Mark Surman: So, good morn­ing. I guess good after­noon, re:publica. Great to be back. So I was here last year, and last year what I talked about was real­ly the rise of dig­i­tal empires. And in par­tic­u­lar that both com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ments are using the Internet to con­sol­i­date pow­er in ways that we real­ly have nev­er seen before.

And I talked about tak­ing inspi­ra­tion from the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment and build­ing a move­ment for the health of the Internet—something to bal­ance those empires. And that that move­ment real­ly needs to be some­thing not just about protest­ing, although demand­ing what we want from gov­ern­ments is a part of that. It also needs to be about actu­al­ly cod­ing, build­ing, and fig­ur­ing out the dig­i­tal future we want.

And in that I did talk about one goal, which we’ve been work­ing on and we have an event upstairs in the lab­o­ra­to­ry here about, mak­ing the health of the Internet, just like the health of the plan­et, a main­stream social issue. 

So Mozilla and many many of you have still been work­ing on that in the last year. What I want to do this year is get to some of the more spe­cif­ic issues. If we need to build a move­ment for the health of the Internet, if we want to stand up for an Internet that reflects all of us, what are the things we need to be talk­ing about now?

And I pon­dered for a while and I thought maybe I’ll talk about the rise of author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ments and how they’re play­ing into tak­ing advan­tage of the Internet and erod­ing the Internet, and I decid­ed not to talk about that. Instead I decid­ed to talk about pets.

And they’re actu­al­ly all con­nect­ed and I’ll come back to the con­nec­tion at the end. But real­ly where I want to go now is some­thing very spe­cif­ic but also very huge, which is these are Bluetooth ted­dy bears and uni­corns, and actu­al­ly ear­li­er this year it came out that the tech­nol­o­gy behind them was very very eas­i­ly hacked—super inse­cure. And mil­lions of record­ings of chil­dren talk­ing to their par­ents through the video cam­eras in those toys, and mil­lions of record­ings of the par­ents talk­ing to their chil­dren, were eas­i­ly acces­si­ble from Amazon if you knew the right way to get access to them.

And I want to talk about those not just as a secu­ri­ty sto­ry or a sto­ry about ted­dy bears, but real­ly in the con­text of what we’ve talked about as the Internet of Things and what it means for the health of the Internet and basi­cal­ly I think for for the struc­tures of pow­er and the struc­tures of human inter­ac­tion in our soci­ety.

And you know, you can use what­ev­er term you want. Internet of Things is the easy one to use because it’s been picked up by busi­ness and by the media. The impor­tant point about it and why it’s worth us all real­ly begin­ning a dia­logue around this right now is that between now and—you can see it kind of going up—the Internet of Things is any kind of con­nect­ed device, will be at 50 bil­lion devices in just three years.

And so that means almost ten devices for every per­son on the planet—not quite but almost that. And that’s just three years from now. So we’re talk­ing about every­thing from ted­dy bears, to our cars, to our appli­ances, to our cities, hav­ing an Internet and sen­sors and cam­eras and micro­phones built into them. And we real­ly are talk­ing about an era of com­plete­ly per­va­sive com­put­ing, a com­put­er that spans the whole globe and envelops all of us.

And on top of that, there are three oth­er trends that are con­nect­ed into that which are also mov­ing at an extreme pace. One is the emer­gence of wide­spread voice inter­faces like Amazon Alexa. The oth­er is VR start­ing to become a real­i­ty. And the third is arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and machine learn­ing, which are becom­ing very very real, much faster cer­tain­ly than I expect­ed, as real­ly it’s just about a set of algo­rithms tak­ing the big data, the train­ing data that we all gen­er­ate every sin­gle day as we use every sin­gle app.

So at this stage in the evo­lu­tion of that, it feels like to me and and a num­ber of oth­er peo­ple who I know here in the audi­ence who I work with, this is a moment to ask as we make the plan­et dig­i­tal, as we total­ly envel­op our­selves in the com­put­ing envi­ron­ment that we’ve been build­ing for the last hun­dred years, what kind of dig­i­tal plan­et do we want? Because we are at a point where there is no turn­ing back, and get­ting to eth­i­cal deci­sions, val­ues deci­sions, deci­sions about democ­ra­cy, is not some­thing we have talked about enough nor in a way that has had impact. And now with that mete­oric growth of com­put­ing all around us, it feels essen­tial that we have that con­ver­sa­tion now.

And stick­ing with the envi­ron­men­tal metaphor, we real­ly are at a choice point where we could build a for­est, a rich ecosys­tem, some­thing that sup­ports life. Or we could end up very quick­ly with a clearcut, where there’s not much of any­where to live and not much around at all.

So what I want to do is just take us through three things. Some of the things that are hope­ful to me and that we’re build­ing a healthy ecosys­tem, a for­est, that we all can get involved in or peo­ple here are involved in. And then I want to talk about the more neg­a­tive sce­nario as well as some things we can do.

And I’m going to start out with a piece of sci­ence fic­tion, I, Robot from Isaac Asimov. Not just because the world is about to be flood­ed with robots—which it is. But because this is where Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics first show up. And the Laws them­selves are not impor­tant. What is impor­tant is that in this Asimov posits, as we rarely do right now, that we can con­scious­ly talk about the rules we want to oper­ate with in rela­tion­ship to machines. And now we’re in the moment where we need to be hav­ing that con­ver­sa­tion, for real, at a glob­al scale, in a way with real polit­i­cal pow­er behind it the has influ­ence. We have to be talk­ing about the kind of world we want.

And I have some hope in that when I look around at the open hard­ware move­ment— (And this is a set of peo­ple in a work­shop that Mozilla’s Open IoT stu­dio was run­ning, build­ing some things with Arduino) —in that I grew up at a time cer­tain­ly sur­round­ed by com­put­ers, and I think most peo­ple in the smart­phone world live in a time today where hard­ware, the mate­r­i­al of the Internet of Things, seems immutable. It comes from a fac­to­ry. And the open hard­ware move­ment real­ly in the last ten years has grown up and said no, it doesn’t have to be that way. The same prin­ci­ples we applied to open source can be true of all of the com­put­ing around us.

Now, that still seems crazy. This is a hob­by­ist thing. But peo­ple are doing fun and inter­est­ing things as well as learn­ing and paint­ing a dif­fer­ent future. They’re build­ing a fin­ger­print scanner—a garage door opener—that is not con­nect­ed to Apple’s cloud or Google cloud or Amazon’s cloud. They’re chas­ing away rac­coons with their own motion-detecting squirt gun robot, which is also not con­nect­ed to the Amazon cloud or the Google cloud or the Apple cloud. They’re keep­ing them­selves safe by build­ing a jack­et that says which way I’m turn­ing on my bicy­cle.

Maybe a lit­tle more friv­o­lous, pos­si­bly stu­pid, they’re build­ing self-lacing Nikes with Arduinos. And my favorite as I looked around for things peo­ple are build­ing with Arduino today, a smartphone-controlled pump­kin flamethrow­er. Everybody should have one. Keeps the kids you don’t like away at Halloween.

So these are real things peo­ple are doing and they show some whim­sy, some prag­ma­tism, but also that we are at a spot where the hard­ware around this is some­thing we could play with. 

Now, Unfortunately— And there’s all kinds of ways we could give a whole talk just dig­ging into that, I think where we are now with open hard­ware still is stuck at the place that say the Homebrew Computer Club (which which this is a pix­e­lat­ed pho­to of) was in the 70s. And of course the Apple com­put­ers come out of that. So it’s good, it’s a bunch of peo­ple play­ing with tech­nol­o­gy. And some of the val­ues of that hack­er eth­ic that are there in the ear­ly phas­es of this kind of work stay through even to today. But cer­tain­ly in ear­ly com­put­ing, gen­er­al pur­pose com­put­ing, is some­thing that invites all of us to do what we want with a com­put­er, which is very dif­fer­ent than many pre­vi­ous tech­nolo­gies.

But, that also led to the cen­tral­iza­tion, the con­sol­i­da­tion of pow­er… To think that those peo­ple who built the Apple I also are build­ing some of the biggest pow­er con­sol­i­da­tion sys­tems in the world. It didn’t go exact­ly in the direc­tion and on the val­ues that we hoped. 

So just to think about IoT for a sec­ond, how do we get to the future we want? And a place that I take inspi­ra­tion from and and a bunch of Mozilla peo­ple are involved in, is a set of things of which this Good Home Project here is one, where peo­ple are look­ing at design and ethics and the human out­comes we want as things that we can actu­al­ly dig into and direct in terms of where we’re going in the world of per­va­sive com­put­ing.

So The Good Home is a series of kind of rov­ing exhibits and a set of peo­ple who are work­ing on those sorts of ques­tions. And the kinds of things that they do— These are all off the web site so I don’t know if they’re from the London or the Milan or both exhibits they did. But Internet Adhesives, some­thing by Michelle Thorne (who’s here today up in the Internet health clin­ic from Mozilla) posit­ing that real­ly we shouldn’t have to take these man­u­fac­tured devices from fac­to­ries and buy things new all the time. But we should be able take pieces of tech­nol­o­gy and weave them into things in our every­day lives and make them do what we want in whim­si­cal and also prag­mat­ic ways.

The very fun bird­cage con­cept which was on dis­play of an Arduino or kind of an open hardware-driven piece of art that actu­al­ly also tells me about air qual­i­ty, much like a canary in a coal mine would. 

And then one of my favorites, the Privacy Dimmer, which is real­ly a kind of ecosys­tem of open hard­ware as well as beau­ti­ful objects aimed at being able to con­fig­ure how we want pri­va­cy to work in our home and with our data in ways where there are pre­sets on the smart­phone as well as then beau­ti­ful devices that are much more nat­ur­al in the flow of our life, where we express what we want our pri­va­cy to be at any par­tic­u­lar moment.

And the val­ues of this Good Home Project to me are what is excit­ing, and also frankly what I think real­ly points to the fact that this next era, if we engage it prop­er­ly, could be more shaped by Europe and oth­er parts of the world and not by America, which is very much where this is com­ing from. Looking at being open, being hum­ble, being resilient, being local, being sus­tain­able, being post-capitalistic (which is not being anti–cap­i­tal­is­tic), under­stand­ing there is an econ­o­my around this, but it should be a human econ­o­my.

And the idea that we explore with this to me is anoth­er lev­el up beyond the Homebrew Computer Club, beyond just work­ing with open hard­ware. It’s say­ing, We can design this future. It is a crit­i­cal moment. And if we don’t, it’s gonna go anoth­er way.” And I’ll get to that in a sec­ond.

And the good news also out of Europe is that you have oth­er peo­ple doing the same thing. The IoT Design Manifesto has a sim­i­lar set of val­ues, a sim­i­lar set of propo­si­tions, although tar­get­ed a lit­tle bit more at devel­op­ers. And all of those things real­ly go back to that same idea of the Three Laws of Robotics. We can make a bar­gain, make a plan, set rules, have val­ues, that say where we want to go with this soci­ety.

So if we push our­selves in the right direc­tion we can have a rich ecosys­tem. We can have a for­est. Or we can decide to cut it down. And I wor­ry that very quick­ly that is where we’re head­ed, is in to the clearcut of the dig­i­tal plan­et and all of us.

And just take a moment with anoth­er piece of sci­ence fic­tion just quick­ly. This is Philip K. Dick’s Ubik. He’s prob­a­bly my favorite sci­ence fic­tion author. And I don’t put this here for the obvi­ous rea­son, but the obvi­ous rea­son is this weird force called Ubik shows up at the first chap­ter of every chap­ter in that book as a dif­fer­ent prod­uct. Much like the Internet, and pow­er, and Google do always show up as a dif­fer­ent prod­uct but are real­ly one thing.

The rea­son I want to bring this is much more about the banal­i­ty. And you don’t need to read the screen, I’ll read it for you. There’s a great pas­sage in the book where the door refused to open, and it says, Five cents, please.”

And then the main char­ac­ter search­es his pock­ets, he doesn’t any coins. He says, I’ll pay you tomor­row.” The door is still locked. What I pay you,” he says to the door, is in the nature of a gra­tu­ity; I don’t have to pay you.”

And the door says, I think oth­er­wise. Look at the pur­chase con­tract you signed when you bought this apart­ment.” He found the con­tract and sure enough, pay­ment for his door open­ing and shut­ting con­sti­tut­ed a manda­to­ry fee. Not a tip.” It’s kind of fun­ny and banal, but that’s fifty years ago and frankly it is the world that we are mak­ing and design­ing.

So just some fun­ny but also wor­ri­some exam­ples. This is a piece high­light­ed in Boing Boing of a prod­uct called Juicero. (It’s an awe­some name; only could you find prod­ucts named so well on the pro­gram Silicon Valley.) But this is a juicer that won’t work unless you buy their pack­ages of kale juice or car­rot juice or what­ev­er. And if they’re old­er than six days old, based on the bar code, they won’t even let you use the pack­ages they sold. Very much like the door. But now, fun­ny. If you buy it you’re prob­a­bly stu­pid. I’m sor­ry if any­body here is a Juicero own­er. But you know, it is a kind of thing that is hap­pen­ing.

And then of course the sto­ry about the ted­dy bears. And the sim­i­lar sto­ry about the sex toys, where there’s actu­al­ly a class action suit for the amount of per­son­al data they col­lect on your use of the sex toy, which they’ve since offered to pay peo­ple who did dis­close their data and stop col­lect­ing that data.

All point to that this world of the Internet of Things and all of the data col­lec­tion, all of the AI around it, is real­ly get­ting into the most inti­mate parts of our lives. We should have a say, we should be think­ing about, we should be talk­ing about, how we want that to work, and not just accept­ing that it works a cer­tain way and is too com­plex.

And of course as we look at this growth of com­put­ing devices, the Internet of Things, there is even more to talk than just how it kind of comes into our inti­mate lives. If you remem­ber from last year, this bot­net named Mirai, which has been used many times since, took over a bunch of Internet of Things devices— Which because because they tend to be sort of off to the side of our lives, they’re not our com­put­ers that we update, or our phones that we update so fre­quent­ly, are easy tar­gets for these bot­nets, that can then be used for Denial of Service attacks. And the Mirai bot­net took down Twitter and dozens of oth­er sites by a Denial of Service attack at a scale that has been rarely seen. And the piece about that is we are just at the tip of the ice­berg of the secu­ri­ty threats—not just botnets—that we are cre­at­ing by cre­at­ing a per­va­sive com­put­ing envi­ron­ment where there are no reg­u­la­tions, no require­ments, around secu­ri­ty.

And Bruce Schneier, who’s at MIT, talks about it and a num­ber of oth­er peo­ple do as well, that kind of pri­va­cy pol­lu­tion as being like an envi­ron­men­tal exter­nal­i­ty. The peo­ple who pro­duce those devices often, far from the places where the dam­age hap­pens, have no incen­tive and in most cas­es don’t give a damn whether they are cre­at­ing some­thing that can cre­ate tremen­dous eco­nom­ic and social hav­oc. And we actu­al­ly have to be seri­ous about that we are dra­mat­i­cal­ly accel­er­at­ing a threat to our­selves because we have wound com­put­ers around us into our lives and our econ­o­my, and thought noth­ing of how their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty can take us out in the kneecaps and dam­age us in real ways.

And then of course the oth­er and obvi­ous piece which is rarely talked about, is start­ing to get talked about more, not talked about enough, real­ly is that as we get to AI and con­nect­ed devices togeth­er, the job sit­u­a­tion will total­ly change. You know, we talk about 40, 50 per­cent unem­ploy­ment in indus­tri­al­ized soci­eties or post-industrialized soci­eties as being a real thing in the next ten, twen­ty, thir­ty years. And that is very much tied to that spike of the Internet of Things. It’s not just about get­ting a con­nect­ed toast­er.

And so whether that is Uber, which is con­tro­ver­sial for many of oth­er rea­sons, being on the fore­front of that, its dri­vers will all be fired at some point. Or many oth­er kinds of automa­tion. The con­nect­ed device/AI world will fun­da­men­tal­ly change the fab­ric of work and our econ­o­my, soon, and we’re not talk­ing about it enough.

And then the more obvi­ous one but you can’t ignore it because it is so per­va­sive, is the lis­ten­ing machine that we are build­ing all around us. And this last cou­ple weeks, I guess last week even, Amazon Alexa went to anoth­er lev­el. They released the Echo Look, which you can see here, which is the incred­i­bly help­ful cam­era and micro­phone you can put in your bed­room so they can give you fash­ion advice and sell you clothes if you’ve run out of socks or your clothes don’t match. The AI can help you with that.

But of course real­ly what we are doing is putting micro­phones and cam­eras all around us in ways that Orwell nev­er could have imag­ined, and that we’re buy­ing out of delight and excite­ment and our own mon­ey.

And of course it’s not just the com­pa­nies who are watch­ing that. Those IoT devices are easy tar­gets for state actors or non-state actors who have mali­cious intent. So we are build­ing a panop­ti­con nev­er imag­in­able, out of the con­sumer devices that we all so desire, and it is grow­ing by leaps and bounds in its scale and inter­con­nec­tiv­i­ty.

And so that’s real­ly the thing to sit in as we kind of come to a close but then also maybe look at action, is the scale of this real­ly— I don’t think any of us even when we’re talk­ing about it have imag­ined. And if we bring the wrong val­ues into wrap­ping com­put­ers all around us, we have many many things that can go wrong, and cer­tain­ly we can imag­ine a dig­i­tal world—which is the world at this point—that is very much like a clearcut. And I’m wor­ried that that’s where we’re head­ed.

So the ques­tion, espe­cial­ly at a place like re:publica for peo­ple who are politi­cized about these things, is what does stew­ard­ship look like? So to stick with the envi­ron­men­tal metaphor, what does it look like in this world for us to stew­ard the val­ues that came with the Internet or that we bring as peo­ple who want human soci­ety to be good and kind and eth­i­cal and inclu­sive and mul­ti­cul­tur­al and glob­al? What kind of dig­i­tal plan­et do we want is a thing we need to ask in a very seri­ous way, not just as cock­tail par­ty con­ver­sa­tion, as that grows.

And so I do think the for­est is pos­si­ble. The clearcut is avoid­able. We can cre­ate a respon­si­ble, eth­i­cal, and human dig­i­tal plan­et. But we have to take it seri­ous­ly as a main­stream polit­i­cal issue, as a main­stream thing that we build right now. And there’s three things as we try to grow that moment that I think we all need to be doing more of and putting more mon­ey behind that are very much in the tra­di­tion of envi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship and build on the last ten, twen­ty, thir­ty, forty, fifty years of hack­ers and dig­i­tal mak­ing as a form of stew­ard­ship. Just stand­ing in the streets alone will not get us the respon­si­ble, eth­i­cal, human dig­i­tal plan­et we want.

So what do we need to do? Certainly one thing is build it. Just build it now. And that’s hard. This is Casa Jasmina, which is an open source con­nect­ed home in Turin in Italy, start­ed by Bruce Sterling the sci­ence fic­tion author and oth­ers. And why I use it as an exam­ple of build it” is we can and must build an eth­i­cal, respon­si­ble dig­i­tal world that reflects our val­ues in a way that reflects design and is real and that we use every day.

Just motion-controlled rac­coon squirt guns will not change things. We need to see how do we actu­al­ly make open source, secure, human-controlled, people-controlled, not cen­tral­ized, not monop­o­lized, dig­i­tal lives pos­si­ble. I mean, you could also just check out and go and live in a for­est, but even that for­est is com­plete­ly con­nect­ed into this world more and more. So we have to in a seri­ous way that involves design and tech­nol­o­gy and pol­i­tics, look at build­ing real worlds that reflects the kind of val­ues I talked about ear­li­er in the Good Home piece.

Consumer Reports, November 2016 cov­er

We need to orga­nize, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly just in the street and in ways that tra­di­tion­al move­ments have. And why I put this up here, although this is an American exam­ple, is that Consumer Reports (and there are sim­i­lar orga­ni­za­tions around the world, con­sumers unions) has real­ly start­ed to look at pri­va­cy as the main con­sumer issue in the next decade to orga­nize around. 

And one of things it’s done, what that sym­bol is there on the side, is start to build a pri­va­cy test­ing stan­dard, know­ing that it is going to need to engage a net­work of oth­er orga­ni­za­tions and cit­i­zens to pri­va­cy test the scale of prod­ucts that we have in front of us, and to point to com­pa­nies that need to improve their pri­va­cy and secu­ri­ty stan­dards. Because they can’t— You know, in their his­to­ry of test­ing wash­ing machines and cars, they could do it all them­selves. They can’t do that them­selves.

So we need to think of ways to orga­nize col­lec­tive­ly as peo­ple, as cit­i­zens, as con­sumers, that real­ly tack­le and hold com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ments to account and also and bring our own solu­tions, our own teach­ing, our own ways of doing things, into a move­ment of a scale that is as big or big­ger than the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment ever was.

And then the last thing I would just say is we do need to imag­ine. We need to imag­ine a world where these kinds of val­ues about resilience, sus­tain­abil­i­ty, human-centered design, human-centered life where peo­ple and not machines are in con­trol. That we need to imag­ine that in a real way. It can’t just be a light con­ver­sa­tion.

And what I like about the [Good] Home project, Casa Jasmina, many things like that—which again Europe has an edge on—is it is peo­ple get­ting involved in try­ing to build with those val­ues as well as have con­ver­sa­tions on those val­ues. And it can­not be under­es­ti­mat­ed that if we do not do that now, we don’t treat that as the most urgent or one of the most urgent polit­i­cal acts we can do to engage in what those val­ues should be, to build and to orga­nize around them, we are going to be fucked. We’re prob­a­bly already fucked. But we’re cer­tain­ly fucked if we don’t do that.

And that brings me to the end, which is this does actu­al­ly con­nect to the rise of author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ments, whether that is here in Europe, or in the Middle East, or Russia, of in the US. And you know, the world— All of us have been talk­ing about this a lot right now. The world that we live in, or at least that I live in and I val­ue, that is a glob­al world that is con­nect­ed. Where we can move freely by and large. Where ideas and mon­ey can move freely by and large. Where we real­ly actu­al­ly do see mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism as a part of what is an essen­tial fab­ric of the glob­al world because you can’t have a glob­al soci­ety with­out it. 

Those are things that I kin­da for grant­ed as val­ues. If you go back and read John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” he talks about those things as being val­ues for the dig­i­tal world we’re build­ing. I take those for grant­ed as a part of the pol­i­tics of the Internet. And we also have built a glob­al econ­o­my on the Internet that has… You know, we can split hairs and fight each oth­er but has a lot of those val­ues built in, which if you com­pare to the rest of his­to­ry beyond the last fifty, eighty years, are not the val­ues by and large that human­i­ty has had.

We have lived in divid­ed soci­eties. We have lived in worlds divid­ed by nations. We have lived in a world of war. (Although we still do.) And the pol­i­tics around us is tak­ing us back there. So it really—when we think about the pol­i­tics of the Internet, which are actu­al­ly very much as we’ve seen in recent elec­tions, inter­wo­ven into what is hap­pen­ing with the pol­i­tics of the state, there is no more urgent time than ever if we want a soci­ety that is inclu­sive, that is glob­al, that is mul­ti­cul­tur­al, and where we shape the future, to also get involved in the pol­i­tics of the Internet and bring into the main­stream the idea that we need a healthy Internet that we con­trol. The stakes have nev­er been high­er, and this is the kind of group that needs to get involved and real­ly grow some­thing big. Thank you very much.

Further Reference

Session description at the re:publica site


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