What does disruption really mean in the tech industry? From failed encounters to meeting the middle, what can disruptive innovative journeys teach us about the future of the internet? A reflection on the 'Meet the Disruptors' track at the PublicSpaces Conference.
By: Natalie Musomba
SHIP FIRST, FIX LATER
Since the creation of the internet, various innovations have materialised over the years, scoring to shape how we look at the world, how we work, and how we eventually think and review problems in the 21st Century. Under the track "Meet the Disruptors", the speakers attempt to deconstruct what disruption truly means in terms of innovation, mobilisation and organisation, particularly as they evolve over the years. Moreover, this track aims to provide more visibility on this matter and underpin that various disruptive innovations in the internet sphere are not always weighed strongly from the PublicSpaces standpoint. Disrupting the industry has put emphasis on more innovation-driven change, and in turn, disregarded the necessity to improve these creations as they evolve. Speakers from this track – “Meet the Disruptors" – share their perspective of growth in hindsight and emphasise the lessons learned moving forward. One of the ways we can guarantee the continued development of the internet as a good and conducive space is by acknowledging differing journeys and encounters. Alongside moderator Jan Hein Hoogstad (Lefthoek), Bill Thompson from the BBC, Marleen Stikker from de Waag, and Amandine Le Pape from Matrix come together in this first conversation to highlight the perspective of "Failed Encounters".
CODE IS LAW – THE PSYCHOLOGY OF INTERNET-USE AND SPACE
Kicking off the conversation is a former British psychologist and journalist, Bill Thompson. Thompson’s is currently championing a research project within the BBC (UK) R&D department known as “New Forms of Value”. This current project aims to explore and encourage the notion of public spaces in the media. To fully grasp the concept of public spaces in this day and age, Thompson underpins understanding the role the internet plays in driving and establishing certain public goods and values is vital. Looking at the internet ecosystem from a technical, psychological, and sociological perspective is necessary for our current reality. Thompson says his experience has paid him well, especially having worn various hats within the tech industry: as a programmer, a developer, a journalist, a researcher and an academic. Subsequently, Thompson believes that the internet is indeed a force for good but only if we can make it so and rightly refers to Lawerence Lessig’s book “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace” (1999). Thompson reminds us that code is law and thus the structures, the limits and the factors we create for these environments, at the end of the day, depend on us as creators, innovators and users. To have the ability to comprehend and change the network’s factors and structure helps establish better support, mitigation and regulation of the internet. This understanding is usually underestimated. As Thompson highlights, although the internet provides connectivity, it does not synonymously guarantee communities. Thompson illustrates this through the current media landscape; certain ‘monopolies’ have mastered the limits and capacities of our current internet space and culture therefore dominating the spaces and limiting its access to the wider public. Additionally, the commercial model used by these ‘monopolies’ gain attention and traction through “spectacle and outrage”. This then begs the question, how can we provide a space where users curate the data they receive, and how can it be made imperative that metadata is verified and protected in the long-run?
CAPTURING MISSED OPPORTUNITIES
Perhaps the solution lies in understanding the internet and network as a whole and drawing insight from the philosophies of human science. The internet is a space for users to grow, create and also alternatively destroy. Marleen Stikker, a Dutch internet pioneer who helped establish the “first virtual community introducing free public access to the Internet in Amsterdam (1993)”, also echoes Thompson’s take on understanding the value the internet space holds. However, Stikker also emphasises taking a closer look at the fears and doubts the hacker communities had in the late 90s, during the advent of the internet. Echoing her current initiatives under Waag, Stikker highlights the evolution of the tactical media movement and how this has been captured, transforming a large part of the internet into a mega consumer space. Stikker stresses the importance of grasping the economic climate within which the internet now operates and interrogate why it is like so? We are prompted to question what aspects were disregarded before but are now contingent on how the network functions, especially across borders (jurisdictions) and various applications. Moreover, by asking this question, we also reflect the larger community involved. We have to remember the internet and cyberspace no longer belongs to hackers, developers or programmers. The space is open to all. Nevertheless, the limitations of certain groups in the past have indeed shaped the way the internet space works and functions today. Stikker gives us the example of public broadcasters in the Netherlands, who were previously very limited in establishing and evolving the communicative space in the Netherlands. The role of primary institutions such as the government played a major role in some of the trajectories the internet space has taken. Consequently, we reflect on many lessons learnt from the past. This further highlights the need for collaboration, particularly the public institutions/companies and tech communities (open source). The internet space as an economic terrain that has diversified drastically, and understanding the stakes of change would also be crucial. Therefore, the aim towards a better internet from now forward will need the collaboration of diverse expertise. Data privacy, management, policymakers, programmers, economists and artists alike would need to come together to help mitigate the issues we are trying to overcome in this net era. Stikker believes this and mastering the new economic climate is crucial to achieving a breakthrough for public spaces.
INTERNET AND THE ECONOMY
To round off the introductory points by Thompson and Stikker, Amandine Le Pape gives us a different outlook as a founder and implications of funding in creating open source applications. Open source code is one of the significant aspects of the internet today. Popular social culture has become very important, especially with the growth in the internet space. Amandine Le Pape, the current COO and co-founder of Element and co-founder of Matrix, shares her perspective as a disruptor in the internet space. Le Pape highlights the implications of the economy in the foundation stage and how it differs and changes as one navigates in the internet space over the years. Matrix, which coins itself as “an open network for secure, decentralised communication”, was created to cater to the lack of support when communicating in the vast worldwide web. The need for this particular open-source innovation was only made possible to capture after years of hard work and development as a tech community. Le Pape underpins that our journey was very much necessary to arrive at the lessons we have today, and therefore, the journey is also a disruptive process in the industry. One needs to understand the layers within the community, the technologies and the knowledge shared in coming up with ideas such as Matrix. Le Pape recognises that what we acknowledge as the Matrix platform today took a lot of time and growth over the years. One of the key factors besides the development of knowledge was money. Le Pape echoes part of Stikker previous point that money does hugely shape the internet space today, i.e. what innovations are considered important, and even which ones succeed over time. Without funding, some of the innovations today would not exist. Le Pape underpins the instrumental role venture capitals play in shaping the trajectory of the internet. She states “there is not one good and one bad: the freedom fighters of one side are the terrorists of the other.’ Depending on if you look at it from a PublicSpace or a private business perspective, the lens will not be nuanced and so we need to meet in the middle. Therefore to even establish an economy of commons or better, shared values along a vast network such as the internet will be challenging to achieve, but not impossible. Thompson and Stikker also agree that redistribution of money across the internet/tech space is necessary. Currently, most funding from investors/VCs goes to “one-part” of the internet, which is run by market monopolies or oligarchies. A lot of money is lost on moonshot ideas as well, but this eventually gives the network much more insight into what works and what doesn’t. The 3 speakers argue that these current realisations will be tackled with time. It is more so about acting now in due time so we do not lament on more opportunities that were missed.
The lessons learnt from this discussion are:
- Disruptors were indeed those who created a form of technology that caused a radical change in an existing industry or market by means of innovation. i.e. internet space pioneers, journalists, developers and researchers. However, disruptors can also be inversely the people who interrupted an event, activity, or process by causing a disturbance or problem, i.e. censorship by institutions or market monopolies.
- The choices you make in the foundations do not always influence the higher levels in the stack. There will always be an opportunity or reflect, regroup, relearn and change.
- Identify what role certain agents play in our disruptive journeys i.e. the role and the degree of involvement by the government, venture capitals as well as experts from other fields like psychology and economics. There is a need to meet in the middle!
Meet in the middle
ARE WE STILL TALKING ABOUT THE INTERNET?
The second discussion under the 3rd track was “Meet in the Middle”. As the title suggests, Hoogstad’s aim with this conversation was aimed to reflect on the previous discussion: learning from failed encounters, what can we do to meet in the middle, especially in the name of establishing a more expansive cast of public spaces online? Melanie Rieback, founder of Radically Open Security, and Ethan Zuckerman, a Professor at MIT – Public Policy, Communication and Information – divulge into the complexity of establishing public spaces from a multidisciplinary perspective.
The internet space was not only preserved for developers, hackers or programmers. In order to claim and establish large public spaces on the worldwide web, inclusion and equity is paramount. It is also giving space to those that didn’t have space already and unlearning current paradigms to conceptualise the internet as a public good and space.
COMMUNITY: EVERYONE SHOULD BE INCLUDED
Ethan Zuckerman was one of the social media pioneers on the internet with the creation of “Tripod.com”. Unaware of the implications of providing creative autonomy to the masses, this innovation was made with the naivety that there was trust in the society to do the right and good thing with this newfound freedom online. Zuckerman highlights that “the models that have made space to function are also what makes the space quite negative… these systems don't manage themselves, and so we are forced into space where we are infantilised” and/or even policed in this current age. These are some of the aspects that make it arguable to label the internet as a safe and public space. Zuckerman believes that there needs to be a middle-ground, in that top-down and bottom-up agencies have an equal stake to shape and change the public spaces. Zuckerman goes to challenge “why are we not treating organisations – everything from large broadcasters to local coffee shops – as public spaces that can have their own digital presence?” Achieving public spaces is acknowledging that the space is open to all. Moreover, Zuckerman emphasises the urgency to lay the foundations for moderating interoperability in the online sphere. Zuckerman argues that the same old issues seem to arise in different creations and avenues on the internet, e.g. rights, privacy, abuse, use violations. Therefore, community organisations, especially those that can act like ombudspersons, could help enforce moderation of public space communities. It would be like mimicking a checks and balances system, but with set and relevant feedback loops, this is what meeting in the middle would look like. This would also change how we approach other communities at different stages of their journey on the internet.
DID INTEGRITY LEAVE THE CHAT?
Having a similar train of thought, Melaine Rieback, founder of Radically Open Security, implores for more holistic thinking when it comes to establishing and achieving innovations. Rieback has experience in the cyberspace and economics industry for some years and therefore tends towards post-growth philosophies. Echoing part of Zuckerman’s perspective, Rieback emphasises the need for integrity whilst being a disruptor. Understanding that the internet has transformed into a major space for consumer economics, Rieback reiterates the power of circular economy in shaping our ideas and business models when approaching innovations on the worldwide network. Rieback underpins that when businesses reach a certain size, integrity tends to leave the chat.” We get the impression that accountability becomes very elusive, and this is not an aspect that will support public spaces to thrive. Rieback encourages the idea of bootstrapping to current and potential innovators. This notion underpins the strategy that entrepreneurs and innovators should try to launch their ideas with as little funding or support. Also in tune with the philosophies of post-growth economists such as Kate Raworth, creating a funding pool and space for the next generation of innovators will ensure sustainability and generational impact. Rieback emphasis that companies can be taken as vehicles of impact. Moreover, collaboration and co-creation in incubators that practice these principles also sets a benchmark to what degree the government and VCs have in shaping this innovative space. Consequently, it will lead to reevaluating the value of skills and expertise vis-a-vis ample funding. This is a huge reflection-point that could help identify the disruptive creations from the moonshot projects. Additionally, Rieback highlights that 50% of VCs' investment flows come from pension funds. Therefore the use of particular equity is questionable, especially if it does not provide a public space. This makes us reflect more on redistributing wealth, especially on the internet, so as to provide more inclusive and open community innovations. They both emphasise the agency all stakeholders have. Although Rieback affirms that we should not rely on politics to help solve these issues, Zuckerman offers to compromise by asking to what extent governing institutions should be involved in creating these public spaces, which should be to the people, for the people and by the people.
The lessons learnt from this discussion are:
- Everyone has the right to be a shareholder in this journey: as the name suggests – public spaces are for the public; therefore, equality and equity needs to be reviewed/regulated moving forward.
- The economic mindset of various stakeholders is vital in maintaining the internet’s integrity as a space for good. Motive and intentions are varied at different levels of the stack, and this needs to be acknowledged proactively.
- We need to think in terms of legacy, and create the space and establish the environments for the next generation of disruptors to maintain practices of good faith.
- Policy and economics; these perspectives are unavoidable as they both a cause and product of the current internet ecosystems that materialise in society.