Hello! Recently we had the opportunity to catch up with Gabrielle Hibbert - a policy and technology consultant working for Least Authority, a Berlin-based company which focuses on security and aims to preserve privacy as a fundamental human right. We discussed decentralization, from the punk rock movement, to building a distributed, private networking future and all the challenges that come with it.
Dobrusia: I will start with a question on something that personally interests me the most: your research of the punk rock movement in Eastern Germany and the Soviet Union. I have been connected to the punk rock scene so I definitely think it was a great attempt to create a decentralized creative community. What were your motivations behind focusing on this topic and do you see any common features with the web3 / decentralization community?
Gabrielle: First, thank you for the great question. I do believe that even before I began to conceptualize the ramifications of web3, decentralized governance protocols, and the cypherpunk movement - my research and interest in the punk rock scenes of East Germany and the Soviet Union led me to think deeply about alternative governance models. I concentrated my studies on German and Russian Studies, but what I truly focused on was the evolution of governance under the Soviet and post-Soviet governments. As I progressed through my studies I simultaneously fell into a crowd of vocal punk musicians, performance artists, and socialists on campus - which I loved; it was an energy wholly unfamiliar to me as the child of former American diplomats. In between moshing at my friends’ basement shows, a colleague in my Russian language course recommended I listen to the 1988 album, Всё идёт по плану (Everything is going according to plan) by Grazhdanskaya Oborona. The weight of the title track, Всё идёт по плану knocked the class consciousness and distrust of ill-working governance into me. In effect, I was obsessed with not only the sound of Egor Letov, but of the political messages left behind in his work. It was my rumination on his lyrics and my addition of researching Zwitschermaschine, an East Berlin punk rock band that eventually became infiltrated by the Stasi, that led me to realize how formidable decentralized communities can form and iterate upon themselves. When I was in the depths of writing my thesis, the 2016 election was simultaneously trudging along. It was my first Presidential election that I was eligible to vote in and I remember feeling this great ambivalence: I was excited to cast my vote for the democracy and human rights I believed in, while also being in the throes of helplessness, knowing that whatever the outcome, the state apparatus would work, in the words of Egor Letov, “according to plan”. If you were to look at the punk scenes of the former Soviet Union and compare them to the web3 and decentralized community, you can see a ton of overlap. The fact being that centralized authorities were hostile to, and attempted to destroy the punk movement is something you see often in the powerplay between the web3 community and centralized authorities. Additionally, the fact that this ethos isn’t necessarily new is quite telling. Before the punk movement initialized, we had the proto-punk movement of the 1960s. Our modernized web3 community is an iteration of the experimental p2p networks conceptualized in the late 60s and mid-70s. Overall, there is a powerful symbiosis between counterculture and centralized authorities; not only does counterculture hold a mirror to centralized authorities, in my opinion it makes centralized authorities aware of the progressive ideals that they may be suppressing to maintain their version of the status quo.
Dobrusia: After being involved in researching the political landscape of Central-Eastern Europe you entered the blockchain and web3 industry and you are now helping other women and genderqueer individuals to do so as well. What are your own motivations and what are the strongest arguments for increasing diversity in tech?
Gabrielle: My own motivations are both incredibly personal but also empirical. For those who do not know, I taught and co-founded the first iteration of Bloom, an online blockchain and web3 developer program designed for and by women and genderqueer individuals. Like policy, tech is also a space that is incredibly homogenous. When I entered the tech space, individuals at MeetUp events and conferences were wondering what this spook (slang term in the US for government worker/political operative) was doing in the web3 space. For a while it was a bit uncomfortable navigating the space with people who did not have similar experiences as I. Additionally, I would be remiss to mention that as a Black woman I wanted to see other BIPOC people within the space as well. To give you some data, a 2014 study from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, shared that 7.4% of the ‘high tech’ workplace identify as Black. That’s a stark contrast to the percentage of Black people who work in private industries, which hovers around 14.4%. Part of my reasoning in trying to aid as many eligible women and genderqueer people within the space, was to boost the diversity in the space. Diversity is not a buzzword to me, but something incredibly necessary. Whether people like to acknowledge it or not, building and developing software and hardware is very similar to art. When you have a homogenous populace creating pieces of software, you will see similar variations. Using the art analogy, lived experience informs objective practice. The wider distribution of lived experiences could help bring in newer and fresher ideas into the space. You can see this first hand with the development and use of HeLa cells in microbiology - Henrietta Lacks, whose cells we use for cancer research and drug trials, are the cells of a Black woman. Whether we’re talking about microbiology or software engineering, more lived experiences from a diversity of engineers is paramount to accomplishing our greatest desires within the space.
Dobrusia: In one of your essays you say that you believe in a distributed, private networking future. What are the distinguishing features of your vision for the future and how do you think our society can get there?
Gabrielle: I believe we are currently building our distributed, private networking future. Whether you are a seasoned web3 expert or have never heard of the idea, I think as a global community we are moving toward more privacy, more distributive governance protocols, and less reliance on centralized public networks. I grew up when the internet was just becoming accessible to upper middle-class families in the United States; it was so fascinating to have the world in the palm of your hand. While people in my generation were navigating how to use major search engines, there was little talk about how these massive public networks would operate if individuals wanted more privacy. In the early aughts there was a push for individuals to connect with one another and to share as much information as they could about themselves, with little thought on the human rights violations that could arise from it. Since the onslaught of major geopolitical events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in mis(dis)information, I think individuals have begun to re-think the use of public networks. I value my privacy and with the rise in research geared toward zero knowledge proofing, it makes me hopeful that there can be a distributed networking future where technical and non-technical people can utilize forms of distributed networking and privacy enhancing technologies (PETs) like zk-SNARKs and IPFS. The future is always hard to conceptualize because none of us are oracles. However, I’ve tried to move beyond placing limitations on what the future can potentially hold. If you had asked me 5 years ago, I would say, “no, I think society can’t get there”, but I think that type of thinking is devastatingly limiting especially considering the state of our physical environment. To achieve that future, it starts with education. Without educating communities on the power of distributed consensus mechanisms and PETs we limit people advocating and researching for our future. I do want to make it clear that education can come in forms outside of the ivory tower. While I enjoy academia and places of higher learning, not everyone can or wants to use those institutions. Driving education using p2p networks is another way to support the guiding principles of the web3 community while also making education on what the future can look like accessible.
Dobrusia: What happens when you decentralize policy and bring it to the public? Can you share any insights from your research?
Gabrielle: First, I think that decentralizing policy, and more specifically decentralizing domestic or foreign policy will take methodical persistence and immense time. When I was thinking about the idea of decentralizing policy it was definitely more of an experimental question I had posed to myself. I hope to dive into this idea when I start my PhD, but at the moment I do believe that the fear of decentralizing authority coming from centralized authorities is stopping them from conceptualizing a new way of organizing society and government. A lot of that fear, I believe, is a fear of resetting power hierarchies. Since World War II, we’ve been more or less working from the economic and political frameworks created post-WWII (eg., Bretton Woods). There’s a rebalancing taking place, and you can see this with talks on decolonizing policy and education, “land-back” programs, and other rebalancing efforts. I’ve always been intrigued by imposed hierarchies and the construction of de facto and de jure societal governance. As we move toward building some of the ideas discussed during the cypherpunk movement, we must also think about how these efforts could impact the role of newer hierarchies which we have not thought of yet.
Dobrusia: You are currently working with Least Authority, a Berlin-based company committed to building and supporting the development of usable technology solutions and ethical business practices to advance digital security and preserve privacy as a fundamental human right. Can you share your thoughts on human rights and privacy?
Gabrielle: I could probably write a book about my thoughts on human rights and privacy, but I’ll succinctly share how human rights and privacy became a more central topic in my everyday life and career. As an American, it is considered unpatriotic to think about your individual privacy, especially after September 11th and the invocation of the 2001 PATRIOT Act and the Freedom of Information (FOIA) Act. Further, you are taught not to care about privacy in the United States, it’s almost uncouth to be concerned about your privacy. On top of that, I grew up the child of diplomats. Privacy was not something I could easily receive. Although I’ve lived around the world, I’ve also lived in areas that are heavily surveilled and this was just part of my world view. It wasn’t until graduate school that I began to reevaluate my conception of privacy and privacy as a human right. I met a colleague who works at another blockchain company who really helped me open my eyes to how deep American nonchalance with privacy goes. Basically, Americans have been fighting for privacy as a human right since the 1890s, “The Right to Privacy” by Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis. After working with this colleague and reading more about the American concept of privacy, I became obsessed with learning how to create more advanced systems for digital security and privacy preserving technology. I do think that this sentiment is changing in the United States. I believe when FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) came to testify in front of the United States Congress, many Americans began to rethink how privacy works with large tech companies. It became imperative to me that instead of taking this nonchalant view of privacy, I could create and use technology which can preserve my right to privacy. Working with Least Authority was in a sense, a dream come true, where I could work for and build a career with the type of technology that I believe in and support.
Dobrusia: What are the biggest challenges facing the web3/decentralization movement?
Gabrielle: Without a doubt UX/UI and adoption. There are many camps within the web3/decentralization movement who have differing opinions on UX/UI, but I believe that adoption is tied to the UX/UI. I do want to clarify that talking about UX/UI, I don’t necessarily want the interface to look like Instagram, Facebook, etc., but to be more accessible. Accessibility isn’t a conversation I’ve had with people within the web3 and blockchain community which is shocking. If the main goal is to boost adoption and use crypto everyday why are we not having conversations on accessibility and building better interfaces? I remember reading this amazing two part article entitled, “What happened to the Crypto Dream” by Arvind Narayanan and he really distilled how the two worlds of non-technical and technical people collide to create the obstacles we are seeing today. Not everyone is technical and there’s a steep learning curve that in my opinion does not need to be there. As technical people we can’t speak for the non-technical community because their challenges may not necessarily line up with ours. But because I talk to non-technical people fairly often I can get a sense of where those pain points are (e.g. UX/UI). Additionally, because I am so ingrained in the web3 and blockchain community, it’s easy for me to exist in the crypto bubble and live parts of the cypherpunk dream - but for the vast majority that may not be entirely possible.