended ask about the gripes that are on folks’ mind at present. It’s obvious at this point that my wager is that distributed apps address many of them. Still, when it comes to governance of digital life I can’t stress the reality of the virtual enough. One must be diligent.