- Written 2006, by Douglas Reay


Information does not 'want' to be free, any more than water 'wants' to flow down hill. But, on average, water ends up flowing down hill anyway because in water's natural environment there are forces (gravity) that make it easier for water to flow from high to low, than from low to high.

So too it is with information. In the environment of computer networks it is easier for information to flow from private to public than from public to private because it is easier to publish a work than it is to prevent a work, once published, from being anonymously re-publishing again and again.

So let us look ahead to a future where most information is, or eventually becomes, freely available to everybody. What would that be like?

Well, for a start, just because the information is out there, that does not mean it will be easy to find. Bandwidth costs money, CPU time costs money. You may be able to request individual bits of data, given their location, but downloading a petabyte database so you can perform a local search on it will be beyond most people, and if you want someone else to run the search for you on their computer, we will have to consider what they might get out of it.

Currently it seems that there are plenty of organisations on the net willing to pay for your attention. Either because they want to promote their own views, or because they can make money out of selling on part of your attention to others (advertisers), they are willing to produce premium content for free and provide services such as storing data and running searches upon it for you.

And even if there were not, there are now peer-to-peer mechanisms for sharing out large bodies of data, storing it, and running searches upon it. So let's take that all as read. What's the next issue people will face in this info-rich future? I think it is trust.


The more information available, the harder it is to narrow it down to just the bits you really want to spend your time reading without missing out on bits you would like to read if you knew about them. If each bit of information had a rating saying how relevant it was to your current stated preferences and interest, you could search for the highest rated bits, but the issue then becomes how do you decide who or what you will trust to allocate those ratings?

Let me introduce some terminology here, to help categorise the choices:

First order unmediated trust You directly allocate ratings to authors, based on your own reading of stuff they have written. The drawback is that your only way to find new authors you like is to try reading them at random.
Second order human mediated trust You choose to trust a third party or agglomeration of known third parties to allocate ratings. These editors and publishers may use first order, second order or any other sort of trust in order to choose their sources. The drawback is that control is out of your hands. There are two forms of this. Editors, such as Wired magazine, choose a specific area to cover (technology) and you must then subscribe or not. Whereas search engines, such as Google, let you choose the area, but the results they supply are still dependant on the algorithm (pagerank) that they have chosen to implement. Either way you are at the mercy of the biases, tastes and interests of a third party that will never perfectly coincide with your own in all areas.
Third order computer mediated trust You stay in charge of how you decide to spread your trust, but delegate a computer to implement your algorithm and keep track of the results. So other humans provide recommendation data (eg links or diggs), and a computer processes this data but you control how the computer does that. You tell the computer on what basis it should decide whose recommendations to weigh heavily. So there is no single page rank algorithm that decides in advance that everyone will think Bill's Whatsit Page is untrustworthy or unimportant. The computer does not make the key decision. Instead you are in control of how your trust is spread, and the computer only mediates this trust for you. The key is that people supply data recommending not just primary sources, but also rating how good they think specific others are at making particular types of judgement. This allows each user to spin a distinct web of trust, based on the data and their own chosen metric.

This essay is about third order computer mediated trust. What sort of knowledge base you would need to store such opinions, how it could work, the effort required of people to publish such opinions and under what circumstances it would be worth their while. And finally the consequences; on people, their social groupings, society, and on the interactions with other advances in technology.


I shall give the specific sort of knowledge base required for third order computer mediated trust a name of its own, as that phrase is far too unwieldy. From "Amicus" (friend) and "Cogito" (to think) we get:

amicog (Noun) ('AM-ee-cog', three short syllables. Abbrv: "cog"):
A collaborative knowledge structure formed by the interactions of a group of people. Recordings of who believes what, and how much whose judgement in which areas is respected by whom. The technology required to add to this, organise it and present customised views of it to participants.

to cog (Verb):
To group think. To interact with an amicog that you are part of.

In software terms, there are a number of ways such a knowledge base could be organised, but let's look at one possible implementation: In simplest (though least scalable form) it could be a single website supplying the datastore and presentation layer for a single amicog. Users would log in as an identity, read discussions, browse to linked resources, contribute to discussions, rate resources and the opinions of other users all through the web interface to a single site. The presentation layer might look like a wiki, displaying threaded discussions sorted into a hierarchy of topics, with some comments and discussions being raised to higher prominence, based off your algorithm choice. Off site links to books on amazon, movies on IMDB and music on bittorrent would have an added icon to let you rate them. User names by each wiki comment would have an icon to let you rate or categorise that comment or user. Searches for resources or discussions would let you see and rate or categorise the opinions expressed by others. Your preferences for which users you trusted to accurately rate music in each category for you would build up. You could have your algorithm look for others who shared your opinions of those raters, and find other rathers they also thought highly of, thus building up your own personalised web of trust. The algorithm itself you could preselect from a number of sensible defaults supplied by the website owner, then customise. And a daily dump of the database could be made available via ftp, with ongoing updates syndicated via XML, to facilitate others in developing alternative amicog software.


That sounds a lot of effort doesn't it? Why would anybody bother or want to join such a thing? How might amicogs take off in the real world?

Well, the first thing to note is that it devolves well. Even if you just log in, and select a default metric of "trust everybody equally", an amicog will behave at least as well as a web forum. There is no barrier to entry.

Secondly, it does not rely on altruism. It is in a user's self interest to register their opinions, because that gives their own algorithm a better base upon which to judge the user's taste and so find others who match that taste.

And thirdly, you already see comparable behaviour on other systems. Users do take time to provide diggs, add to stumble upon, rate people on avagato, mod posts in slashdot, fight trolls on usenet and moderate wikipedia. Such behaviour is rewarded socially and on an amicog the impulse will if anything be stronger because other users can choose to set their algorithm to automatically reward the statements of social benefactors with greater attention.

I see amicogs taking off, initially, by being added to existing online communities as yet another group communication tool. This is similar to the way that web forums got added to email mailing lists (, live chat got added to web forums (, blogs got added to revision control systems (, and so on for mutual calendaring, instant messaging, and 3D environments. People will continue to spend their attention spread between forums that contain stuff they want to read in their different areas of interest. We see a trend towards aggregators that let users recombine feeds from different sources (such as livejournal, technorati and bloglines), and there is nothing to prevent an amicog front end interacting with multiple amicogs. But ultimately what builds a community and retains long term interest from a user is the ability to interact. To have other people read and reply to what they write. In a way this is a return to the village - the idea that you can only really grasp and identify with a group of 300 or less individuals. An amicog, by letting each user define and seed their own trust algorithm, allows intersecting circles of small social groupings to build up, in a non-antagonistic manner, into something larger, something new.


If we are going to consider the possible future impact of third order trust systems on society, we need to look at the other changes in the technology scene that are often considered likely to be on the way:

Semantic Web
Tim Berners-Lee's vision of web pages with semantically tagged contents
Web 2.0
Tim O'Reilly's vision of a more ad-hoc, read-write, service-oriented web
Distributed Computing
More reliable, scalable and cooperative hardware, software and network architectures
Living Applications
More context-aware, mobile, wearable and reality-augumenting gadgets
These changes, taken together, paint a picture of a society where the net is highly interwoven with everyday activities. Mobile devices will be far more aware of their surroudings and able to interface with knowledge bases that are more machine accessible and parsable. The mobile devices are going to need to be able to interface and negotiate with other nearby devices on an an-hoc basis, in order to facilitate their owners' ability to spontaneously collaborate. Cogging won't be just a way to find people online with whom you can enjoy shooting the breeze with. It will be your neighbourhood, your livelihood and your political representation.

Grandiose claims. Why do I think amicogs are that important? Because our society is going to get increased collaboration - it is too powerful not to happen. The question is whether the power (to decide how the people you are considering collaborating with are rated) will remain in your hands.