To be honest, I’m not all that convinced by Robin’s arguments here about overhauling the governance model at the World Wide Web Consortium (partly because the way he describes the current model sounds pretty okay to me). But I’m very interested in what he has to say in the broader philosophical sense about using values to solve problems:
A value is worth something if it’s there to help you when the rubber hits the road and starts hydroplaning. Sure, you’ll need a handful of high-level lofty values as reminders, if only because there’s always a vocal guy (it’s always a guy) who thinks it’s just outrageous to put people before profits. But mostly you want Values You Can Use.
That might be the best description I’ve come across yet for design principles: values you can use.
When we say that engineering is about trade-offs, we’re saying that engineers solve their hardest problems using values (which they call “heuristics” because everyone’s entitled to be fancy some). In implementing a system, you might need to decide between an option that provides people with the best experience, another that delivers the greatest value to the shareholders, and yet a third one that makes the control centre blinkenlights dance in the prettiest way.
I remember a talk and discussion at SxSW a few years back about trying to improve the efficiency of trade networks by making them more web-like: there are ships full of empty cargo containers, simply because companies insist on using the container with their logo on it. I really, really like the idea of applying the principles of packet-switching to physical networks.
But here’s the hard part:
The technology is not a problem. We could do it all in 10 years. It’s the business models and the mental models in people’s minds.
This is the same territory that Daniel Suarez explored in his book Daemon. The book is (science) fiction but as Suarez explains in his Long Now seminar, the reality is that much of our day to day lives is already governed by algorithms. In fact, the more important the question—e.g. “Will my mortgage be approved?”—the more likely that the decision will not be made by a human being.
In his novel Accelerando, Charles Stross charts the evolution of both humans and algorithms before, during and after a technological singularity.
A marginally intelligent voicemail virus masquerading as an IRS auditor has caused havoc throughout America, garnishing an estimated eighty billion dollars in confiscatory tax withholdings into a numbered Swiss bank account. A different virus is busy hijacking people’s bank accounts, sending ten percent of their assets to the previous victim, then mailing itself to everyone in the current mark’s address book: a self-propelled pyramid scheme in action. Oddly, nobody is complaining much.
High in orbit around Amalthea, complex financial instruments breed and conjugate. Developed for the express purpose of facilitating trade with the alien intelligences believed to have been detected eight years earlier by SETI, they function equally well as fiscal gatekeepers for space colonies.
The damnfool human species has finally succeeded in making itself obsolete. The proximate cause of its displacement from the pinnacle of creation (or the pinnacle of teleological self-congratulation, depending on your stance on evolutionary biology) is an attack of self-aware corporations. The phrase “smart money” has taken on a whole new meaning, for the collision between international business law and neurocomputing technology has given rise to a whole new family of species—fast-moving corporate carnivores in the Net.