At a conference visit, we received some great questions about the “whys,” “whats,” and “hows” of GLIAnet.
Q: So what’s a “glia?” Why do you call this the GLIAnet Project?
A: “Glia” is the Greek term for glue.
I can see three metaphorical meanings that are particularly relevant.
First, as the saying goes, “Trust is the social glue of relationships.” Today, there appears to be a fundamental lack of trust in our institutions, and by extension, the Internet. In markets, and in politics, and in ordinary human connections, trust is the key element in voluntary relationships, based on openness and mutual benefit.
Second, as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker (aka Spiderman), “With great power comes great responsibility.” To the extent that power and accountability have become unmoored on the Web, these two principles belong back together somehow. You could say, glued back together.
Third, refers to the glial networks in our brains. It’s a fascinating story. In the late 19th Century, while mapping the human brain, all scientists could see were the fast-moving electrical impulses passing through the grey matter of the neural networks. By contrast, the white matter glial cells, operating only on chemicals, were too slow moving to be readily observed.
And so was born the incorrect assumption that the glial networks’ only task is to glue together the neurons. As it turns out, we have discovered over the past decade that the glial cells are the fundamental support networks of the brain – protecting, promoting, repairing, enhancing. (Apparently Einstein had no more grey matter than normal, but far more white matter. Hmm.)
Today, each of us needs and deserves a Web-based counterpart to glial networks – a comprehensive variety of services and applications and offerings that together create a digital life support system.
Contrast this with Kevin Kelly’s Mirrorworld concept, which I discussed briefly in my remarks. An all encompassing reality, created for us, but by others. The notion of each of us with a digital life support system seems even more crucial in that disturbing context.
So, in brief, trust, accountability, and support describe three of the core human-empowering elements that are in short supply on the open Web today.
Q: How did we get here? What is your diagnosis on the Web’s current trust and accountability challenges?
A: I believe many of the problems stem from the prevailing business models and tremendous reach of the larger multisided online platforms.
That’s quite a mouthful, and in my talk I referred to them as “the MOPs.” These are companies such as Facebook and Google whose primary task is to soak up personal data, yours and mine, in exchange for some pretty great technology tools. And I’m sure most of us here have used and enjoyed those tools.
However, the consequences of this particular business model have been profound. The MOPs have created entire ecosystems that revolve around how they use -- and increasingly misuse -- information about you, and how much money they can make from it. And then sending you ads and news feeds and other content, based on what they want you to see. With little to no recourse on your part. That certainly seems to be an uneven exchange of value.
How did these unbalanced MOPs ecosystems come about? Over the past 20 years, the MOPs have been soaking up enormous benefits derived from the open Internet. You can classify them into three buckets: Web inputs, Net effects, and platform dynamics. And as it turns out, each of these elements derive from us, the Users. In simpler terms:
(1) Inputs from the Web: Basically, our data. By clicking on and reading an article, you have contributed inputs to the MOPs’ ecosystems. Also, by contributing content to a website -- a photo, a video, a comment, a review -- you have contributed content inputs to the MOPs’ ecosystem.
(2) Effects from the Internet: The more people who join a platform, the more attractive it becomes, and the more that other folks want to join as well, etc..
(3) Dynamics from the Platform: Following the profit motive. This is what Tim O’Reilly calls the “Wall Street algorithm” -- every platform activity carefully calibrated to drive user attention, maximizing every eyeball and every click.
So, this combination of factors had led to what is now the predominant business model of the Web. And a hugely successful one.
To be clear here, I am not saying that the MOPs and their ecosystems are evil. In fact, they have provided popular and innovative tools that most of us voluntarily use. But as certain types of companies, operating certain kinds of online platforms, their financial motivations to maximize the use of our personal data are pretty irresistible.
My only point is: “Why can’t we build another kind of ecosystem?” One with different incentive structures. One that gives each of us more breathing room to create our own interactions and experiences with the Web.
Q: In your talk at SXSW, you touched on some emerging technologies that will further deepen this unfortunate trust and accountability gap in the Web. Can you go into a bit more detail?
A: Sure. For starters, it’s a truism that all technologies are tools, which can be used in a variety of ways.
When they are embedded into the current “MOPs” ecosystems, these tools become subject to the same Web inputs, Net effects, and Platform dynamics I mentioned previously.
As it turns out, a host of cutting-edge technologies are being introduced, intended to become another set of tools to collect and control my data. And once the tech is established, we may be less able to break free from the dominant Platform-User paradigm. Some of these technologies are already here, but just becoming more effective and pervasive.
Maturation of Big Data: more sophisticated tools employed by data brokers, for data profiling and inferencing
Cloud computing: massive data processing and storage capabilities, sitting on server farms worldwide
AI algorithms: machines programmed by others, so they can constantly learn, adapt, evolve, and decide -- for us.
Other more advanced tech is being deployed as we speak.
Internet of Things: billions of devices and sensors, from fixed cameras to drones, everywhere in our physical environment.
Biometrics: are those technologies that measure and analyze our bodies and behavior and even our bearing -- facial recognition, voice recognition, iris scans, gait analysis, brain waves, DNA, and heartbeats. When layered on top of IoT, biometrics will give others a far deeper understanding of our emotions, thoughts, and desires;
Augmented reality: as Kevin Kelly notes in a Wired cover story, a completely immersive mirrorworld, with every atom linked to a corresponding bit; Kelly calls it a “total surveillance state.”
Quantum computing: all our bits will be processed thousands of times faster, and basic encryption protocols may become useless.
Taken together, these technologies will give some companies a near total profile of you and your world. And use it to their financial advantage.
Imagine, for example, a platform using facial recognition technology to analyze your emotions, and learning that when you are feeling sad you are prone to impulse purchases of expensive items—clothes, liquor, what have you. Then, the next time their sensors detect sadness in you, the algorithms will ply you with ads for that really pricey blazer you like—and maybe, at the same time, raise the price.
The point is—unless something changes, none of this tech will be within the end users’ direct control. What can we do, if anything? We should build alternative ecosystems that put people in charge. We need to democratize tech.