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July 20/ Open source social media will save our democracy

In an opinion piece in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, Carole Cadwalladr describes how Facebook is the virus that has enabled the catastrophes of both Brexit, and the ascension of Mr. Trump to the White House.

Facebook allows lies to spread virtually unchecked. It permits those people with the most money and least scruples to disseminate falsehoods to those most susceptible. And it allows this with no prospect of holding individuals or organisations to account.

Whilst Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms have enabled a blossoming of connection, conversation and shared ideas; they have also created a bitter, divisive, polarised digital world where shareholder value is enhanced most by highlighting division and minimising harmony. Quiet, reasoned thoughts are filtered out by algorithms designed to maximise clicks, retweets and likes. Volume is king.

Many people want to make a difference but they don’t know how. But there is an antidote to the virus of misinformation and hatred. That antidote is open source social media, and it’s already spreading at the fringes of the online universe.

Open source social media

Open source social media doesn’t permit advertising. It doesn’t sell data. It prohibits hate speech and intolerance*. And it’s moderated by users, not resourced at the behest of global tech giants. 

More worryingly for the incumbents, the hotbeds of innovation are no longer in the mega-corporations with their teams of thousands in the offices and boardrooms of (mostly) America. They are in the open source equivalents, with code freely available for thousands of supporters and volunteers across the globe to build and improve. 

From the perspective of Wales’ Future Generations Act, anybody using, promoting or supporting these open source platforms is supporting the goal of a Globally Responsible Wales. From a worldwide perspective, that same user or supporter is increasing the freely-accessible sum of human knowledge. 

One clear example of this innovation is the federation between open source platforms (also known as the Fediverse). Federation is the ability to connect different social media platforms, so that posts and updates become mutually visible.

This means that if you post a photo on Pixelfed (ethical version of Instagram), it pops up in your feed on Mastodon (ethical version of Twitter). Likewise websites, blogs and updates on the ethical equivalent of pretty much every ‘surveillance capitalism’ platform you can think of can cross-post to each other, enabling much more streamlined conversations and updates.

What are the downsides (and upsides)?

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room; the big downside of the new open source Fediverse is that user numbers are far, far lower than for the established platforms.

This is hardly surprising; there’s a headstart of fifteen years or so for many of the tech giants. And the science behind social media means that there’s an agglomeration effect; once most of your friends are engaged on a platform, it takes a significant effort to leave them behind and start something new.

For me personally it meant (mostly) leaving my Twitter account of several thousand followers, and starting a fresh new Mastodon account on toot.wales, one of many ‘locality’ type instances across the world. 

I instantly ‘lost out’ on the instantaneous stream of updates from my many friends and colleagues, and on the rough-and-tumble of (what passes for) debate there. There’s likely an impact on my ability to promote my new business, Afallen, through that network, too. 

However, what I have found is a new community of online friends and collaborators. I’ve witnessed almost zero hatred or bullying. And I’ve relished using platforms which don’t harvest my personal data in order to sell them to companies who may – in many cases – place profit above the public good.

The truth is that the community of users in Mastodon (and the other platforms) is growing steadily – see the example below for activity on toot.wales. At some tipping point – I’m convinced – the growth will start to become exponential, and then the users who became active first will see the biggest benefits.

Weekly interactions on the toot.wales platform

But the biggest benefit of all will come when people start to leave the platforms of the tech giants en masse, lessening their influence as the custodians of online debate and information-sharing, and contributing to a kinder, gentler and more thoughtful world of public discourse.

Further information

If you’re interested in finding out more about the ethical, privacy-conscious alternatives to the mainstream social media platforms, head to switching.software.

*Almost all ‘instances’ of open source social media ban hate and intolerance. Those that don’t are generally blocked, so the hatred is restricted to a small portion of the Fediverse

Oct 18 / Infrastructure in Wales

Infrastructure is the Cinderella of modern society. Underpinning every activity we undertake, it is nonetheless largely taken for granted, except when it isn’t there.

It’s the job of policy-makers and planners in the public sector, and their counterparts and engineering professionals in the private sector, to ensure that infrastructure is robust and accessible round the clock. To their credit, there are very few times when this part of the system fails.

It’s also the job of those same people to ensure that society’s future demands on infrastructure can be met, which requires direction and investment. The ambit of future scenarios is fascinating, in that it affords both great challenge and great opportunity for our infrastructure — and by extension, for society as a whole.

But it’s my personal fear that we are failing to meet the challenges and obligations set to us by our future generations.

Gridlock

Foremost amongst my areas of concern is our electricity grid. The capacity in Wales, both in distribution and transmission, is completely full. This means that most new renewable generators face punishing costs to upgrade large chunks of the system, leaving many projects unviable.

An electricity pylon at night with stars in the background

In mid Wales, the situation is particularly severe. This is where Wales’ most productive and dependable wind resource is literally stranded, pending the development of the mid Wales connection. This 400kV connection would greatly facilitate Wales in meeting its own renewable energy targets, but is itself dependent on the ability of onshore wind — the cheapest form of renewable electricity — to access the market.

Mid Wales is doubly-penalised; insufficient grid to generate and export renewable energy, and potentially insufficient grid — ‘grid poverty’ — to make use of new technologies such as electric vehicles and heat pumps. As I wrote in 2017, this lack of access to potentially money-saving technologies has the potential to further disadvantage rural dwellers, and could lead to communities becoming increasingly dependent on unaffordable ways of heating and transport.

However, although the position in mid Wales is particularly acute, the grid is squeezed everywhere. I have been told by the two Distribution Network Operators in Wales that no new thermal generation or battery storage greater than 1MW can be installed until 2026.

This limitation is crippling our ability to take part in new energy and economic systems, once again condemning Wales to use legacy 20th century infrastructure as our UK neighbours move seamlessly into a more enlightened system of low-carbon generation, storage and smart use.

Opportunity

Wales is at a crucial point with respect to a range of infrastructure issues, and rural Wales, in a Brexit landscape, is particularly vulnerable.

However I believe that within this uncertainty lies opportunity. With Wales’ rural areas replete in notorious ‘not-spots’ for both mobile signal and 4G internet, could we combine new grid infrastructure with 5G mobile networks, leap-frogging old technologies in ways advantageous to rural livelihoods?

Why shouldn’t Welsh Government — and other public sector organisations — take a stake in the grid infrastructure which would be needed to connect much-needed onshore wind projects, facilitating the development of renewables in Wales and simultaneously providing opportunity to a whole host of modern, low-impact manufacturing and processing clusters across rural Wales?

A cyclist on a small road in the hills, fading into mist in the distance.

Could the proposed ‘Lôn Rhiannon’ also incorporate a grid line and future-proofed mobile network infrastructure, alongside a new cycle network, up the spine of Wales?

With the new National Infrastructure Commission about to sit, there are a range of future opportunities which could change the way in which we view infrastructure. Multi-use, combined infrastructure, paid for in innovative ways and by new participants (crowd-funded grid anyone?) could unleash the creativity and enthusiasm of our citizens, businesses and public sector organisations. I cordially invite the new members of National Infrastructure Commission for Wales to use their imagination to the fullest when considering how best to serve the future interests of our people.

And if they want some food for thought, my door is always open.

(This article was first published on the Institute of Welsh Affairs website here.)