Power of the Crowd Series: Number Four

Image: Desi Mendoza
It has been a while since we shared our initial thinking around the challenges facing the internet and we have had some excellent reaction to the discussion so far. We very much appreciate the feedback and it is pleasing to see this is a timely discussion. Everyone from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Wired and the Economist are all debating the impact and consequences that technology, particularly the Internet, is having on society. There have been many different solutions put forward as the best answer to deep rooted issues such as poverty, inequality and social mobility. We agree the current social and economic model, underpinned by the internet and other technologies, has not benefited everyone equally, but we are not convinced by the proposed solutions, such as universal basic income. Therefore, it is time to put forward our suggested response and open it up for further debate and improvement. As technologists we cannot solve all the complexities, but there are ways to use technology, especially an improved internet, to deliver a fairer, safer and inclusive society.

So how can improvements to our internet infrastructure benefit everyone?
At MaidSafe we believe the solution is community-led, hence why we talk about the Power of the Crowd; but for the crowd to be successful control has to shift from a handful of organisations to individual users and we have to develop an open, incentive-based economic model that rewards participation in a community. Technology will continue to play a sophisticated role, but it should be the enabler, not the source of problems and inequality. Above all those that develop the technology should not be allowed to retain an unhealthy level of control.

We believe this will go a long way to addressing the political/philosophical, rational and emotional debates outlined below.

The Political and Philosophical Challenge
No one has worked out how global societies should move forward in their relationship with technology. A lack of consensus means thinking is being informed by both rational and irrational ideas and uncertainty is becoming the only uncomfortable constant. As technologists we are excited by this uncertainty, but as humans we have instinctive responses to fear and threats, which should not be overlooked. While some describe a future that includes flying cars, autonomous vehicles and neural lace that blur the lines between robots and humans, others see no clear path forwards for themselves and their families. These people are what Guy Standing describes as the Precariat – a new class that has evolved as a result of the rapid advances in technology. This community has no job security, is burdened with debt and living in constant fear of social exclusion. They see robots and artificial intelligence as a threat. They look at the dominance of Google, Facebook and Amazon as unfair. Add to this the growing threat of cybercrime and desire for governments to use mass surveillance in the name of national security and it is easy to see why there is growing frustration. Inherent rights to self-determination, employment, privacy and security are being denied or stripped away.

The response of governments, policy makers and regulators are stuck in the 20th Century at best. They believe mass surveillance powers are the only way to combat cybercrime and terrorism, yet there is no evidence this approach works. To address the rapid address of technology they set up innovation funds to foster economic opportunities for future generations and commission academic bodies to analyse the social impact. Yet they skirt nervously around the big ugly question of control and ownership, particularly that exerted by the internet technology vendors. Jonathan Taplin argues that breaking up Google would lead to the same type of innovation explosion that accompanied the break-up of AT&T. Resorting to regulators always makes markets uneasy but you know there is a problem when even free market advocates like the Economist suggest regulation is required!

Rightly the Economist has identified that it is not technology that defines our current era. It is data and that ceding control of all our data to a few vendors is a bad idea. Furthermore the current regulatory model is not fit-for-purpose as it has failed to keep up with the pace of technological change. The answer is simple. We must switch control back to the user and give the individual the rights, education and skills to make informed decisions about how and when they engage with technology, and those providing products or services via the internet.

The Rational Problem
Perhaps where governments can effectively support this switch in control is to introduce regulation that changes the dynamics of the current internet-led economic model. The most radical answer would be a disbandment of existing intellectual property laws, which the likes of Guy Standing believe concentrate control in the hands of the few. Allowing a small number of companies to hold patents on crucial technologies enables them to defeat competition and maintain regular income flows. This is the key rational economic challenge to overcome. We have to ensure technology does not enhance disparity between the ‘haves and have nots’ but closes the gap.

At MaidSafe, we are sceptical regulation alone can address the economic disparity question. One idea would be that an international governing body oversees the internet and levies a tariff on internet companies, dividing the proceeds between countries to support the expansion of infrastructure and improvement of technical skills. This is unrealistic. Anyone observing the World Trade Organisation attempting to secure agreement on universal trade shows how hard countries find it to set aside national interests.

Another more radical approach is demanding greater adherence from internet companies to the principles of open source and the open web; in particular rebalancing what is considered intellectual property (IP), in order to improve accessibility. It is one of the main reasons why MaidSafe has made the underlying SAFE Network code available under the GPL license and transferred ownership of the underlying and defensive IP to the MaidSafe Foundation, a Scottish charity focussed on fostering education and innovation. Both Jonathan Taplin and Guy Standing talk about the internet companies being the landlords taking rent from those using their IP. We are not suggesting all protection for innovators be removed, but there is an argument that economically we have become over-reliant on patents and should reduce that dependency.

By encouraging the open sourcing of more critical infrastructure technologies it creates the potential for a more even playing field as a start point for those who want access to the internet. Of course the big technology companies will say their business models fundamentally rely on revenue streams from existing products to fund the next generation of products, but they appear to have forgotten that a lot of today’s products and services started out as publicly funded research projects. If commercial companies are going to secure a long-term revenue stream from rentable models then surely they must be encouraged to take a different approach to patents and IP.

More importantly, though it would show willingness from industry to address the even bigger issue of inclusion; despite technologists heralding ever growing numbers of people accessing the internet there are still far too many cut off from its opportunities. Ultimately, this is one issue the policy makers and governments have to address, but adopting a more open source approach can go some way to enabling greater access.
Image Slava Bowman

The Future is a Community-Led Movement
However, we believe the above options do not go far enough. Internet companies, particularly those obliged to report to Wall Street, will always struggle to balance commercial pressures against social good. That is why we have significant doubts about universal basic income, which the technology industry appears to be backing over-enthusiastically. On one level it appears arrogant, suggesting that ‘poor’ people should rely on a form of welfare system to make up for a lack of work. Perhaps we should all be grateful that the top 1% dole out hand outs, but the vast majority of people we know would be offended if their family and future generations had to rely on UBI to get by. It lacks innovative thinking – yes technology will take away jobs, but we also believe it will create new ones and new economic models. Frankly, UBI is not radical enough, borne of traditional approaches to the welfare state.

Our proposal is the network becomes a source of income and economic opportunity based on contribution and participation. Fundamentally it becomes a reward system, where individuals and communities can contribute and feel a sense of accomplishment based on their level of participation. Above all this should be a bottom up approach, led today by communities of like-minded individuals. Network technologies and reward mechanisms are being developed to empower communities to take control of their identities and be more fairly rewarded. This will mean we are less reliant on the dominant internet companies and not waiting for government policy to catch up.

It allows commercial companies still to profit, but it also means users and content producers get to share the spoils. We should be offering users a reward in return for access to their data and we should find innovative ways for users to monetise their computing resources. More and more households and communities will have sophisticated computing equipment which could be a source of capacity that could provide revenue streams when individuals are not working. For example, at MaidSafe we are developing Safecoin, which provides a fair reward and payment mechanism for access to data. Combined with the ability of the SAFE Network to identify the owner of each chunk of data it will be a better way for content producers (artists, bloggers and musicians alike) to receive payment, as well as paying users for access to their spare computing capacity.

The Emotional Challenge
We believe incentivising participation is crucial in addressing the final and most divisive challenge – the ambiguity that the rise of technology has created for many people. Understandably it has led many to react instinctively and angrily to the control of the internet oligarchy. People are worried machines will lead to widespread redundancies and ultimately long-term unemployment with no positive alternatives explained. The only way to address these concerns, which can become very emotive, is to create a community led response. Working together communities should be able to define opportunities, whether they are economic or social. The key is enablement and encouraging groups to work together, which again comes back to rewards and incentives. We already see a lot of this collaborative working in the SAFE Network Forum, which is moderated by members of the community, and MaidSafe is only a contributor.

Using incentives and open source technology will make participation both accessible and beneficial. It will allow groups to work through challenges and create very local solutions. For example, imagine a community-led computing facility that generated income to support the group by offering capacity to the SAFE Network. That income could be shared among the group or used in exchange for products and services with other communities via the platform.

Clearly it is hard to envisage this reality, while the SAFE Network is still in development, but the growth of the SAFE Network Forum emphasises the value of a community-led approach. There is a role for government in supporting these communities, making people aware of them and educating them on ways to participate. This is a central element of the inclusion issue. If governments and education institutions can provide the training and support to help citizens to understand the opportunities this model offers it will empower communities to find their own answers.

However, we should not wait for policy makers to catch up. We have left it to the politicians for too long to come up with the answers and they have failed. We will have far greater influence over our relationship with technology and how it affects our lives if we build a movement that mobilises around our needs. The vision is not one huge amorphous online community, but many different ones focused around common interests and needs, benefiting from open access, being rewarded for participation and being allowed far greater control of our personal data.

One final note to add. While this may seem like a huge and almost unmanageable challenge this is no different to any other stage in history where the pace of technological change has forced a rethink of our approach to society and economics. Take this example:

“The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.”

This was written in 1890 by Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis in the Harvard Law Review. Similar to today’s technology, advances in photography in the late 19th century were seen as seen as hugely disruptive to society. We survived that inflection point. We got some things right and some things wrong. I’m sure with a willingness to take some brave decisions and a community-led approach we will get through this next stage in our relationship with technology.

4 comments

  1. Interesting discussion! What makes you not convinced about universal basic income? Personally I’ve heard many good arguments from it’s proponents but mostly silence from it’s opponents.

    1. The arguments about UBI can and should become quite nuanced as it depends how it is implemented, but at a high level my feeling that it is unsustainable. UBI will remove the work incentive for many reducing tax receipts and the ability to pay for UBI and any other forms of welfare.

      This is a contentious point and one where there are multiple conflicting studies, but I remain unconvinced that this represents a serious solution.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  2. Hi Nick

    Thanks for this excellent post. I note that there is no title for Part 4. The phrase which sums up the article to me is “The Future is a Community-Led Movement”. I agree that this is the key method to address the problems and issues you have raised.

    To commence such a movement we need a Community vision, business model, business & investment case to activate the Community-Led Movement and provide an organised and coherent path to the desired outcomes. Any such vision/model must be holistic and represent the community as a whole including consumers, regions, SME’s, industry, Education, technology, charitable and government interests. I have heard this described as the 8 open intelligence tribes.

    It must provide the practical methodology, mutual reward system, action steps and a clear start point for representatives for these communities to come together for mutual benefit. In essense I understand the need that you describe is for a “community based market system/ecology” or what we call “community imarket”. What is a “community based market system/model”? How can it help/provide a Community Led movement the ability to self-organise to address the problems and issues you have raised?

    To assist the conversation following is a dot point summary of key points from your blog which a “community based market system/model” needs to deliver to. I have added a brief comment below each point to describe how the communitylink/imarket model we are working on is designed to address that need. This will enable us to progress to a discussion of a Community led vision, business model, business & investment which we call “Project CommunityLink” and hopefully a practical start point in the near future.

    • Imagine a community-led computing facility that generated income to support the group by offering capacity to the SAFE Network. That income could be shared among the group or used in exchange for products and services with other communities via the platform.

    The Project CommunityLink/community imarket business model involves the creation of “community hubs” or Community Development Centres (CDC’s) as the “missing link” and strategic & systemic point of leverage for a new community based market(place) system. This involves the establishment of a local LGA community base/owned Institution which is structured to bring all the community stakeholders together into a representative body to develop and manage the community-led computing facility that enables a virtual local community marketplace and generates income from with social, economic and physical functionality it supports.

    Our initial research into distributed network solutions to enable this led us initially to the BOINC system developed by Berkeley Uni/California, funded by American Science Foundation. It is used by the SETI program which uses 10,000 supporters who provide access to their unused computing power. BOINC gives the example of a $10K cost for a server combined with using underutilised Uni computing facilities to create the equivalent of a $5ml super computer and save $1ml p.a. in annual costs. The term used to describe this is Virtual Campus Super Computer (VCSC). So we were very excited to find Maidsafe and the SAFE community!

    Borrowing from here we have adopted the VCSC as a generic term to describe the community-led computing facility. The benefit of this that i. it connects the computing facility with the concept of a “Campus” and ii. positions the CDC as a new centre of learning in the community to introduce new ways of doing things e.g. contribute your unused computing power to support your community. Further the success of the Community-Led Movement, as a learning organisation of connected campuses, will be our ability to learn and adapt more quickly that our traditional industry system competitors

    • Above all this should be a bottom up approach, led today by communities of like-minded individuals. Network technologies and reward mechanisms are being developed to empower communities to take control of their identities and be more fairly rewarded.

    The Project communitylink/community imarket business model will enable communities to self organise in the creation of LGA based community marketplaces within a national & global marketplace to help foster and develop stronger communities by promoting local economic activity and participation in social, cultural, learning and civic activities, while leveraging the efficiency of a nation as a whole.

    The CommunityLink system is a new way of doing business. To achieve this goal we have “inserted industrial processes into a “community institution” which will enable communities to engage commercially with industry on an equal basis. As a dominant design it is possible that in a Community Access Interlink system “Community” may become a dominant business model via a community based market system designed to support the creation of Social Capital instead of purely financial capital returns as per the current industrial system.

    • Our proposal is the network becomes a source of income and economic opportunity based on contribution and participation. Fundamentally it becomes a reward system, where individuals and communities can contribute and feel a sense of accomplishment based on their level of participation.

    The CDC “Community marketplace” and community managed infrastructure will provide community interest groups, business and members the ability communicate and transact from a private secure space, generating advertising, sponsorship, commissions and transactional revenue for the CDC. Profits are distributed to community partners and projects which support social, economic & physical sustainability as per the social contract. (communityimarket is a mutual reward system!)

    • This will mean we are less reliant on the dominant internet companies and not waiting for government policy to catch up. The only way to address these concerns, which can become very emotive, is to create a community led response. Working together communities should be able to define opportunities, whether they are economic or social.

    Advertising, sponsorship, commissions and transactional revenue generated in the LGA/CDC stay with the local community and country rather than going to dominant internet companies offshore tax havens. Combining this with the aggregation of the buying power of all or even some of the LGA communities enabled through such a network removes the need for the current extent of marketing and retail store expenditure. Suppliers will generate increased profits and lower costs and, through community imarket return a share of this additional margin back to the community and consumer through lower costs and loyalty revenue streams. Recreating the local community virtually is the first step to virtual and physical interoperability. It must start locally and be bottom up with consumers and communities in control.

    • There is a role for government in supporting these communities, making people aware of them and educating them on ways to participate. This is a central element of the inclusion issue. If governments and education institutions can provide the training and support to help citizens to understand the opportunities this model offers it will empower communities to find their own answers.

    The CommunityLink model provides consumer, technology, regional, industry, education, Charitable and Govt Access representatives the ability to self organise to create a member driven decentralised community network system as a national resource. It is not reliant on government support however naturally supports the government agenda and the government has a mutual interest to participate. Education Institutions receive a systemic margin so it is in their mutual interest as well.

    • However, we should not wait for policy makers to catch up. We have left it to the politicians for too long to come up with the answers and they have failed. We will have far greater influence over our relationship with technology and how it affects our lives if we build a movement that mobilises around our needs.

    If approached correctly consumer, community, industry and societal stakeholders will drive the communitylinked SAFE data/peer to peer system solution and new social contract when the significant $$ & efficiency benefits which are returned to the all community stakeholders are presented simply. The cost/benefit analysis and user demand for the services will override the perceived loss of security objection/roadblock of some stakeholders i.e. government!

    The decentralized community network will be established by a community led movement and overseen by a supply and demand user representative established governance entity. This is the win-win proposition that will enable our communities to better control their destinies. CommunityLink is the next evolutionary step in the digital revolution following the establishment of the Domain Administration Authority system which I understand SAFE has the potential to replace.

    • The vision is not one huge amorphous online community, but many different ones focused around common interests and needs, benefiting from open access, being rewarded for participation and being allowed far greater control of our personal data.

    We are talking of a decentralised autonomous network of communities based around consumer ownership of personal data and permission based aggregated purchasing by their CDC within a community based marketplace designed to operate as a mutual reward system.

    • One final note to add. While this may seem like a huge and almost unmanageable challenge this is no different to any other stage in history where the pace of technological change has forced a rethink of our approach to society and economics.

    Dr Peter Senge of MIT (The Art and Practice of a Learning Organisation) introduced the concept of strategic leaps that result from ‘convergence’. His example was the leap from the biplane to the DC3 as a result of integrating five converging technologies. Society is at an evolutionary convergence point driven by the digital revolution for a strategic leap to “community based market system.” The SAFE network is one of those core converging technologies.

    In essence we see that a new dominant smart society system (a CL spanning org design which provides communities access to the ability to build interlinks/operability through the safenetwork) can be built at the centre of and eventually replace the current system.
    Rephrasing David Irvine’s comment in Power of the Crowd 2 into our language… our opportunity is to create a representative community of “shared ID close group” users establish a “data unidriot” overseeing “community access” & driving a Universal information account (UIA) as its core which starts as a SAFE farmer. In the imarket model a systemic margin from system revenues has been allocated to UIA holders to encourage contribution of unused computing resources, so this further strengthens the Safe farmer/Safecoin approach.

    We have a CDC imarket design spec with the social & economic functionality and tried to create a pilot CDC some years ago but could not find the “decentralised internet platform”. We were too early and it was too big a leap. So it was back to the drawing board to define the path of least resistance. Our conclusion is that the “community based market system” start point is through the IOT revolution. The global focus, investment and push to IOT/app connectivity for inter-regional and inter-industry data exchange and automation is huge and unstoppable!
    In essence I believe we must and if fact have no choice but to engage with this revolution if we are to progress the vision for a community based market ecology/smart sustainable society based on open data and a decentralised internet.

    On the back of this we have defined a Phase 1 smart city IOT driven physical infrastructure start point for a LGA CDC as part of a AU national IOT strategy. We have connected with key drivers which are progressing a community led approach already but need the business case and supporting distributed network solution. We have introduced SAFE.

    We have developed what we call a Phase 1 smart city Commercialisation strategy and business case which includes
    i. a draft roadmap to a Phase 1 SAFE CL IOT messaging testnet to enable CDC’s to deliver a smart city solution to an existing Council spec (this spec projects $100bl saving p.a. after 10 years or $5bl across 500 LGA’s nationally in au). This needs to be aligned to the new SAFE roadmap and hopefully becomes a future release candidate
    ii. the Investment case to support this
    iii. the project workstreams to the “Unidriot” style data global co-operation outcome David alluded to

    Having a single council client start point for the CDC (outsourcing to the peer to peer system) reduces the detail complexity to market enormously. In addition Councils are actively seeking (a Community Led) consumer and community driven “local industry platform” solution that is safe and secure. We are using their spec. We don’t have to convince them of the need just the how!! As I see it none of this can happen without the safenetwork.

    This can create the community imarket structure and base of commercial sustainability for the community based marketplace. It creates no structural impediment to the vision and if fact establishes the necessary governance and ICT foundations. Social and economic functionality can be added to the community marketplace later from a sustainable base.

    Nick apologies for the long post! The where and how to start the community led path from here is a different conversation we would like to have.

  3. Comments on Nick Lambert’s Posts – “The Power of the Crowd – Part 3 The Consequences of Change” and “ “The Power of the Crowd – Number 4”.
    Nick correctly identifies that we are at a crucial inflection point, not only as to the internet but much more deeply; as to how nation states interact with one another, how companies do business and what control should governments or any other entity have over individuals, taxation and privacy, and more.
    The brilliant conception and design created by the MaidSafe founders and Safe network developers for the first time ever empowers the masses to actually achieve what all the revolutionaries before them failed to achieve; here are a few examples;
    a. 99% of Americans are now worse off than they were under the yoke of England. They won their revolution and then progressively handed control to the banks, a few multinational corporations, intelligence agencies and the military industrial complex.
    b. The Russians thought they won their Bolshevik revolution by overthrowing the monarchy only to die or end up in slavery and servitude under Lenin, Stalin and then see their nation plundered during the Yeltsin regime.
    c. The French thought they won their revolution against the church and royalty but the finished up with Napoleon and he lost everything including millions of French dead.
    d. The US inspired genocidal war in Rwanda is one of many struggles of Africans that end in turmoil and the survivors are still impoverished and illiterate while their immense endowment of raw materials is plundered by foreigners.
    So we need to tread carefully, avoid socialist and fascist traps and I thought Ludwig von Mises could help us along the way. Here’s an extract from his Socialism: an Economic and Sociological Analysis:
    “No one can find a safe way out for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle. None can stand aside with unconcern; the interests of everyone hang on the result. Whether he chooses or not, every man is drawn into the great historical struggle, the decisive battle into which our epoch has plunged us”.
    – Ludwig von Mises – Socialism, Part V, Conclusion P 44 C.12 The Historical Significance of Modern Socialism

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