The W3b : Thought-storm on the next iteration of the Internet

1/ Here’s a thought experiment about the future of the internet. Can we model it as a complex system in the same way we look at human societies and governments in real life?

2/ Humans began as individuals, who had the ability to form progressively larger organizations which became support networks that helped our species achieve the largest throughput from our lives.

3/ Over time, these organizations came to be controlled by those who had a monopoly on resources – wealth, armies and social power, but the members of these organizations didn’t have any say in how they were run.

4/ The concept of democracy was evolved as a system that could distribute social power in order to catalyze the wider involvement of its members in their own social and economic concerns.

5/ While this form of government is not without issues, it highlights a trend – by having an organization with representation by its members who have a say in how its run, we’ve had a wider ranges of stability, and its evolution is controlled in a (somewhat) scalable manner.

6/ As an analog, the internet started out as a decentralized network of computers where all the information was open – anyone could participate by simply putting up a node.

7/ Over time, centralized systems were created because they offered the benefits of an overarching “support network” – making technology and information accessible to their users because most individuals couldn’t do all this heavy lifting and plumbing on their own.

8/ These organizations, whose members can’t really control how they are run or what they make them do – are not that different from erstwhile kingdoms trying to maximize the profit of their sovereigns.

9/ And by virtue of who controls them or who can influence them – imagine wealthy courtiers and banks who financed kings [see game of thrones] – they dictate the price of admission and inclusion

10/ Monetarily of course, they may even be free – but members give up control over their privacy and data to get in. In turn, these organizations become monopolies and act as gatekeepers of the very information and data that belongs to its users.

11/ While they can empower members to have a voice in the global discourse, their scale implies control and filtering algorithms that evolve in the image of those who hold the most sway on these platforms – in some cases the loudest, the richest, or the most divisive.

12/ So what does this mean for the future of the biggest collaborative system that humanity has ever built together? One potential road could be to reason about how they can mirror the democratic model.

13/ I posit a thought that “It is in the nature of complex information systems to systematically distribute their functioning to sub-systems in order to perform at their peak.

14/ In other words, a series of decentralized, shared ownership systems that come together to provide and replace the functionality that has today been built into the centralized networks described before. I’m going to call this the “W3b” – because, well, why not? (A moniker for Web 3.0)

15/ As Alexis De Tocqueville recognized in the study in which he coined the term, there is often more to decentralization than just the administrative benefits it brings. These networks will have properties beyond just the sum of the properties of their components.

16/ Scientifically, there are no complexity theories to analyze complex networks like there are for algorithms. But if we think about the latent, emergent properties of these networks – we likely cannot predict how they will affect our lives in 20 years, much in the same way we couldn’t have predicted the fake news problem in 1999.

17/ In order to get to such decentralized networks, we’re going to need new forms of technology which can offer interoperability without needing shared trust, since these networks will be just like the internet is today – they will span nation states and have messy real world constraints.

18/ Just like every nation in the world today connects their internal infrastructure to the internet and communication networks, they will buy in to these subnetworks because they will become irrelevant if they don’t – especially when they act as a conduit for international trade, payments, law and cooperation.

19/ What are the conceptual abstractions we need to think about in order to make these subnetworks a reality? We can take a leaf out of the Open Systems Interconnection model (OSI), which is a conceptual model that characterizes and standardizes the communication functions of a telecommunication or computing system without regard to its underlying internal structure and technology.

20/ Much like the seven layers of the OSI model. there are a few different kind of functions that the these subnetworks would need to provide without regard to how they are actually implemented underneath.

  • Identity and authentication (+ Discoverability)
  • Payments and economic transactions (+ Discoverability)
  • Actions (APIs for connecting to databases + Discoverability)
  • Content (Information for consumption + Discoverability)
  • Policy (Encoding and enforcing law)
  • Auditable events (Ledger of activity)

21/ These subnetworks will need to work in conjunction with each other, and transactions done by any entity, individual or organization will need to coordinate with one or more of them.

22/ But how would these be used? Let’s take the example of an autonomous entity which has a very simple need – they want to subscribe to a streaming movie provider and watch it.

  • They use the content subnet to find a provider that streams movies.
  • They utilize the identity subnet to create an account with this provider, which is an auditable event
  • The provider verifies this against the identity subnet and creates an account, asks for payment information
  • The entity then identifies on the payment network, and initiates a payment authorization against the provider
  • Once the provider receives this authorization, they can stream the movie to the entity.

23/ By decentralizing and sharing ownership of the most critical parts of the new w3b, new generations of software can be written that would allow scalable solutions to some of the most critical challenges we face today – from cyber security to fake news.

24/ In addition, large centralized network companies will no longer have the monopolies that they currently do, leading to a more equitable distribution of the wealth that is being created.

25/ By making micro transactions and payments tied to identity, content and services outside of centralized control, political machinations are less likely to influence w3b users.

26/ And further, having machine readable cryptographically verifiable audit streams of events, provenance of data, content, transactions, identities and finances will mean that tools and services can be built upon them in standard ways by anyone.

Thoughts on the Tablet era

Apple’s iPad has been the poster child of the “post PC era” ever since its inception. As the device has matured however, it has gained competition from practically every company that can build a hardware device, from Microsoft to Samsung. Its reviews have gone from praising it as the harbinger of the post PC era to how its interactions are broken to a point where it will never serve the generic handheld computing device purpose it was once slotted into.

At least by the media.

Steve Jobs knew this wasn’t going to be the case in 2010 when he said this in an interview,

When I am going to write that 35-page analyst report, I am going to want my Bluetooth keyboard. That’s 1 percent of the time. The software will get more powerful. I think your vision would have to be pretty short” to think these can’t grow into machines that can do more things, like editing video, graphic arts, productivity. “You can imagine all of these content creation” possibilities on these kind of things. “Time takes care of lots of these things.”

I agree with the sentiment. For a majority of the use cases, the iPad and others of its ilk will do just fine. But as we start to mature in our use of such devices, the simplistic interfaces that exist today just won’t cut it. What we need next are methods that make this device even more powerful than it is today – and that is by unleashing a whole new series of content creation paradigms.

Think about spreadsheets – Microsoft Excel for iPad has *just* been released – four years after the original iPad came out. And we still can’t run macros on it. Because of a policy decision somewhere in the Apple ecosystem, the most dominant end user programming language that comes with Excel is unusable on the tablet – which completely undermines one of the most powerful features that desktop Excel offers. And more importantly, not one spreadsheet with macros can run on the iPad – effectively rendering Excel for iPad useless for cross computer collaboration.

Lest one think spreadsheets are an isolated case, consider the work flow in writing this blog post and publishing it. Once I figure out what I’m writing about and what the essential facts I want to convey are, my flow is mostly split between composing text in a text editor, and using a browser to do research – gathering quotes, images, et al and somehow embedding it in the post. A trivial task on the desktop, with the availability of quick app switching, lots of screen real estate, and simple to use copy/paste. Not to mention having persistent storage on your hard drive. On the current tablet model, this simple task becomes needlessly complicated. The drawback of being able to run only one application at a time means that more time goes switching between apps than does in actually getting effective work done.

The next big revolution has to be in defining paradigms for these oft used, non trivial interactions in the touch world. The company or product that lights the way in doing so will capture a significant portion of mind-share and, hopefully, the market. Which is not to say there aren’t a few positive trends in this direction – Hopscotch, a programming application for kids that allows one to build an iPad app from within an iPad is quite excellent. For the first time, you can actually use the tablet to create content for it. But it’s early days yet.

This week saw a couple of interesting developments in the world of tablet computing though.

Microsoft released the Surface Pro 3 which, as per almost every review I’ve read so far, is being hailed as a laptop killer. After looking at videos, pictures and specs, I’m inclined to agree. It can run all kinds of native windows applications, offers a solid keyboard, a stylus for precision work and a form factor that makes it not appear as a compromise as Microsoft’s earlier tablets were wont to do. But one of the biggest disadvantages is that it tries to replace a laptop – meaning it offers a sleeker, thinner, lighter, touch screen enabled version of a traditional laptop that can compete in the ultrabook market. But there’s no innovation in the touch interaction arena there. In my book, that is a mistake.

Mary Meeker released her State of the Internet presentation, arguably the one presentation in the year which seems to be an event unto itself. In it, she presents a chart that blows away the recent meme of “tablets have peaked and are dying” – almost 80 million tablets were sold, which equals the combined numbers of desktop and laptop computers!

What this means is that all of a sudden, Microsoft has a tablet that rivals a macbook air in the kind of functionality it offers. You can run full apps on it, and it offers a trackpad to do finegrained manipulation. Apple on the other hand has an entrenched tablet that hasn’t really moved the needle recently in terms of game changing features, and offers watered down versions of full scale desktop applications that the Surface can run.

What we’re missing is someone to show the way on what the next generation of tablet interactions are going to look like.

The future of diagnostics

I was just thinking about this the other day!

anofi-Aventis just unveiled the iBGStar: a stand alone blood glucose monitor that can plug directly into your iPhone and iPod Touch. The device, which builds upon the existing diabetes-tracking technology WaveSense allow diabetics to test their blood sugar levels on the go, record notes, and send information to their healthcare providers via a free iPhone App.


This is fantastic!