Fediverse, Self-hosting, Blockchain & more: What's the Decentralized Web? (redux)
This is part 2 of my reflection on Decentralization, 10+ years later! We explore little-known protocols and I explain WHY you shouldn't throw the blockchain baby with the bathwater just because some crypto-bros took a dip in it. This one is a doozy! 🔥
Part 2 - Binary thinking is unhealthy & the road ahead
The great multitude of decentralized protocols
In the first part of this article, we dug deep into the Fediverse. In a recent Twitter thread, I covered how meshing allowed for a more decentralized experience (including the fantastic Scuttlebutt and Meshtastic protocols).
Sandstom.io could be the poster child for yet another approach: self-hosting. It's the home of 82 working, high-quality open-source apps, including rocket.chat, Davros and Etherpad. These apps are sandboxed by default, can live anywhere (cloud or self-hosted) and their framework provides them with useful features including sharing access control, protection against bugs, auditable access and guaranteed app provenance information. If you're a big business, LDAP, SAML and Active Directory integration are all present alongside global audit logging and simplified compliance.
What an impressive list! You'd be forgiven for thinking Sandstorm is the future of the decentralized web. In reality, Sandstorm Git commits are looking grim, their hosting service - AFAIK their only source of revenue - went dark on September 15th, 2019 and the account stopped posting on social media altogether in 2021.
Some will argue that it doesn't matter, as we have https://www.cloudron.io, and Cloudron got 140+ amazing apps including Syncthing and Ghost (the blogging platform you're reading this article on).
But that would be missing the point. Entirely.
The absence of a 'perfect' solution
I know many are reading this article and wondering - if all these projects are able to garner millions of users and deploy commercial and even enterprise-grade applications on top of decentralized architectures… then why do we need Blockchain technology?
It's time to talk about yet another alternative to the centralized web, namely a certain programmable, Turing-complete chain where first class actors are to be able to act on par with humans. This vision is generally referred to as "Web 3", and if anyone had any doubt about it, that term was coined by Ethereum's then CTO, Gavin Wood, just before I hosted the reveal at this meetup in 2015.
So far, one could argue that all the decentralized projects we looked at failed because of the lack of funding. But blockchain has no such excuse. Someone on IRC kindly indicated to me that the Sandstorm project was in fact not dead - it just has a very, very limited budget, which is publicly available. You read it correctly - Sandstorm produced an entire ecosystem with an estimated annual budget of USD $5,673.
It gets worse: Mastodon, the perfectly valid Twitter replacement to Twitter we explored in the previous article, clocks at £5,646 per month on its Patreon page. To build, maintain, support and host some of the largest instances of the decentralized web for the cost of two MacBooks per month, it's bordering on the absurd!
So with a capitalization of a third of a trillion dollars, you'd be forgiven for asking the following questions: where is the decentralized app store? Where is whisper, the blockchain-compatible decentralized messaging layer? What of devp2p, the peer-to-peer, TOR-like censorship-resistant communication protocol without which blockchain transactions simply travel through the 'clear' web? Why is the "real" decentralized storage layer, SWARM, no longer baked in the "CPU" of the stack? Why make such a fuss about zkSNARKs in 2016 only to never implement them? Why even mention the abstraction-prone protocol allowed for the integration of Lamport signatures, if you're not going to leverage that flexibility?
Vlad Zamfir wrote the draft for Casper V1 in my house... 8 years ago, yet the "Big Merge" is only due this year. Evidently, there's a money/delivery ratio problem. The "old timers" I continue to meet regularly will all tell you the same behind closed doors: things have changed. The geeks in us loved the idea of mining dApp-specific coins living on para/sub-chains, but the bigwigs who poured billions into a single-currency model... not so much. And so on.
L1 chains battle to be 'innovative' but are out of ideas… and Hollywood actors. The free thinkers and innovators have moved on, and the ones that remain do so out of greed because they missed a particularly high financial target of theirs… or out of obligation.
Binary thinking is unhealthy
Yes, the web is hyper centralized, so much so that even Tim Berners-Lee's own decentralization project, SOLID, eventually lost steam and could be, like Sandstorm, be considered "moribund".
Yes, there isn't one, but dozens of attempts at decentralizing the Web or the Internet out there. For the sake of brevity, I skipped over countless projects including Urbit, various decentralized DNS initiatives, and all the "unknown unknowns" I haven't discovered yet.
One universe is completely unknown to the general public, while the other gives vibes of cheap marketing stunts and multi-level marketing tactics targetted at Tweens that would put Maddoff to shame. This has led to a major split in the decentralization community. To quote a user from a popular Element channel (not my words):
"dWeb: a return to the positive aspects of the original Internet, blogs, DIY, ownership of your own data."
"Web3: greedier version of the current online landscape, Ivy League-esque snobbery, FOMO-culture mirroring Ponzi schemes."
I understand. It's absolutely maddening to see well-intended, hardworking developers living off a miserable pittance, raising a few hundreds of dollars in donations while straight-up scams such as companies organizing the wonky auctioning of centralized NFTs (making the non-fungible part an outright lie) get capitalized to the tune of several billion.
Yet, if whoever wrote the above dichotomy is reading, I'm here to tell you: you have it all wrong. All decentralization technologies started off as an altruistic set of liberation technology principles - even blockchain - especially blockchain. Heck, the first Ethereum meetup afterparty was held in a squat, courtesy of the inimitable Amir Taaki. For the first 6 months, no one received a salary at Ethereum. We slept together in one room on 1-inch cheapo-mattresses. The greedy, preppy suede waistcoat-wearing, private-member club wannabes wouldn't have lasted a day!
It's time to accept it. The problem is not a matter of funding, marketing or a technological detail such as not integrating ZKPs or SMPC. The problem is that people do not care about decentralization as much as they care about the raw utility of the system in front of them, hence why the most iconic videos about Ethereum from the Foundation itself stand at less than 10k views while the blockchain-based pyramid schemes are cumulatively raking billions of views.
People want to see things in black and white, good and evil. Sure, blockchain isn't perfect, but neither are the other solutions. And throwing the baby with the bathwater is, I'm sure you'll agree, a terrible idea.
Between the promising, but fledgling state of the Federated Web and the evident global interest in crypto tokens, there's something to build there, at the intersection.
Something that will enable solutions for problems that haven't appeared yet but soon will, such as decentralized AI - in my opinion, a challenge so important it will define the computing landscape for the next 50 years. If you think I'm being dramatic, the Brooking institute was warning back in 2017 that "Whoever leads in artificial intelligence in 2030 will rule the world until 2100".
It requires for the hardcore hacktivist to accept that a bit of funding won't hurt, and a revisit of tokenomics to take the technology out of the hands of "the crypto bros" and back into the fold of the developers with big hearts and big dreams. And we, as the 'old guard' of blockchain enthusiasts have a duty to learn from our mistakes: it's high time to become less of a cult and more of a practical solution. Ideally, one that doesn't rely purely on self-imposed artificial scarcity to be economically viable.
I'd like to think there's a middle ground. And the best middle ground I can think of is through this little anecdote. Back in 2007, I was part of BOINC based project attempting to solve the Eternity puzzle. A puzzle so hard, that a 2 million prize was on offer to solve it. So a group of computer enthusiasts led by Dave Clark banded together and agreed to distribute the prize money proportionally to the amount of compute time offered to the project.
This was, in essence, an early equivalent to PoW, 2 years before Bitcoin. Dave pulled the plug on the project as it reached 1.6 TeraFlops of processing power and had performed over 10^19 CPU operations. There were many reasons to stop the project but the main one was that the monetary returns just weren't here - and the TeraFlops better invested in another BOINC project with a more altruistic angle to it.
BOINC was never decentralized computing - but instead, distributed computing. The appeal of leveraging idle hardware to earn a passive income is just, if not more appealing than it was in 2007. This is why I dreamt to build the Ethereum Computer in 2015. I don't have all the answers, but I'm committed to working on solutions to the decentralization status-quo.
A switch to PoS could finally bring the idea of a standalone, passive income 'box' with a single button and no screen to the mainstream, something that entrepreneurs such as Mark Shuttleworth understood back in 2017. We need to be going "Back to the Future" if we want to save decentralization!
I know some companies are looking at merging BOINC type models while building in the "Gridcoin"-style reward layer. But don't think it's too late: because of the need for specificity, there are countless opportunities to reward any problem that's deemed to be "embarrassingly parallel".
Developers, entrepreneurs, and every one the middle: trust me on this one (I tend to make good technological bets): All the pieces are out there, you just need to think "Out of the Box"... by developing one.
About the Author
I'm Stephan Tual and my passion is communicating the impossible while building lasting communities. I was the architect behind the marketing & partner strategy for Ethereum.
I'm helping companies like yours navigate buzzword-rich, complex yet promising next-generation technologies: AI, ML, Deep Learning, Crypto through my unique boutique consultancy: Ursium.AI.
I regularly speak at both small and large conferences or community events.
Full bio: https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephantual/