IPFS (InterPlanetary File System) is a decentralized, peer-to-peer protocol that redefines how we handle data on the internet, enabling us to break free from reliance upon tech giants like Google and Amazon for hosting our data. By adopting a content-addressed storage approach and eliminating the traditional server-client model, IPFS offers a more independent and resilient solution for storing, sharing, and accessing information online.
I run a dedicated node for the InterPlanetary FileSystem, and you should too.
In another post, I will describe the technical setup, and some of the experiences I’ve had and lessons I have learned from the last six months of participation in the network. In this post I would like to discuss my rationale and to describe some of the dynamics of the greater technosphere that drove my own decision to dedicate my own storage, bandwidth and processing power and my own time and expertise to the task of participating in a headless, notionally unbreakable, distributed file storage system. I’ll reveal why I’m philosophically and politically enthused and incentivized to participate, and why I believe decentralized things to be the ideal state and regalia of our species.
In my view, the entirety of human civilization has been a journey towards inter-consensual determination. There have been a thousand launches from a thousand places, fleeing systemized tyranny and reaching for farflung ports, in search of the networks of interdependence and federated self-determination that make us as free as we can be within the grand collaborative experiment that are human societies. Much of recorded history, and many of its wars, have been about ridding ourselves of Kings, dictators, and robber barons that sought to control us, and instituting reforms that gave votes and voices to everyone. We democratized knowledge with the printing press, and refactored religions and governments to provide universal access to knowledge and inspiration. We put communication in the hands of everyone with the written letter, then a phone in every household, and then the internet as well. The mycelial growth of the Internet, pushing into every aspect of our lives, continues today: as we scatter microsatellites into orbit around our planet, and design ever more intimate and directed social networks.
The internet made possible a further efflorescence of collaborative effort that we are still in the middle of right now. The Internet Protocol was designed to be a redundant system of linked networks with no central point of failure, and the systems we built on top of that in the early days (email, gopher, the world wide web) flourished and thrived there, and were themselves widely collaborative and federated in nature.
We built ways to work together online and used them to produce systems of deep complexity together in groups - performant and robust software and hardware that further empowered the internet with every round of improvements. As Unix became Linux and Android and Apple, its DNA in all of them, so did the entire cyber-social stratum of the world evolve and shard and merge.
The past decade has seen further improvements and attempts at decentralization, but not all of them are yet as clearly successful as some of the more established layers. Bitcoin and cryptocurrency is still a highly contentious technology, despite it being halfway through its second decade at this point, but it seeks to do exactly as the other layers did - democratize and decentralize and disintermediate the barons (of finance, in this case). BitTorrent did the same with content hosting online and efficiently distributing data. Web3 seeks to do the same with digital ownership, but has yet to see mass acceptance. It is widely felt, by the partisans of those technologies, that the thing that holds back acceptance is the tooling - for who could disagree with the direction? Who would truly prefer a Microsoft to a Linux, or an Encyclopedia to a Wikipedia, or a taxi cab company to a rideshare program, if the client/user experience is the very same?
I think there is another element when we discuss the acceptance of headless things, beyond just tooling parity. There is also an element of longevity to it too that headless things must endure, as we don’t trust headless things quickly or well. Something decentralized must prove that it can thrive with no head, and even when it does it runs up against human nature: We intuitively like heads. We can understand heads. We are heads, with a body to carry it around. We know how they work. Even a complicated hierarchy works as a bunch of heads working together, although there are rules about how they do so. Something truly headless, on the other hand, seems as opaque and depthless and incomprehensible as the ocean, as unpredictable as a wild kraken with too many arms and too much power. We don’t know how to slot ourselves in or relate to it.
But if a decentralized system works and it does it job and it stays out of the way, we start to take it for granted, and then it quietly becomes ubiquitous. Nobody is running large websites on Microsoft servers, but we don’t often think about the Linux servers running Apache that power most of the world wide web, or the kind of distributed collaboration it took to build them. Wikipedia withstood a barrage of criticisms from entrenched universities and librarians before silently becoming a defacto standard as the first stop when starting a knowledge gathering journey online. Bitcoin, while it certainly sees fluctuations in value that might scatterplot investors, is worth tens of thousands of dollar and has been for years, despite immense and organized institutional resistance and public scorn.
We all grow to trust and understand the biases that come with massively multi-author systems, and learn to prefer the occasional rough corner found there, compared to the eminent and mercenary motivations of the fiefdoms that had stood there before. And we learn how to discount and be skeptical to the right degree, to check the files, and the sources and the citations presented - something that is now coming to the fore again in our civilizational wrestling match with AI and its propensity to hallucinate and require fact-checking.
The problem, of course, is that headlessness is hard. Wikipedia articles can be a battleground of politiscized perspectives. The crevices of the Linux kernel can hide unmaintained code that harbors security vulnerabilities. Democracy can be ugly and frustrating, divided and hard.
A headless mob and its terrors have been FUDed about since before Plato, who considered it a degraded form of government. The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta was largely a political struggle between democracy and tyranny, and the tyrant faction eventually won. Slow collaborative decisionmaking tends to crumble under pressure to get things done, to have more of a head. The Kings of Sparta crushed Athenian democracy. The Roman Republic was murdered by Sulla and the Caesars to become the Empire that stood for a thousand years. Email became Gmail, and most of the data (and applications) of the world is now held on huge server farms owned by Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft.
So we see human nature lashes back, in a pendulum swing, to countervail and promote Mussolinis to make the trains run on time. Kings with strong opinions make things clearer than muddled, argumentative parliaments can. Centralized services run by corporations can marshall and present slick services better than a fragmented participatory federation can. Monopolies can consume everything that might one day attack them, before they can present an existential threat. Rome becomes an Empire, Athens gets ground into dust.
But the journey is not over, and human civilization moves ever towards liberty in the end. Technology is our vehicle to liberation from the circled wagons of capitalist effort by the technobarons of this cycle, just as it has been against barons of every century, throughout history. The printing press liberated books and kickstarted education for the masses, telecommunications and the internal combustion engine shrunk the world to manageable size, and the internet and edge devices like cell phones connect our minds together to an unprecedented degree.
All of these have built upon each other to create a substrate upon which we are now creating headless, federative systems that in many ways operate as easily and as quickly as traditional centralized deciders have in the past.
The areas we must still confront are the things where the richest treasures lay, with barren baron dragons curled around those hoards: in financial instruments of wealth, in storing the ever-increasing aura of digital assets each human on this planet possesses, in sharing content with audiences, in defining and facilitating tribal relationships between found family (your group chat), and in controlling global supply chains of consumer goods. There are more, but I feel that these are the core castles of the baronial caste of our time.
I run an IPFS node because it seeks to replace silos of controlled data with a single global peer to peer storage layer with no central owner. There is no Bezos or Zuckerberg, just a storage layer with no king. And I run an IPFS node because free (as in speech), secure, persistent storage is the layer we need for more ambitious applications to work and for our species to develop the decentralized regalia it needs to achieve its maximum.
I urge anyone reading this to do the same: to contribute resources to one of these decentralized commons, to disintermediate those who profit too much from acting as gatekeepers and kidnappers of wealth and worth. There are a thousand ways to do this, and running a node on IPFS is just one of them. The EFF does amazing work, as does Wikipedia if you want to make a donation to something that combats toxic kinds of centralization. Or you might consider running your own IPFS node.
Come back next week, when I describe the technical details of installing and running my node, including how to quickly and easily set one up on your own. I’ll also share some of the experiences I’ve had while running it to give some idea of how its been going.