Last week I learned that a new technology platform lacking any vowels in its name had copied Berkeley’s soon-to-be-removed lecture recordings and re-published them on its own network, or space, or blockchain. The Berkeley story is important, and I hope to get to blog about it soon, but I’m also fascinated by LBRY.
LBRY is new to me, and I’m struggling to understand the thing. Is it a web publishing platform? Is it a blockchain platform? Is is a mashup of blockchain with bittorrent features? Is there a reference to a 60-year-old science fiction satire, “MS Fnd in a Lbry”? Is it a toaster or, in Brian Lamb‘s immortal words, is it a floor wax? What the heck is LBRY?
I put it to them on Twitter, and their answer was elegantly frustrating:
On reflection, that actually seems to be correct. It is all of these things.
Naturally I’m blogging to figure the thing out.
The LBRY site’s explanatory essay calls the thing a digital marketplace. Specifically, “LBRY is the first digital marketplace to be controlled by the market’s participants rather than a corporation or other 3rd-party.” Which is a huge claim.
The way they make this work is by abandoning the web. Sort of. You access LBRY content through web browsers, but instead of using http:// or https://, you use their lbry:// protocol. Like the web, every content item can have a unique identifier. Unlike the web, a payment function is built in to every act of publication. You have to run a bit of software on your machine, called LBRYNet.
That bit of software is where the torrent architecture comes in. As with torrent clients, LBRY users both consume and share: “it’s simple: you host what you download.” And that ties into the micropayment system:
While the LBRY app is running, it communicates to the network what content you’re making available. If somebody downloads content from you, you will recieve [sic] LBRY credits (LBC) for that.
That payment looks crucial to the whole enterprise. Everyone gets to buy and sell through “LBC, LBRY’s unit of credit.” I think it’s a distinct crypto-currency, not BitCoin, which can be exchanged, like the old Second Life money, or perhaps, more darkly, like a company town’s scrip.
They have an interesting plan for this credit system. Some of it (60%) is mined, Bitcoin-style, while some is “awarded” to good organizations, like the ACLU (unclear how that would work, exactly). You can get credits by hosting stuff through their services. And they have built in a way to grow currency valuation: “Eventually 1,000,000,000 LBC will exist, according to a defined schedule over 20 years. The schedule decays exponentially, with around 100,000,000 in the first year.”
I have questions and skepticism. For instance, the LBRY team has a very narrow view of the web:
Every other publishing system requires trusting an intermediary that can unilaterally change the rules on you. What happens when you build your business on YouTube or Amazon and they change fees? Or Apple drops your content because the Premier of China thought your comedy went too far?
Only LBRY consists of a known, promised set of rules that no one can unilaterally change.
What about the open web, with hosting your own content?
Moreover, the LBC sounds like a good micropayment system. But it also suggests the LBRY team is hoping to create a web domain gold rush:
The LBRY blockchain supports a specific set of commands that allows anyone to bid (in LBC) to control a LBRY name, which is a lot like a domain name. Whoever controls a name gets to describe what it contains, what it costs to access, who to pay, and where to find it. These names are sold in a continuous running auction.
So there’s some self-interest at least, and at worst a company store. The referral scheme (you get more credits for referring more people) is part of this.
Another problem: politics might appall some of us. For one, the representational politics are classic Silicon Valley. The design team and the advisory board are entirely male. They’re even more extreme than most, as all but one member are white, and the other is Asian. That’s probably because LBRY seems to be based in New Hampshire, which has those demographics.
For another, they are openly free market and libertarian. As in this interview,
LBRY is also inspired by Airbnb and Uber, as LBRY empowers small-scale entrepreneurs and increases the efficiency of under-utilized resources.
It was inspired by the love of markets and an appreciation for how they facilitate human flourishing. It is inspired by economics, the Coase theorem, and too much time listening to EconTalk.
That’s not a stance universally shared by academics. Mike Caulfield offers some criticism here.
One more challenge: they are open to sharing illegal or otherwise problematic content. They’re aiming for safe harbor status, in essence, hoping that users alone will be sued or otherwise sanctioned. That has some legal backing, but might not hold up.
One practical problem: this is not currently designed for the average user. Check out the “explorer” page:
So why would anyone in education be interested?
Exploration This is still very early days in LBRY, so there’s plenty of room to try things out. There aren’t any search tools, for instance. They seem to be lacking in Windows support. Certain academic disciplines might be intrigued. As a blockchain or p2p project LBRY might interest some in computer and information science. The emphasis on economically supporting art could engage economists, artists, and media studies people. Computer science and IT people might enjoy being able to play with the open source code.
Supporting freedom of expression and access This is a key ethos for the project. I know it doesn’t appeal to everyone in academia, at least as a major reason to do things. Freedom House points out the decline in liberalism worldwide. In the United States, some on the right want to corral speech they dislike (Trump wanting to sue journalists, etc.), as do some on the left (no free speech for fascists, etc.). But freedom of expression and inquiry remain a core value for some in education, and they might be interested in exploring LBRY thereby.
Institutional infrastructure Given the bittorrent aspect, campuses might expect some users to run LBRY for file sharing. IT departments might want to get ahead of them now. On the flip side, campus IT departments are more anxious about security than ever before. Perhaps hosting content on a crypto-slathered paltform like LBRY is worth the trial.
Let me end on a more speculative or historical note.
I’m not sure what LBRY suggests about the future of education. It certainly embodies a bunch of technology trends from the past 20 years, like p2p, bittorrent, opposition to intellectual property holders, anti-state-censorship, the problem of economically supporting artistic creation in digital venues, opposition to corporate control of digital content, not to mention the appetite for disruption and VC funding. The Berkeley story that kicked this off also draws together long-running trends: the struggle for visually impaired people to get accessibility (remember the early days of the Kindle reader?), universities running into financial crunches, the politics of supporting open education. So LBRY might tell us that all of these trends are alive and well, and we should expect to see them playing out in the future.
There’s certainly a historical, even retro flavor to this. It brings back memories of me explaining p2p software to faculty and ed tech folks at conferences, and talking with students about bit torrent. Heck, I remember teaching a class with Groove, back in the day. I’m not sure if this says more about my age or that these issues are deeply laid and still open.
I’m still not sure where blockchain is going as a movement. At the most ambitious it could be as broad as the web itself, offering a worldwide platform for content and development. Or it might end up as a niche, obsessed over by geeks.
Have you tried out LBRY? What am I missing?