The Next Thing
So, I've been working on a decentralized messaging system for a while now. It's called nvivn, which is short for convivial network. I started it in earnest last July. The basic premise is that any person can write messages, cryptographically sign them, and then share them at some later date with other people. It doesn't make assumptions about internet (or other network) connectivity, and messages can be verified at any point.
I spent a lot of time on it, and I think there are a lot of interesting details about the approach.
This is not the nvivn launch post. This is the story of how I'm trying to stop solving problems with technology, and what comes next.
Like any good HCI-trained technologist, I've had a healthy skepticism of technological solutionism, and I've known that technology that doesn't meet a real world need and real context of use is more or less a waste of time.
But engineering is fun, and making computers do new, weird stuff is fun! It wouldn't be so bad if my hobby happened to be useful, right? Why not play around with systems that might solve real needs?
This is where nvivn sat. Fun to work on, and plausibly useful in certain circumstances. I even thought a lot about what would be needed to run it--it should work on smartphones, or anything with a modern web browser, without any custom apps.
There are two things that started to gnaw at me, though, and that in combination eventually changed my mind.
The first was this: does network-agnostic, verifiable messaging really address the most important problems of our era? It was, in fact, motivated by concerns about network resiliency, trustworthiness of digital messages, and our dependence on commercial messaging platforms beyond our control. Those are real concerns, but I don't think they ultimately rise to the top of the list.
The second problem was the question of resilience and adaptability. If I really want to address key problems in our society, what good is an approach that requires immediate access to computation, particular data formats, protocols, and encryption schemes? What happens when some key assumption no longer true? The whole plan falls apart.
So now what? Both of those issues have to be addressed.
One of the biggest problems I see right now is the intersection of income inequality and the inability of our major institutions to maintain even a minimum acceptable quality of life for everyone in our society. I would consider climate catastrophe to be the biggest, scariest factor, but there's no shortage of scenarios where many of us are immediately in very precarious--and potentially life threatening--positions.
It's unacceptable to simply say that the rich survive and the poor die, but that's the status quo. How can we counter that, short of revolution (which I don't believe in, but that's a different thread entirely)?
At the local, interpersonal level, we need to get better at sharing what we have. We need to get better at collectively preparing for what's coming, instead of building our individualist survival compounds (if we have the means).
And in the meantime, it'd be nice if I could borrow a cooler from my neighbor for my son's birthday party. Before climate collapse and a new era of scarcity, I'd like to keep those juice boxes cold.
And then point two: adaptibility and resilience. I've come to the conclusion (with some guidance from trusted friends) that a technological solution, by definition, falls short of my goals for adaptibility and resilience. People can change technology to address changing circumstances, but the key level of definition is at least one level up from the technical implementation.
In the end, this is a launch post, as well as a eulogy of sorts. I'm trying out a new type of project, and new metrics for evaluation. And I'm letting go of a way of working that has been my natural mode for the last 20+ years. (Goodbye, old friend. It's been real.)
I don't want to overbill the new thing--it's honestly not that big of a deal. But it's different for me.
The basic description is up at lendinglibrary.club. In short, it's a decentralized library: people choose what things of theirs they're willing to lend out, and then the combined list of borrowable stuff gets sent around, and everyone in that particular club can borrow things that are useful to them for some duration.
This can start at the cooler-for-a-birthday-party level, but can potentially expand to cover much more ground.
We already have informal lending networks, of course--our friends and family. And while that's helpful for those of us who have that option, it's easy for it to become another magnifier of privilege. Who's already well off enough to have an extra computer or phone sitting around? Who has the money (and space) for large folding tables they only use a few times a year? Who has close enough relationships with the people who own these things that they feel comfortable asking to borrow them?
If we concern ourselves with this question, the answer comes naturally: make the lending networks bigger. They do still have to be built on trust, but they can still expand. And when people are proactively deciding which things they're willing to lend, then that lowers the barrier for asking, and we can all collectively expand our ideas of what can be lent and borrowed.
It's easy to imagine borrowing some serving dishes or a portable speaker for a party. How far can this idea go, though? Some people do have extras of expensive equipment that goes largely unused: an extra laptop or tablet, a large computer monitor sitting in their basement.
What about disaster preparedness supplies? While it's reasonable for people to have critical supplies on hand, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for everybody to buy everything they might need after an earthquake, for instance, if they can coordinate with neighbors to be collectively prepared.
And what about things that aren't stuff? If have a particular skill that I can lend, why not list that? Or what about money? There's no reason I can't put $100 in an envelope and lend that out for a week, or a month. What if ten or twenty people do that? (It's time to "disrupt" payday loans, right?)
In my optimistic vision, I see these lending clubs as a structure that can be scaled up for larger responses, over greater geographic areas, helping more than friends and neighbors. It's potentially a way to build something more powerful and expansive, something that will serve us well in uncertain futures.
So. Will this work? I don't know. Do I feel better about its possible applications, its barriers to entry, and its ability to change as needed to suit the circumstances? Hell yeah I do.
And if you feel like starting your own lending club, hit me up and I'll add you to the list.
█ Jesse Kriss, 12 April 2019