Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Fadel Adib PhotologFadel AdibSun, Jul 14, 03:49 UTC

I would like to suggest a new word.

Anthropocosmos, n. and adj. Chiefly with "the." The epoch during which human activity is considered to be a significant influence on the balance, beauty, and ecology of the entire universe.

Based on ...

Anthropocene, n. and adj. Chiefly with "the." The era of geological time during which human activity is considered to be the dominant influence on the environment, climate, and ecology of the earth. --The Oxford English Dictionary

As we become painfully aware of the extent to which human activity is influencing the planet and its environment, we are also accelerating into the epoch of space exploration. Not only will our influence substantially affect the future of this blue dot we call Earth, but also our never-ending desire to explore and expand our frontiers is extending humanity's influence on the cosmos. I think of it as the Anthropocosmos, a term that captures the idea of how we must responsibly consider our role in the universe in the same way that Anthropocene expresses our responsibility for this world.

The struggle to protect the commons--the public spaces and resources we all depend on, like the oceans or Central Park--is not a new problem. Shepherds grazing sheep on shared land without consideration for other flocks will soon find grass growing thin. We already know that farming and the timber industry deplete the forests, and the destruction of that commons in turn affects the commons that is the air we breathe. These are versions of the same problem--the tragedy of the commons. It suggests that, left unchecked, self-interest can deplete resources that support the common good.

Joi Ito is an Ideas contributor for WIRED, and his association with the magazine goes back to its inception. He is coauthor with Jeff Howe of Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future and director of the MIT Media Lab.

The early days of the internet were an amazing example of people and organizations from a variety of sectors coming together to create a global commons that was self-governed and well-managed by those who built it. Similarly, we're now in an internet-like moment in which we can imagine an explosion of innovation in space, our ultimate commons, as nongovernment groups, companies, and individuals begin to drive progress there. We can learn from the internet--its successes and failures--to create a generative and well-managed ecosystem in space as we grow into our responsibility as stewards of the Anthropocosmos.

Like the internet, space exploration has been mostly a government-vs.-government race and a government-with-government collaboration. The internet started out as Arpanet, which was funded by the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency and operated by the military until 1990. A great deal of anxiety and deliberation went into the decision to allow commercial and nonresearch uses of the network, much as NASA extensively deliberated over opening the doors to "public-private partnership" leading up to the Commercial Crew Program launch in 2010. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that put men on the moon, a multibillion-dollar effort funded by US taxpayers. Today, the private space industry is robust, and private firms compete to deliver payloads, and soon, put people into orbit and on the moon.

The state of the development of the space industry reminds me of where the internet was in the early '90s. The cost of putting a satellite into orbit has gone from supercomputer-level costs and design cycles to just a few thousand dollars, similar to the cost of a fully loaded personal computer. In many ways, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Rocket Lab are like UUNET and PSINet1 --the first commercial internet service providers--doing more efficiently what government-funded research networks did in the past.

1 Disclosure: I was at one point an employee of PSINet and the CEO of PSINet Japan.

When these private, for-profit ISPs took over the process of building out the internet into a global network, we saw an explosion of innovation--and a dot-com bubble, followed by a crash, and then another surge following the crash. When we were connecting everyone to the internet, we couldn't imagine all the possible things--good and bad--that it would bring. In the same way, space development will most likely expand far beyond the obvious--mining, human settlements, basic research--to many other ideas. The question now is, how can we direct the self-interested businesses that will undoubtedly power entrepreneurial expansion, growth, and innovation in space toward the shared, long term health of the space commons?

In the early days of the internet, everyone pitched in like people tending a community garden. We were a band of jolly pirates on a newly discovered island paradise far away from the messiness of the real world. In "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," John Perry Barlow even declared cyberspace a new place, saying "We are forming our own social contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours." His utopian idea, which I shared at the time, is now echoed by some of today's spacebound entrepreneurs who dream of settling Mars or deploying terraforming pods on planets across the galaxy.

While it wasn't obvious how life on the internet would play out when we were building the early infrastructure, back then academics, businesses, and virtually anyone else who was interested worked on its standards and resource allocation. We created governance mechanisms in communities like ICANN for coordination and dispute resolution, run by people dedicated to the protection and flourishing of the internet commons. In short, we built the foundations on which everyone could develop businesses and communities. At least in the beginning, the internet effectively harnessed the self-interest of commercial players and money from the markets to develop open protocols, free for everyone to use, that the communities designed. In the early 1990s, the internet was one of the best examples of a well-managed commons, with no one controlling it and everyone benefiting from it.

A quarter-century on, cyberspace hasn't evolved into the independent, self-organized utopia that Barlow envisioned. As the internet "democratized," new users and entrepreneurs who weren't involved in the genesis of the internet joined. It was overrun by people who didn't think of themselves as pirate gardeners tending the sacred network that supported this idealistic cyberspace--our newly created commons. They were more interested in products and services created by companies, and these companies often didn't care as much about ideals as in making returns for their investors. On the early internet, for example, people ran their own web servers, and fees for connectivity were always flat--sometimes simply free--and almost all content was shared. Today, we have near-monopolies, walled garden services; the mobile internet is metered and expensive; and copyright is vigorously enforced. From the perspective of this internet pioneer and others, cyberspace has become a much less hospitable place for users as well as developers, a tragedy of the commons.

Such disregard for the commons, if allowed to continue into planetary orbit and beyond, could have tangibly negative consequences. The decisions we make in the sociopolitical, economic, and architectural foundations of Earth's near-space cocoon will directly impact daily life on the surface--from debris falling in populated areas to advertisements that could block our view of the skies. A piece of space junk has already hit a woman in Oklahoma and an out-of-control Chinese space station caused a lot of anxiety and luckily fell harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean.

So I think the rules and governance models for space are extremely important to understand to mitigate known problems such as space debris, set precedents for the unknown, and managing the race to lunar settlements. We already have the Outer Space Treaty, which governs our efforts and protects our resources in space as a shared commons. The International Space Station is a great example of a coordinated effort by many competing interests to develop standards and work together on a common project that benefits all participants.

However, recent announcements by Vice President Mike Pence of an "America First" agenda for the moon and space fail to acknowledge the fact that the US pursues space exploration and science with deep coordination and interdependence with other countries. As new opportunities are emerging for humans to develop economic activities and communities in orbit around the Earth, on asteroids, and beyond, nationalistic actions by the Trump administration could undermine the opportunity to pursue a multiple stakeholder, internationally coordinated approach to designing future human space activities and ensure that space benefits all humankind.

As space becomes more commercial and pedestrian like the internet, we must not allow the cosmos to become a commercial and government free-for-all with disregard for the commons and shared values. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Media Lab PhD student and director of the Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative2 Ariel Ekblaw suggested we need a new generation of "space planners" and "space architects" to coordinate such expansive growth while enabling open innovation. Through such communities, we can build the space equivalents of ICANN and the Internet Engineering Task Force, in coordination with international policy and governance guidance from the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs.

Disclosure : I am one of the two principal investigators on this initiative.

I am hopeful that Ariel and a new generation of space architects can learn from our successes and failures in protecting the internet commons and build a better paradigm for space, one that will robustly self-regulate and allow growth and generative creativity while developing strong norms that help us with our environmental and societal issues here on Earth. Already there are positive signs: SpaceX recently decided to fly low to limit space debris.

Fifty years ago, America "won" the moonshot. Today, we must "win" the Earthshot. The internet connected our world like never before, and as the iconic 1968 Earthrise photo shows, space helps us see our world like never before. Serving as responsible stewards of these crucial commons profoundly expands our circles of awareness. My dear friend Margarita Mora often asks, "What kind of ancestors do we want to be?" I want to be an ancestor who helped make the Anthropocene and the Anthropocosmos periods of history when humans helped the universe flourish with life and prosperity.

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
--Winston Churchill

I was on the board of the International Corporation for Names and Numbers (ICANN) from 2004 to 2007. This was a thankless task that I viewed as something like being on jury duty in exchange for being permitted to use the internet, upon which much of my life was built. Maybe people hate ICANN because it seems so bureaucratic, slow, and political, but I will always defend it as the best possible solution to something that is really hard--resolving the problem of allocating names and numbers for the internet when every country and every sector in the world has reasons for believing that they deserve a particular range of IP addresses or the rights to a domain name.

I view the early architecture of the internet as the most successful experiment in decentralized governance. The internet service providers and the people who ran the servers didn't need to know how the whole thing ran, they just needed to make sure that their corner of the internet was working properly and that people's email and packets magically found their way around the internet to the right places. Almost everything was decentralized except one piece--the determination of the unique names and numbers that identified every single unique thing connected to the internet. So it makes sense that this is the thing that was the hardest thing to do for the open and decentralized idealists there.

After Reuters picked up the news on May 20 that ICANN handed over the top level domain (TLD) .amazon to Jeff Bezos', pending a 30 day comment period, Twitter and the broader internet turned into a flurry of conversations criticizing the ICANN process. It brought out all of the usual conspiracy theorists and internet governance pundits, which brought back old memories and reminded me how some things are still the same, even though much on the internet is barely recognizable from the early days. And while it made me cringe and wish that the people of the Amazon basin had gotten control of that TLD, I agree with ICANN's decision. I remembered my time at ICANN and how hard it was to make the right decisions in the face of what, to the public, appeared to be obviously wrong.

Originally, early internet pioneer Jon Postel ran the root servers that managed the names and numbers, and he decided who got what. Generally speaking, the rule was first come first serve, but be reasonable about the names you ask for. A move to design a more formal governance process for managing these resources began as the internet became more important and included institutions such as the Berkman Center, where I am a faculty associate. The death of Jon Postel accelerated the process and triggered a somewhat contentious move by the US Commerce Department and others to step in to create ICANN.

ICANN is a multi-stakeholder nonprofit organization originally created under the US Department of Commerce that has since transitioned to become a global multi-stakeholder community. Its complicated organizational structure includes various supporting organizations to represent country-level TLD organizations, the public, businesses, governments, the domain name registrars and registries, network security, etc. These constituencies are represented on the board of directors that deliberates on and makes many of the key decisions that deal with names and numbers on the internet. One of the keys to the success of ICANN was that it wasn't controlled by governments like the United Nations or the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), but that the governments were just part of an advisory function--the Government Advisory Council (GAC). This allowed many more voices at the table as peers than traditional intergovernmental organizations.

The difficulty of the process is that business and intellectual property interests believe international trademark laws should govern who gets to control the domain names. The "At Large" community, which represented users, has other views, and the GAC represents governments who have completely different views on how things should be decided. It's like playing with a Rubik's cube that actually doesn't have a solution.

The important thing was that everyone was in the room when we made decisions and got to say their say and the board, which represented all of the various constituents, would vote and ultimately make decisions after each of the week-long deliberation sessions. Everyone walked away feeling that they had their say and that in the end, they were somehow committed to adhere to the consensus-like process.

When I joined the board, my view was to be extremely transparent about the process and to stick to our commitments and focus on good governance, even if some of the decisions made us feel uncomfortable.

During my tenure, we had two very controversial votes. One was the approval of the .xxx TLD. Some governments, such as Brazil, thought that it would be a kind of "sex pavilion" that would increase pornography on the internet. The US conservative Christian community engaged in a letter-writing campaign to ICANN and to politicians to block the approval. The ICM Registry, the company proposing the domain, suggested that .xxx would allow them to create best practices including preventing copyright infringement and other illegal activity and create a way to enforce responsible adult entertainment.

It was first proposed in 2000 by the ICM Registry and resubmitted in 2004. They received a great deal of pushback and continued to fight for approval. In 2008, ICM filed an application with the International Centre for Dispute Resolution and the domain came up for vote again in 2009, when I was on the board. The proposal was struck down in a 9 to 5 vote against the domain--I voted in the minority, in favor of the proposal, because I didn't feel that we should deviate from our process and allow political pressure to sway us. Eventually, in 2011, ICANN approved the .xxx generic top-level domain.

In 2005 we approved .cat for Catalan, which also received a great deal of criticism and pushback because the community worried that it would be the beginning of a politicization of TLDs by various separatist movements and that ICANN would become the battleground for these disputes. But this concern never really manifested.

Then, on March 10, 2019, the board of ICANN approved the TLD .amazon, against the protests of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization and the governments of South America representing the Amazon Basin. The vote was the result of seven years of deliberations and process, with governments arguing that a company shouldn't get the name of geographic region and Jeff Bezos' Amazon arguing that it had complied with all of the required processes.

When I first joined MIT, we owned what was called net 18. In other words, any IP address that started with 18. The IP addresses through were all owned by MIT. You could recognize any MIT computer because its IP address started with 18. MIT, one of the early users of the internet, was allocated a whole "class A" segment of the internet which adds up to 2,147,483,646 IP addresses--more than most countries. Clearly this wasn't "fair," but it was consistent with the "first come first serve" style of early internet resource allocation. In April 2017, MIT sold 8 million of these addresses to Amazon and broke up our net 18, to the sorrow of many of us who so cherished this privilege and status. This also required us to renumber many things at MIT and turn our network into a much more "normal" one.

Although I shook my fist at Amazon and capitalism when I heard this, in hindsight the elitist notion that MIT should have 2 billion IP addresses was also wrong and Amazon probably needed the addresses more.

So it was with similar ire that I read the tweet that said that Amazon got .amazon. I've been particularly involved in the protection of the rights of indigenous people through my conservation and cultural activities and my first reaction was that, yet again, Western capitalism and colonialism were treading on the rights of the vulnerable.

But then I remembered those hours and hours of deliberation and fighting over .xxx and the crazy arguments about why we couldn't let this happen. I also remember fighting until I was red in the face about how we needed to stick to our principles and our self-declared guidelines and not allow pressure from US politicians and their constituents to sway us.

While I am not close to the ICANN process these days, I can imagine the pressure that they must have come under. You can see the foot-dragging and years of struggle just reading the board resolution approving .amazon.

So while it annoys me, and I wish that .amazon went to the people of the Amazon basin, I also feel like ICANN is probably working and doing its job. The job of ICANN is to govern the name space in an open and inclusive process and to steward this process in the best, but never perfect, way possible. And if you really care, we are in that 30 day public comment period so speak up!

This column is the second in a series about young people and screens. Read the first post, about connected parenting, here.

When I was in high school, I emailed the authors of the textbooks we used so I could better question my teachers; I spent endless hours chatting with the sysadmins of university computer systems about networks; and I started threads online for many of my classes where we had much more robust conversations than in the classroom. The first conferences I attended as a teenager were conferences with mostly adult communities of online networkers who eventually became my mentors and colleagues.

I cannot imagine how I would have learned what I have learned or met the many, many people who’ve enriched my life and work without the internet. So I know first-hand how, today, the internet, online games, and a variety of emerging technologies can significantly benefit children and their experiences.

That said, I also know that, in general, the internet has become a more menacing place than when I was in school. To take just one example, parents and other industry observers share a growing concern about the content that YouTube serves up to young people. A Sesame Street sing-along with Elmo leads to one of those weird color ball videos leading to a string of clips that keeps them glued to screens, with increasingly stranger-engaging content of questionable social or educational value, interspersed with stuff that looks like content, but might be some sort of sponsored content for Play-Doh. The rise of commercial content for young people is exemplified by YouTube Kidfluencers, which markets itself as a tool that gives brands using YouTube “an added layer of kid safety,” and their rampant marketing has many parents up in arms.

In response, Senator Ed Markey, a longtime proponent of children’s online privacy protections, is cosponsoring a new bill to expand the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). It would, among other things, extend protection to children from age 12 to 15 and ban online marketing videos targeted at them. The hope is that this will compel sites like YouTube and Facebook to manage their algorithms so that they do not serve up endless streams of content promoting commercial products to children. It gets a little complicated, though, because in today’s world, the kids themselves are brands, and they have product lines of their own. So the line between self-expression and endorsements is very blurry and confounds traditional regulations and delinations.

The proposed bill is well-intentioned and may limit exposure to promotional content, but it may also have unintended consequences. Take the existing version of COPPA, passed in 1998, which introduced a parental permission requirement for children under 13 to participate in commercial online platforms. Most open platforms responded by excluding those under 13, rather than take on the onerous parental permission process and challenges of serving children. This drove young people’s participation underground on these sites, since they could easily misrepresent their age or use the account of a friend or caregiver. Research and everyday experience indicates that young people under 13 are all over YouTube and Facebook, and busy caregivers, including parents, are often complicit in letting this happen.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that parents aren’t concerned about the time their young people are spending on screens, and Google and Facebook have responded, respectively, with the kid-only “spaces” on YouTube and Messenger.

But these policy and tech solutions ignore the underlying reality that young people crave contact with bigger young people and grown-up expertise, and that mixed-age interaction is essential to their learning and development.

Not only is banning young people from open platforms an iffy, hard-to-enforce proposition, it’s unclear whether it is even the best thing for them. It's possible that this new bill could damage the system like other well-intentioned efforts have in the past. I can’t forget the overly stringent Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Written a year after the movie War Games, the law made it a felony to break the terms of service of an online service, so that, say, an investigative journalist couldn’t run a script to test on Facebook to make sure the algorithm was doing what they said it was. Regulating these technologies requires an interdisciplinary approach involving legal, policy, social, and technical experts working closely with industry, government, and consumers to get them to work the way we want them to.

Given the complexity of the issue, is the only way to protect young people to exclude them from the grown-up internet? Can algorithms be optimized for learning, high-quality content, and positive intergenerational communication for young people? What gets less attention rather than outright restriction is how we might optimize these platforms to provide joy, positive engagement, learning, and healthy communities for young people and families.

Children are exposed to risks at churches, schools, malls, parks, and anywhere adults and children interact. Even when harms and abuses happen, we don’t talk about shutting down parks and churches, and we don’t exclude young people from these intergenerational spaces. We also don’t ask parents to evaluate the risks and give written permission every time their kid walks into an open commercial space like a mall or grocery store. We hold the leadership of these institutions accountable, pushing them to establish positive norms and punish abuse. As a society, we know the benefits of these institutions outweigh the harms.

Based on a massive EU-wide study of children online, communication researcher Sonia Livingstone argues that internet access should be considered a fundamental right of children. She notes that risks and opportunities go hand in hand: “The more often children use the internet, the more digital skills and literacies they generally gain, the more online opportunities they enjoy and—the tricky part for policymakers—the more risks they encounter.” Shutting down children’s access to open online resources often most harms vulnerable young people, such as those with special needs or those lacking financial resources. Consider, for example, the case of a home- and wheelchair-bound child whose parents only discovered his rich online gaming community and empowered online identity after his death. Or Autcraft, a Minecraft server community where young people with autism can foster friendships via a medium that often serves them better than face-to-face interactions.

As I was working on my last column about young people and screen time, I spent some time talking to my sister, Mimi Ito, who directs the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine. We discussed how these problems and the negative publicity around screens were causing caregivers to develop unhealthy relationships with their children while trying to regulate their exposure to screens and the content they delivered. The messages caregivers are getting about the need to regulate and monitor screen time are much louder than messages about how they can actively engage with young people’s online interests. Mimi’s recent book, Affinity Online: How Connection and Shared Interest Fuel Learning, features a range of mixed-age, online communities that demonstrate how young people can learn from other young people and adult experts online. Often it’s the young people themselves that create communities, enforce norms, and insist on high-quality content. One of the cases, investigated by Rachel Cody Pfister, as her PhD work at the University of California, San Diego, is Hogwarts at Ravelry, a community of Harry Potter fans who knit together on Ravelry, an online platform for fiber arts. A 10-year-old girl founded the community, and members ranged from 11 to 70-plus at the time of Rachel’s study.

Hogwarts at Ravelry is just one of a multitude of examples of free and open intergenerational online learning communities of different shapes and sizes. The MIT Media Lab, where I work, is home to Scratch, a project created in the Lifelong Kindergarten group. Millions of young people around the world are part of a safe, creative, and healthy space for creative coding. Some Reddit groups like /r/aww for cute animal content, or a range of subreddits on Pokemon Go, are lively spaces of intergenerational communication. Like with Scratch, these massive communities thrive because of strict content and community guidelines, algorithms optimized to support these norms, and dedicated human moderation.

YouTube is also an excellent source of content for learning and discovering new interests. One now famous 12-year-old learned to dubstep just by watching YouTube videos, for example. The challenge is squaring the incentives of free-for-all commercial platforms like YouTube with the needs of special populations like young people and intergenerational sub-communities with specific norms and standards. We need to recognize that young people will make contact with commercial content and grown-ups online, and we need to figure out better ways to regulate and optimize platforms to serve participants of mixed ages. This means bringing young people’s interests, needs, and voices to the table, not shutting them out or making them invisible to online platforms and algorithms. This is why I’ve issued a call for research papers about algorithmic rights and protections for children together with my sister and our colleague and developmental psychologist, Candice Odgers. We hope to spark an interdisciplinary discussion of issues among a wide range of stakeholders to find answers to questions like: How can we create interfaces between the new, algorithmically governed platforms and their designers and civil society? How might we nudge YouTube and other platforms to be more like Scratch, designed for the benefit of young people and optimized not for engagement and revenue but instead for learning, exploration, and high-quality content? Can the internet support an ecosystem of platforms tailored to young people and mixed-age communities, where children can safely learn from each other, together with and from adults?

I know how important it is for young people to have connections to a world bigger and more diverse than their own. And I think that developers of these technologies (myself included) have a responsibility to design them based on scientific evidence and the participation of the public. We can’t leave it to commercial entities to develop and guide today’s learning platforms and internet communities—but we can’t shut these platforms down or prevent children from having access to meaningful online relationships and knowledge, either.

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