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Personal gravity and conservation of trust

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

Internet of Communities blog series part 5 of 8 (part 1)

In this blog series, I've been proposing the construction of an Internet of Communities, to fill the void between corpnet and darknet with a social space in which communities and their members can thrive. In this instalment, I'll look at some of the Internet of Communities's laws of physics - in particular, personal gravity and conservation of trust.

Perhaps the most famous cartoon about the internet is Peter Steiner's On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog, which appeared in The New Yorker on July 5, 1993. Now that we are all deluged with emails and messages apparently from friends, colleagues, or our bank, inciting us to click a link that will infect our computer with a virus, the joke has turned rather sour. We're all having to get better at making judgements about people and places on the internet. This can be very stressful, and people who quite normally let their guard down for a moment may end up feeling not only scared of the consequences but also guilty, as if they rather than the criminals are the ones at fault. Why do we as a society endure this?

Societies typically deal with bad actors by enforcing norms of behaviour with a mixture of prevention, punishment, and shaming. None of this is easily applicable to deceptive online practices. Attempts at prevention descend into an escalating arms race of technology tricks, and neither punishment nor shaming is easily applicable to cyber-criminals, who can conceal their identities and work from anywhere in the world. We need to think differently - particularly about prevention. Rather than making it impossible to deceive people, we simply need to make it less automatable. We need to make interactions via email, messaging, and the Web more like interactions in the physical world.

When you meet a stranger socially, whether in personal or business life, you usually start by exchanging key pieces of information. You start by asking each other questions aimed at finding out whereabouts the other lives and for how long, their line of work and employer, any mutual acquaintances or colleagues, and common interests and activities. This process can take a while, but it's deeply embedded into human nature and we don't seem to find it tedious - if we did, we wouldn't go to parties or networking events!

The questions seem informal but are actually all trying to assess the same thing - the community capitals you contribute to. Your home and commitment to it say something about your connection with the natural capitals of your area. Your working life is how you play a part in building its industrial capitals. Revealing the people, groups, and pursuits that matter to you is a story about your investment in local social capitals.

Not all of this will be about the village, town, neighbourhood or city in which your home is located, of course. Communities are varied, and many of us belong to more than one. My forthcoming book Supercommunities discusses how a group of people may be united by all sorts of different things. They may feel themselves to be part of a community because they share a profession, faith, or political belief. They may come together through a common cause — a human rights issue, geopolitical agenda, or specific problem they feel strongly about. People may join a professional body, grass roots organisation, or political party in order to become part of a community, or feel that they became part of this community as a result of joining. People can be united by their sexual orientation, what they perceive as their race, having a common cultural background such as place of origin, or through a language that they are able to speak.

What does this suggest about making judgements about people and places on the internet? That we could make them more like social interactions, by enabling each party to reveal information about their contribution to the capitals of their chosen communities. Just as in the world of atoms rather than bits, each party should be able to choose the information they reveal, and to what extent, to suit the situation at hand. We could think of this type of information and its impact on personal trust as a law of the Internet of Communities. Just as the mass of a star warps the surrounding space-time in a unique way, we each affect the communities we belong to in a unique way. This is our personal gravity.

Sharing information about our personal gravity enables others to make judgements about how to deal with us. The trust they are willing to accord derives not from a linear score but from a complex set of personalised, interwoven assessments. The multifaceted judgements of personal gravity are the very opposite of a pernicious approach such as the Chinese Social Credit System, in which high scorers clump together in a paranoid reinforcement loop while the rest of society is abandoned to a desperate and neurotic search for validation - the vicious circles parodied in Black Mirror.

However, having a non-linear, community-based system is not enough in itself to protect trust. We need to steward trust - to conserve it, in the same way that members of the International National Trusts Organisation work in their respective countries to preserve cultural heritage. As with landscape and buildings, personal gravity has "built and natural, tangible and intangible" aspects. Since trust can easily be damaged by poor interactions, we must be careful in how we handle violations of behavioural norms.

For example, how should we respond when someone uses language or makes a joke that offends us? There are draconian ways to deal with this, which on a personal level may not recognise that harm was unintended, and on a social level may lead to division, polarisation, and other sub-optimal outcomes. The best way to conserve trust is to increase it. In the case of offensive speech, it is much better to explain to someone in a friendly way why their words could be felt as upsetting than to respond with anger.

Trust conservation is part of a wider approach adopted by what I call supercommunities - to build emergent social structures that evolve in response to internal and external influences. Supercommunities are antifragile because they adapt from within, in an organic way and with minimum expenditure of energy, each taking its own path towards building resilience. Common, optimal patterns of behaviour may emerge but are not imposed - an idea that has floated around in biology, architecture, and other areas for a long time and is now crystallising into the concept of ecological evolutionary developmental biology.

The system that is most likely to arrive at effective outcomes is one in which the parts interoperate effectively. German companies have long found that worker participation in decision making reduces disputes and increases productivity. We could characterise the second law of the Internet of Communities as the conservation of trust. To borrow an analogy from Vint Cerf - if community members listen to one another in a spirit of openness, they are more likely to realise that a boulder tumbling towards them can be diverted by placing a pebble at the just the right point, rather than abandoning homes in its path to destruction or building a massive wall to take the impact.

In the next instalment of this blog series, I'll look at the mechanisms for community asset usage and management by which the Internet of Communities can enable people to own and share personal gravity and communities to conserve trust.

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