By Jim Dwyer
Viking. 374 pp. $27.95
The video of American journalist James Foley’s execution was shocking and brutal. Within an hour of its release in August by jihadists, it had been seen around the world, spread by social networks and amplified by traditional media. YouTube, Facebook and other major online content distributors quickly tried to purge the worst segments from their networks, yet the images kept resurfacing. The video remained beyond governments’ reach and Silicon Valley’s grasp, on servers and hard drives in multiple countries.
That was surely the propagandists’ intention when they shared the video over an alternative social network known as Diaspora. Created by a group of four idealistic young Americans, Diaspora was designed to keep control of users’ images and posts out of the hands of Facebook and other data-mining, commerce-minded technology giants. It did that by housing them on users’ own platforms, on servers, laptops and tablets distributed around the world. The result: Diaspora users could post and share media without fear of prying governments or controlling corporations. Which made Diaspora the perfect tool for Foley’s killers to spread their horrifying propaganda.
Diaspora was created at least partly in response to a sense among legal, political and social activists that a kind of dystopia is descending. Technologies like Facebook, created to foster community, also erode privacy. The mightiest democracies, predicated on personal freedom, operate history’s most pervasive surveillance system. And so, in the shadows, more and more idealists express their opposition in code — hackers with a moral compass.
The story of how four of them were inspired to wage a personal campaign against those forces is the narrative that drives “More Awesome Than Money,” Jim Dwyer’s lively account of Diaspora’s creation as an alternative to the Silicon Valley megaliths. Like any account of the memorable early days of a revolution, Dwyer’s reporting finds heroism and success, betrayal and even, ultimately, tragedy in the hurtling pursuit of a cause.
A New York Times columnist given to fast-paced writing and the occasional metaphorical smashup, Dwyer met his protagonists when they were undergraduates at New York University, not long after two of them heard a lecture by Columbia professor Eben Moglen, a charismatic prophet of the digital apocalypse. What Facebook promises, Moglen declared, is that “I will give you free Web hosting and some (technological) doodads, and you get spying for free, all the time.” Well before Edward Snowden revealed the rapacious scale of U.S. digital eavesdropping, Moglen anticipated the vanishing of personal privacy and the commercialization of personal data.
His message found a receptive audience in the quartet of NYU students. Dan Grippi, a soft-spoken senior with Elvis hair and a pierced lip, was half-listening to a livestream of the lecture when it began to resonate. Two of his schoolmates, Max Salzberg and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, were at the lecture, transfixed. A fourth member of the NYU computer club, Raphael Sofaer, arrived near the end but embraced the concepts when his friends told him what they’d heard. They were seized with the idea of creating an alternative future: a social-media network that would allow users to decide what information they would share with whom — not require them to surrender their privacy to advertisers and other marketers who so often appear to have ubiquitous access to the photos, videos and text posted by users on Facebook and other commercial networks.
Their journey from the computer club in Room 311 of NYU’s math building to San Francisco’s anything’s-possible, frat-house tech scene gives Dwyer opportunities to detour into the camps of other rebels looking to change the world. Diaspora, for instance, became one of the first big projects to fund itself through Kickstarter, the Brooklyn-based network that allows users to end-run traditional lenders and investors and raise money in smaller sums directly from people inspired by an idea or vision. (One of the Diaspora campaign’s backers, it turned out, was Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and once a hacker himself.)
The trouble with even that kind of success, though, is that it creates insidious pressures to adopt the mainstream practices that led so many young technologists before to vast wealth and fame. Diaspora’s founders flirted clumsily and repeatedly with some of Silicon Valley’s biggest venture capitalists, though they ended up bonding with the team that ran Mozilla, a Web-browser group set up as a nonprofit foundation. They weighed an acquisition offer. They feuded over who should hold the title of chief executive.
Inevitably, these machinations had consequences. Gradually, the quartet’s easygoing harmony dissolved into uneasy dissonance. The youngest, Sofaer, whose elder brother played a big role in steering Diaspora, returned to New York to finish school. Zhitomirskiy, a brilliant, mathematically inclined Russian emigre with whose spirit, charm and brilliance Dwyer clearly is taken, slid tragically into depression.
But the very organizing principle of Diaspora kept the project moving. The young developers opted to make the project open-source, meaning that other developers and believers around the world could keep advancing it. At one point, 4,000 developers were following its code releases on a centralized platform called GitHub, and it had been translated into 32 languages. Millions of people have used Diaspora around the world.
An unwritten coda to Dwyer’s book came with Foley’s execution in August, one of several horrifying videotaped executions of hostages shared online. The trouble with many technologies available today is that good intentions mean little to those who would use them for other purposes. Early in his book, explaining the moral failure that drives idealists to action, Dwyer quotes an executive at a European company whose technology allowed Iran’s government to track political activists: “We are always at risk of finding that we have deployed technology that seemed appropriate for use by one government only to find it misused by the next.”
Alas, that is true even for the tools crafted by the best-intentioned idealists.
MORE AWESOME THAN MONEY
Four Boys and Their Quest to Save the World from Facebook
By Jim Dwyer
Viking. 374 pp. $27.95