After over three years on the bookshelf, I finally picked up the Bill Gates recommended, How Asia Works by Joe Studwell. The review sparked my interest in the book then, but the intrigue was rekindled recently when I discovered Strange Parts on YouTube (don’t ask how it took me so long to find Scotty). Seeing another side of technology, the technological fringe, so to speak, I was fascinated by how the electronics manufacturing and recycling industries worked. So looking for a more worldly view, and with years of anticipation, I started reading How Asia Works.
And then, still in the roman numerals, I put the book down because I was so surprised at how taken aback I was by this comment.
“If a country does not trade and interact with the world, it is all but impossible to get ahead in the development game” – How Asia Works, page xx
The idea was not meant to be a large part of the story, as it was literally telling why Studwell would not be including further discussion about countries low on the United Nations Human Development Index, but the impact of the implication in today’s globally networked world really struck me. It’s silly, but I haven’t been able to continue reading the book because the thought has been on my mind for the last week. I had to make sense of this line before moving on to the next.
I am having trouble reconciling the positive benefits of networking in the digital age with the draining effects of the attention economy.
Will those who abstain from social networking share the same demise as the “politically and economically introverted” countries Studwell mentions? Or is it still possible to develop when withdrawn from our hyper connected society. Existentially, does this mean I am going the way of these disconnected countries? I have a Facebook account, but I don’t use it, and I rarely post on Twitter.
Cal Newport on Social Networking
There is a way to connect digitally with others, and Cal Newport calls it the Social Internet from his post On Social Media and Its Discontents.
The social internet describes the general ways in which the global communication network and open protocols known as “the internet” enable good things like connecting people, spreading information, and supporting expression and activism.
Social media, by contrast, describes the attempt to privatize these capabilities by large companies within the newly emerged algorithmic attention economy, a particularly virulent strain of the attention sector that leverages personal data and sophisticated algorithms to ruthlessly siphon users’ cognitive capital.
I support the social internet. I’m incredibly wary of social media.
So do I. I am trying to contribute to the social internet, but it is difficult to be found without the leverage of the social media’s network effects. Newport has thoughts on this too:
The tricky question, of course, is how exactly one enables a useful social internet in the absence of the network effects and economic resources provided by the algorithmic attention economy.
One intriguing answer is the idea of augmenting the basic infrastructure of the internet with social protocols.
In short, these protocols would enable the following two functions:
- A way for individuals to create and own a digital identity that no one else can manipulate or forge.
- A way for two digital identities to agree to establish a descriptive social link in such a way that outside observers can validate that both identities did in fact agree to form that link.
There are few serious technical obstacles to implementing these protocols, which require only standard asymmetric cryptography primitives. But their impact could be significant.
This has glimmers of dana boyd’s Faceted Id/entity thesis, but the key point of Newport’s idea is this:
In this ecosystem, many different applications can leverage this distributed social graph to offer useful features to users. By eliminating the need for each such social application to create a network from scratch, a vibrant competitive marketplace can emerge.
Ben Thompson talks about open sourcing Facebook’s social graph all the time, more from the perspective of fostering competing services, but still the idea is similar:
All social networks should be required to enable social graph portability — the ability to export your lists of friends from one network to another. Again Instagram is the perfect example: the one-time photo-filtering app launched its network off the back of Twitter by enabling the wholesale import of your Twitter social graph. And, after it was acquired by Facebook, Instagram has only accelerated its growth by continually importing your Facebook network. Today all social networks have long since made this impossible, making it that much more difficult for competitors to arise.
Strategies and Future Developments
Blockchain could flip the internet paradigm on its head, creating a decentralized network akin to Pied Piper, which could solve the online identity problem.
For all their brilliance, the inventors of the open protocols that shaped the internet failed to include some key elements that would later prove critical to the future of online culture. Perhaps most important, they did not create a secure open standard that established human identity on the network. Units of information could be defined — pages, links, messages — but people did not have their own protocol: no way to define and share your real name, your location, your interests or (perhaps most crucial) your relationships to other people online.
So while we wait for blockchain to save us, what are we stuck with for the time being? We can “change [our] relationship with these services to shift from compulsive to controlled use“. Or, how about some slightly ironic info about how to use Twitter, from someone on Twitter. It’s actually quite optimistic and intellectual:
Follow weird stuff. Follow unusual corners. I enjoy Nigerian tech twitter. I enjoy short-story twitter. I enjoy urban design twitter. I enjoy the zillions of clever bots . I keep meaning to get into opera twitter, but never quite manage it.
Hey, at least he’s contributing to the network.
That’s all for now
I’m still thinking about all this, but I had to get some initial thoughts out of my head so I can keep reading the book. I’ll let you know what happens after the introduction.