Yesterday we had a really great round table talking about supply chains and manufacturing, hosted by Future Makespaces. Supply chains touch on so many political topics. They matter intensely for labour conditions, wages,  immigration, the environment and for the diffusion of culture. At the same time they remain mostly invisible: they have a dispersed physical manifestation, and subsist in innumerable formal and informal social relations.

Governments publish some data on supply chains, but it can provide only a very low resolution picture. Jude Sherry told us that trying to locate manufacturers legally registered in Bristol often proved impossible. The opposite proved true as well – there are plenty of manufactures in Bristol who do not appear in official data.

Supply chains are especially salient now because technology is changing their structure. The falling cost of laser cutters and 3D printers is democratising processes once only possible in large scale manufacturing – thus potentially shortening the logistical pathway between manufacturer and consumer; perhaps even bringing manufacturing back into the cities of the developed world.

What I took from the round table was the surprising diversity of approaches to the topic – as well as a chance to reflect on how I communicate my position.

If your writing, design, or artistic practice is about making the invisible visible, then supply chains are a rich territory – a muse for your work, and an agent of change in the materials and processes you can work with. I took Dr Helge Mooshammer and Peter Mörtenböck to be addressing this cultural aspect with their World of Matter project and their Other Markets publications. Emma Reynolds told us about the British Council’s Maker Library Network, which I think you could see as an attempt to instrumentalise that cultural output.

Michael Wilson (who was in the UK for The Arts of Logistics conference), came to the topic from an overtly political direction, casting the debate in terms familiar from Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace; positioning himself in relation to capitalism, neo-liberalism and anarchy. His Empire Logistics project aims to explore the supply infrastructure of California. He highlighted the way that supply chains had responded to the unionisation of dock workers in California by moving as many operations as possible away from the waterfront, and to an area called, poetically, the Inland Empire.

The ‘small p’ political also featured – Adrian McEwan told us about his local impact through setting up a Makespace in Liverpool. James Tooze told us about the modular furniture system he’s working on with OpenDesk – designed to reduce waste generated by office refits and be more suited to the flexible demands that startups make of their spaces.

My perspective is based mostly on ideas from the discipline of economics. I described the Hayekian idea of the market as a giant computer that efficiently allocates resources, where the market, through the profit motive, solves the knowledge problem – and that it does so in a way that cannot be improved upon.

Even if I don’t myself (completely) subscribe to this point of view, it is well embedded with policy makers, and I think needs to be addressed and rebutted.

Every attempt to actively change supply chains, from the circular economy to makespaces, faces a challenge from Hayekian reasoning: if a new system of supply was a good idea, why hasn’t the market already invented it?

I see my work as using the language of economics to position design practises that seek to augment or transcend that market logic. In particular, I think Elinor Ostrom’s work offers a way to acknowledge human factors in the way exchanges take place, as well as providing design principles based on empirical research.

One surprise was the divergent views on where the ambitions for the ‘maker movement’. Should it aim for a future where a significant fraction of manufacturing happens in makespaces? Or would that mean the movement had been co-opted? Is it’s subcultural status essential?

I realised that when I try to explain my position in future I need to address questions like why I’ve chosen to engage with economic language and try to illustrate how that dovetails with cultural and political perspectives.

 

TL;DR: Almost everyone thinks academic publishing needs to change. What would a better system look like? Economist Elinor Ostrom gave us design principles for an alternative – a knowledge commons, a sustainable approach to sharing research more freely. This approach exemplifies using economic principles to design a digital platform. 

Why is this relevant right now? 

The phrase ‘Napster Moment’ has been used to describe the current situation. Napster made MP3 sharing so easy that the music industry was forced to change it’s business model. The same might be about happen to academic publishing.

In a recent Science Magazine reader poll (admittedly unrepresentative), 85% of respondents thought pirating papers from illicit sources was morally acceptable, and about 25% said they did so weekly.

Elsevier – the largest for-profit academic publisher – is fighting back. They are pursuing the SciHub website through the courts. SciHub is the most popular website offering illegal downloads, and has virtually every paper ever published.

In another defensive move, Elsevier has recently upset everyone by buying Social Science Research Network – a highly successful not-for-profit website that allowed anyone to read papers for free.

Institutions that fund research are pushing for change, fed up with a system where universities pay for research, but companies like Elsevier make a profit from it. Academic publishers charge universities about $10Bn a year, and make unusually large profits.

In the longer term, the fragmentation of research publishing may be unsustainable. Over a million papers are published every year, and research increasingly requires academics to understand multiple fields. New search tools are desperately needed, but they are impossible to build when papers are locked away behind barriers.

How should papers be published? Who should pay the costs, and who should get the access? Economist and Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom pioneered the idea of a knowledge commons to think about these questions.

What is a knowledge commons? 

A commons is a system where social conventions and institutions govern how people contribute to and take from some shared resource. In a knowledge commons that resource is knowledge.

You can think of knowledge, embodied in academic papers, as an economic resource just like bread, shoes or land. Clearly knowledge has some unique properties, but this assumption is a useful starting point.

When we are thinking about how to share a resource, Elinor Ostrom, in common with other economists, asks us to think about whether the underlying resource is ‘excludable’, or ‘rivalrous’.

If I bake a loaf of bread, I can easily keep it behind a shop counter until someone agrees to pay money in exchange for it – it is excludable. Conversely, if I build a road it will be time consuming and expensive for me to stop other people from using it without paying – it is non-excludable.

If I sell the bread to one person, I cannot sell the same loaf to another person – it is rivalrous. However, the number of cars using a road makes only a very small difference to the cost of providing it. Roads are non-rivalrous (at least until traffic jams take effect).

Excludable Non-excludable
Rivalrous Market Goods

Bread, shoes, cars

Common Pool Resources

Fish stocks, water 

Non-rivalrous Club Goods

Gyms, toll roads,
(academic papers) 

Public Goods

National defence, street lighting
(academic papers)

Most economists think markets (where money is used to buy and sell, top left in the grid) are a good systems for providing non-rivalrous, non-excludable private goods – bread, clothes, furniture etc. – perhaps with social security in the background to provide for those who cannot afford necessities.

But if a good is non-rivalrous, non-exclusionary, or both, things get a bit more complicated, and less effective. This is why roads are usually provided by a government rather than a market – though for profit toll roads do exist.

The well known ‘tragedy of the commons’ is a example of this logic playing out. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ thought experiment concerns a rivalrous, non-excludable natural resource – often the example given is a village with a common pasture land shared by everyone. Each villager has an incentive to graze as many sheep as they can on the shared pasture because then they will have nice fat sheep and plenty of milk. But if everyone behaves this way, unsustainably massive flocks of sheep will collectively eat all the grass and destroy the common pasture.

The benefit accrues to the individual villager, but the cost to the community as a whole. The classic economic solution is to put fences up and make the resource into an excludable, market-based system. Each villager gets an section of the common to own privately, which they can buy and sell as they choose.

Building and maintaining fences can be very expensive – if the resource is something like a fishing ground, it might even be impossible. The view that building a market is the only good solution has been distilled into an ideology, and, as is discussed later, that ideology lead to the existence of the commercial academic publishing industry. As the rest of this post will explain, building fences around knowledge has turned out to be very expensive.

Ostrom positioned herself directly against the ‘have to build a market’ point of view. She noticed that in the real world, many communities do successfully manage commons.

Ostrom’s Law: A resource arrangement that works in practice can work in
theory.

She developed a framework for thinking about social norms that allow effective resource management across a wide range of non-market systems, a much more nuanced approach than the stylised tragedy of the commons thought experiment. Her analysis calls for a more realistic model of the villagers, who might realise that the common is being overgrazed, call a meeting, and agree a rule how many sheep each person is allowed to graze. They are designing a social institution.

If this approach can be made to work, it saves the cost of maintaining the fences, but avoids the overgrazing that damages the common land.

The two by two grid above has the ‘commons’ as only one among four strategies. In reality, rivalry and excludability are questions of degree, and can be changed by making different design choices.

For this analysis, it’s useful to use the word ‘commons’ as a catchall for non-market solutions.

Ostrom and Hess published a book of essays, Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, arguing that we should use exactly this approach to understand and improve academic publishing. They argue for a ‘knowledge commons’.

The resulting infrastructure would likely be one or more web platforms. The design of these platforms will have to take into account the questions of incentives, rivalry and exclusion discussed above.

What would a knowledge commons look like? 

Through extensive real world research, Ostrom and her Bloomington School derived a set of design principles for effectively sharing common resources:

  1. Define clear group boundaries.
  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

These principles can help design a system where there is free access while preventing collapse from abusive treatment.

Principle 1 is already well addressed by the existence of universities, which give us a clear set of internationally comparable rules about who is officially a researcher in what area – doctorates, professorships etc. These hierarchies could also indicate who should participate in discussions about designing improvements to the knowledge commons, in accordance with 2 and 3. This is not to say that non-academic would be excluded, but that there is an existing structure which could help with decisions such as who is qualified to carry out peer review.

In a knowledge commons utopia, all the academic research ever conducted would be freely available on the web, along with all the related metadata – authors, dates, who references whom, citation counts etc. A slightly more realistic scenario might have all the metadata open, plus papers published from now forward.

This dataset would allow innovations that could address many of these design principles. In particular, in accordance with 5, it would allow for the design of systems measuring ‘demand’ and ‘supply’.  Linguistic analysis of papers might start to shine a light on who really supplies ideas to the knowledge commons, by following the spread of ideas through the discourse. The linked paper describes how to discover who introduces a new concept into a discourse, and track when that concept is widely adopted.

This could augment crude citation counts, helping identify those who provide a supply of new ideas to the commons. What if we could find out what papers people are searching for, but not finding? Such data might proxy for ‘demand’ – telling researches where to focus their creative efforts.

Addressing principle 6, there is much room for automatically detecting low quality ‘me-too’ papers, or outright plagiarism. Or perhaps it would be appropriate to establish a system where new authors have to be sponsored by existing authors with a good track record – a system which the preprint site arXiv currently implements. (Over publication is interestingly similar to overgrazing of a common pasture, abusing the system for personal benefit at the cost of the group.)

Multidisciplinary researchers could benefit from new ways aggregating papers that do not rely on traditional journal based categories, visualisations of networks of papers might help us orient ourselves in new territory quicker.

All of these innovations, and many others that we cannot foresee, require a clean, easily accessible data set to work with.

These are not new ideas. IBM’s Watson is already ingesting huge amounts of medical research to deliver cancer diagnosis and generate new research questions. But the very fact that only companies with the resources IBM can get to this data confirms the point about the importance of the commons. Even then, they are only able to look at a fraction of the total corpus of research.

But is the knowledge commons feasible?

How, in practical terms, could a knowledge commons be built?

Since 1665, the year the Royal Society was founded, about 50 million research papers have been published. As a back of an envelope calculation, that’s about 150 terabytes of data – that would cost $4,500 a month to store on Amazon’s cloud servers. Obviously just storing the data is not enough – so is there a real world example of running this kind of operation?

Wikipedia stores a similar total amount of data (about 40 million pages). It also has functionality that supports about 10 edits to those pages every second, and is one of the 10 most popular sites on the web. Including all the staffing and servers, it costs about $5o million per year.

That is less than 5% of what the academic publishing industry charges every year. If the money that universities spend on access to journals was saved for a single year, it would be enough to fund an endowment that would make academic publishing free in perpetuity – a shocking thought.

What’s the situation at the moment? 

Universities pay for the research that results in academic papers. Where papers are peer-reviewed, the reviewing is mostly done salaried university staff who don’t charge publishers for their time. Therefore, the cost of producing a paper to an academic publisher is, more or less, typesetting plus the admin.

Yet publishers charge what are generally seen as astronomical fees. An ongoing annual licenses to access a journal often costs many thousands of pounds. University libraries, which may have access to thousands of journals, pay millions each year in these fees. As a member of the public, you can download a paper for about $30 – and a single paper is often valueless without the network of papers it references. The result is an industry worth about $10bn a year, with profit margins that are often estimated at 40%. (Excellent detailed description here.)

I’ve heard stories of academics having articles published in journals their university does not have access to. They can write the paper, but their colleagues cannot subsequently read it – which is surely the opposite of publishing.  There are many papers that I cannot access from my desk at the Royal College of Art, because the university has not purchased access. But RCA has an arrangement with UCL allowing me to use their system. So I have to go across town just to log onto the Internet via UCL’s wifi. This cannot make sense for anyone.

I’m not aware of any similar system. It’s a hybrid of public funding plus a market mechanism. Tax payers money is spent producing what looks like a classic public or commons good (knowledge embodied in papers), free to everyone, non-rivalry and non-exclusionary. That product is then handed over a to private company, for free, and the private company makes a profit by selling that product back to the organisation that produced it. Almost no one (except the publishers) believes this represents value for money.

Overall, in addition to being a drain on the public purse, the current system fragments papers and associated metadata behind meaningless artificial barriers.

How did it get like that?

Nancy Kranich, in her essay for the book Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, gives useful history. She highlights the Reagan era ideological belief (mentioned earlier) that the private sector is always more efficient, plus the short-term incentives of the one-time profit you get by selling your in house journal. That’s seems to be about the end of the story, although in another essay in the same book Peter Suber points out that many high level policy makers often do not know how the system works – which might also be a factor.

If we look to Ostrom’s design principles, we cannot be surprised at what has happened. Virtually all the principles (especially 4,7 and 8) are violated when you have a commons with a small number of politically powerful, for-profit institutions who rely on appropriating resources from that commons. It’s analogous to the way industrial fishing operations are able to continuously frustrate legislation designed to prevent ecological disaster in overstrained fishing grounds by lobbying governments.

What are the current efforts to change the situation?

In 2003 the Bethesda Statement on Open Access indicated the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Wellcome trust, which between them manage an endowment of about $40bn, wanted research funded by them to be published Open Access – and that they would cover the costs. This seems to have set the ball rolling, although the situation internationally is too complex to easily unravel.

Possibly, charities lead the way because they are free of the ideological commitments of governments, as described by Kranich, and less vulnerable to lobbying efforts by publishers.

Focusing on the UK, Since 2013, the Research Council (which disperses about £3bn to universities each year) has insisted that work that it funds should be published Open Access. The details, however, make this rule considerably weaker than you might expect. RCUK recognises two kinds of Open Access publishing.

With Gold Route publishing, a commercial publisher will make make the paper free to access online, and publish it under a creative commons licence that allows others to do whatever they like with it – as long as the original authors are credited. The commercial publisher will only do this if they are paid – rates vary but it can be up to £5000 per paper. RCUK has made a £16 million fund available to cover these costs.

Green Route publishing is a much weaker type of Open Access. The publisher grants the academics who produced the paper the right to “self archive” – ie make their paper available through their university’s website. It is covered by a creative commons license that allows other people to use if for any non-commercial purpose, as long as they credit the author. However there can be an embargo of up to three years before the academic is allowed to ‘self-publish’ their paper. There are also restrictions on what sites they can publish the paper on – for example they cannot publish it to a site that mimics a conventional journal. Whether sites such as Academic.edu are acceptable is currently the subject of debate.

Is it working?

In 1995, Forbes predicted that commercial academic publishers had a business model that was imminently about to be destroyed by the web. That makes sense, after all, the web was literally invented to share academic papers. Here we are, 21 years later, and academic publishers exist, and still have enormous valuations. Their shareholders clearly don’t think they are going anywhere.

Elsevier is running an effective operation to prevent innovation by purchasing competitors (mendeley.com) or threatening them with copyright actions (academia.edu and SciHub). Even if newly authored papers are published open access, the historical archive will remain locked away. However, there is change.

Research Council UK carried out an independent review in 2014 where nearly all universities were able to report publishing at least 45% of papers as open access (via green or gold routes) – though the report is at pains to point out that most universities don’t keep good records of how their papers are published, so this figure could be inaccurate.

In fact the UK is doing a reasonable job of pursuing open access, and globally things are slowly moving in the right directionResearch is increasingly reliant on pre-prints hosted on sites like ArXiv, rather than official Journals, which move too slowly.

Once a database of the 50 million academic papers is gathered in one place (which SciHub may soon achieve) it’s hard to see how the genie can be put back in the bottle.

If this is a ‘Napster moment’, the question is what happens next. Many people thought that MP3 sharing was going to be the end of the commercial music industry. Instead, Apple moved in and made a service so cheap and convenient that it displaced illicit file sharing. Possibly commercial publishers could try the same trick, though they show no signs of making access cheaper or more convenient.

Elinor Ostrom’s knowledge commons shows us that there a sustainable, and much preferable alternative. An alternative that opens the worlds knowledge to everyone with an Internet connection, and provides an open platform for innovations that can help us deal with the avalanche of academic papers published every year.

 

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 13.54.49

StoryMap is a project that I worked on with Rift theatre company, Peter Thomas from Middlesex University and Angus Main, who is now at RCA, and Ben Koslowski who led the project. Oliver Smith took care of the tech side of things.  

The challenge was very specific, but the outcome was an interface that could work in a variety of public spaces.

We were looking to develop an artefact that could pull together all of the aspects of Rift’s Shakespeare in Shoreditch festival, including four plays in four separate locations over 10 days, the central hub venue where audiences arrived, and the Rude Mechanicals: a roving troupe of actors who put on impromptu plays around Hackney in the weeks leading up to the main event.

We wanted something in the hub venue which gave a sense of geography to proceedings. In the 2014 Shakespeare in Shoreditch festival the audience were encouraged to contribute to a book of 1000 plays (which the Rude Mechanicals used this year for their roving performances). We felt the 2016 version ought to include a way for the audience to contribute too.

The solution we ended up with was a digital/physical hybrid map, with some unusual affordances. We had a large table with a map of Hackney and surroundings (reimagined as an island) routed into the surface.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 14.10.21

We projected a grid onto the table top. Each grid square could have a ‘story’ associated with it. Squares with stories appeared white. Some of the stories were from the Twitter feed of the Rude Mechanicals, so from day one the grid was partially populated. Some of them were added by the audience.

You could read the stories using a console. Two dials allowed users to move a red cursor square around the grid. When it was on a square with a story, that story would appear on a screen in the console.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 14.18.52 Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 14.18.10

If there was no story on the square, participants could add one. We had sheets of paper with prompts written on them, which you could feed into a typewriter and tap a response. Once you’d written your story, you put it in a slot in the console, and scanned it with the red button. (Example, Prompt: ‘Have you been on a memorable date in Hackney?’, Response: ‘I’m on one now!’)

Nearly 300 stories were submitted over 10 days.  Even though there really difficult to use, people loved the typewriters as an input method. Speaking from my own perspective, I found an input method that legitimised spelling mistakes and typos less intimidating. 

There were two modes of interaction – firstly, through the table based projection, which allowed a conversational, collective and discursive understanding of what had already been submitted.  Secondly, there was a more individual process of reading specific stories and adding your own story using the screen in the console. The second mode still relied on the projection, because you needed to move your cursor to find or submit a story.

The resolution of the projection was too low (because of the size of the table) for fonts or details to be rendered well. From this perspective, the map routed into the table really worked; it increased the ‘bandwidth’ of the information the table could convey, fine lines and small text worked well (which gave us a chance to play around with whimsically renaming bits of Hackney).

Having a way to convey spatialised data on a table where people can get round it and discuss it, combined with a (potentially private) way to add detail might work in a number of scenarios. Could it be a tool for planning consultation? A way to explore data spatialised in some other way, eg. a political spectrum or along a time line? Perhaps in a museum context?

The whole thing was developed as a web app, so it’s easy to extend across more screens, or perhaps to add mobile interaction. It’s opened my eyes to the fact that, despite all the noise around open data, there are relatively few ways to explore digital information in a collective, public way. The data is shared, but the exploration is always individual.  More to follow…

(I did a quick technical talk on how we delivered StoryMap for Meteor London, slides here.)

The BBC is to remove recipes from its website, responding to pressure from the Government. It will also remove a number of other web only services. The news is symbolic of a larger issue, and the outcome of a much longer story. It’s a signal that the current government will actively reduce public sector activity on the web for fear of upsetting or displacing the private sector. This is not just a feature of the current Conservative government, the Blair administration treated the BBC in the same way. The idea is that by reducing the public sector a thousand commercial flowers will bloom, that competition will drive variety and quality, and that a vibrant commercial digital sector will create high skill jobs. Never mind that the web is already controlled by a handful of giant US monopolies, mostly employing people thousands of miles away. Ideology trumps pragmatism.

In the specific case of the BBC, the Government has won. The BBC’s entire digital presence is dependent on its TV and Radio operations. iPlayer can only exist when it’s making TV and Radio shows, the news website is relies on the news gathering operation it inherits from TV and radio.  TV (and possibly radio) are destined to have fewer viewers and listeners as we increasingly turn to digital. So, as licence fee payers disappear, the output will become less and of lower quality, the BBC’s presence in the national debate will diminish and it’s ability to argue for funding will be decreased. When it comes time to switch funding from a license fee for owning a television to a system that works on broadband connections, the BBC will already have lost. An outmoded organisation that has failed to adapt, a footnote rather than a source of national pride.

Put simply, the BBC has failed to make the case that it should exist in a digital era. Instead it’s chosen to remain a broadcast operation that happens to put some of it’s content on a website.  When TV finally dies, the BBC could be left in a position similar to NPR in the US, of interest to a minority of left-wing intellectuals, dwarfed by bombastic polarising media channels owned by two or three billionaires. That’s why it’s so critical that the BBC made a web offer separate from TV, but it hasn’t. The Government has been extremely successful at making the BBC embrace the principle that all web output must be linked to TV or Radio, which is why, for example, the BBC will be reducing commissions specifically for iPlayer too, and closing its online magazine.

The story has been evolving for a long time. I was working on the BBC’s website in 2009. It just been through a multi-year Public Value Test to prove to the Board it wasn’t being anti-competitive by providing video content online; at least the public were allowed iPlayer in the end. BBC Jam, which was a £150 million digital educational platform to support the national curriculum was cancelled in 2007 because of competition law. Don’t forget, at this point, they’d already built most of it. Millions of pounds of educational material were thrown in the bin because it would be ‘anti competitive’. Of course, no commercial alternative has ever been built.

When I arrived there was endless talk of restructuring, and optimism we’d get a clear set of rules dictating what projects would not be considered anti competitive. It never came. The project I worked on, about mass participation science experiments, was cancelled, I presume because it wasn’t directly connected to a TV program. All kinds of other bits of digital offers were closed.  H2G2, which pre-dated, and could (maybe?) have become, Wikipedia was shuttered. The Celebdaq revamp was another proposition which was entirely built and then cancelled before it ever went live.

The BBC will now offer recipes that are shown on TV programs, but only for 30 days after. That’s how hysterical the desire to prevent public service on the web is: you can create content, at considerable cost, but not leave on the web, which would cost virtually nothing.

The has BBC focused it’s digital R&D budget on it’s gigantic archive, looking at new ways of searching, ordering and displaying the millions of hours of audio and video it’s collected.  Which is a weird decision, because it’s a certain fact that the BBC will never get copyright clearance to make public anything but the tiniest fraction of that archive. I speculate the reason it has done this is because it saves the management from having to worry about a competitive analysis. Projects that can never go public don’t pose a problem.

If we shift our focus from the BBC to society as a whole, it’s disappointing to see how we’ve abandoned the notion of digital public space. The web has opened up a whole new realm for creativity, interaction, education and debate. As a society we’ve decided that almost nothing in that realm should be publicly provided  – which is absolutely perverse because the web intrinsically lends itself to what economists would think of as a public goods.

Look across the activities of the state and you’ll see than none have a significant presence in the digital realm. We think the state should provide education – but it does nothing online.  Local governments provide public spaces, from parks to town halls – but never online. We think the state should provide libraries – but never online. We love the state broadcaster, but we’re not allowed it online. We expect the state to provide healthcare – but the NHS offers only a rudimentary and fragmentary online presence.  You can apply the formula to any sector of government activity. Want career guidance? Not online. Want to know how to make a Shepherd’s Pie? Better hope it appeared on a TV cooking show in the last 30 days.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes some new scrap of information strings a link between two previously disconnected neurons, your cortex reconfigures, and a whole constellation of thoughts snap together in a new way. That’s happened to me recently, I’ve realised something that other people have a lot quicker than me – Facebook is eating the web. The original John Perry Barlow / Tim Berners Lee / Jimmy Wales vision of a digital space everyone owned is dying. It’s sometimes easy to forget how recently we had lofty visions, and how extensively the web has reoriented towards advertising.

But it’s more than that. The normal checks and balances for dominant corporations – competition laws – don’t apply here. You don’t pay for social networking, so it isn’t a market, so there is no competition law. I’ll come back to this later.

I’m doing a PhD looking at how the public sector can benefit from social media data.  Corporations own datasets of unimaginable social value, and the only thing they want to do with them is sell them to advertisers. All their other potentially beneficial social roles, tracking diseases, policy consultation and strengthening communities, to mention just three, are getting harder to realise.

That’s not to say there aren’t amazing civic technology projects still happening, but they all happen under the looming shadow of Facebookification.

In denial, I clung to the belief that Facebook’s unbelievably massive user numbers were just not true. Looking for research on this I discovered a paper which contained startling statistic – there are more Facebook users in Africa than there are people on the Internet. Exactly as I thought – Facebook are massively inflating their numbers. Except…  further investigation showed that many survey respondents were unaware that they were on the Internet when they used Facebook. They didn’t know about the web, they only knew about Facebook. Research that I thought was going to confirm my world view did the exact opposite: mind… flipped. That was the first inflection point, when I started to feel that everything had gone wrong.

The second was trying to use the Instagram API for some research. For a long time I’ve been aware that the Facebook API is so hostile that I wouldn’t be able to use it. Facebook is such a complicated product, with such complex privacy settings, that perhaps it’s inevitable that API is basically unusable. But Instagram is incredibly simple, and many people choose to make their photos public. To me, it’s absolutely natural that they would make public photos available via an API. But, since November 2015, Instagram’s API has been radically curtailed. All the apps that use it have to be reviewed, and there is an onerous list of conditions to comply with. To a first approximation, Instagram turned off their API.

Again, mind flipped. Facebook have purchased Instagram, and now they’ve strangled it as a source of data. They are a commercial company, and they can do what they like, but my mind boggles at the mean spiritedness of shutting the API. The photos belong to the users, and the users have asked for them to be published. Third parties might well do amazing things with the photos – to the benefit of everyone including their creators. Instagram can do that at very close to no cost to themselves. The traffic to the API is peanuts in server costs, and it’s simple to rate limit it. Similarly, rate limiting it means you wouldn’t be giving away the large scale analytics data you might sell. You can ban people from duplicating the Instagram app and depriving you of advertising revenue, just as Twitter have. The downsides to Instagram are tiny.

Not so long ago, the wisdom was that an API with a rich third party ecosystem was the key to success. Twitter was the model, and it’s still wonderfully open (fingers crossed). Yahoo really got it – remember Yahoo Pipes? A graphical interface for playing with all the open APIs that used to exist, infrastructure for a gentler time.

The new players don’t care. Facebook has very successfully pioneered the opposite approach, where you put up barriers anywhere you can.

Neither of these two things is big news, not the biggest stories on this topic by a long shot, but for whatever reason, they were an epiphany for me. They made me realise that Facebook is a unique position to take control of the web and drain it of its democratic potential.

I’m not in love with everything Google does, but, as a search engine, it’s interests could be seen as aligned with an open web. I don’t love Amazon’s dominance, but at least its marketplace makes a pretty transparent offer to users, just as Apple’s hardware business does. Facebook, which obviously competes in the advertising market with Google, has a strong interest in curtailing the open web. Facebook, as Mark Zuckerberg has explicitly said, would like to become the main place people go to read news, using Instant Articles rather than web pages, hidden away in Facebook’s walled garden. Increasingly, as the earlier evidence indicated, Facebook is the web.

But Facebook is different from the other big tech companies in another, much more important way. It is almost invulnerable to antitrust and competition regulations.  In the 1990s, Microsoft was in a massively dominant position in tech. In both Europe and the US, governments brought cases against MS, saying that they were exploiting their position to the detriment of consumers. The cases did serious damage to MS, and their dominant position slipped. Right now, the same thing is happening to Google’s dominance – the EU is bringing cases against them for their behaviour in relation to Android.

One reason that Apple always positions itself at the premium end of the market may be exactly to avoid gaining enough market share to qualify as a monopoly – instead it satisfies itself with high margins in a smaller segment.

But Facebook don’t actually sell anything to consumers, so they aren’t in a market, so no case can be bought against them. Sure, they are in the advertising market, and they are a big player, but only alongside Google and all the others.

Combined with Instagram and Whatsapp, Facebook is massively dominant in social networking. But social networking isn’t a market, because it’s free. Nor is Facebook a common carrier, nor are they a newspaper or a TV station, all of which have laws formulated specifically for them. For Facebook, there is no law.

I’d guess this one of the reasons that Facebook is so clear it will never charge users – to do so would expose them to competition law.

Maybe it’s OK, because some guy in a dorm room or garage is right now working on a Facebook killer. Except they aren’t, because, as with Instagram and Whatsapp, Facebook will just buy any thing that threatens it – and lock new purchases it into it’s own closed infrastructure. Nothing is more lucrative than a monopoly, so the stock market will write a blank cheque for Facebook to reinforce its position.

The board of Facebook must spend a great deal of time thinking about what could go wrong. A massive data leak? Accidentally deleting everyone’s photos? Cyberbullying suicides becoming common place?

Surely competition laws aimed at the company are near the top of risk register. What are they likely to be doing about that? They can do the normal revolving-door, expensive dinner lobbying shenanigans, and I’m sure they are. But Facebook has a whole other level of leverage. The platform itself is profoundly political. They have detailed data about people’s voting intentions, highly politically desirable advertising space, the ability to influence people’s propensity to vote, and can use the massively influential Facebook trending to promote whatever view they like. What politician wants to tangle with that kind of organisation?

If I was being cynical, I’d start to think about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Facebook surely already has unimaginable access, but this organisation (not technically a charity) adds a halo of beneficence, a vehicle for the Zuckerberg point of view to embed itself even more deeply.

Why haven’t I mentioned Internet.org? It’s too depressing. I’ll write about that another day.

Not only is there no law for Facebook, but the democratic system for creating laws has incentives that mostly point in the wrong direction. You can construct all kinds of scenarios if you try hard enough. For me, the prospect of the mainstream web being controlled by a single corporate has moved from being distant possibility to being a likely future. Let’s just hope things turn out more complicated, they usually do…

 

Couple of notes from the Long Now Foundation health panel, both regarding how we aggregate and distribute knowledge.

Alison O’Mara-Eves (Senior Researcher in the Institute of Education at University College London) told us about the increasing difficulty of producing systematic reviews. Systematic reviews attempt to synthesise all the research on a particular topic into one view point: how much can you drink while pregnant, what interventions improve diabetes outcomes, etc.  These reviews, such as  venerable Cochrane reviews,  are struggling to sift through the increasing volumes research to decide what actionable advice to give doctors and the public. The problem is getting worse as the rate of medical research increases (although more research is obviously a good thing in itself).  We were told the research repository Web of Science indexes over 1 billion items of research. (I’m inclined to question what item is since there must be far less 100 million scientists in the world, and most of them must have contributed less than 10 items, however I take the point that there’s a lot of research.)

Alison sounded distinctly hesitant about using automation (such as machine learning) to assist in selecting papers to be included in a systemic review, as a way of making one of the steps of the process less burdensome. The problem is transparency: a systematic review ought to explain exactly what criteria they use to include papers, so that criteria can be interrogated by the public. That can be hard to do if an algorithm has played a part in the process. This problem is clearly going to have to be solved, research is no  use if we can’t sythesise it into an actionable form. And it seems tractable – we already have IBM Watson delivering medical diagnoses, apparently better than a doctor. In any case, I’m sure current systematic reviews of medical papers are carried out using various databases’s search function – who knows how that works or what malarkey those search algorithms might be up to in the background?

Mark Bale (Deputy Director in the Health Science and Bioethics Division at the Department of Health) was fascinating on the ethics of giving genetic data to the NHS, through their program the 100,000 genomes project. He described a case where a whole family who suffered with kidney complaints were treated due to one member having their genome sequenced, thus identifying a faulty genetic pathway. Good for that family, but potentially good for the NHS too – Mark described the possibility that by quickly identifying the root cause of a chronic, hard to diagnose ailment through genetic sequencing might save money too.

But – what of the ethics? What happens if your genome is on the database and subsequent research indicates that you may be vulnerable to a particular disease – do you want to know? Can I turn up at the doctors with my 23 and Me results? Can I take my data from the NHS and send it to 23 and Me to get their analysis? What happens if the NHS decides a particular treatment is unethical and I go abroad to a more permissive regulatory climes? What happens if I have a very rare disease and refuse to be sequenced, is that fair on the other sufferers? What happens if I refuse to have my rare disease sequenced, but then decide I’d like to benefit from treatments developed through other people’s contributions? I’ll stop now…

To me the part of the answer is that patients are going to have to acquire – at least to some extent – a technical understanding of the underlying process so they can make informed decisions. If that isn’t possible, perhaps smaller representative groups of patients who receive higher levels of training can play into decisions. One answer that’s very ethically questionable from my perspective is to take an extremely precautionary approach. This would be a terrible example of the status quo bias, many lives would be needlessly lost if we decided to overly cautious. There’s no “play it safe” option.

It’s interesting that with genomics the ethical issues are so immediate and visceral that they get properly considered, and have rightly become the key policy concern with this new technology. If only that happened for other new technologies…

The final question was whether humanity would still exist in 1000 years – much more in the spirit of the Long Now Foundation. Everyone agreed it would be, at least from a medical perspective, so don’t worry.