Do we need a global back channel of volunteers to facilitate issue based collaboration?

Collaboration.JPG

Synopsis and Background

This year, I have been nominated to the World Economic Forum’s Global agenda for the future of the Internet. This article is based on a discussion paper I created for the World Economic Forum. Ideas and comments welcome. If you want to email me, please contact me at ajit.jaokar at futuretext.com.

This discussion paper explores the need to create a global back channel of volunteers to facilitate issue based collaboration. In diplomacy, the idea of a back channel i.e. an unofficial channel of communication between states or other political entities, is well known. As the threats and opportunities for the Internet become global, there is a potentially a need to create a co-responding global network of volunteers and experts who are experts in their own subject matter. The Internet itself was built on these ideas at a lower layer of the stack. In that sense, it is a matter of extending the collaborative ethos of the Internet from the network layer to the service layer. The Web makes such collaboration feasible

Introduction

The Global agenda on the future of the Internet aims to look at the international structures of cooperation and how they should be improved and whether there is space to make them more effective. The main difference of this initiative from other ones is that it aims to develop policy recommendations that have an international component. The goal of the GRI report is to highlight areas where there is potentially an opportunity to address global challenges in a systemic way and identify medium to long-term solutions.

On a broader level, 3 dimensions of ideas relevant for drafting a discussion paper were identified:

1. Foundational dimension: what does the Internet stand for on a principles level?

2. Challenges in scoping out the principles.

3. Recommendations for the future

The Challenges

The current Internet has been built upon the End to end principle which advocates that whenever possible, communications protocol operations should be defined to occur at the end-points of a communications system, or as close as possible to the resource being controlled i.e. The nodes are smart (intelligence shifts to the edges of the network) and the network itself is agnostic.

This simplicity of the network has led to its phenomenal growth. Any technology that leads to be widely adopted comes under the scrutiny of control elements. The Internet is no different. Ironically, the very success has led to some issues that could not have been foreseen and the Internet is now seen to be under threat from real or perceived dangers.

The Challenge now becomes how to preserve the ethos of the Internet (i.e. the end to end principle which has led to its growth) and at the same time overcome some of the challenges facing it. We need to also overcome the secondary challenges ex: Mobility, threats to generativity, incorporation of intelligent devices etc

Note that the Internet itself offers no guarantees across the stack – from the packet level (i.e. no guarantee that a packet will be delivered) to the service level. Inspite of this, it clearly ‘works’ because the ethos of the Internet (based on collaboration, meritocracy and co-operation) is its core strength. This ethos has been shown to work at a network layer (for instance the management of Internet protocols) and the platform layer (open source collaboration models).

However, crucially: the ethos of the Internet and its underlying spirit of co-operation is not well understood at the service/user/application layer. We all take for granted the workings of the Internet without appreciating the underlying conversations (often between volunteers) which keeps this mechanism growing in a scale free manner

Technology transforms us from a hierarchy to a Network

Technology raises fundamental questions about the way our societies and economies work.

Specifically,

• The Internet transforms us from a hierarchy to a network.

• The network model is pervasive and natural (brain, neurons, ant colonies etc). It has stood the test of time in nature and is proving resilient on the Internet.

• Intelligence, the capacity to manage and also the responsibility shifts to the edge – and that means to the people! Users can share files, content, data, but also computing and storage resources. A shift of value to the edge of the network empowers the individual – and hence is a sacrosanct principle

• Convergence is here. We are going from the Internet of computers, to the Internet of people (web 2.0) to the Internet of things. This convergence will ‘talk’ many languages: through open source, private clouds, Twitter, Skype, LTE.

Collaboration

• The technological mechanisms underlying the Internet are understood but not so it’s collaboration mechanisms. Technology is good at connecting – but connections are not collaboration. Thus, we need ‘something else’i.e. the missing social/collaborative overlay on top of the Internet.

• In a network structure, Self-organization is the paradigm. I.e. a spontaneous creation of a globally coherent pattern out of local interactions. Which is why collaboration is the key.

• On first impressions, individuals acting independently could be seen as a mechanism to destroy limited resources. In 1968 Garrett Hardinan the article “The Tragedy of the Commons”. The article describes a dilemma in which multiple individuals, acting independently according to their self-interest, ultimately destroy a shared limited resource (commons).However, when economists began to look at ecosystems of commonly managed resources he discovered that often they work quite well.

• Natural selection (for instance in Ant colonies, wolves, Geese etc), favours cooperation but under specific conditions. In the paper “A Simple Rule for the Evolution of Cooperation on Graphs and Social Networks” Ohtsukiet al demonstrate that: if the benefit of the altruistic act ‘b’divided by the cost ‘c’, exceed the average number of neighbors, k. cooperation is a consequence of social (and net) viscosity.

• We are witnessing a Cambrian explosion in new ideas, enterprises and concepts globally.

• In addition to mass collaboration, the Internet takes us from ‘mass to niche’. It creates new business models like carpools and couch surfing which are based on collaboration at niche levels

Recommendations and ideas for discussion

If everyone us separated by just 6 links (six degrees of separation), how can we leverage this property going forward?(for trust, Identity etc).

In keeping with the emphasis on collaboration, here are some thoughts to consider to extend the ideas of collaboration to a global scale:

• Creation of a global ‘back channel’ i.e. collaborative channel to overcome issues like SPAM etc. These mechanisms of collaboration are the foundation of the Internet and already exist in diplomacy and other circles. These could be extended to issues. The Web makes such collaboration feasible.

• A study and taxonomy of collaboration models and their applicability to the issues facing the Internet today

• A greater understanding of Peer to Peer and it’s role in the future of the Internet

• A creation of a ‘best practices’ document for collaboration and lessons learnt from it

• Creating an awareness of the ethos of the Internet and how the same sprit can apply at the service layer of the stack

• A blueprint of a social overlay on top of the Internet which would incorporate Trust and Identity

• Creating an awareness of the threats to the Internet including threats to the generative nature of the Internet

Conclusions

In diplomacy, the idea of a back channel i.e. an unofficial channel of communication between states or other political entities is well known. As the threats and opportunities for the Internet become global, there is a potentially a need to create a co-responding global network of volunteers and experts who are experts in their own subject matter. The Internet itself was built on these ideas at a lower layer of the stack. In that sense, it is a matter of extending the collaborative ethos of the Internet from the network layer to the service layer. The Web makes such collaboration feasible

Comments and ideas welcome! ajit.jaokar at futuretext.com.

Image source: http://ayanthianandagoda.org/