A Plea for Multispace, the DIY Civic Internet That Will Never Exist

Researcher proposes an information infrastructure "beyond what is unlikely to ever be supported by commercialized information and communication systems."
May 14, 2017, 2:00pm

Consider Linux. Pretty much the pinnacle of open-source, the operating system has the largest installed base of any general-purpose computer operating system and is found on more servers than any other OS. 99.6 percent of the world's 500 fastest supercomputers run Linux. Anyone can use Linux at no cost and anyone can modify, reuse, or distribute the Linux source-code for whatever purpose. Per the logic of capitalism, however, it shouldn't really exist.

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This is the logic of the internet itself as well, at least as we currently experience it. In the world of startups, innovation is speculation—ideas are mining claims, tentative efforts made in the hope of hitting a rich reserve of gold or oil that can be sold for enough money to make the whole thing worthwhile. Linux would seem to suggest another way.

This same sort of optimism is at the heart of a paper published this month in ACM Computers and Society by public policy researcher Douglas Schuler. Schuler imagines a vast TBD technology suite called Multispace, an infrastructure for collective civic intelligence "unlikely to ever be supported by commercialized information and communication systems."

Multispace, Schuler explains, wouldn't be a Facebook or Google unto itself, but would instead be an underlying architecture to support general features or components. In his words:

The envisioned system would support a variety of basic features that people currently use (search, chat, photo and other resource sharing, map services, calendaring, etc.) as well as more advanced features such as deliberation, participatory budgeting, discussion, collaboration, ideation, issue mapping, decision-making, visualization, simulation, civic games, access to scholarly literature, etc. It would probably need to be built with federated, integrated, distributed open source modules and be governed by its users and developers in an open public way. It would be operated to the highest degree possible without surveillance, data harvesting, and censorship and it would be available via multiple devices.

Multispace, in other words, does everything and it does so without any of the bad stuff. The pitch is mostly unconcerned with the difficulties of actually doing any of these things, but implementation also isn't the point. Multispace is "aspirational."

To the end user, Multispace could look like any number of things. Multispace could look like a brand-new thing or it might look just like, say, Facebook or Google, but its core would be open technologies governed by some incorruptible, benevolent organization whose mission could be likened to that of public libraries: guarantors of free and open information.

"The system should be easy to use. It should provide access to complex data in formats that do not add complexity," Schuler writes. "The system should feature integrated applications, through accessible, consistent, well-integrated interfaces; rather than through a multitude of standalone apps. There would be a focus on the whole, although ultimately we would build the whole largely through the integration of existing and new parts."

I could tell you to just read the whole paper for yourself, but it's paywalled. This rosy treatise on open information is not open. And this is the whole paradox about openness. The world's accumulated source-code is mostly open, but the end products we use so often aren't. Schuler wants a system that is continually in the process of being defined by users and imagines that that is the answer, but it doesn't get rid of the savvy corporation backed by VC dollars. They're still out there and they know something pretty important about people—so often they just don't give a fuck.