Updated: Jan 4
Internet of Communities blog series part 2 of 8 (part 1)
In my last blog post, I started to look at how the innovations of IT over the last half century have created a world that its original innovators neither envisaged nor desired. At present, we are caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of two equally disturbing internets.
For most of us, the day to day internet is what I call corpnet - luring us in with wikipedia, next day deliveries, and the illusion of contact with celebrities, but stalked by the unfathomable AIs of Big Tech that, hiding in plain sight via layers of undecipherable contracts, harvest more and more intimate details of our personal lives in order to predict and modify our purchasing habits.
Then there is the darknet, apparently protected by layers of undecipherable cryptography (although not as well hidden as you might think), a confusing place that is really two places in one. To some, the darknet is the last refuge of civil liberties, disguising communications like onion bulbs (or, more recently, like garlic cloves) to give dissidents in oppressive regimes a voice and journalists a means to investigate abuses of power. To others, it is corpnet's sordid mirror, funded by criminal syndicates, where anyone can not only hide their money but trade in payment card numbers, identities, slaves, drugs, guns, and nefarious personal services. If you have ever wondered why Bitcoin has not yet crashed and burned, look to this side of the darknet.
Both internets are effectively beyond the rule of law, and both are expanding. Left unchecked, they will eventually transform civil society beyond recognition and weaken the power of human rights for much of the world's population. Even the libertarian aspect of the darknet is founded on the recognition that some people's human rights are not protected in law, a principle with terrifying consequences if it was to become more universal. General acceptance of the need to hide from your own government could dislodge a fundamental expectation of government, allowing it to change role from the guardian of our liberties to their repressor.
So, is there a third way? A liminal space in between corpnet and darknet? A blank canvas where we could learn from past mistakes, and use progressive ideas to build a new layer of Internet technology in which people and communities can thrive? An Internet of Communities?
Technology is not the obstacle. We already have tools such as permissioned blockchain that can help us build the Internet of Communities. However, they are not enough to help us design it. The Internet of Communities is a social space, so it must be based on a modern understanding of socio-politics and socio-economics - and to build a truly people-centered internet, we must recognise that humans evolved through social interaction, so connection with community has more impact than anything else on human wellness.
In my forthcoming book Supercommunities, I argue that we can best create a future for civil society by creating a new form of activism, which complements improvements to national and international policy and law by pushing for limited self-governance by communities of all sizes and types. A community may be a city, town, or rural area. It may also be defined in other ways, without or with less reference to geography.
The Internet of Communities must go further than allowing a choice of what is made public and what has restricted access. It must give communities of all kinds the ability to sustain a virtuous OODA loop, by providing them with tools to enlighten and empower their members. In an Internet of Communities, people step up to take responsibility not only for themselves but for those around them, and they have inherent accountability that derives from their personal knowledge of and connection with others around them. The Internet of Communities will be a key enabler for a community to become what I call a supercommunity - owned and managed by its members, so as to protect their own interests, the environment they live in, and the interests of their descendants.
Tech innovators are well aware that they must help society pull back from the brink, and are already trying to set boundaries on the harms that unfettered technologies can cause. Now it is time to go beyond damage limitation and think positively. Tech innovators must work with thought leaders in economics and politics to create a hopeful vision that is creative, dynamic, and inspiring. Rather than simply aiming to curb undesirable tendencies in technologies of the day, they must help others bring into being a world that recognises and rewards the inherent good in human nature.
Supercommunities need tech, but they are not based on tech. They are based on people.