Encouraging individual sovereignty and a healthy commons

Mark Zuckerberg’s manifesto outlines his vision for a centralised global colony ruled by the Silicon Valley oligarchy. I say we must do the exact opposite and create a world with individual sovereignty and a healthy commons. Encouraging individual sovereignty and a healthy commons

Mark Zuckerberg has released a manifesto titled Building Global Community in which he details how he – one of the top 8 billionaires in the world – and his byzantine American/multinational corporation, Facebook Incorporated, are going to solve all of the world’s problems.

In his grand vision for humanity, Mark keeps returning to how Facebook fundamentally “brings us closer together” by “connecting friends and families.” What Mark fails to mention is that Facebook does not connect people together; Facebook connects people to Facebook, Inc.

Facebook’s business model is to be the man in the middle; to track every move you, your family, and your friends make, to store all that information indefinitely, and continuously analyse it to understand you better in order to exploit you by manipulating you for financial and political gain.

Facebook isn’t a social network, it is a scanner that digitises human beings. It is, for all intents and purposes, the camera that captures your soul. Facebook’s business is to simulate you and to own and control your simulation, thereby owning and controlling you.

Where Mark asks you to trust him to be a benevolent king, I say let us build a world without kings.

I call the business model of Facebook, Google, and the venture-capital-funded long tail of Silicon Valley startups “people farming”. Facebook is a factory farm for human beings. And Mark’s manifesto is nothing more than a panicked billionaire’s latest sophomoric attempt to decorate an unpalatable business model grounded in the abuse of human rights with faux moral purpose to stave off regulation and justify what is unabashedly a colonial desire: to create a global fiefdom by connecting all of us to Facebook, Inc.

Avoiding a Global Colony

Mark’s manifesto isn’t about building a global community, it is about building a global colony – with himself as king and with his corporation and the Silicon Valley oligarchy as the court.

Facebook wants us to think that it is a park when it’s actually a shopping mall.

It is not the job of a corporation to “develop the social infrastructure for community” as Mark wants to do. Social infrastructure must belong to the commons, not to giant monopolistic corporations like Facebook. The reason we find ourselves in this mess with ubiquitous surveillance, filter bubbles, and fake news (propaganda) is precisely due to the utter and complete destruction of the public sphere by an oligopoly of private infrastructure that poses as public space.

Facebook wants us to think that it is a park when it’s actually a shopping mall. The last thing we need is more privately owned centralised digital infrastructure to solve the problems created by an unprecedented concentration of power, wealth, and control in a tiny number of hands. It’s way past time we started funding and building the digital equivalents of parks in the digital age instead of building ever-larger shopping malls.

Others have written detailed critiques of Mark’s manifesto. I will not repeat their efforts here. Instead, I want to focus on how we can build a world that stands in stark contrast to the one in Mark’s vision. A world in which we – individuals – instead of corporations, have ownership and control of our selves. In other words, where we have individual sovereignty.

Where Mark asks you to trust him to be a benevolent king, I say let us build a world without kings. Where Mark’s vision is rooted in colonialism and the perpetuation of centralised power and control, mine is based on individual sovereignty and a healthy, distributed commons.

Individual Sovereignty and the Cyborg Self

We can no longer afford the luxury of not understanding the nature of the self in the digital age. The very existence of our freedoms and democracy depend on it.

We are (and we have been for a while now) cyborgs.

We must resist any attempt to reduce people to property with the greatest of fervour.

In that, I don’t mean to conjure up the stereotypical representation of cyborgs as prevalent in science fiction wherein technology is implanted within biological tissue. Instead, I offer a more general definition in which the term applies to any extension of our minds and our biological selves using technology. While technological implants are certainly feasible, possible, and demonstrable, the main way in which we extend ourselves with technology today is not through implants but explants.

We are sharded beings; the sum total of our various aspects as contained within our biological beings as well as the myriad of technologies that we use to extend our biological abilities.

Once we understand this, it follows that we must extend the protections of the self beyond our biological borders to encompass those technologies by which we extend our selves. Wherefore, any attempt to own, control, and trade in these technologies by third parties is an attempt to own, control, and trade in the constitutional elements of people. It is, in short, an attempt to own, control, and trade in people.

Needless to say, we must resist any attempt to reduce people to property with the greatest of fervour. For to not do so is to give our tacit consent to a new slavery: one in which we do not trade in the biological aspects of human beings but their digital aspects. The two, of course, do not exist apart and are not truly separable when manipulation of one necessarily affects the other.

Beyond Surveillance Capitalism

Once we understand that our relationship to technology is not one of master/butler but cyborg/organ; once we understand that we extend our selves with technology and that our technology and data lie within the boundaries of the self, then we must insist that the constitutional protections of the self that we have enshrined within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and implemented within our myriad of national laws are extended to protect the cyborg self.

It also follows, then, that any attempt to violate the boundaries of the self must be considered an assault on the cyborg self. It is exactly this abuse that constitutes the everyday business model of Facebook, Google, and mainstream Silicon Valley-inspired technology today. In this model, which Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, what we have lost is individual sovereignty. People have once again become property – albeit in digital, not biological, form.

To counter this, we must build new infrastructure to enable people to regain individual sovereignty. Those aspects of the infrastructure that concern the world around us must belong to the commons and those parts that concern people – that make up the organs of our cyborg selves – must be owned and controlled by individuals.

So, for example, smart city architecture must be in the commons and data about the world around us (“data about rocks”) must belong to the commons, while your smart car, smart phone, smart watch, smart teddy bear, etc., and the data they collect (“data about people”) must belong to you.

An Internet of people

Imagine a world where everyone has their own space on the Internet, funded from the commons. This is a private space (an organ of the cyborg self) that all our so-called smart devices (also organs) link into.

Instead of thinking of this space as a personal cloud, we must consider it a special, permanent node within a peer-to-peer structure wherein all our various devices (organs) connect to one another. Pragmatically, this permanent node is used to guarantee findability (initially using domain names) and availability (as it is hosted/always on) as we transition from the client/server architecture of the current Web to the peer-to-peer architecture of the next generation Internet.

The infrastructure we build must be funded from the commons, belong to the commons, and be interoperable. The services themselves must be constructed and hosted by a plethora of individual organisations – not governments or corporate behemoths – working with interoperable protocols and competing to provide the best service possible to the people they serve. Not coincidentally, this severely limited scope of corporate function marks the entirety of a corporation’s role within a democracy as I see it.

The sole purpose of a corporation should be to compete with other organisations to provide the best service to the people it serves. This is in stark contrast to the wide remit corporations have today to attract people (whom they call “users”) under false pretences (free services wherein they are the product being sold) only to addict them, entrap them with lock-in using proprietary technology, farm them, manipulate their behaviour, and exploit them for financial and political gain.

In the corporatocracy of today, we – individuals – serve corporations. In the democracy of tomorrow, corporations must serve us.

The service providers must, of course, be free to extend the capabilities of the system as long as they share their improvements back into the commons (“share alike”), thus avoiding lock-in. For providing services above and beyond the core services funded from the commons, individual organisations may set prices for and charge for value-added services. In this way, we can build a healthy economy of competition on top of an ethically sound core instead of the system of monopolies we have today on top of an ethically rotten core. And we can do so without embroiling the whole system in convoluted government bureaucracy that would stifle experimentation, competition, and the organic, decentralised evolution of the system.

Interoperability, free (as in freedom) technology with “share alike” licenses, a peer-to-peer architecture (as opposed to client/server), and a commons-funded core are the fundamental safeguards for preventing this new system from decaying into a new version of the monopolistic surveillance web we have today. They are how we avoid economies of scale and break the feedback loop between the accumulation of information and wealth that is the core driver of surveillance capitalism.

To be perfectly clear, we are not talking about a system that can flourish under the dictates of late-stage surveillance capitalism. It is a system, however, that can be constructed under present conditions to act as the bridge from that status quo to a sustainable, post-capitalist world.

Building the world you want to live in

In a talk I gave at a European Commission event in Rome recently, I told the audience that we must “build the world we want to live in.” For me, that is not a world owned and controlled by a handful of Silicon Valley oligarchs. It is a world with a healthy commons wherein we – as a community – collectively own and control those aspects of our existence that belong to us all and where we – as individuals – individually own and control those aspects of our existence that belong to our selves.

Imagine a world where you (and those you love) have democratic agency; where we all enjoy basic welfare, rights, and freedoms befitting cyborg dignity. Imagine a sustainable world freed of the destructive short-term greed of capitalism where we no longer reward sociopaths for finding ever more ruthless and destructive ways to accumulate wealth and power at the expense of everyone else. Imagine a free world removed from the feedback loop of manufactured fear and ubiquitous surveillance that has us spiralling deeper into a fresh vortex of fascism. Imagine a world where we grant ourselves the mercy of an intellectually rewarding existence where we are free to explore the potential of our species among the stars.

That is the world that I wake up every day to work towards. Not because it is charitable. Not because I’m a philanthropist. In fact, for no reason at all other than because that is the world that I want to live in.