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Internet-driven Developments — Structural Changes and Tipping Points

Posted by Elonnai Hickok at Dec 28, 2012 03:34 PM |
A symposium on Internet Driven Developments: Structural Changes and Tipping Points was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts at Harvard University from December 6 to 8, 2012. The symposium was sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation and was hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. In this blog post, I summarize the discussions that took place over the two days and add my own personal reflections on the issues.

The symposium served as an inaugural event for the Global Network of Interdisciplinary Centers, which currently includes as its members:

  • The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University
  • The Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet & Society
  • The Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore
  • The Center for Technology & Society at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas Law School, Keio University
  • The MIT Media Lab and its Center for Civic Media
  • The NEXA Center for Internet & Society at Politicnico di Torino.

Individuals and researchers from the Centers focused on understanding the effects of internet and society. The participants were brought together to explore the past, present, and future tipping points of the internet, to identify knowledge gaps, and to find areas of collaboration and future action between institutes and individuals. Specifically, the symposium set out to examine fundamental questions about the internet, identify structural changes that are occurring because of the internet, and the forces that are catalyzing these changes. Questions asked and discussed included:

  • What forces are changing production and service models?
  • What forces are influencing entrepreneurship and innovation? and
  • What forces are changing political participation?

Production and Service Models


When participants discussed the changes that are happening to production and service models, concepts such as big data, algorithms, peer based models of production, and intermediaries were identified as actors and tools that are driving change in production and service models in the context of the internet. For example, big data and algorithms are being used to alter the nature, scope, and reach of business by allowing for the personalization and customization of services. To this end, many organizations have incorporated customer participation into business models, and provide platforms for feedback and input. The personalization of services has placed greater emphasis on the voice of the customer, allowing customers to guide and influence business by voicing preferences, satisfaction levels, etc. In this way, consumers can determine what type of service they want, and can also make political statements through their choices and feedback. In the process, however, such platforms generate and depend on large amounts of data and thus raise concerns about privacy.

Knowledge gaps that were identified during the conversation included how to predict what would make a participatory platform and peer based model successful, and how these platforms can be effectively researched. When looking at big data, a knowledge gap that was identified included how to ensure that data are collected ethically and accurately, as well as the related question: once large data sets are collected, how can the data be analyzed and used in a meaningful way?

There was also discussion about the increasingly critical and powerful role that intermediaries serve within the scope of the internet as they act as the platform provider and regulator for internet content. Intermediaries both allow for content to be posted on the internet, and determine what information is accessed through the filtering of web searches.  Increasingly, governments are seeking to regulate intermediaries and create strict rules of compliance with governmental mandates. At the same time governments are placing the responsibility and liability of regulating what content is posted on internet on intermediaries, essentially placing them in the role of an adjudicator. This is one example of how the relationship between the private sector, the government, and the individual is changing, because it is only recently that private intermediaries have been held responsible first to governments, and only secondarily to customers.

Knowledge gaps identified in the discussion on intermediaries included understanding and researching how intermediaries decide to filter content found through searches. On what basis is each filter done? Are there actors influencing this process? And what are the economics behind the process?

Personal Thoughts

When reflecting on how the internet is changing and influencing the production of goods and services, I personally would add to the points discussed in the meeting the fact that the internet has also impacted the job economy.  Reports show that jobs in the extraction and manufacturing sector are decreasing, as the internet has created a mandatory new tech oriented skill set that often outweighs the need for other skill sets.  This change is far reaching as the job economy influences what skills students choose to learn, why and for what purposes individuals migrate across borders for employment, and in what industries governments invest money towards domestic development. In addition to changing the nature of skills in demand, the nature of the services themselves is changing. Though services are becoming more personalized and tailored to the individual, this personalization is automated, and replacing the ‘human touch’ that was once prized in business. Whether customers care if the service they are given is generated by an algorithm or delivered by an individual may depend on a person’s preference, but the European Union has seen this shift as being significant enough to address automated decision making in Article 15 of the EU directive, which provides individuals the right to not be subject to a decision which legally impacts him/her which is based only on automated processing of data. This directive encompasses decisions such as evaluation of a person’s performance at work, creditworthiness, reliability, conduct, etc.

The internet has also increased the cost of small mistakes made by businesses, as any mistake will now potentially impact millions of customers. The impact of any mistake makes risk management much more important and difficult, as businesses must seek to anticipate and mitigate any and all mistakes. The internet has also created a new level of dependency on the network, as businesses shift all of their services and functions over to the internet. Thus, if the network goes down, businesses will lose revenue and customers. This level of dependency on the network that exists today is different from past reliance’s on technology — in the sense that in the past there was not one single type of technology that would be essential for many businesses to run. The closest analogue was transportation: if trucks, trains, or ships were unavailable, multiple industries would be impacted. The difference is that those who relied on rail could shift temporarily to ships or trucks. Those relying on the network have no alternatives. Furthermore, past technologies were constantly evolving in the resources they depended on — from coal to gas, etc, but for the internet, it seems that the resource is not evolving, so much as expanding as increased bandwidth and connectivity are the solution to allowing technological evolution and innovation through the internet.

As discussed above, intermediaries are becoming key and powerful players, but they also seem to be increasingly placed between a rock and a hard place, as governments around the world are asking national and multinational intermediaries to filter content that violates national laws in one context, but not another context. Furthermore, intermediaries are increasingly being asked to comply with law enforcement requests for access to data that is often not within the jurisdiction of the requesting country. The difficult position intermediaries are placed in demonstrates how the architecture of the internet is borderless but the regulation and use of the internet is still tied to borders and jurisdiction.

Entrepreneurship and Innovation


When discussing entrepreneurship and innovation it was pointed out by participants that grey markets and market failures are important indicators for possibilities of new business models and forms of innovation. Because of that, it is important to study what has failed and why when identifying new possibilities and trends. The importance of policies and laws that allow for innovation and entrepreneurship was also highlighted.

Personal Thoughts

When thinking about entrepreneurship and innovation on the internet and forces driving them, it seems clear that tethering, conglomerating, and organizing information from multiple sources is one direction that innovation is headed. Services are coming out that have the ability to search the internet based on individual preferences and provide more accurate data quickly. This removes the need for individuals to search the internet at length to find the information or products they want. Along the same lines, it seems that there is a greater trend towards personalization. Services are finding new and innovative ways to bring individuals customized products. Another trend is the digitization of all services — from moving libraries online, to bookstores online, to grocery stores online. Lastly, there is a constant demand for new applications to be developed. These can range from applications enabling communication through social networking, to applications that act as personal financial consultants, to applications that act as personal trainers. The ability for concepts, trends, etc to go viral on the internet has also added another dimension to entrepreneurship and innovation as any individual can potentially become successful by something going viral. The ability for something to go viral on the internet does not just impact entrepreneurship and innovation, but also impacts political participation and production and service models.

Political Participation

Discussions also centered on how political participation is changing as the internet is being used as a new platform for participation. For example, it is now possible for individuals to leverage their voice and message to local and global communities. Furthermore, this message can be communicated on a seemingly personal scale. Individuals from one community are able to connect to communities from another location — both local and abroad, and to work together to catalyze change. Messages and communications can be spread easily to millions of people and can go viral.  This ability has changed and created new public spheres, where anyone can contribute to a dialogue from anywhere.  Empowerment is shifting as well, because the internet allows for new power structures to be created by any actor who knows how to leverage the network. These factors allow for more voices to be heard and for greater citizen participation. The role of the youth in political movements was also emphasized in the discussions. On the other hand governments have responded by more heavily regulating speech and content on the internet when dissenting voices and campaigns are seen as a threat. It was also brought out that though emerging forms of online political participation have been heralded by many for achievements such as facilitating democracy, transparency, and bringing a voice to the silenced — many have warned that analysis of these political forms of participation overlook individual contributions and time. Other critiques that were discussed included the fact that digital revolutions also exclude individuals who do not have access to the internet or to platforms/applications and overlook actions and movements that take place offline.

Knowledge gaps that were identified included understanding the basics of the change that is happening in political participation through the internet. For example, it is unclear who the actors are that determine the conditions and scope for these changes, and like participatory forms of business, what enables and mobilizes change. Furthermore, it is unclear who specifically benefits from these changes and how, and who participates in the changes — and in what capacity. Additionally, much of the change has been quantified in the dialogue of the ‘global’ — global voices, global movements — but that dialogue ignores the local.

Personal Thoughts

In addition to the discussions on political participation, I believe the internet has created the possibility for ‘social governance’. To address situations in which there is no particular law against an action, but individuals come together and speak out against actions that they see on the internet that they believe should be stopped or changed. Depending on the extent individuals choose to enforce these decisions, this can be potentially dangerous as individuals are essentially rewriting laws and social norms without subjecting them to the crucible of consensus decision-making or review. In addition, forms of political participation are not changing just in terms of how the individual engages politically with states and governments, but also in the ways that politicians are engaging with citizens. For example, politicians are using Facebook and Twitter as means to communicate and gather feedback from supporters. Politicians are also using technology to reach more individuals with their messages — from experimenting with 3D holograms, to web casting, to using technology like CCTV cameras to prove transparency. The impact of this could be interesting, as technology is becoming a mediating tool that works in both directions between citizens and governments. Is this changing the traditional understandings of the State and the relationship between the State and the citizen?

Conclusion and ways forward

The discussions also pulled out dichotomies that apply to the internet and illustrate tensions arising from different forces. These dichotomies can be shaped by individuals and actors attempting to regulate the internet, as for example with new models of regulation vs. old models of regulation,  private vs. public, local vs. global,  owned vs. unowned, and zoned vs. unzoned. These dichotomies can be shaped by how the internet is used. For example, fair vs. unfair, just vs. unjust, represented vs. silenced, and uniform vs. diverse.

Common questions being asked and areas for potential research that came out of these discussions included information communication and media, how to address different and at times contradictory policies and levels of development in different countries, and what is the impact of big data on different sectors and industries like e-health and journalism? What is the importance of ICT in creating economic progress? How is the Internet changing the nature of democracy?

When discussing ways forward and areas for future collaboration it was brought out that exploring ways to leverage open data, ways to effectively use and build off of perspectives and experiences from other contexts and cultures, and ways to share resources across borders including funding, human presence, and expertise were important questions to answer. Common challenges that were identified by participants ranged from cyber security and the rise of state and non-state actors in cyber warfare, finding adequate funding to support research, sustaining international collaborations, ensuring that research is meaningful and can translate into useful resources for policy and law makers, and ensuring that projects are designed with a long-term objective and vision in mind.

The discussions, presentations, and contributions by participants during the two day symposium were interesting and important as they demonstrated just how multi-faced the internet is, and how it is never one dimensional. How the internet is researched, how it is used, and how it is regulated will be constantly changing. Whether this change is a step forward, or a re-invention of what has already been done, is up to all who use the internet including the individual, the corporation, the researcher, the policy maker, and the government.