Co3 Project — An Exercise in Futurism

This post describes how Co3 is combining Blockchain and Augmented Reality to anticipate the convergence between spatial computing and the token economy.

Co3 is a Horizon2020 project funded by the European Union to assess the impact of disruptive technologies on public administrations. Experts forecast that innovations such as blockchain, big data analytics, Internet of Things (IoT), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI), and gamification will reshape most social and economic interactions. Horizon’s 2020 call invited researchers to experiment with real user groups simulating the forthcoming technological environment. The Co3 consortium took the challenge of this exercise in futurism, focusing mainly on a vision of the convergence of Augmented Reality and Blockchain, but it also investigates the potential of other technologies such as gamification and previously existing applications: a geolocated social network and an electronic democracy tool.

For the Co3 project, Ape Unit joined a research consortium led by the University of Turin (Italy) and composed of ten public and private partners in five European countries:  IRI Institut de Reserche et d'Innovation (France), Links Foundation (Italy), Geomotion games (Spain), Universitat de Vic (Spain), Openlabs Athens (Greece), Flexiguided (Germany), Municipality of Turin (Italy), City of Athens DAEM (Greece).

An Inter-Grid of geolocated data

In Co3's hypothesis, a pervasive network of IoT devices, located throughout smart cities, will soon interact with mobile devices augmented with spatial intelligence capabilities. To work together, devices will need a shared map of the physical space: a reference frame where users can interact with digital entities. We could name this new digital layer, "the Inter-Grid," as opposed to the internet.

Augmented Reality grid Source: Sturfee.com

Developments that allow the creation of a grid shared among different devices are progressing at a fast pace. Companies like Sturfee deploy centralized satellite vision and artificial intelligence to create an AR infrastructure for outdoor settings. Google and Apple's AR libraries (Arcore, Arkit) recently support the decentralized creation of local grids. Another exciting approach will emerge, combining IoT signals, accelerometer data, and crypto-economic incentives to provide a stable representation of physical space. One can expect the emergence and the maturity of such Inter-Grid between 5 and 20 years from now. To give a clearer picture of what this might look like, let us imagine a user's walk in the future augmented world Co3 is forecasting:

While leaving your house, your mobile phone, which is switching to outdoor settings, reminds you that you didn't change the smart lock code after your last BnB guest left. As you turn towards the door, your smart lock tracks your motion and seamlessly opens an input mask to change your key combination. Once you are downstairs crossing the street, you notice that somebody started a survey to refurbish an empty building belonging to the municipality. In the park nearby, somebody virtually tagged the lawn, signalling that it needs a cleanup — citizens can collect bounties and gamification points by participating in crowdsourced maintenance. You keep walking until you arrive at the self-driving taxi stop, where people wait for a shared ride to go to work. There are still some advertising spots left on the virtual billboard. An ongoing crowdfunding initiative is self-paying the rent for the central ad-slot in real-time. When the crowdfunding campaign loses momentum, the ad will appear in less sought-after locations. When you enter the taxi and pay for your ride, you collect a proof of presence token that enhances your citizenship rights in that neighborhood. When you arrive at work or the other augmented areas where you belong, you'll receive another token.

It's not yet clear which kind of devices will be involved, but probably there will be different ways, even simple text or audio files, to experience content whose operative system is displayed in Augmented Reality. It's reasonable to think that a potential "Inter-Grid" should impact at least two different levels:

On the one hand, it will provide a flexible graphic user interface for the physical world that can be applied to devices (like the smart lock) or can add smart capabilities to ordinary objects (voting, crowdsourced gardening).On the other hand, it would likely create a virtual world with its own economy, notably a negotiation space for attention and participation rights (advertising slots, proof of presence tokens).

The following sections articulate this broad vision in a series of hypothesis:

In the first section, “Public services as Commons,” it is argued that the Inter-Grid could empower citizens in the volunteer provision of public services, as it happens in the experimentations on urban commons ongoing in Italy and other countries.

In the section, “Commoning Economics of the Inter-Grid,” I discuss why the Inter-Grid should emerge as a commons, based on decentralized governance.

Attention as a commons,” tries to answer some questions: what are the potentialities afforded by the Inter-Grid as an interface? How do they differ from the Internet we are used to? Co3 will assess a particular thesis on the spatial filtering of information, namely that it allows “common knowledge of the information externalities.”

The section, “Towards a neo-primitive economy,” finds some similarities between a blockchain-powered Augmented Reality and the economics of traditional societies.

Finally, “Beyond the Anthropocene” discusses the potential of the Inter-Grid for overcoming the present development model. It is also a confrontation with some of the concepts created by the renowned philosopher Bernard Stiegler, president of the Institut de Recherche et Innovation which is part of Co3’s consortium. Bernard left us prematurely this summer,  here I present my way to continue his work, everybody who likes it is welcome to join.

Public Services as Commons

Co3 is also a research project in legal studies, forecasting a possible scenario where the Inter-Grid and recent proposals on urban commons cross-fertilize and generate value for public services.

Since the nineties, scholars, activists, and communities have started rediscovering the pre-modern paradigm of commons. Commons act as a third economic model beyond private property and centrally managed public property. Commons are different from other types of property because they are resources that are non-excludable or very difficult to exclude, so that they can just be governed instead of privately owned. Examples of Commons are the atmosphere and the oceans, but there are also local commons, like pastures, fisheries, and water basins. These Commons are "public" because they are participated by all community members, rather than being managed by bureaucrats. Until roughly the 16th century, open, community-owned lands were a vital economic resource in the western world. Even today, from a global perspective, more than 2 billion people within informal economies rely on Commons for their subsistence. Recently in the technology sector, the open-source movement has popularized digital commons and the collaborative development of code. The blockchain itself is an embodiment of this. It exemplifies the growing interest towards decentralized, non-hierarchical, negotiation-intensive processes that do not rely on top-down decisions.

The Commons movement has reached local institutions in Italy in the last decade, leading to exciting experiments and flourishing research in legal studies. Public administrations in Italy have begun to leverage abandoned spaces fostering the creation of self-organized communities that produce public services. Some examples are: cultural hubs, educational services, kindergartens, elderly assistance groups, and resource centers for those in need/homeless people. One result of this process was the creation of the Italian Public Regulation on Collaboration for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons.

An urban Commons in Paris. Source: (n.d.). Retrieved October 22, 2020, from https://www.publicspace.org/works/-/project/j281-r-urban-network-of-urban-commons

‌More than 200 Italian municipalities, including the Municipality of Turin, have adopted this regulation. In urban commons the state takes the role of an enabler rather than a ruler. In the most advanced legal frameworks, like those explored by the University of Turin, municipalities have given citizens the right to collectively claim abandoned spaces as long as they remain accessible to the community. At Co3, we are trying to decentralize relationships between citizens and the state further — extending disruption to the institutional level (and creating something interesting for myself — as an anarchist). Co3’s experiments will run inside what we called "Augmented Commoning Areas (ACAs);" small places where we will simulate the future AR+blockchain environment in order to test citizens' ability to provide public goods. Blockchain, for example, provides organizational and economic capabilities. Users will create a plethora of tokens: stablecoins, discount tokens, coupons, collectibles, voting tokens, and so on. We focus on the emerging properties on the Inter-Grid, so the initial set of smart contracts will be limited to an exchange system based on simple swaps and crowdsales.

Volunteering and creating local services for culture and welfare will gain economic sustainability. In particular, tokenization will enhance capital formation for not-for-profit organizations and add to participants' purchasing power. Augmented Commoning Areas will deploy the typical circulation of a commoning economy: instead of having bilateral, individual exchanges between a provider and a consumer, ACAs have a triangular circulation of collective provision and appropriation of common goods.

In commoning economics, groups have rules for contribution to and appropriation from a common pool.

The Commoning Economics of the Inter-Grid

It is hard to predict the future, but there are clear indications of the forthcoming development of the Inter-Grid. The rise of mobile devices was only the beginning. When most connected nodes are composed of IoT that have functions in the physical world, location awareness will be a generalized necessity. On the other hand, the digital augmentation of reality is moving fast.

But who will own the Inter-Grid?

It might be the case that different companies will propose their own grid. We could see a digital urban landscape provided by Android, a different one by Apple, depending on the players that  dominate the sector. A system of private Inter-Grids, however, is unlikely simply because proximity is a Commons. The economic value of proximity is non-excludable by definition; it makes no sense to have two users that sit nearby immersed in two different layers of AR. They would be blind to each other, which is the exact opposite of spatial awareness. If it is thinkable to select participants to an internet-like network, it is impossible to cut out from the grid users that are already there.

Regarding the ownership of the grid, we can imagine  public authorities seizing the spatial layer and auctioning it as they do with radio frequencies.  Alternatively, international institutions like the ICANN could arise. As for the internet's namespace, the grid could be governed by a global stakeholder council, i.e., as a global Commons. However, the nature of proximity seems to point to a different outcome. Proximity is a common good that is locally not excludable as much as it is globally excludable. Unlike social networks or search engines that are hard to abandon when they reach a global size, local communities could always “disintermediate” building their Inter-Grids and coordinating offline. Power relations and scaling economies should hence favor bottom-up governance limiting the influence of centralized organizations, even if democratic.

IBM researchers Brody and Pursewaran in  Device democracy analyzed the economics of data exchanges between IoT devices:

On the one hand: "Very soon, devices from doorknobs to light bulbs will carry as much computing power and connectivity as the first smartphones." On the other hand, the number of connected devices will rise to a level that would make it highly anti-economic to centralize data in a cloud. Instead, connected devices will maintain locally distributed ledgers. Given the IoT will be built by different manufacturers, the blockchain consensus mechanisms could provide protocols for synchronizing spatial data across trust boundaries. The topology of a distributed system is that one of a grid, not of a net. Both blockchain and the Inter-Grid will represent a fundamental change from the present communication infrastructure in that they constitute an open landscape. In contrast, the internet can be seen as an inherently delusional labyrinth of tunnels and dioramas.

Attention as a Commons

The Inter-Grid carries perceptual properties that reverse  a long-term trend, not only with respect to the Internet, but more in general with respect to mechanical communication. Before the invention of the printing press, a technology that emerged at the times of the Commons crisis, information was not overabundant since its reproduction couldn’t go faster than its consumption. At the opposite, nowadays social networks allow the reproduction of every user's life story without any effort. Selection of information is then mediated by filters that tend to lock users in bubbles In fact, personalized advertising destroyed the topology of traditional mass media such as television: in social networks every user sees the world in a perspective which is incalculable from another point of view. This process had devastating consequences, debates between different groups do not even keep a minimum shared background while unscrupulous politicians exploit the scenario embracing a Post-truth  paradigm.

If on the  Internet, attention is always measured by “subjective” time, the Inter-Grid instead will restore an “objective” space, where different users know what other users see. From the quantitative point of view in the Inter-Grid information will be scarce because it must be contained in the limits  of the physical world, so no automatic search will be needed, however if, as has been argued, the augmented layer will be a property held in common, decision on its content will necessitate governance mechanisms. At the very opposite of algorithmic filter bubbles such decisions will compose, not explode, different perspectives.

From the game-theoretic point of view, a shared attention space will enable common knowledge that is the knowledge that everyone does know the same information. Common knowledge is different from general knowledge, the simple fact that everyone knows something, because the latter cannot lead to coordination. The limits of general knowledge are well illustrated by the renowned tale The Emperor's New Clothes by Andersen: even if everyone knows the King is naked, nobody has the ability to say it. Common knowledge will enhance the capabilities of debate and self-organization within communities. Think about a crowdfunding initiative for refurbishing a public garden: by positioning the proposal at the gardens gate, it will be possible to notify all of the garden’s users.

Effects of social networks on coordination. Source: unknown meme

‌The Co3 project, which is more focused on the assessment than on the actual building of this scenario, will try to individuate the emergence of common knowledge and its effect on coordination among the experimental subjects. There should be particularly clear benefits for the maintenance of public goods, for example, tagging (creating petitions), crowdsourcing gardening, and organizing cleaning tasks. In fact the Inter-Grid allows a very strong form of common knowledge, which was already deteriorating since when the distribution of information is based on mobile objects such as books. The fact that certain visual content or certain data is served nearby other content affects the perception of both slots in the grid. Information is perceived as immediately ecological, common knowledge is extended not only to pieces of information, but also to the effect that those pieces have on other information. In economic terms, we could call this the externalities of information.

The grid's inhabitants' attention space becomes a commons that must be maintained in order to create value and avoid pollution. An Inter-Grid could restore hope in the fight against fake news; a phenomenon that jeopardizes the very backbone of democracies. For the digital commons' attention economy, it will be fascinating to observe the logics that will govern the erasure of unwanted information. In a possible  experimental setting ( similar to Reddit's April fool's day experiment "The Place" ) users may be allowed to freely overwrite other users' content: will coordination arise? Will the users be able to compose a harmonic digital garden, useful and accepted by the community?

Towards a neo-primitive economy

The inventor of Bitcoin's blockchain, Satoshi Nakamoto, revolutionized money by mimicking the economics of precious metals, and, in a more in-depth perspective, of the collectible money widespread in primitive societies. Allegedly inspired by the ideas of Nick Szabo, Nakamoto defined a scheme of "mining,” where verifiers of transactions received a fraction of a finite commodity supply in exchange for their proof of computational work. Gold, cowrie shells, exotic, and voluptuary goods historically used as means of exchange are commonly produced in a labor-intensive process (often a mix of search labor and refinement activity). In the case of Bitcoin, computational labor is employed to generate a signal that, interpreted within the thermodynamic laws of information, indicates that a large number of machines have the same knowledge about the state of a ledger. By decoding the signal, each node knows that every other node node has the same information, generating common knowledge. This proof of work conveys the consensus, provides security and unforgeability, but also defines a physical value coming from the high production costs. From a historical perspective, proof of work is a return to nature. In fact not only humans used as a means of exchange labor-intensive commodities, but, following the handicap theory, also animals use forms of wasteful signalling in order to persuade potential mates of the quality of their genes. Wasteful signalling is the outcome of a prolonged arms race between mutations that are trying to cheat and verify: signalling is impossible to forge. It provides a hint of value, even at the cost of an objective waste.

Signalling is profoundly pre-modern because it is not representational: it is not important which abstract information the signal carries, but the physical properties of the signal itself. If paper money is supposed to be symbolic and represented independently from its material support, Bitcoin, even if digital, has the same scarcity properties of a material thing. The convergence of blockchain and Augmented Reality that Co3 is attempting to explore brings the pre-modern, non-representational logic a step further: messages are physical in the digital landscape. They are more similar to monuments than to symbols. Messages are signals that exist in the Inter-Grid space, so they do not re-present themselves elsewhere.

Interestingly enough, we can find a rather peculiar precursor of Co3's vision in an odd form of collectible money used in a primitive society: Yap's Rai stones in Micronesia.

The stones are made from limestone quarried on the island of Palau, 450 km from Yap. For two thousand years, the Yapese put their life in peril on long maritime journeys to carry exotic collectibles.  A powerful signalling guarantees the value, scarcity, and salience of the stones for the community’s attention. This often happens with primitive money, but what is unique about Rai money is the size: the stones can range from just a few centimeters large to more than 3 meters high and can weigh more than 3 tonnes.

A large example of Yapese stone money (Rai). Source: Https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rai_(moneta). (n.d.). Retrieved October 22, 2020, from https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rai_(moneta)

‌Often these stones are placed in a specific location, and after that, do not move elsewhere. Their location may be significant or not: there are even submerged stones used for valid transactions. The Yapese record the stones' ownership and value, which can vary depending on each stone's particular pedigree, by means of mere oral transmission.

Several blockchain commentators found interesting parallels between blockchain and stone money. For example, Fitzpatrick and Mckeon point out in their paper that the oral tradition of Yapese stone ownership has the properties of a distributed ledger. Others recognize the proof of work embedded in the stones.  From Co3's Inter-Grid perspective, it appears that Rai money is based on the convergence of two layers: the costly signalling from bringing the stones to the island and the fact that they are placed in a common space for everybody to see. As common knowledge coming from the blockchain allows for the development of further knowledge, signalling becomes more expressive of systemic relations. To find a precursor in nature, we can look to signals placed by animals when they mark a territory.

To our eyes, Yap people’s money is more similar to land than to gold; this allows them to think about property as something that always affects the others, and is not self-contained like mobile goods.

Beyond the Anthropocene

As aforementioned, Co3’s consortium is participated by the Research and Innovation Institute of Paris, an entity founded by the world-renowned philosopher Bernard Stiegler. Bernard abruptly left this world this summer, sadly interrupting a precious, just born conversation. In fact, I shared with him a strange mix of intellectual influences between deconstructionism and nonlinear thermodynamics. He was new to blockchain research, almost hesitant since his first perception was affected by a predominant narrative that he couldn’t appreciate; however he embraced the idea of experimenting with it, as with a pharmakon. No doubt that his complex thought would have enriched the blockchain debate in a direction that is now left just to his excellent colleagues. Stiegler was a thinker of technology; his work was focused on analyzing how the “exosomatic organs” from the discovery of fire to touch screens, constitute human individuality. I mentioned the concept of pharmakon, which is central in his philosophy, because of its relevance to Co3 themes. Pharmakon in greek means both remedy and poison, digital technologies are pharmaka, because, on the one hand, they could empower the multitudes with unlimited access to information, but on the other hand, as has been argued, seem to have a toxic effect on basic human capabilities.

For Stiegler, the Silicon Valley’s profit strategies, not only a condition inherent in the technology, led to an effect of denoetization, that is, the loss of the ability to think of Internet users. Corporate managers leverage algorithms to sell products, hijacking attention towards immediate stimuli. Stiegler contraposes short circuits to long circuits that imply the passing of thought through memory.  A turning point has been the introduction of social networks: for Stiegler internet’s original navigation via links still preserved memory, but the increasing reliance on search and filtering algorithms totally externalizes recollection to the cloud.

His research program, which also involved social action and experimentations in the Parisian suburbs, aimed at a contributive economy where participants are rewarded for reconstructing their capabilities (and so contribute indirectly to the common good).

From the perspective of Co3, which will be experimented in the same territories in Paris, I expect the digital presence of a shared screen to be an antidote to the ongoing process of denoetization.

Think about two internet users sitting at the same table; as often happens, they lose interest in the surrounding environment and sink into their smartphones, perhaps chatting with  remote friends. It might be tempting to think that it is an exercise of freedom, the possibility of deciding who you want to talk to, but this is not the case. Devices are often an escape from the difficulties inherent in any relationship. The more time passes, the more the world of digital connections that each one creates becomes personal, not shared. When the real purpose of being together, building a base of reference, is absent, the pleasure of the relationship, be it online or offline, slowly wanes. On the contrary, the Inter-Grid will show the same content at the same table and users will be able to discuss it; in this way, the digital will become a facilitator and not an inhibitor of offline conversations. Above all, it will guarantee the structuring of truly shared knowledge.

The Yapese, thanks to their stone signals, are able to keep in mind and update a register of transactions, a no small feat; their spatial pharmakon can be seen as a mnemonic technology, instead of an artificial memory, that has an active power on human capabilities.

Stiegler’s long-circuits were a matter of time, ultimately seen through the experience of an individual, from the Inter-Grid point of view, it is all a matter of space that determines how the individuals are connected to each other. From ancient Greece, orators used a method based on physical locations to recall vast quantities of information, but now, as with Rai stones, it will be possible to actively modify the landscape to promote the noetization among the individuals.

Information pollution is just another embodiment of industrial pollution that, from the time humanity left its relationship with the commons, dominates the trajectory of our development. Following  Crutzen, Stiegler named our era of ecological disruption the “Anthropocene.”Stiegler thematized the elements of individuation, the techniques, within the concepts of thermodynamics: life is a struggle to counteract the forces of entropy, its weapons are pharmaka, devices that can turn out to be toxic for life itself (this might be the case of fossil fuels) or promote the capacity of the living. Stiegler thought it was possible to reverse the desertification process produced by a civilization modeled on machines with a conscious “pharmacology.” Perhaps, the present crisis is marking the beginning of a “Neganthropocene,” as he named one of his books: there is no space here to discuss its sophisticated views, but you can download it (for free) at this link: Open Humanities Press– The Neganthropocene

Bitcoin’s blockchain is a thermodynamic device: for the purpose of ordering the sequence of transactions, machines dissipate heat, waste energy, erase information in memory innumerable times to obtain a highly improbable state (the hash of desired difficulty.) It is yet to understand if the overall contribution of mining to the entropic balance of the planet is a net positive. In fact, blockchains, that have been launched thanks to the particular Bitcoin’s economics, carry the promise to substitute a toxic financial system. Also centralized currencies have entropic costs, even in terms of signalling: think about how the trust that we place in a certain reserve currency is backed ultimately by military expenditure and wasteful parades.

There is a more general role that blockchain, and the Inter-Grid, can play in the thermodynamics of our system: distributed accounting of financial transactions is intrinsically different from siloed accounting in that it allows common knowledge of the whole process of circulation.

Again, it is a matter of externalities:

Every act of exchange has effects on other possible exchanges, for example purchasing a certain item could close a loop in which the purchaser is involved and create demand for his own products. Primitive economies were highly aware of circulation, the most icastic example is probably the Melanesian Kula ring.

In the Kula ring, made of islands hundreds of kilometers apart, red shells are exchanged clockwise and white shells counterclockwise. Source: Szabo, N. (2005). An Explanation of the Kula Ring [Digital image]. Retrieved October 22, 2020, from https://archive.vn/TEF3E

Perhaps from a privacy-oriented perspective, the existence of a distributed ledger is more a bug than a feature, but it is hard to ignore the potential of the wealth of data incorporated on a blockchain. The finance of the future will have more sophisticated instruments than money as a mobile commodity, or even price derivatives, to express economic interactions. In the Inter-Grid perspective, the common knowledge of the exchange externalities will have a fundamental role in this process. Present markets, focused on atomic trades, probably are the real culprit of the Anthropocene’s distructivity: since agents do not have data on the value implied in circulation choices, they simply destroy it.

Actually, the only way a single exchange can be expressive of its full value is in the case there is no ordered circulation at all. In thermodynamic terms, we can compare the exchange-centered model with a gas in a state of maximum entropy, where particles collide in every direction, instead a circulation-centered approach implies the creation of order, as the convection cells that emerge in dissipative systems.‌‌

Bénard cells in dissipative systems, e.g. fluxes in boiling water. Source: Rayleigh–Bénard convection [Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved October 22, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rayleigh–Bénard_convection

The distributed ledger guarantees the availability of circulation data, but those are far from being manageable by human elaboration. Probably, the mediation of artificial agents will be necessary; but what could be an appropriate division of labor between men and machines? Just like the Yapese people’s Rai stones, the shared landscape will constitute a mnemonic and a graphic interface for governing the AIs.

Conclusion

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” The exposed thesis does have the ambition to fall in the latter category. Even if the Inter-Grid scenario is very unlikely to materialize as depicted — it will be very hard to divert the forces that operated for hundreds of years in the opposite direction — new technologies like blockchain and AR offer a battleground for those who want to take care of the Commons.

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The CO3 project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme 2019-2021 under grant agreement No 822615. The content of this website does not represent the opinion of the European Union, and the European Union is not responsible for any use that might be made of such content.

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