Thursday, January 17, 2019

Friday Thinking 18 Jan 2019

Friday Thinking is a humble curation of my foraging in the digital environment. My purpose is to pick interesting pieces, based on my own curiosity (and the curiosity of the many interesting people I follow), about developments in some key domains (work, organization, social-economy, intelligence, domestication of DNA, energy, etc.)  that suggest we are in the midst of a change in the conditions of change - a phase-transition. That tomorrow will be radically unlike yesterday.

Many thanks to those who enjoy this.

In the 21st Century curiosity will SKILL the cat.

Jobs are dying - Work is just beginning. Work that engages our whole self becomes play that works. Techne = Knowledge-as-Know-How :: Technology = Embodied Know-How  

“Be careful what you ‘insta-google-tweet-face’”
Woody Harrelson - Triple 9



The Aurelia genome joins a growing number of studies that complicate our view of complexity. When scientists began comparing the genes and genomes of different branches of the tree of life, they expected to find vast differences, but instead discovered remarkable similarity. For example, humans and cats share about 90 percent of our genes; we share nearly two-thirds of our genome with fruit flies, despite being separated for approximately 800 million years.

Even the earliest animal lineages harbor unexpected complexities. When Srivastava and colleagues sequenced the first sponge genome in 2010, they were stunned to find genes that built the brains and muscles of other animals already present in this brainless, muscleless sponge. “The genes are the same, but clearly they aren’t working together to do the same things,” she said.

Jellyfish Genome Hints That Complexity Isn’t Genetically Complex

In this setting, education’s task was fairly simple: decide what the social machine needs, then turn out people who match those needs. The school’s function was not so much to encourage people to keep exploring, learning and, therefore, changing throughout life as to slow and control those very processes of personal growth and change. Providing useful career or job skills was only a small part of this educational matching game. All students, perhaps more so in the humanities than the sciences and technologies, were furnished standard “bodies of knowledge,” vocabularies, concepts and ways of viewing the world. Scholarly or trade journals generally held a close check on standard perceptions in each special field.

Specialization and standardization produced close resemblance and, therefore, hot competition between individuals. Normally, the only way a person could differentiate himself from the fellow specialists next to him was by doing the same thing better and faster. Competition, as a matter of fact, became the chief motive force in mass education, as in society, with grades and tests of all sorts gathering about them a power and glory all out of proportion to their quite limited function as learning aids.

Then, too, just as the old mechanical production line pressed physical materials into preset and unvarying molds, so mass education tended to treat students as objects to be shaped, manipulated. “Instruction” generally meant pressing information onto passive students. Lectures, the most common mode of instruction in mass education, called for very little student involvement.

The Future of Education: The Class of 1989 by Marshall McLuhan & George B. Leonard (1967)

With the telegraph Western man began a process of putting his nerves outside his body. Previous technologies had been extensions of physical organs: the wheel is a putting-outside-ourselves of the feet; the city wall is a collective outering of the skin. But electronic media are, instead, extensions of the central nervous system, an inclusive and simultaneous field. Since the telegraph we have extended the brains and nerves of man around the globe. As a result, the electronic age endures a total uneasiness, as of a man wearing his skull inside and his brain outside. We have become peculiarly vulnerable. The year of the establishment of the commercial telegraph in America, 1844, was also the year Kierkegaard published The Concept of Dread.

Every generation poised on the edge of a massive change seems, to later observers, to have been oblivious of the issues and the imminent event. But it is necessary to understand the power of technologies to isolate the senses and thus to hypnotize society. The formula for hypnosis is "one sense at a time." Our private senses are not closed systems but are endlessly translated into one another in the synesthetic experience we call consciousness. Our extended senses, tools, or technologies, have been closed systems incapable of interplay. Every new technology diminishes sense interplay and awareness for precisely the area ministered to by that technology: a kind of identification of viewer and object occurs. This conforming of the beholder to the new form or structure renders those most deeply immersed in a revolution the least aware of its dynamic. At such times it is felt that the future will be a larger or greatly improved version of the immediate past.

The new electronic technology, however, is not a closed system. As an extension of the central nervous system, it deals precisely in awareness, interplay and dialogue. In the electronic age, the very instantaneous nature of the co-existence among our technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history. Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience which demands that they become collectively conscious, like the central nervous system itself. Fragmentation and specialization, features of mechanism, are absent.

Post-literate man’s electronic media contract the world to a tribe or village where everything happens to everyone at the same time: everyone knows about, and therefore participates in, everything that is happening the moment it happens. Because we do not understand these things, because of the numbing power of the technology itself, we are helpless while undergoing a revolution in our North American sense-lives, via the television image.

Man in the future will not work, automation will work for him, but he may be totally involved as a painter is, or as a thinker is, or as a poet is. Man works when he is partially involved. When he is totally involved, he is at play or at leisure.

Man in the electronic age has no possible environment except the globe and no possible occupation except information-gathering. By simply moving information and brushing information against information, any medium whatever creates vast wealth. The richest corporation in the world, Atlantic Telephone and Telegraph--has only one function: moving information about. Simply by talking to one another, we create wealth. Any child watching a TV show should be paid because he or she is creating wealth for the community. But this wealth is not money. Money is obsolete because it stores work (and work, and jobs, are themselves obsolete, as we see daily). In a workless, non-specialist society, money is useless. What we need is a credit card, which is information.

The Agenbite of Outwit - McLuhan, 1963.

Wouldn’t it be great if we just paid women for the work they already do? We don’t necessarily need to create work (UBJ) or create value (UBI). Instead, we can look for opportunities to compensate Americans for the work they’re already doing — the services they already provide, which benefit other Americans. And, it has the potential to be a lot more practical.

We know that when women earn more money, families do better, because women tend to make economic choices that benefit the family: they invest in education, in healthy food choices, and in other things that lift kids and parents out of cycles of poverty.

What if we paid women (and some men) for the jobs they already do — in the home, raising kids? We have adopted some of these ideas within the in-home childcare space or in-home care providers, but what if we took it a much larger step forward?

Basic Income vs Guaranteed Jobs: What If We Paid Stay-At-Home Moms?

Metabolism - is the circular economy - the what life is - metabolic processes for transforming all outputs into inputs. An output that isn’t an input - is a toxin, but also a ‘niche’ opportunity. Output when metabolized become inputs to other processes. This concept is fundamental to the emerging political-economic paradigm of the digital environment.
The key idea in evolution is survival; yet living organisms, by definition, are dying all the time; they live by dying, which is metabolism.
Biological "survival" is a grand, breathtaking, and accurate metaphor, but only a metaphor. Nothing of a gene is surviving in material reality when it reproduces; what "survives" is a piece of abstract information, the sequence [pattern] of nucleotides on the DNA chain [none of the same atoms or molecules]. My liver dies and resurrects itself every few days. It is no more "surviving" than a flame.

A billion-year-old chunk of granite would, if it could, laugh at the lunatic claims of an organism to be "surviving" by hatching eggs, or by eating and excreting. …Yet... there is as much limestone, built from the corpses of living organisms, as there is granite.
A mere phantom – a pattern of information – can move mountains.

And if so abstract, so spiritual a thing as that pattern can masterfully determine the structure of large chunks of matter and the whole surface of our planet, why should not the even more abstract and metaphysical entities of goodness, freedom, spirit, soul, divinity and beauty? And has not the success of the epic-composing societies borne out this strange fact in the realm of human history?

Frederick Turner - Epic: Form, Content, and History - paraphrased

Quoted by David Brin in his most recent Book – Existence

How to globalize the circular economy

Set up an international platform to share data and experiences, and coordinate industrial policies and trade to conserve resources and energy, urge Yong Geng, Joseph Sarkis and Raimund Bleischwitz.
Industry must rethink its approach to resources. Manufacturing is wasteful. It takes a tonne of metal, silicon and plastic to produce a laptop computer weighing a few kilograms. Waste is an afterthought. Each year, 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the oceans. Greenhouse-gas emissions are out of control. Producing cement releases as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year as Europe’s 300 million cars: 1.5 billion tonnes. Water is squandered — we calculate that it takes 1,250 litres of water to grow 1 kilogram of rice in China.

Global demand for resources is projected to double by 20502. Viable supplies of rare metals, such as lanthanum and yttrium, could run out. Carbon budgets would be blown and biodiversity ravaged.

Clearly, resources need to be managed more sustainably. Just 6% of materials are recycled. This is surprisingly little, given the potential savings. Reprocessing aluminium takes a fraction of the energy needed to extract the metal from its ore. Products made from reworked plastics are around 80% cheaper than those using new materials if the costs of collecting, sorting and processing are kept low. New revenue streams open up from materials that would otherwise be discarded, and disposal costs are avoided.

This is an important topic and there an exponentially increasing literature - but for anyone in the security community - this should be a worthwhile read.

War is memes. “Don’t be a victim like the Americans”

LikeWar author P.W. Singer on how Taylor Swift, Facebook, Trump, and others helped turn us into accidental soldiers in the battles of the future.
when Twitter and Facebook were shiny new tools for revolution, or democracy, or something. All that’s been buried in the rubble of an unending social media war zone. Troll armies targeting activists and journalists, including the murdered Jamal Khashoggi, in an effort to silence them. Militaries using Facebook as a weapon in government-backed ethnic cleansing campaigns, as the UN’s recent report on Myanmar describes it. Spamming WhatsApp users with hard-to-stop fake news ahead of an election (see Brazil). Also: ISIS hashtags hijackings. Gang beefs on Facebook. Imprisoned bloggers. Digital badges for doing good memes on behalf of Israel. Deepfakes. Pretty much every election now.

War zone isn’t a facile metaphor: Real, kinetic battlefields have been bleeding over into the internet for years, and vice versa. This is one idea behind the title of LikeWar, Peter W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking’s wide-ranging survey of the ways information has been weaponized and even changed war itself. If cyberwar is hacking of the networks, “Likewar,” says Singer, “is the hacking of the people onthe networks by driving ideas viral through likes and lies.”

The battles here can ultimately be deadly, but most immediately they are battles for our attention. “Whether it is the actual Israeli army–the Israeli Defense Forces versus Hamas–or politics—Donald Trump versus The Resistance–or Kanye West versus Taylor Swift’s online armies, they’re all using the same tactics and techniques, and learning the very same lessons, because it’s the same battlespace.”

In a world that seems like there is a never ending stream of challenges - here’s a list of ‘known unknowns’. As uncertain and perhaps fearful as these challenges are - meeting the complexity of our current challenges will help evolve to meet the inevitable other challenges.
Risks to humanity are under-studied and mitigation is underfunded

Here are the ways nature could wipe out humanity

Asteroids, gamma rays, and supervolcanoes are all exceptionally rare but could be catastrophic if they happened.
An asteroid killed the dinosaurs. Could that happen to us? What about a supervolcanic eruption blocking out the sun? Or a solar flare or nearby supernova event?

Anders Sandberg is a researcher at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, where he writes about existential risks — dangers that threaten the continued survival of our species. Existential risks can be either man-made (like nuclear war, artificial intelligence, or bioengineering) or naturally occurring, like the asteroid that took down the dinosaurs.

In a 2018 paper, “Human Extinction From Natural Hazard Events,” Sandberg takes a look at the latter category.
So how likely are we to die of natural hazards, if we manage not to destroy ourselves with man-made ones? Cataloging all the things that could go wrong for Earth, Sandberg finds there are natural threats that are real and merit thinking about. But there is also a simple argument that we’re pretty safe: These events generally have a constant chance of occurring yet haven’t occurred in the past 65 million years. That means the chance they’ll sneak up on us in the next few centuries is very small.

This is a weak signal - and an unknown in terms of its potential impact on our world - including as a possible variable in climate change. The graphic in this article is very illuminating.
Earth’s magnetic field is acting up — and geologists don’t know why. The magnetic north pole wanders in unpredictable ways, influenced by complex flows and jets in the planet’s liquid iron core. In the mid-1990s, it picked up speed, from around 15 kilometres per year to around 55 kilometres per year. In 2018, the pole crossed the International Date Line into the Eastern Hemisphere, and it’s currently moving over the top of the world. The rapid changes have prompted an earlier-than-planned revision to the World Magnetic Model, which underlies all modern navigation. (But we’ll have to wait a little longer for the new model: its release has been delayed due to the ongoing US government shutdown).
In the mid-1990s it picked up speed, from around 15 kilometres per year to around 55 kilometres per year.

Earth’s magnetic field is acting up and geologists don’t know why

Erratic motion of north magnetic pole forces experts to update model that aids global navigation.
Something strange is going on at the top of the world. Earth’s north magnetic pole has been skittering away from Canada and towards Siberia, driven by liquid iron sloshing within the planet’s core. The magnetic pole is moving so quickly that it has forced the world’s geomagnetism experts into a rare move.

On 15 January, they are set to update the World Magnetic Model, which describes the planet’s magnetic field and underlies all modern navigation, from the systems that steer ships at sea to Google Maps on smartphones.

The most recent version of the model came out in 2015 and was supposed to last until 2020 — but the magnetic field is changing so rapidly that researchers have to fix the model now. “The error is increasing all the time,” says Arnaud Chulliat, a geomagnetist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Centers for Environmental Information.

I am a real fan of Bruce Sterling a brilliant acerbic and yet sardonically even-handed science fiction writer and futurist. This is a 2 hour long presentation and Q&A that he did for the Long Now Foundation. Insightful, a bit rambling with no real conclusion - yet I think this is a must view.

How to Be Futuristic

Bruce Sterling
The future is a kind of history that hasn’t happened yet. The past is a kind of future that has already happened. The present moment vanishes before it can be described. Language, a human invention, lacks the power to fully adhere to reality.

We live in a very short now and here, since the flow of events in spacetime is mostly closed to human comprehension. But we have to say something about the future, since we have to live there. So what can we say? Being “futuristic” is a problem in metaphysics; it’s about getting language to adhere to an unknowable reality. But the futuristic quickly becomes old-fashioned, so how can the news stay news?

For anyone interested in the future - this is a MUST VIEW ½ hour conversation between two brilliant media and foresight analysts. Who is talking about the 22nd Century? In 1918 everyone was talking about the 21st Century.

Bruce Sterling & Benjamin Bratton in Conversation

Cultural theorist Benjamin Bratton speaks with science fiction writer Bruce Sterling about Sterling’s ongoing work on the Novel of Turin, the cross-fertilization of ideas between industrial design and science fiction, and the role of risk models as an infrastructural form of speculation. Bruce Sterling is an author, journalist and critic. Sterling’s books include: The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier and The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things. His latest book is entitled Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years. Benjamin Bratton is a theorist whose work spans Philosophy, Art and Design. He is Visiting Faculty at SCI-Arc, Associate Professor of Visual Arts and Director of The Center for Design and Geopolitics at the University of California, San Diego, and Professor of Digital Design at The European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. His research is situated at the intersections of political & social theory, emerging computational media & infrastructure, and interdisciplinary design methodologies. His recent book, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, was published in 2016 by MIT Press.

This is a signal that remains a weak signal of political-economic transformation for the digital environment.

A small Indian state could become the country’s first to introduce universal basic income

The ruling party in the Northeast Indian state of Sikkim has announced that it plans to make a Universal Basic Income (UBI) policy a key part of its re-election manifesto ahead of state polls this year.

If the SDF is elected again, the party, which is led by the state’s longest serving chief minister Pawan Chamling, plans to implement the policy by 2022- becoming the first state in the country to do so.

Sikkim, India’s least populous state, could serve as a good testing ground for the policy, which is being increasingly debated over even at the central level.

This is an important weakish signal - but one to watch - as China invests in the world’s infrastructure - socio-cultural changes may follow.
“The place of China in the world economy has also grown to be so strong that Kenya stands to benefit if its citizens can understand Mandarin,” Jwan noted. Kenya follows in the footsteps of South Africa which began teaching the language in schools in 2014 and Uganda which is planning mandatory Mandarin lessons for high school students.

Kenya will start teaching Chinese to elementary school students from 2020

Kenya will teach Mandarin in classrooms  in a bid to improve job competitiveness and facilitate better trade and connection with China.

The country’s curriculum development institute (KICD) has said the design and scope of the mandarin syllabus have been completed and will be rolled in out in 2020. Primary school pupils from grade four (aged 10) and onwards will be able to take the course, the head of the agency Julius Jwan told Xinhua news agency. Jwan said the language is being introduced given Mandarin’s growing global rise, and the deepening political and economic connections between Kenya and China.

This is a good signal of an emerging technology that will not only help some of the physically disabled become more mobile - but may help many people engage in more physically challenging activities. Two short videos illustrate the workings. I must note - the companies name and that of the exoskeleton may not evoke the sort of trust one expects from medical equipment makers.

Cyberdyne’s HAL Exoskeleton Helps Patients Walk Again in First Treatments at U.S. Facility

Patients at a Florida clinic are the only ones in the United States with access to Cyberdyne’s HAL exoskeleton, but that will change in 2019
After the accident, which crushed three of Bal’s thoracic vertebrae and shredded a spinal nerve, Bal adjusted to life in a wheelchair. He added a motorized lift to his beloved F-250 truck, explored local trails with a hand-powered bike, and joined a therapeutic horseback riding program.

Now, one of Bal’s daughters is about to get married, and 57-year-old Bal wants to walk in her ceremony. So on a recent Friday morning in December at Brooks Rehabilitation in Jacksonville, Fla., Bal was back on his feet, taking slow but steady steps as his granddaughter cheered from the sidelines.

To learn to walk again, Bal wore a medical exoskeleton called HAL (for Hybrid Assistive Limb) designed by the Japanese company Cyberdyne. In early 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved HAL for use by clinics and medical centers in rehabilitating patients with spinal cord injuries. This Brooks rehab facility in Jacksonville started offering the first such treatments in March, and it’s still the only place in the United States where patients can find HAL.

Encouraged by the results they’ve seen so far, the Brooks staff plans to help Cyberdyne bring HAL to five more hospitals in the United States this year.

This is a very good signal of the emerging ‘quantified earth’ (which of course will include the quantified self) as it becomes imbued as a digital environment. Key to meeting our challenges will be knowledge - a new global homeostasis.

New robot can sense plankton optically and acoustically

Oceanographers and engineers at the University of California San Diego collaborated to modify a common physical oceanography instrument to be able to image zooplankton as it glides through the ocean.

The robot, dubbed Zooglider, uses as its platform a Scripps-developed glider known as Spray. Ohman and Scripps instrument developers outfitted the torpedo-shaped Spray gliders with a camera (called Zoocam) and a device researchers call Zonar that gathers acoustic data about zooplankton – free-drifting microscopic marine animals – in the manner of a sonar instrument. This promises a priceless view of how marine life is responding to climate change.

Co-author Jeffrey Ellen from UC San Diego's Jacobs School of Engineering is creating methods by which Zooglider image data can be analyzed through machine learning.
Zooglider can acquire images of zooplankton every five centimeters (two inches) to depths of 400 meters (1,300 feet) or more as it channels seawater into an on-board sampling tunnel. The new instrument represents a breakthrough in that it enables observations of microscopic life in its habitat and provides information about that life in spatial context. This advances scientists' ability to acquire quantitative data about microscopic life within defined areas, a fundamental pursuit of biological oceanographers who study how marine organisms interact with and are influenced by the physics and chemistry of their surroundings.

This is an interesting signal of evolution.
"There has been a lot of speculation about radiation, microgravity and the lack of ventilation and how that might affect living organisms, including bacteria," said Northwestern's Erica Hartmann, who led the study. "These are stressful, harsh conditions. Does the environment select for superbugs because they have an advantage? The answer appears to be 'no.'"

Space microbes aren't so alien after all

Microbes stranded in the International Space Station (ISS) are just trying to survive, man.

A new Northwestern University study has found that—despite its seemingly harsh conditions—the ISS is not causing bacteria to mutate into dangerous, antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

While the team found that the bacteria isolated from the ISS did contain different genes than their Earthling counterparts, those genes did not make the bacteria more detrimental to human health. The bacteria are instead simply responding, and perhaps evolving, to survive in a stressful environment.

The ISS houses thousands of different microbes, which have traveled into space either on astronauts or in cargo. The National Center for Biotechnology Information maintains a publicly available database, containing the genomic analyses of many of bacteria isolated from the ISS. Hartmann's team used that data to compare the strains of Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus cereus on the ISS to those on Earth.

Here’s a great signal for the importance of serendipity in the advancement of knowledge and discovery as well as a signal of hope for the art project that is our globe.
This is now a new discovery that can give real hope for our coral reefs that has never been there before," Vaughan said to BBC One. "We tried [this process] with all the other species of corals in the Florida Keys and it works for them all."

Scientist's accidental discovery makes coral grow 40x faster

There might be hope for our oceans, thanks to one clumsy moment in a coral tank.
David Vaughan at the Mote Laboratory is growing coral 40 times faster than in the wild.
It typically takes coral 25 to 75 years to reach sexual maturity. With a new coral fragmentation method, it takes just 3.
Scientists and conservationists plan to plant 100,000 pieces of coral around the Florida Reef Tract by 2019 and millions more around the world in the years to come.

Here’s a signal of the 20th Century pandemic - a device that avoids transforming our industrial food processing and advertising industries.
“Once we eat something, the stomach starts to digest and move in a waveform, and that movement activates our device,” says senior author Xudong Wang, who studies nanoelectric systems and biomechanical energy at UWM. “It doesn’t need a program. The body uses its own function.”

An Implant for Weight Loss, Powered by the Stomach

With the implant, a group of lab rats met their weight loss goals in just 100 days
In a recent paper in the journal Nature Communications, engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM) describe a device to aid weight loss that is less invasive than surgery and potentially more effective than diets and exercise regimens, which most people (myself included) struggle to stick with.

The nickel-sized implant, only 1 millimeter (mm) thick, attaches to the outside of the stomach and uses power generated by stomach movements to subdue feelings of hunger.

Rats with the implant shed 38 percent of their body weight over 100 days. Meanwhile, rats in control groups, which either did not receive the implant or had a sham implant, did not lose any weight.

The device was stable and safe inside the rats during the 100-day trial. Next, the team plans to test it in pigs, which have a body mass more similar to humans.

Another interesting signal about our understanding of the evolution of evolution.

Flippable DNA switches help bacteria resist antibiotics and are more common than thought

Bacteria have a number of well-known tricks available to them to adapt to changing environments, such as mutation and sharing snippets of DNA with each other. Less studied is a mechanism that allows bacteria to hedge their bets against rapid environmental changes by fine tuning their use of particular genes or pathways, a process known as "phase variation."

Phase variation acts through a unique family of bacterial promoters and other gene-regulating DNA fragments called invertons, which can physically flip back and forth in place. When facing forward (relative to the surrounding DNA), these invertible elements turn nearby genes on; when backward, the genes remain off. But little is known about how widespread invertons are within the bacterial world, which bacterial functions they control, and whether an individual person's distinct physiological makeup can affect which invertons bacteria flip on or off.

Writing in Science, a team led by researchers from the Broad Infectious Disease and Microbiome Program (IDMP), Massachusetts General Hospital, and the MIT Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics (CMIT) report that invertons are present in a wide variety of bacteria, make the case that invertons foster antibiotic resistance, and suggest that they may help bacteria adapt to and colonize new hosts.

This is a longish article signaling the ongoing conflict between distributed ‘user-centric’ customization and centralized platforms. For anyone interested in the evolving digital environment and the challenge of control our own information streams - this is of interest.

The Rise and Demise of RSS

Before the internet was consolidated into centralized information silos, RSS imagined a better way to let users control their online personas.
So today we are left with centralized silos of information. Even so, the syndicated web that Werbach foresaw in 1999 has been realized, just not in the way he thought it would be. After all, The Onion is a publication that relies on syndication through Facebook and Twitter the same way that Seinfeld relied on syndication to rake in millions after the end of its original run. I asked Werbach what he thinks about this and he more or less agrees. He told me that RSS, on one level, was clearly a failure, because it isn’t now “a technology that is really the core of the whole blogging world or content world or world of assembling different elements of things into sites.” But, on another level, “the whole social media revolution is partly about the ability to aggregate different content and resources” in a manner reminiscent of RSS and his original vision for a syndicated web. To Werbach, “it’s the legacy of RSS, even if it’s not built on RSS.”

Unfortunately, syndication on the modern web still only happens through one of a very small number of channels, meaning that none of us “retain control over our online personae” the way that Werbach imagined we would. One reason this happened is garden-variety corporate rapaciousness—RSS, an open format, didn’t give technology companies the control over data and eyeballs that they needed to sell ads, so they did not support it. But the more mundane reason is that centralized silos are just easier to design than common standards. Consensus is difficult to achieve and it takes time, but without consensus spurned developers will go off and create competing standards. The lesson here may be that if we want to see a better, more open web, we have to get better at working together.

Another interesting signal about the turbulence and unknowable evolution of the digital environment.


A once-unified online world has broken into new warring states.
The global internet continues to fragment. Governments, in particular, are using their influence to shape the ways that digital companies, markets, and rights connect us online. This new form of realpolitik, which we call “digitalpolitik,” is an emerging tactical playbook for how governments use their political, regulatory, military, and commercial powers to project influence in global, digital markets.

Last month, at the Internet Governance Forum, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, a multi-stakeholder effort to define internet principles around human rights law, with calls for protections against cybercrimes, intellectual property theft, hate speech, and hacking from nonstate actors. The signatory list includes predictable supporters, including France’s European Union allies, large private companies such as Alphabet and Microsoft, and internet rights advocacy groups such as Access Now. There were also notable abstentions, predominantly from countries that bristle at delegating their sovereignty, like the United States, Russia, and China.  Despite refusing to sign as sovereigns, the prominence of American companies in pushing for international internet agreements amid its governmental absence highlights one of Macron’s key points: “The internet is a space currently managed by a technical community of private players,” noted one source from the Macron government, quoted by Reuters, “But it’s not governed. So now that half of humanity is online, we need to find new ways to organize the internet.”

Not all digitalpolitik, however, is international treaties and calls for governance. Google, for example, recently announced Dragonfly, a search engine tailor-made to enable China’s government to continue censoring content and news and connecting people’s queries with their phone numbers—and therefore their identities. Dragonfly marked a dramatic shift from Google’s first attempt at working in China and very public, principled stance to pull out nearly nine years ago. Pushback from Google’s own employees, deeply uncomfortable about enhancing the digital power of the Chinese state, caused the cancellation of the project. But the Chinese government maintains its stance: If you want to do business in China, even huge tech platforms will do it Beijing’s way. And, with one of the world’s largest digital markets, China built and encouraged a rich ecosystem of local, homegrown tools and apps such as Baidu (search), WeChat (chat and social media), and Taobao (online shopping).