November 20, 2018
My last two blog installments discussed one diagnosis on the “Why” of our current quandary on the open Web: a growing trust and accountability deficit in online technologies, and in particular the Platforms companies. It seems, in fact, the Platforms and many others have benefited considerably from the Net’s openness, even as (other) intermediaries have faded away, or been rendered obsolete.
And yet, these same Platform companies seem not to be quite returning the favor. Per Nassim Nicholas Taleb, by privatizing their gains and offloading their externalities, they lack sufficient “skin in the game.” What, though, if we were able to go back, in a sense, to 1995, to the implicit social contract many of us believe we signed up to then? What if we could inject some authentic trust and accountability back into a more decentralized, edge-based system? What if it were OK to be “open” with the Internet again?
To be clear, this “What” proposal is not about returning to a halcyon past, or wiping clean the challenges of the present, or denying the tremendous virtues of progress. Nor is the intention to wholesale replace Ads+Data World, or move aside the Platforms. Rather, it is about creating for real people the viable alternative of a better collective future for the open Internet, informed in part by the lessons of recent history. Technologies recast as useful tools, markets reinvigorated as human engagement mechanisms, and public policy refocused on enabling crucial business inputs. In other words, real choice.
Introducing the GLIAnet Project
The Greek word for “glue” (as in, the social bonds of trust) is “glia.” Glia also happens to refer to those supportive structures in the human brain that enhance, and promote, and protect, our vulnerable neural pathways. These twin concepts, of trustworthiness and support, are key to the GLIAnet vision.
Beyond the options of enduring the status quo, or seeking heavy-handed regulation, this third path of the GLIAnet Project reintroduces the concept of an intermediary, standing between the User and the Internet. In this case, however, we can think of it more as a “counter-mediary,” an entity established specifically to promote the User’s interests. In this case, the countemediary is freely chosen by the User, from independent entities competing for that spot, to play a valuable set of User-driven roles.
That competition is based on who best can provide trust and accountability and support for the Web User’s particular situation in the world. This incentive structure can lead to a virtuous race to the top, rather than an unaccountable plunge to the bottom.
Why glial brain cells are a worthy metaphor.
“Here are cells that can build the brain of a fetus, direct the connection of its growing axons to wire up the nervous system, repair it after it is injured, sense impulses crackling through axons and hear synapses speaking, control the signals neurons use to communicate with one another at synapses, provide the energy source and substrates for neurotransmitters to neurons, couple large areas of synapses and neurons into functional groups, integrate and propagate the information they receive from neurons through their own private network, release neurotoxic or neuroprotective factors, plug and unplug synapses, move themselves in and out of the synaptic cleft, give birth to new neurons, communicate with the vascular and immune systems, insulate the neuronal lines of communication, and control the speed of impulse traffic through them.” (R. Douglas Fields, The Other Brain, at 306)
So, not surprisingly, Mother Nature got there first, by creating a comprehensive support system for the brain itself. To benefit Users in the digital era, we essentially can mimic and adopt these enhancement, promotion, and protection functions.
How would GLIAnet work? Starting again with the data -- our “Lifestreams.”
First and foremost, it’s about crafting an entirely different relationship with what has been labeled personal data. Meaning our daily lives, online and now offline.
In all our activities, human beings thrive on actual information. Certainly it can be of the past, but more often involves some mix of present states and future intentionalities. Perhaps that higher level of data remains locked away within me, or a close circle of friends and family, at my discretion. Or maybe, I am willing to invite in some parts of the world, based on a preexisting relationship or a mutual exchange of value. My present states and future intentionalities can be treated as a fluid continuum of data, information, and knowledge.
The incumbent Ads+Data World model cannot capture most of these value-rich areas. But basic trustworthiness and accountability can change that equation. Considerably. More voluntary access to more contextual data -- based on a trust relationship -- should translate into more relevant data that benefits the Web User and her chosen countermediaries. A constant two-way data flow between myself and the world, including present state and future intentionality, should be a far more valuable market commodity than mere inferences pieced together from one-time past decisions.
With sufficient levels of trust and accountability, in a commercial context a User would be more willing to share her data points. Not just about past practices -- that power drill purchase weeks ago, still following me in ads around the Web. But also present mental states, such as my sudden interest in that political rally across the street. Or future intentionality, like that big trip to Hawaii next month I’ve been actively planning.
The impact of such a shift would be immense. Interactions, commercial and otherwise, would become more relevant, more robust, more satisfying, for all sides. In the classic client-server computing relationship, more control and autonomy would move to the client side, ideally in a peer-to-peer configuration. In multisided platform terms, the User becomes more of a subject, and less of an object. In Shannon information terms, the signal of meaning rises, relative to background noise. Random bits and pieces of my past, present, and future can become an instantiation of my personal Lifestream.
Today, because of the perceived downside of sharing too much data with untrustworthy third (and even second) parties, much of the considerable upside from my Lifestream is wasted. But what if we could improve considerably upon the online data norm? As Doc Searls presciently described his future “Intention Economy,” free customers are more valuable than captive ones. What if we could get there by fashioning a new “countermedated” algorithm of trust?
A key component: the “Digital TrustMediary.”
A crucial element to GLIAnet is enabling new, more accountable, human-driven dynamics. Data then can become relevant information, and even more relevant knowledge -- my Lifestream -- which I can share with others as part of a mutual, consensual exchange of what I consider to be value.
In this new dynamic, the Web User can enter into a legally-binding, arm’s-length agreement with a trusted countermediary. Upon becoming part of this new commercial arrangement, this entity can be referred to as a “Digital TrustMediary.” As a User, I agree to compensate this Digital TrustMediary in some manner for the services and technologies it provides to me, my family, even my friends. And in return, this entity pledges to fully represent my unique interests, to both the online and offline worlds.
As we will see, the Digital TrustMediary would provide me with innovative services and robust support, such as virtual avatars, personal cloudlets, sovereign identity, portable connectivity, and owned devices, as well as full Lifestream protection and preservation. Using open standardized protocols and interfaces, the entity could act as a filtering conduit, through which flows selectively all of my interactions with the Platforms and the Web. In essence, the DTM helps present my human self to the world.
The Digital TrustMediary’s responsibilities could range from taking on mundane but still-important online tasks -- managing passwords, updating software, patching security holes, establishing privacy settings -- to more daunting cognitive burdens -- analyzing and providing guidance concerning the terms of service (ToS) of websites and applications. Using cutting-edge tech tools, the DTM also could establish a virtual “zone of trust and accountability” that protects the individual from unwanted outside intrusions.
Importantly, the DTM not only would help to manage virtual interactions, but also turn them down, or off. Rather than compelled to live in an always-on world (where being offline ends up a pricey luxury), we should be able to enjoy our own quiet zones of disconnection, away from the constant data flows. Room enough to be ourselves.
The Digital TrustMediary and I would have an actual understanding, freely agreed to by both sides. I would receive all the tangible benefits of accountability and trust that a mutually beneficial market transaction bestows. If I am satisfied with the relationship, my trust level rises, and I then can be more open to share my data Lifestream. That openness in turn creates more personal, social, and economic value, for both the User (relevant Web connections) and the DTM (relevant services and advertising).
If I am dissatisfied with something, I would have some recourse. After all, I have hired the Digital TrustMediary to represent solely my interests, by countermediating my Web interactions. As in any ordinary business relationship, broken client trust leaves me the ability to pursue various options (reputational, market, legal) to put things right.
And who could be this Digital TrustMediary? Practically anyone, or anything.
It would be up to the User.
For example, leading entities in the tech space could capitalize on their considerable existing trustworthiness with Users. Think Mozilla, WikiMedia, the Internet Archive.
But others could vie for your business as well, including any entity now in your life with whom you have an established trust relationship. Your favorite television broadcaster or radio station or newspaper. Your broadband provider. Your local bank, library, church, university, food co-op, coffee shop, political party. A government body. Or, an entity not yet born, including so-called distributed autonomous organizations (DOAs). Current Platform companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, would be free as well to compete to earn your trust -- so long as they played fairly, by the basic rules of the GLIAnet model.
As more than a few of these entities compete to become your Digital TrustMediary, you would possess the power of real choice, in a more trustworthy marketplace.
GLIAnet Part 4:
GLIAnet: A viable solution to consider