“Tim’s been aware of us for quite a while and we’re obviously aware of him,” says David Irvine, with a smile.
As Chief Executive of Maidsafe, a decentralised internet company from Troon, Irvine has spent the past 10 years with very little fanfare or attention building a ‘new internet’, from the unlikeliest of locations.
The ‘Tim’ he references in this case is no less a figure than ‘Sir Tim Berners-Lee’, the father of the World Wide Web, who Irvine met in slightly bizarre circumstances a few months ago at the Internet Archive’s Decentralised Web Summit in San Francisco; Irvine was being grilled by ‘a chap’ who was demanding to know what the “killer app” was for his product, which is the SAFE Network.
As he was trying to explain his vision for an internet where users don’t “abdicate responsibility” for their data to tech giants for profit, where it is not held on remote servers, which can be hacked, a rather unexpected rejoinder came from over his shoulder. “What was the killer app with the Web 25 years ago?”, said the voice. When Irvine turned round, much to his surprise, he realised that Sir Tim Berners-Lee – whose 1989 proposal for a ‘universal linked information system’ became the internet as we know it – had been listening intently to the conversation.
Irvine says: “And I turned round and I said, ‘Oh, hi Tim, how you doing?’ It was Tim Berners-Lee [who] met me by sticking up for me in a bit of an argument with someone, which was great. He’s a really, really nice bloke, Tim. If you ever get a chance to meet him, I would definitely take it up because he’s very approachable, he’s extremely, extremely knowledgeable and he’s as passionate about the vision of his project as we are about ours.”
The two got chatting, and have since embarked on a shared endeavour; Solid is Sir Tim’s activist and technical response to correct what he perceives as a ‘monopolistic’ takeover of his orginal design. With Solid he wants to give users more say over what data they send to the likes of Facebook and Google; and the SAFE Network is the community name given to Maidsafe’s project, which is led by Irvine from an office in Ayr (the company has relocated from its former, slightly decaying, office building in Troon).
The company is small but has a global fanbase, a distributed developer network and “many thousands” of ordinary people who have invested in the technology, whose eventual network will be the users themselves: the goal is to create an entirely autonomous network, which requires no human intervention, and is based on Irvine’s observation of how an ant colony functions. Its value is hard to put a real figure on as the product – although there have been many test versions released – is still very much in development. Maidsafe is far from being a household name, and it’s quite possible that it never will be, but it is striking that Irvine is now in regular contact with Sir Tim (they exchange messages on GitHub) and his vision has also caught the imagination of Hollywood producers.
Silicon Valley, a sitcom which first aired on HBO in 2014, based the entirety of its fourth season on Maidsafe’s technology, when its characters envisioned a peer-to-peer internet powered by a network of mobile phones. Producers of the show approached Irvine to provide ‘input’ into how that might work and he ended up going to the US to be more hands-on in the creative process.
Irvine says: “We actually had to fly over to Hollywood, which was interesting, to Sony Studios; so, we were sitting having our cup of coffee next to the Ghostbusters car and what not. We had to give advice and we actually appeared in the credits of Season Four of Silicon Valley as a consultant for the show. We also, interestingly, appeared in this new Disney movie, Ralph Broke the Internet; [in] some part of that they’ve got the SAFE network logo when something happens in that show.”
“It seems that Hollywood and what not are probably more aware of us than anybody in Scotland is, which is interesting,” he adds.
Scotland’s largest technology cluster is Codebase in Edinburgh, which supports over 400 tech businesses and is the go-to place for many of the wannabe ‘next big things’; Joe Tree, the founder of Blipfoto, has had rich experience of Edinburgh’s tech scene and how easy it is to get carried away with the community’s own self-worth, contrasted against the realities of its achievements some might argue, and “being seen in all the right places”.
Maidsafe is not part of that eco-system and seems to eschew going to parties and events, in favour of getting on with the task at hand. It is not a name or brand that comes up in conversation, despite the fact its valuation on cryptocurrency exchanges has in the past exceeded $500m (again with the caveat that it’s still very much a conceptual entity); for that reason alone it is astonishing that hardly anyone in Scotland, and often times even the tech community itself, seems to have heard of them. If you check in to the Maidsafe online forums, however, you quickly realise the discussion has engaged a global audience in ways that the national tech community quite evidently hasn’t.
Irvine was one of the subjects of a recent Mozilla’s IRL podcast; he has featured in an aptly-titled Punk Rock Internet piece by the Guardian columnist John Harris, on computing.co.uk and on US tech news giant TechCrunch. There are also dozens of daily news bulletins on global crytocurrency exchanges which features price updates or commentary on Maidsafe. Irvine has presented at Google in Seattle, at the British Computer Society (for a Christmas Lecture) and many others. But when it comes to the media and interest in Scotland, the coverage has been virtually non-existent, save for a blog post and short piece five years ago in a Sunday newspaper.
As for Maidsafe’s value, the current market capitalisation has dropped to $58m, in line with most decentralised web-based cryptocurrencies, which have risen and fallen in line with the most well-known decentralised web technology of all, Bitcoin. But Irvine says: “So, we have a fairly high valuation but interestingly that valuation comes from thousands and thousands of smaller investors. And, to me, these are the people that will use the system and they’re the people that are buying into the dream.”
What is also interesting is that Maidsafe has turned down investment as it wants to keep its valuation low, and it has also helped out some of its competitors, financially. Irvine says if your goal is to cure cancer, then “would you really be upset if someone else cured cancer”? The company’s altruism is ultimately about turning the current business model of the internet on its head: where the users’ computers (or ‘nodes’) – and not third party servers – becomes the network itself.
Irvine says: “Tim [Berners-Lee] realised that what he created was a fantastic, fantastic tool but it was purely manipulated into a profit-driven industry; and when you’ve got profit-seeking businesses and directors of these businesses who are directed and held by a law to make more profit, the consumer always loses out. He, like us, realises that the product model of today’s internet is [that] the user is the product. So Google sell us, Facebook sell us to people, and they sell our information to people and lots of different people, they’re not all selling you washing machines. Tim’s of the same realisation as us that this is not the way the future goes. We know it doesn’t go like that anyway because I’ve said to many people that servers are such a terrible idea; if you look at Star Trek, you never see Kirk saying to Scotty, ‘Here, Scotty, can you sign into Google and send the Klingons a gmail message; we know there’s no servers of the future.”
David Irvine will speak at FutureScot’s forthcoming Digital Scotland annual conference on May 30 at the Technology & Innovation Centre in Glasgow. With thanks to Video3 Media.