Blockstack’s founders on the road to decentralization
Muneeb Ali and Ryan Shea are the founders of Blockstack, a new internet designed for decentralized applications. They took some time at their recent Blockstack Berlin event to discuss their role in the monumental shift from a consolidated digital architecture to decentralization and how this brave new ecosystem could benefit security, identity and the overall online experience.
Muneeb Ali: Hi, I’m Muneeb. I’m a co-founder of Blockstack.
Ryan Shea: I’m Ryan and I’m a co-founder of Blockstack. We are helping solve the problem of the consolidation of power on the internet.
What are the challenges of solving this problem in the next 10 years?
Ryan: Yeah, I think the biggest challenges are one: building the right software, being able to address the challenges of security and scalability. Two: I would say the issue is – the biggest challenge is – around building the right consumer-facing software, the experiences, making sure that it’s not just easy to use, but it’s also as good or better than the existing software that’s out there. Like a better experience than what you experience with the traditional centralized web.
How will decentralization change our lives in the next 10 years?
Muneeb: When I think about what can happen in ten years, I try to think of it in terms of – if you look at how our physical lives are – maybe we should try to make sure that the digital lives also follow the same property rights or same social norms. For example, let’s say if you’re talking to your friend in a car and you’re driving, you don’t expect that someone is listening to that conversation right? Similarly, if you’re talking to someone online you should also not expect that someone is listening to that conversation. And, if you’re writing something on a piece of paper and it’s folded and it’s sitting in your house, you don’t expect other people to read the contents of it, right? Similarly, you have property rights and you own your house, right, it’s yours. And we don’t have these concepts in our digital lives right now and that might change in the next 10 years.
Ryan: So I think that there’s gonna be a lot more freedom and security for people. I think that’s something that’s – it’s really going to impact people in that way. But something that is harder to quantify and harder to really talk about are the new possibilities that are emerging, the new things that we haven’t even thought of yet that are going to happen as a result of us being in control of our own digital lives. Certainly our data, our identity, and our assets. And a perfect example of this, we can imagine things that are extensions of our brains. For example, you imagine a search engine for your thoughts, or anything that you’ve ever said. Something that’s just personal to you and you could just go through “Oh, what was that? Oh!”, and then you remember it. That’s something that’s enabled by you being able to own your data. Of being able to pull everything down from all the different pieces of software that you use and then aggregate it, and then have it index-able and searchable for yourself, right? And that’s only possible when you’re in control of your data.
How does your approach differ from that of the founding fathers of the internet?
Ryan: If you look at the early stages of the internet, I think there’s some things that they missed out on. They didn’t build security into the design of the internet and because of this, there were systems that had to emerge to fill the gaps. Now, they also didn’t build identity into the foundations of the internet and so, because of this, both of these things left open areas where companies would come in, plug the gaps, and then have an enormous amount of control over the entire internet – over the entire system.
So, if you think of it kind of like a chess match, and you think what would the most powerful players be able to do, and then think ahead of time several moves ahead what you need to put into place to prevent that from happening. And as Muneeb was mentioning, one really, really important thing is the way -potentially the most important thing – is the governance of the entire system. You look at the companies that are involved, what access they have, who the software providers are, how the network runs, how the network upgrades itself, who has the ability to issue updates, who is considered to be a thought leader in the space, how many people can be considered leaders in the entire ecosystem. And then thinking through, what are the ways in which we can move back to decentralization, if it strays a little bit. And a lot of those things are very, very important to that fact.
How do we not screw it up?
Muneeb: So I think one thing that I’m thinking about a lot these days, is how we are not building a company, and we are trying to build an entire ecosystem, right? And more specifically, it’s an open source ecosystem and many different parties should be able to play in this ecosystem and not that one company becomes extremely powerful, right? So that boils down to making sure that the software has the right licenses, or people are able to contribute to not just the software development itself, but also decision making. So that you have a very transparent way of making decisions as a community, and not have processes where you know someone is just dictating things behind closed doors. This goes all the way to how you think about having software patents, what role do they play here, because you still need to defend yourself and your technology from big companies who might patent something that you’re working on. But maybe it’s better for us to patent it and then release it in an open source patent pool or their defensive pool, and things like that. So these are very concrete things, but in general, I think we are at a stage where no one has really built ecosystems like these before, right? There are some things that we can learn from, for example, the open source protocols that were built in the 80s which are still around, right? They were kind of like public utilities, things like TCP/IP and how it has different implementations, and a lot of people were able to contribute towards that. But not recently, we haven’t seen a lot of work in this space. So I think, at least, there are different projects and they’re trying to learn from each other, and they’re trying to adapt and soon hopefully there will be certain best practices that would emerge for how to build these new types of ecosystems.