GLIAnet at SXSW & FAQ Series, Part One


My talk in mid-March at SXSW was a tremendous opportunity to road-test some of the concepts behind the GLIAnet Project.  In the course of my time in Austin, I received some great questions about the “whys,” “whats,” and “hows” of GLIAnet. I thought it would be useful to share here some of those questions, and my initial responses.

To be clear, GLIAnet is very much an iterative process, and much bigger than me.  There is considerable learning yet to be brought on board and incorporated into the ecosystem.  So please keep those terrific questions coming, and we will keep this section of the website updated accordingly.

Q.  So what’s a “glia?” Why do you call this the GLIAnet Project?

A. “Glia” is the Greek term for glue.

I can see three metaphorical meanings that are particularly relevant.

-- First, as the saying goes, “Trust is the social glue of relationships.”  Today, there appears to be a fundamental lack of trust in our institutions, and by extension, the Internet.  In markets, and in politics, and in ordinary human connections, trust is the key element in voluntary relationships, based on openness and mutual benefit.

-- Second, as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker (aka Spiderman), “With great power comes great responsibility.”  To the extent that power and accountability have become unmoored on the Web, these two principles belong back together somehow.  You could say, glued back together.

-- Third, refers to the glial networks in our brains.  It’s a fascinating story. In the late 19th Century, while mapping the human brain, all scientists could see were the fast-moving electrical impulses passing through the grey matter of the neural networks.  By contrast, the white matter glial cells, operating only on chemicals, were too slow moving to be readily observed. And so was born the incorrect assumption that the glial networks’ only task is to glue together the neurons.  As it turns out, we have discovered over the past decade that the glial cells are the fundamental support networks of the brain – protecting, promoting, repairing, enhancing. (Apparently Einstein had no more grey matter than normal, but far more white matter.  Hmm.)

Today, each of us needs and deserves a Web-based counterpart to glial networks – a comprehensive variety of services and applications and offerings that together create a digital life support system.

Contrast this with Kevin Kelly’s Mirrorworld concept, which I discussed briefly in my remarks.  An all encompassing reality, created for us, but by others. The notion of each of us with a digital life support system seems even more crucial in that disturbing context.

So, in brief, trust, accountability, and support describe three of the core human-empowering elements that are in short supply on the open Web today.

Q.  How did we get here?  What is your diagnosis on the Web’s current trust and accountability challenges?

A.  I believe many of the problems stem from the prevailing business models and tremendous reach of the larger multisided online platforms.  

That’s quite a mouthful, and in my talk I referred to them as “the MOPs.”  These are companies such as Facebook and Google whose primary task is to soak up personal data, yours and mine, in exchange for some pretty great technology tools.  And I’m sure most of us here have used and enjoyed those tools.

However, the consequences of this particular business model have been profound.  The MOPs have created entire ecosystems that revolve around how they use -- and increasingly misuse -- information about you, and how much money they can make from it.  And then sending you ads and news feeds and other content, based on what they want you to see.  With little to no recourse on your part.  That certainly seems to be an uneven exchange of value.

How did these unbalanced MOPs ecosystems come about?  Over the past 20 years, the MOPs have been soaking up enormous benefits derived from the open Internet.  You can classify them into three buckets: Web inputs, Net effects, and platform dynamics. And as it turns out, each of these elements derive from us, the Users.  In simpler terms:

(1) Inputs from the Web:  Basically, our data.  By clicking on and reading an article, you have contributed inputs to the MOPs’ ecosystems.  Also, by contributing content to a website -- a photo, a video, a comment, a review -- you have contributed content inputs to the MOPs’ ecosystem.

(2) Effects from the Internet: The more people who join a platform, the more attractive it becomes, and the more that other folks want to join as well, etc..

(3) Dynamics from the Platform: Following the profit motive.  This is what Tim O’Reilly calls the “Wall Street algorithm” -- every platform activity carefully calibrated to drive user attention, maximizing every eyeball and every click.

So, this combination of factors had led to what is now the predominant business model of the Web.  And a hugely successful one.

To be clear here, I am not saying that the MOPs and their ecosystems are evil.  In fact, they have provided popular and innovative tools that most of us voluntarily use.  But as certain types of companies, operating certain kinds of online platforms, their financial motivations to maximize the use of our personal data are pretty irresistible.

My only point is: “Why can’t we build another kind of ecosystem?”  One with different incentive structures. One that gives each of us more breathing room to create our own interactions and experiences with the Web.

Richard Whitt