“Today, Tarr lives on a sailboat—another Kiwi staple, alongside sheep and distance. Connectivity is worse on the boat than on the farm, and even less reliable. But that’s by design rather than by misfortune. Tarr started living on the boat after burning out at a previous job and discovering that the peripatetic lifestyle suited him. Unreliable and sporadic internet connectivity became an interesting engineering challenge. What if isolation and disconnection could actually be desirable conditions for a computer network?
He built something called Secure Scuttlebutt, or SSB. It’s a decentralized system for sending messages to a specific community, rather than the global internet. It works by word of mouth. Instead of posting to an online service like Facebook or Twitter, Scuttlebutt applications hold onto their data locally. When a user runs into a friend, the system automatically synchronizes its stored updates with them via local-network transfer—or even by USB stick. Then the friend does likewise, and word spreads, slowly and deliberately.”
“Secure Scuttlebutt isn’t a social network like Twitter or Facebook, nor is it an email client like Gmail. Instead, it’s a platform for encrypted, automated, and local replication of information. Atop this information, new, decentralized versions of services like Twitter—or anything else—can be built.
The key to Scuttlebutt’s operation is a simple approach to copying information between computer systems—a tricky problem due to ever-changing files across many systems. Instead of separate documents and images and other files, like the ones a computer might synchronize via Dropbox, Scuttlebutt treats all data as chunks of content added to the end of a list—like a new entry in a diary. A cryptographic key validates each new entry in the diary, and connects it with its author. This is a bit like how the Bitcoin blockchain works—a list of linked records in a chain of transactions, verified by their cryptographic relationship to the last item in the chain.
But Scuttlebutt doesn’t carry monetary transactions; it carries a payload of, well, gossip content. As it happens, most popular online services are just lists with new content appended. Twitter and Facebook are like that. So are Instagram and Soundcloud. A magazine like The Atlantic could be understood as an append-only list of articles and videos. Even email is, at base, just a pile of content.
Connectivity loss also affects the first world, especially for those on the move. When in a subway or on a transcontinental flight—or even in a hotel room—networks are frequently unavailable or unreliable. Many services don’t work at all when a device is offline, even just to show what’s been downloaded since the last connection. They certainly don’t let you author new material offline. The cost and complexity of mobile roaming abroad also hampers always-on network usage. And even when accessible and affordable, constant connectivity has become a burden. Today, people often stay online not because they want to be there, but because there’s no way to avoid it.
In an age awash with venture capitalists and billionaires, anarcho-capitalists and conspiracy theorists, oligarchs and neo-authoritarians, perhaps the most compelling vision of the technological future is also the most modest. Scuttlebutt offers one model of that humility. Diverse groups of people networked in equally diverse, and even mutually-contradictory ways—for profit, for community, for anarchy, for globalism, and for localism, among others
“Could decentralizing online life make it more compatible with human life?” / www