Redecentralize

Last night I was lucky enough attend a meetup hosted by Redecentralize.org at Newspeak House in East London. This included a talk by one of the organisation’s founders, followed by “project speed dating session”, which provided attendees with rapid-fire eight minute introductions to six projects in the diverse decentralisation space. These included the distributed computing network Holochain, the BBC’s plan to return control of data to users, the decentralised chat network Matrix, the “smart contract” platform Mattereum, the “decentralised secure gossip platform” Scuttlebutt, and the boldly-named Interplanetary Filesystem. I’ll discuss the keynote as well as briefly summarise what I heard from each of the projects.


Keynote

There were perhaps thirty or forty people in attendance, in Newspeak House’s industrial-chic open space, on Bethnal Green Road. We chatted or played a miniature version of jenga over drinks the event generously provided, until the arrival of the pizza. After eating and a few more minutes meeting the other attendees, we sat down for a talk by Irina Bolychevsky (who goes by “Ira” or her handle @shevski). Ira gave an impassioned and eloquent speech on the origins of the organisation: In 2013 she, along with Frances Irving and Ross Jones, started Redecentralize.org, which is both the centre of a movement and a research policy institute. Its stated mission is to “fight for a better digital world, which serves the needs of people above companies, and protects privacy, choice and autonomy.” They have goals in three areas: resilience, privacy, and choice. They aim to raise awareness of alternatives and to connect projects to one another, as well as to spread the word to users.

We seek a world of open platforms and protocols with real choices of applications and services for people. We care about privacy, transparency and autonomy. Our tools and organisations should fundamentally be accountable and resilient.

redecentralize.org

The internet, they observed, had by 2013 lost the sense of decentralised free discourse with which it had begun. For many people their interaction had dwindled down to just a handful of websites, and new or non-technical users were sometimes prone to the problematic (but all-too-easy) misunderstanding that Facebook was the internet. Alongside this reduction in website diversity, massive e-mail services like Gmail were beginning to take such a market share that even e-mail—the archetypal decentralised service—had strayed far from its federated origins.

At the same time, even if one had serious concerns about the direction this was going, one couldn’t ignore services like Facebook without paying a social price: foregoing Facebook could result not just in puzzled looks, but in not being invited to parties or events. Nor could one very well reject the byzantine terms and conditions presented by the latest smartphone, after purchase, when one turns on the phone. And Amazon’s convenience and economies of scale were already killing whole industries. In short, opting out was becoming increasingly unrealistic, and individual resistance seemed impotent and futile.

This type of centralization gives people less and less freedom, less and less choice.

Moreover, centralisation not only creates obvious single points of failure, as well as a lack of resiliency, but centralised data is more easily hackable. As the innumerable data breaches over the years have shown, a big corporation’s glossy pages promising security and privacy may appear reassuring from the outside, but they can hide indefensibly awful security on the inside. Apart from the tiny percentage who are hackers themselves, users have virtually zero insight into a company’s security until they get an email about their data being compromised—and of course, without external pressure, companies are reluctant to disclose such breaches.

This leads to another important point about regulation. Ira pointed to the enormous burden put on users, who are expected to read the arcane and impenetrable terms and conditions for all the critical services they use to conduct their lives. This is unrealistic, unsustainable, and unfair. She drew comparisons to building safety and clean water: It would be insane to require people to inspect every building they entered just to be sure it wouldn’t collapse on them, just as it would be inconceivable to require people to carry around testing devices to check if tap water was safe to drink. And yet that is essentially the attitude taken towards users in the digital domain. Communication services are increasingly critical to people’s lives and well-being. The onus should not be on the users to gain the vast technical knowledge required to verify security with respect to tech, any more than they should be required to learn architecture or chemistry to ensure their physical safety.

If savvy users felt uncomfortable in 2013, by October 2015 there was enough of a quorum of concerned citizens to make for a successful conference in London. The effort was praised by Sir Tim Berners Lee, and its success was emulated by the subsequent Decentralized Web Summit. Since then, with the increasingly mainstream popularity of Bitcoin, and its underlying decentralised “blockchain” technology, as well as the massive privacy and ownership concerns arising from the political maelstrom that was 2016, decentralisation is a more important topic than ever.

But this new interest, of course, has yet to produce a utopia. A poll last year found that 81% of users polled don’t trust Facebook, despite their user base now topping two billion. Ira also pointed to rising concerns with surveillance capitalism, digital monopolies, and broken trust, which mar our ever-more digital lives. “Even banks are monetising data.” Users are thus put into a position where they are not only not the owners of their data, but they are not even the primary users of their data, with the power shifting to advertisers (or more insidious forces) who pay for access to it.

“The critical services we depend on are not designed with our best interests in mind.”

Despite this rather bleak state of affairs, her speech ended on an optimistic note: “It doesn’t have to be this way.” Redecentralize.org will continue to fight for autonomy, choice, and privacy. The organisation intends to do this by supporting an alternative digital ecosystem which is diverse, interoperable, and privacy-focused, by raising awareness, and by recommending policy. They are soliciting help with organisation and fundraising efforts as well as via patronage, and they are actively looking for partners and for people to spread the word.


Decentralised speed dating

After a break, attendees were invited to hear from each of six different projects working on decentralisation from very different angles. The format was “speed dating”: A group would listen to an intense eight minute intro to a project, after which a loud gong was rung, and each group rotated to the next project’s table. I’ll briefly cover the projects in the order in which I heard from them. While the format was exciting, it also meant that there was little time to go into depth about the projects, so my understanding of each project may be incomplete.

The first project was Holochain. This is a project designed to address blockchain shortcomings in scalability and energy consumption. It provides a framework for creating decentralised, lightweight, forking apps, which use an agent-centric, rather than blockchain’s data-centric, approach. If that leaves you dazed, you may not be alone, as one of the more informative articles I found about it is called “WTF is Holochain“. The first major application of Holochain appears to be a cloud hosting service called Holo.

The second was given by Bill Thompson at the BBC. It was encouraging to hear that the BBC shared some of Ira’s concerns about the consequences of centralisation. The BBC is committed to finding ways to divest itself of users’ personal data, which is commendable. They are currently working on a way to re-decentralise user data, so that it is never stored by the BBC, and in a way that would allow that data to be used by other services, who would also not store it. For instance: information about what you watch on iPlayer would be stored on your computer, not their servers, and could be used to give you Netflix recommendations as well, without Netflix ever storing your data either. Even more exciting than solving this technical challenge was the BBC’s commitment to using three of their advantages to further the cause of decentralisation:

  1. They have the clout to bring the right people into the conversation.
  2. They regard themselves as an engineering organisation, and employ excellent engineers who can work on aspects of decentralisation.
  3. They can promote the cause of decentralisation directly through their media outlets.

Next up was Matrix, which is a secure, decentralized chat network. Their offering is working now and looks impressive, with clear inspiration from its intended targets, Slack and Discord. Their pitch was that not only is their offering free, with end-to-end encryption and giving users control of their own data, but their network can even bridge these other chat services. In other words, Matrix users can seamlessly chat to people on Slack, Discord, IRC, XMPP, and so on, without requiring users of those other services to switch to Matrix. Better still, they’ve got a one-click import for Atlassian’s Hipchat which is being discontinued and absorbed by Slack in February.

Fourth was Mattereum, which proposes joint ownership physical property, enforced through blockchain smart contracts. So for example, rather than setting up a company to jointly buy a house, Mattereum would act as an intermediary which would form a company. That company would be legally required to enforce and adhere to the smart contracts, which the users would write in software. This allows for arbitrary rules of ownership, like: if no one is using the house, and some third-party passes some pre-defined test, they will be granted keys to the property for a certain amount of time. Mattereum’s first application will be to buy a $9m Stradivarius, though apparently none of the team actually play violin. CEO Vinay Gupta, who arrived after the presentations, said that the launch would be in January or February.

Next was Scuttlebutt, a decentralised, secure “gossip” platform. I hadn’t heard of this social network, even though I’m on Mastodon, a federated replacement for Twitter. Scuttlebutt is truly peer-to-peer, without Mastodon’s federation, but it appears that an identity is currently tied to a single device. I’m planning to try it out soon.

The final presentation I saw was for IPFS, the so-called Interplanetary Filesystem. This proposes to replace HTTP and provide a method for storing data redundantly across many devices. This will make the web faster, safer, and more open. I’m also planning to try that software out this weekend.


Overall, the projects were ambitious and optimistic. The evening as a whole felt like a breath of fresh air amongst the bad news that has been plaguing technology for the past few years. I look forward to Redecentralize.org’s future events, including a conference they’re planning for 2019.

The Clock, Part 4: Interstice

Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) is an ambitious 24-hour montage stitched together from feature films and TV shows. Each clip, ranging from a split second to a few minutes, takes place during the time of the day at which it plays. Over the next few months, I will attempt to see all twenty-four hours at the Tate Modern in London, documenting the experience in a way as haphazard as the fractured experience of watching the work itself.

Meshes of the Afternoon

Part 4 of this series. I wrote this article after viewing 17:02–17:55 (53 minutes) on 4 November 2018 and 16:30–17:02 (32 minutes) on 8 November 2018. Seen: 11 hours 57 minutes. Remaining: 12 hours 3 minutes.

Read Part 1: Introduction, in which I discuss my initial excitement about the return of The Clock.

Read Part 2: Matineé in which I reflect on familiarity, recognition, tension, time’s passage, simultaneity, and death.

Read Part 3: Graveyard Shift in which I stay up all night and misidentify noir.


A few weeks ago I posted about my ill-advised all-nighter. Since then, Ari Haque at the Guardian has outdone me, and seen all twenty-four hours in a single sitting! She observes many of the same things that I did in earlier instalments, including anxiety about the time of day one can in conscience begin drinking, the value of timepieces, the strange habit of steak for lunch, and the relationship between time and death.

Since my overnight challenge, I’ve been back for two short episodes to fill in gaps. Over the past weekend, I did an additional four hours overnight. This is a short post with some thoughts I had on one afternoon, before I discuss 6–10am in greater detail in a later post.

Blow Out.

This time I went with a friend. We got in at 17:02, to John Lithgow hanging menacingly over the side of a bathroom stall with a garrote, considering whether to strangle a woman. I hadn’t seen this film, but it’s apparently Blow Out (1981), based on Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). From the wikipedia article, Blow Out apparently makes allusions to The Conversation (1974)— which in turn was also based on Blow-Up. Confusing, I know. Even more so since both of the other films also appear in The ClockBlow-up at 6:15am, and The Conversation a few times in the morning, including a scene with a telescope at 7:48am.

I cannot recommend Coppola’s The Conversation highly enough, however, and, for what it’s worth, I think it is is not only better than the original Blow-Up, but it is quite possibly better than the two Godfather films that Coppola made on either side of it. In what must be a rare instance of one director having two films nominated for best picture, The Conversation lost, in 1974, to The Godfather Part II.

At 17:05 there were duelling duels; that is, there were pistol duel scenes from different films intercut with one another. Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef appeared in iconic roles, but apparently not iconic enough for us to place them. My friend said “A Fistful of Dollars?” I said, “I think it’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly?” Confoundingly, the wiki said “For a Few Dollars More.” So we covered the whole Man with No Name trilogy. My friend later confirmed that the wiki was right: it’s from For a Few Dollars More.

For a Few Dollars More.

At 17:14 we found a seat; by coincidence it was precisely the same seat in which I’d spent the all-nighter: second from the front on the right. It was a great vantage point into The Clock‘s timeless gorge of changes*.

Marclay began to play surealist tricks around 17:15. A shot of a woman putting a roast into an oven is followed immediately by a man withdrawing cash, implying an unlikely transformation due to the expectations set subliminally by continuity editing. The Clock frequently uses the device of showing a character gazing out-of-frame, followed by a countershot into another film. This can be jarring, as we expect to see what the character sees, but The Clock presents us with something entirely implausible.  Similarly, characters often walk through a doorway into another film, changing both the setting and the character in a  cut. This shows how many of the expectations of film are structural, rather than based on their content, and draws attention to the powerful devices of Hollywood continuity editing (also known as Hollywood classical style or Hollywood continuity style).

At 17:41, there’s a sequence of Celia Johnson boarding the train in Brief Encounter. At 17:49, my friend pointed out An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, the short story of which I’d read as a teenager, but I hadn’t realised that it had been adapted for TV, and which I’d quite like to see.

Michael Caine, Gene Tierney, Jeremy Irons, and Alain Delon made a surprising number of appearances. At 17:51, Delon appeared in the painfully cool Le samourai (1967), which is much better than Le cercle rouge (1970) which appears more frequently in The Clock.

During this session I thought about the way in which the clock motif constrains film locations. There are plenty of bedside clocks, as I discussed last time. But there are also boardrooms, classrooms, stations, airports, and clock towers. Some scenes contain the time only incidentally, and these tend to be in a relatively small set of places. Unless a clock tower looms, for example, there would not be a wide shot of a park, or of nature. Landscapes are thus virtually eliminated, unless there is a character who happens to check his watch against a natural backdrop, as a result of time pressure. Meanwhile offices appear constantly. This can draw attention to the artificiality of time, and the spaces in which time matters.

I’ll leave it there, as I prepare to post about 6–10am soon.

The Clock, Part 3: Graveyard Shift

Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) is an ambitious 24-hour montage stitched together from feature films and TV shows. Each clip, ranging from a split second to a few minutes, takes place during the time of the day at which it plays. Over the next few months, I will attempt to see all twenty-four hours at the Tate Modern in London, documenting the experience in a way as haphazard as the fractured experience of watching the work itself.

Insomnia

Part 3 of this series. I wrote this article after viewing 23:23–05:35 (6 hours 12 min) on 4 November 2018. Seen: 10 hours 27 minutes. Remaining: 13 hours 33 minutes.

Read Part 1: Introduction, in which I discuss my initial excitement about the return of The Clock.

Read Part 2: Matineé in which I reflect on familiarity, recognition, tension, time’s passage, simultaneity, and death.


It took while to put my thoughts together for the 2 hours and 40 minutes I saw a few weeks ago; last weekend I saw six hours straight, so this has been more than a little intimidating to write. However, I’m glad to have finished most of the night shift. Continue reading

The Clock, Part 2: Matineé

Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) is an ambitious 24-hour montage stitched together from feature films and TV shows. Each clip, ranging from a split second to a few minutes, takes place during the time of the day at which it is played. Over the next few months, I will be attempting to see all twenty-four hours at the Tate Modern in London, documenting the experience in a way as haphazard as the fractured experience of watching the work itself.

Watching the Clock

The Clock does not ask for the time and then steal your watch; it asks for you to watch then steals your time.

Part 2 of this series. This article was written after viewing 11:21–13:06 (1 hour 45 min) and 14:30–15:25 (55 min) on 24 October 2018, for a total of 2 hours 40 minutes. Seen: 4 hours 15 minutes. Remaining: 19 hours 45 minutes.

Read Part 1: Introduction, in which I talk about my initial excitement about the return of The Clock.

Since my last instalment, I read an excellent New Yorker piece from 2012 which my friend had recommended, and to which I’ll refer throughout. I was excited to learn that Marclay had frequented the late Kim’s Video in New York, whose voluminous collection I visited in the distant past, and about which another excellent article was written (removed from The Village Voice’s website but fortuitously preserved by the Internet Archive). Continue reading

The Clock, Part 1: Introduction

Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) is an ambitious 24-hour montage stitched together from feature films and TV shows. Each clip, ranging from a split second to a few minutes, takes place during the time of the day at which it is played. Over the next few months, I will be attempting to see all twenty-four hours at the Tate Modern in London, documenting the experience in a way as haphazard as the fractured experience of watching the work itself.

A First Glance at The Clock

Part 1 of this series. This article was written after viewing 13:55–14:30 of The Clock on 16 October 2018.

See also Part 2 in which I watch around 3 hours of the afternoon.

A time to be born, a time to die…

The Set-Up

A few weeks ago, on the 27th September, I discovered (by accident) that The Clock was back. My sister was visiting from New York, and on our obligatory walk along the Southbank I thought I’d show her the architecture of the Tate Modern. I had explicitly planned not to spend much time there, as we were on a bit of a schedule, but just to peek into its formidable space. When I saw posters for The Clock, however, I became very excited, and asked her whether she would be willing to watch it for a few minutes. Naturally she acquiesced, as I had been the one insisting that we ought not to stay long. In the end we stayed an hour. I was excited, and she liked it too. The Clock was back! Continue reading

The Elephant in the Brain

The Elephant in the Brain (2017) is at times an uncomfortable read, but well-worth it for anyone willing to undertake its introspective incursion.  Programmer Kevin Simler (of the fascinating Melting Asphalt blog) and economist Robin Hanson explore why we are prone to self-deception about our motives, and how this deception can shed light on otherwise inexplicable individual behaviours, as well as institutional inefficiencies. The titular elephant comes from the fact that nobody wants to discuss hidden motives, because they tend not to show humans in the most flattering light. Continue reading

The Reivers

Faulkner’s final novel The Reivers, written in 1962, is something of an uncharacteristic masterpiece.

The narrator, Lucius Priest, is an old man recounting adventures from when he was an eleven-year-old boy, in 1905, just as automobiles first arrived in Jefferson, Mississippi. His grandfather, Boss Priest, who owns one of the few cars then in existence, goes by train to a distant funeral, leaving Lucius to enter into an unspoken pact with his grandfather’s driver (and distant relative), Boon Hogganbeck. They conspire to steal the car and take it to Memphis, Tennessee, where gambling, scams, and prostitution await. To “reive”, by the way, is to steal, hence the “reivers”.

It remain a powerful narrative and worthwhile read for several reasons: Continue reading

Kudos

After discovering her piece Aftermath a few years ago, and having revisited it several times since, I’ve been an adherent of Rachel Cusk’s. I am tempted to re-read that piece now, but I know that its stark, hypnotic beauty would move me too much and prevent me from writing anything about her latest book. Kudos is the third in a trilogy of what feel like semi-autobiographical novels, featuring a painfully vacant writer (and absent mother) who is going through the motions on the literary festival circuit, rarely speaking, as those around her uncontrollably pour confessions, philosophies, and personal quandaries upon her as if she’s their unpaid therapist. Continue reading

Circe

Madeline Miller’s Circe is not a bad book, but it is disappointing in a number of ways. It takes for its first-person hero the witch of Aiaiai, Circe, a daughter of the sun-god Helios, turner of men into pigs, and eventual lover of Odysseus. It is a sort of riposte to The Odyssey so it’s unsurprising that it takes the time to dismantle the old heroes and gods one by one: Odysseus, Achilles, Hermes, Athena, Helios, most of the other nymphs, demigods, and gods, are portrayed as frivolous and vain, as well as Jason, Herakles, Ajax, who are depicted (amusingly) as hulking bores. This is all fair enough; the gods are mercurial and immature at the best of times, and quite pathetically petty at their worst, and the heroes are nothing if not unwise. On this level her treatment is welcome, humanising and critical of the often misogynistic and merely vacuous penchants of the gods. Continue reading