The silent spring of the internet: cyberspace needs its stewards

Maybe it’s because of the events leading up to the Digital Economy Bill becoming an Act here in the UK. It’s been a bit like Chinese water torture for many months; then, more recently, as the BPI saw their chance to corrupt parliamentary process and took it, it felt more like being waterboarded. I have had it up to here with people who think the internet was built to become a distribution mechanism for Hollywood and Universal Music and David Geffen.

My first objection to the Digital Economy Bill was to do with technical difficulties in proving who downloaded what: the complexity and inefficacy of technical solutions, the guaranteed waste of time and money, the likelihood of erroneous accusations, the unwanted consequence of driving dissent underground. My second objection was to do with the nature of the punishment, completely out of proportion with the crime, possibly illegal in human rights terms and with definite and unnecessary collateral damage on non-participants. My third objection was to do with the manipulation of data, the extrapolation of questionable samples into WMD-like justifications, but then I have to accept that statistics and lies have been kissing cousins for many years now. My fourth objection was to to with the corruption of process, the way the Bill was timed, how debate was avoided, how all parties achieved nothing but grubbiness in the process. And my final objection was to do with the people involved, the vestedness of their interests.

Many of us who opposed the Bill vehemently were quite happy to see legitimate and proportionate action taken against thieves. Legitimate. Proportionate. Against thieves. Sadly the Bill had nothing to do with words like those.

The industry lobby did their work well. Now we have to get used to a world where filesharing and downloading are both wrongly equated with theft, where damaging action can be taken on mere suspicion, and where dictatorial powers may be assumed almost at will. All to try and hold on to a dying business model. There will be consequences, unexpected consequences. [For those of you who are interested, I wrote about the data here, here and here, about the Bill’s inappropriateness of punishment here, about the unreasonable bias here and about the core issues related to the Bill here and here. And if you want to understand how retrograde all this is, read this. ]

What’s done is done. And we will live with the consequences. And learn from them, and maybe even change as a result. The Digital Economy Bill was a skirmish, maybe even a battle, but it wasn’t the war.

The War is about the internet: what it is, what it means, what it stands for, how it works, who it works for, and many such related questions.

It’s been an interesting week or so in this context.

Apple and their SDK terms; Twitter and Tweetie; the Appeals Court and their ruling on the FCC and Net Neutrality; Microsoft and Kin. European telcos catching the Ed Whitacre disease. All this in an environment that has Google and ChinaAndroid, the Droid and the Nexus One, all apparently living in perfect harmony.

By the pricking of my thumbs…..

I think we’re heading towards the cyber equivalent of what Rachel Carson saw and understood when she wrote Silent Spring nearly 50 years ago, having established her reputation with The Sea Around Us.

  • The internet is a sea around us, and we’re polluting it. We’re polluting it for short-term gain, we’re polluting it without really understanding the ecosystem that has evolved around it, the creatures that live in it.
  • The internet is an ocean around us, still somewhat unknown, still being mapped. It is capable of nourishing and sustaining us, capable of supporting and encouraging trade and commerce, capable of giving us incredible enjoyment, helping keep us clean and healthy.
  • The internet is all the rivers around us, capable of being dammed and isolated, capable of being corrupted and polluted at industrial levels, capable of being poisoned, capable of drying up, capable of killing us.

[And yes, the internet is capable of supporting piracy as well. But let us first understand what extreme nonrival goods are, how copyright infringements are different from theft. If Labour use unlicensed images in a campaign advertisement, is it called theft? When John Fogarty can be accused of plagiarising himself, is it called theft?]

We will soon begin to understand what the internet is. What identity means in an internet context. What intellectual property means in an internet context. The establishment of a Web Science Trust may well accelerate all this.

When we do learn about all this, we will begin to enact laws. Laws that protect the internet. Laws that make criminals of people who damage the internet.

Rachel Carson may have helped us with an understanding of what it is to become stewards of physical space. We now need to become stewards of cyberspace as well.

In that sense, the Digital Economy Bill may actually be a godsend, bringing together disparate groups of people with common, passionately held aims.

Musing about “sharing” and privacy

Over the last few years, with the continuing evolution of social media, there’s been a proliferation of tools that help people share information, experiences, opinions, even actions and status.  Devices have gotten “smarter” and more ubiquitous, and as a result, sharing has been made possible in more forms than before: audio, image, video and text. And, as the communications infrastructure has improved, it has meant that the things that get shared get shared more quickly.

During all this time, much has been written about privacy and confidentiality, and about the risks and dangers of sharing. I remember when the “semantic web” was beginning to get traction four years ago, there was an ACLU video that explained the “dangers” of “ordering pizza in the future”. When I had my heart attack and blogged about it, I was told how career-limiting that would be, how I would become unemployable as a result. More recently, we’ve had sites like PleaseRobMe, informing the world at large about empty homes using public signals and status information, in the hope that people will learn to be more careful about sharing such information.

It’s not just about the information people share as individuals, we’ve also had concerns about stuff we make available communally. Take this site for example:

A site that published the location and movement of ships. Fascinating, even mesmerising for some. And a godsend to Somalian pirates.

It doesn’t matter who’s telling the story, the moral has been the same. Sharing creates risk.  I want to talk about sharing.

1. Sharing is an inherently vulnerable act

It’s like this blog. Here I share what I think. By sharing what I think, I make myself vulnerable to you, the reader. And you can choose to comment constructively or destructively, to provide feedback, to withhold criticism or even praise. From my perspective, a blog with comments permanently closed is not a blog. You might as well have a marriage with a prenuptial agreement. Because what you’re doing is taking something that is about being vulnerable and trying to remove the vulnerability from it. Take legal separation. One of the ways that people define legal separation is by using the phrase a mensa et thoro, “from bed and board”. Sharing bed and board is a vulnerable thing to do. You’re at your most defenceless in those contexts.

2. Sharing is a state of mind, a mindset, a culture

I grew up in a Hindu Undivided Family in Calcutta, the eldest of five siblings. [So I’m a product of a patriarchal, male chauvinist society, on paper anyway….You wouldn’t dare use those words in front of my paternal grandmother, who passed away recently, in 2006. Patriarchal society indeed!] The extended family lived under one roof, and we shared everything. Our time, our interests, even our friends. As a teenager I would often come home to find that “friends of mine” had been there all afternoon, even though I’d been elsewhere. Because the friends were friends of the family, a shared resource. In such environments, sharing is in our blood. In the past year, I’ve seen every sibling, maybe half a dozen cousins, and every time I see them it feels like Yesterday Once More. This Christmas, a bunch of us are hoping to meet up in Calcutta, remember times past and have a rollicking time. You know something? We had rollicking times. Every day. Yes there were fights, yes everything wasn’t always sweetness and light, but in the main we’ve stayed very close. Because we were born that way, raised that way.

3. Sharing is about being in a covenant relationship

I’ve been brought up to believe that there are two types of relationship, covenant and contract. In a contract relationship, it’s all about privacy. The contract sets out separate recourse in the event of breach. The two parties in a contract are inherently separate. As against this, in a covenant relationship, it’s all about sharing. The covenant sets out what the people in the covenant do together when things go wrong. As I’ve said before, in a contract you answer the question “Who pays?”; in a covenant you answer the question “How do we fix this?”. Whenever I think about sharing, whenever I think about being in a covenant relationship, I am reminded of the words spoken by Ruth to Naomi in the Old Testament:

Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.

Now that’s what I call a covenant.

4. Sharing has its conventions and norms

It isn’t just privacy that comes with conventions and norms; sharing does that as well. Let’s take an example. In the West, in social circles, particularly amongst youth, I’ve seen bottles shared, passed on from hand to hand. And from mouth to mouth. This just wouldn’t happen in India, where there’s this concept of “thu”, when something has been touched by someone’s saliva. So when you passed a bottle from hand to hand in India, you would drink from the bottle without the bottle touching your lips or mouth. And this had to be done visibly and demonstrably. [This practice served me very well when I first had to drink a yard of ale].

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons and used on a CC-BY-SA-2.5 licence, attributed, with thanks, to Lee Tucker

5. Sharing needs to be done by design

The cultural conventions about sharing and not-sharing become even more interesting when it comes to food. In India it was common practice for me to be walking home from school or university and inviting five or ten friends to come home with me, joining the family for a meal. That’s part of what 6/2 Moira Street was about. On any given day, there were a dozen “guests” in evidence at home, sometimes more. Friends of the family, the extended family, neighbours. Some days it was the Rangaswamis’ turn, some days the Kapoors’, some days the Sillimans’. Different groups congregated on different floors and then meandered about from floor to floor, from flat to flat, interchanging seamlessly. And somehow the families coped, food never ran out. Cups of tea and coffee aplenty, snacks appearing as if by magic. A culture of hospitality. [Note: in order to protect the innocent all the names have been retained. You have been warned.]

And then I came to England. People were hospitable here as well, don’t get me wrong. I was received warmly, very warmly. But there was a difference, best described by example. Sometime before we got married (over 25 years ago) one day we were having guests for dinner. On the way home from work, I got talking to a friend and invited him to join us. This was before the days of mobile phones. So I turned up at home with an extra guest. Which was fine, except that dinner that night was steak. And the number of steaks equalled the number of original guests, with no spares. Which meant I had to “make up” a portion for myself by shaving bits off everyone else’s steak.

You see, I never had to face this in India. Because the dishes were naturally designed to be shared, to be extensible. You added a little more rice. Diluted the daal. Chopped a few more vegetables. Made a few more chapatis.

6. There is such a thing as oversharing

It’s been an interesting time these past years, playing around with social media. Tools for sharing have grown more sophisticated and more comprehensive as the concepts of  lifestreaming, and of what Clay Spinuzzi called ambient signalling, have evolved. It’s worth taking a look at what Nick Felton and gang have been doing, and at the services that have been spawned as a result, like Daytum.

Particularly when it comes to lifestreaming, there is such a thing as too much information; if you have the right feedback loops, you will find out soon enough. Because your signal will turn into noise, and the people you’re in touch with will tell you to turn the noise down. So you need to be careful when you share what you’re doing, that you don’t overload the sharing mechanism. It’s worth reading Danah Boyd’s writings on this subject: here’s an example.

7. Sharing involves sacrifice

I love the Wikipedia definition of sharing: Sharing is the joint use of a resource or space. In its narrow sense, it refers to joint or alternating use of an inherently finite good, such as a common pasture or a shared residence. Inherently finite. What a nice turn of phrase. I guess one of the most “inherently finite” things we come across is time. Our own time on earth. So we make choices with our time, there is an opportunity cost in its usage. [Incidentally, that is why, given its inherent “nonrival good” nature, it makes no sense to hoard information and ideas. But that’s a whole ‘nother ball game.]

8. There is accountability in sharing

I’ve always been struck by something Clay Shirky said about wikis, more particularly about why Wikipedia was successful: I paraphrase it as “if you can keep the cost of repair at least as low as the cost of damage, then good things happen.” Look at what happens with chewing gum and with graffiti, two things where the cost of damage is lower than the cost of repair. You see? Not everyone wants to share, there are selfish people about, and Hardin’s Tragedy of The Commons is a real thing. But people can be accountable in shared space, and this is something we need to learn more about and to encourage.

Which brings me to the whole point of this post.


Otherwise known as accountability in a shared space.

Complex global issues: the eradication of poverty,  stopping malnutrition and disease, stabilising climate change, preserving our environment: these are not going to be solved by individuals acting alone with walls of intense privacy around them. They can only be solved by people working together in covenant relationships. They can only be solved by people making themselves vulnerable, people sharing, people acting responsibly and accountably.

Lifestreaming is also about democratised collection of data, the aggregation of minutiae about movement, weather, climate, food, whatever. In the same way as 17th century ships’ captains’ logs have given us insights into climate change, there is a lot we can learn about what’s happening around us by sifting through the apparently boring detail of our lives. In his TED talk, David Cameron spoke about Transparency, Accountability and Choice, and mentioned his intention to publish personal, average and “best of breed” details of carbon footprint, by household, as a means of effecting behavioural change.

Stewardship. It’s a collective thing. More about sharing than about privacy. We spend a lot of time worrying about privacy.

Time we spent the same amount of time worrying about sharing.