A Look To The Future
On the 30th December 2023, Anil Dash wrote an article in Rolling Stone entitled "The Internet Is About to Get Weird Again".
It's quite a long piece but the gist of it can be found in the following two excerpts:
Across today’s internet, the stores that deliver all the apps on our phones are cracking open, the walls between social media platforms are coming down as the old networks fail, the headlong rush towards AI is making our search engines and work apps weirder (and often worse!). But amidst it all, the human web, the one made by regular people, is resurgent. We are about to see the biggest reshuffling of power on the internet in 25 years, in a way that most of the internet’s current users have never seen before.
There’s not going to be some new killer app that displaces Google or Facebook or Twitter with a love-powered alternative. But that’s because there shouldn’t be. There should be lots of different, human-scale alternative experiences on the internet that offer up home-cooked, locally-grown, ethically-sourced, code-to-table alternatives to the factory-farmed junk food of the internet. And they should be weird.
The writer, Anil Dash describes himself as a "tech entrepreneur and writer, trying to make the technology world more thoughtful, creative and humane". I share the objective, and I'm a fan of ideological thinking in this regard. Like Dash, I've also written about the alternatives to the mainstream landscape extensively over the years - even in one of my earliest books I spoke of the importance of prioritising humans in the tech landscape and my blogs have often spoken to this idea. Now, in 2024, using Dash's recent piece as a muse, I have some reflections to share.
For the purposes of distinction, I'll refer to two models:
Model A: Commerce-centric.
The standard, incumbent, big tech approach. Massive, centralised infrastructure, huge pools of user data, big valuations and heavy funding. Users are the batteries, the product that enables the service to be free. This is what Dash describes as "factory-farmed junk food".
Model B: Citizen-centric.
The less usual, human-first perspective. Characteristics include sovereign data, controlled and owned by each individual. Privacy-focused platforms that don't retail user information. Advert-free, non-interruptive experiences that don't require toleration from the user. This is what Dash describes as "human-scale alternative experiences on the internet that offer up home-cooked, locally-grown, ethically-sourced, code-to-table alternatives".
Model B sounds attractive in principle, yet in practice it's far more difficult to bring these approaches to life. Here are some of the reasons for that:
1. Investors are tuned toward Model A. The mainstream VC community are hardwired to seek commercial models that are well understood, such as retailing user data or monetisation through advertising. Model B offerings are not as attractive, less understood and seen as higher risk. This means that the big money goes into Model A offerings and the system perpetuates.
2. Corporations are tuned toward Model A. Due to the first point, you can imagine how attractive it is to toe-the-line and follow the standard approach. When I was reaching out to standard investors presenting SELF, I was told on several occasions that if we were to either flood people's experience with adverts OR sell their private information, investment would be pretty straightforward. When I told them this wasn't going to happen, the doors were shut.
3. Users are tuned toward Model A. People are used to using platforms offered by big tech players. Even when it's realised that their private information is being somehow used (or exploited) in the background, the sheer convenience of using the platform outweighs the switching cost of turning it off and finding an alternative (where their friends aren't and their historical content isn't).
4. Governments and regulators are tuned toward Model A. The lawmakers and policy-makers seek guidance from the Model A firms and unsurprisingly, the advice given by them is from the perspective of enabling the Model A structures to continue. Why would they think otherwise? Thus, from the 'top' down, the game is entirely skewed toward maintaining the status quo.
The above reasons do not mean that Model B offerings are impossible to bring to market, they just mean that sometimes things are way tougher! But, as Mandela said in 2001, "It always seems impossible until it's done".
I can't be certain if there's a sea change happening in terms of awareness of Model B potentials, or whether we're just able to access and share information more readily nowadays so Model B type folk are easier to be connected together. Maybe it's a combination of both. As far back as the 90s I was in communities discussing Model B concepts - as I wrote about here - but back then there wasn't many of us. Over time, the volume grew, and cryptocurrency was one of the byproducts of this type of thinking. Unfortunately, it has also been an example of how concepts can get bastardised. Primarily by greed. Nonetheless, the genie is out of the bottle and whatever central banks do (which includes minting their own digital currencies), and whatever the regulators do (which includes penalising decentralised initiatives), we have a way of exchanging value between us that, if done intelligently, avoids any form of censorship.
Looking forward positively, I foresee a time when we will have systems that are sovereign to every single one of us. These may not be mass adopted, at least not to begin with, but there will be alternatives to the incumbent Model A offerings. I think these Operating Systems will be defined differently than today.
Currently, an Operating System (OS) is a low-level software that supports a computer's basic functions, such as scheduling tasks and controlling peripherals. Moving forward, I envisage operating systems to be a combination of machinery and neurology, mixed into being a subservient facilitator for life.
To get there from here, we’d need to create systems where people can unlearn the current context of hierarchical infrastructure where human rights are, at best, an after thought. Undoubtedly, we need to show alternatives of how systems can operate. It is important to note that even the best attempts at creating innovations for social impact are coloured and oftentimes distorted by the immorality of the platforms they are built on. This is why I think we need to provide Model B alternatives to the core infrastructure of Model A offerings.
With Model A, the most common approach is for engineers to design systems, whereas Model B would be more about unsullied minds ideating concepts upon which the future can be built. It is toward these minds that I proposed the SELF manifesto which suggests a set of values to consider: https://self.app/manifesto
Perhaps this is the cornerstone of what could eventuate into an Operating System called SELF OS.
SELF OS may not have an exclusive form factor. It may be a combination of digital and physical systems. It could enable communication, self quantification and transactions - all powered by each individual’s independent framework of System Effective Lifestyle Filtering.
For regular readers, you may remember that last year I hinted at the approach.
The first manifestation of this is in the SELF app which is being tested in various contexts. The SELF app will be a functional component of the future SELF OS. With the app, the objective is to find a way for humans to leverage AI in ways that are personal and sovereign - applying personal filters within the interactions, so the system learns you and only you control the system. However, the bigger picture is about bringing Model B to scale, with systems we can operate with.
I think we have great opportunities moving forward, and it is vital to create an ecosystem of Model B enthusiasts, who can support and collaborate in building a future that is more in tune with human rights than the Model A offerings we have come to rely on today.
Jonathan MacDonald, 12.01AM Monday 1st January 2024.