Ki is Who Wi?

Ruling has always been the business of controlling the way information flows through society. The awakening of modern western societies can best be placed in the dark age after the fall of the roman empire. Western culture has drawn significantly from the romans who in turn build their culture after the Greek and so on all the way back to the Mesopotamians in what is now the middle east and the builders of Goseck and similar sites Europe's cold north. And while we're at this let's not forget that Mohammed's followers were the keepers of western humanity's knowledge while Europe was a damp and dark land. However, our culture only began absorbing the achievements of its predecessors after it awoke from its slumber with the advent of the renaissance.

In the dark age the church had the monopoly on information. In a world where a short and miserable life was merely an entry ticket to heaven or hell, clergy were the only people to understand what they preached in the language of the fallen empire and they were the only ones who could read and write. They even had considerable control over what went on in their subjects heads. They held the key to eternity and they tortured and killed to maintain this monopoly.

The struggle for freedom was since then for a good part a struggle to bring down the information monopoly. That is why the feather is stronger than the sword and that is why despots have always striven to control information: because once you lost that struggle, you also lost the struggle over people's actions.

Today the world is ruled by business. Business is a complex system following complex rules - rules of law, rules of psychology and most of all rules of economy. The rule of business probably came about when Calvinists and similar minded protestants established the idea that god cherishes economic success. Like all rulers before (and in parallel like the Nazis, the Stalinists and the Maoists) business seeks to control information. Business' instruments for information control are lobbyism, copyright, and most of all commercials.

However, I don't claim that there is some kind of conspiracy or tyranny of big business. It is just a rule system that can be changed. Its grip on its citizens has become tighter though, with the omnipresence of commercials, the laws of copyright governing information society, the ever expanding influence of big business on party democracy, and its world wide conquest called globalization. Were it not for that small fraction of society, that particular pale and inconspicuous underground tribe, the struggle to break the information monopoly would seem to be a lost cause today. But our heroes have liberated the operating system of information society - the operating system of the information servers and networks.

I don't believe that this is where it ends. Some projects have already demonstrated how breaking parts of the information monopoly can change our lives. When did you last consult Wikipedia? In olden days I used to consult perpetually outdated and - for many people - unaffordable printed encyclopedias for factual knowledge. In the Web's infancy I turned to longish queries of Altavista, Metager and Lycos. Google made those queries shorter. And now I just have to browse Wikipedia's vast commons for up to date facts that beat the hell out of these old beasts that occupied whole boards in our shelves.

This is very useful for me and makes this information available to people who could not afford it in the olden days. This in itself is a huge achievement for information society. Drawing from Wikipedia's ideas (and indeed a lot more sources) I propose another Web 2.0 project that has the potential to transform society fundamentally - without changing any rules. It is just liberating a certain kind of information, making it available for everybody.

The information to liberate is everybody's judgement of everybody else, and it works like this: You visit KiIsWhoWi.org (no, it doesn't exist, it is hypothetical) and search for a person - by name and address, working position, or the 7:30 train where you see him each day. Maybe you have a picture of him on your mobile and search for matching pictures. If you don't find him, you create a new entry, just as on Wikipedia. And then you can read what other people have written about him. You can read whom he helped or whom he cheated, where he was successful and where he failed. You may even learn about his sexual preferences and performance, whether he farts in company or picks his nose. And you can obviously add your own comments. You cannot modify other's comments, though.

Since the information is bound to build up considerably, mechanisms are required to rate or modify comments (see Extreme Governing for examples), to merge the person from the train with the ice cream man and Mr. X from Y street n in Z. This is not a technical article though, so let's assume we have this information at our finger tips.

Horrible idea, isn't it? Designed to bring out the worst in us. And the best part is: it cannot really be stopped. I don't think it would be illegal in many countries, and the internet being what it is, it would suffice if it were legal in one country. It is indeed already there, just not in one place and not covering everybody and most importantly not for everybody to read. You find out a lot about some people on social networking platforms. You can find out what they think and how they act in certain contexts if you read their blogs or comments they posted. You can learn about their payment or shipping responsiveness on ebay and so on. Business maintains huge databases with detailed economical transaction data of anybody who uses payback cards. Much of this information is anonymized, but dereferencing the alias is pretty simple in some cases. Business obviously keeps its own share of the information to itself, to maintain the monopoly. If you draw a parallel between the factual knowledge and the mutual judgements, the latter is currently in the pre Alta Vista phase, but some of it is already on record.

So, where does this take us? First of all it is important to note that I'm probably not talking about a vague possibility. KiIsWhoWi will pretty definitely come. What remains to be seen is whether it'll be .com or .org. I'd prefer .org, but lets first take a look at .com. It is not a global platform yet but it is already much more advanced than its public counterpart. Economic transactions for payback customers, credit ratings for everybody, addresses of everybody, geoscoring (German link, geoscoring means associating your address with your credit-worthyness - no credit if your neighborhood is poor) and so on. The information may not be combined yet, but it is already surprisingly detailed. Once RFID tags become the standard in retail economic transparency will be pretty complete. Business may also strive to gather more private data like the sexual habit thingy. As long as it is of economical relevance, business will care about it.

Should that frighten us? The information will not be available to the public for some time to come. It will be protected by various data protection acts but these laws are occasionally broken. I have no doubt that the information will occasionally be used to deactivate boycott activists or other enemies of business but its main purpose is marketing. Marketing has become a mind boggling propaganda engine that has fundamentally changed public opinion. Very few people still dare to doubt the sanity of western market economy. Mass marketing does one thing: it associates buying with happiness and it has been very successful at this. We seem to be unable to imagine a life without our gadgets, big cars and exotic fruits. This in itself may be debatable. I like my gadgets though and this not the argument I want to discuss here. The real problem is that business is not a good ruler in every respect.

This has far too many facets to discuss here. I'd like to focus on the two most drastic examples. We destroy the biosphere. Ever heard about the sixth extinction? Well, suffice it to say that the other five extinctions occurred over a time span of five hundred million years (i.e. during most of geologically recorded evolution). You may have heard about the fifth extinction - that took out some funny creatures called dinosaurs, ugh well, and a good part of everything else as well. Anyway, I'd prefer to leave the biosphere intact, it is certainly not my intention to destroy it, and I assume most people would wholeheartedly agree to that. Talking of people: while people die it is preposterous to try to save the biosphere on their expense. You may be aware, that lots of cute little more or less brown babies starve all the time (about one every 5 seconds). Now business is not an evil emperor who hates brownish babies because of some sick ideology. It is just not business' business to save starving children. There is enough food to feed the world, there is indeed vast over abundance. But I got more money than a couple thousand starving kids combined. So I take that soy and feed it to my pigs. We buy, they die. It's nothing personal against brown babies, not even intention. They are rather like roadkill. I doubt that posterity will share that nonchalance about the victims of my meat consumption or the destruction of the biosphere, but that judgement is for history to make.

But what does this have to do with KiIsWhoWi.com? Propaganda is essential for maintaining power. Mass marketing has been amply demonstrated to work, and its common message is that you have to buy. You have to work to get money for buying and you have to work to produce goods for others to buy. As long as this meme is governing our thoughts, business' power will be secured. The bad ruler will continue to produce roadkill and wastelands. The problem is not buying or working. The problem is that we overrate the importance of economic interests and as a whole make gross decisions.

The alternative to embracing KiIsWhoWi.org is fighting KiIsWhoWi.com. Business has much more resources than most private persons. Business will fight a tough battle using misinformation and manipulation on a large scale (it already does). It will bog down information society in a network of lies, propaganda, and proprietary information. If civil society can indeed stop KiIsWhoWi.com, it can only do so at a very significant cost of slowing down information flow in many many respects. Lots of valuable applications will not be possible if we decide to fight KiIsWhoWi.com - all that will remain of google for example is essentially a search engine.

Let's now turn to KiIsWhoWe.org. There will be lies on KiIsWhoWe.org. Minorities will be bullied. Celebrities will have a real problem. Stalkers will stalk, intriguers will intrigue and dumb asses will make bad judgements. It will indeed be almost as bad as real life. A soap opera in the form of blog forum posts (wow a novel literary genre!). I find this scenario pretty frightening. But then the nerd in me finds real life pretty frightening. Maybe you are more relaxed about this. However, I don't see how putting real life's soap opera on record makes things worse. People (with the possible exemption of the likes of me) are after all pretty good at dealing with real life, with lies, cabal, and stupidity. I do however see how KiIsWhoWi.org could make some things better.

If somebody leaves a comment, that comment will obviously have to link back to the commenter's page on KiIsWhoWi. You should not be able to post if you don't have an entry with your real identity. So if the commenter lies, the victim will say so on the commenter's page. If the commenter is a frequent lier, that will become suspicious fast. Technical helpers will aid us in reaching our personal judgements concerning other's judgements. I believe that lie and intrigue will become scarcer in that scenario because it is all on record and maintaining these illusions if everybody can view the whole building of lies is much more difficult than telling different lies to different people who will never talk to each other. Even bullying I believe may become harder. Bullying will involve certain patterns in information flow that can be identified. Once such problems are exhibited they are easier to fight. Bullying is a serious problem now and it will likely remain to be that. I doubt that it will be made worse by KiIsWhoWi.org, though.

These arguments, these reasons for which I believe that the bad sides of KiIsWhoWi.org are not so bad after all, are also the reasons for which I believe that it can transform society to a better We. Imagine you are looking for a service. You need a plumber or a used car. You check the plumber's/used car trader's KiIsWhoWe.org record and see what other customers had to say. Maintaining a business based on anything else than customer satisfaction, would become real hard. Cheating and socially destructive behavior (including such behavior towards your customers) would become very expensive in the long run. In short business would be forced to do the right thing (TM) instead of maximizing shareholder value.

And this is not even where it ends. Politicians might have to learn to do the right thing as well. Satisfying your lobbyist or winning the next election may not be enough if you have to spoil your KiIsWhoWi entry for that achievement. One of democracies greatest shortcomings is that minority's rights rely on the majority's goodwill. If the majority decides to put atomic waste into your back yard, you are out of luck. KiIsWhoWi.org might even help with that. I would not sign a law that makes me mortal enemy of some minority. Not if their hate will be recorded in my KiIsWhoWi.org entry.

Still this is not where it ends. Moral courage, honorary office, all the virtues we value in others are suddenly something that has a very real value. Greed is a very prominent sin today. But I believe that this is not due to human nature. Greed is a natural human inclination which stems from our gatherer ancestry. But the human strive for social status is much stronger. Business uses propaganda to transform the human craving for social status into a craving for economic success. Most of the time we are not told to buy happiness directly but to buy love, respect, and social esteem. KiIsWhoWi.org has the potential to bypass economic success in defining social status. Instead social status is directly measured by ones actions towards other people. This would force us to value each and every life, because roadkilling a single child will not do, it is not something we would tolerate in our record.

At the core of this idea is a fundamental belief I hold about man. KiIsWhoWi.org would actually bring back the way human ethics were meant to be kept in check. I'm rather Darwin's than Jehovah's witness, so I believe there is no purpose in things being like they are. But even if you believe that man was created rather recently (geologically speaking), you may concede that man lived in small groups for the better part of our history. In these groups humans looked after each other and they talked about each other. The problem with this was that the restrictive world view of a small community crushed more liberal minds. That danger seems to be banned today - we look back at a long history of breaking information monopolies. With these monopolies fell (among many other things) the belief that free thinkers, colored people, gays and a long line of other somehow different people are inferior to the mainstream. I see no reason why this should revert with KiIsWhoWi.org.

Many of today's apparent misdemeanors are only possible because we are anonymous in far too many contexts. KiIsWhoWi.org has the potential to change that. The information monopoly that is actually broken is my monopoly concerning certain kinds of information about myself. KiIsWhoWi.org could create a mutual transparency that would make many human vices much more difficult and dangerous to maintain. KiIsWhoWi.org is everybody's conscience published. I'm not entirely sure how it will change the world, but change it it will.

Reality is much more complicated than this simple image I drew up here to make a point. The connection between my meat consumption and the starved children, that wobble along on my hips, is far too indirect to grant my condemnation on KiIsWhoWe.org. Yet somewhere between my hand reaching into the meat counter and people starving beside Brazil's soy plantations, there likely is something worth mentioning. It is hard to tell whether all the good I predict would actually happen. It is even harder to tell whether all the bad I said would not happen will indeed not happen. It is impossible to imagine all the good or bad that would emerge that I haven't even considered, but believing that I have overlooked nothing is pretty pretentious. I strongly believe though that KiIsWhoWi.com is already in the making and that its .org brother would not make things worse than they already are. So why don't you just start the thing and we see what happens? If it turns out to have been Pandora's blog we can still try to stuff it back where it came from along whith the contemporary megadeath and mass extinction. I wish us good luck.