IU visiting scholars Doc and Joyce Searls, in partnership with IU’s Ostrom workshop, will lead an event at the Mill on Nov. 9 to discuss the Byway, their messaging system soon to be introduced to Bloomington.
The Byway seeks to empower local economies by facilitating person-to-person commerce without the intervention of a big tech platform, as envisioned by Doc and Joyce Searls, visiting scholars of the Ostrom Workshop and founders of the nonprofit Customer Commons.
On the internet today, companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon constantly vie for consumers’ attention to collect their data. Isak Nti Asare, director of undergraduate studies for the IU cybersecurity and global policy program, said the Byway could reverse this structure.
“The Byway says ‘Let’s flip that model,’” Nti Asare, an IU Ostrom Workshop affiliate, said. “So it was actually based on what I wanted rather than what suppliers wanted me to want.”
The Searls said they think the internet has not lived up to what it promised during its development. With 20 years of experience as a partner in a Silicon Valley advertising agency, Doc Searls said he knows what’s wrong with the business and with companies tracking consumers’ data.
"The Web has become a feudal system, and we're serfs to the duchy of Facebook, and the principality of Apple, and the empire of Amazon,” Doc Searls said. “We're serfs in all of those. We don't have independence from any of them.”
This is why they wanted to create the Byway, a system that the Searls said will allow for local consumers to connect with topics they’re interested in. Whether searching for babysitters, sports fanatics or car parts, users will remain safe from tracking or surveillance.
“Your stuff will live on your side, on your little server, so that nobody can get to it,” Joyce Searls said. “Because the only thing you are sending are messages to a channel of interest, and then you can decide if you want to engage or not.”
Bloomington is one of only three communities in the US where they’re testing this project.
"This is actually very ambitious, but we're starting small,” Doc Searls said. “If this takes off, if it goes worldwide, it's gigantic. If it doesn't, we had a really great time in Bloomington."
Nti Asare said the Byway could provide solutions to some of Bloomington’s economic issues.
“In Bloomington, we have what you might think of as sort of an information disparity,” he said.
Nti Asare said because of the Internet’s structure, customers aren’t always able to connect with the service providers that they’re looking for and vice versa. On the Bloomington Byway, users will share what they’re looking for, and the providers can come to them.
“I think it’s going to lead to the ability for small businesses to interact better with customers, and for customers to find what they want easier,” he said.
The Searls said the Byway could also create new jobs. Joyce Searls said with IU’s resources, the Byway can reach students interested in computer science that might want to start local businesses or apps around the concept.
She also said she hopes to strengthen the economies of future generations.
“We want to be able to create something where the people in this next generation can figure out ways to make their own way,” she said. “Give them the tools. The tools are there. Why should the tools all be for the big guys?"
The Searls and Nti Asare stressed that the Byway will require community involvement to continue running. Through the event at the Mill, they hope to not only hear about what Bloomington residents want out of the Byway, but also get people involved in building it.
Doc Searls said anyone interested in coding for or sharing the project should contact them.
“We want to start some fires and see how they spread,” he said.