Towards an Indie Tech Manifesto

On the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, these are some of my longform thoughts as I work towards formulating a manifesto for Indie Technology. Indie Technology is the heir to both the free software and open source movements. It is the antidote for the erosion of our fundamental freedoms in the post-Snowden era by companies like Google and Facebook that espouse the business model of corporate surveillance.

Philosophy vs architecture of the Web

Twenty-five years ago, the World Wide Web was philosophically conceived as an open, decentralised platform. Its goal was to provide universal access to information and democratise communication.

Unfortunately, although the philosophy of the Web was decentralised, its client/server-based architecture wasn’t.

The Web of today is dominated by centralised closed silos of information and functionality like Google and Facebook. This is not a bug or anomaly, it is the evolutionary symptom of the client/server-based architecture of the Web working as designed.

The architecture of the Web, in direct contradiction to its philosophy, has resulted in economies of scale for centralised systems and companies like Google and Facebook have exploited this very feature to reach their current scale and dominance.

The gluttony of venture-capital financing combined with the economies of scale afforded by the centralised client/server-based architecture of the Web have created the perfect habitat for companies like Google and Facebook — with their shared business model of mining the population at large for data — to thrive in.

Corporate surveillance

This business model of mining and monetising user data at global scale — or, corporate surveillance, as it is otherwise known — is today the dominant — but by no means the exclusive — business model of our technological landscape.

The business model of corporate surveillance is, today, one of the greatest threats to our privacy, civil liberties, and human rights. In other words, corporate surveillance is currently one of the greatest threats to the fundamental freedoms that we have come to enjoy in societies that adopted the principles of democracy and the ideals of the enlightenment. Beyond this, the data and intelligence gathered, kept, and analysed by these corporations has also enabled governments to carry out dragnet surveillance on a scale hitherto impossible and at relatively minor cost.

If we want to safeguard our privacy, civil liberties, and human rights, we must oppose both corporate surveillance and dragnet government surveillance. Although they are not equivalent, they both pose an existential threat to our fundamental freedoms. Furthermore, one (corporate surveillance) is a prerequisite to the other (dragnet government surveillance).

Whereas the corporations engaged in corporate surveillance have a vested interest in deflecting the issue onto the shoulders of governments, we must be vigilant to not let them shrink from their own responsibilities.

So, we must fight dragnet government surveillance.

So, we must fight corporate surveillance.

So, we must change those architectural characteristics of the Web that have made it so favourable to the evolution of closed silos of information and functionality and so favourable to the business model of corporate surveillance.

We must resolve the impedance mismatch between the philosophy of the Web and its architecture.

We must decentralise the architecture of the web to match its philosophy.

Or, simply, we must decentralise the Web.

Decentralise the Web

Not re-decentralise. Decentralise. The architecture of the Web was never decentralised to begin with.

We must build a new, decentralised, Web on the shoulders of the Internet. One that overlaps the centralised Web but is far more than it could ever be. Eventually, other layers of the Internet stack itself must also be decentralised. The Domain Name System, for example, via decentralised protocols like the ones pioneered by cryptocurrencies.

And yet, throughout all this, we must be pragmatic.

And yet, throughout all this, we must not break the Web that exists.

The Web, thus, will be progressively decentralised. The Internet, also.

We must build a peer-to-peer Web. An Indie Web. And we must build Indie Technologies to empower everyone with read/write access to the Indie Web.

We must do this because we cannot expect it of the Googles and the Facebooks of the world.

The revolution won’t be sponsored by Google

It is naïve at best and unforgivably reckless at worst to entrust the very entities responsible for creating the problem in the first place with formulating solutions to the problem. Doubly so when it is apparent that the only viable solutions clearly run contrary to their very reason for being — their business model.

The revolution will not be sponsored by the very entities that we are revolting against.

It is time to create alternatives to the dinosaurs of Web 2.0 who have betrayed our trust and created the world of corporate surveillance — and, by extension, dragnet government surveillance — that we find ourselves living in.

This is not a battle that will be won at the infrastructure level or within the enterprise.

This battle will be fought, lost or won in the consumer market.

Open must win the consumer market

The new open tools we need to create are consumer tools.

Our new tools must compete successfully with their closed counterparts to empower people in both the immediacy of the moment — in our everyday experiences of and interactions with the world, people, and objects around us — and, as importantly, in the long-term with regards to our privacy, civil liberties, and human rights.

Thirty years ago, the free software movement revolutionised the world. Twenty years ago, open source made it accessible and palatable to businesses.

Today, the challenge for the next evolution of free and open source is to make open technologies accessible to consumers.

Today, our greatest challenge is how to make open technologies accessible to consumers. This is not a simple problem to solve. On the contrary, it is a very difficult one, the full implications of which a great portion of our community has not even begun to grasp.

Open does not mean accessible

We will begin by acknowledging that even though a thing is open, it is not necessarily accessible to every audience.

We will acknowledge that solutions created for one specific audience do not also magically become viable solutions for every audience. We cannot perpetuate a culture wherein enthusiasts create solutions for other enthusiasts with the latent expectation that they will also constitute usable solutions for consumers. This is the theory of Trickle-Down Technology. And we have thirty years of empirical data to show that it works about as well as the theory of trickle-down economics.

We will acknowledge that while free and open source products have achieved great success at the infrastructure level and in the enterprise over the last thirty years, they have been an abject and utter failure in consumer products.

We will acknowledge that the reason that free and open source products have failed in the consumer market is because we have, either unconsciously or otherwise, harboured under a theory of Trickle-Down Technology to create products that have been features-led in development process, and feature-rich, and experience-poor in character.

Open must compete on user experience

We acknowledge that the consumer market is not a market of features but a market of experience. The consumer market is a market where most products have feature-parity and where the differentiating factor is user experience.

We will acknowledge that even though the user experience of decentralised systems is not an easy problem to solve, our business model has an inherent user experience advantage when compared to the business model of corporate surveillance. Whereas the goals of companies like Google and Facebook are orthogonal to their users’ needs, our needs are perfectly aligned with the needs of our users: to simply provide the best user experience possible.

Finally, we will acknowledge that consumers will not use our products simply because they are open.

We cannot make ‘open’ or ‘private’ the unique selling point of our products. We must make products that work beautifully and are a joy to use so that they can compete successfully on user experience with their closed counterparts. If we do not, or if we cannot, we might as well accept that we have lost this battle and resign ourselves to the eventual inevitability of living in a world defined by the monopoly of a single business model and devoid of the fundamental freedoms that we take for granted today.

Needless to say, we categorically reject such a future.

Needless to say, we will — as difficult as it may be — acknowledge the above points so that we can change the status quo and create a new category of technology to counter the closed silos on the only battlefield that matters.

We will do this by bringing design thinking to open source and rejecting the old philosophy of features-led open source development.

We will do this by creating experience-driven open products.

We will do this by creating new organisations that are driven by design. Organisations where the roles of design and development are seen as facets of the same cyclical, iterative process of making assumptions, implementing them, and testing them.

We will do this by creating a new category of technology. A hitherto missing quadrant of technology.

Indie Technology

This new category of technology is called Indie Technology.

It is time to remove the impedance mismatch between the philosophy of the Web and its architecture. It is time to challenge the status quo of the closed silos that threaten the very future of our privacy, civil liberties, and human rights. It is time to build beautiful, open alternatives to the consumer products of the corporate surveillance business model to empower everyone — not just an elite subculture of enthusiasts — to own their own tools, data, services, and connectivity.

It is time to unshackle the Internet from the chains of its centralisation and the short-term greed of Silicon Valley’s vapid cycle of venture-capital-and-exit-strategy-sponsored erosion of our privacy, civil liberties, and human rights.

It is time for Indie Technology.

Update: the is now live.