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<nettime> Interview with Ken Jordan
geert on Mon, 8 Mar 2004 19:20:37 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Interview with Ken Jordan


ASN: Reinventing Social Networks
Interview with Ken Jordan
By Geert Lovink

Mid 2003 a wave of excitement over something called the Planetwork
conference in San Francisco reached me. Apparently an alternative and
innovative attempt was under way to redefine the Internet, a medium so
much plagued by corporate and state control, trolls, spam and viruses.
Planetwork was founded in 1998 by Erik Davis, Jim Fournier, Elizabeth
Thompson and David Ulansey. It is a network in which activists mingle
with technologists. It’s aim has been to connect issues of global
ecology and information technology. Politically speaking Planetwork is a
civil society initiative that strategically positions itself as part of
Silicon Valley, while at the same time celebrating the Seattle protests
against corporate dominance. A typical post-dotcom phenomena, one could
say. They are not so much driven by selfish libertarian greed, as once
propagated by Wired. Rather, they are an incarnation of the hippie
values and ideas that once circulated in the Well. I know, in California
such distinctions may seem problematic, but it is nonetheless important
to stress that there is still, or again, a progressive agenda within the
IT-sector. 

The first Planetwork conference took place in May 2000. As a result of
this meeting a LinkTank group was formulated, resulting in a ‘white
paper’ entitled The Augmented Social Network: Building Identity and
Trust into the Next-Generation Internet. The Augmented Social Network
(ASN) is a proposal for a ‘next generation’ online community that would
strengthen the collaborative nature of the Internet, enhancing its
ability to act as a public commons that engages citizens in civil
society. How can the Internet revitalize democracy? ASN is not a piece
of software or a standard as such but rather a techno-social contract.
One could also see the proposed network of trust as a set of rules, a
(belief) system hardwired in solid social relationships. This ‘meta’
aspect of ASN doesn’t make it easy to understand—or to develop. The
paper was presented at the PlaNetwork conference "Networking a
Sustainable Future" in June, 2003. It's available as a PDF at
http://asn.planetwork.net/whitepaper.html. An HTML version is at:
http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue8_8/jordan/index.html.

New York-based Ken Jordan is one the ASN authors (together with Jan
Hauser and Steven Foster). Ken is a pioneer of Web-based multimedia. In
1995 he led the development of SonicNet.com, one of the first online
music zines. In 1996 he was involved in the general interest
zineWord.com and the action sports site Charged.com. In 1999 he
co-founded the alternative global news portal MediaChannel.org. He is
currently a writer and digital media consultant. In arts and theory
circles he is known for Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, an
anthology (co-edited with Randall Packer) that traces the ‘secret’
history of digital multimedia.

With Ken Jordan I discussed the call for ‘trust’ and the question of
sustainable social networks. Is the Internet consensus culture cure or
disease? Instead of merely posing the ‘power’ question, like in the case
of ICANN and WSIS, the ASN initiative points at exciting conceptual
realms out there in which civil society is not just a user, not a victim
of governments and Microsofts. Instead, it positions itself in the
driver’s seat and takes place at the drawing board of the network
society.

GL: Ken, what motivated you to develop the proposal for an Augmented
Social Network? 

KJ: The way information is organized, who has access to it, and under
what circumstances access is permitted -- these questions are central to
how power manifests in society. Digital technology is already
transforming the way we engage with information. Our communications
tools are shifting the political landscape in ways far more profound
than what is suggested by, on the positive side, MoveOn.org, or, on the
negative side, Carnivore and its intrusive, controlling peers. But while
the consequences of living in a "network society" have received
attention, in your writing and elsewhere, we've barely started to
discuss how digital technology could evolve, over time, to contribute
more effectively to democracy. 

Software, by its nature, is programmable. So doesn't it make sense for
civil society advocates to ask what we want software to achieve, see if
the products available meet those objectives, and, if they don't,
attempt to build ones that do? For some reason, especially since the
late 1970s, the active assumption has been that business and government
will design our digital communication infrastructure for the rest of us.
Useful tools, it is assumed, will magically appear. Almost no one pays
attention to the public interest issues around our communications tools
until after the new technologies are introduced, and their benefits or
dangers become clear. Civil society groups like Creative Commons, the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, and EPIC spend most of their energy
reacting to technical innovations that have already been prototyped and
released. It has been nearly a decade since the Web ushered in the era
of popular digital culture, and we are increasingly aware of the
capabilities inherent in information technology. But where are the civil
society advocates who are proposing and developing next generation
infrastructure and software in the public interest? I mean, not only
faster bandwidth (or insuring the protection of freedoms we already
have, like downloading media files), but new technology designed to
better support democratic engagement in communities and governance. 

GL: Given the importance of networks in society, and the way that
networks contribute to democratic action by challenging traditional
concentrations of power, you would expect attention to be given to the
design of tools that improve the efficiency of creating human networks.

KJ: The Augmented Social Network is meant to be one such attempt. It
focuses on the issue of how your identity is represented in the digital
space, and what that representation should enable you to do. In
particular, it addresses how to find others online with similar,
relevant interests or expertise, in a context that engenders trust, so
that you can form groups with them more effectively. It's a technical
architecture for an Internet-wide system that enables appropriate
introductions between people who share affinities through the
recommendations of trusted third parties. It is Internet-wide -- rather
than a closed, proprietary system -- in order to connect people across
divergent social networks. It would also support the distribution of
media and the creation of ad-hoc groups using the same Net-wide
recommendation system. 

GL: Could you give me an example of how it works?

KJ: We present a number of detailed scenarios in the white paper, but
here's a simple example. Suppose you're working on a solar energy
project and need to find someone with very specific expertise to answer
a difficult question. You post the question to the three solar lists you
are a member of, you use Google, but you don't find an answer. The ASN
would allow you to pass the question forward through a targeted series
of friends-of-friends who are solar experts, in a semi-automated manner,
crossing the borders of distinct social networks, vastly increasing your
chance of connecting with someone who can help you. 

Another example: you are looking for someone to help execute a solar
energy project in Honduras. You have lined up the funding, but you need
an engineer on the ground in Honduras who has experience doing solar
projects. The ASN would enable you to connect to an engineer with the
appropriate expertise through a series of third party recommendations,
so you can feel with some certainty that this person can be trusted.

The idea is to take technology that is already developed, that already
works, and put it to use in the public interest. It would require the
adoption of a set of standards and protocols, and the writing of some
software applications. But the ASN is more the repurposing of existing
technical systems than the invention of something new. And it would
provide crucial functionality to support a wide range of progressive
initiatives, from complimentary currencies to alternative media to
chaordic (distributed) governance to grassroots organizing. When we
presented the ASN at the Planetwork conference in San Francisco last
June, its value in all these areas was apparent. 

GL: Planetwork was a hybrid post dotcom and post 911 conference, that
perhaps without GW Bush would not have taken place. Do you agree? It
seems like an exciting coalition between technologists and activists.
Hopefully more than a nostalgic return of the sixties.

KJ: The first Planetwork conference actually took place in May
2000—charged by the energy that followed the WTO protests in Seattle. A
number of people involved peripherally with the annual Bioneers
conference, which focuses on new environmental technologies that promote
sustainability, wanted to bring that work into a dialog with the
emerging information technologies. There was a strong, visceral sense,
especially after Seattle, that we need to shape a practical alternative
to top down, corporate globalization–and that this alternative has to be
grounded in emerging technologies.

There's been a bias on the American left against computers, in general,
and the potential for digital communications to contribute to civil
society, in particular. In the popular left imagination, computers start
with two strikes against them: they were birthed by the military, and
they spread through the relentless marketing of soulless corporations.
Moreover, having access to computers meant an additional budget line for
progressive groups already stretched too thin -- which implied that they
were tools for the privileged. The dot com boom only reinforced this
impression, with its emphasis on stock options rather than the public
good. For these and other related reasons, there wasn't much contact
between progressives working on issues like the environment or global
justice, and IT professionals in Silicon Valley. 

Planetwork deliberately aimed to make links between these two cultures.
Some 500 people attended the conference. I wasn't there, but I heard
from many who went that it was a galvanizing moment, opening their eyes
to possibilities they hadn't considered before.

GL: How exactly did Planetwork lead to the ASN proposal?

KJ: One of the people there was Brad DeGraf, a pioneer in computer
animation. It struck him that what we need is a kind of green, global
justice AOL, a communications infrastructure that would enable members
to coordinate their actions politically, and aggregate their financial
power into a force for change. He proposed this idea to two of the
Planetwork organizers, Elizabeth Thompson and Jim Fournier, and various
others he thought might be interested, including me. This led to a
weekend brainstorming session among the redwoods in Ben Lomand,
California, in September, 2000. 25 people attended, a mix of IT
professionals, environmental activists, independent media pros, and a
couple of experts in socially responsible investments. About two thirds
came from the Bay Area, the rest from the East Coast.

It was a freewheeling, dynamic conversation -- unlike anything any of us
had been part of before. At the time, activists and technologists rarely
discussed the blue sky possibilities for digital communications. Of
course, by that point environmental groups has started to use the
Internet – the success of Seattle was due in good part to email and the
Web; the IMC launched during Seattle -- but in these cases activists
were using existing tools already common in the business sector. They
weren't thinking about next generation development of applications and
infrastructure, the way IT people do. At the same time, IT engineers
rarely discussed with activists their long term strategic objectives,
how they intend to build a movement.

GL: Even today we face a gap between digital and activists worlds,
isn’t?

KJ: This first meeting of the group, affectionately nicknamed the Web
Cabal, led to another half dozen convenings in San Francisco and New
York over the next year. The initial 25 participants extended to a total
of about 50. We quickly moved away from the notion of a centralized,
AOL-like infrastructure to exploring different models for a distributed,
global, targeted communications network—a next-generation Internet honed
to serve civil society. This system would not only provide a platform
for activists (and all citizens) to meet, communicate, and organize much
more effectively, it would encourage the use of complementary currencies
and other alternative forms of exchange.

In early 2002, two Cabalists, Jan Hauser and Steven Foster, were asked
to write a white paper describing the rough technical architecture such
a system would require. While many in the group contributed ideas, Jan
and Steve had done most of the heavy lifting to map a practical
technical architecture. Jan had been a chief architect at Sun for 15
years, and Steven is the matching technologies expert who did Veronica,
the popular pre-Web Internet search engine. At the Planetwork
conference, actually, Jan gave a keynote speech that proposed an
interactive P2P communications infrastructure as an alternative to
centralized, hierarchical, broadcast media. The ASN brought together
ideas Jan had been playing with for a while. The two finished a draft in
the summer of 2002. I began to write a new version of the white paper in
the fall, made the politics overt, added theory and context, while
referring to their technical draft and consulting with them and Neil
Sieling -- another Cabalista – for feedback. 

A draft of the paper, titled "The Augmented Social Network: Building
Identity and Trust into the Next-Generation Internet," was circulated to
the Web Cabal—now formally named LinkTank— in the spring of 2003, and
Jim and Elizabeth decided to make it the centrepiece of the second
Planetwork conference, which was set for June. Jan, Steven and I
presented the paper there, and it was later published by the web journal
First Monday.

GL: Where is the ASN initiative at the moment? 

KJ: The ASN is a blue sky vision for the future of online community. It
stakes out some conceptual territory, presenting a civil society vision
of how the Internet could evolve -- particularly addressing the issues
of Identity and Trust (two packed terms that have a pretty specific
meaning in this context). It provides a clear alternative to the
dangerous direction the Internet may well be heading in -- a
corporate/government panopticon. But it's not enough to stand against
digital disempowerment and control; we need to stand *for* something.
The ASN shows that by coordinating the writing of standards and
protocols between several different, previously separate technical areas
(persistent identity, interoperability between community
infrastructures, matching technologies, and brokering) you could add a
layer of functionality to the Internet that would be greatly in the
public interest. The ASN is not a piece of software or a product.
Building a single application won't make the ASN come into being. It's
not something you can write a business plan around, because the
intention is to introduce functionality that is in the public domain
(like email). For that reason, it is hard to fund. At least, in today's
environment. 

Remarkably, there is no existing constituency to support IT projects of
this scale that serve the needs of civil society. There are no venues,
no institutions, where you can get support for a project that looks
ahead five years and says: here's how we'd like to see the Internet's
infrastructure develop in order to meet the challenges facing democracy.
Universities don't support this kind of thing. Foundations don't know
how to evaluate proposals for them. Everyone assumes that either: (1)
the Internet and its core functionality are complete, the main
development phase is over, and the only way it will change over time is
to get faster (which of course ignores the history of how the Internet
was birthed and evolved, since the type of functionality supported by
the Net changed considerably in its early decades; the Web, now
considered a core functionality, wasn't introduced until the Net was 20
years old); or (2) industry (or genius hackers like Napster's Sean
Fanning) will drive improvements to the Internet, so the public doesn't
have to think too much about how it will evolve, because the market
takes care of all things (which of course ignores the fact that the Net
was initially designed by coordinated teams in the non-profit sector
motivated to make something that contributes to the public good). The
ASN doesn't require any "new plumbing" in the guts of the Internet. It's
a meta-layer, basically, that goes on top of what's already there -- as
the Web did. But like other protocols and standards that make up the
Internet and its core functionality, it proposes a new set of agreements
that, together, would add useful tools to the Net -- things that could
increase the Internet's ability to support civil society.

We could put together a development program that would lead to the
establishment and adoption of the ASN. In fact, we've got a draft of
such a plan. But we found that there's no one to send it to. There's no
obvious place to go for support.

GL: Why isn’t ASN turning to the open source community or see itself
part of it?

KJ: Open source development is fantastic for some things, and not so
great for others. It's a less than ideal environment for the creation of
complex systems that require a lot of coordination. Of course, the ASN
depends on software that adheres to open standards. But the writing of
the code, the development of the standards, requires a dedicated,
coordinated team. Which is not something that happens easily on open
source, volunteer projects. I'd love a bunch of kick ass programmers to
prove me wrong by volunteering to crank ASN code!

When we wrote the paper, we hoped that the rationale behind the ASN
would motivate the progressive foundations to spring some seed funding.
Didn't happen. But what did happen was that the ASN inspired a lot of
folks to think in new ways about the civil society implications of our
communications infrastructure. Some of these people are developing
projects inspired by the ASN. One of the more interesting projects comes
out of the Social Science Research Council, spearheaded by Robert
Latham. It's not the ASN per se, but it could help lead to the ASN.
Another is a complimentary currency initiative called Interra, which
uses information technology to help geographic-based communities to make
better use of local resources and, at the same time, generate support
for civil society initiatives. Greg Steltenpohl, the guy behind Interra,
was also part of the Web Cabal. We also know of various commercial and
non-profit efforts that intend to introduce aspects of the ASN into
online community infrastructures now in development. We're involved with
some of them. But how that will turn out is hard to say....

GL: Why do you think identity and trust are the key problems of today?

KJ: Online identity is not an issue that we chose. Rather, as they say,
it has been chosen for us. There are a number of industry-supported
initiatives that intend to bring a market-centric notion of digital
identity to the Internet, such as Liberty Alliance and Microsoft's WS-*.
Which will win over its competition, and the exact way online identity
will be handled, is far from clear. But much energy is now being devoted
to setting standards for how individuals will be represented online --
how aspects of your personal history will be aggregated into a
persistent, digital identifier of some kind. Most of this stuff is not
nefarious, or explicitly about control. Nonetheless, it lends itself to
abuses that could threaten democracy. That's not an inevitable
consequence, but it warrants concern.

It's also worth considering: do we want the Internet to devolve into
little more than a virtual shopping mall? If online identity is narrowly
designed only to facilitate your behavior as a consumer, and doesn't
support the ways you act as an engaged citizen in a democracy, the
future of the Net looks pretty bleak. 

At the moment, there is no civil society voice at the table while these
standards are being set -- other than privacy advocates. Of course,
privacy-- the securing of our personal information so it is not used
without our explicit consent -- is critical. That's a given. But a civil
society notion of online identity should do more than just protect
privacy. It ought to encourage direct participation by citizens in their
communities, and with their government. 

GL: We managed to get along fine for all these years without a global
approach to digital identity. Is it really such a problem? 

KJ: The pioneers of digital communications, like Doug Engelbart and Alan
Kay, didn't give much thought to identity. Back in the 1960s,
Engelbart's oNLine System (NLS) assigned each user a non-transferable
identification—it didn't allow for anonymity, nor did Engelbart assume
that users would want to be anonymous. Online communications, in the
beginning (say, 1965-72), were designed to facilitate trusted
relationships between known peers. Most NLS users were based in
Engelbart's lab at Stanford Research Institute; later the NLS was
extended to other offices, but still every user was known in a broader
social context. They were co-workers who knew each other. If someone
acted in an untrustworthy fashion online, it led to consequences
offline. 

So much of how we communicate online today came out of the NLS—including
key suppositions about how information and identity should be
represented in bits. Engelbart somehow assumed that people interacting
online would do so in a straightforward, trustworthy manner -- there
would be no separation between their online and offline identities,
which were fully disclosed, always available. Engelbart's vision is of a
system for digital communications that encourages a compassionate,
connected society that values collective action, and is based on a high
level of mutual trust between collaborators. The NLS was meant to serve
groups of people participating openly toward shared objectives. For
instance, the oNLine System would support the thousands of people
collaborating on the design and manufacture of an airplane—or, more
ambitiously, the international community of scientists working on
complex problems like global warming. The representation of identity
online, in these contexts, is a relatively straightforward matter. For
that reason, our digital communication tools give us sophisticated ways
to identify and organize documents, but not individuals—even though the
NLS (and the Internet, following NLS's example) was intended from the
start to connect people to one another as much as it connects people to
digital materials.

When the Internet was launched in the early 1970s, and Net-wide email
came into use, the direct connection between online and offline identify
began to fray. It became increasingly easy for people to represent
themselves online with identities that were disconnected from their
lives offline. Of course, this gave rise to some extraordinarily
creative expressions of self—as sociologists like Sherry Turkle have
written about. It led to a wide range of emerging social behaviors and
artistic forms that are, at the least, valuable—and for some,
liberating. But it also lessened the degree of trust associated with
online communications, particularly as the number of people using the
Internet grew from the thousands, in the 1970s, to the many millions in
the 90s. You could no longer assume that the person introducing herself
to you online is who she says she is -- as any AOL sex chat participant
circa 1992 would attest.

GL: In this context, identity may be ambiguous. But that is far from
saying trusted interactions don't take place. In fact, it's the
opposite. Anonymity becomes a precondition to trust. 

KJ: In many contexts, of course, this is a fine thing. In fact,
anonymity online is one of the medium's great innovations. But there are
instances when you do want to have a strong degree of assurance that the
person you meet online is who she says she is. For those cases, you
don't have many options for verifying identity in a social interaction.

But suppose you did. In what ways would you want to be known to others,
so you could act as an engaged citizen more effectively? What would you
want others to know about you? How would you like that information to be
treated? In what ways could digital tools help you find others with whom
you could share information and collaborate -- beyond what already
exists today? These are the kinds of questions that lie behind the ASN.
Online identity is an issue that civil society advocates need to
address. It's time to put mind share and resources toward a
forward-thinking approach to identity. 

GL: Might it be better to do without any form of digital identity—and to
resist any effort to impose one on the enitre Internet community?

KJ: There is an industry and government led juggernaut to establish some
form of digital identity -- right now. Today. Digital identity
management is a $2 billion a year business, and growing. Corporate tools
for milking identity data for possible profit -- including the resale of
that data on the open market, and the aggregation of that data in
centralized systems -- are becoming very sophisticated. It's worth
recalling that most of the uses of this information are benign:
retailers keep track of your purchases in order to offer targeted
discounts so you keep buying the same brand of toilet paper, for
example. But once a system is in place, it can present a slippery slope
to abuse. Of course, you could choose to drop off the grid, not have a
credit or debit card, never rent a car (with its mandatory GSP device),
etc. But for most of the population, that kind of resistance is not an
option. It's not even clear that getting off the grid is an effective
political response, given the challenges facing the planet. It may be a
justifiable personal response, driven by disgust for technocratic
consumerism, but it's lousy politics. It doesn't ignite change of the
kind necessary to address the problems of six billion increasingly
interconnected people. The fact is, the establishment of identity
standards is already in full swing. It's happening. But it may not be
too late to influence the direction it takes.

Once you start to design more sophisticated types of online group
interaction (beyond what is common on the Net today), identity
inevitably surfaces as an issue to be addressed. You can't facilitate a
wide range of trusted interactions without the assurance that the person
you meet online is who she says she is. Somehow, her identity has to be
verifiable. For that threshold of certainty to be reached, for that
mechanism to be in place, most of the concerns people have about the
controlling potential of a corrupt identity system will have had to be
dealt with. And if you can deal with those concerns, you may as well
start to think proactively about what to layer into the system that
supports democracy -- because the untapped potential there is
tremendous.

GL: Some of the ideas of the ASN seem to be present in new flavors of
social software. How does the ASN compare to websites like Friendster,
LinkedIn, or Orkut? 

KJ: Frankly, as interesting as some of these sites are, they fall far
short of what the ASN would do. They are like small toy versions of the
ASN, with relatively limited utility. To begin with, they are not
interoperable. They're all "walled gardens." The profile information and
the relationships that you accumulate on one site are not transferable
to others. In addition, these "walled gardens" tend to have profiles
that are narrowly focused around a handful of interests. But if you
happen to be expert in several different areas, each of which is
addressed by a separate social networking site, useful connections made
on one site will not spill over to another. The ASN would make the
connection between "friends of friends" Internet-wide—it would connect
people across disparate social networks. Secondly, the profile info on
these sites is thin. It is not nuanced. The same profile info you hope
will attract a date can be read by your mother or your boss (as Danah
Boyd points out in an analysis of Friendster). Your digital
representation should be context sensitive. Moreover, the profile
information on those sites is static. It's not effected by your actions
on other websites, by decisions you make during the course of your day,
etc. Whereas, a dynamically updated profile would be more accurate and
useful. Third, one of the intents behind the ASN is to give you greater
control over your own profile information; it's a system for profile
management. It calls for a new class of services: identity brokers.
These services would manage and update your profile info on your behalf
as you instruct them to. Along with the creation of identity brokers
should come a "digital bill or rights". You should be able to decide who
has access to your profile info and who doesn't. You should own that
info. You should be able to manage your "profile accounts" with great
flexibility -- trusting the brokers you choose to use. That's not the
way it works on these social networking sites, which basically treat the
info they have about you as a class of "customer information." Lastly,
the social network sites are exclusive, restricted groups. You have to
be invited to join by a member. They are as much about keeping people
out as making connections between those who are "in." By being Net-wide,
the ASN helps to pull borders down, not put them up. The introduction of
strangers through trusted third parties becomes something far more
interesting when it's available to everyone—like email or web pages—than
when it's an exclusive club for a few. 

GL: Suppose we need one, what would a civil society vision of a global
digital identity look like?

KJ: What digital technology makes possible--inevitable--is that each of
us will have at least one representation of ourselves that is
continually present in digital space, acting on our behalf. Digital
profiles are not passive. They respond to inquiries; they are
interactive by design. We are not used to thinking of our identity as
something that we can deliberately construct, but in the digital space,
that construction will become increasingly frequent. What kind of
attributes would you like to have exposed to others, and in what
contexts should they be exposed? Every person should be able to make
that choice for his or herself—rather than having it made for us by
companies or governments without our approval. Moreover, I have certain
interests—in new environmental technologies, for instance, or in
experimental theater—which are not addressed by profit-minded
industries. Frankly, most of my interests are in quirky, fringe subjects
that are essentially ignored by the market. I want to make sure that the
systems for digital identity allow me to express those interests --
including my political interests--and to network with others who share
them. If we leave it up to the market, those subjects (and the billions
of others like them) will simply be ignored. 

GL: ASN seems like the product of a typical Californian blend of
technologists, activists and business people. Is it more than a
nostalgic return of the sixties?

KJ: I'm not one for nostalgia. But some aspects of the sixties wouldn't
be so bad to bring back—like civic engagement, the notions that things
can be better than they are and that every citizen is responsible for
making it so. My sense, however, is that what's going on today draws as
much from the critical theory of the eighties and nineties as it does
from the sixties (tho maybe, since I'm "chairman of the board" of the
theory publisher Semiotext(e), I'm biased...). Now that we've digested
Foucault's critique of power, Baudrillard's dismantling of the "real,"
and Deleuze & Guattari's invocation of the rhizome, the question
remains: what political options do we have before us that can forestall
global environmental collapse while engaging citizens more effectively
in the democratic process? 

Information technology offers useful tools that weren't available to
previous generations -- tools that could conceivably change the way
power operates within groups. To state the obvious: information equals
power. Perhaps if information is distributed more effectively, power too
could be better distributed throughout society. The notion that it is
inevitable that power will aggregate in a few hands, corrupting those
who have power, and contributing to a never-ending cycle of cynicism and
oppression... maybe it's time to re-examine that assumption, using the
critical apparatus shaped by Foucault, Deleuze, and others? It may be
possible to apply some of what we've learned from critical theory to the
design of new communication tools, which in turn could support new
social and political forms. Is it possible to introduce systems of
behavior that could keep us from blowing up the planet, while supporting
our ability to act as individuals in a free society? It's not clear to
me that the answer is a resounding yes. But the question certainly seems
worth pursuing. This Spring, Elizabeth Thompson and I will launch a
Planetwork Journal -- on the Web, free -- for examining this
intersection between IT and governance, alternative economics,
environmental technology, etc. Maybe I'm just naive. But, as I just said
to my girlfriend, I like to cultivate my naivete. 

GL: What struck me is the obsession with ‘trust’ amongst peers. Why is
that so important?

KJ: Trust is the basis of any community. This should go without saying.
But for us lefties, it's useful to emphasise the role played by trust,
because this focus leads to an appreciation of civic cooperation and the
public sphere -- which is quite removed from the dominant, neo-liberal
mythology of the lone wolf individual, unfettered by government to
pursue profits in the name of progress. Much of this
free-market-uber-alles agenda seeks to undermine what's left of the
commons, privatizing community assets while asserting that the commons
has become obsolete. It's a drive against openness in government and
self-sustaining communities. What had once been transparent in a
community is put into private hands, and made oblique. By refocusing
attention onto trust in society, we bring a deeper appreciation to what
we share together, and the aspects of our community that require a
collective commitment by all citizens. 

In face-to-face relations, we have a myriad of ways to measure and
engender trust. Online, however, our tools for establishing and
maintaining trust are weak. The intent of the ASN is to use digital
tools to extend the trust we place in those we know in the flesh to
others we do not, in order to organize with them effectively toward
mutual goals. If you could feel the kind of trust you have for
friends-of-friends offline for the contacts you make online, that has
great potential for creating valuable networks. 

GL: It could also be a challenge to go out and meet your adversary. I am
referring here to the work of the political philosopher Chantal Mouffe,
whose critique of Third Way democratic (media) culture point at this
possible reason of the current ‘democratic deficit’ that people
experience.

KJ: Perhaps, but ASN's focus is on standards, software, and protocols
that bring people who share interests and compatible capabilities into
contact. Whether some use it to seek out people they want a tussle
with... that's up to them. But doing so would require deliberate effort.
GL: What would an Internet look like that is no longer based on trust
and consensus but seeks confrontation?

KJ: It would look kinda like what we've already got, no?

GL: No, I have to disagree with you here. The Net as we have it now is
one that is based on trust and consensus. People are slowly but gently
forced to only have exchanges with those they already know. What the 70s
and 80s legacy of experts talking to themselves has done is create a
huge wasteland, and as a response closed virtual communities have been
created where this ideology of consensus still florishes. But no one
really wants to deal any longer with the desert out there. Take
newsgroups. I don’t think that a reintroduction of concepts like trust
is going to turn these abadoned public spaces, these deserts, into
oases.

KJ: But aren't you saying that the lack of trust on the Net has driven
people to stick close to those they are familiar with, inside walled
gardens, and to not wander far beyond their existing social networks?
The point of the ASN is not to revive newsgroups, but rather to enable
targeted connections between strangers who share interests in the
context of a particular project. It is to provide a strategic doorway
between walled gardens, to be used only under certain circumstances. The
ASN introduction would take place as part of work toward a specific
objective. That's what the architecture is meant to support -- whether
it gets used for other things as well, we'd have to see... 

GL: But the Internet as it is now would not be possible without the
engineering cultus of consensus. 

KJ: Well, there's consensus on one level (the underlying technical
infrastructure) and lack of consensus on another (the organization of
content and the presentation of identity). The challenge is to introduce
standards and protocols for the way information and identity is
organized online that is an appropriate, logical extension of the way
the technical infrastructure has developed. That is, it should be
distributed, transparent, secure, enable interoperability, and adhere to
open standards. The ASN is an architecture for one part of such a
system. And it's meant to suggest the need for other similarly conceived
initiatives. 

GL: How does the ASN relate to Internet governance and the process
around the World Summit of Information Society?

KJ: The ASN has got to be build using open standards. That's a given.
You would want those standards and protocols to be approved by
governance bodies such as the IETF and OASIS -- where it's appropriate.
Some of the standards necessary for the ASN have already been approved.
But there are a ton of wonderful standards that have reached the
approval stage that have never been adopted, or are not widely adopted.
And adoption for the ASN is key. We think we could get it working in
phases, start it with limited functionality among a group of online
communities, and scale it up from there. How does this relate to the
WSIS? There needs to be a civil society position on our digital
infrastructure. The WSIS was supposed to be part of a process to bring
that about. From what I've read (I wasn't there), the results were
decidedly mixed. No question that access to the Net, the digital divide
issue, is substantive and real. But to get bogged down in that carries
great risks. We need to develop a progressive technology agenda that can
match those of business and the Department of Homeland Security -- one
that looks at the same fundamental tools, and suggests how to configure
them to enhance citizenship. It's geeky stuff, but hugely necessary.
Where is the funding to support this kind of work? 

GL: The conversations amongst peers that the ASN supports may be useful
for pragmatists that want to solve problems. But one of the dilemmas we
actually face because of our media technology is social enclosures that
the Net and its current architecture foster.

KJ: There is, of course, a concern that targeted media, such as blogs or
narrowband broadcast networks, will further divide people from those who
don't share their assumptions and opinions. Some critics write about an
echo chamber effect, where you only get media you agree with. Is that
what's happening today? I'm not so sure. A greater threat, to my mind,
is the control of major media outlets by a shrinking number of global
corporations. The problem isn't that, say, "conservatives" turn to one
set of media outlets while "liberals" turn to another. The far greater
problem is that the economics of the media business forces the creation
of a handful of focus group-based target markets, and eliminates all
content that doesn't fit within one of these pre-defined buckets.
Independent, controversial, and idiosyncratic voices have an
increasingly difficult time reaching a sizeable audience. This is a form
of censorship, one that reinforces banal, conventional thinking. 

The ASN is designed to help independent voices find audiences--in a
decentralized, grassroots up manner. The Internet has already shown it
can be used this way, of course. MoveOn.org and the Howard Dean campaign
are everyone's favorite examples of this bottom up dynamic at work. But
given the number of people online, success stories like these should be
far more frequent. One reason they aren't is due to the fact that the
Net, while it has a distributed infrastructure that allows for bottom up
networking, is not designed to help you find relevant things quickly. As
folks like Engelbart and Ted Nelson ad infinitum continue to insist, the
Web isn't organized very well. What the ASN seeks to provide is a
meta-layer of functionality that makes the Net far more effective at
linking you to relevant people and media, based on your affinities and
relationships. It's a networking enhancement that takes advantage of the
distributed nature of the Internet, strengthening it by adding a
strategic layer of trust. 

Links:

Planetwork
http://www.planetwork.net

Augmented Social Network (ASN)
http://asn.planetwork.net/

Planetwork 2004 conference (San Francisco, June 5-6)
http://www.planetwork.net/2004conf/

Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality (anthology)
http://www.artmuseum.net/w2vr/

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