This lecture builds on my thinking over many years, going back to my essay Damn the Constitution in 2002. It also owes much to research and thinking done for a lunchtime lecture organised by Digital Repository of Ireland in Dublin in September 2013 and a keynote talk I gave at the UKSG conference in Harrogate, April 16 2014 which was subsequently published in the UKSG journal. It’s also indebted to long conversations and arguments and debate with Wendy Hall, Nigel Shadbolt and other luminaries of Web Science.
In the age of electronics an open society, one in which questions can be asked, where critical thinking is not just permitted but encouraged and where investigation rather than ideology is used to seek out the truth about the world – the open society according to Karl Popper – has also to be an open data society because reusable, structured data has become the main machine for doing the heavy lifting of moving knowledge around, just as books move ideas around.
The open Web is the most visible expression of that open data society, but it is increasingly undermined by the efforts of government on one side and commercial interests on the other, squeezing the public space occupied by civil society. Web science, grounded in the study of the open network, offers an opportunity both to study the impact of this shift and to propose countermeasures. In his talk Bill Thompson will argue that we can use the tools of Web science to design and build a better and more resilient Web – but that we must move quickly or there will be nothing left to save.
I’m fortunate enough to be invited to speak at OpenTech each year, and to give what has come to be known as a ‘State of the Network’ address. Here’s this years – published as I stand up to speak.
The world is all that is the case.
And what is currently the case should give us pause.
We begin from now, with a broken political system and a broken society and a broken planet that seems likely to become increasingly inhospitable to human civilisation over the next fifty years.
We start from a world of religious and social conflict where the quality of one’s belief in one or more fictional entities can determine life or death, acceptance or rejection, happiness or misery.
We begin with a network that has been comprehensively compromised, weaponised, commercialised and undermined by actors at many scales, with many motives and many capabilities.
“I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand,
Which must be acted ere they may be scanned.”
But like Macbeth we are so stepped in the network that to return would be as tedious as going o’er. We aren’t going to dismantle it, so we might as well try to find our way through the maze of twisty passages towards some resolution.
For while we may never achieve victory, I think hegemony may be within our grasp. And that might – just might – be enough.
If you head over to the BBC World Service website you can – until July 9 at least – listen to a one hour radio drama that is concerned with some of the big issues that face us over the next decade, issues around the control and use of the Internet, the boundaries between the state and the companies that increasingly dominate our daily lives, and the importance of engineers.
It’s called The Great Charter and was written by Matthew Solon and produced by Goldhawk Productions. Commissioned to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it’s set ten years into the future at a summit that will decide whether the exlusive G20 group of the world’s twenty largest economies will admit the I5 – the largest online corporations – as full members, effectively acknowledging that they have become ‘countries’ for all practical purposes. During the discussion an attack is mounted on the Internet, and only the engineers providing cybersecurity for the summit can fix the problem. Cue a debate about a ‘charter for the Internet’.
I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I’m slightly biased in its favour since I worked closely with the writer and production team on the scenario and was the main technical advisory on both the realities of network brownouts and flaws in the Border Gateway Protocol, and the main issues a charter of rights between the governments, ISPs and the people might want to address – surveillance, access and the use of the network as a weapon are top of my list.
I hope a lot of people listen to it, and I hope it stirs some debate about the issues – as well as helping us reflect a little on just how dependent we have become on this privately owned infrastructure. We may call it the ‘public’ internet but in reality every node, every link and every computer is owned by someone, and little of it lies in public hands. It’s as if the entire road network was built and managed by thousands of private companies who were free to set up toll gates, could decide not to connect their A-road to your motorway, and were free to search your car every time you set off on a journey.
On January 8 I took part in an event at Watershed in Bristol around the Stories of Change project, along with Mandy Rose, Director of the Digital Cultures Research Centre, UWE Bristol and Joe Smith from the Open University. It was a fun evening. These are the notes I pulled together before the talk, but what I said was not what’s written here. I’ll post audio when I get it…
A good story, well told, is the nearest thing to magic we know.
PLATFORM shift+ is an artistic network created to meet the new challenges of producing theatre for young people in the digital age, recognising the urgent need to engage with digital technology at a time when many young people move naturally between real and virtual worlds.
The network will develop 40 theatre productions based on newly developed plays/concepts in order to connect theatre makers directly with young people in an artistic dialogue, with an activity programmed to encourage transnational exchanges of artists and their works.
On November 21 I talked to the first meeting of the network partners, in a hotel in Winchester, England. This is what I wrote beforehand, pilfered from several different documents, notes and scraps of hard drive. It isn’t what I said, but it may be of interest.
We are not living in a digital world.
We are not heading toward a ‘digital future’, whatever the current shorthand may be.
The physical world will not vanish, we will not be sublimed into the machines to live, Tron-like, under the control of the Master Control Program.
We remain meat, the product of chemistry. We remain embodied minds and always will.
There will be no singularity and no interfacing with consciousness.
But that doesn’t mean that the digital doesn’t matter. We now live in a liminal space world where physical experience, analogue culture and digital technologies co-exist, an Age of Electronics, not an Age of Bits.
In this new age we here in the privileged West with easy access to computers and smartphones and connectivity will develop a digital culture, just as the early scholars with access to printers and codices and postal systems created a print culture.
The Information Age Gallery at the Science Museum is not simply a museum gallery. It is a powerful testament to the world we have created through our growing understanding of what information is and how it can be communicated. By bringing together hundreds of concrete objects it demonstrates the power that comes from applying an understanding of information technology to the development of those same technologies; by arranging them in a particular way it brings clarity to the story of information and speaks to us all.
It is a cathedral, a secular temple built to honour what we have wrought through our grasp of science, mathematics and technic, and the team at the Science Museum are its architects and its priestly caste.
It does not profess to be an oracle. It does not attempt to predict a future, but like Delphi it can be read as a set of signs that we may interpret if we wish. In its overlapping narratives we see not one view of the past but many, and while the line of successful innovation is clear – and must be clear in such a setting – the paths not taken and the insights that proved to be unworkable are also expressed, from Baird’s electromechanical television to Minitel, via the telegraph, the VCR and the PDA.
For some of us it is a very personal story. My intellectual history, my career and my life are on display here. I owned several of the artefacts here, and I’ve used a surprisingly large number of them since school – right back to the mirror galvanometer and the Wheatstone bridge. I live in the space they define, a fully-fledged inhabitant of the Information Age. But the artefacts have touched every one of us, from the Newton-owning gadget freak to the refugee relying on GPS to find a way to safety.
I’m honoured to have had a small part to play, as a member of the Advisory Panel, in shaping the new gallery. I’m proud to know the curatorial team behind it, and have seen their care, dedication and persistence over the last three years (my email archive tells me the first meeting was on March 1st 2011). And I look forward to visiting the gallery many times in the years to come to remember my past and see what clues we can derive as we try to build a future in which these tools are used in the service of all of us.
Come, visit, learn. Don’t worship, but do take inspiration. This is what we can achieve.
On October 2nd I gave a talk at the Cybersalon event ‘Reclaim the Net‘ and had an excellent time.
There’s a video.
I had some notes to speak from.
And I used a talk I’d given at the ICA back in 2002 as inspiration – Is Big Business Killing the Net?, the New Media Knowledge Christmas Lecture, 9 December 2002 began:
Duh! Of course it is – at least, it’s killing one way of building a public network, the one that is inherent in the Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol, the one I grew up with. The one I value.