Margaret’s write-up of the Wealth of Networks Event


The forum on the 24th went very well and we thank all who attended for the ideas, input and expertise which they brought to each conversation. The researchers involved in the Digital Economies cluster tell us that your feedback has been very useful, and we’ll be encouraging them to post some of their thoughts here on the blog.

If you’re interested in reading some of the twittering that went on during the day, you can check out the #wealthofnetworks and #won streams on We didn’t spot any Qikkers in the audience, but we’ll be posting links to other blogs and podcasts as they come in.


The day was opened by John Hand of the EPSRC, which is funding the Digital Economies Research Cluster, “Opportunities and Challenges in the Digital Economy: an Agenda for the Next-Generation Internet”, and was also a key sponsor of the Wealth of Networks event. John Hand spoke about the goals of the research Cluster and it’s desire to not only recruit more researchers and PhD students to various research hubs across the country, but also to encourage much more cross-disciplinary research between them. They have identified a number of interesting questions that they want to address with this research –largely looking at how technology impacts societal development, and merges with policy and implementation across many fields.

John Darlington of the Imperial College Internet Centre then spoke to further explain how the Wealth of Networks forum fit into the context of the Cluster initiative, and what the involvement of Imperial College has been throughout.


John Varney, founder and CEO of Maximum Clarity and former CTO of the BBC, was an excellent Keynote Speaker and got the entire event off to a great start. He opened with an interesting overview of some of the prominent thinkers who have contributed significantly over the years to our understanding and application of networks, starting with David Sarnoff who originally defined the concept of Network, all the way to Ross Mayfield who introduced the concept of community and participation-based networks.

With each step in how computing networks have emerged, first connecting machines and then connecting people, the value has increased exponentially. He described the tipping points as being:

1. Capability – power of the device (Gordon Moore)

2. Connectivity – power of the network (Bob Metcalfe)

3. Collaboration – power of the group formed network (David Reed)

4. Communities– power of the participants (Ross Mayfield)

5. Content – all driven by a content and services rich web

John Varney spoke further of the speed at which we have seen the most recent changes take place, pointing out that it took 50 years for books to reach 50 million people, 75 years for the telephone, 13 years for the television, and a mere 5 years for the internet. He also outlined that there are three different kinds of wealth of network – social wealth, monetary wealth, & creative wealth.

Perhaps the most interesting section of his Keynote (at least for your humble scribe) was John’s highlighting of the shift in the nature of networks to the individual participant, by taking the example of shift in power in the world of broadcasting with regards to major world events. In his view, the 9/11 attack on the New York World Trade Centre was the last major disaster that was ‘owned’ by the broadcast networks – they were on the ground, broadcast the event worldwide and propagated their point of view. John sees the first shift in power as occurring when the Tsunami hit south eastern Asia, – here it was the people on the ground who captured the event on their camcorders and told their own story about ‘their’ disaster (often posthumously). The instinct at the time was still to pass these tapes on to the traditional press in order to be broadcast world wide, however this did leave the press with only the back story to cover (such as geography, the physics involved, and the ability to distribute aid in the countries effected).

The final shift can be exemplified by the 7/7 Tube bombings in London, where once again all of the coverage of the event itself was highly personal, by the people that it befell – they passed their camera phone stories primarily on to family and friends and not the traditional press, who were largely blocked from covering the scene itself. We have gone in a very short time from the broadcasters owning the story, to the people involved in the events owning their own stories and spreading it to those who they know and care about, using their own communication channels.

John Varney wrapped up the Keynote with his top 5 for the future wealth of networks:

  1. death of the organisation, rise of collaboration
  2. micro-entrepreneurialism
  3. open source innovation
  4. telemedicine
  5. computing free enterprise

The Wealth of Networks Panel Discussion

Gareth Mitchell of BBCs Digital Planet was our moderator for the Panel Discussion, and set the scene for the discussion to follow with the interesting observation that even when using new mediums such as podcasting, we still have the same analogue approach to broadcasting, using largely the same structure we developed over 30 years ago – even his own podcasts follow the traditional radio format of an intro, 4 interviews, a closing, and then over to the news.

Gareth launched the discussion with the highly topical news headline about several UK ISPs collaborating with the US Record companies to send warning letters to individuals who are file sharing music. The panel responded with overwhelming agreement that this is like putting your finger in the dyke. One person pointed out (although all heads nodded vigorously) that the thing that they’ve missed is that we’ve always had this sharing behaviour from cassettes onwards, a behavioural trait which probably can’t ever be changed and certainly not by sending out warning letters.

A great conversation ensued about the need to shake up the business models in the music industry, and to change the nonsensical regional approach to video and TV broadcast rights that see differing roll-out schedules and viewing rights.

Many of the new business models are trying to replicate the charge-for-ownership model, such as with iTunes, but the interesting shift may be taking place further down the value chain, such as with Live Nation. This brings the focus on to the moments of consumption, and challenges our notions of value.

John Darlington believes that our new consumption patterns with regards to listening and discovery are the place to introduce micro-charges, such as a Last FM subscription structure, or an automated micro-payment for download from cached streams. The MySpace launch model was mentioned, which has been a great development for artists in terms of discovery of their music, but it still relies on traditional record deals to monetise it, and that’s the part that needs to shift. We want to reward the artists and not EMI. John Varney pointed out that concerts used to be a loss leader to sell the album, and now it has flipped – the tour is the money maker, and you want the music to spread as much as possible to draw in the crowds and create the demand for ticket sales. In this sense, the shift in the value chain has already taken place.

The next question was a more controversial one of the type we often see the mainstream press pose – could there be a nation-wide internet black out due to the rapidly increasing traffic volumes, an offshoot of all of this downloading and sharing that then over-burdens the networks – and what would happen?

A student in the audience pointed out that ISPs are actively chasing this traffic so their business models will address the problem. Others saw this as a naïve assumption that companies are aware of the ultimate consequences of the hard marketing push which drives up competition and make the costly investments in time. Dan Appelquist pointed out that ISPs are rapidly reaching their bandwidth limit due to the finite provision of cabling and fibre-optics, and that networks in general are very expensive to run – but that legitimate use of P2P technology (e.g. Joost) really could be a viable solution to this problem as it achieves load-baring across the network.

Trying to fix the network cost problem in the existing business model by passing on the cost won’t work, but a system approach to support p2p (and other systems-thinking) can address it. The panel was in agreement that new business models will need to understand user behaviours. Nick Leon thought that we may indeed see localised black-outs until these delivery models shift, but most likely not a national black-out.

One of the problems that the panel circled for awhile is that the market has moved towards all-you-can-eat models and vicious price competition as a result of high level demand. And now that we have been so thoroughly trained to expect high bandwidth at a low cost, the market needs to move to a model where the costs more accurately reflect the real costs of network delivery – a shift that will be very hard for the marketplace to swallow.

A panellist pointed out that the commodity space has been part of the problem, the pressure is to keep going cheaper – but it needs to be about value-added services. There was general agreement amongst the panellists that the companies who will be the winners are those that offer those value-added services. There needs to be a differentiated offering in the market place, not just air time. Dan Appelquist stated that it’s the challenge of the network providers to change from dumb pipes to becoming smart pipes – leveraging the delivery mechanisms to provide value-added services. John Varney, however, felt that the future will be in utility pricing, the pipe owners will be the winners. Also, instead of going to the network nodes, we’ll BE the network nodes.

Discussion Group Sessions

After the Keynote and a coffee break, the audience broke up into four different rooms in order to join researchers in the Cluster in discussing the particulars of their own areas of research with regards to the Wealth of Networks and the future of Digital UK.

We will try to get as much coverage posted as possible about all of these sessions, but I took some notes in one of the sessions that I sat in on.

Internet Angel session – John Darlington

The idea of the Internet Angel is that we could have one trusted service provider that acts as an agent in interfacing with all of the various web-based service providers on our behalf and also controls which data is made available to which service providers. This concept is being proposed as one possible solution to the issue of the misuse or theft of our personal data online, and the proliferation of useful web-based services that are becoming increasingly complex for us to manage. The relationship with such an Internet Angel would be governed by SLA and we would establish the rules about over what data would be made available in what situation.

As the discussion opened up to the floor, the talk very quickly turned to the trust issues involved, such as who is the agent, what is the nature of agent bias, and how do we address our need to assign trust on a fit-for-purpose basis. The audience seemed reasonably mixed between those who could trust such an Internet Angel as a catch-all agent, and those who could not.

In order to create such an all-in Butler style service, it became clear that a good Micropayments mechanism would be required across the entire web, and that the interface to the Internet Angel service would need to be highly complex in order to capture the level of data required to cover all scenarios. My own fear is that even if we were able to address the trust issues and the logistics of delivery, the high level of effort required to set the terms and preferences for such a service would cause huge drop-off after the first page of forms. In order to take off commercially, the service ultimately has to be easier to use than managing all of the one-off web-based service relationships that it proposes to replace.

The audience once again seemed fairly divided between those who would welcome the intermediary role of one Agent to manage all of those relationships, and those who desire more personal control of their data as we become more aware of where our data has been exposed.

Another side to the issue is whether or not businesses trust the agent. Mortgage brokers would still require our name and direct contact with us, even if an Internet Angel agent assures them that we’re solvent and don’t pose a credit risk. Although many in the audience pointed out much of this info about our credit history and other personal data is already out there, I personally find it hard to see the solution as being one centralised owner of our data (when that is not ourselves).

John Darlington introduced a new issue that is related to this problem of control over the stream of data – namely, that of e-mail being a one-channel problem, which still offers no solution for assignment of context and action. This got an enthusiastic response from the audience who identified with the problem, and soon got us talking of spammers and the need for more efficient filters to tackle the problem.

It is apparently the goal of the Internet Centre to create a solution to the e-mail problem by looking at the persistence of the data and context. Hopefully we’ll see more news of this endeavour emerging in the future.

John’s main point seems to be that the internet and information are asymmetrical at the moment, and this needs to be balanced. His idea is that an agent role would serve to keep that balance by introducing the layer of intelligence required to manage all of this. He used the proliferation of price comparison sites as an example, where they are still quite narrowly defined by sector or product category, and an all-industry price comparison channel has yet to emerge.

In summary, the audience agreed that web-based services are clearly valuable – but did question whether it makes sense to introduce one trusted agent to manage them all on our behalves. Many in the audience do trust the web with their data a fair bit already, know that much is gathered without their knowledge – and tend to act after the fact when the trust is betrayed.


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2 Responses to “Margaret’s write-up of the Wealth of Networks Event”

  1. Sam Mbale Says:

    Great write up maggie. Thanks again for sharing this!

  2. Quentin Says:

    I think John was basically talking non-sense. The idea of Interner Angel is similar to the idea of single identity provider. This is on one side undoable, on the other it is also a single point of failure and seucrity risk.

    The asymetric aspect of the Internet is slowely being balanced with Web 2.0 technologies that allow interaction. And as in normal life, asymmetry is part of it.

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