Decentralised Foundations

One of the characteristics of the early Internet was that it was decentralised. Anybody with a little technical knowledge could access it and add to it, stimulating a huge explosion of information, content and services.

Without over-romanticising the period, there was a sense of possibility, that the traditional societal gatekeepers (banks, publishers, record labels, big business, etc) were no longer “holding all the keys”. The citizens of the Internet enjoyed the freedom to create and organise as they saw fit. There was a “small c” commonwealth.

Now, commonwealth is a term loaded with the baggage of the last 500 years. It’s beginnings are innocuous enough though. In the 15th Century the phrase “common weal” simply referred to the welfare of the public – common well-being. When people spoke of the common good they were talking about things that were shared and beneficial for all or most members of a given community.

Digital Commons

The commons were the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water and a habitable earth. Resources held in common, not owned privately. Perhaps it was naive but many considered the Internet to be a modern commons. More recently we see “wifi” being added to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a joke but with a ring of truth to it.

This notion of a digital commons was the genesis of many things we now take for granted. The best definition I’ve found for digital commons is that it’s a form of commons involving the distribution and communal ownership of informational resources and technology. Creative Commons is a great example, providing a simple, standardised way to give the public permission to share and use your creative work — on conditions of your choice. Wikipedia, the non-profit collaborative encyclopaedia based on a model of openly editable content, is another. So too the entire Open Source movement and the related Open Data concept (much loved by Sir Tim Berners-Lee). In fact, search for “digital commons” and you’ll find countless University resources around the world where research papers and scholarly articles are freely available for all.

Increasing Centralisation

In recent years, however, the Internet has started to seem increasingly centralised, with power and control resting in the hands of a few organisations – corporate and governmental. The notion of a networked commonwealth, where “supreme power is vested in the people” (to use the 17th Century definition), seems slightly quaint and almost absurd. As citizens we are farmed for our data, often without our consent, as we live our lives. Governments seek increasingly intrusive rights of access to every aspect of our being while corporations harvest our intimate data for their profit. Fictional works like 1984 and V for Vendetta have never seemed so prescient.

A Rebalancing Trend

I’ve seen some very interesting alternatives emerging recently, though. Alternatives that suggest that, rather than the currently one-sided “value exchange”, there is opportunity in “value shared”.

For example, the Hub-of-All-Things or HATproject is an ambitious attempt by a collection of UK Universities to create a Personal Data Platform or PDP. The project recognises that, with the increasing number of smart devices (Intel predict 26 per person by 2020), there will be an explosion of personal data. The PDP will help people trade and exchange their data for services in a standardised and structured manner. The platform will allow people to take their data back from firms or connected devices allowing them to trade it (in a privacy preserving manner) or analyse it for smarter decision-making.

As a much more literal example of “value shared”, tsū (pronounced “Sue”) is a social network that shares up to 90% of revenues with users. “We believe in real ownership, which only exists when users own the rights to their content and the economics that come with it. Users should be compensated for their likeness, image and content. It’s simple and it’s the right thing to do.” Facebook may be a little threatened as you can’t post a link to tsū there. Try it and you’ll receive a blocked content error.

Is this a trend or a blip? I don’t think we’ll know for a while but there are plenty of examples of groups trying to redistribute digital control to the edges at I think, for many, such a rebalancing to something like a neo-commonwealth might be very welcome.