Ideas to demand more of the internet and for the planet

Hi all,

Just sharing some notes from a conversation I had with @pbihr, helpfully supported by @johncoate. The text is a bit raw, but I hope some of the ideas are useful to this forum.


My name is Michelle Thorne, and I work for the Mozilla Foundation. We’re behind the browser Firefox. And for the last few years, we’ve been working on internet health.

I got first gotten interested in all things internet about 15 years ago.

I was actually a very passionate early Wikipedia when the project was just getting started. And I remember telling everybody I knew like my university professors, “there’s this amazing website that lets you edit all these these different articles. And it’s all the world’s knowledge and all the world’s languages.” And I just thought that was the most ambitious and coolest thing on the internet. And so that was kind of my window into free culture and open source. After going to the first week of Wikimania in Frankfurt, Germany, I learned about Creative Commons, where I later worked. And after being at Creative Commons for a few years, started to work at the Mozilla Foundation. So the idea of, you know, open, participatory, global, ambitious digital projects has always been the big job for me.

I’m really interested in the internet, and the role it plays in society. I see it as a global public resource, and something really worthy of attention and care. I think one of the challenges we see today is that participation is more complicated than it was, let’s say, in the earlier days of the internet, we’ve seen the rise of these big centralized platforms, which use their corporate policies to control how you participate. There is very little governance from the user side, and how those platforms might change or respond to people’s needs. And we’re also seeing the rise of behaviors online, hate speech and other kinds of violence aggravating actions that have kind of put people into retreat, or help to polarize people. So we have other social media platforms who really benefit from benefit from outrage and benefit from content that gets, quote, engagement. But it’s actually creating a kind of polarized atmosphere online, and people are retreating and participating less, or just participating in their smaller groups and just talking about the average.

So it’s become a kind of, at least in my experience, and what I’ve heard anecdotally and seen in some studies, just the internet as a place of participation is a lot more money, the Mozilla foundation on on the team that I’m on, we support all sorts of leaders in the internet health movement, who are tackling these different kinds of issues. So there’s a whole group of people, Camille included, who are talking about misinformation, and how do you combat the rise of misinformation online? People talking about how do we talk about hate speech and radicalized speech online. And we also run a bunch of campaigns around these topics that I’ve been working on the last few years is the Internet of Things, and how to make it more responsible, more open, more private, and also include these ideas of participation and co-creation, because the Internet of Things has typically been a lot of black box appliances, without a lot of in a real agency to change them.

The IoT projects, I think, get it right or on the right path are ones that are open in their designs and their code and in their explanation of their business model and around like, how how the thing works, and also how did this thing comes to be in terms of supply chain, and in terms of the materials and things that go into it, as well as the third parties that work with it. So there’s a whole, for me, openness is starting to become a much broader, you know, includes many things are, you know, transparency and how that device is made. What that device interacts with, in addition to the licensing of a name, it’s like codes. And I think that those practices help to build trust. Because when you can see that an audit that information you can better understand is this a service or product that I’m willing to trust. And I think part of what that openness is about is around disclosing what happens with your data, what partners that company is in contact with or, partnering with, what their IT security update policies are, these are all things that help you make an informed decision whether you will trust this device with your data, and therefore, consider it a privacy worth preserving.

In general I think we put too much pressure on the individual to have to protect themselves and all sorts of areas of our lives, technology, internet, it’s just one of them. I do think there are responsibilities of governments and corporations. And I think we’re seeing the rise of, thanks to digital tools, some sort of collective agency and collective bargaining. So pools of users able to put together their demands, their needs, their permissions, and through more collective bargaining, able to negotiate. And so I think that for me, that’s a kind of a new area worthy of more exploration and others that some people may be sitting in this network are looking at things like digital cooperatives. And I think that that’s going to be a really interesting place. Because yeah, I think, only putting the burden on the individual to have to understand all these different policies, all the different permissions, all the different technical capabilities. And do this in like the seconds of free time they have between their otherwise strapped lives is unfair, and not a society I want to advocate for.

I started the Mozilla Foundation, when Mark Surman, the executive director, had also just recently joined. And he had the ambition to take the Mozilla Foundation, which was pretty strongly just focused on Firefox, the browser, and maybe a little bit the web as a platform, and said, like, we need to be fueling a movement for the help of the internet. And so his application blog post is called A Million Mozillians. And at the time, that was a quite radical and ambitious proposal to the organization. And so I’ve been working with him for over a decade, and the things that I have done and have helped to make that vision a reality. Little bit, these projects started off with what’s called the Mozilla Festival. And the idea was, let’s bring together these different, primarily open players in the open space. So we had people from open hardware, open science, open education. And we had Wikipedia there, you know, we had a collection of project open video, there was a smattering of these open efforts around the world. And we thought let’s bring them together. And here’s a look at also learn from all these different movements that we’re applying openness to other fields. So that’s where you build your rainbow coalition, so to speak. Okay. And that helps give us specific projects and people that we could be investing in and supporting over the years. And what’s interesting is even over a decade that’s had for various permutations, but a lot of the key ideas still continue. So I still think I still use convenience as this really important way to bring together a coalition, a network of people who might otherwise not work together, to really create, like, a new community of practice out of these diverse groups. And by working on specific and achievable projects, you are able to actually give people like a collaborative substrate that lets something move forward. So I think that those some of those templates that still continue. And I have definitely learned over the years, but I think those are are quite powerful tools, especially in the nonprofit space.

One theme that kind of emerged through that work of the years, which also include included web literacy, and being part of the kind of learn to code movement was this idea of before the first falling at the Physical Web.

Depending on circle you’re in, you would sometimes say different words to what we set out on IoT, because that started just to be the term that was getting more traction. But anyways, I partnered with a professor from the University of Dundee, Jon Rogers, who I had worked with for many years through the Mozilla Festival, we just really got along and just said, like, hey, every time we talk, there’s all sorts of ideas and things that we can be working on. So let’s just Skype with each other once a week, and see where it goes. And so for a few months, you know, he came from a design research background, really interested in the physical aspects of the web and of interaction as an electrical engineer. I was coming from this digital rights, free culture, participatory open perspective. And so we would just mash together ideas. And then it emerged, we could actually make some sort of program that could be hosted with Mozilla and the University of Dundee, that tried to take those different values and approaches and apply to Internet of Things.

So we started the Open IT Studio in 2016, with the idea of, let’s support a community of practice of designers, technologists, philosophers, historians, digital rights advocates, to talk about what can we do to make it a healthier space for humans. And I think that project was quite successful, definitely a highlight of my career, there were a few things that came out of it that might be interesting for people to check out. One I can recommend is the Anatomy of AI, which is a collaboration between Vladan Joler from Share Labs and Kate Crawford from AI Now, which just won design of the year and was acquired by the V&A museum for their permanent collection.

And they took an Amazon Alexa. And they said, let’s do a truly exploded view. So in design, you have this thing called exploded me, which usually just shows you the physical parts that go into device. But we said with connected devices, the story is much bigger than just the small material parts that go into it. So <what I’m?> created the most amazing map, it’s four meters by four meters, which was exhibited at the V and A Museum in London and has toured around Europe and beyond. And it’s shows you the lifecycle of an Amazon Alexa from the mining and the smelting and the production of the components to then when it’s actually running all of the data centers and content moderation advertising to the end of life, recycling, and others and otherwise discarding of the device and what is the true cost of Amazon Alexa; what really goes into it. And I think that for me, that project, The Anatomy of AI, is such a great touchstone for when we think about IoT. Often we talk about IoT, we just see a smart light bulb, or we often just see an object, you know, some sort of traffic light or something. But it’s really the new vast network of stuff before, during and after that device where things get really interesting. So I think that that for me was just such a great example of bringing that to life.

This is a long saga. We’re not even in just the last minutes, it’s actually the beginning of a whole new day, a whole new 24 hours, because so for example, Amazon Alexa, it’s sold incredibly cheaply. I mean, compact, like it’s very inexpensive device. But some of the main things it’s doing is it’s becoming a much more direct portal for people to order things from Amazon. But probably more importantly, it’s become a whole voice snippet, like gathering system, which is powering Amazon’s Alexa, that is probably the true value of having your Alexa in everyone’s home. For me it like that with working with Open IoT Studio and with Jon, and with our collaborators or whichever one Peter, this kind of growing conversation amongst technologists, different professionals in the tech sector around how do we make the internet especially these newer emerging technologies within associated with Internet? How do we make them more understandable? How do we make decisions that lead to these products being more responsible, or the people making them be more responsible? So I think some of it is about transparency and understanding. So things like this map.

And some of it are tools, like one project that we worked on together the TrustMark, the trust mark for IoT, which is something that you can then use as a tool for vetting whether your product needs a certain standard and hoping to be giving users some agency and figuring out like, is this something that I really want to have in my home or my life?

I think the place where we have the most effect, maybe some better leverage, is working with other professionals and practitioners. Because those are, that’s an audience. That’s kind of a more notable in size and scale, or size, and just and profile. And those are people who are making daily decisions in their lives that go into those products. So those were our key audiences. So working with Jon: he’s teaching next generation product designers. So we had a whole thing around education, from undergraduate to graduate. And now we have a PhD program funded by the EU looking at responsible IoT, I think this idea of what are we doing in the higher education space to train people going into the field that will have these kinds of considerations, as well as people who are in the field who are making kind of daily decisions, and then also all sorts of kind of user advocates. So we work with Consumer Reports, we work with nonprofits, we work in the digital rights space, all these people were kind of advocating on behalf of users. And they love these kinds of examples and tools, because it helps them give point to something maybe a little more tangible or intuitive than just a policy briefing.

I was recently reflecting with a friend of mine that when in college, I studied critical social thought. And we did a lot of thinking and writing, but very little making. And if I could recreate my degree I would have critical social and critical making as my double major. Because I think you’re right, I think actually the, let’s say the makers, I think we’re seeing this in the computer science departments and the design departments, engineering departments of all kinds are getting a lot more ethics curriculum and support to think about the ethical components of their work. I think that’s on the rise. It’s on the rise, but I think some of the other humanities actually don’t do enough making of their own. So I’m sure when you’re studying law, you would very, very few project would actually encourage you to do anything like make a trust, like a prototype, just mark that actually tries to put some of your law practice into something more tangible. And I I’m a firm believer that we learn through making and even though I’m not a skilled maker, I think that this is a an amazing process to try to turn ideas into something tangible, something that’s testable, something that lives in another mode.

We exhibited at the V&A during digital design weekend, and you get, like 25,000 people come through, and check out our work. And you have to talk to all sorts of people from all walks of life. And so yes, a lot of it’s contextual, but who you’re in front of. But I find in general, many people have a smartphone, most smartphones have some sort of voice assistant running on them. I think a smartphone is one of people’s first IoT devices in this way. And so actually talking to people about their phone, how do they use their phone and the user voice assistant? What do they think about that? Do they know where that data is going? What do they think about those companies have it, it’s all those funny stories around? Accent accents being misunderstood, like the Scottish person trying to talk to Siri, in these people really relate to those stories, and have their own experiences with them. And that becomes kind of a channel through which you can talk about some of these other internet health issues.

I’m seeing increasingly people who don’t want their work to be adding to the shadiness in the world. Dot Everyone just released a really great study around tech workers and their attitudes, was focused on the UK, but they showed that I think one in five tech workers, is ready to leave a job if the employers makes an error, like an unethical decision, which cost the company like 30,000 times. So I think this is anecdotally and then also in the sector, more people want to have ethical decisions in what they build. And so I’m actually finding more people, who you don’t have to convince them that these are things to work on. It’s more that was more how oftentimes, you’ll find that people are people who work in the tech sector are coming up against the business of the company is the thing that is at odds, it may be not their product manager or their design team, everyone’s on board. But you have you coming down to some bigger question around like, how is that company financed? And so I think some of the big innovations of the coming decade will actually be around reforming our economic models.

I think of how this OpenDoTT PhD program came to life. And thanks to the maintenance of the European Commission to prioritize these kinds of training networks, which seems to be a unique thing in the world that they say we need to get universities and in the industry together to think and to move forward to these new kinds of trainings. And especially they were interested in things like a nonprofit like Mozilla, who really focus on these more societal implications of technology. So I think that’s a really amazing that they even have this kind of like structure. So it’s going to be a three year PhD program that actually the there’s five PhD students who are at this moment moving to Dundee, Scotland to start next week. And they come, they come from all over the world. And the idea is that they’re going to be researching, through design practices, their philosophical practices through coding practices, and legal practices, ways to advance a healthier Internet of Things. So what that will look like in practice is like, very much going to be determined on what they bring to it. But we focused on different layers of where we see it playing out from the body, to the home to the neighborhood, in the city. And then we also did a cross cutting project or on the trustmark, and helps to try to bring those ideas together. So I’m quite excited to see what it’s like, I think, to have a PhD program paired with a nonprofit is exciting, they’re going to also come to facility Berlin, for a year and a half to be more embedded in our office here. And then they’re being advised by an array of really amazing organizations who are at the forefront of this responsible space, moving things on, simply secure. I want to take this program, as much as I want to run it.

The stat that really set me back was learning that the internet contributes 2% of the world’s global carbon emissions, which basically puts it on par with the airline industry. I think for a long time, we’ve lived in some sort of digital denial that the internet is physical, in that sense, in the sense that it requires environmental resources and adds to pollution. But as in the tech sector, we’ve never shied away from imagining different futures and innovating. So it’s actually a place where I think the internet both is a heavy contributor to emissions, as well as it can be an amazing tool to reduce its own as well as used to mobilize and organize for climate action.

Recently, I’ve been really interested in the idea of becoming carbon neutral Internet, and what it would take to reduce those emissions. The great news is that there are many wonderful humans of the internet who are interested in this in this problem as well. And there’s already like an array of actions that are happening from moving data centers to renewables, to designing websites and web services that have a lower footprint, to extending the life of connected devices, there’s a whole bunch of things people are doing that in aggregate can actually reduce emissions. And so for me, that’s really exciting, not just thinking about it in the internet sector, but also just seeing the mobilization around a climate agenda. We see that really strongly here in Germany with Friday’s for Future, and the recent European elections, this I think, strong mandate from the public to do something about it. And I’ve really taken that kind of momentum to heart.

Within Mozilla, we started a small group of people who are pushing for more climate activism within the organization, which you can expect to hear more from soon. And just being more involved and also learning. There’s a lot to learn about, about the climate crisis. But I think it’s something that now when I think about what does it mean to be responsible technologists, I think previously, I really saw it as being around openness and privacy, inclusion, and all these topics. But now I’m increasingly seeing it has to also include the climate and kind of moving up or probably down the stack really deeper into the base layers. I keep putting like penthouses on it, but actually basement that needed investigation. People that I’ve spoken to have felt this kind of dissonance between amazing internet future that, for example, that me and all these open movement people have been advocating for, and the hard reality of the climate crisis, but I think there’s a way to actually address that dissonance head on and not be paralyzed in action, but actually to do something about it. That’s, that’s where I’m at at the moment.

Just think about this project being in the context of the European Union. In much of my work over the years, I’ve really seen the European Union be this kind of beacon of hope, from be it from a regulatory perspective, be it from an agenda setting perspective be addressed from like a celebration of multiculturalism will do lingual ism. And now, also putting the climate high on the high on the priority list. Even as a non EU citizen, I really believe in the project of the EU. And I think it’s one of the most modern and exciting things that is happening on the planet, I think for the EU to really be invested in a thought leader around what the internet could be and helping to create this kind of alternative vision for it that are dominated by the prevailing centralized service capitalism models. I think, you know, that hasn’t made me more public, public good perspective. I think there’s something I really am hopeful for and to help lead. So that’s exciting. And one of the reasons I was excited to participate in this project.

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That’s a long and very meaty post. Thank you!

Matrix multiplication

Carbon dioxide emissions from computer equipment (as well as the energy consumption of computer equipment!) comes up every now and then. Even with vastly more energy-efficient equipment, the sheer amount of equipment being deployed means energy consumption necessarily goes up. Artificial intelligence also is not helping - it does not require a lot of math and computer science to realize most of A.I. is matrix multiplications (a famously energy consuming computational problem!).

It should not require a lot of political science and legal informatics knowledge to recognise that most EU governments originally invested in computer systems to be deterministic, but have now ended up reflecting on how to use stochastic mechanisms (A.I.) to re-introduce stretchibility in governance. One reflects on why so much effort is spent on reintroducing machine-driven subjectivity, when human-driven subjectivity was the entire reason for computerization to begin with.

I think - perhaps ironically - that a chronically understudied subject is history of technology. Many of the most insightful and illuminating texts I’ve come across are from this field, whether it be Vassilev Bontchevs chronicles of early virus-coding in Bulgaria (https://bontchev.nlcv.bas.bg/papers/factory.html), Jon Agars description of early conceptualizations of computerization in liberal United Kingdom (“Government Machine”), Jean-François Blanchettes book on French challenges with the immateriality of the electronic signature (“Burdens of Proof”) or Seda Gürses thesis on privacy-enhancing technologies from 2010. Much effort is spent on emergent technologies, or emergent legal challenges arising from such technologies, and in general the present - so much so that we appear to be missing out on even relatively recent contexts (like the past century or less) that could help us find bearing and direction.

A big challenge, I suggest, is that most public sector investment in information technologies is being done without a clear view of what the investments are really for (although I could well be locally biased, having been based in Sweden).

Logistics

One place where we could start looking, even if it might be painful, is in trying to recognise where the big productivity gains have arisen as a result of information technologies. Information technologies have generated a lot of patents (see Castells or Mazzucato). But they have not, in fact, made it possible for individuals to work less - implying that the productivity gains are, generally, low. Controversially, we could hypothesize that information technologies do not improve the economy much! An essay with a US perspective is available here:

So in spite of an increasing amount of wealth, which is circulating around fewer and fewer people (see Stieglitz, Krugman, Deaton, among others), productivity per work hour is seemingly not going up, but down. And less and less wealth is trickling downwards.

The one area that I can spontaneously imagine has really benefitted from information technologies, though, is logistics. Logistics has gotten easier, cheaper and productive: we can now fish shrimp in the North Sea, ship them to Thailand for boiling and peeling, ship them back to Poland for packing and then to Belgium for consumption - this would have been an impossibly gargantuan task only a few decades ago. Unfortunately it’s not environmentally optimal.

It is easier to keep track of shipments, of ships, of routes, products, containers, and all other things shipping related. We would likely not have the extensive global networks of trade that we have today were it not for information technologies.

In this sense, we may have use for history of economics. I’ve heard comparisons made with electricity - what kind of productivity gains did it lead to? One was obviously keeping cities illuminated, but another was an ability to make factories smaller (vertical, in fact). Before electricity, factories took up more horizontal space. After electricity, factories could also be vertically constructed. This allowed productivity gains, compared with e.g. steam power or similar.

Foucault and centralization

I come back almost always to James Boyle’s 1997 “Foucault in cyberspace” essay:

https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/faculty_scholarship/619/

with the question whether the norms that we apply to information management in society do not, in fact, presume some level of centralization. Whether it be about deciding which type of information is terrorist, extreme or hateful, or about deciding when culture should or should not be shared and for what reasons, there is a presumption of an arbitrator or controller who is external to the individuals engaging with the information. The internet was built specifically not to have such arbitrators or controllers, at least not at the network layer, and so we’re seeing arbitrators and controllers emerge on the higher layers instead - but it’s a difficult task! It is not trivial to ensure that such a flexible and open architecture as is the internet is adapted for the presumption of a single arbitrator or controller (per political jurisdiction?).

I’m personally hesitant to buy into the narratives of hate-speech at all. I have come to increasingly believe that most people simply do what their leaders do, and political leaders (world-wide) are of increasingly poor quality: they may hold press-conferences where they brag about performing an assassination on a territory with which they are not at war, call people bots and zombies, and other similar things. Perhaps it would be useful if public persons had similar restrictions on their freedom of speech as they have on their right to privacy - namely, if you are a public person, you should not expect to be able to present your thoughts as freely as if you are not a public person.

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Hello Michelle @thornet, welcome!

Great post (and I used to know Mark Surman, and so does @nadia, maybe he remembers us still)!

I do not understand this sentence:

This is great news, good on you! We at Edgeryders have started our own work on climate (see #earthos). Hopefully we will have some chances to come across each other in the near future.

Indeed. I am a big fan of both. History – despite not being a science, or maybe because of it – does contain lessons that are valuable moving into highly uncertain terrains such as these.

I would totally take a MOOC in social history of technology, or in history of economic thinking!

Hello @thornet,

I am happy to hear about your belive in the EU. Many speak about the “image problem” of the EU and it is certainly not perfect, but I also think that growing together and more independent from big capitalistic entities is the right direction and subscribe to the European project :).

As @teirdes said, thank you for this long and meaty post. I would just like to encourage you to break out a topic or two which you would like to discuss more directly in shorter posts to start discussion :).

I dislike hate speech but I think I dislike too many laws and restrictions on speech even more. If someone wants to out themselves as racist, I say let them show the world for what they truly are. That does not mean that someone else has an obligation to publish it. That is not the same thing.

But of course it all gets messier in this world of social media where the illusion is that we have some sort of control over what we see. Of course we have no such thing. Not sure about Twitter, but it is well established that Facebook manipulates us all into various polarities so they can make more money off of us. Their platitudes about free speech and all are just so much bunk. If they really wanted us to have control we would get meaningful user tools that work with consistency and predictability. We have neither, and never will under the status quo. I think Zuckerberg is as bad a liar as Trump.

I remember when more user control was the dominant theme of internet services and I remember when it started to go away, to be replaced by an illusion of control. I like the better graphics and throughput of today’s Net, but in truth I liked the user experience far better in the 90s. Google and FB has pretty much wrecked it. I will never forgive them for it.

Still, there are places where one can go - this place here being one of them. We can get a lot of personal and professional satisfaction from using them and other honest sites. But in the larger social context, we’re just a blip at this point. I hope that changes…not giving up hope.

As for world leaders: I cannot think of a single one I respect right now. In my almost 69 years, this might be the worst crop of them all. And right when we need to all pull together to try to stop our collective environmental destruction, which at this point looks like a mathematical certainty. Now I am sure that some of the smaller countries have good leaders, but I live in the USA. Until we get rid of the cancer that is Donald Trump and the GOP, this is a wasteland. And then there is Putin, Brazil, China, India, etc…the big countries all have truly awful leadership.

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Speaking of more or less user controls, everything changed when phones became the dominant method of access. With massive increases in net usage and a need to minimize expensive customer support, the interfaces got dumbed down just as they figured out how much more ad money could be made by funneling people to where the company wants you to go, while trying to make you believe you are in control.