ROME: INQ is on the road again, this time as guests of the Open Xchange Summit in Rome, Italy where speakers have been discussing all the things that INQ holds dear - privacy, open source, and generally sticking it to the man.
Keynote speaker this year was Tim O'Reilly, author of a myriad of seminal books for developers and other tech types, coiner of the term "Web 2.0" and inventor of the concept of "Open Source".
O'Reilly is also a keen-eyed futurologist and his keynote covered a wide range of topics about the way the internet is going, based on where it has been.
He started by explaining what has changed about the players, based on the idea of the supermarket checkout - in the beginning, we had the choice of which checkout (service) to go to, and if another one opens or the queue is too long, we choose another.
However, these days a few big companies offer us little choice where to "queue".
"The world is dominated by centralised platforms that give us just one queue. - Facebook is an example of the world ten years ago. Facebook, for example, chooses what posts you see and the order you see them in."
"Large parts of our economy are controlled by centralised platforms with centralised algorithms," adding that Open Source users are "part of the resistance.
Another change is a move away from paying per unit.
"We're moving towards single price goods - Spotify for example. You pay once for all you consume."
One of the enablers for this change has been the rise of AI. But Reilly doesn't see it as true AI - after all, it's something that has to be trained, but us, the humans and although true AI in that sense is a long way off, what we do have is systems augmenting the humans.
After all, a recent O'Reilly Media study showed that 62 per cent of AI models take no account of bias.
"We're talking as if it's something yet to be invented, but we're part of it - systems that include us."
It's an important point. The same survey shows that 55 per cent haven't included privacy provisions in their model-building checklist and 53 per cent do not take account of compliance.
He adds that, as a result, we're in a critical moment in history: "How do we want them to be designed - do we still have agency?"
And yet at the same time, the systems are training us too. "We're training ourselves to be surrounded by devices that listen," he says, referencing the likes of Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.
But the machine trains us in other ways too. One prime example is the debate over traditional taxis versus Uber.
"[Uber] is a system directing the people. telling them what to do, they teach us something profound about the way is working today.
"Companies were a way of internalising knowledge but with algorithms, they don't have to be part of those boundaries".
In the case of Uber, instead of the traditional black cab model of "learning The Knowledge", instead we outsource to the knowledge to the systems" and yet, many similar apps seem to not have understood the ‘magic' that makes a new company take off. "
Meanwhile, our minds are subtly altered to the Uber model. "We're training ourselves to be surrounded by devices that listen."
It's a far cry from black cab drivers whose brains are altered by learning the entire layout of London in minutia.
But back to the open source. If it's the resistance, does O'Reilly see the possibility of the return to a more splintered internet?
"I'm not sure I buy that. I've seen enough promises of egalitarian freedom that I'm pretty confident that we're going not to escape this dynamic." But that said, some users "get it" better than others.
"If Facebook gets all the users in the world it will prey on its users to keep growing. Google is doing the same thing for the web as Microsoft did for software - picking off the best bits"
But on the other hand: "They [Microsoft] couldn't get to the smartphone because they couldn't let go of Windows."
O'Reilly lists a whole stream of examples of how open sourcing, or simply giving away product, has allowed companies to reach the next level of evolution. Linux. Android. Open Xchange. (We saw that one coming).
The danger is when those benefactors are hit by the imperative to keep growing faster than the model allows.
And that's where the open source will always provide a credible alternative.
"But what about Google DNS?" we ask in the Q&A. Sure, there's Google WiFi that routes all the users' traffic through its servers, but from a benifactual front, the 184.108.40.206 address has also allowed the citizens of many oppressive regimes to circumvent their governments' internet restrictions. "So," we ask, "where's the line?"
At this point, Open Xchange CEO Rafael Laguna starts frantically gesturing at a slide of his new DNS based security offering. But we'll come to him in a separate article next week. Let's hear what O'Reilly has to say:
"I think for a long time Google was pretty good at the line, they were pretty focused on user benefit" he explains, "So the real question is, why did that switch?; and I think it's because of that endless growth imperative.
"I think we have to understand that's where companies go wrong - for example the Instagram founders, the WhatsApp founders really starting to turn on Facebook saying 'we were more idealistic than that' and you know, Facebook has a lot of idealism, but it also has this imperative to make more money - ‘we must continue to grow', so it's not so much of a line as this rogue objective function guiding all of our companies and turning them into hostile companies."
He pauses before his bon mot: "You can start with all the idealism in the world, but at some point you stop serving your customers and start serving yourself."
Of course, not every company falls into that trap, and we'll keep flagging the ones like Open Xchange that are the exception to Tim's rule. μ
Tim O'Reilly's latest book "WTF: What's the Future and Why It's Up to Us" is out now. We have a copy to give away. Tweet the link to this article with the hashtag #oxinq and we'll pick a winner.
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