Tagpolitics

Welcome to the Post-Social Media Era

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The last decade was the era of Social Media: Community-driven platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and even LinkedIn have completely changed the way we interact with, and perceive, the world.

(Purely anecdotally: I joined Twitter in 2006, about a year after it launched—and felt I was late to the game. Since then, I think I owe a great deal of my career to the people I met through Twitter.)

Societally, the impact of these platforms has been amazing: They have enabled communities to form, they allowed people with niche interests to find likeminded folks around the globe, and they have empowered groups to advocate and campaign for their causes globally without the need for traditional, large scale campaign infrastructure.

Social media also has made us all (with a caveat: some more than others) commentators, and active participants in the global media conversation. In the process, they allowed for real-time fact checking and commentary of media and politics. For a while, it seemed this was a bottom-up revolution that propelled society to more truth, easier access to facts and experts, and a more informed public.

Image (Public Domain): U.S. National Archives: Actual Demonstration by the Fire Department Training Station. Photographer: David Falconer.

And it has, to a degree. But at the same time, the same mechanics have also led to large scale harassment and fake news, and have helped undermine trust in journalism (aka “main stream media”) and political institutions like governments and political parties. Turns out tools aren’t neutral or a-political; and even if they were, Bad Guys are really savvy using tools for nefarious purposes.

By now, the combination and scale of fake news, harassment, and intransparent platforms with their black box algorithms are killing social media as we know it:

Social media first undermined the media’s and institutions’ credibility, and now their own. Facebook and Twitter (the platforms) are the tech world’s functional equivalent of main stream media; Facebook and Twitter (the companies) are the institutions.

In their place small, private groups thrive (think Whatsapp), but public social media has peaked.

We’re headed into a social media winter. The post-social era has begun.

Challenges for governance in the Internet of Things

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Image by Paula Vermeulen via Unsplash

I’d like to share 3 short stories that demonstrate just a few of the challenges of governance for IoT.

1) In the fall of 2016 Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and other popular consumer websites were temporarily shut down in a so-called Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. This isn’t unusual in itself—it happens all the time in smaller scale. What WAS unusual was the attack vector: For the first time, a large-scale DDoS attack was driven by IoT products, mainly cheap, unsecured, internet-connected CCTV cameras. Who suffers the consequences? Who’s responsible? Who’s liable?

2) As part of the European Digital Single Market, the EU just passed the The General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR for short. It’s is designed to enable individuals to better control their personal data. However, experts around the globe are scrambling to figure out how this applied to the IoT: Almost certainly, a lot of the type of data collection and personalization that’s part of consumer IoT products falls squarely under the GDPR. What will IoT-related services look like 5 years from now? Is it going to be different services depending on where you are? Based on where your provider is? Based on where your residency is? Or will it just stay the same?

3) In 2015, Mount Sinai Hospital in New York launched an interesting research project called Deep Patient. They applied artificial intelligence (AI) techniques—concretely machine learning algorithms—to analyze their patient records for patterns. It turned out that these algorithms were extremely good at predicting certain medical conditions; much better than human doctors. But it wasn’t clear how they got to these predictions. Is it responsible to act on medical predictions if the doctors don’t know what they’re based on? Is it responsible not to? How do we deal with intelligence and data that we don’t understand? What if our fridges, cars, or smartphones knew better what’s good for us than we do?

These 3 short stories demonstrate how wide the range of questions is that we face in IoT. The width and depth of this range makes questions of governance more than just a little tricky.

Image: Paula Vermeulen, Unsplash

Net Neutrality Begone: Startups, stay out of Europe (for now)

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A few days ago, the EU passed legislation around Net Neutrality that in name should have guaranteed net neutrality, but in the legal text has such huge loop holes that in fact it does the opposite.

This regulation was passed very much against expert opinion, and bears a very unhealthy resemblance to the language that telco lobbyists have been pushing for a long time.

This directive is a shame, and it kicks out one of the main drivers of innovation and equality in Europe. As of the moment of signing Europe, its citizens, and its companies will be disadvantaged citizens in the digital world. Europe has just been weakened tremendously as a place for digital innovation.

Please note that the following isn’t “just” my opinion as a citizen of the EU. It’s also my professional opinion as an analyst and consultant to organizations large and small, from startup to global corporation; as Managing Director of my own company, The Waving Cat; and as chair and founder of a number of technology & innovation conferences.

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The key to a truly smart city is decentralization

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Earlier this year, as preparation for some research & policy input for the German government, we dug into the current state of research around connected cities.

The lense we applied was that of how a smart city would impact societal life, responsive government, and of course the power balance between citizenry, administration, large companies and the infrastructure itself.

While our report is yet to be released, I just read a piece by Paul Mason in The Guardian where he takes a critical stance on smart cities and identifies some major changes we can expect when heading for a smart city (emphasis mine):

The privacy issues [with smartphones that by design are also tracking devices] are dealt with by limiting the flow of data between public and private sectors, and by making the individual the centre of the information flow. But in a smart city, you need data to flow freely across sectors that, in the commercial world, would normally be separate. The energy system needs to know what the transport system is doing. And the whole thing needs to be run like a “God game”: the city government, not the individual, must exercise control.

This idea of the need for (and opportunity inherent in) a central control instance certainly is an inherent premise of the vision that smart city vendors often try to push. (Why Mason seems to buy this I cannot tell – otherwise his piece is very critical and thorough.) It’s not a premise we need to accept and in fact I think we mustn’t accept.

A truly smart city for me requires decentralization, openness, democratic oversight, and the ability for bottom-up innovation.

A centralized coordinating and controlling instance – the central instance of a “God game” – is the opposite and as such a barrier to, rather than a requirement for, the smart city.

Current “pure play” smart cities like Masdar or Songdo may be “smart” in the sense that they use lots of data and adapt to it – thriving cities they are not.

And (again quoting Paul Mason) Madrid is going exactly that hopeful road:

Manuela Carmena asked advisers: what are the social problems we want technology to solve? The result was the vision of a “non-neoliberal smart city”, incorporating three principles not welcome in the world of high-profit tech companies: openness, democratic participation and a clear policy that data generated from public services should be publicly owned. “Rather than keep funding proprietary systems with public money, support open-source collaborative technologies,” Carmena was advised. Instead of beginning with the transport system, the first deployment of new technology should allow citizens to “raise issues of corruption, equity in the distribution of resources and open the question of access to power”.

This is pretty much what I’d also recommended.

Concretely, I’d recommend to build the Connected City Policy after the principles that governed the early days of the open internet: Openness, decentralized architecture, bottom-up innovation, and Postel’s law (the so-called robustness principle).

Then we can build the city as a platform that is decentralized, open source, and hackable; That empowers citizens and enables private enterprises to innovate; And that is especially responsive and resilient through inclusivity, diversity, peer-review, and human-centric design.

I’m becoming an e-citizen of Estonia

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I had been vaguely aware of Estonia’s initiative e-Estonia, in which people from around the world could sign up for a sort of e-citizenship for this most technologically advanced country of not just the Baltics, but maybe the world. But at the time, you had to pick up the actual ID in Estonia, which seemed slightly over the top (for now).

Fast forward to today, when I stumbled over Ben Hammersley‘s WIRED article about e-Estonia and learned that the application process now works completely online and a trip to our local Estonian embassy (a mere 20min or so by bike or subway away) now does the trick.

That’s exciting!

e-Estonia is not, of course, an actual citizenship, even though for many intents and purposes it does provide a surprisingly large number of services that traditionally were tied to residency of a nationstate.

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Lowering regulatory barriers for startups in exchange for access to data?

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Nick Grossmann posted this very interesting piece: “Here’s the solution to the Uber and Airbnb problems — and no one will like it” that’s full of points worth discussing. I don’t want to butcher his arguments or put words in his mouth, so please do read it. It isn’t long, and worth the read. And while you’re at it, I also recommend skimming Kim-Mai Cutler’s piece (also linked from Nick’s post) “Uber, Airbnb And The Conflict Between Policy’s Ratchet Effect And Tech’s Accelerating Speed“.

These are just two articles that tackle one of the huge, intricate, complex issues of our days: How regulation can keep up with the speed and scale of tech companies; How we can harness this speed without giving up hardwon freedoms and societal benefits; and a ton of other related, much more nuanced questions.

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Thoughts on the smart city

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Over the last few months, I once more had the chance to work on smart city-related topics. (I say once more because it’s been a while since I did a deep dive into the field back with Cognitive Cities Conference in 2011. Ever since I’ve been following the field closely, but not actively contributed much.)

So recently I’ve had several occasions to work on smart city-related things. It’s been exciting to me that these engagements came through different vectors – in one case it was related to prior work in and around politics & e-governance and has a policy angle, in one case the approach was from an #iot angle and focused on connectivity in a wider sense. There might be more, and with a stronger overlap, as the circles in this particular Venn diagram increasingly move closer together.

I hope (and think) that large chunks of these recent projects will be made accessible publicly at some point. For now, it’ll have to stay a bit on the vague end I’m afraid. Once things get published, you’ll find out through the usual channels.

Long story short: I’ve been thinking about smart cities a fair bit. And two major questions have been popping up over and over again.

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