Open Thinkering


Tag: Audrey Watters

On the temptation to nuke everything and start over

I came across Kin Lane via his partner, Audrey Watters, whose work I’ve followed for over a decade. I think the three of us have only met together in person once, for dinner when I was over in California and they were both living in Los Angeles. Both Kin and Audrey are the kind of people you feel privileged to be connected with, even if only in the smallest way.

It would appear that Audrey has deleted all of her tweets and put Hack Education on indefinite hiatus. Kin has written about his decision to nuke his blog:

My writing has saved me. I cannot overstate this enough. This blog has allowed me to peel back the layers of who Kin Lane is and get to the root of so many issues that troubled me. I was able to successfully unwind my past, and to continue the healing process, I feel like it is important to hit reset on my narrative, letting go of what I have found and put all my energy into manifesting the future I want to see. I have achieved everything I had envisioned for myself, and I have wrestled (and won) every demon that dogged me for the first half of my life. I have a beautiful wife, daughter in University, loving and well-behaved dog, successful career, and have found balance (mostly) in operating Kin Lane each day. I have detached numerous “cords” from my past and have the remaining chaotic wire mess of these cords stored here in the domain. There is no reason to keep them on display anymore.

I hope both Audrey and Kin are OK. It’s difficult to speak truth to power and be the voice of reason in a messed-up world. I wish I had a hundredth of their strength, perseverance, and tenacity.

As I approached my 40th birthday last year, I hatched a secret plan: I was going to redirect all of my domains to and then present users with an image similar to the one below.

Mushroom cloud from nuclear explosion.

Ultimately, I didn’t go through with it, mainly for reasons that Cory Doctorow outlines in The Memex Method; too much of my ‘outboard brain’ is searchable by keeping everything online. I did, however, archive my as I decided I didn’t really want to do any more work directly on digital/new literacies. I also stepped back from posting on Thought Shrapnel as much.

There are seasons in all of our lives. The person I was yesterday is not necessarily the person I am today, or the person I want to be tomorrow. So this post is both a thank you to the work that Audrey and Kin have done (and shared) over the years, and also a reminder to myself that everything is temporary.

Image CC BY-NC-SA Horatio J. Kookaburra

Domains, decentralisation, and DNS

Today I attended a session at the OER20 (online!) conference entitled At the scale of care. Not only was it a great session in its own right, but it got me thinking again about ‘untakedownable’ websites.

You see, the problem, as presenters Lauren Heywood, Jim Groom, and Noah Mitchell pointed out, is that, if we use the metaphor of a house, we can never control our address.

Image of house (=website), land (=web hosting), and address (=domain)
A Plot of Land: get to know your new web space (CC BY-NC 4.0)

This is something I’ve been concerned about for ages, but particularly over the last five years. For example, see:

In fact, my thinking around this took me to decentralisation, and directly to my work on MoodleNet.

As Jim mentioned in answer to my question at the end of the session, it’s like the ‘dirty secret’ of the internet is that we’re all sharecroppers in a rentier economy. Why? Because we can never truly ‘own’ our address on the internet; we can only ever (as Maha Bali and Audrey Watters have both discussed) pay money to a central registry.

We can do better than this. I’ve experimented with ZeroNet and, to a lesser extent, IPFS. The latter was actually used to circumvent the government’s crackdown on ‘illegal’ Catalan elections while I was in Spain in late 2017.

I don’t think I’m quite ready to give up on the web as a platform, but I am sick to my back teeth of the way that it is controlled by interests that don’t align with my own. Given that I make my living online, this concerns me professionally as well as personally.

There are several approaches to decentralising ownership of the ‘address’ system on the web. First, let’s just check we’re on the same page here and define some terms. When I’m talking about ‘addresses’ then technically-speaking I’m talking about the Domain Name System, or ‘DNS’:

The Domain Name System (DNS) is a system used to convert a computer’s host name into an IP address on the Internet. For example, if a computer needs to communicate with the web server, your computer needs the IP address of the web server It is the job of the DNS to convert the host name to the IP address of the web server. It is sometimes called the Internet’s telephone book because it converts a Website’s name that people know, to a number that the Internet actually uses.

Wikipedia (Simple english version)

The DNS system is extremely important, but also, because it depends on an ‘official’, more centralised registry, quite brittle. For example, governments can censor websites and web services, or hackers can target them to take them offline.

As you would expect, many people have already thought about a fully decentralised DNS. Using this system, people and organisations could truly own their address. I actually have one of these: dougbelshaw.bit

Of course, nothing happens when you click on that link, because you’d need a special plugin or separate browser that understands the non-standard DNS system. So this is where it starts getting reasonably technical and regular web users switch off and go back to looking at pictures of cats.

It’s important that there needs to be some kind of ‘cost’ to reserving domain names, no matter how decentralised the system is. Otherwise, someone could just come along and snap up every possible permutation.

That’s why, inevitably, things point back to the blockchain, and in particular, Namecoin. This satisfies Zooko’s Triangle:

CCo Dominic Scheirlinck

This is better than the way ZeroNet works, for example, where each site has a long address more confusing than a unique Google Docs URL.

However, let’s just think about the steps involved here:

  1. Open a namecoin wallet
  2. Buy some namecoins
  3. Use your namecoins to buy a .bit address
  4. Set up your website to resolve to the .bit address
  5. Ask your website visitors to either install the PeerName browser extension or set up NMControl to act as their computer’s local DNS server

So after all of this, you’re still left with the need to ask website visitors to change their browsing habits — and to do so on a non-decentralised DNS site. In addition, the Namecoin FAQ states that .bit ‘owners’ may have to pay renewal fees in future.

So that’s the current state of play for web-based decentralised DNS systems. Outside of the web, of course, things can work very differently. Take Briar messenger, for example:

Diagram of Briar connections over bluetooth, wifi, and Tor

It uses the BTP protocol, meaning it can be fully decentralised, and works over a number of different connection types:

Bramble Transport Protocol (BTP) is a transport layer security protocol suitable for delay-tolerant networks. It provides a secure channel between two peers, ensuring the confidentiality, integrity, authenticity and forward secrecy of their communication across a wide range of underlying transports.

Briar project

So for example, just like other delay-tolerant protocols, such as Scuttlebutt, Briar is extremely resilient.

Sharing data with Briar via wifi, bluetooth & internet

As ever, Open Source projects are more secure and robust than their proprietary counterparts. This is the reason that Open Source software runs much of the ‘backoffice’ services for online services.

The real difficulty we’ve got here, and I make no apologies for highlighting it due to this particular crisis, is capitalism. In particular, the neoliberal flavour that hoovers up ‘intellectual property’ and farms users for the benefit of surveillance capitalism.

Over the course of my career, people have told me that they “just want something that works”. Well, it’s well beyond the time when things should just technically work. It’s time that things ‘just worked’ for the benefit of me, of you, and of humanity as whole.

How domain names resolve might seem like such a small and trivial thing given the challenges the world is facing right now. But it’s important how we come out of this crisis: are we going to allow governments, Big Tech, and the 1% to double-down on their ability to repress us? Or are we going to fight against this, and take back control of not only our means of (re-)production, but our homes online?

So it turns out that you can pretty much do whatever you like on your own website

Last week, Audrey Watters blocked and Genius on her website. These two tools allow a ‘layer’ to be added to websites for annotation and discussion that can’t necessarily be controlled by the person who owns that site.

Blocking annotation tools does not stop you from annotating my work. I’m a fan of marginalia; I am. I write all over the books I’ve bought, for example. Blocking annotations in this case merely stops you from writing in the margins here on this website.

My first reaction? Audrey can do whatever she likes. Just as when she removed the ability to comment on her site a few years back, I didn’t understand the decision at first, but then it kind of made sense. Either way, it’s her site, and she can do whatever she wants.

So far, so why-are-you-even-writing-a-post-about-this?  Discussions on Twitter, Mastodon, Slack, and elsewhere show that this is a live issue. So, naturally I’ve been thinking about it. I have to say that I agree with Mike Caulfield’s sentiments:

My take (of course) is that annotation works best through a system of copies. Anyone should be able to annotate a copy of your work. But it’s not clear to me that people have the right to piggyback on the popularity of an address that you’ve worked your butt off to promote. It’s not clear to me that they should get to annotate the master file. This has always been the problem with comments as well — they work best on small sites, and go bad when they give users a much larger platform than they have earned. As with everything online, the phenomenon is gendered as well.

It seems what Audrey is doing is protecting her ‘means of production’ from what she considers to be an active assault from those who wish to piggyback on the success of her work. Some people have questioned how that works with the explicitly ‘open’ stance that Audrey takes. However, I think any perceived tension between her move and open licensing goes away when we think of some other examples.

Here’s three:

  1. Pokémon Go — this location-based, augmented reality game used some people’s residences as ‘gyms’ where characters in the game did battle. This caused real-world issues. Most people thought that random strangers pulling on to their drive to play games was an infringement of their civil liberties.
  2. Google Street View — this service involves a car mounted with 360° cameras taking photographs to improve Google’s mapping service. Faces were blurred out, but this wasn’t good enough for Germany’s stringent privacy laws. They’ve been prevented from capturing images at least once, especially when people are on their own property.
  3. Robots.txt — this text file that website owners can include in the root folder of their domain specifies what web crawlers can and cannot do. If you say that you don’t want your site to be indexed, then search engines and other aggregation engines should (legally?) comply.

Using these as touchstones, it seems fair enough for someone to insist that you create a copy of their work to be able to annotate it. As Mike Caulfield hints at, giving people the ability to comment on the master document seems like a privilege rather than a right.

Perhaps those creating annotation engines should find a way to seek the domain owner’s permission? An easy way to do that would be to get them to add the necessary code to activate annotation (as we did with OB101), rather than make it a free-for-all…

Image CC BY-NC-SA Karl Steel