„We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace.“
John Perry Barlow, in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, in 1996.
When the internet started getting real in the 90s, many promising ideas emerged about how it could become a new sort of place for experimenting connection, freedom and openness. Almost three decades later, the real internet has become – to say the least – a painful mess. Every day, users must battle hard to find information. Once found, it takes a significant amount of time to determine its reliability – and it is impossible to do that for everything we read. Quality information in the digital world is not for beginners; knowledge is a luxury.
That brings us to a central question: how can we democratize access to quality information?
In the last years, we have been researching the interaction between web users and the information available online and, on the other hand, how this interaction generates again more information. The more we researched, the clearer it was that people’s knowledge was locked up in somewhat inaccessible islands and that something was hindering the fruitful construction of bridges between them.
For a healthy and democratic knowledge-ecosystem to materialize online, every necessary step in the process (verification, interpretation, discussion, production, construction, review, certification, distribution) should be accessible to all, easy to perform and connected to one another in a meaningful way. In other words, a digital infrastructure designed for collective knowledge-management with the right buttons and possible actions at our reach would allow us to coordinate our efforts and create, in principle, a Civilization of the Mind that Barlow once dreamed possible.
Further back in 1945, in a text called „As we may think„, Vannevar Bush conceived a device – which he called Memex – that would provide an „enlarged intimate supplement to one’s memory“, envisioning the challenges of our era’s information explosion that had, then, barely started.
Strongly inspired by his ideas, WorldBrain came up with a rationale – a meta-content model – for indexing our memories on the web. It is a browser extension that finally allows users to connect the dots on the web and democratize knowledge-management. Since their meta-content model fits perfectly into our mission to achieve a better-informed society, we formed a close partnership for the development of Memex. The model is based on six fundamental principles.
Giving users the ability to add extra layers of information (meta-content) on top of the content they visit, that is, information that talks about the content itself and helps understanding it by putting in a greater context.
For example, by leaving annotations on certain websites, we might remember how we felt about it in the past or share with others our views about it. Tags can be used to name, contextualize, classify and organize pieces of content. Links can enrich our perspective on a certain subject. Highlighting a part of a text can call someone’s attention to a fact or statement; it can also be used to make our own reading faster for the future, reminding ourselves what we found relevant.
Grouping websites together into collections also gives extra contextual meaning. By reading texts together or by juxtaposing content, some aspects that we might want to emphasize become evident. It can be valuable to ourselves personally or to share with others.
Giving users the ability to navigate their own memories or knowledge.
Going through our memories – or simply remembering – is fundamental for the construction of knowledge. Unlike the current mainstream social media’s models, encouraging us to continuously navigate the content we curate strengthens our memories and increases our sense of accountability for what we say.
Giving users the ability to refer to any content easily.
Creating links between sites we visit or contents we curated will help us and others contextualize information (e.g. posts on Facebook that were meant to refer to a historical fact without explicitly doing so often become meaningless in the future). Linking websites and organizing references on the fly as one browses the web facilitates remembering, too.
Giving users the ability to reach all sorts of content related to what they are reading right on top of the websites.
With a browser extension, the „antidotes“ (content that helps debunking misinformation, for example) can be placed by fact-checkers directly on top of the content, reducing the verification time for future readers. Or extra reads might be recommended by an expert in the field for further understanding a text. Today, different pieces of the puzzle are scattered all over the web, making research and fact-checking very painful. By linking related content, curators can join scattered pieces and accelerate the works of others that will come afterwards.
Collaboration: going social
Giving users the ability to do everything that was mentioned above, but in (consensual) groups.
You can think of what we are building as Google Docs, but for the whole web. Sharing collections facilitates the management of references (e.g. by avoiding to copy/paste multiple links to files); sharing annotations on websites simplifies the communication of personal views and may help others interpret the news, for example. Allowing users to decide when they want to see content from whom (a.k.a. filter bubble) – instead of leaving that decision to the social media’s algorithms – is probably something we have all been longing for. We believe users must have full control over the content filters, so that they can transit freely between different social bubbles.
Give users control over their private data.
Disrupting the private-data-selling model is a necessary point for any technology willing to counter the misinformation problem. A big part of the problem comes from micro-targeting, which in turn functions based on buying people’s metadata. Teaching users about data is a necessary condition for their digital emancipation and using technologies that respect our privacy is the best we can do as consumers. Users should have full control over their data, which means they should decide who can access their knowledge.
Community building and quality information
With this model and infrastructure at hand, different individuals and communities can – with no matter which internal organizational structure – more efficiently and intuitively organize their knowledge. Individuals can build on each others‘ works: distribute and coordinate efforts, avoid doing the same research over and over in parallel.
What we are doing right now is to build specific communities of researchers and fact-checkers that, working on the infrastructure of Memex, will be able to produce quality information and exemplary use-cases. Good examples being followed, an open trade of quality information can be established that is controlled by the users rather than the social media giants, ultimately decoupling knowledge from third-party economic interests. (If my knowledge is generating revenue for someone, that someone should be me!)
A transparent fact-checking and collective open-knowledge culture will, then, be facilitated in an open-end and well-grounded peer-review system – with the reviews made available for future reference. This is one possible Civilization of Mind in the cyberspace: knowledge finally being constructed in a coordinated (open) collaborative process, forming a greater collective mind.