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December 15, 2018
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The Internet Bill of Rights is just one piece of our moral obligations

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Congressman Ro Khanna’s proposed Internet Bill of Rights pushes individual rights on the Internet forward in a positive manner. It provides guidelines for critical elements where the United States’ and the world’s current legislation is lacking, and it packages it in a way that speaks to all parties. The devil, as always, is in the details—and Congressman Khanna’s Internet Bill of Rights still leaves quite a bit to subjective interpretation.

But what should not be neglected is that we as individuals have not just rights but also moral obligations to this public good—the Internet. The web positively impacts our lives in a meaningful fashion, and we have a collective responsibility to nurture and keep it that way.

Speaking to the specific rights listed in the Bill, we can likely all agree that citizens should have control over information collected about them, and that we should not be discriminated against based on that personal data. We probably all concur that Internet Service Providers should not be permitted to block, throttle, or engage in paid prioritization that would negatively impact our ability to access the world’s information. And I’m sure we all want access to numerous affordable internet providers with clear and transparent pricing.

These are all elements included in Congressman Khanna’s proposal; all things that I wholeheartedly support.

As we’ve seen of late with Facebook, Google, and other large corporations, there is an absolute need to bring proper legislation into the digital age. Technological advancements have progressed far faster than regulatory changes, and drastic improvements are needed to protect users.

What we must understand, however, is that corporations, governments, and individuals all rely on the same Internet to prosper. Each group should have its own set of rights as well as responsibilities. And it’s those responsibilities that need more focus.

Take, for example, littering. There may be regulations in place that prevent people from discarding their trash by the side of the road. But regardless of these laws, there’s also a moral obligation we have to protect our environment and the world in which we live. For the most part, people abide by these obligations because it’s the right thing to do and because of social pressure to keep the place they live beautiful—not because they have a fear of being fined for littering.

We should approach the protection of the Internet in the same way.

We should hold individuals, corporations, and governments to a higher standard and delineate their responsibilities to the Internet. All three groups should accept and fulfill those responsibilities, not because we create laws and fines, but because it is in their best interests.

For individuals, the Internet has given them powers beyond their wildest dreams and it continues to connect us in amazing ways. For corporations, it has granted access to massively lucrative markets far and wide that would never have been accessible before. For governments, it has allowed them to provide better services to their citizens and has created never before seen levels of tax revenue from the creation of businesses both between and outside their physical borders.

Everyone — and I mean everyone — has gained (and will continue to gain) from protecting an open Internet, and we as a society need to recognize that and start imposing strong pressure against those who do not live up to their responsibilities.

We as people of the world should feel tremendously grateful to all the parties that contributed to the Internet we have today. If a short-sighted government decides it wants to restrict the Internet within its physical borders, this should not be permitted. It will not only hurt us, but it will hurt that very government by decreasing international trade and thus tax revenue, as well as decreasing the trust that the citizens of that country place in their government. Governments often act against their long-term interests in pursuit of short-term thinking, thus we have 2 billion people living in places with heavy restrictions on access to online information.

When an Internet Service Provider seeks full control over what content it provides over its part of the Internet, this, again, should not be allowed. It will, in the end, hurt that very Internet Service Provider’s revenue; a weaker, less diverse Internet will inevitably create less demand for the very service they are providing along with a loss of trust and loyalty from their customers.

Without the Internet, our world would come grinding to a halt. Any limitations on the open Internet will simply slow our progress and prosperity as a human race. And, poignantly, the perpetrators of those limitations stand to lose just as much as any of us.

We have a moral responsibility, then, to ensure the Internet remains aligned with its original purpose. Sure, none of us could have predicted the vast impact the World Wide Web would have back in 1989—probably not even Sir Tim Berners-Lee himself—but in a nutshell, it exists to connect people, WHEREVER they may be, to a wealth of online information, to other people, and to empower individuals to make their lives better.

This is only possible with an open and free Internet.

Over the next five years, billions of devices—such as our garage door openers, refrigerators, thermostats, and mattresses—will be connected to the web via the Internet of Things. Further, five billion users living in developing markets will join the Internet for the first time, moving from feature phones to smartphones. These two major shifts will create incredible opportunities for good, but also for exploiting our data—making us increasingly vulnerable as Internet users.

Now is the time to adequately provide Americans and people around the world with basic online protections, and it is encouraging to see people like Congressman Khanna advancing the conversation. We can only hope this Internet Bill of Rights remains bipartisan and real change occurs.

Regardless of the outcome, we must not neglect our moral obligations—whether individual Internet users, large corporations, or governments. We all shoulder a responsibility to maintain an open Internet. After all, it is perhaps the most significant and impactful creation in modern society.

News Source = techcrunch.com

The erosion of Web 2.0

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It seems quaint to imagine now but the original vision for the web was not an information superhighway. Instead, it was a newspaper that fed us only the news we wanted. This was the central thesis brought forward in the late 1990s and prophesied by thinkers like Bill Gates – who expected a beautiful, customized “road ahead” – and Clifford Stoll who saw only snake oil. At the time, it was the most compelling use of the Internet those thinkers thought possible. This concept – that we were to be coddled by a hive brain designed to show us exactly what we needed to know when we needed to know it – continued apace until it was supplanted by the concept of User Generated Content – UGC – a related movement that tore down gatekeepers and all but destroyed propriety in the online world.

That was the arc of Web 2.0: the move from one-to-one conversations in Usenet or IRC and into the global newspaper. Further, this created a million one-to-many conversations targeted at tailor-made audiences of fans, supporters, and, more often, trolls. This change gave us what we have today: a broken prism that refracts humanity into none of the colors except black or white. UGC, that once-great idea that anyone could be as popular as a rock star, fell away to an unmonetizable free-for-all that forced brands and advertisers to rethink how they reached audiences. After all, on a UGC site it’s not a lot of fun for Procter & Gamble to have Downy Fabric Softener advertised next to someone’s racist rant against Muslims in a Starbucks .

Still the Valley took these concepts and built monetized cesspools of self-expression. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter are the biggest beneficiaries of outrage culture and the eyeballs brought in by its continuous refreshment feed their further growth. These sites are Web 2.0 at its darkest epitome, a quiver of arrows that strikes at our deepest, most cherished institutions and bleeds us of kindness and forethought.

So when advertisers faced either the direct monetization of random hate speech or the erosion of customer privacy, they choose the latter. Facebook created lookalike audiences that let advertisers sell to a certain subset of humanity on a deeply granular level, a move that delivered us the same shoe advertisement constantly, from site to site, until we were all sure we had gone mad. In the guise of saving our sanity further we invited always-on microphones into our homes that could watch our listening and browsing habits and sell to us against them. We gave up our very DNA to companies like Ancestry and 23andMe, a decision that mankind may soon regret. We shared everything with everyone in the grand hope that our evolution into homo ligarus – the networked man – would lead us to become homo deus.

This didn’t happen.

And so the pendulum swings back. The GDPR, as toothless as it is, is a wake up call to every spammer that ever slammed your email or followed you around the web. Further, Apple’s upcoming cookie control software in Safari should make those omnipresent ads disappear, forcing the advertiser to sell to an undifferentiated mob rather than a single person. This is obviously cold comfort in an era defined by both the reification of the Internet as a font for all knowledge (correct or incorrect) and the genesis of an web-based political cobra that whips back to bite its handlers with regularity. But it’s a start.

We are currently in an interstitial period of technology, a cake baked of the hearty camaraderie and “Fuck the system” punk rock Gen X but frosted with millennial pragmatism and desire for the artisanal. As we move out of the era of UGC and Web 2.0 we will see the old ways cast aside, the old models broken, and the old invasions of privacy inverted. While I won’t go as far to say that blockchain will save us all, pervasive encryption and full data control will pave the way toward true control of our personal lives as well as the beginnings of a research-based minimum income. We should be able to sell our opinions, our thoughts, and even our DNA to the highest bidder and once the rapacious Web 2.0 vultures are all shooed away, we will find ourselves in an interesting new world.

As a technoutopianist I’m sure that were are heading in the right direction. We are, however, taking turns that none of us could have imagined in the era of Clinton and the fax machine and there are still more turns to come. Luckily, however, we are coming out of our last major skid.

 

Photo by George Fitzmaurice on Unsplash

News Source = techcrunch.com

Don’t break big tech, fix it

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The internet turned the world on its head. It’s time to apply the same audacious ambition to rethinking regulation

The political weather has been slowly turning against big tech for a while, but the last few weeks have thrown the storm clouds into sharp relief. Much of the responsibility for the growing backlash falls on the tech industry; inclusion has failed to keep pace with innovation and neutrality has been used as an excuse to side-step difficult conversations.

But politicians and policymakers are complicit too: all businesses operate within a legal and political framework, and successive governments have looked the other way or sought quick fixes rather than doing the hard work of starting over for the internet age.

This policy failure matters because conventional wisdom is a poor match for the complexity of the modern world. Contrary to the dominant narrative, most tech companies aren’t selling your data. The common refrain that “if you’re not paying, then you’re the product” is particularly unhelpful, simultaneously implying that companies don’t care about users, and that apps are primarily a veneer for exploitation. While it makes for a good sound bite, this doesn’t hold water: internet businesses live or die depending on whether they can retain users, and the apps we take for granted would have been unimaginable a generation ago.

Nevertheless, the situation we now find ourselves in is undeniably overshadowed by a huge imbalance of power. Worse still, we’re facing it at a perilous time for political nuance.

Across the Western world, the swell of populism, which offers outrage but no real answers, threatens to drown all before it. Globalisation has borne the brunt thus far, but populist movements are searching for a new scapegoat: the left seeks one that puts profit before morality, the right one that puts liberalism before tradition. Big tech, with its reverence for disruption and its West Coast elites, is a perfect foil for both.

This makes getting perspective hard, and yet for any solution to last we will need to resolve some knotty tradeoffs. Three in particular have no obvious answers:

First, competing demands for stronger data controls and for increased competition. In Europe, the GDPR goes a long way to upgrading outmoded data protection rules. But it explicitly prevents individuals from exporting their social graph — the map of who they are connected to — from one platform to another. This sort of bootstrapping was essential for many of today’s big apps to get started, and the competition this fueled kept everyone on their toes. The irony now is that locking data down too far may make the current incumbents unassailable.

Second, distaste both for targeted advertising and for the homogenisation of culture. The black box of digital advertising can feel invasive, particularly when ads follow you around the web. But it’s also enabled countless new businesses to get in front of customers they would never otherwise have found. This is about more than cheap razors and avocado toast; for example, after decades of stasis, innovative new menstrual products are finally viable because their creators have been able to go direct to consumers.

Third, an aversion to platform operators either exercising editorial control or trying to remain impartial. For those concerned about the power of newspaper editors and TV networks, the idea of platform operators as editors is far more horrifying. Yet in the face of outcomes we may disagree with (Exhibit A: Brexit; Exhibit B: Trump), we can be quick to pin the blame on tech executives for failing to use their power to make a stand. Regulation designed for print and broadcast media can’t help us square this because the internet isn’t just the same but bigger; a world in which everyone produces content as well as consuming it is fundamentally different.

The truth is the internet has changed everything, and not in the way people usually mean. Yes, it manifests in the astonishing devices in our pockets and the apps we use, but it’s the economics that really matter. Technology has driven marginal costs, distribution costs and transaction costs close to zero and made massive multi-sided markets possible, which means the incentives and business models for internet companies are utterly unlike their old-world predecessors.

The resulting quest for scale is at the root of the challenges outlined above. It’s not a priori a bad thing – but it does result in different behaviours and powerful dynamics that yesterday’s regulation is not even remotely equipped to deal with. Failing to grasp this has left policy in disarray and all of us at risk from hot takes that do more harm than good.

So just as the internet has turned things on their head, we need to start over with a new set of rules. Two core principles can help us get this right.

First, radical transparency. This means global standards and easy-to-understand information on what data is being held and how it is being used, and what actions were taken when things went wrong (by all parties, including governments), as well as stronger rights to export data and audit public content. This is the best way to foster competition and create a robust incentive for companies to be good custodians of our data, for the destruction of trust is the surest way for platforms to flip from growth to decline.

Second, reasserting the public interest. The go-to framework for regulation is usually antitrust, but if the internet has an inherent tendency for winner-takes-all consolidation then regulation by breaking up may be both a Sisyphean task and a counterproductive destruction of value. Far better to broaden the class of things we care about – from consumer welfare and competition to things like mental health, democratic participation and the public finances – and explicitly require systemically important firms to take them into account.

Crucially, translating these principles into policy prescriptions must be more than an exercise in finding the acceptable minimum. Scrutiny and sanctions will be essential, but the bigger prize is opening up a progressive dialogue through which partnerships and education can realise the transformational potential of technology to deliver positive change.

This is a big ask, and will require both technology leaders and policymakers to think very differently and sell difficult compromises to their constituents. But neither side can find a solution on their own – policymakers need to understand the future that new technologies are unfolding, and technology leaders need a clear articulation of what society expects of them as pioneers and corporate citizens.

We let policy fall a long way behind as the internet revolution got underway. Let’s not make the same mistake as a new wave of innovation breaks.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Does Ready Player One reveal the future of VR?

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It was barely minutes after the Ready Player One premiere, and texts from my friends and colleagues in the VR community began pouring in…

“How was it?”

Those of us in the mixed reality industries have been waiting for this film like the VR messiah that will deliver us to public mass adoption. And the breathless prayer? “Please, oh please, let Ready Player One make VR look cool.”

To many, VR creators make expensive content that few will ever experience or have interest in experiencing. I have read dozens of articles in the last year announcing either the end or the beginning of VR.

I have seen VR portrayed as a portent for humanity’s most solitary, basic, and evil instincts over and over again in television and film. Most of all, I received questions from people that are confused by what this technology is and moreover, why it even has value.

Because of Ready Player One, there are now giant billboards on streets around the world where someone is wearing a VR Headset. For those of us who have lived and breathed this technology for years, this movie is everything.

And so, I was excited to find that yes, this movie portrays something that I’ve known and felt in my bones for a while now — VR is in fact cool.

I’m imagining that people will now want to suit up, run to THE VOID or the Imax Experience Center and try VR for themselves. But here’s a word of caution to the uninitiated: VR is currently not the OASIS. Please do not expect VR to feel, look and behave like the OASIS, because we are not there yet. But I’ll be damned if we’re not close.

So given this, here’s an overview of what’s present in the film, where we are today, and what the future might hold.

NOTE: Some minor film spoilers below.

Headsets

Film:

At first glance, the headsets in Ready Player One look surprisingly like generation one Oculus Rifts in size and shape. However, the film claims that Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) projection in 2024 is composed of harmless lasers beaming directly into your retinas– far from our current display-based HMDs. The film’s headsets appear to be inside-out tracking, lightweight, wireless, and can produce images indistinguishable from reality with minimal or no processing lag. Other sci-fi-based headsets appear later in the film, when Wade upgrades his HMD to a model with semi-transparent glass. In the book, there are allusions to OASIS’ massive servers in Columbus, so all the processing power is probably not coming from the headsets themselves but rather sent via 5G (or higher) network to each user.

Today:

Off-the-shelf HMDs are tethered to powerful PCs, and those coming later in 2018 (Vive Pro , Oculus Go, and supposedly Oculus Prototype Santa Cruz, among others) are either a mobile-based power/resolution or require a PC wireless display link. While we don’t have lasers entering our retinas (yet), we can assume someone’s working on it.

Tomorrow:

When it is released, Magic Leap promises to be the closest thing we have to a complex mixed reality headset. It beams information directly into your eyes that utilize your sense of depth, which should make for a more comfortable experience than hours in a headset staring at pixels; yet, it’s imperfect as the field of view will in no way be full resolution like in the OASIS. Right now the design is somewhat clunky– there’s still a walkman-like battery pack to deal with and a FOV of 40 degrees at best. Other than the release of Ready Player One, the launch of Magic Leap One is probably the most anticipated event in the brief history of VR. As a side note, the term “VR” may no longer be applicable, because it’s predicted that AR and VR headsets will merge and become one device.

Haptics

Film: 

The haptic suits in RPO are aesthetically gorgeous. As described in the original book, an interwebbing of sensors and material covers the user’s body — it looks like a slim-fit wetsuit but with gloves and boots. When characters get shot or hit in VR, they feel the pain on their bodies, which thematically ups the stakes during the battle scenes. There’re also a few instances of “pleasure” haptics.

In the VR nightclub, Art3mis dances against Wade and the crotch region of his suit, ahem, “activates.” Other scenes contain a few cheeky allusions to some risque things people might be be up to in the OASIS.

Our villain Nolan Sorrento wears a haptic suit on his bouts in the OASIS, but usually confines the haptic experience to an ornate leather chair that allows him to feel sensations/maintain a patriarchal technical overlord vibe. (Cool.)

Today:

Sorrento’s chair feels reminiscent of the Positron rig that has been dotting film festivals and hotels lately. They’re quite comfy and are great for first time VR users. In terms of romantic haptics, the teledildonics and VR porn industry is alive and well, and new products keep being developed. Haptic gloves like Haptx VR Gloves do exist and keep getting better! So far, texture, shape, and cold/warm sensations are all achievable by individual systems and products.

Tomorrow:

Complete sensory VR immersion is years away, but is one of the most oft requested and dreamed about advances in the industry. Teslasuit appears to be the next product to market that aims to let you feel it all in VR, and it looks a hell of a lot like Wade’s suit.

Movement

Film:

One of the first scenes in the film features Wade navigating the OASIS on a simple omnidirectional treadmill. As the film progresses, movement mechanics get into completely new territory. The “sixers” (the film’s enemy army against the Gunters) stand upright in individual pods with treadmills beneath them; if needed, they and can sit down to “drive” vehicles. On the Gunter side, in Aech’s truck the “Hive Five” are tethered to the ceiling via cables for unobstructed fighting moves.

Today:

Omnidirectional treadmills exist today but the kinks are being ironed out. Many are designed similar to ones in the film (micro- and macro-treadmill arrangements). User motion tracking is done via external sensors, and for maximum movement the closest thing we have to a tetherless VR experience is location-based experiences a la The Void, and that still requires backpacks.

Tomorrow:

A Virtual Reality where your physical movements match virtually in a 1:1 ratio without the need for wires. Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs) are already in use for motion capture in films and games, and these systems can be integrated into next-next-gen haptic suits for full-body presence. (That being considered, some folks will always want to play from a couch or chair.)

Digital currency

Film:

One universal currency exists in the OASIS, and its value is more stable than real-world currency. (Is FIAT even real currency some might ask? Don’t start with me, man). In the OASIS, currency is more trusted than in the actual world. Wade receives bonuses for leveling up in the race to catch the egg, and uses digital currency to order real products via drones in the real world. In the OASIS, users can go on quests that require work that are actual proof-of work.

Today:

So cryptocurrency today is a bit of a mess. Between ICO’s failing to launch or completely made up advisory boards, people are doubting the security of a digital currency. That being said, millions of people are eager to learn more about this currency revolution and its claims to strive for the financial equalization of the world.

Tomorrow:

Democratizing cryptocurrency is paramount. Some companies, like Robin Hood, are doing a great job by providing cryptocurrency to the masses via readily accessible mobile apps. Some argue that Ready Player One actually predicted the rise of cryptocurrency; however, it did not predict alt-coins such as Ethereum, Monero or Ripple.

Avatars

Film:

As Wade declares in the beginning of the film, in the OASIS you can “be whomever you want to be”, whatever appearance, ethnicity, background, gender, sex, or species. It’s all up to you as a consumer and denizen of the OASIS. For example, Wade dawns a haircut which is then corrected by Art3mis to be cooler (more spikey). Wade’s best friend Aech is an African American female but is able to be a male muscled warlord in the OASIS. There’s a glorious beauty to avatars in this film for the free folk that is contrasted by the monochromatic Sixers in their Loyalty Centers. This is a free and open internet — be who you want to be.

Today:

It would be lovely if who we are in VR is a direct representation of our real selves — however current methods for duplication leave out facets of what makes us human. For example, Facebook wouldn’t let this VR user be fat. Scanning technologies such as Windows Mixed Reality capture stages can scan your likeness — but it will cost a pretty penny.

Tomorrow:

In the future, avatar creation will be a democratized process where users can scan themselves (either face or body) to import into the cloud, or simply be whatever figure suits their preference. Think of this as a VR Chat-level of character selection but with customization to the nines.

We are at the cusp of a media revolution: New definitions of reality develop every day, and Ready Player One is giving these technologies mass market exposure.

At the same time, this film speaks to the morality surrounding how we equip ourselves with immersive tech in the new digital frontier. Will the OASIS be well protected and well propagated? Should we look to artists or business people to be the curators of this space?

If we are to avoid the advertisement-laden virtual realm that RPO’s 101 Industries desires, we must take steps in this early adoption phase. That is the core of the film’s premise: virtual reality has as much impact on the world as real reality. Choose wisely.

News Source = techcrunch.com

The end of oversharing

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The early 2000s were the era of user-generated content. Companies like Associated Content and Shareasale rewarded content producers richly – one friend of mine made millions on YouTube in 2004 because he was one of the few serial content producers on the platform. The future was going to be broadcast in all of its gritty glory. Bloggers would win forever and ever. The voices of the Internet masses would be heard through the Twitter and Facebook megaphone.

Inherent in this plan was the idea that UGC was somehow purer and more desirable than commercial communications. This era lasted from about 1993 until about 2008. This was the era of an unfettered Internet, of the Cluetrain Manifesto, and of open source everything. The ethos was pure anarchy in its best light. No one would control your output, no one would stand between you and your fans, no one would take a cut of your money. Bloggers, tweeters, and Facebookers would get rich simply because they existed.

“Twitter was built at the tail end of that era,” writes designer Mike Monteiro. “Their goal was giving everyone a voice. They were so obsessed with giving everyone a voice that they never stopped to wonder what would happen when everyone got one. And they never asked themselves what everyone meant. That’s Twitter’s original sin. Like Oppenheimer, Twitter was so obsessed with splitting the atom they never stopped to think what we’d do with it.”

Interestingly, I think we now know what they’d do with it. And what Facebook would do with it. And what the Internet would do with all of that UGC. They would sell our content to programmatic advertisers and put us directly in the crosshairs of every social media analyst with a fringe political agenda. And now the users who were generating that content are about to fight back.

First, Facebook and Twitter (and Instagram, to a degree) should take defections by high-profile users seriously.

Early users of all social media joined because of that original promise of fame, fun, riches, and relationships. They leave now because the walled gardens are overrun by marketing and trolls. This can be said of every major platform. No one is safe. What works online? A repurposing of the original DIY ethos into, essentially, this guy:

So we stand on a precipice waiting to drop. What media social media gives rise to in the next decade is anyone’s guess – rich people are betting on VR but that’s still a tough sell. We are in an interstitial period, like the point in the late 1980s when you could still compare the nascent Internet to CB radio. We don’t have maps to future territories. Will we collectively give up, splayed naked on the screen for all to market to? Will we turn inward using apps like Signal and Telegram to ensure no one can see us? Will we turn social media into more of a money-making channel for folks with six-packs and mischievous grins? Or can we expect something else entirely?

What I know is that it is, in short, a turn toward the end of oversharing. In a fun interview with Stephanie Alys I did a few weeks ago we came to the conclusion that everyone would be naked on the Internet for 15 minutes. Privacy has eroded to the point of no return, at least on the current Internet, and I suspect that tools that give us back some of that privacy will be the in-demand apps of the next decade. User generated content was supposed to replace newspapers. It did. User generated content was supposed to inject itself into politics. It did. User generated content was supposed to tear down the paywalls built by publishers. It did. We got what we wanted. Now what?

We need new and better tools. We need to bring back some of the truth-telling tricks used by newspapers to ensure content isn’t just content. We need to rebuild democracies world-wide to be impervious to digital meddling. It is my undying hope that our failure to manage the spoils of the UGC revolution hasn’t completely destroyed the institutions that ensured the best rose to the top on merit, not on clicks.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

News Source = techcrunch.com

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