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.


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.