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. 

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