In Conversation with Mark Hernandez Motaghy

mai ishikawa sutton is the co-founder and editor of COMPOST, an online magazine about the digital commons, and project manager of Distributed.Press, an open-source publishing tool. They are also a contributor to Hypha Worker Co-operative, a non-profit based in Toronto that collaborates with communities to build better relationships with technology. In this conversation, mai discusses their role as a senior organizer of DWeb Camp, a tech conference hosted by the Internet Archive.

This summer, Mark from
Fortunately was welcomed to DWeb Camp as a fellow. A goal for DWeb is to build a more decentralized web, which, according to their statement, is "a web that is more private, reliable, secure, and open. A web with many winners—returning to the original vision of the World Wide Web and internet." Mark and mai reflect on their DWeb experience and explore where technology and the solidarity economy intersect.

Mark Hernandez Motaghy: Could you start by describing what you mean when you say "the digital commons"?

mai ishikawa sutton: I think of a digital commons as any digital technology with a community stewarding it for their shared use. Like any commons, what's key is not the resource—in this case, the code, the hardware, the networks, or the archive—it's the people's relationships that exercise it as a commons. There's no commons unless people are talking to each other and wanting to cultivate and use it together. My journey has been thinking about what that looks like in the context of technology, and across the different layers of the tech and network stack. How can we normalize a culture where technology is regarded and handled as a shared and accessible resource, a commons that supports other types of commons? 

I began to sketch out what form a healthy digital commons takes after learning what platform co-ops were. They’re platforms like apps, websites, or e-commerce sites that are owned and controlled by the workers, operators, or users of that platform. Essentially, they’re worker-owned co-ops or consumer co-ops that own digital services.1

Community networks are another example of a digital commons, where people control their means of connecting and networking. One community network I got involved in was the community mesh project in Oakland, California, called People's Open Network, right when net neutrality was really hitting a fever pitch. Net neutrality is where Internet Service Providers (ISPs) do not hinder the data that passes through their networks. An example of net neutrality violation would be a case in which an ISP throttled their customers’ data or discriminated against certain websites and apps to limit what their subscribers can see. The thing is, if ISPs had their subscribers' interests in mind, these wouldn't be issues that exist at all. Because community networks are controlled by their communities, they’re an alternative in the face of monopolistic ISPs that try to squeeze as much profit as they can from their customers. Other examples of digital commons are free and open-source software, digital cultural archives, and free and accessible research libraries. But again, these are just the resources I’m pointing to—they’re only a commons if people are actively stewarding them for community or public use.

Val Elefante. "DWeb Camp 2023: Coalition-Building Across the Tech Stack." Substack, 2023. 

MHM: One of the ways we can dive right into DWeb Camp is by talking about the last full day of the weeklong event called “Tomorrow.” The plan was to leave us without internet in the Redwoods of California in order to test our own hardware, applications, and protocols. What's funny is that the power actually happened to go out that morning [laughs]. We really had to rely on our tools and practice how the hell to make decisions together. Can you talk about the impetus for Tomorrow and how the concept of "decentralization" was put into practice within the DWeb Camp community?

mis: A central theme around DWeb camp is thinking about how the decentralized technologies that we're building can be used to solve problems today or tomorrow, instead of in this abstract future. So much of technology is driven and fueled by venture capital, as if people are betting which technologies are going to take over in the future and mediate all of our relationships. How can the decentralization of technology, and particularly the decentralization of power and control over technology, help people today? What if we're thinking about a more immediate future? It’s about paying attention to current, urgent problems and needs. We advocate for approaches to tech development that build in direct response to these needs, instead of building the tools first and then finding problems for technologies to fix after the fact. 

I want to reiterate that for us on the DWeb core organizing team, DWeb means decentralizing power, decentralizing control over our networks. That can happen at the protocol level, the hardware level, or even organizational, human level: ISPs as cooperatives or municipal community networks. It's about having more people participate and given a say over the design and creation, stewardship, and maintenance of technology so it serves people's needs. The problem with centrally organized systems is that their organization prevents them from properly paying attention to people's needs, particularly those whose interests continue to be marginalized. That’s certainly the case with big corporate tech companies.

So yeah, it was funny that on Tomorrow the power shut off since we were already planning to turn off the internet. We essentially created a situation where we purposefully shocked ourselves into thinking about the reality that a lot of people already face, which is unreliable power and internet connection. In that context, we spent the rest of the day talking about how we can utilize the decentralized approaches and technologies that we already know about to actually address these issues.

DWeb Camp 2023 at Camp Navarro in the redwoods of northern California. Photographs by Brad Shirakawa.

MHM: In the midst of all this, you also had a launch party at DWeb for the third issue of the magazine you co-founded, COMPOST. Congrats, again! 

What I admire about COMPOST is that it not only talks about digital commoning, it also enacts it by implementing Distributed Press.2 Distributed Press builds beginner-friendly, open-source publishing tools for the World Wide Web and DWeb, and COMPOST is a testing ground to try out those technologies. Can you talk about the synergy between these sister projects and how together they help democratize publishing and create a healthier digital commons?

mis: COMPOST and Distributed Press came out of DWeb Camp 2019, when the core organizers Ben Lau, Udit Vira, and I were thinking, “Why are we publishing to Medium?” Platforms like these don't actually care about writers or readers. Then when the pandemic hit, we really started to think and talk about what it would look like to create publishing tools that truly centered the needs of creators and writers. 

Being able to work with Ben and Udit—members of Toronto-based Hypha Worker Co-operative3was fertile ground for constructive conversation about ownership and control. We already agreed about certain things: we're not going to accept venture capital for this and we’re going to try to embed democratic governance into it. Having aligned principles really made things not just easier, but doable.

We also agreed to be transparent about how much we're paying authors and how much we're paying ourselves. A major issue that is still taboo to talk about in most spaces is money. How much are we paying each other? How are we deciding that? And I think the more we can normalize the transparent discussion of money within any project, whether it's volunteer or for-profit, the more we can work to dismantle elitism in our organizations and collectives. So, not only embedding these technical aspects into the magazine but also incorporating compensated creative work into both the organization and the magazine itself was core to the projects from the beginning.

DWeb Camp 2023 at Camp Navarro in the redwoods of northern California. Photographs by Brad Shirakawa.

Essentially, we decided to make decentralized publishing tools, and create a magazine alongside it that would showcase the tools we were building. We had a vision for the ideal DWeb magazine: a magazine that is accessible anywhere in the world, regardless of whether you have internet or not, and can be archived and copied, put on a thumb drive, and is accessible in torrents like on IPFS4 and Hypercore.5 So in some ways, COMPOST was developed first. What was amazing about that was, we put out our first issue, “Fertile Grounds,” and then Sutty, a tech worker co-op in Argentina, found out about us from reading that issue. 

Sutty builds a Content Management System (CMS), like WordPress for activist collectives in South America. And they were like, “Hey, we already have this CMS that spits out static websites. Maybe we should collaborate.” That was perfect for Distributed Press because the entire website needs to be self-contained and not reliant on external links or onerous plug-ins that’d require an internet connection to load pages. And those of us at Hypha were like, “Oh, yeah, hell yeah.” 

We eventually raised some money and now we're working together very closely on Distributed Press on their Sutty CMS. Now, you can publish your website to different DWeb protocols. We're doing this exciting thing with ActivityPub called the Social Inbox: your whole site will essentially have an account on ActivityPub, like Mastodon, and your whole post will be published there on the federated social network. And then people can comment on your post through social networks. As if you're posting a Tweet and then people comment on it, then you as the moderator of the site can accept those comments and post them as comments on your website. It's essentially dragging the comments section out of the website and into Mastodon. Mastodon is just one client of ActivityPub. 

So, we're trying to bridge the protocols that exist and remix different conceptions of social media publishing and figure out a way so that publishing doesn't become siloed. Our goal is for publishing to enable healthy dialogue and also steady livelihoods for creators.

MHM: In our current issue, we have a conversation with solidarity economy activist Francisco Perez, where we discuss why artists need a solidarity economy and why a solidarity economy needs artists. To circle back to a future digital commons by and for artists and writers, why is it essential for designers and builders of technologies to be integrated into the framework of the solidarity economy, and how does the solidarity economy benefit from the active participation of technologists?

mis: Technology is just as much a part of the economy as other goods and services. It needs to be designed, produced, maintained, and used and supported. If it's part of the economy, then it should also be embedded with principles of democratic control. Or at least, having proper feedback loops for people to decide how it's created, used, and maintained. 

When I think about a tech dystopian future, and increasingly, the present, I always come back to the fact that it's all dystopian because of capitalism. The people who are building, designing, and making these systems that we all have to rely on are building them solely for profit, thus leading to extractive and exploitative practices. That's why it's so messed up. If these systems weren't designed for exploitation, weren't designed only to maximize profit, we wouldn't be dealing with so many awful externalities of technologies that aren't designed for the public interest at all. 

On the flip side, the solidarity economy needs technology. Communication technologies are needed to help steward all the other kinds of commons. Now that we have these tools that enable people to share information, immediately communicate, vote on things, and see each other's humanity, those are all things that are integral to a healthy solidarity economy. 

Whether that's having better waste systems in our cities, or having better libraries, or clean waterways—there are all these things that we can't really do well unless we're in healthy communication because, again, a commons is defined by the social relationships of the people who are stewarding it in a healthy way. Digital communication technologies can enable that in a much easier way. Otherwise, the members of a community would have to all decide, "Okay, we're going to meet every Wednesday 10 am to 1 pm and we're all going to talk this out and make all the decisions together during this weekly time.” Which can and does work for people, but that’s likely not feasible for most people. Network technologies can allow communication and decision-making to happen asynchronously, and perhaps in a much more efficient way. That's my hope at least—for healthy solidarity-economy-built technologies that then also serve the solidarity economy outside of what is deemed “technology.”

1 Editor's note: For an example of a platform co-op, see Resonate.Coop. They are an international, open source, music streaming platform governed cooperatively and democratically by its members: artists, listeners, and workers. Resonate.Coop’s manifesto, along with an introduction by their Executive, brandon king, is included in this publication.


3  https://hypha.coop/

4 https://www.ipfs.tech/

5 https://docs.holepunch.to/building-blocks/hypercore