Liberate the Internet and its Core Applications

If you are like me, your mind has been racing for the last few days, alternating between a somber realization of the grim toll the coronavirus crisis will take both personally and socially, and a newfound inspiration at the possibilities this creates politically, economically and technologically.

For the first time in a long time, the stark cleavages that could only be seen by theorists (and of course the marginalized themselves) are readily visible to anyone that cares to look. Who gets access to a Coronavirus test? When the time comes, who will get the ventilator? Who gets to stay, who can come back, and who has nowhere to go? Who can confine themselves within a walled garden at some resort enclave, taking glamour shots while their dogs swim in the pool? Who is able to escape to a bunker on acres of land in some remote red state or island? Who are the health care workers getting sprayed in the face with spit and blood with shoddy gauze masks that they’ve been wearing all day? And who is forced to ride public transportation so that the rest of us simply have enough food to eat?

These are questions of profound importance now not only for the lives of the poor, black, brown, mis-gendered and recently arrived; but for every single citizen of the country and the world. People (if they have not been made too stupid already) should be realizing for themselves the importance of things like equitable access, of public infrastructure, of an intelligent allocation of resources, and of planning ahead —in other words, things that social theorists have been talking about for a very long time.

What new possibilities will this kind of broad public realization create, if it is not shouted down by partisan bickering and finger-pointing? Even the orange-man-in-charge seems to have realized that responding to this crisis is going to require new ways to distribute resources to people and industries. But why should those resources go towards failed, backwards-looking industries like cruise ships and airplanes? Towards piecemeal approaches to supporting human capital like giving everyone just enough money to buy an extra TV or laptop for all the quarantining they will be doing? I think not.

One of the more amazing things to observe over the last few days has been the extent to which multiple industries (including academia, and broadcast media to an extent, just as two examples that I’m at least somewhat familiar with) have transitioned to a mostly online model of working within a period of a less than a week. While this transition has been anything but seamless, and with all the usual caveats about accessibility (some of which I will address later), in some sense we have made more progress towards realizing the virtual office (if not Douglas Engelbart’s more ambitious vision of augmenting collective human intelligence) than we ever did over the cumulative prior 40-odd years.

The implications of this are nothing short of profound. First of all, why haven’t we be doing this all along? Sure, while online videoconferencing is nowhere near ideal for doing things like building trust and rapport, it does remove many geographic, logistical and operational barriers to collaboration, potentially allowing entire industries to run at a fraction of the operational cost. No more redeyes to London, hotel room rewards programs and overpriced appetizers in seedy bars. The climate change benefits are impossible to calculate based on the cascade of effects this might have. Of course, we might still choose to travel for leisure, but it might only be as part of publicly sponsored programs that are allocated equitably across all citizens (one flight per year per person? fixed mile quota?).

One might argue that this overlooks and neglects those jobs that require physical presence and/or manual labor. Of course it does, but over time we should be seeing less of these kinds of jobs that need to be done (but never zero), and more that people might even choose to do voluntarily (like being a park ranger, an opera singer, or one of David Graeber’s caring classes). Allocating more resources and prestige to both of these kinds of positions and their occupants is something that we can do with all of the freed up capital from the reduced travel and infrastructure costs.

Of course, there is always the question of access. But, and to my main point, why aren’t the Internet and all its fundamental applications and services considered global public infrastructure? Or, put another way, why should only the rich and powerful be able to Zoom with their friends and family? Now that we can recognize the almost unlimited importance of something as simple as reliable videoconferencing, surely we can realize that other services like search, social networking, file storage and data management should also be in the public realm, widely accessible to end users at minimal (ideally zero) cost without being surveilled. (Of course, it goes without saying that we need the underlying telecommunications infrastructure to be public and widely accessible as well, but at this point that policy recommendation is already well-established.)

With apologies to my software engineering and programming languages friends, one area that is still problematic is the ability for an average human being to develop their own interactive computational artifacts (much less data-driven ones). One particularly embarrassing example was when the President of the United States spent the better part of one of the most important press conferences in American history talking about how one of the world’s largest companies was allocating literally thousands of engineers to develop what turned out to be a poorly designed web form. But there were some more insidious cases as well — for example, doctors sharing knowledge and evidence using only the crudest forms of communications and data sharing tools (e.g. WhatsApp). Innovations like wikis and discussion groups are now decades old, but languish in some kind of strange interstitial limbo of inactivity, as if we had foreclosed on them simply because we couldn’t monetize them at the same scale as some of these other, shall we say, more “consumptive” services.

But, at this point I believe that the era of innovation in core areas like Internet services and applications is receding. The Internet is a reliable and robust communications infrastructure that serves over half of the world’s people. Core applications like search, file storage, social networking, videoconferencing and data management are based on well-established paradigms that are likely to see only incremental advances at this point. It is time to make this infrastructure public and shared on a scale that humanity has never before attempted — by putting all intellectual property related to these domains into a shared public portfolio, creating a global governance infrastructure on the scale of the IMF or World Bank (but with a vastly more egalitarian model of participation, perhaps even something like a platform cooperative), using newly printed government assets to acquire these businesses at what are surely bargain prices on the open market, and implementing standards and APIs that both allow these services to seamlessly interoperate with one another, as well as with any third party applications or services that are built upon them.

The latter efforts in particular are also likely to create a large number of jobs across the technology sector in the short term, from research, to design, to policy, to implementation. If the government is going to act like an investor, it should act like an intelligent one, and invest in infrastructure and services that are likely provide jobs to the maximum number of people. It doesn’t look like that is going to be in airlines and cruise ships (which are both, in my experience, simply horrible qualitative experiences that we do mostly because others are doing them as well). The government should be investing in the kinds of infrastructure that can enable all kinds of businesses — including small ones —to survive and flourish in what will certainly be an increasingly online-mediated world, accelerated in as yet untold ways by this drawn-out dystopian global culture shock.

As Computer and Information Scientists, this is our opportunity to think bigger from a policy perspective. It is our infrastructure and technology that can see us through not only this crisis — but the larger climate change one as well. But that can happen only if we put it in the right hands. We have taken our cues from conservative economists and policy wonks for long enough. We have to recognize that there are other sources of inspiration in the academy, and that some of those ideas may better serve us better as we navigate what is ahead. In short, it is time for our field to develop a broader and deeper social consciousness, so that we are better informed in our efforts to do what is in the best interest of our shared world.

Addendum: I have been thinking a bit more about this, and about specifically what functions / services should be included in this public infrastructure. I do believe that identity/authentication, messaging, file/data management and videoconferencing do need to be a part of the core no matter what. Search is a bit less clear — after all, we do have the successful (and nostalgic) yellow/white pages example to draw upon. The only reason Search is a much bigger business now is because of the centralized/ing nature of so many of the underlying businesses and services. So perhaps there is some argument for moving it to the public realm. Maps are another interesting case. Anyway, I clearly need to find time to write more about this. Stay tuned for another post soon!