In February at the Academy Awards Neil Patrick Harris made the quip that “Edward Snowden couldn’t be here for some treason.” In 2013 Snowden more or less gave up his life so that the world could find out about the extensive and illegal surveillance measures of the United States government. Two years later, most of that is still happening, and he’s just a punch line. LOL.
In point of fact, infringements on our privacy have never been greater, and also have never been such an accepted part of the fabric of our lives. Every online search that we make is tracked by the companies that own our search engines. Google even makes that part of its sales pitch, saying the more you use Google, the more it knows what you’re looking for and the better suggestions it can make.
Most of the browsers we use to get around on the web—Explorer, Safari, Chrome—likewise keep track of our choices. (Firefox, run by the not-for-profit Mozilla Foundation, does not.) Even our emails get scanned by our providers.
More than that, virtually every website that we visit employs trackers that latch on and follow every move that we make on their site—what pages we look at, what items we browse, where our cursor hovers. They also sell the right to allow other marketing research companies to add their own bugs. One web page can have well over a dozen different companies each watching everything that we do. Truly, as much as we call it a “web,” the Internet today is much more the realm of ticks and fleas; everywhere we go, we take on new passengers who relay back our personal information.
Some would say that’s the price of doing business today. Except most of the time that it’s happening we don’t understand ourselves as involved in a business transaction at all. We’re just surfing the web, scanning our favorite websites and blogs. The websites we visit do not alert us to the fact this is happening, nor tell us to whom else they’ve sold the right to watch us.
In the winter of 2010, four idealistic New York University students with an aptitude for tech heard a talk by Eben Moglen, a tech historian, engineer and lawyer who had clerked for Thurgood Marshall in the 1980s. The topic was the Internet, privacy and surveillance. “Facebook holds and controls more data about the daily lives and social interactions of half a billion people than 20th century totalitarian governments ever managed to collect about the people they surveilled,” Moglen opined. It then made money by selling that data to advertisers. And because there was no obvious harm, we accepted it.
To Moglen’s mind, not only did this constitute a troubling reality, it was a terrible business proposition. Why would we agree to let someone else make money off our personal information not only without that process being transparent but without getting a cut for ourselves?
Moglen proposed that what was needed was a new model for social media, one that allowed each person to maintain complete control over who sees and doesn’t see his/her personal information. He insisted the technology was already there; it was just a matter of someone investing the time to make it happen.
It was big-picture dreaming, and these four students loved it. One of them, Dan Grippi, had recently deleted his Facebook account, only to have Facebook begin to send him messages saying his friends missed him, using photos of not just any of his friends but the ones he interacted with most regularly. Facebook automatically watched him so closely, it knew exactly which people to try to use to get him back.
That night, those four students decided to do what Moglen had suggested. They would try to create the tools for a new decentralized kind of Facebook, “Diaspora.”
Soon after they began their quest, they were joined by Jim Dwyer, a twice-awarded Pulitzer Prize winning writer for The New York Times, who had heard about them when their Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a summer’s work on the project exploded into a $200,000 windfall. Dwyer wrote an article on them for The Times, then stayed with their story over the following years, finally publishing the new book, More Awesome Than Money.
While reading Dwyer’s book, it’s almost impossible not to think of “The Social Network,” the late 2010 movie about Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook. Both begin with elite college students taking on the world. In the early going there’s that same giddy sense of excitement and possibility. For each there is also an eventual comeuppance, as the realities of Silicon Valley and venture capitalism crash down upon them. For as exciting as Diaspora is as a concept, it’s notable that today we’re not hearing about it. This is not a story that is going to end well.
But “The Social Network” is the tale of a brilliant, semi-pathetic loner who in the process of building a social media empire betrays everyone around him. Awesome, on the other hand, is instead a story of idealism and collaboration. Dwyer gives significant attention in the book to Ilya Zhitomirskiy, the Diaspora Four’s charismatic free spirit and endless font of ideas to help people, like “penny stoves” that would use ethanol and soda cans to provide heat for the homeless; billboards that would humiliate drug dealers by posting data like the fact that most dealers still live with their parents; or making a service project that benefits humanity a prerequisite for high school graduation. Ilya is in every way the antithesis of Zuckerberg, a sweet, anarchic dreamer who believes not in himself but in progress and people. Among the items on his bucket list are ending bribery in Congress; sneaking into a company and rearranging everything in the file cabinets and partying with the Amish.
Yet Dwyer also takes care not to overemphasize Ilya’s place in the group. Diaspora is a group effort, and its story is always the story of all four of them, as well as the broader community of young technological idealists of which they are a part. More than as founders of a company, they see themselves as part of a social movement of idealists trying to make the Internet and the world a better place. They don’t set out to create their own money-making version of Facebook but to develop tools they hope the bigger online community can tinker with and use to build together a rich and expressive social network. Says Dwyer: “In this vision, Diaspora would be a platform owned by no one, but to which anyone could bring new applications. It was like the skateboard, the simple device capable of tricks that its early designers had never dreamed of.”
As it ennobles them, so their idealism lies at the heart of their struggles. Making the world a better place is a great sales pitch; the fact that a network with greater privacy could help social movements in countries struggling against repressive regimes is admirable. But where is the potential profit? Diaspora rides into Silicon Valley on a wave of ecstatic techy enthusiasm; venture capitalists throw open their doors; software development companies offer office space and advice. But as they make some rookie mistakes and cannot be fitted into the normal startup categories, the Vallerati drift away to chase the next would-be billions. Dwyer writes, “In fairness, they were wandering in an unmapped land they had been transported to by public attention that they had not sought and by public support that they had not expected. They were kids. Everything that happened was a first in their lives.”
As a reporter Dwyer proves to be the consummate fly on the wall, capturing every important moment, offering himself as sounding board and confidant to the main players. He also demonstrates an extraordinary ability to make this world both accessible and compelling. More Awesome Than Money is not a book for the millionth of one percentile of people who can comprehend the hermetically sealed jargon of tech, or even for those who can explain the difference between RAM and memory. (Seriously, I’ve been told it a thousand times, and I still can’t remember it.) Through rich metaphors Dwyer casts wide the doors to all of us.
The Internet at the time the Diaspora Four were beginning was “still in its big bang moment, the clouds of its atoms nowhere near settled into recognizable forms.” About the disturbing evolution of the Internet he writes, “From the richness of the World Wide Web grew an information economy, and then an ecosystem of surveillance.” “Using the web was like walking on soft grass, leaving traces of every step.”
Likewise, in trying to explain the magnitude of Diaspora’s challenge, Dwyer says of Facebook, “Whether an individual feature was good or bad, beautiful or weak, the gravitational force of hundreds of millions of users made the giants inescapable, like dark stars. No Diaspora feature, no matter how clever the gut instinct from which it arose, could match those forces.” Facebook, like Google, he writes, was the online equivalent of shopping malls, “territories that had become laws unto themselves: banning or restricting political protests, demonstrations, and solicitations as they—and they alone—saw fit, employing sweeping approaches that could not be used on the public streets because of free-speech protections.” I could go on.
Dwyer also has a talent for turning the mundane into the dramatic. I can’t imagine ever wanting to read a single paragraph about the evolution of web browsers from Netscape (remember Netscape?) through Microsoft Explorer, Safari, Chrome and Firefox. But in Dwyer’s hands the story of Firefox alone becomes the Internet equivalent of Superman’s parents fighting to launch baby Kal El into space while Krypton blows up around them. So, too, Facebook, Kickstarter, WikiLeaks, online encryption, blogging software and the Arab Spring all are given fascinating treatments that offer both context and insight.
For instance, we learn that private browsing settings—often dubbed “porn mode” in the States—in fact emerged rather as a way to protect people living under repressive regimes from possible harm. At the same time, it turns out the software many of those regimes use to crack down on free speech often comes from American companies (who predictably break those contracts only after the press spotlight descends).
If I have one quibble with the book, it’s that near the end, as the team comes up with a brilliant (and seemingly profitable) final distillation of their work, Dwyer goes suddenly silent. Whether Dwyer was left out of a few significant conversations that led to a very unexpected change of course or something else happened, it’s the one hiccup in an otherwise brilliant text.
They say the greatest trick the devil ever did was to make us believe he wasn’t real. Every day, Facebook and the like do something similar, obscuring what they’re doing with our data behind book-length legalese Terms and Conditions, lest we realize that instead of the consumers we are, as Michael Hiltzik once put it in The Los Angeles Times, the merchandise. We continue to think of technology in old categories, it’s a tool to help us, like a shovel or a car. But in fact it’s at least as much a camera and a bug.
Through the story of Diaspora, More Awesome Than Money sheds much needed light on these matters. And much like its title, it invites us into a community of hopeful ideas and people trying to build a world that is so much more awesome.