The Transformation of Digital Spaces and Digital Life

Responding to a survey: 

Please tell us how you imagine this transformation of digital spaces and digital life will take place: What reforms or initiatives may have the biggest impact? What beneficial role do you see tech leaders and/or politicians and/or public audiences playing in this evolution? What will be noticeably improved about digital life for the average user 2035? What current problems do you see being diminished? Which will persist and continue to raise major concerns?

I think the biggest change will be the introduction of measures that allow for the creation of contexts. In an environment where every message can potentially be seen by everyone (this is known as 'context collapse') we've seen a trend toward negative and hostile messaging, as it is a reliable way to gain attention and followers. This has created a need, now being filled, for communication spaces that allow for the creation of local communities. Measuring online impact by high follower counts, which which leads to the proliferation of negative impacts, will become a thing of the past.

It should be noted that this impact is being created not by content moderation algorithms, which has been the characteristic response by social media (Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, etc) but by changes in network topology. These changes can be hard-coded into the design of the system, as they are for example in platforms like Slack and MS Teams. They can be a natural outcome of resource limitations and gateways, for example in platforms like Zoom. I think we may see algorithmically-generated network topologies in the near future, perhaps similar to Google's Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLOC) but with more benign intention than the targeting of advertising.

making such a system work will require more than simply placing login or subscription barriers at the entrance to online communities; today's social networks emerged as a response to the practice in the early 2000s and trying it again is unlikely to be successful. A more promising approach may be found in a decentralized approach to online social networks, as found in (say) Mastodon or Diaspora. Protocols, such as ActivityPub and Webmention, have been designed around a system of federated social networks. However, the adoption barrier remains high and they're too technical to reach widespread adoption. There needs to be a concerted effort to, first, embrace the idea of decentralized social networking, and second, ease the transition from toxic social media platforms to more personable community networks.

This will require that social and technology leaders embrace a certain level of standardization and interoperability that is not owned by any particular company (I recognize that this will be a challenge for the tech community). In particular, a mechanism for decentralized and (in some way) self-sovereign identity will be required, to on the one hand enable portability across platforms, but on the other hand ensure account security. Government can, and may be required to, play a role in such a mechanism.

As I've said, we're seeing signs that we're moving toward such an approach. We can draw perhaps a parallel between what we might call 'cognitive networking' with what we already see in financial networking. A person can have a single authenticated identity, guaranteed by government, that moves across financial platforms. Their assets are mostly fluid with the system; they can move them from one platform to another, and exchange them for goods and services. In cognitive networking, we see a similar design, however a person's cognitive assets consists of activity data, content created by the person, lists and graphs, non-fungible tokens, and other digital assets. The value of such assets is not measured financially but rather directly by the interactions generated in decentralized communities.

In essence, the positive outcome from such a development is a transition from an economy based on mass to an economy based on connection and interactivity. This, if well executed, has the potential to address wealth inequality directly by limiting the utility of the accumulation of wealth, just as decentralized communities limit the utility of the accumulation of large numbers of followers, by making it too expensive to be able to extract value from low-return practices such as mass advertising and propaganda.

Needless to say, there's a lot that could go wrong. Probably the major risk is the concentration of platform ownership. Even if we achieve decentralized communities, if they depend on a given technology provider (for example, Slack or Microsoft) then there is a danger that this centralization will be monetized, creating again inequality and a concentration of wealth, and undermining the utility of cognitive networking. There needs to be a public infrastructure layer underpinning such a system, and the danger of public infrastructure being privatized is ongoing and significant.

We might also get identity wrong. For example, how do we distinguish between individual actions and actions taken by a proxy, such as an AI agent? Failure to draw that distinction creates an advantage for individuals with access to masses of AI proxies, as they would be able to be simultaneously in every community. The impact would be very similar to the impact of targeted advertising in social network platforms such as Facebook, where it's not possible to know what messages a given entity is targeting to different individuals and different communities, because each message is unique, and each message may be delivered by proxies whose origins cannot be detected or challenged by the recipient.

These risks are significant because unless individuals are able to attain an equitable standing in a cognitive network, they are unable to participate in community decision-making, with the result that social decision-making will be conducted to the advantage of those with greater standing, just as occurs in financial networks today. But effective community decision-making is necessary, even vital, to address what may be existential challenges in our near future, ranging from the possibility of international conflict to the certainty of climate change and environmental collapse. Numerous other systems, such as disease control, energy supply and management, information systems, food production and safety, etc., also require effective community decision-making that is not unduly influenced by those with greater power. 

We invite you to imagine a better world online: What is one example of an aspect of digital life that you think could be different in 2035 than it is today? We invite you to create a vignette of something you would like to see taking place in a “new and improved” digital realm in 2035. Your example might involve politics or social activities or jobs or physical and mental health or community life or education. Feel free to think expansively – and specifically.

In a nutshell: communities that are supportive and not toxic.

To be clear: this is a *really* high bar, and a lot of things have to fall into place for this to happen. There has to be an increase in productivity through automation, there has to be some measure of a more equitable distribution of wealth, and there has to be social resistance to the politics of fear and division.

Let me clear that I do *not* think this is achieved by the creation of community through segregation. That has never worked. If we simply separate people into distinct interest groups, whether they're basic on language, religion, culture, favourite TV show, etc., we do not eliminate toxicity, because, first, these groups clash with each other, and second, because factions *inside* the segregated groups begin to develop and clash with each other. So I do not foresee a segregated digital environment in the future (or, if we do, then we have failed utterly to create something that is 'new and improved').

Rather, what I would envision is a 'community of communities' model, where there is an easy and fluid transition from one community to another, where a person can maintain membership in multiple communities, where communities are dynamic, self-organizing, and self-forming, and where these communities are characterized not by barriers between 'inside and outside' but rather by the active connections and interactions between members (thus it becomes impossible for an outsider to disrupt a community, because there isn't a 'space' they can invade, but it becomes easy for members to come and go, because membership requires nothing more than interaction).

Such a community is more like a circle of friends than it is a place, though the circle might habitually meet in a certain place. But what makes the circle work is that the members can community directly and select a new place if the old place isn't working for them, or to arrange the timing of their gatherings so people can't simply interrupt them, though the circle meets publicly enough, in an open place, so as to allow for serendipity and fluidity of interaction. This works only if there is more than one place they can meet, only if there's a variety of different settings with different affordances, so they could meet at a cafe, a gym, a bar, a swap meet, a hockey game - whatever suits their interests and affinities.

But more, in this network of digital circles of friends, people are not limited to talking and physical activities; they can play games, co-author documents, make movies, whatever. One of the attractions of TikTok is the way it has made these sorts of interactions (through, for example, the 'duet') seamless and intuitive. And in the 'new and improved' digital realm of 2035 these interactions and their outcomes create genuine benefits and impact; communities cooperating together can generate flows of resources to create social infrastructure, and their deliberations feed into, and become a part of, community decision-making.

Many years ago, with I was first hired at my current employer, I used my inaugural lecture to pitch a concept of what I called a 'budget simulator' to capture this idea. To be sure, I was young and idealistic at the time, and thought it could really be implemented within my tenure. The idea was that people could join and each would get their own personal budget simulator where they could plan out the federal government budget: what would be taxed or collected, how much, where the money would be spent, and on what priorities. It's the sort of thing that could start as a simple spreadsheet but become much more detailed as more people became interested and as people's interests narrowed.

The community part occurs where people on given line items, given priorities, wherever. People can exchange ideas, argue with each other, negotiate, etc. They could draw on a sea of resources from economists, universities, Statistics Canada, and in these communities could offer justifications or explanations for their particular decisions. There are no 'set' communities, but rather, a fluid mechanism to create a circle around a topic (not through some formal process the way Google+ set it up but by simply informally interacting with each other). Obviously, people could influence each other, but there would be no way to influence *everybody* - an idea, to be successful, would have to pass through from context to context on its own. And, ultimately, each person would manage their own budget simulation, to whatever degree of detail they felt comfortable with. It's not a 'vote' - it's just an expression of preferences.

It wouldn't be a vote because there's no real way to vote on budgets when there are so many different versions of the same thing. Each factor has an impact on the other; what revenues are collected directly impact on what is spent, and difference methods of collecting and spending impact what can be collected and spent, and so on. That's why federal budgets are hundreds, maybe thousands, of pages long. But somewhere in there there *is* a consensus - a way of expressing what would make the most people the most happy (or maybe there are several ways of doing this) and these consensus can be better and better known, and over time - even without a formal process - it becomes difficult to justify actually managing the federal budget in a way that varies from the consensus, and thus the budget simulator effectively becomes the decision-making body for the budget.

Now this is probably in the far future, and by 2035 we have the framework of such a system - we have the self-organizing decentralized communities, and we have personal tools like a budget simulation engine, and we have moved away from centralized social networks. By 2035 we can see how these systems could become the way we make decisions moving forward, not just on national platforms, but globally, and not just for finances but for laws and social policy generally. And we are beginning to ask what it would take to make such a system work effectively, to reach *good* decisions. And they're talking about about education and open access to learning resources, plus the ability of each person to be able to envision and work toward social policy that not only helps them but also helps others - what has been called in the past 'enlightened self-interest'.


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