personal data

The Power of Crowd – Part Three: the Consequences of Change

Photo: Alex Holyoake

As I outlined in the earlier articles I believe we are at a crucial inflection point for the internet. While it has become integral and beneficial to many people, the way it is currently being used strays from the principles of the open web, in terms of equality of access, freedom of speech and transparency. The worldwide web has left a small group of companies holding most of the financial clout, while users are regularly exposed to invasions of privacy or censorship. At an even more basic level, the infrastructure is not in place for a large part of the global population to access the internet. The problem is that we have gone beyond the point of no return in our reliance on the internet to go about our daily lives. It will only become more pervasive in the future, but if we stick to the current model we will only perpetuate the existing problems. Therefore, we must to consider more radical reform to create a fairer, safer and more open internet, in line with the original principles behind the open web.

However, such change will also have far reaching consequences for our daily lives. It could affect how nation states interact with one another. It could alter how companies do business and require people to make more of a financial contribution to receive online services. I would contend that if we can get these changes right they will benefit everyone. We can improve privacy for individuals, protect free speech and foster fairer economic opportunities for everyone. I am not just saying this as a biased technologist. Hopefully everyone can agree the internet has had a positive impact on communities around the world. It has supported the rise of the global middle class, even if that it has left us with a lop-sided “shared” economy. What gives me hope is that there are new technologies emerging such as the decentralized web and crypto-currencies, which create the possibility of very different ways for societies to interact and trade. Philosophically this will be a heated debate, especially if it means suggesting an alternative economic model to the tried and tested ones. However, if we accept the world is filled with significant social and economic imbalances, and that the current version of the internet is helping to exacerbate them, then surely we should air the alternatives? And if a new generation of internet technologies could offer innovation, which might have a positive effect on social mobility, then shouldn’t we consider these options and the consequent effects for economic models?

There are many different ideas floating around, some have been around for a long time, some are newer. They might seem abstract in a discussion about the future of the internet, but now is surely the time for bold, if not radical departures from traditional ways of doing things. For example, if the future internet gives individuals greater control over their data, what will that mean for those online businesses who have relied on access to our personal information? If we no longer want to surrender our sensitive data in return for free services, then how should companies trade with us? If companies are allowed to continue to make significant profits from online commerce, should we consider more radical forms of taxation to improve access to the internet for the wider population? Will traditional currency still be needed in the future or would it be more efficient to turn to crypto-currencies entirely? Should we apply the model of open source software more broadly to give more universal, affordable access to products and services? Or should we do away with net neutrality and tier access so that everyone receives a form of internet service, which is commensurate with what they are prepared to paid for?

No matter what your response is to these questions, there are diverse economic and social models emerging, which turn away from many of the accepted principles of free trade economics. Below is a small sample of the theories up for discussion. Would one of these models be more appropriate than what we have today, or should we be even more radical?

Circular economy
This concept has its origins in developing a more sustainable approach to the use and disposal of resources. Rather than a linear view of production as “make, use, dispose” it reflects the cyclical model of nature where nothing is wasted. It is a stretch to suggest it can be applied wholesale to reforming the internet, but some form of circular economy could be more inclusive. Perhaps concepts such as recycling could challenge how we view ownership, with the internet enabling new models of shared or rented usage. For example, we could encourage less car ownership by enabling travellers to receive crypto-rewards for using alternative or shared forms of transport; or we could create a scheme to help less connected communities receive travel allowances from car users, taken as a crypto-tax when they use their vehicles.

Tech-Led Trustless Systems
Johann Gevers has put forward a theory that next generation technologies are encouraging the decentralization of the core pillars of society. This has the potential to enable communities to operate and govern themselves in a different way. He describes it as trustless technology, which means technology exists that removes doubt about the validity of a transaction or a user’s identity. We can guarantee an individual’s identity, be confident about privacy and be sure there won’t be cases of fraud or security breaches because the decentralised model overcomes the issues of the past. Technology of trust is decentralizing:

  • The way we talk to one another, thanks to tools such as encryption which enable more private conversations.
  • The legal system, as it offers individuals greater choice in how decisions are adjudicated.
  • Production, because 3D Printing means there is less of a need for mass production.
  • Finance through the arrival of crypto-currencies.

The biggest challenge for these trustless systems is the large number of people around the world who remain undocumented. If this approach worked it could dramatically change how we structure societies – perhaps moving away from larger sprawling urban environments to smaller communities inter-connected via the internet with like-minded communities sharing economic opportunity.

Digital Distributism
I have mentioned this before but it is a theory put forward by Douglas Rushkoff, which suggests internet culture is giving birth to companies like Etsy and peer-to-peer communities, supported by crypto-currencies. These communities are seen as less global and do not follow the model of organizations like Google and Facebook attempting to rule the world. Rather than be solely driven by profit these smaller societies seek to support everyone within the group, sharing wealth rather than taking it out for individual gain. It harks back to a time before free market economics when societies were more self-sustaining and using barter systems to trade goods and services. It does rely on individuals sacrificing personal gain to support the group and inherently if one community is in a resource rich location, then it will start with an advantage over others.

While these theories might sound like the product of a Silicon Valley brainstorm facilitated by a student of Ayn Rand, they are symbolic of the very exciting debates that are happening today. You only have to look at the emergence of events such as Sonar D+ to realise that some are already well on the path to exploring what a world powered by a different sort of internet might be like. This debate should be much broader, including representatives of every political and social persuasion, because consensus is going to be critical if we are to find the right solutions.