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On the Internet of Communities, everybody knows you're human

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

Internet of Communities blog series part 6 of 8 (part 1)

In this blog series, I've been discussing the deficiencies of current online infrastructure, particularly with regard to empowering the creation of social value, and proposing the creation of a new social layer - the Internet of Communities. This higher level of infrastructure would enhance how individuals and organisations manage their identity online by providing a way to identify the communities (geographical and other) to which you belong, along with the contributions to and uses made of the capitals of those communities.

The term community capital means different things to different people. In my forthcoming book Supercommunities, I define them as natural, human, and industrial enablers of value delivery. In the same way that manufacturing businesses use capitals such as specialist machinery and a skilled labour force to generate products, community capitals can be drawn upon to generate social value. As Matthew Taylor writes in his introduction to the RSA report Community Capital, their action research "contributed to significant increases in people’s wellbeing, created economic dividends and opportunities for employment, promoted active citizenship and — even over short pilot projects — generated financial savings for the health service".

However, measuring community capitals is more complex and multifaceted than measuring the value of machinery or workforce skill levels, since not only are they somewhat non-linear but may be more closely inter-related, not least by human relationships that are also a form of resource. Approaches to measuring community capitals are often indirect, focusing on their impact in terms of the outcomes from initiatives that use them, such as the UN SDGs and Kate Raworth's Doughnut (pictured).

So, if community capitals are hard to quantify, why use them as a basis for managing your identity and trust relationships online - what I call personal gravity and conservation of trust? Because the underlying challenge is similarly untidy and sprawling.

Most of try reasonably hard to protect ourselves online, but the sad reality is that it's impossible to know how effective such efforts are. You may try to use strong passwords and change them regularly, but passwords can be sniffed or cracked, and the amount of effort required for the latter is going to zero with the emergence of quantum computing (some experts claim that there is no immediate threat but others warn of trouble as quantum computers emerge into the market). In the AI age, does anyone really think that humans are still better than machines at choosing traffic lights and bicycles from a series of blurry photos? Even biometrics are only as safe as the data stores in which they are held, and the news this week that one of the largest cybersecurity companies in the US was hacked isn't reassuring about the robustness of existing infrastructure. For all you know, the personal details you use to prove your identity to authorities are available for sale on the darknet right now, along with your payment card details and photos from your phone (or TV - something to think about next time you Netflix and chill).

The arms race between good and bad actors, and the unknowability of who is winning in a particular situation, means that we are unlikely ever to find a binary, cut-and-dried way of managing identity and trust online. What we need is a softer, more human-centric approach, which is why community capitals offer a solution. My breakdown of community capitals into natural, human, and industrial suggests that the concept is three-dimensional, or four-dimensional if (following Einstein) you recognize that better understanding comes from adding time as a fourth dimension. However, the discussion above of measurement reveals that the true picture is non-linear and infinite-dimensional - exactly the requirements for a durable way to protect online interactions.

The opportunity is to re-create online the way in which we interact face-to-face. As discussed in my last post, when we first meet someone we typically exchange a set of questions and answers, aimed not so much at extracting information as at extracting context. We want to know what kind of person we are talking to, and to what extent we can believe what they say. The trust we are then willing to accord derives not from a linear score but from a complex set of personalised, interwoven assessments. The Internet of Communities reproduces this online, by replacing current identity validation mechanisms such as passwords, multiple choice tests, and biometrics with a more conversational form of interaction that is harder for machines to fake. Even if specialised AI can now pass the Turing test, it is much more of a challenge to mimic a holistic conversation covering areas from across someone's life (especially if they retain control over where associated data is stored, about which I'll say more in future posts of this series).

If done correctly, it would be hard to fake this richer notion of online identity, making it more difficult (for example) to create thousands of Twitter bots that spew lies and hatred. It would also be easier to detect when an identity is being used by someone other than the owner, since it would build on the evolved human ability to form first impressions. Research shows that we are efficient detectors of both trustworthy and cheating cues, but this is not an unconscious, automated process - it requires engagement and takes time. This insight is at the heart of the Internet of Communities. In a sense, you get what you pay for, in terms of time spent. Need to trust someone in a millisecond? Then use an invisible reCAPTCHA, and just as when offline, accept a higher level of risk than if you engaged in a conversation first, both to the transaction at hand and to your privacy in general.

It has been interesting to see how we have adapted to the increased use of video calls during covid-19. Anecdotally, I have noticed a difference to real world meetings in that video calls often have a more conversational start, discussing personal matters unrelated to the subject of the call, particularly when people who don't yet know each other are on the call. Not being in the same room has brought us back to basics, in a way - deprived of a physical environment that inspires basic trust (for example, knowing that everyone there got through building security), we rebuild it for ourselves by investing in an extra effort to share information that reassures others and enables them to judge how to deal with us.

One way is which there may be no going back from the pandemic is an increased use of the internet, for work, shopping, medical treatment, interactions with authorities, supporting the community, connecting with family, and just about everything else. As we move into this new phase, we must put in place mechanisms to protect and assure such interactions, and a good start is to build on social mechanisms developed by humans over millennia for dealing with others. On the Internet of Communities, everybody knows you're human.

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