David Gelernter’s giant macaw, Ike, has taken a tumble. One moment he was there, offering agreeable squawks as Gelernter spoke, and then, in a flash of lightning, he wasn’t. Ike is fine, the 64-year-old Yale computer scientist assures me, simply stunned. “Luckily he’s as light as a bird. So he can fall great lengths and it doesn’t bother him,” he says. Now where was he? Oh yes, Gelernter was in the middle of telling me about his plans to revolutionize social media—emphasis on revolution.
On Thursday, Gelernter published a post on Medium declaring his grievances against our favorite social media overlord, Facebook. He’s directing his ire into a new company called Revolution Populi, a social network that emphasizes individual data ownership and democratic rule by its users. Hence the patriotic timing. “For me, this is an opportunity to take some action on a public issue that I think is really important,” he tells me. “Who owns the cyber landscape? Do we all own it, or do five incredibly rich people in California?” Gelernter’s message to those of us living under Facebook’s imperial rule is “Join or die.”
For now, though, Revolution Populi exists as four men each with the title cofounder—a former Goldman Sachs vice president, a doctor-entrepreneur, and a PR executive, plus Gelernter—and a rather tempestuous whitepaper. Technical details are … scant. So scant that, after much pondering, it’s difficult to piece together exactly what Gelernter, who holds the title “chief visionary officer,” is proposing. Other than to say that yes, it will be “on the blockchain.”
Gelernter has built a reputation for being ahead of the technological curve, starting with his work in parallel computing and data mining, and later as a pioneer of the social web. In a 1997 profile in WIRED, he described a vision for 21st-century computer science that would center on human interaction. It would be as dependent on design and social science, Gelernter said, as any technical improvements.
His project at the time (along with PhD student Eric Freeman) was a social network called Lifestream. It took the form of a digital timeline of life’s totality—a perpetual stream of documents and messages that could be arranged, sorted, and shared with others. Lifestream was popular among colleagues in his Yale department, Gelernter says, but attempts to commercialize the technology sputtered. A godfather of modern social networks watched from afar as Silicon Valley upstarts grew into giants. “I’ve been on the sidelines since then,” he says.
Well, not completely on the sidelines. Many Lifestream ideas were enshrined in patents owned by Gelernter’s company, Mirror Worlds, named after his 1991 book that described our coming habitation in virtual reality. The company later sued Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple, for infringing on its patents with their various stream-like products, such as Facebook’s Timeline and Apple’s Time Machine and Spotlight. (One Apple lawsuit resulted in a $625 million jury award for Mirror Worlds, which was later reversed by a judge. Mirror Worlds settled other claims against Apple and Microsoft.)
With his new venture, Gelernter wants to again challenge those companies. The idea, he says, is to build a social media app on top of a new blockchain ecosystem. He describes the proposed network as a “public square” (a term coined in Mirror Worlds, he notes) in which everyone owns their data and can sell access to it for cryptocurrency. The rules governing that platform will be based on the US Constitution, and can only be changed by a user vote. It will also support an open ecosystem of apps.
Gelernter’s team will be leading off with their own app, which will start as a music streaming platform where users pay artists directly. (Revolution Populi’s CEO, Rob Rosenthal, launched a now-defunct music app called MyFyx in 2016.) But their ambitions soar far beyond that, to becoming a centralized hub for music, TV, movies, social media, even web search, in the vein of the original Lifestream.
When it comes to blockchain, a technology that has been around for 10 years, Gelernter describes himself as an “informed observer.” The type of data ownership scheme he describes has long been a dream for blockchain folks, who see the hoarding of personal data by tech giants as problematic. Plenty of others are working on it. There’s Ethereum, of course, a blockchain designed to allow the development of decentralized applications, including user-run social media apps and personal data marketplaces. There’s also Solid, a platform being built by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, which aims for data ownership and interoperability without using blockchain at all.
The trouble is that all this is immensely difficult, especially with blockchain in the mix. There’s the problem of scaling: the technology is notoriously slow and unsuited to handling large numbers of users. Not to mention the abundant usability issues (raise your hand if you’ve lost the keys to your bitcoin!) and the difficulty of getting people to actually adopt your likely clunky platform. Social networks also present the problem of digital identity: Sure, data stored on the blockchain may be secure, but how do you ensure the data itself isn’t fraudulent? And while it’s nice to talk about democracy on the blockchain—to “decentralize” power as they say, letting the people directly pull the levers of power and commerce—governance disputes on platforms like Ethereum have shown that’s harder than it looks. And besides, look at what our real-world democratic system brought us: the tech industry oligarchs!
Gelernter acknowledges the whole thing will be difficult. “Maybe we’ll go wrong; maybe it’ll be 16 old guys in Pittsburgh who run the whole thing,” he says. “But we’ll know that we will have invited the public to be part of the system.” He also has ideas for how to execute his plan technically, he assures me. They won’t involve “doing anything strange or tricky,” he says, but rather involve a “straightforward application of existing publicly known algorithms.” The whitepaper throws out a few ideas. There’s the InterPlanetary File System, or IPFS, a type of decentralized storage originally built for Ethereum, and a reference to Merkle Trees, a basic concept in blockchain technology. They’ll use facial recognition and other “biometric verification protocols” to link your digital identity to the real you, to be stored on your own “ultra-secure” blockchain.
The cofounders hope to fund their project without venture capital, using a token sale instead. (That’s also how they plan to make money, by selling the token to users through a cryptocurrency exchange.) So when ICO, bro? Most crypto companies that have opted to sell tokens through so-called “initial coin offerings” remain in purgatory, waiting for the Securities and Exchange Commission to decide how to treat digital tokens under US law. How exactly they’ll distribute the tokens remains up for discussion too, Gelernter says.
It’s a tall stack of questions, but Gelernter is undeterred. He bets that blockchain technology will improve and the technical hurdles will lower, and that democracy will be easier within the constraints of a virtual world. Besides, people are ready to ditch platforms like Facebook. “Five years from now, there are going to be well-established Facebook competitors of the sort that don’t exist now. They need to exist; they will exist,” he says. “It’s the right problem at the right moment.” Perhaps Gelernter himself doesn’t have to be the one to figure it out, he adds. But he’d like to give it a try.