Eben Moglen “sees way into the future,” says Salzberg of the professor’s Freedom Box. “We really like that conception, but there’s got to be a baby step.”
“Our baby step is we want to move people from websites that are not healthy to websites that are more healthy, because they’re transparent,” says Zhitomirskiy. “Even though a nontechnical person may not understand it, they’ll know there’s a community that has said, this is okay.
“Feel free to contribute!” adds Zhitomirskiy, as if speaking to the world.
“We heard everybody, and they want something that they can use,” adds Salzberg.
They know there are doubters, including programmers who find it unlikely that four inexperienced coders could pull off anything of this magnitude—whipping up a usable interface in one summer, then using it to magnetize a planet of users. One online manifesto called them “four fixie-hipster computer-science majors” and sneered, “Take a look at what these kids are selling for a moment—and yes, I said kids, because that’s what they are, kids. There isn’t even a product here, just a promise.”
But Moglen, at least, is onboard, despite the lack of a Freedom Box. “No society has been so entirely penetrated by informers,” he warns me by phone from India, where he is delivering the next in his series of speeches. “Facebook knows all your behaviors, Google knows your thoughts. Communist China was never able to use surveillance this well.”
The Diaspora* experiment may be as much a psychological wedge as a technological one, helping break through the denial of ordinary users. “People tell themselves, ‘I’m not important,’ ” says Moglen. “And ‘I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I care?’ And ‘Well, at least no human being is reading this e-mail.’ ” The potential for computers to predict, even shape, our behavior, by aggregating “the data dandruff of life” is beyond our comprehension, he argues—we simply can’t handle numbers that big. “We need to learn to see privacy as more than ‘the one secret I don’t want anyone to know.’ ”
But in Moglen’s view, a change is on its way. “The people who have short-term needs for more money and more power are an ancien régime on the verge of being swept away,” he predicts from Bangalore. “And the thing that sweeps them away is not utopian violence, but the technological sophistication of the kind of youngsters you are speaking of.”
On Saturday, Salzberg and I hike down to Noisebridge, the hacker community. It’s a large loft full of half-made robots and racks of transistors. There’s a framed poster for the movie Hackers and a handmade sign reading “Fucking Butterflies: How Do They Work?”
We sit on a beat-up sofa to discuss the challenges of coding what he calls “two separate but equal incantations, basically.” Salzberg ticks off the team’s personality styles, which show up in sharper contrast as they stumble, in pairs, toward the goalposts. “Me and Ilya are the pie-in-the-sky revolutionaries. Dan and Rafi are the pragmatic conservatives. Dan sees it as a product, a thing. Design is me and Dan. Encryption is Ilya and Rafi.” When the pairings work well, it’s wonderful, he says—you want your differences to strengthen your creation. But those tensions can also pull you apart.
Later, when I visit Zhitomirskiy’s room in their boardinghouse, I see a pile of books, including Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. On his computer monitor hangs a small yellow sticky, a positive affirmation reading, “This is exactly what I want to be doing. Proactively working on creating privacy-respecting ecosystem for innovation.”
“Max thinks it will make money,” argues Sofaer as we talk about the future of their project. The team has spoken to venture capitalists and others who want in on the project, although so far, they have remained independent.
“On Diaspora* itself, there’s no money to be made,” Zhitomirskiy insists. “But an open platform is good for anybody.” He’s perched on his windowsill, legs pulled up. “I don’t think we want to do ads. Ads are just like … meh. But that’s way down the line, and we’re not thinking about that.”
“We are making money, in that we’re making capital just from working on the project,” suggests Sofaer. Even if they fail to take down Facebook, Diaspora* would be an impressive line on a résumé.
“There’s something deeper than making money off stuff,” says Zhitomirskiy, gazing out at the air shaft. “Being a part of creating stuff for the universe is awesome.”
A month later, Diaspora* dumped its code—the “pre-alpha” release—which was now ready for open-source development.
Immediately, the web came alive. Some posters, including experienced developers, raged about security gaps (and others called the T-shirt logo “too spermy”), while defenders urged everyone to patch it, pitch in, fix it.