Professor Ruben Verborgh (Semantic Web, Ghent University, Belgium, research affiliate at the Decentralized Information Group at MIT, US) is convinced web apps are deeply broken: 

they compete mainly on who harvests the most data, not on who provides the best experience or innovation. This has consequences for developers, who are unwillingly dragged into this rat race, and end users, whose privacy and potential is limited.

 

Verborgh promotes the Solid ecosystem, the latest project by web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, advocating for a different way of building apps that is better for everyone. He will present Solid at the FOSDEM-conference in Brussels, Belgium (2&3 February) and the organization already had an interview with Verborgh

On his own blog he recently published a long post Re-decentralizing the web, for good this time.

In that post he “explains the history of decentralization in a Web context, and details Tim Berners-Lee’s role in the continued battle for a free and open Web. The challenges and solutions are not purely technical in nature, but rather fit into a larger socio-economic puzzle, to which all of us are invited to contribute.”

On February 2 and 3 thousands of developers will gather in Brussels, Belgium for FOSDEM, a conference promoting free and open source software. Things interesting me:

  • Collaborative information and content management application 
  • Decentralized Internet & Privacy 
  • Open document editors
  • Open media (video, images, audio)
  • Tool the Docs (writing, managing, rendering documentation)
  • Blockchain (of course)
  • Community
  • Python and Javascript

There will be keynotes about freedom and ethics, a bookshop etc. I’ll have to make hard choices about what to attend, but anyway, I’ll report about the event on this blog. 

The mood seems to be a bit dark. Let me quote the decentralized internet page:

PCs are less and less used while smartphones are soaring and data is collected and stored on servers on which we have very limited control as users. What happened to user’s freedom and privacy in the meantime? The outlook is not so great: we have less and less control over our digital environment. Network neutrality is heavily attacked and mainstream software products are usually proprietary or run on servers we don’t have control over. Modern technology has given the powerful new abilities to eavesdrop and collect data on people – with critical social and political consequences.

 

Happy New Year everyone! My plans in bullet points:

* Continue blogging on this site, following IndieWeb-formats.
* Learn how to use GitHub and version control in general, including using the command line interface.
* Stay involved with the IndieWeb-community.
* Prepare longer posts and articles using software developer procedures, using GitHub.
* Investigate how decentralized publishing could be applied (Beaker Browser, IPFS, Solid… )
* Integrate this in a general workflow for blogging and learning, based on teachings by Howard Rheingold and Stephen Downes.

More to come… In the meantime, have a look at an emerging article on GitHub, don’t hesitate forking and suggesting changes and additions.

In our effort of forming a community with the participants of E-learning 3.0 (#el30) we wrote blog posts reflecting on our learning experiences. Kevin Hodgson made a visualization of the posts, using the tool thinglink. 

Our esteemed course organizer, Stephen Downes, invited us for a video hangout – for some weird reason I was the only one to actually enter the hangout but some others intervened in text chat. This is the video: 

Stephen Downes questioned whether asking participants to post about their learning experience in this course was a good strategy to establish “community”. Why not just suggest to post a hashtag such as #el30community? By asking to post about our experiences, participants who for whatever reason would not do so, could end up feeling alienated. It reminded me of discussions we had in other communities about lurkers – are they part of the community? The consensus was they were part of it – lurking can be valuable. Still I’m glad I suggested to write a post – it generated new ideas and interactions. 

But how could the blockchain help to establish consensus in a trustless environment? There are theories and experiments involving Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAO), I hope to find out more about that in the coming days and weeks.

We also briefly mentioned the possibility of having a Community of Practice (CoP) on a more permanent basis. There is so much to explore: how to use various distributed technologies, how to use Docker and Jupyter Notebooks, which methodologies and pedagogies are best for various peer-to-peer learning contexts. One participant asked whether a central hub would be useful for such a CoP – in my opinion some hybrid model of a hub and a distributed environment would be interesting.

How do I feel about the course E-learning 3.0 (#el30)? Why did I participate to begin with? First of all, I liked the idea of participating in a project facilitated by Stephen Downes since I appreciate his newsletter and his pioneering work in developing and facilitating Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). I’m also intrigued by what comes next in communication and collaboration. Yet, I’ve many questions and doubts – which in itself is a positive outcome of the course. 

I made this post as part of a communal effort by #el30-students to express themselves about their learning. In a follow-up post I hope to react on what my co-learners posted. 

Decentralized

“The first phase of the internet  was based on the client-server model, and focused on pages and files. The second phase, popularly called Web 2.0, created a web based on data and interoperability between platforms”, so Stephen explained. A very important topic of the course is the shift in our understanding of content from documents to data; and second, the shift in our understanding of data from centralized to decentralized. It’s about emancipating yourself from the big internet companies who turn your data into a product they own. 

I had great fun starting out this new blog on Reclaim Hosting and doing this in the IndieWeb style, enabling an easy interaction with other blogs. I consider it a first, modest step in emancipating myself from the data collectors and traders. 

As a second step, I experimented with The Beaker Browser and the Interplanetary File System (IPFS). I like doing that, but I’m not yet convinced these projects (and others such as Solid by Tim Berners-Lee, Blockstack or Holochain) will actually get a mainstream following. It’s still very early phase, the proposed solutions require a considerable investment of time and effort by the users. 

I still have to experiment with other technologies we discussed such as Docker and Jupyter Notebook.  However, my interest in virtualization and software containers is not driven by any real need – which might explain why I did not yet try it out. For now I’m perfectly happy with Reclaim Hosting, WordPress and IndieWeb-plugins. 

Will decentralization and virtualization change the way we learn? I’m not sure. A network of blogs such as we have for this course surely helps me to get new perspectives and it’s very motivating. Do we need to have such a network on the IPFS, do we have to use dat-files (The Beaker Project) or do we have to collaborate using Blockstack-apps? As far as the immediate learning experience is concerned, I doubt whether it would feel very different. 

Data and assessment

It could be different in the future, when we collect far more data about our learning. It would feel more comfortable to manage those data ourselves rather than counting on big internet companies or other commercial entities to do this for us. If the hosting of such data would no longer be an issue, developers could compete again on the basis of functionalities of the apps they offer. They would also have to compete on the basis of the degree of trust and privacy they offer. 

However, why should I, being an adult learner (and getting old), collect and analyze “my data”? Suppose I’d study the Japanese language. I could collect data about the number of hours I spend learning Japanese, about exercises I make, and about progress I make in terms of courses I finish. What really interests me is whether I’m able to have a simple conversation in Japanese, whether I can read a newspaper article (for now, I can’t). In order to find that out, I just have to engage into a conversation and to read a newspaper, I don’t need fancy data collection and management. I don’t care about proving my skill to others – if an employer would recruit me for my Japanese skills, it would very soon be obvious how very limited these are, while other skills (say, reading and understanding Spanish) would be more satisfying and useful. 

The same applies for skills such as software programming. For tens of years now people have been recruited because they are coding wizards, eventually self-taught wizards. No blockchain-protected data were necessary to prove their skills. For pilots and in the medical professions, the current testing methods seem to guarantee (most of the time) a steady supply of people who you can trust (most of the time). 

So do we really need blockchain, dat-documents or IPFS or are these technologies solutions in search of a problem? I lack the knowledge and visionary talents of Stephen Downes, but as yet I’m not convinced these decentralization projects will actually conquer the world. But that will not stop me from trying out whatever they do. Also, I look forward to learn more about Solid, the Tim Berners-Lee project, since that builds upon the existing web technologies in order to create an environment providing sophisticated  personal data management and (I think) a read/write web. 

Synchronous and asynchronous

I enjoy the course and the interactions with other participants, but I’m a bit surprised about the lack of synchronous activities. The weekly video interview featuring Stephen and one or two guests don’t seem to lead to synchronous group interaction. The classical problem with such interactions is the difficulty to find a time slot which is convenient for a group of people who live in very different timezones. Another issue is the video conferencing software – does it enable people to virtually meet, to share screens, to work collaboratively on a document (like on a mindmap)? Fifty years after Douglas Engelbart’s Mother of all Demos, these affordances are not self-evident. I think developing such a synchronous collaborative environment would be an important tool for online learning. 

I try to create a test site using the Interplanetary File System (IPFS). Since this involves using the command line, I use this command line cheat sheet.

Stephen Downes published instructional videos for the course E-learning 3.0 (#el30), however the instructions are Windows-only. Fortunately course participant Davey Moloney translated Stephen’s instructions into Mac-language.

After some ridiculous struggling with my file structure, I published my mini-site:

There are various ways to keep a IPFS-site online. Octavian Contis explains on his blog : “IPFS will host your website as long as it is accessed by other peers as it propagates to other nodes when it is accessed.” A simple way to keep your site up, suggested by Octavian,is accessing the hash generated for your content through the gateway of infura.io as follows:
https://gateway.ipfs.io/ipfs/<your hash> and change gateway.ipfs.io to ipfs.infura.io in the link.
This will access the content requested through the infura node and by doing so will permanently create a copy of the files. My mini-site:
https://ipfs.infura.io/ipfs/QmeBmdocCokJ1fMEYpK26uRb6b9vZYGUPUFXjHZgg217Uq/

There are ways to use IPFS and yet have your own domain name, I’ll check that out later.

For other versions of the decentalized web, have a look at my post about The Beaker Browser.

Course task for E-learning 3.0 (#el30): use The Beaker Browser – an experimental browser for exploring and building the peer-to-peer Web – or the Interplanetary File System (IPFS) to put up some document. IPFS is a protocol and network designed to create a content-addressable, peer-to-peer method for storing and sharing hypermedia in a distributed file system.

In other words, both technologies enable you to publish documents online without using Google or hosting companies – but there are some serious limitations. Your document or site remains online as long as you or one of the readers/users don’t shut their computers. Which means that for most people, their stuff will go offline pretty soon. There are companies offering hosting for these “distributed” systems, and I used one of them for The Beaker browser project. Of course, one might ask, why going through all the hassle in order to end up again with a third party hosting your stuff?

I lacked time the last few days but fortunately I experimented with these technologies well before the assignment. I even started a blog via The Beaker Browser in order to tell about my first experiences. It’s hosted at hashbase, they “keep your files online, even when your computer is turned off.”

One of the great aspects of the course E-learning 3.0 (#el30) is the interaction between the participants. A network of blogs is discussing various elements of e-learning and the decentralized web. In my previous post I expressed a concern about using the blockchain in the context of managing your identity in a decentralized way. The blockchain is

an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way”. For use as a distributed ledger, a blockchain is typically managed by a peer-to-peer network collectively adhering to a protocol for inter-node communication and validating new blocks. Once recorded, the data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without alteration of all subsequent blocks, which requires consensus of the network majority. (Wikipedia)

There are at least serious tensions between the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the idea of storing personal data on the blockchain. Just one issue is the right to be forgotten, which implies that people can demand to erase data, which is very problematic in a blockchain-context. There are workarounds, but these have their own disadvantages, as Andries Van Humbeeck explains on Medium.

Thanks to the #el30-network, an interesting discussion about the tension between blockchain and the right to be forgotten started in the comments on my previous post. One participant, Dorian, had this to say:

Roland’s concern is indeed a theme that The Circle discusses at length.

[For those who haven’t read it: in the novel, “The Circle” is a massive software corporation which builds its power and political influence on its totalitarian ownership over people’s personal data — but also enforces absolute “transparency” as people’s “source of trust”, by making privacy criminal, and publicity (or publicness) compulsory.]

Most existing blockchain solutions are certainly not appropriate to carry people’s private data, since they are basically gigantic public ledgers shared and copied integrally among the computers of all users…

However, some new solutions are popping up that attempt to preserve the main benefits of decentralised information (and thus, power) sharing, while giving individuals much more control over *what* they share with the rest of the world, and being less wasteful in terms of energy and information redundancy.

One of the most inspiring projects I know of is called Holochain (https://holochain.org/). Contrary to Bitcoin or Ethereum for example, it doesn’t rely on one huge ledger, but on a fractal concatenation of micro-ledgers connected into one common network. It looks extremely promising, not just for financial or IT purposes, but as a tool for fairer economic and socio-political systems… and, yes, as a better way to inscribe one’s identity into the world wide web!
(not to mention that it’s being built by good people, who are not interested in becoming billionnaires)
To learn more, I’d recommend the following articles, and their links:
https://open.coop/2018/06/14/holochain-perfect-framework-decentralised-cooperation-scale/
https://medium.com/h-o-l-o/we-caught-your-eye-articles-written-about-us-169d00998551

The articles and sites mentioned by Dorian are very interesting. The Holochain-story is slowly getting into the mainstream media.Some words of caution though: Holochain is a big idea and a very deep project. It’s also complicated to understand and only known about by a niche audience. There are other projects aiming at the decentralizing the web, like Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid. Looking for a definition avoiding terms such as ‘hash tables’ and ‘git’ I came back empty-handed.

Marketing

Some basic notions make people shiver, like the idea of sharing the spare capacity of your computers. Sharing a room for Airbnb became a success, but sharing your computer in times of fear for hackings seems a serious marketing challenge (I don’t think the “sandbox”-notion is something the average computer-user fully understands). Some ideas are great but never gain traction, as I experienced in virtual worlds and virtual reality. The actual development of Holochain seems to have started in 2016, yet, two years later the Holochain-site seems unable to explain what it is so that non-geeks would understand it. The homepage of holochain.org starts with a video where a developer starts mentioning Ruby on Rails. A journalist like me working for an interested but general audience finds not a single usable text snippet explaining what it’s all about.

Holo-host saves marketing

However, the holochain-community is being saved as far as marketing is concerned by a related project, the holo host. It’s literally a box (in various versions) which is pre-configured to act as part of a hosting-network in order to make it possible to host holochain-apps in a decentralized way. The video is less technical and actually does a good job explaining what it’s about:

A graphic explainer (click to enlarge):

Graphical scheme of the holo host box.

Finally some textual explanation:

Holochain is a new technology for distributed computing. Holo makes it possible for this technology to be used by mainstream internet users and spread faster.

Holochain is a platform infrastructure technology for distributed peer-to-peer applications, and Holo is the first application to be built on top of it. The purpose of Holo is to act as a bridge between the budding community of distributed Holochain apps, and the current centralized web. By creating an ecosystem and currency that enable distributed hosting services provided by peers, Holo brings access to distributed applications to the familiar web browser. The long-term goal is for Holo to run itself out of business by expanding the community built on and around Holochain apps until the majority of people switch over to using Holochain directly. But adoption of a new technology as fundamental as Holochain won’t happen overnight, so Holo is here ease that transition.

Actually you don’t need to buy the box to participate: “While the HoloPort is optimized for hosting the network and is the easiest way to be a part of the community and earn Holo fuel, you will be able to run the Holo software on a variety of devices. We’re selling HoloPorts in order to jump-start the Holo ecosystem with many stable, dedicated hosting devices, but we encourage users to join our community through any means at their disposal. Initially the Holo software will only be available for download and installation on computers running Linux; later macOS and Windows will be supported.”

I think I’ll buy a holo box, even though I fear convincing “the internet” to embrace such a revolutionary project, against the interests of established giant cloud providers, will be very challenging indeed.

If you want to see even more identity graphs, have a look at this funky video by the facilitator of our E-learning 3.0 course (#el30), Stephen Downes:

He also offered a reasonably clear presentation about identity, keys and authentication. If identity, online and offline, is ultimately also about possibility, aspirations, hopes and dreams as much as about facts and connections, identity data seem valuable enough to be stored away in secure way, out of reach for big internet companies wanting to collect our data and for the authorities.

Immutable. Really?

Inevitably, in these discussions the blockchain is an important reference. Just as I have doubts about big corporates and the authorities, I don’t feel at ease with blockchain technology. As for now, the technology seems cumbersome and difficult to understand for non-geeks. It is often presented as a magical-technological solution for issues of trust and societal unease, which can only really be understood by the high priests of technology. But more importantly, even if it works and there are no hidden power grabs by opaque groups and experts, are we sure we want our identities being defined in an immutable way?

In the European Union quite some people embrace the right to be forgotten. What if at some point in the future, when my identity evolves, I really want to erase parts of my former identities? Maybe erasing and destroying parts of your identity is something constitutive of forming a new identity. While it seems relatively straightforward to erase social media profiles and blogs posts, and while it’s even possible to get Google to erase personal information about me, this would not be possible using the blockchain which promotes an immutable data storage which can not be tampered with. Or maybe I overlook certain possibilities of the blockchain which would allow for such ‘right to be forgotten’ – please let me know if this is the case!