Our People-Centered Digital Future, 6 Takeaways

#OurDigitalFuture tag cloud
Marshall McLuhan observed that any new medium uses previous media as content. It takes some time for the medium to become the message. When inherent characteristics emerge. And, societal effects measurable.
So it is with the internet. We may look back at the historic Our People-Centered Digital Future conference on December 10th as representing a turning point from analog to digital thinking. Organized by Constellation Research and the People-Centered Internet (PCI) coalition, #OurDigitalFuture commemorated the  70th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and internet penetration of half of humanity. And, the 50th anniversary of Douglas Englebart’s “mother of all demos” was not far from attendees’ minds.
Panelists and speakers leveraged lessons from the technology past as context for the digital future. The seven PCI properties of the internet we need  (reproduced at end of the entry) formed much of the agenda. In sessions (videos) and my discussions at the conference, these six consistent themes emerged:

  1. Beyond connectivity to realistic internet for good
  2. Beyond analog governance to a digital social contract
  3. Beyond open vs. secure dichotomy to “glocal” social context
  4. Beyond social responsibility to collaboration at scale
  5. Beyond “you as product” in era of trust, transparency, and the dark arts
  6. Beyond the “rise of the robots” to augmented humanity

(detailed observations and embedded tweets below)
Internet luminaries like Vint Cerf (below), Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Mei Lin Fung, Adrian Lovett, David Bray and Ray Wang dug deep into technology problems, ethics, equity, and opportunities.
Vint Cerf and human rights in the digital space

1. Internet for Good

  • beyond connectivity


The internet is not the source of all evil. There are measurable benefits through increasing internet connectivity, accessibility and affordability. For example, a World Bank study found 10 percentage point increase in fixed broadband penetration would increase GDP growth by 1.21% in developed and 1.38% in developing economies.
This was not a “technology solutionism” conference. No self-congratulating Silicon Valley types. Speakers explored how the internet can be leveraged for healthy, educated, sustainable, and equitable societies.  Internet as a platform for public policy. As a platform to overcome “wicked problems”. Beyond cat videos.
People-centred means focus on internet as a public good for everyone

2. Emerging Digital Social Contract

  • beyond analog governance


Are there digital human rights? Speakers agreed of the need to extend notions of human rights and ethics to the digital space. The connectivity and accessibility digital divide extends inequity. The advantaged benefit from information asymmetry to become better educated and connected. To innovate. To enjoy income growth and better health.
Internet connectivity, affordability, and accessibility does more than level the playing field. It leverages cognitive surplus. Generates sustainable growth while improving social cohesion. The digital social contract is about wellbeing. The internet as utility should be a basic human right.
People-centred means the right to information

3. “Glocal” Social Context

  • beyond open vs. security dichotomy


Speakers discussed the open vs. security dichotomy. Can an open accessible internet lead to increased “fake news”, social conflict, and criminal behaviour? What is the role of the state in monitoring the internet? Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former President of Estonia, contends that the internet can be both open and secure.
Dame Wendy Hall described the social and cultural context to state surveillance, and impact on public security perception. Accessibility across national boundaries and digital inclusion was discussed. The solution to the dichotomy appears to combining some universal global principles with local concerns.
People-centred means cultures are respected.

4. Digital Cooperation at Scale

  • beyond social responsibility


We could be forgiven for thinking that technology companies are the source of all internet-enabled problems. Social media firms have incentives to drive advertising revenue. This often leads to ethical and moral problems. But, as Richie Etwaru pointed out, business is part of the solution.
We’ve seen the emergence of private companies as social enterprises where social responsibility is core. Of “benefit corporations” leveraging business practices to solve societal problems. Of scaling non-profits. Of a new modern philanthropy. Of public-private partnerships. Of participatory budgeting. Of hacktivisim. Digital promises to scale the best of business, government, and non-profits. Gone are the days when the “business of business is business” conventional thinking reigned.
People-centred means enabling anyone to participate in solving problems and finding solutions

5. Trust, Transparency & the Dark Arts

  • beyond “you as product”


The first stage of social media treated users are information. We gave up personal information to get free stuff. We become monetized by advertising. Our private personal information was sold. Bad actors monetized our digital exhaust. Hackers moved in, and the internet no longer seems to be a safe space.
We’ve seen fake news, misinformation, and manipulation at scale. What’s the solution? Speakers pointed to the combination of privacy laws, business ethics, artificial intelligence, anti-trust, and cybersecurity.  Your private information should be treated as private property.
And, transparency is the avenue to trust. Trust is the currency of growth. Putting mobile supercomputers in peoples’ hands is an important step forward for business, government, and non-profit accountability.
People-centred means transparency, and personal data is property

6. Rise of the Augmented Humans

  • beyond rise of the robots


The very technology potentially fuelling sustainable development threatens sustainability. A “future of work” of massive automation (artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles etc.) and gig economy can disrupt economies and lives. A smart city becomes far less intelligent with comprehensive underemployment by automating jobs, and driving down wages of knowledge workers. It could be a race to the bottom.
No speaker took overly positive or overly negative views about the impact of automation. Realistic was the order of the day. It’s about risk management – use automation to augment humans. Use blockchain to enable trust. Leverage human power and continuous learning on the web.
People-centred means focus on people for technology innovation and implementation


People-Centered Internet properties of the internet we need:

  1. ​Complete​ ​universal​ ​Internet​ ​coverage​ ​that​ ​enables​ ​functionality​ ​that​ ​is​ ​otherwise​ ​unreachable​ ​or ineffective
  2. The​ ​Internet​ ​is​ ​affordable,​ ​open,​ ​available​ ​and​ ​accessible​ ​to​ ​all
  3. ​Fosters​ ​digital​ ​literacy,​ ​local​ ​content​ ​in​ ​local​ ​language​ ​to​ ​achieve​ ​widespread​ ​usage​ ​and​ ​increased value​ ​to​ ​people,​ ​families,​ ​communities​ ​and​ ​countries​
  4. ​The​ ​system​ ​achieves​ ​a​ ​level​ ​of​ ​trust​ ​that​ ​meets​ ​the​ ​users’​ ​expectations​ ​of​ ​affordability,​ ​privacy,​ ​safety and​ ​security​
  5. ​The​ ​quantity​ ​and​ ​quality​ ​of​ ​educational​ ​and​ ​information​ ​services​ ​is​ ​increasingly​ ​available​ ​to​ ​families and​ ​communities
  6. Anyone​ ​can​ ​contribute​ ​to​ ​improvement​ ​of​ ​the​ ​utility​ ​of​ ​the​ ​global​ ​Internet.
  7. Personal​ ​information​ ​in​ ​the​ ​digital​ ​environment​ ​is​ ​protected​ ​by​ ​law​ ​and​ ​controlled​ ​by​ ​the​ ​individual owner.

Full conference video

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