To solve digital challenges, communities should look for insights beyond the tech industry

Many of the challenges presented by the internet appear novel. After all, the technology connected billions of people to one another for the first time through social media and seemingly miraculous pocket-sized computers. “But what I want to suggest is that a lot of the good things and the bad things about the internet actually aren’t new,” said Eli Pariser, co-director of New_ Public, during a conversation at Unfinished Live.

The internet was built by humans, Pariser explained, and the patterns and dynamics emerging are ones that have occurred all throughout human history, and even before then in the natural world. To build a better internet, communities should look for insights beyond the tech industry, including in urban design, indigenous storytelling, and even forests.

In the 1980s, Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard discovered that trees communicate with one another in decentralized networks. The oldest nodes, called mother trees, distribute water, give carbon to nearby saplings, and distribute resources across great distances. What if the internet was organized in a similar way? 

“Forests show us how the internet could be,” said Claire Evans, a musician and the author of the book Broad Band. “It’s a place where elders with thick barks and deep taproots weather the wildfires, bring continuity to our communities, and hopefully prevent us from repeating old mistakes.”

Watch the full conversation below, and scroll for a written transcript. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Statements by these speakers have not been fact-checked by Unfinished and represent their individual opinions.

Eli Pariser

Well, I want to start out by acknowledging the question that’s probably on your mind, which is, was this session envisioned under the influence of edibles? “What can the internet learn from trees, man?” My name is Eli Pariser. I run New_ Public with Talia Stroud, which is a community of designers and technologists and community builders and experts. We’re really thinking about how we can build better digital spaces, spaces that work for everyone. What I want to argue to you is that this isn’t actually a dumb question.

When we talk about the internet, we often think about everything that’s new and talk about what’s new and the efficiency and the frictionlessness. Even when we talk about the bad things on the internet, we tend to talk about them as if they were these brand new phenomena, the scale of harassment or the Russian state operations, that these are new phenomena driven by new technology. And there is some truth to this, but what I want to suggest is that a lot of the good things and the bad things about the internet actually aren’t new. Chaos versus order, freedom versus control, thick networks versus thin networks. These are patterns and dynamics that have occurred again and again throughout human history and even before that in the natural world.

So the speakers to come are going to talk about how these patterns from city design, from indigenous storytelling and yeah, from trees, can really offer some insights into how to build a better internet, an internet that might actually work for everyone. For me, studying and understanding these patterns really matters because right now, honestly, it’s very easy to feel down about this whole project. Maybe even kind of hopeless about digital life. When we think about the harassment and the exclusion and the hate, there’s a lot of carnage there. There’s a lot of pain and damage. And some days, I wake up and feel like it’s a boot stamping on a human face, logged on the blockchain forever.

But the fact that there are these old dynamics, these old patterns are in my book, a reason for hope. The fact that these dynamics are old means that humans have been struggling with them and learning about them for a very long time. And it doesn’t mean we have all the answers, but around the world, across cultures and civilizations, there’s this extraordinary depth and wealth of wisdom that we can bring to bear on these problems if only we look outside of the lens of the typical kind of VC driven tech ecosystem. And at the very least, I think understanding these patterns means that we don’t have to start from scratch. It means that we can build on the learnings from the past and at least make more interesting, new mistakes.

So as we’re talking about the future, I just want to take a moment to appreciate everything that’s come before, whose wisdom and work that we can draw on.

Our work at New_ Public focuses on making these deep insights useful to people who are actually working to build new kinds of digital social spaces. Spaces that are flourishing, that are inclusive, and that build strong communities, places that people actually want to spend time and live. We argue that we’re looking in the wrong place for salvation, that the frame of looking for solutions in the form of venture scale businesses is limiting our point of view.

So for us, one of the lenses that I think is really useful is to think about digital problems in the terms of physical public spaces. As opposed to thinking about bits of content streaming and moving between brains, when we imagine digital spaces as physical spaces, there are a bunch of things that immediately shift our way of thinking. So the first is that, when we imagine people in space, we start to think about all the emergent dynamics of human behavior. All of the nonverbal cues, the ways that people group together, the ways that bodies move, the way that bodies are impeded, and we also quickly notice that there are different spaces structured for different purposes and that homogenous unstructured spaces usually don’t actually work out very well.

So the map here of Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, which is my neighborhood park, this is an old map from 18-something, but the park today is still very carefully structured so the different spaces are for different uses. And we also noticed that when we think about these spaces, when we think about physical communities, there are different kinds of ownership and governance structures. So we do have space for private businesses, but we also have parks and libraries, which aren’t organized as business. And in fact, if you tried to turn a library into a VC scale business, you lose everything important about its essence.

Sociologists tell us that these common public spaces serve a really important role in society, that they are the places that communities get woven together. And we believe that we need more of these public spaces in digital life. We need urban planners for the internet.

One more thought. As we kept doing this work, we kept coming across a word. Socio-technical. And it sounds like academic jargon, but it was actually coined by two English researchers who were trying to figure out how to help miners in the English countryside after World War II.

And they realized that when they were digging into how the technical systems work, they couldn’t totally solve the problem. When they were thinking about the social systems around the mines, they couldn’t solve the problem. But it was really the interaction between these two ways of thinking, where they started to make some real breakthroughs and make things better for people. We have a deep conviction that it’s in the socio-technical, the place where community experts and people who actually understand people, understand groups, understand community, come together with people who understand design and technical systems that will find the solution to a lot of the problems that are the trickiest problems. So doing socio-technical design to start actually building these systems is what we’re up to a New_ Public and if that’s interesting to you, we’d love to hear from you.

Our frame at New_ Public is that this is not something that anyone can do alone, we certainly can’t do it alone, but that we can build better systems together. Today we’re going to present a kind of appetizer platter, if you’re fancy, a tasting menu, but three brilliant, socio-technical thinkers from different disciplines who are going to speak to the dynamics of centralization and decentralization. And again, this is one of these deep human patterns, from empires to forests, to city structures, to religions, there are all sorts of institutions that have grappled with the right level of decentralization.

I want to know for folks on the live stream, we’re all vaccinated and tested and we’re in a room of mass people, and that’s why we don’t have masks on, but let me tell you who you’re going to hear from. So Claire Evans, actual rock star, Grammy-nominated singer in the band YACHT, who also wrote a brilliant history of the women who helped build the internet, Broad Band, check it out.

Amelia Winger-Bearskin, a Native artist and scholar who is currently Banks Preeminence Chair of AI and the arts at Florida University.

And Rich Benjamin, a cultural anthropologist who wrote Searching for Whitopia, which is this extraordinary study of town level segregation in America.

And so with that, please welcome Claire Evans, who’s going to talk about what the internet can learn from trees. Thank you.

Claire Evans

Hi. Hi everyone. I’m going to talk to you for five minutes about the Wood Wide Web. Who here is familiar with the concept of the Wood Wide Web? Okay, so about the same amount of hands went up as people who understand blockchain. Okay. We’re in a good place. For those of you who don’t know, and for posterity I guess, the Wood Wide Web is a catchy name for the network of symbiotic, mycorrhizal fungi and tree roots that allow trees to communicate and share nutrients with one another in a healthy forest. Obviously the Wood Wide Web is old, but we’re just beginning to map it now.

In fact, much of what we know about the Wood Wide Web we… Oh, well, I should say much of what we know scientifically about the Wood Wide Web, because of course indigenous people have known this for a very long time. But much of what we know scientifically about the worldwide web we owe to the Canadian forest ecologist, Suzanne Simard, who did a series of field research experiments starting in the eighties, which showed that trees that were previously thought to be competitive with one another, like birch and pine, actually help each other thrive by sharing nutrients through these fungal linkages in the soil.

Simard’s work revealed the fundamentally cooperative nature of forest ecosystems. As she writes, “Evolutionary success is not necessarily the result of competition. In fact, because ecosystems are built on relationships and the stronger those relationships are, the more resilient the system.” In 1997, the editors of the journal Nature put Simard’s research on the front cover and, inspired by the development at that time of the early World Wide Web, they gave it this cute name, the Wood Wide Web.

The thing is in 1997, the World Wide Web was really young. It was still predominantly peer to peer, right? And online advertising was in its infancy. It might’ve looked like a healthy forest to the editors of nature then, but it’s certainly far from healthy now. Because in the intervening 20 plus years, the web, like many forests on Earth mind you, has been wounded and depleted in the pursuit of profit. We all know this. A few corporations control most of public Cloud infrastructure, these monopolistic ISPs sort of exploit us all, social media giants, by selecting for the most inflammatory content and by dividing us into these tidy tranches for advertisers to serve, have kind of algorithmically weeded the forest, if you will, into a field of commercial timber.

And in that environment, trolls, like mountain pine beetles, proliferate. Controversy sparks like wildfire, scorching the earth. And all around us we see these practices that privilege factions over coalitions. Over the mutualistic, interdependent, healthy relationships that bind healthy systems and societies. So if we’re going to fix this, I think we could do a lot worse than taking the metaphor of the Wood Wide Web seriously, and actually looking to the forest for some wisdom.

Okay. This is a map of a forest of Douglas firs in an old growth forest in British Columbia. The darkest notes that you see on this network map are the oldest, the most resource rich and the most connected trees in the forest. Simard calls these elders mother trees, as do many indigenous people. Mother trees mother, it’s a verb. In drought, they share water. They pump carbon to the seedlings in their shade. They distribute resources across great distances in the forest. And when they die, they give all of themselves back to the network, pumping the last bit of carbon to their kin.

It’s pretty amazing what these trees can do. A single mother tree is connected to upwards of a hundred other trees in a forest, but in a healthy forest, multiple mother trees with multiple overlapping connections ensure that a single organism isn’t responsible for the genetic continuity of the forest as a whole. So this is a decentralized network naturally, and we’re all talking a lot about decentralization today. It’s a huge undertaking. I think we can save ourselves some time and start to use this as a blueprint because this network is resilient and it has survived for millennia.

Okay. What does it actually look like in practice? Well, how about we create mother nodes? Sites in the network bearing a responsibility of care, just like mother trees do in the forest. I’m just spitballing here, but maybe mother nodes could play host to the network’s core values, could support the fledgling sites in the network until they get their roots, so to speak. Could distribute resources, computing resources, according to need.

We’ve built institutions like this before. It’s not that utopian. I mean, Eli was talking about public libraries which serve both as bearers of cultural memory, like mother trees do, and as generous sources of nutrients for our minds and for our communities. So maybe we could reimagine public libraries as mother nodes in a decentralized web, or perhaps there are new institutions that we can build that serve this purpose more beautifully.

Regardless of how we approach it, forests show us how the internet could be, because the Wood Wide Web is a network where nobody is ever left to fend for themselves. It’s a place where elders with thick barks and deep taproots weather the wildfires, bring continuity to our communities, and hopefully prevent us from repeating old mistakes. Thanks.

Amelia Winger-Bearskin

Nya:wëh sgë:nö’. Hello. Decentralization was and still is the hope of many of us hacktivists, the early builders and the punks of the first generation of the internet and the last generation to remember what life was before it existed. In those early days, we saw the internet as a real promise, that it would make information free, democratize media, grant new forms of economic self-sufficiency. Many of us believed that we could change the way the world works from behind our glowing computer screens, and many of us did, but things changed not exactly in the way that we imagined.

The promise was that information would be free, but what we got was that we are the free information as third-parties harvest our data. The promise was democratized media, and what we got was media that threatens our democracy. The promise was a new economy, and what we got was Uber and DoorDash.

The promise of the early internet lost nearly all of its idealistic moral gravitas, and now when we talk about promises, we’re talking about a JavaScript toolkit that most of us software engineers use on a daily basis. In any other field that has the name engineer in it, outcomes like this wouldn’t fly. Imagine a civil engineer or a structural engineer that was tasked with building our Brooklyn Bridge. He would have been a friend from a trucking company that would call them up and say, okay, we want to plan out our trucking routes, and we want to know what’s load bearing for the bridge? How many trucks with how much load can go across safely? And what if the structural engineer said, hey, look, technology is neutral. I build the bridge, I don’t tell people how to use it. I mean, if someone wants to break it, that’s what it is. I mean, it’s not my fault.

But with software, especially social networks and the digital media ecosystem, we’re perfectly okay for tech companies telling us that these systems that they have designed are neutral, and if they break safety, democracy, privacy, fraud, they make our children unsafe or are abusive or cause deep harm to our country, that’s not how they designed it. But if we start to believe that it’s not our responsibility, we who build these systems, then we’re actually building systems of harm. We’re building bridges and we’re not caring about the people who trusted us enough to drive across.

I created to address this issue. is an ethical framework for software development based on the principles of co-creation as understood by my people. I am Seneca-Cayuga nation, I’m Haudenosaunee, you may have heard of us as the Iroquois. Like all members of the Iroquois Confederacy, we made wampum. A lot of people have a misconception that it was a currency. We used it as a tool of recording and regulating the different political and economic decentralized means. It’s like a pre-Colombian blockchain that encoded not just financial transactions, but also our values.

The project is to try to imagine how we can weave ethics back into 21st century technologies. The core concepts are to put time, weekly, daily into all of your sprint cycles and make sure you’re aligning your goals with the values of your community, all of our communities. Oftentimes that you’ll find your developers, your UX designers, your leadership all believe that they have the same values, but when you articulate it is when you start to realize that we can’t imagine a better future, unless we’re really listening to one another and making those possibilities that we want to see in the world.

We can embed these values as dependencies in code, the same way we do the rest of our package.json. CEO’s, founders and employees who work in tech, we’re ready for change and we want new systems to encode values and ethics into the source code for decentralized projects and systems. We don’t have to wait for experts and policy makers to make those decisions for us. As good as their intentions are, they don’t know what we do, and they’ll always be a step behind us. This is our field, we know how to do this and it is time for us to step up. By implementing a decentralized protocol around ethics and software, we can step in the right direction. We live our lives according to a moral code, but it is time for us to code our morals. Thank you.

Rich Benjamin

Hi everybody. It’s good to be here, especially at this tender historical moment that we’re in, to talk to you about what the internet can learn from decentralized suburban communities.

I spent two years to journey 27,000 miles to the fastest growing, whitest communities in America, and I encountered a gated community not unlike this, which is Portland Place in Missouri. If you’re not familiar with Portland Place, you are now. Portland Place became one of the harshest emblems of the social divisions we experience.

I’d like to flip the script and take what I’ve learned from decentralized neighborhoods and see what positive lessons we could learn about the internet. What can technologists learn about decentralization from quality neighborhoods and communities? How can the internet replicate the best of decentralized neighborhoods and communities? What can digital spaces from healthy decentralized communities, not just in terms of harms, but teach us in terms of public goods? And then, what common characteristics, what New_ Public calls civic signals, do healthy neighborhoods enjoy that are instructive for our purposes today?

Take this community. It delivers a workplace connectivity model. It’s distinguished by its beauty and its innovation, it offers visual cues that establish which behaviors are welcome in the space, and then it engages leaders and stewards who can do the work of community building, and the design standards help new settlements and guide growth and scalability, and it reduces traffic congestion. You see walkable paths, walkable bike paths, and that’s just not for health reasons, but it’s also for ecological reasons in terms of reducing gas consumption.

Quality decentralized neighborhoods also promote social interaction versus isolation and polarization, and they are a function of community building in terms of a human scale of development, in terms of a sense of place, in terms of effective collaboration between private development and the public sector. Also in terms of abundant, attractive public green space, and in terms of physical infrastructure and green space that support and rehabilitate natural ecosystems.

Civic Signals and New_ Public have begun to think a lot about this in terms of quality digital public spaces, and they identify four building blocks that quality digital spaces have. One is that they’re welcoming to a diverse public. Also, they connect people across social divides and they help us understand and make sense of the world and they enable action, and that’s critical.

I’d like you to imagine two ideal forms of space, the quality digital public space and the quality digital neighborhoods that are physical, and I invite you to think what they have in common down the center is a decentralized context, a localism and forward thinking, design and plan. Decentralized context, localism, and a forward thinking design and plan.

If Facebook were a neighborhood, I’d like to think it would be like Portland Place. It’s a bad geographical version of what we saw in Portland Place.

So what takeaways do I invite you to go home with and what takeaways do I have in my head, as I think about, as Eli beautifully put it, the social technical that goes into designing space? What do the physical and the digital decentralized spaces do in common? Advocating for a small scale incremental community building that requires fewer resources to incubate and mature. Seeking lower barriers to make it easier to start businesses, providing more attainable participation and space development. Also, making the small possible. Building decentralized space with inclusivity, open sourcing, empowerment, and a focus on gradual and ongoing improvement. Preventing noise sprawl over development, and I mean this very literally and figuratively. Shunning corporate driven profit that is overly based on market short-termism, and eliminating loss of open lands and unsafe monotonous space.

Why does this matter so much to me? Because we wouldn’t want an internet that replicates the worst elements of our suburban communities, because if we imagine the best version of a decentralized internet, I believe we imagine the best communities that are possible for us and our best selves. Thank you.