The human web and sustainability
by Philip Sheldrake

guestPosted by

The ultimate information technology challenge is the care and maintenance of a digital infrastructure that can help us rise up to so-called super wicked problems, collectively. Given the growing appreciation of the nature of complexity and the complexity of nature, we know we’re in the domain of systems thinking and sustainability – the health and resilience of living systems including our planet, our societies, and our organisations.

In pursuit of sustainability
Sustainability requires healthy, distributed networks, with both diversity and individual agency, to facilitate the emergence of collective intelligence. It is these qualities our digital technologies must enable and encourage.


We must solve personal data and privacy, transform accessibility and digital inclusion, and secure a citizen-centric Internet.


Removing the vulnerability, real and perceived, of personal data helps liberate individual agency; all the more critical as we instrument our homes, our streets and our planet with connected Things. Developing technology to adapt to individuals rather than insist they adapt to it encourages diverse participation. And curtailing centralizing power and mediation gives distributed networks time and space to flourish.


Such things cannot be achieved alone or even in great part by fiat. Our political representatives may reach for the regulatory hammer when the application of technology is delivering poor outcomes – the pending EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for example – but this one tool is a blunt tool. It may alter the system parametrically but however appropriate, sustainability is never secured by decree. Rather, understanding of the sustaining potential must spread memetically on its own merits.


This explains my contribution here, and more importantly yours.


Sufficient communities must form and strive to solve privacy, transform accessibility, and secure a decentralized infrastructure such that digital sustainability can help breed sustainability. And this must happen in a timely fashion lest the potential to shift the current trajectory of all things digital closes.

The human interface
When we bring things into the digital realm, we digitalize the pre-digital; after all that’s all we’ve known. That’s how we went from mail to email, and from having desktops, files and folders to, well, desktops, files and folders. Only after the passing of many years, and sometimes decades, do we discover and develop the unprecedented qualities of the digital era. For example, we’re now migrating from filing to instant search, and from email to all variety of social / sharing / collaborating / chat platforms and services.


The user interface (UI) is presented by the machine to the user. That’s how it was for physical machines on the shop-floor back in the industrial revolution, and that’s how it is today for the machines that proxy for the organizations in our digital lives. But being non-physical, this needn’t be the case. An interface just sits between the human and the machine, and can therefore be up close to the human rather than the machine, up close to the entities that actually matter in all of this. Those of us in the nascent hi:project community distinguish this possibility from traditional UI by calling it the human interface (HI).


UI is a 50 year old construct fit for 20th Century computing, whereas the HI is fit for the pervasive digital environment of the 21st Century. The UI provided interactive information whereas the HI enables knowledge building. The adage of the UI age “the interface is the product” becomes a trivial moment in time, an anomaly, as we return to the reality that the product is in fact the product.

The GDPR (and there are similar discussions around the world) tells organizations that the citizen takes primacy when it comes to personal data. Yet the citizen cannot be best served in this respect by a panoply of enterprise IT solutions for her side of things (the clue is in the name, “enterprise IT”). Must she set and maintain privacy configurations three dozen times over for three dozen different organisations? Does that sound to you like the fastest route to meaningless compliance?


The citizen considers the interface to be the locus of her personal data and information, and the nexus of her privacy preferences. And, with HI, she’s right.

We all have different digital, numerical, information and visual literacy, yet UI designers cannot cater to this variety. HI can. The UK Business Disability Forum says: “We believe the hi:project has the potential to dramatically improve interaction in the digital space for the many millions of people who are already disabled and the millions more who will become disabled as they age. For some people in this group the benefits could literally be life changing.”

A citizen-centric Internet (of Things) is one where we don’t rely on a third party to mediate our interactions with things. This should sound quite familiar as that’s how it’s always been until very recently. With HI every Thing gets an interface because the citizen brings her own. Centralized offerings may be convenient, but convenience value cannot come close to sustainable value given time.

If the hi:project emerges – if sufficient numbers of us combine to make this open, non-profit endeavour and others like it a reality – then support for healthy living systems, the foundation of sustainability, will be woven into our digital fabric.


The ramifications are broad and deep. For example, human interface might erode the very frictions (the costs of using the price mechanism, known as the transaction costs) that Ronald Coase identified to explain the very existence of the firm.


One’s human interface is one’s digital agent (and we need not invoke artificial intelligence). It may represent you algorithmically. It may negotiate on your behalf without mediation. It may wield the blockchain in rendering trust trustless. In so doing, it moves our focus from the 20th Century organisation to 21st Century organising, from top-down to bottom-up, from things to their relationships, from stocks to flows. I contend it will be empowering, augmenting human capacity rather than replacing it, but the measure of that is yet to emerge. It’s complex.


About the author:

Philip Sheldrake is a Chartered Engineer, author, Managing Partner of Euler Partners, Director of techUK, and analyst for Gigaom Research. He is an architect of the Web Science Trust endorsed hi:project.


  1. Interesting article, very idealist, but we need ideals if we are to progress as a society.

    I’d like to like to know more on how you can decentralisation and empower local groups whilst imposing the standards you propose.

    I can’t think of any historical reference where decentralised communities didn’t continually fight over land or trade. Human nature being what it is the same would happen on a citizen’s internet.

    How do you think we could overcome these issues through the use of a human interface?

  2. Hi Clifford, your comment references some big philosophical and sociological questions, some aspects of which I could contribute to at length, and some aspects of which I would defer to others with more appropriate knowledge and experience. In the short space here I would offer the following.

    I will pick up on your choice of phrase, “imposing the standards”.

    Standards are a funny thing. They can shackle and liberate, frustrate and inspire. The setting of and adherence to standards should come neither too early nor too late in any field, and yet adjudging that is far from easy in the moment.

    Selecting a side of the road to drive on makes the road more usable to all. Adopting Web standards has allowed the Web to flourish in ways a free-for-all could never.

    And I reference the Web specifically because the standards inherent to a realisation of the hi:project would be similarly proposed, debated, implemented and, likely, deprecated at some future point in time. It’s a process of consent rather than consensus, with all interested parties have the opportunity to contribute to the process.

    So I hope the standards the hi:project requires over and above Web standards would have similar liberating qualities. And the similarity will extend to the thorough and yet, as many would attest, slow and painful process of development and ratification.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.