The Roots of My Thinking on Tech Policy

This personal background might clarify where I am coming from in this space -- especially the proposal for individual user choice in the filtering of their content feeds via delegated middleware. 

These ideas have been brewing throughout my five-decade career (bio), with a burst of activity very early on, then around 2003 -- when I first detailed ideas for an open market in filters for what we now call social media -- and then increasingly in the past decade. This intertwingles with my better-known work on FairPay and several of my patented inventions. 

The early roots

I was first enthused by the potential of what we now call "social media" after clicking a hyperlink in 1969, and seeing early hypertext systems (precursors of the Web) by Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart. That led me to systems for computer-mediated social decision support by Murray Turoff and others, rolling into a graduate school independent study course on collaborative systems (as well as seminal earlier work by Vannevar Bush and J. C. R. Licklider). All of this oriented me to the spirit of using computers for augmenting human intelligence (including social intelligence) -- as opposed to the more widespread notion of replacing it with artificial intelligence.

My proposals for an open market in media filtering were inspired by the financial industry parallels. An open market in filters for news and market data analytics was emerging when I worked for Standard & Poor's and Dow Jones around 1990. Filters and analytics would shape searches and monitor raw news feeds and market data (price ticker) feeds, select, and analyze that raw information using algorithms and parameters chosen by the user, and work within any of a variety of trading platforms. I refocused on consumer online systems in the early 1990s. 

Work on the "convergence" of enterprise collaboration systems into the internet (as "groupware" and "intranets" were emerging in 1997) led me to suggest a future of "intergroupware ...overlapping and evolving electronic communities…with only gradations of security, privacy, and management control as fundamental differentiators." This is now the case in the business world (as I suggested at the time, "when you think outside the box, the box goes away"), and it translates to what I now refer to as the "social mediation ecosystem."

My work also builds on proposals for "infomediaries" by John Hagel and co-authors in HBR (1997) and a book (1999). These infomediaries would act as user agents (and even fiduciaries) between consumers and businesses, much like recent proposals for "delegation" via "middleware." 

Other related work around 1993-2003 was as an inventor of methods for user-controlled information feeds, for distributed social search and recommender systems based on active and passive user feedback, and for user-controlled interoperation between internet and TV systems (all leading to multiple patents that have been widely licensed). 

My early career was as an IT strategist and systems architect, which exposed me to complex systems design and tech industry dynamics, including strategies for sensibly distributing control of technology based on functional modularity, as well as to the antitrust actions against the Bell System (where I had worked), IBM (as a major customer), and Microsoft. (I was in the courtroom when the judge in the IBM case asked the lawyers "what does software look like?") In 2000 (as CTO for a dot-com) I worked with IBM and CSC on proposals for healthcare transaction integration using enterprise middleware.

Deeper into collaborative media

I drew on all of that when designing network of social decision support systems for large-scale open innovation and collaborative development of early-stage ideas around 2001-3. That design featured an open market for reputation-based ranking algorithms, with rich options for user-specific controls. Inspired by Google PageRank -- which distilled human judgment and reputation for ranking Web search results -- I broadened Google's design to distill the wisdom of the crowd as reflected in social media interactions, using a nuanced multi-level reputation system. (I later released my related patent filing into public domain.) 

By 2012 it was becoming apparent that the internet was seriously disrupting the marketplace of ideas, and Cass Sunstein’s observations about surprising validators inspired me to outline how my methods could enhance social media. I became active in groups that were addressing those concerns and more fully recast my earlier designs to focus on social media, and to address architectural and regulatory strategies (here and then here). 

My complementary work on FairPay, a framework for innovative business models for digital services based on adaptively win-win relationships between consumers and businesses (published in HBR and scholarly journals with eminent coauthors), also gave me a unique perspective on better alternatives to the perverse incentives of the ad model.

The Fukuyama article on middleware in late in 2020 was gratifying validation on the need for an open, competitive market for feed filtering services driven by users, and inspired me to refocus on that as the most direct point of leverage for structural remediation, as expanded on my recent articles and the Tech Policy Press mini-symposium, Reconciling Social Media and Democracy that I helped organize.

In 2022 I began co-authoring a series for Tech Policy Press on delegation and user choice as a matter of policy, and the media ecology and technical architectures that can regain social media’s promise for augmenting digital society, building on community-based ecosystems to strengthen democracy (with Chris Riley, former director of public policy at Mozilla, now a senior fellow at R Street Institute). I then wrote a distillation and update of those ideas in 2023, From Freedom of Speech and Reach to Freedom of Expression and Impression

In late 2023, it struck me that three key solution elements that I have been advocating for many years have an importantly synergistic effect. I have become all too familiar with the objections that have limited uptake for each -- and now see that the way to counter those concerns is to clarify and build on how these pillars work in combination – to reinforce one another and serve as a foundation for the full suite of remedies. Working notes including an embedded deck on these synergies were posted 11/9/23 with ongoing updates. 

As I continue to refine and restate that synergistic vision, those with serious interest in these issues will find that my 2001-3 system design document includes extensive details on applying the synergy of the three pillars of agency, social mediation, and reputation, supported by middleware, that I have refocused on. (While the style required of a patent application is not easy reading, the posted copy adds highlighting of many portions that are still very relevant.)

For the work itself and a fuller bio, see the Selected Items and Bio tabs, above (and on the FairPayZone blog).


My thanks to the many researchers and activists in this field I have had the privilege of interacting with, who have provided invaluable stimulation, feedback, suggestions, and support. Special thanks to Justin Hendrix and David Kirkpatrick for their very helpful editing of some of my articles, and to others who reviewed and encouraged my work in this space (since Ted Nelson and Murray Turoff), including John Borthwick, Renee DiResta, Cory Doctorow, Yael Eisenstat, Harold Feld, Francis Fukuyama, Ellen Goodman, Saul Hansell, Daphne Keller, Gene Kimmelman, Karen Kornbluh, Molly Land, Sam Lessin, Mike Masnick, Roger McNamee, Jonathan Rauch, Barak Richman, Chris Riley, Douglas Rushkoff, Cass Sunstein, Jimmy Wales, and Ethan Zuckerman.

[First posted 9/24/21, periodically revised]

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