We continue our series on blockchain and cryptocurrency by speaking with groundbreaking journalist, Maria Bustillos. Among other topics, we discuss her blockchain-supported publication, Popula, as well as the technology’s broader implications for journalism and society. By illuminating blockchain technology's usefulness in this space, she demonstrates just how far-reaching and wide-ranging its potential is, and how intuitively we all understand blockchain...even if we think we don't.
So let me just kind of open it to you in the most general way. Everyone thinks about blockchain in terms of bitcoin, in terms of cryptocurrency. But we’re starting to hear about it in terms of intellectual property and journalism. How does that work?
People lose their way when they just think, “Oh, there’s these fortunes being made and lost on this crazy fake money.” No, no, no. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about record-keeping and who gets to do it. Who gets to decide what lasts in the world and what doesn’t. I have completely dedicated my life to [those questions]. We’re basically remaking the internet, and that’s the purpose of it.
So this is about building, or perhaps democratizing, an incorruptible record of what’s been published?
Yes. To go back to bitcoin, all that is is just a way of keeping track of numbers. Just exactly like your bank account. You trust the bank to know what it was you put in and what it was you spent. They could make a mistake and you might not even ever know, right? Because you trust them. If you have a blockchain transaction, you do not have to do that because there’s like 20,000 witnesses to everything that happened. Those of us who were in on the internet from its early installment have become aware as [it] progressed that it’s a very, very imperfect record-keeping system. The government did not try to archive the internet. We don’t have any sort of global institutional entity whose role is to archive the internet and keep track of what people have written and said there. If it hadn’t been for Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive, we would have lost a substantial amount of the internet. I mean, publications have come and gone, servers have come and gone. People have moved and not taken good care of archives. And this is completely separate from [situations] like DNAinfo and Gothamist, where you have a billionaire owner who capriciously decided to get rid of the entire publication and torched the archives as well. So everybody who worked at DNAinfo couldn’t even get their clips [Ed: Copies of their published articles to put in their portfolios]. They have to go and get them from the internet archives. Even just link rot is a really huge problem. We’re publishing most of our information to the internet and there’s no archives of it. I mean, this is the raw material of history and it’s actually disappearing under our feet. [Back when] you had a newspaper, even if you lost a libel lawsuit and you had to retract a story, you did that by means of addenda, not by erasure. So like if you had a historian come years later, they wouldn’t always see the results of what somebody had later decided to remove. You would see the entire story like you do on Wikipedia, which preserves all of the versions of all of the stuff that people write there. That is the correct way to handle archival work. And now we have a means to doing this. So I’m as excited as heck about it.
How did you come to be involved in this?
Well, I started writing about blockchain technology in 2013 or so. Bitcoin was what we were talking about then. I was able to interview a lot of bitcoin pioneers like Gavin Andresen and Mike Caldwell, people who had really been on the ground on the development side. And it became evident to me early on from their remarks and the way they talked about it that the really valuable thing about blockchain had to do with its ability to produce incorruptible records. Again, all it is is a record-keeping system. The difference is, before you had record-keeping systems where you had a trusted authority. To renew your driver’s license, you asked the DMV. Your credit report, you asked Experian. And so on. Satoshi Nakamoto just happened to combine a cryptographic technique, peer-to-peer and so on to create a system where you would no longer need an authority. You could distribute records like this. And they will be infallible and incorruptible. Obviously as a journalist, that’s of interest. So I immediately was thinking, “How can we use this for archives and other kinds of record-keeping where corruption has been a problem or censorship has been a problem?” That’s been my focus from the beginning and it sort of grew from there.
And now you’re actually publishing on the blockchain, on a platform called Civil. How did that come about?
Well, at first, there wasn’t really any way to work on this. Even though I talked to a lot of different people, trying to look for ways where journalism could be [served] and see what it could do for us, it was too early for anybody to get their head around it. And then late last summer, I got this call out of the clear blue, from Josh Benson, one of the founders of the political blog Capital New York. He’s like, “We are building a publishing platform on the blockchain.” And I’m like, “Oh, my God. I’ve been waiting for this phone call for years, literally.” The words hadn’t left his mouth before I started screaming. So I have been all in on this thing since September. It’s the culmination of something I’ve been thinking about and working on for more than four years. The first thing that brought me to it is archival considerations. When I first got to Civil, they were like, “Make a publication and put it on here. We want to showcase some stuff to see what it can do.” And I told them, “Okay, I’ll do a publication. I want archives. It’s the first thing I want.” So everything that Popula, which is my publication, is going to publish on the Civil platform, all the text of it will be written straight into the Ethereum blockchain. And it cannot be altered. We’d have to shut the internet down to take these things off. And it will be just like it used to be when we had paper publishing.
You’re right about the fragility of web content. Between link rot and people saying, “I want this taken down,” it’s crazy how things can just disappear. And it’s like, “Those were real articles. This was real information. And it’s just gone?”
Yeah. A lot of things can happen [even when people try to do the right thing]. For example, [the editors at The Awl] have really done their best to preserve stuff, but the Awl proper did not keep their comments when they migrated to Medium. A lot of my best stuff at the Awl had beautiful comments that completely enriched the work. It’s a disaster that the people who’ll come and try to study it later are not going to see that really valuable stuff. I mean, unless we do something. And I think there will be a way to forensically reproduce and recreate the important things that we’ve lost. Because a lot of times you’ll find out later that somebody kept a copy of it. Bit by bit it turns out that somebody saved this and somebody saved that. It’s really painstaking, but I mean, it’s possible.
Do you and the writers that you work with on the platform find yourselves being more careful before you publish, knowing that if you make an error you can't just go in and correct it, that there is always going to be a ledger of the first published version?
Yeah, and that’s a good thing. It’s a good reminder that it matters what we say. The sobriety that you get from knowing that this is eternal is what everybody should have anyway, right?
When we interviewed MIT professor Christian Catalini, he pointed out that in his view, what differentiates true blockchain from a distributed ledger is incentivizing the creation of the blocks. Do you agree with that?
Yes, I basically agree. Blockchain was invented for the purpose of generating value, with a view to the creation of a ledger, right? The incentives are there so that those who are participating, who are running the software, paying for the electricity and so on, will have a reason to do so. But the incentives can be whatever you want. It’s conceivable that you could program a blockchain so that the incentives were altruistic in some way. Rachel Rosenfelt has a project called Bail Bloc. It’s a Monero-based project where you donate your time on your computer, your electricity, and it generates Monero that’s donated to a fund that pays for bail for prisoners. So you can have any incentive you like, and it can be some incentive that may not actually be money for the person running it. It’s like any software. You can make any rules that you want to.
And how is Civil built?
Civil runs on the Ethereum network, which is a whole different kettle of fish. Where bitcoin was invented to generate cryptocurrency and provide an alternative to those who had criticisms of the central banking system, Ethereum was developed to be a much more broader-based system. You can run applications of all kinds on it. It’s not strictly a currency system. It’s a system more like a platform for developing software that you can use blockchain for. Now, that’s what Civil is. And that’s where you’ll see the word “dApps” a lot, which means Distributed Applications. Civil is a blockchain-based system that runs peer-to-peer software, very like the way Napster ran its software: all the computers in the network share the work of processing. In the case of Napster, you had a peer-to-peer network of millions of computers sharing an enormous database of stolen music; in the case of Civil, you have tens of thousands of Ethereum nodes sharing the work of authenticating, publishing and archiving journalism. I mean, people are like, “I don’t understand it.” Yes, you do. If you used Napster, you understand it perfectly; it's computers all over the world, sharing work. The key difference is that these computers are also sharing an open record of exactly what takes place.
What’s the most common misperception you encounter when you try to discuss blockchain with people?
To me, when people just say “blockchain,” the most important distinction that’s most [often overlooked] is how the network is distributed. There were problems at bitcoin from the beginning, early on, because of certain interests who were trying to corner the market. Satoshi Nakamoto knew that there was going to be a sort of computational arms race when he invented this thing. You can see this even in his original writings, the few things we have that we know are signed and his. He knew that this was going to happen. But I don’t think that he exactly foretold the ability of people to corner the market like on A6 and stuff like that, which are specialized circuitry that go into specialized computers that made it possible for certain pools of bitcoin miners to gain a very, very strong advantage in the quantity of power and the amount of bitcoins they would control. So there have been problems of centralization that have happened as these technologies develop. Obviously they're going to have growing pains, right? At bitcoin, it became very profitable to try and control this really large amount of hash power. But you could also make the case that Bitmain or whoever the really powerful players are do not want to strangle the golden goose, right? They don’t want to get 51% of the hash power even if they could, because they would break the whole system and that will destroy their own wealth. So, you know, incentives are a complicated matter, and we are just finding out now about how all of that works.
What are some of the other ways this technology might change society?
When I first started talking to people about what we can do with this, one of the first things for me was this dream I have of people paying royalties back. Most people who have big digital libraries [of pirated songs] were looking for stuff and there was no other way to get it, right? Rarities that had disappeared from earth. I think a lot of people, if you gave them the chance, would pay their royalties. And if there were a way to do that anonymously, that would be cool, right? Because then you don’t get in trouble with RIAA or whatever. So years ago, when I first started learning about this stuff, I bought a domain called Open Guitar Case. And it’s a dream project of mine for the future to someday make it so that musicians could register, and so could individuals, anonymously. It would just look at your hard drive, figure out what music you have, calculate how much royalties you owe, and pay it to the musicians. We could build that now. I mean, it’s not going to be the first thing. I’ve got so many schemes. But that’s a dear one from many years ago.
How do you manage partiality when it comes to covering blockchain and related topics, since that is obviously such a passionate and integral thing for you and for your business? Do you have safeguards to make sure that you’re writing about it in a neutral way rather than in an editorially biased way?
As a journalist, I am not a view-from-nowhere guy in any sense of that term. I take the position that it’s healthier for people to know my biases and judge what I have to say according to that knowledge, though I’m sure I would feel differently about that if I were more of a straight news reporter. I often do deeply reported pieces that look at loads and loads of sources, talk to a lot of people and all that stuff. It’s quite rare that in my own work I pretend to even an attempt at objectivity. I try to present a global view of what I’m talking about, a world of which my own life, my own eyes, are necessarily a part.
That being said, I own cryptocurrency. Not a huge amount or anything, but in talking about my work now I have to be really careful not to be cheerleading for the whole crypto world, because people may get the wrong impression that my involvement in Civil is just something I’m trying to make money on.
I mean, I love crypto; I love gambling, and I love owning it and I’ve always loved the whole crypto world and its crazy risk and promise, but that’s not why I’m involved in this project, you know? I’m in it because I believe in the promise of blockchain technology for the future of journalism. A separate issue. And I’m really dedicating every minute of my life to this. Do I stand to make money from this project? Yes, I absolutely do. I’m not looking to get rich, but it’s what I’m doing for work. And if it goes well, I will make a living at it. But I try to be very careful and exact in describing my involvement. There’s so many scam ICOs, and right now, it’s just like the beginning of the internet, where there were millions and millions of scams and projects and ideas, you couldn’t tell which ones were going to have legs. Just this tsunami of activity. You’ll hear the same comparison made over and over but that’s because it’s true: It’s exactly like this now in the blockchain world. Some of it’s going to be great and some of it’s not going to work. And my strategy about blockchain technology isn't even really to cover it, or talk about it, or hype it. It’s to help create something that’s useful and great for people to use. That’s how I’m trying to show what I think it can do.
Maria Bustillos is a Los Angeles-based journalist, editor, and entrepreneur. Her bylines include The New Yorker, The Awl, Harper's, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Guardian, Times Literary Supplement.
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