Dominic Tarr is a computer programmer who grew up on a remote farm in New Zealand. Down in the antipodes, isolation is even more isolating. Getting goods, people, and information to and from Australasia for families like Tarr’s has always been difficult. Bad, unreliable internet service is a particular challenge. Australia and New Zealand are first-world countries with third-world latency.
Today, Tarr lives on a sailboat—another Kiwi staple, alongside sheep and distance. Connectivity is worse on the boat than on the farm, and even less reliable. But that’s by design rather than by misfortune. Tarr started living on the boat after burning out at a previous job and discovering that the peripatetic lifestyle suited him. Unreliable and sporadic internet connectivity became an interesting engineering challenge. What if isolation and disconnection could actually be desirable conditions for a computer network?
He built something called Secure Scuttlebutt, or SSB. It’s a decentralized system for sending messages to a specific community, rather than the global internet. It works by word of mouth. Instead of posting to an online service like Facebook or Twitter, Scuttlebutt applications hold onto their data locally. When a user runs into a friend, the system automatically synchronizes its stored updates with them via local-network transfer—or even by USB stick. Then the friend does likewise, and word spreads, slowly and deliberately.
For the contemporary internet user, it sounds like a bizarre proposition. Why make communication slower, inefficient, and reliant on random interactions between other people? But Tarr and others building SSB applications think it might solve many of the problems of today’s internet, giving people better and more granular control of their lives online and off.