Wednesday, April 23, 2014
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The Rights of Digital Man

ABU DHABI – We have created an online world whose vastness exceeds our comprehension. As a measure of its magnitude, consider this: In 2012, the new Internet address system, IPv6, created more than 340 trillion trillion trillion (3.4 x 1038) addresses – that is, around 4.8 x 1028 addresses for every person on earth. That should be sufficient to service the five billion devices that currently connect to the internet, and the 22 billion devices forecast to be in use by 2020.

The hard part of the connectivity explosion is not building capacity, but how it should be managed. We must answer profound questions about the way we live. Should everyone be permanently connected to everything? Who owns which data, and how should information be made public? Can and should data use be regulated, and, if so, how? And what role should government, business, and ordinary Internet users play in addressing these issues?

Such questions can no longer be ignored. As the virtual world expands, so, too, do breaches of trust and misuse of personal data. Surveillance has increased public unease – and even paranoia – about state agencies. Private companies that trade in personal data have incited the launch of a “reclaim privacy” movement. As one delegate at a recent World Economic Forum debate, noted: “The more connected we have become, the more privacy we have given up.”

But we can shape our future cyber-world in a way that keeps our data safe, reestablishes trust online, and welcomes in billions of new participants. Ensuring security will require that the Internet’s many stakeholders establish some kind of governance system. Organizations such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will need to become much more global in scope.

At the same time, we must guard against over-regulation or government control. This might require us to phase out the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority to prevent it from falling under the control of an inter-governmental body, as some states have demanded.

Governments certainly have an important part to play. But too much control would almost certainly stifle innovation, increase costs, and probably exclude important anti-establishment voices. A better approach, and one that would enhance public trust in the system, would be to establish diversified stewardship with multiple stakeholders.

One such stakeholder group is business. Now that our personal data have become such a valuable asset, companies are coming under increasing pressure to develop online business models that protect rather than exploit users’ private information. In particular, Internet users want to stop companies befuddling their customers with convoluted and legalistic service agreements in order to extract and sell their data.

This type of abuse could be limited by creating legal and social contracts to govern the authorization of data use. One idea, proposed by the information scientist Marc Davis, is to draw up a standard, readable seven-point “Terms of Service” agreement that empowers people’s control of the uses of their personal data. Another is to allow users themselves to decide from a preset menu how much personal information they are prepared to share.

But the trust issue goes beyond just regulation. Companies must find ways to introduce new technologies and do business that are popular with their customers and retain their trust. (Indeed, in a world of human-robot interfaces, 3D printing, nanotechnology, and shale-gas extraction, any innovative company must ask itself this basic question.)

Finally, we must consider the human dimension of our virtual world. Hyper-connectivity not only creates new commercial opportunities; it also changes the way ordinary people think about their lives. The so-called FoMo (fear of missing out) syndrome reflects the anxieties of a younger generation whose members feel compelled to capture instantly everything they do and see.

Ironically, this hyper-connectivity has increased our insularity, as we increasingly live through our electronic devices. Neuroscientists believe that this may even have altered how we now relate to one another in the real world.

At the heart of this debate is the need to ensure that in a world where many, if not all, of the important details of our lives – including our relationships – exist in cyber-perpetuity, people retain, or reclaim, some level of control over their online selves. While the world of forgetting may have vanished, we can reshape the new one in a way that benefits rather than overwhelms us. Our overriding task is to construct a digital way of life that reinforces our existing sense of ethics and values, with security, trust, and fairness at its heart.

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  1. CommentedEdward Ponderer

    If one has has some billions (Order 10^9) of nodes, and on the order of millions of interconnections for each (Total Order 10^15), in essence, one has a human brain. Increase the interconnections and the learning capacity and intelligence grows. While the map of reality is limited to the node number for a neural net as proven by researchers at Caltech in the 1980s, nonetheless the "grasp" of the details of complexity sises with the number of interconnections -- the unification of the whole.

    In the Internet "Humanity Brain," economics tends to provided more bandwidth to channels carrying more information from more users--corresponding, it would seem, to the weighting of neural-net interconnections according to signal voting history per Hebbian learning theory.

    We have here, in parallel with the globalization formation of a new "baby" Whole Humanity's body, a worthy brain in its last stages of intensive REM sleep that fetus's need to have. That healthy new baby will be born into crisis (isn't all new birth a time of crisis?)--but one it is particularly evolved to handle far better, unimaginable orders of magnitude more brilliantly, harmoniously, balanced--via a new form of homeostasis--than we individual humans have ever been able to muster.

    Realizing both that the real information will rest in the combined knowledge between nodes, not in any single one, and that this knowledge is thus global--the issue of information is not private ownership any more than it can be for single brain cells (though, as there, there may be some temporary responsibilities of particular point memories assigned by the whole, more general responsibilities of certain regions). As such, the discussion of ethics must keep pace with all this and transfer over into the crucial need for mutual responsibility, community, etc. Creating or encrusting brain tumors in our joint brain is in no ones interest, including the tumors though they may not realize it till the bitter end.

    Ethics indeed, but toward mutual responsibility in the atomic, and global integration into this whole through new paths in integral education. To a new ethics of life and hope my fellow members of the community, nay family, nay unity of Humanity--yes let us travel. Let us know that we depend on everyone, and they us, and so will the crucial glue of trust arrive. But let us not try to steer back into our every-man-for-him-self (or client special interest group) life boat ethics--till the lucky "winner" fall dead atop the bodies of the "losers."

  2. CommentedNathan Coppedge

    Several points on the conservative and liberal end of the proposed debate:
    (1) It is clear enough that there is some corporate propriety involved in disciplining the internet. It seems possible that government is as willing or able to use corporate resources as the corporations themselves.
    (2) As I have noted elsewhere, there is a danger in avoiding citizenship-identity concerns, as these, I feel, have vast potentials with technology. For example, the younger generation is frequently treated as 'gamers' who bargain for degrees of real or artificial inclusion. Gaming is also where education is going, if you haven't noticed. In my mind this means more role for citizenship, and hence government.
    (3) Perhaps a larger or more direct question in this article (besides the centrality of government and the role of the citizen gamer), is that virtuality is of course embraced by many, which is a kind of flag signal for meeting human interest demands on the internet / metaverse / hyperverse / or what have you. I predict greater roles in the future for meaningful information, interpretation of preferences, and customized products, in ways that ultimately do not need to relate with marketing as it is known today. More and more frequently, users will want only custom content, creating a weakness towards virtual solutions, and therefore creating a log-jamb of people who have very little money but a lot of know-how about the future of the metaverse. It would be a tragedy not to take advantage of the crowd-sourcing potential of the lower-income groups who have a single laptop or smart-phone and feel the urge to influence society for the better. Maybe this is a Generation Y thing, but I suspect at least in the context of gaming, that it involves Z as well. Part of that attitude towards gaming instead of larger questions may be a response to attitudes about marketing. So I also think corporations and marketers should be more responsible about the reciprocal needs of consumers (on the converse side, generation Z may have received slightly better education, but I'm not sure of this).
    (4) To conclude, the world of electronics depends on theories of exceptionalism (or instead exception-ism, that is, the mapping of exceptions in a standardized way), such as the incidence of high-speed internet at Stanford University, investigations into thought experiments at Yale, or global networking at Harvard. But the future also depends on the technical techniques and technologies which supplement or serve as exponents for these data-infrastructure states. There is a need for new theories, but not facile ones, instead theories which bind concepts of infrastructure with concepts of dynamic information.

  3. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    The Rights of the digital man should not make the responsibilities look pale, the shifting weights from rights to responsibilities is part of this world's rite of passage.
    Bitcoin for example, which is taking so much of space in the media, if we look at the social responsibilities around that innovation, something is missing. Let me take Bitcoin to exemplify how speculation gets the better of social value in our innovations:
    The chronological arrogance that Bitcoin valuation would portend (belies the social purpose of this innovation) in the future as there are going to be fixed 21m Bitcoins ever, is in sharp contrast to the deflationary spiral that this could induce; regulatory challenges notwithstanding, the real test would be in defining the capacity of what absence of transaction does to the transaction costs, which today could be low, but with banks stepping in, you better watch out.
    Such is the nature of fall-outs in some areas of digital innovation, where we better be concerned with responsibilities than rights, per se.