power of the crowd

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.