Today we have an interesting panel discussion organised by ISOC and Chatham House on the effect of the Internet on societies. Is the Internet helping bring societies together, or creating more divisions? With the increased criticism against globalisation, fake news, and the emergence of closed social circles for like minded (and often misguided) fragments of society, it is easy to be worried about this.
But, it is also easy to focus on the most visible issues. When looking at the Internet and societies, one needs to consider the full scope of human interaction, andconsider human, technical and commercial aspects together.
What issues are affecting our ability to connect together? I want to start with five points:
Human interaction is broad, and we need to look at the whole picture. It is easy to focus on the most publicly visible forms of media, and see how the news media for instance has, to put it kindly, become more diverse.
But whole picture is broader and more nuanced, and the concepts of togetherness and divisions may not be so applicable. For instance, the Internet has made it much easier for various smaller groups to connect where they perhaps had no ability to do so before. Communities working on Wikipedia, people with special interests being able to connect, minorities connecting to their culture, and so on.
Human interaction is both about tech and human abilities. It would be a mistake to think about solely technical solutions for problems involving, say news or social media. Our technical capabilities advance at an incredible speed, but humans are also very good at learning new skills in new environments.
But, clearly critical media reading and communication skills are needed even more in today's world. These topics need to become even more central in our schools and continuing education programs.
Division vs. unification goes beyond people discussions. The Internet continues to be embedded in the fabric of our societies. We need to consider not just the people's discussions, but how well the Internet supports all the other interactions from personal gadgets to managing cities' traffic to running businesses.
Technical and commercial considerations. TCP/IP and the web provide a platform where we have almost universal interconnectivity and lack of technical barriers.
Still, as the IAB's IOT semantic interoperability workshop pointed out last year, interoperability at the level of applications can still be a problem. Can you buy Apple lightbulbs for a house that has Microsoft light switches?
And more broadly, are commonly used Internet services such as social networks erecting borders that restrict efficient connection, for instance due to their deployment patterns as is shown in the image further down?
And, is our increasingly centralised "winner takes it all" Internet economy driving a model where it becomes difficult to switch social network/search/video/mail/application store providers?
Finding broader consensus is hard, but rewarding. As those of us who work in standards or open source realise, finding agreements in broad, diverse communities is hard and time-consuming. Yet, we find the motivation to do so because if we succeed, the benefits are much greater than with everyone running their own things. We've obviously done this not just with technical developments like the Internet, but also to a large extent with our societies, building their infrastructure and rules. And I believe we will continue to be able to do that.
And where does all this leave us? Clearly, there is a lot of work ahead of us. But that work is not merely about the public sphere of news media or social media discussions, it is also about our ability to offer communications tools for all groups, regardless of their size. Our continuing education of the human parts of the system. Our drive to improve standards so that the technology allows connections. Our drive to ensure that the business system provides the possibilities for evolution and connection.
I would also like to point to my other article for a discussion of why IOT security is a much broader topic (inline with the thoughts in this article) than people usually focus on.
What do you think? Leave a comment below! You can also follow our panel discussion online.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank all my friends and colleagues at the Ericsson, IAB, ISOC, and Chatham House for interesting discussions in this problem space.
Picture credits: 1/ Jari Arkko 2/ Evi Nemeth for the original picture, edits by Jari Arkko 3/ World Map of Social Networks from Vincos.It. How divided is this world, even at this level? And I was surprised to find out that there are places in the world where the most popular social media application is LinkedIn :-)