A new Internet for a new society

The old is collapsing around us. The new is being born. The present Internet has done its job. A better one is needed for the society we must build.

A new Internet for a new society

A doorway near to Trafalgar Square in London at around 8am. Your “virtual home” today is equally exposed to the digital elements, and unsafe from predatory people.

Evil is real: I have seen it firsthand, and felt it by proxy. At some point people of good conscience shout “enough!”. When they decide to act, nothing can stop them. We are now at that point in our civilisation.

Whilst the world around us may appear to be in chaos, I believe that very positive change is coming. Longstanding structures of enforced control and malevolent power face imminent collapse. This is to be welcomed.

All change involves both losses and gains, with the losses typically being experienced first. The resulting allure of fear is strong, and I believe that is presently an unhelpful response. Personally, I have never felt more optimistic about the future, no matter what difficulties lie ahead.

A key part of the ongoing change in our society is the Internet. Five years ago I wrote a book review that considered how the Internet had fallen short of many of its early utopian aspirations. We are now seeing the blossoming of the present prototype Internet, finally fulfilling its true potential.

An army of amateur analysts and miniature media moguls are pulling apart every event, spotting each false narrative and manipulated belief. Our access to personal experience and professional insight is unprecedented. To be uninformed is now a choice, not an external constraint of cost and capability.

For my American friends, the First Amendment protects your right to bear information weapons, just as the Second Amendment relates to kinetic arms. If there is a new American Revolution underway — and it increasingly seems to be so — the Internet is a key battleground. That the battle appears to be turning against the forces of darkness is to be greatly welcomed.

Whilst the Internet has offered us freedom to express ourselves and share ideas, this has come at a painful price. It is today dominated by companies like Google and Facebook whose ethos is to pry and spy with impunity. The architecture is bent and buckled by the vast flows of money to these creepy corporations.

The present Internet also falls short of what we technically expect in several critical respects. For instance, its global address space is a security nightmare. Its unreliable performance is the subject matter of comedy sketches. The cost of access is still beyond the reach of the poorest, inflated by inefficiency and complexity.

I am sure we would all wish for a future free from homeless people sleeping rough in fire exits. Everyone wants somewhere safe and comfortable to live, and deserves it, too. Likewise, we need “virtual homes” that are safe from unwarranted searches and seizures. This means learning from the mistakes of the past, and building something vastly superior for the future.

A new Internet would start from a different set of assumptions. It would be humanised first: starting from a bodily scale, and building outwards. It would embed self-sovereign identity as an axiom, so you wouldn’t need to rent identities from toll-extracting intermediaries. Hygiene factors like security and quality would be taken care of.

Most of all, it would be ethical by design. How so? The freedom of association — lost in the present Internet, which forces everyone to be associated to everyone else at all times — would be restored. You would have to make an explicit individual choice over whether to enable a route to any other entity.

This enables everyone to have the Internet of their preference, and to shun those who do not share their values. If you want an Internet that is free from pornographic pictures, content in Croat, or domains with the letter ‘d’ in them, that is your right to choose. Everyone can build their own virtual Internet, comprised of those subsystems that align to their values.

The power to shun embeds a natural asymmetry that naturally favours virtue over vice. When we exercise our freedom of association — say, by rallying on the street — then we risk being disrupted by violent forces. A small expenditure of energy has a large disruptive effect on freedom.

In contrast, the freedom of non-association — when we express our disapproval by not participating — is extremely costly to disrupt. When we don’t tune in, and when we don’t turn up, it is hard to drag us to the despot’s preferred destination. Thus our natural altruistic urges toward caring and cooperation can be more fully and safely expressed.

I suggest that the task we soon face is to dream of what a post-Google and Facebook-free Internet looks like, because we may find ourselves confronted with the exigent necessity to create it. For once we have discovered these do be evil, we are compelled to act.

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