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Some interesting findings from user research for the Zappa project (so far!)

Squirrels around a bonfire

One of the things about working openly is, fairly obviously, sharing your work as you go. This can be difficult for many reasons, not least because of the human tendency toward narrative, to completed stories with start, middle, and end.

The value of resisting this tendency and sitting in ambiguity for a while is that allows for slow hunches to form and serendipitous connections to be made. So it is with user research I’m doing as part of the Zappa project for the Bonfire team. We need time to talk to lots of different types of people who meet our criteria, and to spend some time reflecting on what they’ve told us.

As I wrote in my previous post about the project, we’d identified some of the following:

  • a list of people we can/should speak with
  • themes of which we should be aware/cognisant
  • groups of people we should talk with

Inevitably, since this initial work, we’ve come up with some obvious gaps in the people we should speak to (UX designers!). The people we’ve spoken with have recommended other people to contact as well as avenues of enquiry to follow. This is such an interesting topic that we need to be careful that the project doesn’t grow legs and run away with us…

10 interesting things people have told us so far

We haven’t started synthesising any of what our user research participants have said so far, but as we’re around halfway through the process of conducting interviews, I thought it might be worth sharing 10 interesting things they’ve told us. These are not any any particular order.

  • Countering misinformation is time-consuming — to fact-check articles takes time and by the time the result is published the majority of the people who were going to read it have done so anyway.
  • Chat apps — public social networks are blamed for not dealing with mis/disinformation but some of the most problematic stuff is being shared via messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram.
  • Difference between human and bot accounts — it’s possible to reason with a human being but impossible to do with a bot account.
  • Metaphor of adblock list — a way of reducing the burden of moderation on administrators and moderators* of a federated social network instance by creating a more systematised version of something like the #Fediblock hashtag.
  • Subscribing to moderator(s) — delegating moderation explicitly to another user, perhaps by automatically blocking/muting whatever they do.
  • Different categories of approaches — for example, reputational solutions that deal with trusted parties, technical solutions that prove something hasn’t been tampered with, and process-based solutions which make transparent the context in which the content was created and transmitted.
  • Visualising connections — visualising the social graph could make it easier to spot outlier accounts which may be less trusted than those that lots of your other contacts are connected to.
  • Fact-checking platforms can be problematic — they promote an assumption that there is a single ‘Truth’ and one version of events. They can be useful in some instances but also be used to present a distorted view of the world.
  • Frictionless design — by ‘decomplexifying’ the design of user interfaces we hide the system behind the tool and the trade-offs that have been made in creating it.
  • Disappearing content — content that no longer exists can be a problem for derivative works / articles / posts that reference and rely on it to make valid claims.

It’s been fascinating to see the different ways that people have approached our conversations, whether from a technical, design, political, scientific, or philosophical perspective (or, indeed, all five!)

Next steps

We’ve still got some people to talk with next week, but we are always looking to ensure a diverse range of user research participants with a decent geographical spread. As such, we could do with some help identifying people located in Asia (yes, the whole continent!) who might be interested in talking about their experiences, as well as people from minority and historically under-represented backgrounds in tech.

In addition, we could also do with talking with people who have suffered from mis/disinformation, any admins or moderators of federated social network instances, and UX designers who have a particular interest in mis/disinformation. You can get in touch via the comments below or at: hello@nulldynamicskillset.com

If web3 is the financialisation of the web, then ed3 is merely the (further) financialisation of education

I’ve spent most of my career in and around decentralisation of one form or another. Eighteen years ago I was part of an EU-funded project where I talked excitedly about the potential of Bittorrent in education. I’ve spent over a decade evangelising decentralised credentialing and recognition through Open Badges. I put together a team to build MoodleNet, the world’s first federated resource-sharing social network for educators.

So I want decentralisation to happen everywhere. Especially in education.

A few years ago, someone told me quite proudly that their organisation was putting the credentials they award “on the blockchain”. I asked which one. They looked confused. I don’t think they understood what it is they were doing.

There are, of course, many blockchains. Taking away the crypto-hype and the get-rich-quick schemes, a blockchain can be thought of as quite a boring technology. A back office solution where an append-only database (i.e. one can be written to, but then is read-only) is stored on multiple machines instead of centrally.

Boosters of blockchain and crypto in general call this technology ‘decentralised’. In one way it is, because it decentralises data. But decentralisation of data is something that any large organisation with a datacentre already does. And, in fact, something that smaller organisations also do by putting their data into “the cloud”. So decentralising data isn’t really very exciting.

What’s exciting is decentralising power and decision-making. One of the reasons I was so attracted to Open Badges while working within formal education was that it was a real challenge to it. The means of credentialing was, all of a sudden, disaggregated and available to, well, anyone. It’s just a paucity of imagination that has meant that most badges continue to be issued by large organisations. There’s no reason it has to be that way.

Crypto-boosters, such as those who write articles like this about the potential of “ed3” point to DAOs, or “Decentralised Autonomous Organisations” as being disruptive, egalitarian, and a step-change in how society operates.

As the founder of a co-op, an organisation that distributes power amongst its members, I beg to differ. DAOs might be able to do simple things like make a purchase based on member votes, but the hard yards when distributing power involve emotions and, well, being human. There’s a useful article on the difference between DAOs and co-ops for anyone who wants to read more here.

As Audrey Watters says, the best way to predict the future is to issue a press release. The ed3 article linked above was followed hastily by social media account, appearances on podcasts, etc. The authors are almost trying to will their conception of ed3 and the future of education into existence. While they’ve obviously done their research around the root causes of inequality around the world (access, affordability, and education) the “solutions” they point to seem to be a random mix of NFT grifts, people in developing countries playing “play-as-you-earn” games to earn minimum wage, and people who aren’t universities… setting up organisations?

I’ve tried not to let this post turn into the equivalent of Grandpa Simpson shouting at the clouds. I really, truly, want education and society in general to be decentralised. I want the means of human flourishing to be put into the hands of people. But this conceptualisation of ed3 isn’t it. It’s not even close.


If you have some time to spare (2h 18m to be precise) and are interested in this area, I highly (highly!) recommend you watch this video by Dan Olsen called Line Goes Up. It’s a really clear-headed look at what’s going on in this space, starting off with the financial crash of 2008. Very much well worth your time.

Blogging from localhost to IPFS

Telegra.ph is a really simple, no-login hosted individual blog post publishing from the makers of Telegram which has been around for a few years. I was looking at it again today thinking that it would be cool if, instead of publishing posts to a server you don’t control and could be taken down at any time, you could publish posts to IPFS.

It turns out that someone else more technically able than me had the same idea, and this GitHub repository allows you to do just that. In fact, you don’t even have to host the place in which you compose the blog, but instead can run it locally!

Screenshot of browser showing localhost:7777 in URL bar and compose window

In practice, this means that I could just have a static web page (e.g. dougbelshaw.com) and link to a series of IPFS-powered pages. The downsides are that I can’t change what I’ve written, there’s no RSS feed, and I’m dependent on IPFS gateways to serve content to users of most web browsers.

But, hey, it’s cool.

If you have the right things installed and configured, the example at first link below should work for you. If not, the second has exactly the same content, served up from an IPFS gateway.

Update: I subsequently learned about the importance of ‘pinning’ so if the Cloudflare link doesn’t work, try this one.

It’s four years since I presented on IPFS and other censorship-resistant technologies in Barcelona. I was there during the vote for Catalonian independence, something that was only possible due to disseminating information via decentralised technologies.

Since then, Cloudflare has created an IPFS gateway, and Brave has built-in support for IPFS. These things happen slowly, often taking a decade to mass adoption as bugs and annoyances are ironed out. We’re getting there.

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