State of the Network


I’m fortunate enough to be invited to speak at OpenTech each year, and to give what has come to be known as a ‘State of the Network’ address.  Here’s this years – published as I stand up to speak.

State of the Network: an address.

The world is all that is the case.

And what is currently the case should give us pause.

We begin from now, with a broken political system and a broken society and a broken planet that seems likely to become increasingly inhospitable to human civilisation over the next fifty years.

We start from a world of religious and social conflict where the quality of one’s belief in one or more fictional entities can determine life or death, acceptance or rejection, happiness or misery.

We begin with a network that has been comprehensively compromised, weaponised, commercialised and undermined by actors at many scales, with many motives and many capabilities.

“I am in blood

Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

Strange things I have in head, that will to hand,

Which must be acted ere they may be scanned.”

But like Macbeth we are so stepped in the network that to return would be as tedious as going o’er. We aren’t going to dismantle it, so we might as well try to find our way through the maze of twisty passages towards some resolution.

For while we may never achieve victory, I think hegemony may be within our grasp. And that might – just might – be enough.

After all, if we can persuade those who disagree with us to frame their debate in the terms we have defined, to consider the network in the ways we see it and not as a collection of tubes or a big printing press or a super-fucking-highway then we can at least begin to debate issues of politics, morality and real politik on the shared common ground of the technological realities.

Today we have naming of paradigms.

This is the network age. The digital age. The IP age. The time of connections and social media and surveillance.

IP, therefore I connect

It may be that there is only power and exercise of power. There is no god. There is no justice. There is only the ability to extract a yes or refuse a no.

If that is the case then we have nothing to offer here, in our sealed world of standards and protocols and aspirations. We are building the plumbing but others will use it to empty their bowels, clean their hands or wash the blood from the walls of their dark prisons.

It may be that the network has no values and no value, that however may wish it were otherwise it can never be so.

I don’t believe either of those things. I reject the Party’s premise, refuse to accept the boot standing on a face as my vision of the inevitable future

I see values embedded in every single thing we have made as a species.

No technology is neutral because nothing wrought by humanity leaves the hands of its maker without being invested with human values. Everything has a grain, everything incorporates a point of view, a set of capabiliies, is tainted with the hope and desires and fears of its maker.

If you accept this, then what we have to do is apparent. Lacking political power – for the moment – and direct economic influence – we are not the bankers who surround George Osborne – our role is to make the affordances of the network clear, and to shape tomorrow’s technologies in our image, so that it is always easier to use them in ways that build tolerance and open up expression, that support freedom and lead to social justice rather than for control or monitoring or in the belief that monetary value is the only thing that can or should be valued.

The net has made it very easy to build Facebook, but very hard to build another BBC. We should fix that.

This won’t result in the world changing overnight, but it will affect the direction of travel because it will affect the choices made by billions of people every day as they consider how to use and exploit the electronic services that they are presented with.

And this will matter more than the choices of the next Zuckerberg, Brin, Ellison, Gates or Ma. Because history is all of us, moving around in our lives and making choices for reasons that have little to do with geopolitics.

Tolstoy wrote War and Peace to make that clear, to point out that whatever Napoleon and the Czar may have believed about their ability to determine the lives people and move populations and armies around the chess board of the world like the Greek gods in every Harryhausen-animated movie, the reality was made by people like Pierre Bezukhov and Natasha Rostova who lived, loved, desired, failed, chose, fought, ran and coded.

It still is. It will be this way until Google reveals it has become sentient and the first Mind outlines the principles of Asimov’s psychohistory and manipulates us all so perfectly we might as well be living in a matrix.

Until then we, living in this imperfect world, have to decide how we will minimise the misery of others.

And since the network is the tool we have made for this purpose, now would be a good time to get off our asses and think seriously about what we might do.

In my day job at the BBC I have two edge cases that I use to ‘interrogate’ (it’s very W1A in there) the wider implications of proposals relating to the corporation’s online activities.

I think of a 15 year old girl living in a very religious household where she is closely observed and where her life choices are constrained, a 15 year old girl who thinks she might be different – an atheist, or gay or a geek – anything that her parents would consider unacceptable. At the moment if that girl stumbles across a TV series that helps her navigate the stormy seas of adolescence into some adulthood that makes her content then it’s hard for anyone to track or observe her – but what if she uses iPlayer, and the BBC’s planned recommendation engine kicks in? What if the BBC and Facebook are collaborating over signin and her sister is ‘recommended’ a programme about something shocking – like Ruby programming?

I also think of the young woman described by danah boyd in It’s Complicated, living with her mother in a hostel for abused women, terrified that her father will track them down but obliged by peer pressure to use Facebook to be part of her school’s social circle. And so every time she stops using FB she ‘deletes’ her account, knowing that FB, desperate not to lose her will not remove it for 14 days – so she can log in again and ‘reactivate’ it confident that nobody has viewed her profile, tagged her, exposed her location or made it possible for her father to track her.

What can we do, not just to protect this woman from the danger that using our services poses, but to make her safer, more secure, and able to be an active member of her online community without fear?

If we cannot make these young women safe, if we cannot improve their life chances, then what are we here for? What are you here for?

In April Martha Lane Fox used a televised lecture to talk about a new institution she calls ‘dot everyone’ that would try to resolve some of the big issues that the network creates. She wrapped her argument up in a media-friendly argument about making the UK the top digital nation and supporting economic growth, but for me the heart of her proposal was much more significant – it was a request that we figure out what it means to live in a world that has the internet in it, recognising that this is not a natural phenomenon but something we built ourselves.

It’s also a recognition that these are problems that can be solved – with good will, technical nous and a bit of luck. Oh – and a radical transformation of the political system, reform of banker capitalism and a profound shift in human nature.

These are dangerous days
To say what you feel is to dig your own grave
Remember what I told you
If you were of the world they would love you

We need to speak truth to power, but more than that we can try to frame the debate in our terms, so that absurd proposals – like ‘banning’ porn – are less likely, so that dangerous ideas – like undermining encryption – are seen for what they are, and so that the positive aspects of the network, its power to reduce inequality, encourage openness, sharing and transparency and build a fairer world are more likely to be considered in the debates taking place around us, everywhere from this room to the bar outside to the local council committes, Parliaments and assemblies and councils that –together- determine the quality of people’s lives as lived in the real world of safe food, clean water, decent housing, and breathable air.

If nothing else, this may make us a slightly more resilient species when the real challenge of four degrees of global warming arrives and we face a test far more severe than deciding which bunch of religious zealots we are scared of offending today.