Layering Digital Tools for a New Humanity: the Internet as a Landscape of Purposeful Accretion and a Lesson from Taiwan

Written by Theodore Taptiklis.

Image credit: No Signal by Anja Mexicola/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

We’re just beginning to glimpse a new human era. A beckoning but still hazy vision of post-capitalism, powered by a new post-political party and a post-representative democracy. A world where we share our deepest aspirations with others so that we can join together to tackle the daunting challenges of our planetary existence. A world of participation, not exclusion. A world where all of our talents can be uncovered and recognised. A world where we belong without having to deserve it.

Layering and Accretion

Parts of this vision have just clicked into place through the inspiring work of Cabinet Minister Audrey Tang and her hacker colleagues in Taiwan. The story of the rise of a new kind of internet-enabled participatory democracy and the beginning of the eclipse of traditional party politics in this island of 23 million people is brilliantly told in Liz Barry’s Civic Hall article.

At the OS//OS conference in 2016 hosted in Wellington by Enspiral, Audrey Tang gave a demonstration of software tools used by the hacker movement in Taiwan. The notion of layering was the most intriguing. What’s emerging is a sense of the internet as a steady accretion of capabilities — a set of independently developed tools and affordances that can gradually find rhythm together and can coalesce into something more accessible, purposeful, powerful, and scaleable. This was a sharp insight, a counter to the sense of the internet as an increasingly winner-takes-all landscape of competing platforms.

Current Digital Layers

From this perspective, we can see established platforms like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, eBay and YouTube as constituting a basic infrastructure layer that provides vanilla capabilities like search, advertising, trading, identity, sharing, publication and demonstration. These capabilities are all fundamental, necessary and useful, and now exist across the globe with flavour differences and regional variations.

However, this now ubiquitous level of internet functionality just replicates, accelerates or exaggerates the underlying tendencies and established practices of the ordinary offline world. So far, it offers few transformative qualities that can help to reshape society, or can enable us to understand one another more deeply and work together more strongly.

New Digital Layers

In Taiwan established internet infrastructure is being overlaid with new levels of creative functionality. These are opening up and transforming the polity and the meaning of citizenship in a range of mutually reinforcing ways. For example, Pol.is is enabling public consultation to be scaled to large numbers. Citizens can create a Pol.is identity using Facebook or Twitter and can see themselves and their concerns in relation to one another much more clearly with the help of a visual interface. Hackpad allows citizens to edit government documents online with links to existing platforms while preserving records of every change, so that revising and documenting public policy is open and transparent. Loomio invites groups to undertake serious discussion and to reach decisions about complex matters online, preserving a detailed record of exchanges so that participants can check back or newcomers can catch up easily. Again, citizens can sign up to the Loomio ‘layer’ with a current social media ID. In this way, more purposeful kinds of functionality are layered on top of and eventually colonise the infrastructure layers beneath.

I should declare an interest here: I am working with Loomio and talking to users as part of a project to understand more clearly how the tool works for them. The evidence is that Loomio is offering a transformative capability to users: the gift of civil and purposeful discourse between people who barely know each other. Heavy users of social media will know what a rare quality this is. So after only 20 or so years of an easily accessible public internet, what further transformative layers of capability can we anticipate?

Emerging Digital Layers

There’s a lot of interest “rough consensus”, the notion that people can be ready to move on together without uniform agreement or formal voting. For example, some experienced Loomio users report that over time, making proposals and voting on them reduces in favour of regular, warm and thoughtful discussion. People can feel connected to and committed to discussion outcomes even without contributing their own views. The Internet Engineering Task Force advocates “humming” as a helpful practice. We can expect more tools that support ‘a unity of unmerged voices’ and that encourage people ‘to go on together’.

Audrey Tang is enthusiastic about the prospects for presence and sensing with tools like 360 telepresence and Virtual Reality (VR). She stresses two aspects of these technologies: first the ability to join gatherings from a distance but to control the view so as to ‘read’ the reactions of all the participants; and second, the ability to take part as an avatar and not be judged by appearance alone. We can soon expect the integration of view control and VR with other collaboration tools. If these tools can be combined with more emphasis for users on the skills of noticing and listening, they could become really transformative.

This leads to the prospect of another layer around meta-conversation and co-presencing. At the Human Methods Lab we are experimenting with a practice that enables people to recognise what they are most strongly drawn to in their everyday activities, and then to combine their different forms of attention in practical workplace collaboration. A practice that brings storytelling and dramatic enactment together to heighten awareness and individual difference will be extended and scaled with tools like telepresence. We are hoping to offer a new kind of co-leadership practice to purposeful groups.

These are near-term, transformative internet layers. What can we expect a bit further off?

Potential Digital Layers

Some potential layers are yet to be invented but can already be easily imagined. For example, simultaneous multi-translation: the ability for people to speak or write in their own language and for all other participants, regardless of varied language background and proficiencies, to understand via translation.

Empathetic identity: The ability for avatars or other visual identities to carry layers of meaning, from personal concerns to capabilities to circumstances, that help people to connect with one another quickly and deeply.

Swarming tools: The ability to find and join forces with people attempting the same task or travelling down the same path, wherever they are in the world.

I’m thinking of a conversation that I had more than fifty years ago with my father, a cancer researcher. He explained that the ‘cure for cancer’ was unlikely to come from a single heroic act or person, but would be the result of the steady and patient accumulation of understanding in many separate initiatives by individuals and teams around the world, including many false starts and dead-ends.

The same, I think, is true of the technology-supported civic transformation that we are now glimpsing. There will be failures, misalignments and incompatibilities, but there will also be a gradual gathering of shared capabilities for the new human era for which I believe we are all yearning. The lesson from Taiwan is that ‘platform cooperativism’ — an emerging mantra — can come not from Facebook or Uber replacements, but from layers of public discourse and transformative exchanges that gradually influence and interpenetrate the existing infrastructure of both internet and civil society.

Theodore Taptiklis is Principal researcher and co-founder at Between Us & Human Methods Lab. This paper is part of the digital democracy special issue.

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