A proposal for a Social-Semantic Network infrastructure by Eric Hunting

By Eric Hunting:

What is the future of social interaction and organization on the Internet? What comes after Facebook and Twitter? One possibility is the Social-Semantic Network as explored in projects like Netention. A Social-Semantic Network is the application of Semantic Web technology to the coordination of human connections, exchanges, and communication through the automated association of personal information. It could become the ‘killer app’ that justifies the creation of the Semantic Web.

The Semantic Web is the anticipated future basis of information storage on the Internet. It functions by creating ‘metadata’ to accompany information as it is entered into the on-line environment so that this information can be automatically associated with related information by passive distributed intelligence. It’s as though everything you write or store on-line automatically synthesizes links to everything else that logically relates to it. So, in the future, instead of finding things on-line using a search engine like Google and having to sift through long lists to figure out what’s really relevant, those things find you by virtue of the automatic associations the Semantic Web is forever cultivating like a collective, active, memory.

The user interface to this environment is called a Semantic Desktop hosting various applications to work with the Semantic Web in specific ways, much like an operating system but one designed with the Internet and the future web as its primary environment. One might characterize it as like a very personal Google integrated into your personal computing environment. Curiously, the Internet is fast becoming the primary environment in which we do just about everything with computers, our data storage increasingly cloud-based and applications increasingly net-dependent if not web-based. Eventually, it might even become Blockchain-based. A unified encrypted global cloud. Yet for some reason our old-fashioned computers still use the Internet through an application–a web browser–rather than fully integrating the data environment of the Internet into theirs. This is likely to change and the Semantic Desktop may be one form this takes. Netention is an exploration of a possible Semantic Desktop platform.

A Social-Semantic Network is intended to create a semantic web across a community of people by first creating private semantic webs of individual personal information. It builds this in a variety of ways; through interaction in the network or with its various services, through communication between users privately or publicly, through various kinds of public or private personal records (like school records and digital shopping receipts), through personal diaries, through the information collected by Smart Devices in the habitat, and through procedurally-generated questionnaires. Perhaps one day even through casual conversation with voice controlled digital assistants and personal digital companion characters. Because much of this information is sensitive it will be kept private and likely encrypted, but the metadata automatically generated with it will be open across the Semantic Web. Using this, the Social-Semantic Network can seek associations between personal information webs and connections and convergences between people and other on-line resources, businesses, and services. Having found these connections, it can facilitate, and in some cases automate, communication and exchange between them. On a simple level this can take the form of a smart newspaper that can push articles of interest to your desktop. It might help you find a restaurant or doctor. Or it might do things like auto-manage your grocery shopping list and link to on-line shopping. It might help manage your health and use of prescription medicine. Or it might link your ever-changing personal work and travel schedule to your self-driving automobile, or the ticket sales of railways and airlines, or the registration for hotels or future ‘ albergo diffuso’. It might take the form of a conventional social media platform like Facebook but one where the choice of front-page posts are automatically managed by mutual associations–common interests. It might take the form of group project or activity management systems to coordinate group activity/activism across the globe. It might form the basis of an Open Value Network. It might automate the dynamic linking of networked production chains and smart contracts to suit on-demand production of products. The potential uses are endless.

But on a deeper level the Social-Semantic Network can come to understand a person’s emotional state, quality of life, personal needs, life goals, personal development, and intentions. (hence the name Netention) It’s like an Internet that knows you as a person. It can likewise develop a model of the state of society, their collective opinions, interests, and intentions. Like a system of direct democracy that’s silently polling everyone about everything. It can know the mind of the public like no politician ever has. And so, functioning like the ideally wise butler (the ultimate Jeeves), it can seek out information and associations across that larger social information web–across the world–that are beneficial or, ideally, mutually beneficial and subtly push information to the user that helps them make those usually random social connections to meet their needs, goals, and intentions. Cybernetic Pronoia–a secret digital conspiracy that’s out to help you and everyone else. The power of the Semantic Web is that it doesn’t just collect and store information. Through auto-association, it builds knowledge. It doesn’t just ‘parse’ data. It ‘reads’ information and can apply it. And it doesn’t need some active artificial intelligence to do that because its relying on a distributed intelligence built on simple rules and the weighted associations across information. When you create your personal semantic web you’re creating something rather like a natural language rule table that describes who you are and defines how you relate to the rest of the social network and the larger Semantic Web. A digital identity within a digital community facilitating your activity within a Smart Habitat. The potential impacts of this on civilization itself could be profound. A Social-Semantic Network could evolve to play Buckminster Fuller’s World Game from the global level right down to the personal level. A Digital Tao.”

5 Comments A proposal for a Social-Semantic Network infrastructure by Eric Hunting

  1. AvatarBob Haugen

    I want to be fair to Eric Hunting here, because I suspect this is not what he has in mind. But my first thought when reading this is that Facebook is creating pretty much exactly what he proposes, to serve their advertising and other monetization (and world domination) plans. So is Google. Probably also the NSA, although for their world domination and finance capital’s monetization. None of them to help you with your personal goals, except where their goals and yours intersect.

    I’m sure that Eric intends to use the same techniques to actually serve your goals. But then the question becomes, which techniques? What are their goals? (The goals of the techniques. See link about algorithms below.)

    I don’t think the working Semantic Web people have anything like Cybernetic Pronoia in mind. I’ve seen a lot of their conversations. But I see several other projects talking about social-semantic networks by one name or another, with different approaches.

    One main distinction in approach might be focusing on assisting conscious human collaboration rather than automated “wise butler” intelligence. (Assuming I read Hunting correctly…? I might have misunderstood. He could correct me in a counter-comment.)

    I think assisting conscious humans was Netention’s original goal, too. (It was a brilliant experiment, but I think now dormant.) In the AI world, it used to be called IA: that is, intelligent assistance, rather than artificial intelligence. The differences might be gross or subtle. You could have intelligent assistance with or without artificial intelligence. Might depend on the degree of automation. Or what gets automated, and to what ends. Or is the algorithm accountable to humans, can they understand and control and change it as they want? Or are the humans conscious? Cathy O’Neil is good on these issues:

  2. AvatarEric Hunting

    These points are certainly valid. It would be hubris to suggest that there isn’t a possibility for abuse and exploitation in such technology. The key here is that I see this being developed in (and by extension, helping to develop) the context of a different, more humanistic/empathic, Post-Industrial culture where that pronia imperative is one of the culture itself and thus this technology employed with the intention of automating and optimizing that. While the progressive ideas that originally inspired the technology of social networking and media have been co-opted by commercial interests–perhaps in large part because their centralized rather than peer-oriented software architectures foster commons enclosure and value-capture rather than value sharing–those original aspirations still exist, thus the many attempts to create more open alternatives.

    My choice of the butler analogy is based on an interpretation of the character as a communication facilitator and ‘trimtab’ of events rather than a genie-like ‘concierge’. The talent of the character Jeeves in the famous PG Wodehouse novels is a talent to facilitate connections his employer, because of his class social sheltering, could never make, let alone imagine. Another analogy could be the ‘queen bee’ common to the traditional village whose influence is not based on some authority but rather a higher social awareness/consciousness and emotional intelligence that allows her to subtly facilitate encounter, connection, conflict resolution, and ultimately harmony in the community. So my basic suggestion here is, in fact, a system assisting conscious human collaboration by facilitating the connections and exchanges that we, limited by our ‘monkeyspheres’ and increasingly filtered personal communication silos, find difficult to find on our own.

    Social networking platforms were originally devised to facilitate social interaction. They sought to ameliorate the problem of the chronic abuse of online anonymity that leads to so much anti-social online discourse and a compulsive silo-building. They sought a mechanism of online trust-building crucial to the development of virtual communities into a vital force. But their commercialization led to a pandering to vanity and that silo-building compulsion instead, while coaxing-out and scraping personal data for profit. So the result has been a narrowing of consciousness instead of expansion. They foster what I like to call ‘browsers syndrome’; a kind of hypnagogic state induced by cycling through lists of posts and news bytes that tend to result in angry outbursts when interrupted by too much text or anything that can trigger an emotional response. Today, a lot of people don’t know the difference between Facebook and the Internet. They think Facebook is the Internet or that the Internet is something completely separate from it. And many do little else with their computers. It’s becoming the desktop of an Internet OS–and a really bad one…

    If the Internet is indeed going to be a means to realizing a more empathic civilization then it needs to facilitate more sophisticated means of social interaction, capable of expanding rather than filtering connection, moderating the abuse of anonymity, building trust and, by extension, cultivating a medium for social capital and systems like open value networks. We may need to make the Internet, fundamentally, a social Internet, and thus a medium of a social economy. And so I’ve sought to envision a way a social-semantic network, building on the ability of semantic web technology to virtualize personal information, decentralize its use, and automate its association, can cultivate such interaction and models of individual and collective intent. It’s not about an AI nanny or shadchan. It’s about the automation of the association of social information that can form the basis of potential human connection to facilitate interaction and exchange through many individual apps. Because of its potential importance to the daily routine and the general adoption of semantic information storage, this may become the basis of a general personal computing environment. And so I suggest this may take the form of a semantic desktop platform. Web browsers are becoming an anachronism and a lot of people already see Facebook as the Internet’s desktop. They are already coming to understand the Internet as, predominantly, a social space.

  3. Avatarmonika

    from article: ‘hence the name Netention) It’s like an Internet that knows *you as a person.’

    and from comment: ‘ Because of its potential importance to the **daily routine and the general adoption of semantic information storage, this may become the basis of a general personal computing environment’

    i think key to all this is it begs we first/also make sure we’re trying it out in an open enough system that people are.. really *themselves. (which isn’t the case currently)
    begs we free up.. the **daily routine.. et al

    ie: hosting life bits via self-talk as data.. as the day..
    otherwise .. we’re just curating/connecting data driven by bureaucracy/supposed-to’s.. et al

  4. Avatarjohn gieryn

    Thanks for your eloquent lens into the future Eric Hunting, and especially the qualifiers you provided in response to Bob Haugen.

    I wonder if you’re familiar with the Human Interface Project (hi-project.org) ? Seems to speak well towards the creation of a “social Internet”; they seem to have a fair bit of momentum, considering their lofty aspirations.

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