The rise of freedom technologies
Technology and control. 'AI is communist, crypto is libertarian' -P. Thiel. Declaration of independence of cyberspace. FeedomTech pyramid.
We live in very turbulent times. A war over data and control over cyberspace is raging with a small but growing fraction of society taking notice and action. The technologies we use today are defining the society we'll live in tomorrow. This post includes thoughts on technology’s historical role shaping societies, how an internet native social contract could be established and which role freedom technologies will play in the process.
Technologies are always neutral, are they?
Throughout history only some very few technologies turned out to be highly disruptive in the sense of reshaping how humanity coordinates and allocates resources at scale.
Knowledge about farming and the creation of early mechanical tools enabled humanity to transition from hunter gatherer towards agricultural societies. During the middle ages societies were ruled by feudal lords and the church what changed with the inventions of the printing press and gun powder. While the first was democratising access to scripture and knowledge what drove the protestant movement and the separation of church and state the latter broke down the feudal lord's monopoly on violence. Electricity and the steam engine drove the industrial revolution what led to emerging large scale nation states fighting for dominance over industrial resources and assets.
If technologies are always neutral what is it that makes gun powder become a democratising force in some parts of the world (Europe) and a tool of suppression in others (colonies)? Why did the printing press primarily have a democratising effect on scripture and distribution of knowledge despite the fact that it can be used for misinformation and propaganda? What makes microprocessing and related technologies like the the web, AI, crypto, quantum computers or gene editing a tool of suppression and what can be undertaken to make it turn into a liberating technology benefiting humanity?
Crypto is libertarian and AI is communist.
The two primary factors for a technology stack to have overall suppressive vs. liberating impact on society are:
Access: how costly is it to acquire and maintain the technology? Can access be limited by law - e.g. crypto code as weapon (export restrictions), IP rights protection? Can access be limited for certain groups of people? Can people be forced to use a technology - e.g. biometrics in ID cards, face recognition at airports?
Governance: who is control of the technology's further development? Are governance processes transparent - e.g. NGOs, private and public companies? Do users understand how the technology is used and what it does - e.g. facebook enabled deep psychological profiling? Can governance be corrupted by powerful groups with significant resources - e.g. secret services building back doors into private messaging services? The dark ages of microprocessing - how to establish a new social contract for cyberspace?
For the modern, western, physical world we engineered legal systems that protect the rights of the individual against the state through constitutions rooting back to the age of enlightenment. Society is supposed to be organised based on the principles of rationality to foster collaboration, inclusivity, the protection of minorities etc. Checks and balances lie at the heart of any open society.
Internet Pioneer John Perry Barlow (1947-2018), https://worldnewstrust.com/images/stories/2018/John_Perry_Barlow.jpg
In cyberspace none of these rules apply. It's a wild west were Darwin and raw power are omnipresent. During its first years the microprocessing revolution seemed to be a democratising force empowering individuals by broadening access to information, knowledge, global communications- and economic systems. It seemed like the manifestation of the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace y John Perry Barlow was coming to life.
micro processing <> nation states = printing press <> church = gun powder <> feudal lords.
More recently we've witnessed how the web was turned into a surveillance and propaganda machine undermining human rights. As the significance of cyberspace grows from communication to commerce and now to public services the bigger becomes the battle field.
I expect to see multiple iterations of the technology stack underpinning society. This battle is going to continue over many decades and will be decided by mainstream user adoption. Based on network effects we are likely going to see a wave pattern between authoritarian, centrally controlled systems and more open ones:
Will businesses and individuals use technologies that are increasingly going to be criminalised - like crytpocurrencies or privacy enhancing technologies?
What will drive the adoption of freedom technologies?
Adoption for alternative technologies will not be driven by fancy new interfaces and incremental innovation. It will be driven by drastically new features and pure necessity resulting from deplatfoming, aka censorship. With increasing concentration of market power big tech and big finance turned into the choke points of cyberspace.
Whole groups of people will search for alternatives creating market opportunity. E.g. ethnic and religious groups being discriminated by paypal, political activists being censored by Visa and Mastercard, Cannabis companies being denied access to bank accounts, pornhub performers being deplatformed by paypal, big tech competitors being kicked out of google's ranking up to to whole countries being cut off from the web like we've observed e.g. in the arab spring, Iran or India.
This is an issue of the power of the few over the many until only the rich friends of the current regime are left.
We all know where that story ends...
How could alternatives look like?
The freedom technology pyramid
To protect minorities and open societies we'd need to establish a whole new stack of technologies people can opt into. Such technologies need to be built on the guiding principles of open design, censorship resistance, verifiability, interoperability and transparency. The following graphic and bullet points are neither exhaustive nor precise. I might cover some of those categories in more depth at some point. Thank you Frank Braun for the inspiration.
An explosion of IoT devices will further increase demand for secure and verifiable hardware. The first wave of open source hardware driven by the maker movement left us with 3D printing, hackable IoT devices (Raspberry Pi, Arduino) and more secure consumer hardware (Purism) prioritising openness and privacy. The digital assets mega trend will require a secure hardware stack addressing key management, mining, staking or governance what will create significant business opportunities in the near future. Counter surveillance equipment and fashion might turn into a phenomenon as soon as people start to protect their privacy - it's a matter of when, not if. Hardware needs to be secure and open - you can't build a pyramid on quicksand.
Different approaches to the server-less web are under heavy development. Computation and data will be pushed to the edges allowing for higher security, better performance, machine readable data standards and native access control among other features. A universe of developer tools and middleware platforms will be created around web3. Open source operating systems and application marketplaces might see a revival. Many of those businesses will experiment with digital asset based business models or pursue more conventional approaches combining open source components with value added services.
Private messaging and nyms
Once secure hardware and application infrastructure is in place interoperability and peer to peer communication through private instant messaging services is required. With open data standards users will be empowered to take their digital twins with them by just switching the interface. Imagine to be able to send messages from Telegram to What's App or Signal seamlessly. Now imagine you can use a new service that has blinded access to your encrypted digital identity (browsing history, location, social graph, interests, hobbies) creating customised news feeds (new ideas, contrarian view points), e-learning programs or music for you. You’ll be in charge, nobody is going to spy on you or exploit your data. In which context anonymity or pseudonymity suffice and where clear identities are required is a highly complex question I’ll write more about in the future.
Digital assets and open commerce
Scarce, verifiable and programmable assets are going to take over the world, starting with state-free money, followed by a variety of virtual goods and services - from virtual land, pieces of art, IP rights, future revenue streams, royalties, business documents to bonds, stocks and derivatives. Those assets will be embedded into an ecosystem of open commercial services such as crypto native savings accounts, programmatic lending, prediction markets or payment streaming. Virtual organisations will be created outside of conventional bureaucracies at global scale that can be set up, governed and maintained by software. New tools empowering users to program workflows and coordinate will reshape the future of work beyond building siloed services around slack, notion and zapier.
Physical and virtual worlds will converge further, starting with early adopter industries such as gaming and media. Combined with scarce digital assets pure cyber economies can be created and orchestrated that might capture more value than meat space one day (cyber space is endless but cyber assets are scarce). Sovereign individuals will further explore alternative governance models in the physical world by moving towards agile city states and free economic zones what might turn into a bigger phenomenon with increasing geo political instability. Humans will enhance their bodies, brains and minds with new technologies - what started with yoga, meditation and supplements will be continued with psychedelics (micro dosing), 3D printed body extensions or gene editing.
In all of those sectors I see significant growth over the next few decades. Some of them will provide venture style business opportunities, others won't. Overall I believe that a new wave of freedom technologies will help us to defend open societies protecting human rights and the principles of rationality, division of powers, inclusivity, free speech and minority protection.
Please reach out if you have comments or are planning to build an exciting piece of technology contributing to this version of the future.