A great war is being fought, before our eyes, yet few of us can actually see it. It has been a long time in the preparation. The early skirmishes have dominated our news headlines for the last few years because our established media understands the issue at hand comprehensively. The battleground lies at the very heart of the Age of Information: the ownership of the information itself. On one side there are the few, who own every other estate on the planet and wish to include our data in their balance books. On the other side, there are a few of the many, who want to right the unbalanced ownership of our resources. I know what side I am on but unfortunately, for now, our weaponry is too old fashioned to be of much use. No-one would storm a modern castle with an archaic blunderbuss.
For years before everyone’s family got into Wastebook or the world’s celebrities discovered Fritter, I used StumbleUpon. Although it has a social media function, that is geared to the background. Really it is a recommendation engine, which gets better the more it data mines your personal likes and dislikes. It had the wonderful advantage of discovering what people like me were into, without the tedious business of actually having to talk to them. After many years I abandoned it, fearing that my every online move had been pimped out to the world’s corporations.
These days the vehicle of choice for conversation in the Western World is, of course, Twitter. It is cleverly positioned as both an open platform ~ in the sense that anyone can read all the content ~ and a members’ club. Thus the world’s commercial media has fallen in love with it because it really got us all talking. There’s a problem though. Just as with the Co-Op bank, the problem isn’t about the ethics of its high command, the problem is with its owners. Both institutions just floated on stock exchanges. Consequently, both must now be regarded as psychopathic organisations driven by one motive only: profit. Quarterly returns will become more important than any other consideration.
Whereas people ~ in the UK, at least ~ are traditionally slow to move banks, online they are remarkably adept at jumping ship. Witness the rapidity with which the youth have adopted WhatsApp and various other social media networks which function on the basis of who you know rather than who wants to know you. They check into FaceBook to tell Mummy & Daddy that they are doing their homework, before dashing off a few less innocent status updates on SnapChat.
Most of us use this techie stuff because it either appears useful to us or because there is social pressure to use it. In the former case, fair enough. In the latter case, as the lyrics of Eleanor Rigby have it, ah look at all the lonely people. Look at all the people who idle their days away on social media when previously they would have been playing golf.
Some of us, myself included, are particularly interested in keeping the original spirit of the internet alive. I first went online at the start of 1998. Back then everything was free apart from the connection. By the end of that year, prophetic voices were talking about a time when the internet would be turned into a series of competing proprietary gardens, much like the Wild West wasn’t tamed by Wyatt Earp and his like, but by the bastard child of English property law and colonialism: a barbed wire fence erected over our common land.
Poor though I am, I invested hard earned cash in joining App.Net, which aims to provide a space which its members own and can dump their data in (and delete it). However it suffers from the same central technical problem that Facebook, Twitter, Google and all other forms government have, namely centralisation. As soon as it is bought and sold, there is very little I can do to stop my information being sold off. Not to mention stolen before it gets sold anyway. Probably by people paid by a government elected by the people.
Clearly we are all much advantaged by social media. It allows us all to keep everyone in the picture. No longer can our news be curated by the establishment, for its selfish benefit. No longer can secrets be kept in the dark, until some civil servant decided that a sufficient number of decades has passed after the death of everyone involved. No longer need we wonder about anything. We can just ask everyone and if the question is of sufficient interest, we will find our answer. When those questions and answers hit on the important questions of the day, social change is at hand.
Having been socialised into the use of these technologies by the likes of MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, we’re now accustomed to them. Crucially, we’re now willing to pay for them too. Thus, WhatsApp knows it can charge its users £0.69 annually after the first year’s membership. Strike one to the forces of capitalism! Something we didn’t previously know we could benefit from, we are now willing to pay for.
The imperative to be connected, to be involved, to be part of the gang is not the problem. The problem is who leads the gang? So long as the servers which run these social networks are owned by a single organisation, there will be issues about the attitudes of that organisation. That’s why Bitcoin is so popular. We can transfer money without a bank which profits from both us and the arms trade. Bitcoin is, of course, an open source distributed software. For anyone who doesn’t understand that phrase, it means that anyone can read the computer code which runs it and it is shared across the internet. In fact, it can only work when it is shared across the internet. It cannot be owned by any one service provider.
That’s why I’ve also invested my cold cash in the developers currently working on Trsst. They aim to produce a beta code by the end of this year, which will provide the basic architecture for a protocol for an open source distributed software to run an encrypted social network. In other words, the best of Twitter et al without any of those nasty venture capitalists or stock market speculators being involved. If the proof of concept works, everyone with a server or even just a connected home computer will be able to install the software and bingo! We’ll have a free, secure, stable, private social network which no court of law will ever be able to serve a writ on. It will be Strike Two to the forces of socialism.
Traditionally, we’ve needed both capitalists and socialists to make information technology work. We’ve need capitalists to make the hardware and people who were socialist in all but name to make the best software. I need not give examples of the capitalist companies churning out the the keyboards, the hard drives and the motherboards. Yet we all recognise the Sainthood of Tim Berners-Lee, who personally invented the code to run the world wide web and then gave it away to all of us for free. (Incidentally, he is now battling to keep it free and open too.) Similarly, the best computer operating system in the world, which runs most of the net anyway, Linux was created by someone who insisted that it be shared freely. This blog rests on a platform ~ WordPress ~ which is community authored and shared freely. The list of examples goes on and on.
The question is no longer whether you are interested in this battle or willing to participate in it. We are all involved, whether we like it or not. The question is, which side are you on? We don’t necessarily have to quit the privately owned platforms which fight against the common good, at least not just yet. But we do have to make our views known. We have to raise awareness. We haven’t yet got our own social media, which capitalism cannot contain. Until that day comes ~ and, I hope, with trsst it may come next year ~ we must bide our time, striking blows against the forces of private profit wherever we can. This is not the time to quit twitter, this is the time to kick twitter.
Hopefully 2014 will be the year when the people prevail over the would be proprietors of our information. There’s much at stake here. Are we to be the creators of our destiny or just consumers in an endless shopping mall?