Luca De Biase: I have only one idea to share, and it’s going to be very long. It’s when history starts. History starts when we start to write. Traditionally we have said that pre-history is when we don’t write, and then when we write, history starts. And what is writing? To learn how to write is to have special means to write. There is scarcity of paper and every instrument for writing. And we act voluntarily when we write. We write what we really want to write.
This is interesting because it seems that we are not doing this anymore. Something important has changed. We are writing everything. Every movement we make. Every payment we make. Every chat we have with friends. Everything is written. And it’s not written by our voluntary will to write. It’s written by something automatic.
So everything is written and we know that that is becoming overwhelming. It’s Martin Hilbert who said that from 2000 to 2013, we passed from writing in digital format 25% of what we register; now we write 98% of what we register on digital form. And it’s not because we abandoned analog ways to register, but it’s because we started to write everything. Everything is written.
If everything is written, and automatically written, then this is not history anymore. We’re not in the same place where we were. If we start history from pre-history by writing, what happens when we write everything, and we don’t choose to write but we automatically write everything?
Well my proposition is that we are not in history anymore, we are in hyperhistory. If we want to discuss about hyperhistory, when everything is written, when not only the important things are written but everything is written, then we have a lot of questions to answer. What is important? Who has the power? What is freedom?
Follow this idea for a minute and start thinking what happened between pre-history and history. Yes, traditionally we say it’s writing that changes everything. And the writing is scarce and we choose to write what’s important. We have, now, everything written and so also what is not important, or what is just happening, is written.
If power was to write law, now everybody is writing, and is writing things that influence behavior in ways that make somebody else do what has been written. What is deciding what is important now is the algorithm; it’s the platform. What is scarce, what is power, is writing algorithms and platforms.
We used to say in Latin “verba volant, scripta manent.” And “manent” meant that it was important. Now what’s written is in the flow; it flows away. Volant scripta. So what stays, what is persistent, is the logic of the platform, is the logic of the algorithm that makes the platform work in the way it does. So the real power is in writing algorithms. We could even say that law is an algorithm. And there are a lot of people that are trying to make laws in terms of software and algorithms.
Who has the power of writing algorithms? Well, those that know how to do it. The knowledge that used to be linked to power, it used to be how to write. Now the power is how to write algorithms because those are discriminating, choosing, between what’s important and what’s not important. Not every single thing that is written is important. It’s important the way we treat what is written. And algorithms do that.
Institutions that write algorithms become the new important institutions. But in history, they were built. We built parliament to say that what is written there is the law for everybody. Now we have write institutions, and we write the algorithm of the institution. Power has changed from where it was, where it used to be, to a place in which it is the ability, the knowledge, and the culture to write algorithms that make what is written persistent. The real the writing is writing algorithms. The rest is flow. It’s life. It’s what happens. We register everything. We register our whole life. What is important is decided by the algorithm?
Power must be discussed. If we want a democratic way to choose, we need to discuss the algorithms and the institutions that write them. And this means that we need a place in which there is the freedom to write new algorithms and new platforms. The whole set of discussions about the power of Google and Facebook and every other big platform is usually—or Uber—is usually a divide between those that see the problem, the danger, and the disruption that is happening, and those that think that that is the inevitable coming up of the new way we will live.
And there is clearly a divide that is unsolvable in that way. Because nobody will defend forever the right of taxis to be the only people that bring people around while we also understand that the inevitable growth of the platform is not sufficient to understand the way we will live with that new system. We discuss, for example, about the idea of on-demand work. If every work is on-demand, every single task is a small task that is organized by the platform and by the algorithm, then the power of creating, of owning the platform is very big and somebody needs to discuss it.
Freedom is to write and to be able to write new platforms that deal with the problems that come with the platforms already existing. And freedom needs to be preserved. We know that the inevitability of platforms taking the power is understandable. In a world in which everything is written, complexity is too big to be dealt with without algorithms, and algorithms have the power to, as somebody said before, transform cause and order. But this means that if we don’t discuss that power, that power will become too big.
The ability to write new platforms is very scarce. It’s too scarce. It’s not right, the way we are dealing with this problem now. The outstanding majority of us are not able to influence the way platforms and algorithms are written. There are too few that influence the way we write algorithms and platforms. The vast majority just use them. And as you know, that means great possible manipulation. We all have seen the outcome of the Facebook experiment two years ago. You remember. Who remembers the experiment that Facebook did with 600,000 people? You remember? Somebody remembers? Raise their hand.
So maybe I will remind you of something. Two years ago, it came out that some researchers at Facebook tested an idea. They said we will test our idea on 600,000 people, and we will give to 300,000 of them posts on their page in which there are only good and optimistic words. For a week. For a week, these people only had on their page posts from friends and other people that were optimistic, were happy. “Something good has happened to me today.” Three hundred thousand people for a week.
The other 300,000 people, you may guess, had only posts with pessimistic information like, “This day was bad for me.” And the question that the researchers where looking to answer was how they react to this treatment. And of course, those that had only posts with good ideas, good news, they reacted by writing also good news and they were optimistic for one week. More than the average. The other 300,000, they wrote pessimistic posts because everybody else, they thought, was writing about bad news.
This means that they came out with a scientific paper and they were happy with that. And nobody cared much about this understanding because it was clearly banal. But what was not banal was the fact that they where able to influence the mood of 600,000 people via an algorithm. Using an algorithm. The algorithm of Facebook was able to make some people happier and some people less happy.
The power to use this kind of stuff was a surprise for many. And there was some protesting. And the researchers said, “Well, in front of this protest we will say that we will not do this anymore without the head of Facebook deciding this for us.” So the power to influence one billion and a half people on the world is in the hands of two, three people at the head of Facebook. That is a big power, and it must be challenged not because we don’t trust Mark Zuckerberg but it must be challenged because we want to be free. We want to express ourself without being manipulated by an algorithm.
So freedom now is the knowledge that is needed to write algorithms that work, that people use, that people adopt, that make something happen. And this means that it’s important to think about, in hyperhistory, what is human rights to be transformed in. There is a debate about human rights in hyperhistory, even though it’s not said with these words. And some states, some organizations, some groups of people, are working on this. What is freedom in the hyperhistory age?
In Brazil they have a law. In France they are studying about that. In Italy we had a discussion during one year, and it came out with the [Declaration of Internet Rights]. These are first steps of a discussion about the way humans will need to think in hyperhistory.
We said that net neutrality is a human right. Because that is the beginning and the precondition of every freedom to write a new platform. We said that platforms need to be interoperable. Because that’s the precondition to guarantee that identity and information about every individual can be [the] property of that individual and not of the platform that he or she uses. We said that every new law about the Internet and the infosphere needs to be written only after an analysis of the ecosystemic impact of its consequences.
In hyperhistory, that we just began to grasp, freedom and power are shifting from the writing of laws and ideas to the algorithmic treatment of every single thing is written. And this means that our understanding of human rights needs to shift also, at a new level in which political power, economic power, and any other difference between humans is discussed in terms of culture and knowledge. A new idea of justice starts with a redistribution of knowledge. And that’s my speech. Thank you.