This is a naive exercise to explore what ethics by design would look like for networked agency. There’s plenty of discussion about ethics by design in various places. Mostly in machine learning, where algorithmic bias is a very real issue already, and where other discussions such as around automated driving are misguided for lack of imagination and scope. It’s also an ongoing concern in adtech, especially since we know business practices don’t limit themselves to selling you stuff but also deceive you to sell political ideas. Data governance is an area where I encounter ethics by design as a topic on a regular basis, in decisions on what data to collect or not, and in questions of balancing or combining the need for transparency with the need for data protection. But I want to leave that aside, also because many organisations in those areas already have failed their customers and users. Which would make this posting a complaint and not constructive.

My current interest is in exploring what ethics means, and can be done by design, in the context of networked agency, and by extension a new civil society emerging in distributed digital transformation. A naive approach helps me find a first batch of questions and angles.

The notions that are the building blocks of networked agency are a starting point. Ethical questions follow directly from those building blocks.

First there are the building blocks related to the agency element in networked agency. These are technology and methods/processes, striking power, resilience and agility.
a) For the technologies and methods/processes involved, relevant are issues relating to who controls those tools, how these tools can be deployed by their users, and if a user group can alter the tools, adapt them to new needs and tinker with them.
b) Low thresholds of adoption need an exploration of what those thresholds are and how they play out for different groups. These are thresholds of technological and financial nature, but also barriers concerning knowledge, practicality, usability, and understandability.
c) Striking power, the actual acting part of agency provides questions about if a tool provides actual agency, and isn’t actually a pacifier. Not every action or activity constitutes agency. It’s why words like slacktivism and clicktivism have emerged.
d) Resilience in networked agency is about reducing the vulnerability to propagating failures from outside the group, and the manner in which mitigation is possible. Reduction of critical dependencies outside the group’s scope of control is something to consider here. That also works in reverse. Are you creating dependencies for others? In a similar vein, are you externalising costs onto others? Are you causing unintended consequences elsewhere, and can you be aware of them arising, or pre-empt them?
e) Agility in networked agency is about spotting and leveraging opportunities relative to your own needs in your wider network. Are you able to do that from a constructive perspective, or only a competitive/scarcity one? Do your opportunities come at the cost of other groups? When you leverage opportunities are you externalising costs or claiming exclusivity? In a networked environment externalising costs will return as feedback to your system. Networks almost by definition are endless repeats of the prisoners dilemma. Another side of this is which ways exist in which you can provide leverage to others simultaneously to creating your own, or when to be the lever in a situation.

Second there are notions that follow from the networked part of networked agency. The unit of agency in networked agency is a group of people that share some relationship (team, family, org, location, interest, history, etc), that together act upon a need shared across that group. This introduces three levels to evaluate ethical questions on, at the level of the individual in a group, at the level of the group itself, and between groups in a network. Group dynamics are thus firmly put into focus: power, control, ownership, voice, inclusion, decision making, conflict resolution, dependencies within a group, reciprocity, mutuality, verifiability, boundaries, trust, contributions, engagement, and reputations.
This in part translates back to the agency part, in terms of technology and skills to work with it. Skills won’t be evenly distributed in groups seeking agency, so potentially introduce power asymmetries, when unique capabilities mean de-facto gatekeepers or single points of failure are introduced. These may be counteracted with some mutual dependencies perhaps. More likely operational transparency in a group is of more importance so that the group can see such issues arise and calling them out is a normal thing to do, not something that has a threshold in itself. Operational transparency might build on an obligation to explain, which also is a logical element in ensuring (networked) agility.

The above output of this first exercise I will try and put in an overview. Not sure what will be useful here, a tree-like map, or a network, or a matrix. A next step is fleshing out the ethical issues in play. Then projecting them on for instance specific technologies, methods and group settings, to see what specific actions or design principles emerge from that.

From the recent posting on Mastodon and it currently lacking a long tail, I want to highlight a specific notion, and that’s why I am posting it here separately. This is the notion that tool usage having a long tail is a measure of distribution, and as such a proxy for networked agency. [A long tail is defined as the bottom 80% of certain things making up over 50% of a ‘market’. The 80% least sold books in the world make up more than 50% of total book sales. The 80% smallest Mastodon instances on the other hand account for less than 15% of all Mastodon users, so it’s not a long tail].

To me being able to deploy and control your own tools (both technology and methods), as a small group of connected individuals, is a source of agency, of empowerment. I call this Networked Agency, as opposed to individual agency. Networked also means that running your own tool is useful in itself, and even more useful when connected to other instances of the same tool. It is useful for me to have this blog even if I am its only reader, but my blog is even more useful to me because it creates conversations with other bloggers, it creates relationships. That ‘more useful when connected’ is why distributed technology is important. It allows you to do your own thing while being connected to the wider world, but you’re not dependent on that wider world to be able to do your own thing.

Whether a technology or method supports a distributed mode, in other words is an important feature to look for when deciding to use it or not. Another aspect is the threshold to adoption of such a tool. If it is too high, it is unlikely that people will use it, and the actual distribution will be very low, even if in theory the tools support it. Looking at the distribution of usage of a tool is then a good measure of success of a tool. Are more people using it individually or in small groups, or are more people using it in a centralised way? That is what a long tail describes: at least 50% of usage takes place in the 80% of smallest occurrences.

In June I spoke at State of the Net in Trieste, where I talked about Networked Agency. One of the issues raised there in response was about scale, as in “what you propose will never scale”. I interpreted that as a ‘centralist’ remark, and not a ‘distributed’ view, as it implied somebody specific would do the scaling. In response I wrote about the ‘invisible hand of networks‘:

“Every node in a network is a scaler, by doing something because it is of value to themselves in the moment, changes them, and by extension adding themselves to the growing number of nodes doing it. Some nodes may take a stronger interest in spreading something, convincing others to adopt something, but that’s about it. You might say the source of scaling is the invisible hand of networks.”

In part it is a pun on the ‘invisible hand of markets’, but it is also a bit of hand waving, as I don’t actually had precise notions of how that would need to work at the time of writing. Thinking about the long tail that is missing in Mastodon, and thus Mastodon not yet building the distributed social networking experience that Mastodon is intended for, allows me to make the ‘invisible hand of networks’ a bit more visible I think.

If we want to see distributed tools get more traction, that really should not come from a central entity doing the scaling. It will create counter-productive effects. Most of the Mastodon promotion comes from the first few moderators that as a consequence now run large de-facto centralised services, where 77% of all participants are housed on 0,7% (25 of over 3400) of servers. In networks smartness needs to be at the edges goes the adagium, and that means that promoting adoption needs to come from those edges, not the core, to extend the edges, to expand the frontier. In the case of Mastodon that means the outreach needs to come from the smallest instances towards their immediate environment.

Long tail forming as an adoption pattern is a good way then to see if broad distribution is being achieved.
Likely elements in promoting from the edge, that form the ‘invisible hand of networks’ doing the scaling are I suspect:

  • Show and tell, how one instance of tool has value to you, how connected instances have more value
  • Being able to explain core concepts (distribution, federation, agency) in contextually meaningful ways
  • Being able to explain how you can discover others using the same tool, that you might want to connect to
  • Lower thresholds of adoption (technically, financially, socially, intellectually)
  • Reach out to groups and people close to you (geographically, socially, intellectually), that you think would derive value from adoption. Your contextual knowledge is key to adoption.
  • Help those you reach out to set up their own tools, or if that is still too hard, ‘take them in’ and allow them the use of your own tools (so they at least can experience if it has value to them, building motivation to do it themselves)
  • Document and share all you do. In Bruce Sterling’s words: it’s not experimenting if you’re not publishing about it.

stm18
An adoption-inducing setting: Frank Meeuwsen explaining his steps in leaving online silos like Facebook, Twitter, and doing more on the open web. In our living room, during my wife’s birthday party.

When I talk about Networked Agency, I talk about reducing the barrier to entry for all kinds of technology as well as working methods, that we know work well in a fully networked situation. Reducing those barriers allows others to adopt these tools more easily and find power in refound ability to act. Networked agency needs tech and methods that can be easily deployed by groups, and that work even better when federated across groups and the globe-spanning digital human network.

The IndieWeb’s principles (own your own data, use tools that work well on their own, and better when federated, avoid silos as the primary place of where you post content) fit well with that notion.

Recently I said that I was coming back to a lot of my material on information strategies and metablogging from 2003-2006, but now with more urgency and a change in scope. Frank asked what I meant, and I answered

that the principles of the open web (free to use, alter, tinker, control, trust by you/your group) also apply to other techs (for instance energy production, blockchain, biohacking, open source hardware, cheap computing hardware, algorithms, IoT sensors and actuators) and methods (p2p, community building, social media usage/production, group facilitation etc.). Only then are they truly empowering, otherwise you’re just the person it is ‘done to’.

Blockchain isn’t empowering you to run your own local currency if you can only run it on de-facto centralised infrastructure, where you’re exposed to propagating negative externalities. Whether it is sudden Ethereum forks, or the majority of BTC transactions being run on opaque Chinese computing clusters. It is empowering only if it is yours to deploy for a specific use. Until you can e.g. run a block chain based LETS easily for your neighbourhood or home town on nodes that are Raspberry Pi’s attached to the LETS-members’ routers, there is no reliable agency in blockchain.

IoT is not empowering if it means Amazon is listening into all your conversations, or your fire alarm sensors run through centralised infrastructure run by a telco. It is empowering if you can easily deploy your own sensors and have them communicate to an open infrastructure for which you can run your own gateway or trust your neighbour’s gateway. And on top of which your group does their own data crunching.

Community building methods are not empowering if it is only used to purposefully draw you closer to a clothing brand or football club so they can sell your more of their stuff. Where tribalism is used to drive sales. It is empowering if you can, with your own direct environment, use those methods to strengthen local community relationships, learn how to collectively accommodate differences in opinions, needs, strengths and weaknesses, and timely reorient yourself as a group to keep momentum. Dave Winer spoke about working together at State of the Net, and 3 years ago wrote about working together in the context of the open web. To work together there are all kinds of methods, but like community building, those methods aren’t widely known or adopted.

So, what applies to the open web, IndieWeb, I see applies to any technology and method we think help increase the agency of groups in our networked world. More so as technologies and methods often need to be used in tandem. All these tools need to be ‘smaller’ than us, be ours. This is a key element of Networked Agency, next to seeing the group, you and a set of meaningful relationships, as the unit of agency.

Not just IndieWeb. More IndieTech. More IndieMethods.

How would the ‘Generations‘ model of the IndieWeb look if transposed to IndieTech and IndieMethods? What is Selfdogfooding when it comes to methods?

More on this in the coming months I think, and in the runup to ‘Smart Stuff That Matters‘ late August.

Today I am enjoying the 2018 edition of the State of the Net conference, in Italy. Organised by Beniamino Pagliaro, Paolo Valdemarin and Sergio Maistrello.

sotn2018
Beniamino Pagliaro opening the conference this morning

This morning I provided a key note on Networked Agency, where I talked about rediscovering our ability to act. As networked groups, in real and meaningful contexts as the unit of agency. For that to be possible our tools, both technologies and methods, need to work for groups, be much easier to access. They also need to work both as a local instance as well as federated across contexts. From it striking power (classic agency) flows, agility to use and leverage the useful things coming at us over the networks, and resilience to mitigate the negative consequences that come at us over those same networks.

The slides are below.

[UPDATE]
The videos of State of the Net are online, including the video of my talk.


[/UPDATE]

(Disclosure) Paolo is a long time friend and I had the privilege of contributing to previous editions in 2012 (Trieste) and 2015 (Milano). I’m also a member of the conference’s steering committee.