Decentralization – a deep cause of causes you care about deeply

internet map
Mapping the Internet, by Mike Lee, CC BY 2.0,

Originally posted on the World Wide Web Foundation website.


Just hearing the names of some causes tells you all you need to know. You feel them in your gut instantly, and your mind follows quickly.


Human rights.

The environment.

There is however a cause of causes — a cause underpinning each of these and many others — that therefore requires just as much emotion, concern and action.

It’s not appreciated too widely, yet all ecologists get it.

It’s not celebrated broadly, yet historians of the printing press get it.

It’s too often neglected and may even be undermined by the free societies it promotes, yet sociologists get it.

It’s not readily embraced by the free markets it enables, yet the architects of both the Internet and the Web get it.

What is it? … Continue reading

Introducing Google Assistant, the Surveillance Interface (SI)

google watching you
image source:

A new kind of interface has surfaced over the past five years – artificial intelligence (AI) based ‘personal assistants’.

Apple Siri started the ball rolling, swiftly followed by Google Now, Microsoft Cortana, Amazon Alexa, and half a dozen others. But it now has a new apogee, a new sector defining moment, a revolution dressed up as evolution. The only thing more alarming than its instrusive, opaque, and society-altering capabilities is the way in which tech pundits have ladled out the accolades, pundits whose worldview appears as limited as a magpie’s regard for shiny things.

Google Now is now Google Assistant, and it comes integrated into Google’s first full-on (i.e. not just a reference design) mobile phone – the Pixel. Continue reading

We have more or less been shaped and manipulated to enjoy what we are enjoying

Yochai Benkler 2009
The hi:project team is always looking for the most efficient and most effective ways to help people understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It’s not always easy because the digital world is broad and deep, complicated and complex. It is strangely pervasive and yet entirely remote to anyone who might not self-describe as a geek.

When we stumble across the work of those more talented in describing this vista, we latch onto it for fear of ever having to rise up to such a challenge ourselves!

Here for example is an artfully edited and beautifully produced potted history by Freakonomics Radio on where the Internet came from and how we ended up with things as they are today. No degree in computer science required. It’s not aimed at the geek but at the merely curious; those who enjoy digital devices and services and want to find out a little bit more about the influences these things – and those companies behind them – have on our lives.

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Find 10 minutes to read this – Shoshana Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism

Surveillance Capitalism is a striking turn of phrase. It captures in two words the centralised and systematic monitoring of your every action (digital and analogue now the two are increasingly difficult to tease apart), the algorithmic translation of your past behaviour into predictions of your future behaviour, and the buying and selling of this ‘consumer insight’.

And it conveys that you have just about as much control over this process as a sheet of steel has about being pressed into a car panel under mass-production capitalism. For the avoidance of doubt, that would be none.

One of the hi:project team members, Laura James, just pointed us all to Google as a Fortune Teller – The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff, the first time I have come across the expression. (Here’s the corresponding paper in the Journal of Information Technology.) I won’t waffle on for long here because you really should click through and have a good read.

There are many prescient publications that lead us to contemplating Surveillance Capitalism today, and for some reason Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, is the one I feel compelled to drop in here. This seminal text explains the warping of media through five lenses or filters, the first two of which are (1) size, ownership, and structure of the media firms, and (2) a reliance on advertising. And to think the Web hadn’t even be invented at this point, let alone bent to such ends as we see today.

I can only find two other seemingly distinct references to Surveillance Capitalism. First, this speech by Dr Børge Bakken at the Australian National University, June 2013, on “social management” in China. And second, in this Monthly Review article from mid-2014, Surveillance Capitalism: Monopoly-Finance Capital, the Military-Industrial Complex, and the Digital Age, in which John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney explore the ‘universalization’ of surveillance across: (1) militarism / imperialism / security; (2) corporate-based marketing and the media system; and (3) the world of finance.

Now go and read Zuboff’s article!

Newsletter – for the journey


This newsletter was sent 7th February 2015. If you’d like to keep up to speed on the hi:project, click here to subscribe.

Dame Professor Wendy Hall told me the hi:project, and the issues we grapple with, represent more of a journey than a destination. She is so right. Of course.

Reassuringly, our growing busload of travellers remains convinced we’re on the right track. If we can navigate the social, legal and commercial landscape, if we can identify and slipstream in with other vehicles on a similar route, if we persevere, then we will help:

  • solve personal data & privacy
  • secure a citizen-centric Internet of Things
  • transform accessibility & digital inclusion.

In this first update of 2016 – and at the risk of driving this journeying metaphor off the road – I’d like to share the conversation on the bus, the fellow travellers we’ve met on the way, the roadworks, and our current plans to put more fuel in the tank. Continue reading

Fifteen years since the Scientific American article on the Semantic Web

Scientific American May 2011 _ Semantic Web _ The real power of the Semantic Web will be realized when people create many programs that collect Web content from diverse sources, process the information and exchange the results with other programs.

It’s coming up to 15 years since Scientific American published “The Semantic Web: A new form of Web content that is meaningful to computers will unleash a revolution of new possibilities“, by Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler, and Ora Lassila. (Paywall. Also available here.) I believe it’s the most cited paper on the subject.

The way the web works and is put to work changes, and in this post I explain how the hi:project relates to the Semantic Web, and then provide an introduction to the Semantic Web for those unfamiliar with it.

The Semantic Web and the hi:project

Three quotes from the paper ring out when we consider the hi:project’s mission. Undoubtedly, they informed the thinking that mashed up loads of other thinking into the hi:project.

The Semantic Web will bring structure to the meaningful content of Web pages, creating an environment where software agents roaming from page to page can readily carry out sophisticated tasks for users.


Traditional knowledge-representation systems typically have been centralized, requiring everyone to share exactly the same definition of common concepts such as “parent” or “vehicle.” But central control is stifling, and increasing the size and scope of such a system rapidly becomes unmanageable.


The real power of the Semantic Web will be realized when people create many programs that collect Web content from diverse sources, process the information and exchange the results with other programs.

Continue reading

Discussing decentralization on the W3C TAG mailing list

W3C logo
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main international standards organization for the Web. The W3C Technical Architecture Group (TAG) is a special working group chartered, as its name conveys, with stewardship of the Web architecture.

The hi:project was referenced in a recent posting to the TAG mailing list by Henry Story of Co-operating Systems, and I followed up with a couple of posts, reproduced here with additional hyperlinks to aid those less familiar with the concepts:

In response to this article in The Guardian – Iran’s blogfather: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are killing the web – Henry presents a way of thinking about the centralisation problem in layers:

  1. IPv4/6 information layer: any machine can talk to any machine to retrieve data; a pure p2p layer
  2. Web of Documents: any document can link to any other document; a pure p2p layer
  3. Web Applications: most data driven apps are not cross domain.

He writes:

It is at layer 3 that currently the problem is being felt, and for many people this may seem very weird: how can you have decentralisation at lower layers, and not higher ones? How come bytes can flow around the internet in a peer to peer manner but data does not? How come there are so many services that exist in any of a number of categories that don’t interoperate?

… We have hyper text but not hyper data.

I took Henry’s cue… Continue reading

Solid – an introduction by MIT CSAIL’s Andrei Sambra

CSAIL, Stata Center, MIT

We are exploring how Solid – a proposed set of conventions in development by a project run out of MIT CSAIL – and the hi:project are mutually supportive.

Solid decouples the app from the data, and the hi:project decouples the interface from the app. In other words we move from one app working exclusively with and effectively having sole domain over your respective data, to having numerous apps from many vendors being able to work with your data with greater privacy (Solid), to your own interface onto and into your data with assured privacy and transformed usability and accessibility (the hi:project).Andrei Samba

Here’s a guest post by Andrei Sambra, a Postdoctoral Associate at MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Originally published here.

This entry is meant to be the first one in a series of posts that introduce Solid, our new disruptive solution to re-decentralize the Web – a project lead by Prof. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

The project aims to radically change the way Web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy. How’s that for an elevator pitch? 🙂

Before getting into the technical stuff, you need to understand why decentralization is so important for us at this time. To answer this question, we must first explain why centralization is bad.

Centralization is a cheap and easy point for regulation, control and surveillance – your information is increasingly available from “the cloud”, an easy one stop shopping point to get data not just about you, but about everyone. Centralization is also easy – why waste time and money (as a small business) investing in a decentralized product, instead of going with some off-the-shelf tech stack? While these may be valid points that may eventually be addressed, the end result is that we all pay a price – whether it’s losing your data or actual money. This reminds me of a funny (but sad at the same time) quote that goes like this:

“A pig on a farm gets free food, shelter and health care. If you’re not paying, you’re the product!”

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Rushkoff on distributionism

Douglas Rushkoff at Platform Cooperativism November 2015

Distributists believe property ownership is a fundamental right and that the means of production should be spread as widely as possible. Otherwise we’re faced with centralization by the state, by the few (a plutocracy, the 1%), or corporations (corporatocracy). I’ve understood the concept for some time, but I’ve only just learned from Douglas Rushkoff that it originated in the Catholic church. No idea how I missed that!

In my opinion, Rushkoff‘s contribution to the Platform Cooperativism conference last week exemplified the core concerns of delegates, and more eloquently than many of us might muster. Platform Cooperativism is distributist, striving to counter the centralizing platform monopolies we’ve seen prevail in recent years, and for anyone familiar with the hi:project’s mission and vision you’ll know we’re intent on facilitating personal agency and distributed participation, so our respective values and aspirations have much in common.

He spoke for just over 40 mins (starting 4 mins into the embedded video below), and here’s how he concludes:

The beauty is that, in the real world, as opposed to online, in the real world, human beings have the homefield advantage. We actually do. This is why corporations of the industrial era are so happy to go online because we no longer have the advantage there. We’re not there. We don’t have our flesh, our reality, we don’t have all the stuff, all the solidarity that is created by humans in real space together. So I believe our opportunity, as humans, who want to redirect the economy towards human ends rather than the needs of extractive capital that’s serving nobody is to reboot the economy itself for distributed prosperity.

Mr. Rushkoff, if you’re reading this, we’d love to have a deep and meaningful. We think you might just love the human interface project.

Douglas Rushkoff speaking at Platform Cooperativism, New School, New York, 13-14th Nov 2015

[This video embed from livestream doesn’t always want to play it seems. If it’s not working for you, you can view it here.]

Decentralization cannot be marketed


The Redecentralize conference at the London office of ThoughtWorks this past weekend was framed as:

Taking back the net. A weekend to learn, connect and make technology that shapes society.

I can’t imagine for one moment that your weekend was more enjoyable! 🙂

This post doesn’t attempt to cover the full depth and breadth of the presentations and conversations, but rather offers up my view on our common purpose and a way forward in light of these.

Why decentralize?

As and when a company can centralize the action it can achieve economies of scale and make corresponding investments that benefit it and its customers. Right? In terms of those benefits, your online world may be dominated by just a handful of companies – the likes of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo for example – and you may not be thinking of leaving their orbit because, well, it just works fine thank you very much.

There is however irrefutable evidence that if we all coalesce around the services of just a few companies then we all lose something rather precious. It’s a bit like a tragedy of the commons in so much as everyone makes an independent rational choice but the collective suffers. When that phrase was coined it referred specifically to unregulated grazing on common land, and its use has expanded to include all unregulated resources especially those in the natural world. And it’s this natural world that tells us that centralization of the Internet and related services doesn’t bode well.
Continue reading