Friday, October 07, 2022

"Delegation, or, The Twenty Nine Words that the Internet Forgot" -- A Series in Tech Policy Press

It is the policy of the United States…to encourage the development of technologies which maximize user control over what information is received by individuals…who use the Internet…” (from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act)

***Background and running updates below*** 

This series is being published in Tech Policy Press -- co-authored with tech policy executive Chris Riley...

Part 1. (2/27/22)
Delegation, or, The Twenty Nine Words that the Internet Forgot
 

The series begins with an exploration of why this emphasis on user control is far more important than generally recognized, and how an architecture designed to make high levels of user control manageable can enhance the nuance, context, balance, and value in human discourse that current social media are tragically degrading.

While that portion of the much-discussed "Section 230" has been neglected, those ideas have re-emerged -- most prominently in the 2019 ACCESS Act introduced in the U.S. Senate, which included among its provisions a requirement to provide “delegatability” – enabled through APIs that allow a user to authorize a third party to manage the user’s content and settings directly on the user’s behalf.

This opening essay concludes: 

User choice is essential to a social and media ecosystem that preserves and augments democracy, self-actualization, and the common welfare – instead of undermining it. And delegation is the linchpin that can make that a reality.

Part 2. (4/27/22)
Understanding Social Media: An Increasingly Reflexive Extension of Humanity
 

We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. (Marshall McLuhan)

Social media do not behave like other media. Speech is not primarily broadcast, as through megaphones and amplification but rather, propagates more like word-of-mouth, from person to person. Feedback loops of reinforcing interactions by other users can snowball, or just fizzle out. Understanding how to modulate the harmful aspects of wild messaging cascades requires stepping back and, instead of viewing the messages as individual items of content, seeing them as stages in reflexive flows in which we and these new media tools shape each other. The reflexivity is the message. A media ecology perspective can help us understand where current social media have gone wrong and orchestrate the effort to manage increasing reflexivity in a holistic, coherent, inclusive, and effective way.

Part 3. (6/17/22)
Community and Content Moderation in the Digital Public Hypersquare

Current news is awash with acute concerns about social media content and how it is or is not moderated in the so-called “digital public square.” However, this is not really a single, discrete square, but is better seen as the “digital public hypersquare:” a hyperlinked environment made up of a multitude of digital spaces, much as the World Wide Web is a hyperlinked web made up of a multitude of websites.

Recognizing the multidimensionality and interconnected nature of these social squares (or spaces) can facilitate flexible, context-specific content modulation, as opposed to the blunter, less context-specific tool of moderation-as-removal. Instead of framing content policies as centralized, top-down policing – with all of that frame’s inherent associations with oppression, at one extreme, or anarchy, at the other – social media governance can be envisioned as a network of positive community-built, community-building layers, running in their own contextually appropriate ways, over the top of modern-day networks. This provides a new logic for diagnosing and beginning to treat how social media now exacerbate many of the disease symptoms that now present with increasing severity.

Efforts are already in the works to start layering community-centric approaches onto broader platforms...

Part 4. (9/22/22)
Contending for Democracy on Social Media and Beyond

Conflict is part of democracy, and will continue to be, especially in an age of rapid change that only promises to accelerate. Just as democracy is weakened by the prevalence of unhealthy conflict, so too it is weakened by attempts to suppress healthy conflict that is agonistic, rather than antagonistic. 

Faced with the challenges of harmful online content, some argue that more paternal—some might say more principled, others authoritarian—governance is needed to deal with these stressors, but robust and healthy democratic processes are arguably the most adaptable, and therefore ensuring they work effectively is more important than ever.

Background

This page is to be updated as the series unfolds -- with my own personal perspectives and links to relevant materials. All views expressed here are my own (but owe much to wise insights from Chris). 

My other works related to this are listed in the Selected Items tab, above. Some that are most relevant to expand on the themes introduced in this first article:

This diagram from my The Internet Beyond... article may also be helpful:


Chris and I are very pleased with how this collaboration is synergizing our ideas, and how we draw on very complementary backgrounds: his in internet policy, governance, and law; mine in the technology and business of media as a tool for augmenting human discourse and intellect.

Running updates

[6/17/22:] While many have good reason to fear that control of Twitter by Elon Musk could be a disaster, there are some further hopeful signs in his 6/16 comments to employees:
There's freedom of speech and freedom of reach," he said. "Anyone could just go into the middle of Times Square right now and say anything they want. They can just walk into the middle of Times Square and deny the Holocaust ... but that doesn't mean that needs to be promoted to millions of people. So I think people should be allowed to say pretty outrageous things that are in the bounds of the law but that don't get amplified and don't get a ton of reach."
Our Delegation piece supports this idea in a form that is more clearly desirable and operationalizable, by shifting from the negative frame of Free Speech is Not the Same As Free Reach (which Musk may have gotten from Renee DiResta via Jack Dorsey), with its focus on the speaker/advertiser, to our positive frame of freedom of impression, with its focus on the rights of each listener.

[5/6/22:] Dorsey-funded Bluesky project published an architecture paper that helps clarify key ideas in the vision of decentralized, user-delegated control of social media filtering. Suggestive of possible directions by Twitter under Musk, and more broadly. I posted some excerpts from this (somewhat technical) document, with some light context and links.

[5/6/22:] Today I was reminded how much the media ecology of reflexivity augmented by human-machine loops has surprisingly early roots. I first dug into that around 1970, including Licklider's 1960 Man-Computer Symbiosis, which I now see again was very pointed about this symbiosis as going beyond the levels of "mechanically extended man" (a very McLuhanesque phrase that Licklider cited to 1954) and "artificial intelligence." Licklider inspired (and sponsored) Engelbart's "Augmenting Human Intellect," which inspired my views on making social media augment human society -- and also anticipates the related resurgence of thinking about more "human-centered AI," and AI Delegability. And of course Bush's 1945 As We May Think inspired all of this.

This reflexive intertwingling of ideas is also apropos of the question of our original attribution of our opening quote ("Man shapes his tools and thereafter our tools shape us") to McLuhan -- we removed any specific attribution because it may have been taken from others -- what matters to us is that McLuhan adopted it and gave it added attention.

[4/29/22:] Opening sections revised to add the second in the series.

[2/28/22:] Very pleased to see this:


Acknowledgements

My thanks to the many outstanding thinkers in this space who have been helpful in developing these ideas -- and especially to Justin Hendrix, co-founder and editor of Tech Policy Press for his support and skilled editing. ...And of course to Chris Riley for this very stimulating and enjoyable collaboration.

[This post was first published 2/27/22 when the series began, and has since been updated and expanded as additional essays are published.]