Common Digital Infrastructure
Governments, and thus us as upstanding Homo politicus beings, are accustomed to thinking about common infrastructure: organizations and structures that promote further wealth-building, but don’t always have a natural market-based mechanism to exist. We can think about them as “resource enablers”, providing economic benefit while being agnostic about value capture.
Not all of these are anti-market. For example, the electrical grid facilitates nearly the entire modern economy, and charges roughly the cost of production instead of value. We have a ton of these: communications networks, safety regulations, clean air/water infrastructure, sewage and sanitation systems, environmental productions, vaccination programs, financial regulatory frameworks, and the public postal system.
Most of these are load bearing to our society, but only because they existed as broad infrastructure that we could build on. The more we can trust them, the more we develop on top of them. In some ways, this might promote fragility—such as a dependence on the electrical grid. But in general, we’re all better off that they exist, and at the margin, politically argue about what should be considered common infrastructure.
Taking a step back, here are some qualities of common infrastructure that are notable:
- They’re not bothered about capturing economic value.They don’t need to be non-economic, but intentionally is agnostic about complete economic value capture. They produce net economic gain—often massively so.
- They generally exhibit low technology and implementation risk. This infrastructure isn’t where innovation happens. By design, it’s big, static, and low risk.
- They are self-sustaining, either through regulation, market economics, or consensus. They should be designed for long term use, and should not rely on growth obligations. They should be resilient against poor governance and malicious actors. Eventual deprecation should occur naturally when they’re not useful anymore.
- Access should be broad. It’s not obvious exactly what resource enablement will occur and where. Accordingly, the infrastructure simply existing is not enough. It should be actively used by many people.
We got incredibly lucky with the web. Sure, it’s great. You’re reading this because I can publish and host for near free (actually, free, thanks Github), and there are few gate keepers on the open web.
But I actually mean something bigger. It’s not obvious that we’d end up with the protocols that we did. In grade school, a friend had both CompuServe and AOL dialup because each had slightly different offerings. AOL had a walled garden that you had to buy-in to in order to use.
Through a fluke of history, and some good early design and regulation, we ended up with a web that’s quite open. I could host pretty vile material, and as long as it’s not illegal, it’s accessible to most everyone. We even have end to end encryption for most web traffic now, even for silly blog essays.
Postal mail, telephone, and faxes never got this freedom. When I worked on Google Voice, wiretap support was a regulatory-required feature. While large tech companies do centralize content and traffic, the right protocols were developed that encouraged the internet to evolve largely open.
We got lucky with email. AOL would have loved to own email. Google hosts a lot of it now, but not enough to make it their own; they tried with Wave. And others tried as well, creating a “better email” that was centrally owned. Could we improve email? Of course, but it has emerged to be a feature, not a bug, how simple it is. Given an addressable host, I can send a message to anyone globally.
This is critical common infrastructure. It doesn’t die because centralized rent-capture is not possible. You can sell an email service, but you can’t paywall email itself. Hosting your own website and email server is still possible. There’s no central authorization entity that approves web servers for production. ICANN, IANA, etc do centrally control a lot of our core internet infrastructure, but they act as facilitators, rather than Google-style “owners”. Rent-seeking—a smug way to say “value capture”—isn’t a primary goal.
You’ll notice that the protocols I’ve mentioned are old. Some of this is natural: old things last longer, Lindy style. But common digital common infrastructure can take many forms. It’s not always protocols like roads that enable transit.
Wikipedia contains more free knowledge than any printed encyclopedia ever did. Github and Gitlab host millions of open source repositories. Several public content delivery networks host popular libraries like React for free. Postgres, one of the most capable databases invented, is freely available. And on and on.
But most of the free tech bounty that’s available is still centrally controlled by a profit-seeking entity. Or at least, one that needs to raise money. It’s as if society relied on privately funded roads that were built for altruistic ideals — or to sell billboard space.
More has never been free as now, but much of the focus of tech building is around value capture. So, instead of public infrastructure supporting short-form content broadcast, we have Twitter — who’s profit-motive has caused a lot of drama as of late.
And we’ve already lost a lot. XMPP and RSS died at the hands of centralized platforms.
Crypto solves this.
Just kidding. But, if I look around about who is actually trying to build next generation common digital infrastructure, a lot of it is happening inside of crypto.
Unfortunately, complicating this simple story is value capture. Nearly every crypto project realized that they could capture value (make a lot of money) with innovative tokenomics that looked a lot like Ponzis, or at least borderline securities fraud. Embedded growth obligations were everywhere, with hidden risk behind every corner. Scarce blockchain references to JPEGs sold for more than houses. And, the ecosystem slowly discovered that blockchains are inefficient databases (so, centralize at least some), and that many financial regulations exist for a good reason.
But this isn’t about web3 or crypto tokens. In fact, I’m skeptical that decentralization by itself is always a valuable goal. It should serve a purpose. This is more about open standards that meet all the qualities above of physical common infrastructure.
We need more clean water.
Farcaster is promising. They’re designing a sufficiently decentralized short-form social network. It’s early days, and a lot needs to be figured out. Bluesky and Mastodon are also trying.
What else should exist? If you work in tech, this is a fun thought experiment. Imagine you don’t need any money and can devote your time to benefiting everyone by building common digital infrastructure. What would exist in a better future?
For one, identity. Email and phone numbers are currently used for logins because they’re sufficiently trusted and available, but Google owns your Gmail account. Furthermore, they are just identifiers. Imagine a DNS for people, where you can create identities. Trust can be delegated by authorities, such as a large company, a local notary who verifies you’re a real person, your government, your local library, etc.
This extends far beyond what Ethereum wallets are doing. The implementation could be on a blockchain, but “sufficiently decentralized” is likely better. (Alas, blockchains are bad databases.)
You can have several identities, useful for different purposes. Your identity signed by the government is useful to pay taxes, and would be secure in a way a Social Security Number is not. You could keep an anonymous identity for online discussions, who’s trust is delegated by other accounts.
Each identity can contain whatever personal information you would like, such as your current email address, social profiles, and connected devices. Fields, of course, could be end to end encrypted as desired.
Once you have a stable identity infrastructure, protocols can be developed on top that support messaging, publishing, etc.
Keybase was actually somewhat close to this, but stayed a niche “manage my encryption keys” service. And this highlights a core problem: infrastructure has to be actually used, which means solving a real problem that the market cannot.
The rumblings are beginning. Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, but this is not explicitly an altruistic goal. It’s a byproduct of creating something the market wants and will pay for, with money and attention. And, to be clear, Google Search is exceedingly useful.
People are realizing that not all of the web infrastructure we reply on should be centrally owned in a way that maximizes value extraction. Read Protocols, not Platforms. In fact, Ethan Zuckerman beat me to it in The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure.
Email and the web emerged before value capture was as easy as it is today, where technical solutions were needed to solve fundamental real problems. And we find ourselves with just as big needs now: your attention is a market, with you on the losing end.
If you’ve been thinking about this, I’d love to talk. Please reach out.