Witness’s digital technology landscape is a loose federation of different technical standards, business models, and political theories on the role of digital technology in society. On the one hand, network externalities favor a single system serving Witness as a whole. On the other, different Distrikts engage in constant efforts to bend their technology infrastructure to play roles that they see as beneficial for the Distrikt. Such efforts are regulatory, to provide oversight over the various layers of digital technology systems; techno-political, to embed the Distrikt’s values into the hardware and software themselves; and market-facing, to steer the outcomes of market competition in directions seen as beneficial by each policy maker.
Project Viking’s original plan included a Witness-wide digital network, managed centrally and rationally, whose main purpose was to provide input to the State Machine and distribute its output. This infrastructure was mostly up and running when Witness launched. During Denton’s tenure, it kept being expanded and improved.
The Zero-Day fracture that shaped Witness as we know it today was driven by, and amplified, deep rifts in the judgment on Denton’s contractualist approach. In the early years after the fracture, the newly established Distrikt authorities lost no time in claiming technological sovereignty, each setting a course to its own vision. This did not, and indeed could not, happen in an orderly manner, given the convulsive pace of political, demographic, and societal change in the immediate aftermath of the Zero-Day fracture. For many Distrikts, the ambitions of a technology infrastructure fully consistent with the purposes of their respective societies were realized only partly, as a result of political compromise, technological hacks that barely work, and just plain throwing one’s hands in the air and declaring defeat.
However, at the lowest level, all protocols and most of the cables and antennas are still in place. This means that all computers in Witness can technically talk to each other. The degree of integration, of this network of networks, as in the pre-Sundering Internet, is the result of countless interoperability decision (build a silo vs. federate), some made by the Distrikts’ authorities, some by private actor.
Main characteristics of digital technology in each Distrikt
As in many other domains, the founders of Hygge saw the role of digital technology in a way that was similar to that of the Denton era. From it, Hygge inherited the State Machine’s critical hardware, and the CIVICSMOD team operating it.
- The government claims a monopoly on digital IDs, linked to the provision of government services.
- Great Firewall in place. An engineering group with representatives from all Distrikts, CIVICSMOD, regulates the cross-Distrikt flow of data and services.
- Social media are publicly owned, and quite peaceful. However, citizens can (and do) use also the dopamine rush-based social media platforms from Libria. Hygge authorities accept responsibility for regulating foreign tech companies, and engage in stakeholder dialogue with them. But this dialogue is uneasy, and sometimes captured by the companies, who attempt to corrupt government envoys.
Digital identities and infrastructure layers
Present-day Hygge’s digital infrastructure is supposedly centralized, benevolent and subject to democratic control. The governments claims a monopoly on the identity layer, with government-issue digital identities forming the basis for the provision of sophisticated e-government services. The whole system is tightly integrated: administrative information in all databases is linked together by the unique digital identifiers of each citizen, business, etc. The State Machine processes all these databases to produce allocation decisions and recommendation.
CIVICSMOD and the interchange layer
During the Smoothing Years, CIVICSMOD was transformed into an inter-Distrikt organism. Now, each Distrikt sends a delegation to Hygge operate the State Machine, for the services that they require from the AI. A technical consequence of this is that CIVICSMOD and its engineering groups has become the de facto seat of the decisions about which cross-Distrikt provision of data and services. Given the policitization of these roles, high-level Incanters from all Distrikts regularly participate in such groups.
Hygge has a Great Firewall in place. Like most, but not all, other Distrikts, it considers that digital sovereignty is only possible if digital borders are enforced.
Hygge considers social media to be a public service. Therefore, the Distrikt created its own social networking platforms, public sector-owned and controlled. These work technically well enough, and are integrated with other public services; this means that, for example, by participating in patients’ support groups on Hygge’s social media you can take pride in providing valuable information to the collective intelligence as a common (in practice, to the State Machine); also, you are not targeted by annoying advertisements.
However, the more colorful, dopamine rush-inducing social media platforms from other Distrikts (notably Libria) are not prohibited to operate in Hygge, and many Hyggeans are far more active on those media than on the Hygge Distrikt-owned ones. This is a source of concern among Hygge’s ruling élites, and is addressed by regulatory action. Non-Hygge-based social networking services are only allowed to serve customers in Hygge if such services are run from a subsidiary of the main company, incorporated in Hygge itself. Subsidiaries must allow government observers to sit on their boards, and maintain ongoing dialogue with the authorities. This is, however, far from a perfect solution, because some government representatives on the board of these tech companies end up being “culturally captured”, and becoming very sympathetic to the company’s point of view. Companies themselves tend to encourage this outcome by lavishing government envoys with luxury fringe benefits of their board seats.
Additionally, many citizens of Hygge circumvent the Great Firewall through various technical solutions, and access such services directly from servers located in Libria.
The Covenant’s approach to the governance of digital networks is similar to that of governance in general: the digital world is conceptualized as a dual system. One of its parts, religious, is centrally and tightly managed by the religious authorities: this is often referred by monastic engineers as the City of God. The other subsystem, secular, is only loosely regulated and mostly left to its own devices, except for censorship.
Dual networks: one part, The City of God, is run by religious orders. It is very trustable and well-maintained, works perfectly, and is heavily censored. The secular population have read-only access, only monks and nuns can add new information to it. The other part is secular, and left mostly alone by the authorities.
AI agents are excluded from the City of God. All agency should be human agency.
Highly trustable datasets in the City of God enable dependable digital services.
Censorship applies also to the secular network.
The City of God and the Gates of Fire
The Covenant’s nuns and monks need access to digital networks; after the Zero-Day fracture, as they took a leading role in the newly constituted Distrikt’s society, this need became more pressing. The Fathers and Mothers superiors, however, saw a lot of digital activities of Witness as chaotic, when not outright sinful, and unsuitable for consumption by their flocks. As a consequence, they started working on an ecclesiastical digital network, which would be completely sealed off from the secular ones except for a few, carefully monitored, gateways. Its center of operations is located in the Library of Saint Benedict.
This network, nicknamed Ecclesia or the City of God, initially contained theological and liturgy resources, as well as simple messaging services for the monks to communicate with each other. But it quickly expanded and complexified to vast libraries of all human knowledge, schematics, datasets, repositories of software code, and so on.
For its users, the main advantage of the City of God is the exceptionally high quality of all its resources. Technical standards are seamlessly inter-operable; all resources are maintained by members of the clergy and lay brothers and sisters, and, as this is work they offer to God, they do it well. There are no “404 not founds” in heaven.
The flip side of that is that any information that is added to the City of God’s server needs to be vetted for trustability before. Also, anything deemed sinful is excluded right off the bat. As a consequence, the City of God is nowhere near as rich and organic as the secular digital networks in Witness, and is rather more like an exceptionally large and well-maintained Intranet. To achieve such tight control, the City of God is mostly a read-only network. Anyone in Witness can access it, but with read-only permissions. Read-and-write permissions are reserved for nodes inside the City of God itself, managed by monasteries and other religious institutions. A very few exceptions are made: some (mostly statistical) information originating in the State Machine, and The Covenant’s and other Distrikt authorities is directly ingested by the City of God, through tightly policed and tripwired gateways, nicknamed the Gates of Fire.
Among other things, the Gates of Fire incorporate sniffers that block and erase any bot; the principle is that any agency within the City of God should be human agency. AI agents are considered to have a dubious theological status, and the Officium appears to be in no hurry to resolve those doubts. Spiders and other bots can, of course crawl the City of God using read-only public access points.
The digital resources in the City of God are highly appreciated, and widely used, all over Witness. The monks emphasize the importance of maintenance, curation and documentation, humble, important work that pleases God. As a consequence, the integrity of documents and datasets stored therein can be trusted, with a high degree of confidence.
The secular digital networks in The Covenant are only loosely regulated insofar as technical standards, business models or services are concerned. However, The Covenant differs from most other Distrikts insofar as it tries to censor their content. This is motivated with the need to provide societal stability in a mostly religious polity. The Inquisitores, the Officium’s police force, has a well-staffed cyber division, which crawls the networks in search of potentially destabilizing content. The offending servers from outside of the Officium’s jurisdiction (most of them in Libria or the Assembly) are blacklisted.
The Assembly of People
Digital networks in The Assembly are organized mostly along cooperative lines, like the rest of its economy. A high degree of interoperability is ensured by tight cooperation on technical standards. The Distrikt’s government is highly active in standard-setting bodies, leveraging its core competence in coordinating the interoperability of locally autonomous systems to make sure that the lowest-level layers of The Assembly’s digital infrastructure are fully interoperable, within the Distrikt and with other Distrikts.
Coordination in the data and application layers of digital technology is not strongly encouraged as such by the government, with some exceptions. A certain amount of it happens anyway, by virtue of bottom-up coordination between businesses (mostly cooperatives).
Government-maintained digital ID is chained to The Assembly’s digital currency, CTRLcoin. The currency itself ensures economic rights of citizens, so everyone uses government digital ID.
Data coops collect the data generated by their members (examples: regenerative agriculture farmers, or visual artists, or consumers), and sell access to them for the benefit of members.
Digital identity layer and digital currencly
The government of The Assembly issues digital identities as system-enablers, and exerts a strong influence in the technical standards bodies to make sure these identities work with all other layers in the system.
The Assembly’s digital currency, CRTLcoin, is used to enact certain economic rights that all citizens have. As a consequence, digital wallets in The Assembly are accessed via each citizen’s official ID. Third-parties digital identities are legal, but not acknowledged by the government.
Data cooperatives are a distinguishing feature of the digital world in The Assembly. Groups of actors – for example, regenerative agriculture farmers, or artists, or the dwellers of a specific village or neighborhood – agree to pool together the data generated by their activities. These datapools are often used by the cooperators themselves, but are also often sold on the market, both to other cooperatives and to private companies outside the Assembly. For example, users of Libria-based social networking services are organized into consumers cooperatives that negotiate with those services, charging them fees in returning for allowing them to monetize (via targeted advertising) the digital trail left by cooperators.
Sources of inspiration
The striving for digital sovereignty of the different Distrikts in Witness is inspired by the notion of the splinternet and its connection with notions of national sovereignty.
Hygge’s attempt to regulate foreign tech companies is inspired by the idea, popular among European Union Internet policy geeks, that the EU is a regulatory superpower, with the clout to mitigate the worst of the societal effects of Big Tech. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation is often quoted as evidence that the EU itself could indeed play this role.
The government-issue digital ID dominant in both Hygge and The Assembly are a reflection of being familiar with real-world digital IDs as they function in Estonia (you access both e-government services and your bank account through your government-issue digital ID) as opposed to Belgim (you access e-government services through your government-issue ditigal ID, but your bank account through an ID issued by a private consortium of banks plus Microsoft).
The idea of a digital currency linked to government-issue digital ID, as found in The Assembly, comes from Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future.
The dual Internet of The Covenant is inspired by the vision outlined in Peter Watt’s Rifters trilogy.