Tim Morgan published his seventh blog post in our Emerging Fellows program by inspecting the ownership of automated societies. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Ownership is not a single concept. We see the accumulated layers of different ownership modes in many societies across history. The possessive “MINE!” of a child is our earliest form of ownership. In turn, acceptance by those nearby transforms a claim to a personal possession into socially recognized ownership. Land and tax records written on clay, skins, paper, and even the ancient Inca’s “talking knots” created a recorded form of ownership. Later, printing made that form more complex and flexible, enabling ownership modes such as stock corporations and fiat money. Telegraphs and telephones made negotiation or sale of recorded assets even more dynamic, complex, and widespread. New forms of ownership always co-emerge with new communication modes, building on top of earlier modes.
We are now in the era of accelerating digital communications and automation. Ubiquitous information technologies have strained to breaking intellectual property concepts like copyright, trademark, and patents. Courts, legislatures, and media struggle every day with automation’s effects on ownership. What new ownership mode is emerging along with networked automation?
Online gamers sometimes use an early Internet slang term which rhymes with “owned” when they decisively win: pwned. Unskilled “script kiddy” hackers boast of “pwning” a website or computer using off the shelf hacker tools. To be pwned is to be dominated by someone online. This “leetspeak” term has softened over time to mean clear, decisive winning over a situation or person. Powerful online businesses operate with a similar dominance-as-owning-dynamic. Google overwhelmingly owns online search in the West with Baidu owning China’s search market. Amazon and Alibaba own online product sales worldwide. Facebook and WeChat respectively own social media. Pwning a market goes beyond mere monopoly. Businesses that successfully use automation to establish market dominance become a de facto infrastructure for other’s services and products. Automation platforms are creating a new layer of economic and social infrastructure.
Platforms create increasing automation dependence as capabilities increase. Doctors adopting new AR/VR surgical tools quickly find that they are owned by the supplier when they lose critical capabilities after an unexpected software update. A small company’s sales can disappear overnight if their search rankings drop to the second page on Google or Amazon for no apparent reason.
Platform-based businesses feel like they are pwning everyone. They are wrong. Networked elements within a long-marginalized Civic sector are beginning to connect to a growing Social Commons sector. Global green initiatives are reshaping popular sentiment, policy and infrastructure. Activists are using corporate-created social media to force social conscience back into corporate governance. Each sector is increasingly leveraging automation created by the Private sector to influence the social values of society. This in turn influences the services offered on Private sector platforms. The local Civic sector and the global Social Commons sector are beginning to team up via automation. They are slowly shifting the balance of values flowing through automation and into society.
Who owns an automated society? It is those who best exploit the potentials of automation and consciously shape them to change society. The Private sector currently controls the automations which are driving social change, but not for long. One thing the Internet era has taught us is that those who pwn everyone today are certain to be pwned tomorrow.
© Tim Morgan 2019