Philip Sheldrake

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Category: hi:project

Why decentralization needs more than cryptonetworks – the Internetome

Aldous Huxley (1937) regarded the decentralization of industry and government necessary for a better society. Norbert Wiener’s insights (1950) into the dynamics and ethics of humans and large computer systems hinted at the advantages. Marshall McLuhan (1962) anticipated a shift from the centralized mechanical age to the decentralized electronic age, coining the term global village as shorthand for such a welcome outcome. E.F. Schumacher (1973) considered decentralization allied with freedom and one of “the truths revealed by nature’s living processes”. Steven Levy’s hacker ethic (1984) includes the tenet “mistrust authority – promote decentralization”. And Nicholas Negroponte (1995) regards decentralization as one of the four cardinal virtues of the information society (alongside globalization, harmonization and empowerment).

When centralization is mediated by an organization, governmental or corporate, its best interests must be aligned perfectly and continuously with the parties subject to its gravity in the mediating context – otherwise decentralization must be preferred to avoid the appropriation and erosion of those parties' valuable agency. Importantly, decentralization demands decentralization at every level without exception for any exception would be centralization. By definition.

This post aims to scope the challenge that still lies ahead to secure decentralization even with the rise and rise of cryptonetworks such as Ethereum. For more information about decentralization in general and why it's important, see Decentralization – a deep cause of causes you care about deeply, written for the World Wide Web Foundation.

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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. Read more

The unfreedom of filter bubbles – let’s pop the bloody things

bubbles
We could see it coming. Sort of.

I wrote a post titled myChannel back in 2005, a time without smartphones, Facebook, Twitter and news aggregators like Flipboard. YouTube was 17 days off launching. Reviewing the tech landscape I concluded:

... mass personalisation has become a ‘qualifying’ rather than ‘winning’ criteria. The advantages to the user include choice (of the most apt personalisation), collation, and access in their own time and filtering. ...The user, the recipient of news and information, the listener, the viewer, the inter-actor, has been empowered to set the schedule. It’s what they want, when they want it and how they want it. They have one channel ... and they own it. It is myChannel.

Seems I got some part right. Two thirds of Facebook users and 59% of Twitter users in the US get their personalised news from the social network. Facebook counts a quarter of the world's population as users.

Seems I got some part wrong, to our collective misery. My post referenced user choice of personalisation service, which is of course absent under monopoly conditions. And alarmingly, my assumption that the individual would own their own channel was way off target.

The Internet and the Web have been radically centralized in the intervening years. The network effect has left many abdicating their choice of media, exposure to ideas, facility to corroborate stories, and the opportunity to debate different points of view, to algorithms written by distant employees of centralised and centralising services whose commercial motivations do not necessarily extend to ensuring you get anything other than the instant gratification that your current viewpoint is spot on. You are right. They are wrong. Empathy be damned.

We've seen this with Brexit and during the US election this year.

Since 2011, the effect has become known as a filter bubble – automated information separation that isolates each of us in own cultural or ideological bubbles.

The hi:project intends to help sort out this mess by re-establishing each and everyone of us back in the driving seat of our own lives. I like this metaphor because driving entails responsibilities as well as rights.


Image source: By Jeff Kubina, BY-SA 2.0

Toward a social compact for digital privacy and security

toward a social compact for digital privacy and security, Global Commission on Internet Governance
Updated 16th September, embedding the videos of the session below.


The Global Commission on Internet Governance (ourinternet.org) was established in January 2014 to articulate and advance a strategic vision for the future of Internet governance. With work commencing in May 2014, the two-year project is conducting and supporting independent research on Internet-related dimensions of global public policy, culminating in an official commission report.

toward a social compact - Global Commission on Internet GovernanceThe Commission published a statement 15th April 2015 for the Global Conference on Cyberspace meeting in The Hague. It calls on the global community to build a new social compact between citizens and their elected representatives, the judiciary, law enforcement and intelligence agencies, business, civil society and the Internet technical community, with the goal of restoring trust and enhancing confidence in the Internet.

I have been invited to discuss this statement with Dame Professor Wendy Hall and Sir David Omand at a Web Science Institute event this afternoon.

The core elements advocated in building the new social compact are:

  1. Privacy and personal data protection as a fundamental human right
  2. The necessity and proportionality of surveillance
  3. Legal transparency and redress for unlawful surveillance
  4. Safeguarding online data and consumer awareness
  5. Big data and trust
  6. Strengthening private communications
  7. No back doors to private data
  8. Public awareness of good cyber-security practices
  9. Mutual assistance to curtail transborder cyber threats.

Here is the brief slidestack framing my contribution today:

Videos

Dame Professor Wendy Hall introduces session (1min 32sec)

Sir David Omand (12min 45sec)

Me (9min 35sec)

Different kinds of privacy, empowerment and autonomy – centralized versus decentralized

qs-watch[Originally posted to the hi:project blog.]

In an article in the Guardian last week, Professor Alex 'Sandy' Pentland mooted the potential for Google to cleave in two, with one part dedicated to providing a regulated bank-like service for data. Pentland directs the MIT Human Dynamics Lab and co-leads both the Big Data and the Personal Data and Privacy initiatives of the World Economic Forum, and I'm surprised how often his name crops up in my hi:project related research, yet I find it difficult to reconcile his observation here with his fluency in the power of decentralized networks:

Social physics strongly suggest that the [Adam Smith’s] invisible hand is more due to trust, cooperation and robustness properties of the person-to-person network of exchanges than it is due to any magic in the workings of the market. If we want to have a fair, stable society, we need to look to the network of exchanges between people, and not to market competition.

Pentland continues under the heading: How can we move from a market-centric to a human-centric society? Read more