the hi:project and the Digital Life Collective

The Digital Life Collective

This is the newsletter about the Digital Life Collective sent to hi:project subscribers 24th April 2017 and posted to the hi:project blog.


The hi:project team is collaborating with others interested in trustworthy and empowering technologies. We’re working to launch the Digital Life Collective and we'd love you to be part of it.

Now for anyone interested in the trials and tribulations of an ambitious, open-source, nonprofit vision such as the hi:project, I provide a fuller debrief below. For those who prefer their updates bitesize, everything you need is contained in the next six paragraphs.

You’ll recall the hi:project has some mighty challenges in its sights. We will help: solve personal data & privacy; secure a citizen-centric Internet of Things; transform accessibility & digital inclusion.

Just as for many free open source software projects, no-one profits with the hi:project but rather everyone because of it. And therein lies both the broad opportunity and the deep problem. If everyone secures the return on investment, if the profit cannot be privatised, who exactly is going to make the investment?

In other words, markets aren’t designed to address such particular potential, but that hasn’t stopped us appealing to commercial players – more on how that works below. Moreover, it doesn’t seem foundations can fund and foster such fundamental architecture. And our brush with academic funding was a brush off. In all, we’ve been working across four fronts, failing at these three, and seeing if we can succeed at the fourth.

At first the fourth appears counter-intuitive ... if the hi:project seemed too big, fifty of us have banded together so far to go bigger. The Digital Life Collective is a co-operative dedicated to “tech we trust for the world we want”, and today is the day we go all official. Today we put the incorporation paperwork in the post and invite you to become a co-founding member so that together we can give the market a miss for the moment, pause the powwow with foundations, give up grinding the grant applications … and start simply co-operating.

Technology of, by and for the people. Our tech, not their tech. Find out more now at www.diglife.com.

As for engineering the hi:project … well we’ll be making our case to the Collective in due time.

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The debrief

From the moment we started talking about the hi:project, we contrasted the user interface (UI) and the human interface (HI), the former describing the status quo in which you, the mere user, are actually the used, where you are in fact the product being sold, the civilian being controlled. By adopting HI as our terminology, we communicate the intent to reinstate your sovereignty, your dignity, your humanity.

In the ensuing four years we’ve witnessed a new type of UI emerge that feels sufficiently transformed as to warrant its own acronym. Some call them conversational interfaces, or intelligent personal assistants, or chatbots, which sounds ever so friendly. I prefer to name them after their primary function however … the surveillance interface (SI). Google Assistant. Amazon Alexa. Apple Siri. Microsoft Cortana. And Facebook appears intent on developing similar capabilities. The only thing more alarming than SI’s intrusive, opaque, and society-altering capabilities is the way in which tech pundits have ladled out the accolades, pundits whose worldview appears as limited as a magpie’s regard for shiny things.

Very very few companies are positioned to offer SI because it requires a huge amount of context (the surveillance ideally pre-dates the SI), enormous computing power, and therefore an existing dominant position in the consumer electronics and web services marketplace. Consequently, our global digital infrastructure is further centralized – saying that half a dozen companies are left in the race is likely an overestimate.

And yet it’s tricky to convey the criticality of decentralization. In the here and now it seems irrelevant compared to the facility to utter “Alexa, play Sheeran’s Shape of You”. We were invited to write an article on the topic by the World Wide Web Foundation, and we hope the title alone does it justice: Decentralization – a deep cause of causes you care about deeply.

We need to redecentralize the interface layer in ‘the stack’. We need to re-center things on you so you can chose to work with companies to create shared value rather than have them work on you. And we need to make sure everyone is invited.

Now I’ve touched on some of the context, here’s a brief look at the challenge we face trying to fund such an enterprise.

1. Foundations.

We haven’t spoken to every foundation with an Internet or Web related programme I’m sure. Nevertheless, the story I related in my last update (Feb 2016) hasn’t progressed any. We’re consistently aligned with these programmes, but our scope is waaaay too ambitious. As someone with more experience of foundations describes it ... if you’re transforming the relationship between civilians and their police service, then here’s some funding, but seek to reconfigure our relationships with all variety of public, private and governmental organizations and you’re clearly smoking something.

(For the record, she was merely employing metaphor.)

2. Academic research.

On the back of the hi:project, I find myself pursuing a PhD on the issues. This is wonderful. Less so my experience of a multi-university application for European funding. We failed. And personally speaking, it’s not something I have any intention of ever doing ever again ever.

3. Old-fashioned self-interest.

In Virtual Competition: The Promise and Perils of the Algorithm-Driven Economy (Nov 2016), the authors question whether the invisible hand of the market still holds sway over some of those very privileged companies I listed above. I spent a good part of 2015 and 2016 talking to tier 2 tech firms (i.e. massive firms who didn’t make this tier 1 algorithmic hegemony) about staying tier 2 forever and paying the tier 1 tollgates forever. Would they not rather invest together in re-levelling the playing field to everyone's benefit including their own?

I’m delighted we secured the interest of a well-known organization that hosts collaborative development of open, non-differentiating tech, but no breakthrough yet on securing collaborative investment from their members or beyond. Still working on it.

As it becomes increasingly obvious to the leadership and technologists across many sectors – automotive, financial services, home automation, healthcare, sports, entertainment, etc. – that they’ve been mediated out of contending for a direct relationship with any customer or indeed any stakeholder, this must change.

And so to our fourth way forward ...

4. Co-operation.

I recently learned two things about Franklin D. Roosevelt. He’s considered one of the top three US presidents (ref), and in a 1912 speech at the People’s Forum in New York he proclaimed: “Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.”

Competition has ‘left off’ and we’re left with growing, numbing centralization. We’re resigned to deepening, meticulous surveillance. We’re abdicating to the pervasive, unknowable influence of opaque algorithms. Where once others constructed digital profiles of us, we are now the mere biological shadows of these digital entities.

Hang on a minute, you say. Did he mention something earlier about smoking something?!... well allow me to ground this last observation.

When your home and car insurance premiums are determined, who exactly do you think the insurer is quantifying? The remote, inaccessible, biological you, or one or more of those digital fabrications? The latter of course, and irrespective of the corresponding omissions or accuracy. Now combine your lack of control over the digital entities that are taken to be you with your lack of control over your interface into and onto this digital world, and your situation doesn’t look too bright. Our situation doesn’t look too bright.

It’s plain to me that we can’t wait for tier 2 business leaders to wake up. If they only view things through the lens of direct competition, the best they can achieve is number 1 of tier 2.

No. We must co-operate amongst ourselves to address this mess, and they can come and co-operate with us once we’ve got things rolling.

The co-operative way dates back to the 18th Century, and the Rochdale principles set out the operational ideals for co-operatives in 1844. Working co-operatively is perfectly suited to our challenge here, and in an interesting synergy identified and championed by Platform Cooperativism, our work will actually enhance the vibrancy of the co-operative way in the digital age.

If we don’t co-operate to help ourselves, no-one will.

You’re invited to become a co-founder right now. You can find out more at www.diglife.com.

Best wishes, Philip @Sheldrake.

What do you think?...