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Me, We

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

Internet of Communities blog series part 8 of 8 (part 1)

In the 1970s, Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and his student Francisco Varela developed an idea that, ten years later, became world famous when Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock linked it to Lovelock’s Gaia theory of the Earth as a living system. Central to the notion of autopoiesis is the idea that living systems, such as humans, do not interact with each other by encoding information and sharing it (the basis of the cybernetic theory that gave rise to modern information technology). Rather, living systems trigger behaviours in one another. Something in the environment of an organism causes it to react, such as detecting a movement or sound by another organism, and it responds through a physical process that is part of its internal structure. “The frog with optic fibers responding to small moving dark spots does not have a representation of flies.”

In other words, when we speak to someone else, very often what we are communicating is not information but intent. When your boss stops by to ask how the report is getting on, she may not be asking you to transfer your knowledge about work in progress into her head, but ensuring that you submit it by the end of the week. When a friend or colleague asks if you’re hungry, they don’t want to know how full your stomach feels right now, but hoping you will want to go to a café together. When an oboist plays an A before a concert, they are getting the rest of the orchestra to tune their instruments to the same pitch. Yelling “Dinner!” at the foot of the stairs makes whoever is upstairs come down.

One thing we learned from the Brexit vote and Trump election in 2016 is that much online communication does not align with Google's mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" or to the Wikipedia aim of "helping to create a world in which everyone can freely share in the sum of all knowledge". An ad pushed into your social media feed is unlikely to improve your understanding of the world. Rather, it aims to generate a specific action on your part, such as to donate or vote in a certain way.

Recognizing this is the first step towards a healthier online world. The next step is to add a layer of technology that enables us to trust each other online, so that we can make better judgements about what to believe by making better judgements about who to believe. This layer should also allow for a new, more socially progressive use of AI, that aims to improve the lives of individuals and their communities by leveraging data that they own and control, rather than to enrich commercial organisations by surreptitiously exploiting customer data in ways that the individuals concerned don't even understand.

I call this new layer, depicted below, the Internet of Communities. The image shows two of the main processes described in my forthcoming book Supercommunities, increasing wellness and improving assets, superimposed on technology for storing and sharing commitments that people and organisations make to their communities (geographical and other). The data stores for such commitments must be owned by the communities in which they are made, and sharing of a commitment must be at the discretion of the person or organisation that made it.

The Internet of Communities is enabled by an integrated set of apps and data stores for making and storing commitments at community level, which interoperate via open protocols. The commitments can be to individuals that need help in improving their personal wellness, or to projects that use community capitals to improve the community assets that these individuals draw on. The image below shows how community projects, community assets, and personal wellness are linked in a virtuous circle - and it is this virtuous circle that unlocks new, community-based sources of value.

We won't break current deadlocks of financial and social inequality, or restore ecological balance to our planet, until we start building communities that generate value in a new and more holistic way - Supercommunities. As Muhammad Ali put it in 1975, "Me, We".

Wishing you a very happy holiday and a brighter 2021.

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