It’s been a few years since I’ve seen an interview with Jack Dorsey that didn’t read like he’d just smoked an entire copy of Atlas Shrugged, so when he announced that he was willing to fund “up to five” people to wash his hands a lot of people were a little suspicious, including me:
Twitter doesn’t exactly have a history of doing the reading before coming to class, so it wasn’t a surprise that there wasn’t so much as a nod to existing work in the space. I also wasn’t surprised to see so much criticism emerge from a fundamental mistrust of both Twitter’s intent and execution; ambulance-chaser to the world’s worst ideas is definitely in-character for that company. That said, it’s definitely a testament to the fundamental optimism of the open source world that so many people offered to help at all.
It’s Twitter, so there’s plenty of healthy pessimism around – as one example, Diaspora developer Sean Tilley said that “the pessimistic interpretation is that Twitter wants this, but also wants to control the standard” – but even seeing that and a lot like it the “real why” question still nagged at me. Ok, you don’t want to control the client anymore. Great. You don’t necessarily want to control the infrastructure, also great, so… what’s left? We know who you are, we know what you are: what do you want to control here and to what end?
To me this smells like a cryptocurrency play. A clever one, admittedly, but still.
The general shape of that corner of the law is very strange to me; it’s illegal to create your own currency, for example, entirely legal to issue non-voting shares of stock in your company, we’re apparently undecided about cryptocoinage, and it’s not clear to me what makes any of those things different. That aside, my concern is this: if some financial services company manages to finagle enough control over, say, the wheat futures market and the bread futures market then the people who own and operate the bread-making plant in the middle wind up having very little agency over their fates beyond the decision of whether or not to operate the machinery at all.
With that model in mind, if this is a cryptocurrency play and Twitter manages to turn themselves in to the First National Bank of the Fediverse – by which I mean, if they can open up the application or storage layer while maintaining control over a separate value-exchange layer – then they can effectively meet the letter of the law as far as “open” is concerned (Readable code! Data migration!) while completely subverting open source’s ideological goals of user agency, safety and real, informed choice. If my suspicions are correct, the end play for this Twitter thing is not more agency or meaningful freedom for the participants, but simply dumping of the costs of operating the machinery of openness on an unsuspecting and ideologically-blinded audience. Or in the classic phrasing: socializing the costs and privatizing the profits. The only new twist here is the audience.
For my own part, beyond updating my sarcastic comments about the blockchain to sarcastic comments about “up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers” I’m going to ignore it. We’ve got a better future to build here, and if Twitter wants to be a part of that they can clean their own house first before wiring themselves up to everyone else’s.