Our past data betrays our future actions, and rather than put us in a police state, corporations have realized that if they say just the right thing, we’ll put the chains on ourselves.
The promise of better machine learning is not to bring machines up to the level of humans but to bring humans down to the level of machines.
“A human being is a deciding being,” but if our decisions can be hacked by corporations then we have to admit that perhaps we cease to be human as we’ve known it.
A little bit of Huxley there, and reminiscent of Tim Wu who called us humans “comfort-seeking missiles”:
… for most of us, our technological identities are determined by what companies decide to sell based on what they believe we, as consumers, will pay for. … Comfort-seeking missiles, we spend the most to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. When it comes to technologies, we mainly want to make things easy. Not to be bored. Oh, and maybe to look a bit younger.
The imagery of the WALL-E at the end of Foreman’s essay is an appropriate warning.
My purpose in inviting Dr Schneider was to introduce our community of developers and designers to some of the literature and concepts used in the formal inquiry into technology and society. We talked about the use of technology in formal social control (eg. police using Facebook to identify rioters during the 2011 Vancouver Riots), in informal social control (eg. expectations about timing of social interactions due to “instantaneous” communications channels), and about unlimited tech freedom (cf. Inverse Amish link below).
We as early adopters and practitioners seldom ask ourselves about the impact of what we make on society at large. How do you determine if a new piece of tech actually contributes to “progress”? Many of us are self taught and are never exposed to “ethics” classes (nevermind the ACM’s Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice) like other more established professions. That is why I like having these types of discussions in our community. It is a blind spot that we need to address.
Anyways, Dr Schneider spoke at length and regaled us with anecdotes and dilemmas to think about. I think everyone had a good time. If you want to continue this discussion, or explore it further together, just let me know. Maybe we can do another event.
Below is a list of resources, concepts and events that was talked about that you can explore. (Thanks to @pondernook for writing all this down in realtime! I have corrected all the drunken spelling mistakes.)
Truthfully, I stayed away from this book. The overwhelming opinion of the popular tech press is that Evgeny Morozov writes like an asshole with an axe to grind. I found his first book The Net Delusion frustrating (but certainly worth it) and thus was unduly influenced by the digerati. If you feel the same way, ignore the pressure: read this book. Morozov’s writing can be “strong”, but imagine it being written with a playful smirk. I thought it rather funny actually.
The fact is that this book is an excellent first attempt (he did say he would return in a tank) at a critical assessment of “The Internet” as a cultural phenomenon. Without using the actual term, Morozov attacks the trend of using the internet as a “machine metaphor” — as a lens for understanding and revolutionizing human society. This is a phenomenon common throughout history: as a new technology begins adoption, it is often used as a metaphor to describe other parts of human understanding. For example, Galen thought of the body as a hydraulic system, reflective of the new technology of the time: plumbing; the brain has been known as a pneumatic device, a calculator, and more recently a computer; companies are vast machines with human cogs as workers, et cetera. With new technologies, come new metaphors, but the thinking is strikingly similar.
Yesterday at #LeanCoffeeKL 96 we gathered to discuss cryptocurrencies. The meetup was really successful with a lot of new people coming out early in the morning to discuss and learn about bitcoin and other related topics. The spread of experience was pretty vast with long-time miners and evangelists to people who had only heard of bitcoin “5 days ago”. We also had some (non-tech) finance people around which lended an excellent balance. There were far too many topics to discuss in just an hour, and the discussion spilled out into the lounge area for about another hour. There will be a follow-up, and there is definitely enough interest to spin this off into its own group.
I look forward to seeing a monthly Okanagan bitcoin group. There are so many angles to learn and discuss centered on this topic, for example:
how to open a wallet (would make for a great hacknight)
securing your wallet
paper wallets and ASIC wallets
is BTC an asset, currency, money, or all of the above?
investment and arbitrage
altcoins and their applications
the politics of bitcoin
the technical aspect of the bitcoin protocol
I hope to see the group tackle each of these topics and more. If you are interested, please come out to #LeanCoffeeKL 97 - Cryptocurrencies Part 2 to register your interest and help shape the group that will grow out of this meeting.
Despite the end of the “golden age of academia”, I yearn for an even earlier time: the time of 18th century coffee houses, or as they were known: penny universities. I have been out of academia for a few years (BA from UBC in ‘02, MA from RMC in ‘08) but I have maintained an interest in academic research. On my own I try to read, think and write with academic rigour. I would like to engage more with academia, and judging by number of meetups and plethora of platforms like Coursera, I think there are many “lifelong learners” that would love to continue to participate in expanding human knowledge in a part-time fashion. Thus, my proposal:
Universities and colleges should develop a bridge between their “professional” academics and “amateur” academics in the community. Astronomy has been able to benefit by organizing networks of amateur astronomers and citizen scientists, but those of us in the humanities and social sciences are locked out of participating and contributing to the academy.
Alumni events and public talks are great, but since they are aimed at the public, they are typically too general to be of interest to the engaged “amateur” academic. At his talk last week I asked Ron Deibert about how I can participate in Citizen Lab research. He didn’t have an answer for me. At the alumni event last night UBC was promoting their Aspire initiative, trying to crowdsource ways the university could interact with the community. I wrote my idea down and later saw that a few people +1’d it (talk about the blurred lines between online and offline!). I hope my alma mater UBC can explore this idea, and maybe develop a model to be used worldwide. It could be a small way to return academia to an earlier golden age of engagement, rather than merely the “diploma mill” it has become over the past generation.
Evgeny Morozov’s intellectual assaults on “cyber utopianism” and “internet centrism” are well known — if often dismissed by the tech elite. I have been reading his new book To Save Everything, Click Here which so far is a pretty good exercise in skepticism and contrarianism. Yet it is in his most recent New Yorkeressay on the maker movement that you see his core position. Some pertinent quotes:
Seeking salvation through tools alone is no more viable as a political strategy than addressing the ills of capitalism by cultivating a public appreciation of arts and crafts. Society is always in flux, and the designer can’t predict how various political, social, and economic systems will come to blunt, augment, or redirect the power of the tool that is being designed. Instead of deinstitutionalizing society, the radicals would have done better to advocate reinstitutionalizing it: pushing for political and legal reforms to secure the transparency and decentralization of power they associated with their favorite technology.
Our tech imagination, to judge from catalogues like “Cool Tools,” is at its zenith. (Never before have so many had access to thermostatically warmed toilet seats.) But our institutional imagination has stalled, and with it the democratizing potential of radical technologies. We carry personal computers in our pockets—nothing could be more decentralized than this!—but have surrendered control of our data, which is stored on centralized servers, far away from our pockets. The hackers won their fight against I.B.M.—only to lose it to Facebook and Google. And the spooks at the National Security Agency must be surprised to learn that gadgets were supposed to usher in the “de-institutionalization of society.”
Our 21st century civilation is “standing on the shoulders of giants” in terms of the foundational layers of both institutions (eg. centralized government, rule of law, transparency) and infrastructure (eg. electrical and shipping grids, lines of communication, engineering standards etc.). Politics is based on institutions while “the Internet” (to use EM’s scare quotes) is infrastructure — yet many of the internet-centrists treat it like an institution. I think this disconnect lies at the core of Morozov’s criticism, and thus he argues that we look past the technology when advocating for political change.
The issue then becomes when technological advances impact political institutions. For example: centralized “Web 2.0” services enable bulk surveillance and threaten personal privacy. Is the solution technical or political? I think EM’s approach would be to ignore the technology and focus on the underlying problem. For example: strengthening privacy protections to account for the case of “bulk”, without tying it to any specific technology. This “politics first” approach frames social problems in a manner that technologists are unused to. We tend towards technological solutions to every problem.
(NOTE: Personally I think we should not solely depend on political solutions and should complement them with technological protections, with the goal of maximizing liberty. But I am not a libertarian.)
Happy 2014! This year the grandparents watched the kids so the wife and I could go out for 初詣 (hatsumode), the traditional first trip of the year to the shrine. We left our downtown Kyoto apartment at about 11PM and had a full course of shrine-visiting, including:
電電宮 Denden-gu, where the gods of electricity reside
松尾大社 Matsuo Taisha, where the gods of alcohol reside
春日神社 Kasuga Jinja, a health shrine
御金神社 Mikane Jinja, the money shrine
Our first stop was Denden-gu, a small shrine near Arashiyama. This is a famous shrine for people in the IT business. You will see sponsor placards here for Softbank, NTT, Tepco and tons of other companies. At the entrance there are two signs for Thomas Edison and Heinrich Hertz! Here we were able to ring the New Year’s bell. In fact, we rang it a few times since this is just a local shrine and there weren’t a ton of people. I picked up a good luck charm for our office here.
Next stop was Matsuo Taisha where the wife made a wish to have lots of delicious alcohol this year. Then on to Kasuga Jinja to wish for the health of our parents. The final stop was Mikane Jinja where you basically just wish for money. All in all it was pretty productive(?) and we got home at about 3:30AM.
This afternoon we went up to 龍安寺 (Ryouanji), a Zen temple where we admired their famous rock garden. This garden was designed with an ocean of gravel and 5 island groups for a total of 15 stones. The cool part is that for any viewing angle, one can only see 14 stones at a time. Tricky!
Besides work and family, I get enjoyment out of books and film. In terms of books, this year was a pretty serious one for me.
I was able to acheive my Goodreads goal (again). It says 50, but if you minus off the graphic novels, coursework and essays it is more like 44. Considering my family was in Japan for a total of 13 weeks, I probably should have read more. I did spend quite a bit of time reading D&D and Shadowrun rulebooks… so… there’s that.
Looking back, my overall reading theme was “internet theory” — including cypherpunks, hackers, anonymous and the like. This trend started before the Snowden revelations, but picked up halfway through the year. Since reading Future Perfect last year, and thinking about information politics I have been diving deep into the internet and politics. I suspect that trend to continue in 2014.
Last year I set the goal of reading more books rather than listening to them. I wanted to push down the ratio of audiobooks from 75% to half. I almost achieved that:
Audio 25 = 56%
Text 12 = 27%
Both audio and text 7 = 16%
With Amazon’s new Whispersync technology and strategy of bundling of Audible and Kindle books, I have been getting both versions for books that I want to get through quickly but still need to take lots of annotations. I still would like to read more, but audio fits into my daily life better.
Next year’s goal
I set the goal of getting into “deeper” books last year. Althought I was able read some classics. like Crime and Punishment, I strayed quite a bit. I feel that grasping the “classics” properly requires me to read them, yet I read fiction mainly for relaxationa and entertainment, and thus tend to use the audio medium. In order to read more classics, I need to change my reading habits, and I am not sure if I am ready to do that. Interesting to think that the medium determines the “quality” of books I am reading.
Next year I will probably continue reading non-fic about internet politics. I would like to try to go back and re-read some books from the past, both non-fic and fic. That and I have a few series that I started this year that I can continue reading (Vorkosigan Saga, Oxford Time Travelers, Small Change, etc.) Plus I am looking forward to more Hawkeye and Saga! In all, I do not plan to be buying a ton of books in 2014.
As you can see, I was catching up on some films from the past. As for new films, although I enjoyed the spectacle of The Desolation of Smaug, Gravity was probably the best film of the year from a critical perspective.
I have owned this book for more than a year, and now that I have finally read it I have to say it was pretty boring. Wait! I am not saying it is a bad book, not by any means! Overall it is excellent and a must read for anyone interested in “internet theory”. The reason it might come off as boring is that it is one of the most cited books on internet freedom. In my last year of reading I have read so many citations of MacKinnon’s work that there was barely anything left! That says a lot about the importance of this book (whether you agree with its premise or not).
Not everything was old news to me, but with the Snowden leaks I feel like this book needs an update soon. The core of the book can be summed up an early quote:
we cannot understand how the Internet is used unless we first understand the ways in which the Internet itself has become a highly contested political space.
MacKinnon demonstrates how the internet is politicized in a number of different spheres including free speech and censorship, civil rights, surveillance, etc. She states:
political innovation will have to catch up with technological innovation.
That is an important perspective, one that I have came to independently as outlined in my essay on information-centric political philosophy. Although most of the book documents how governments, corporations, the public and activists use the internet, her final chapter outlines what needs to be done politically.
She illustrates the internet as being dominated by two powers: government and corporate. MacKinnon espoused the need for a third actor, a “digital commons” where individuals and activists can operate freely, without the influence of “digital sovereigns.” She quotes Eliot Noss, CEO of Tucows:
if you’re talking about the Internet, nations and nation states are just actors at the table, not predominant.
This does not mean she is pining for a UN-style internet government. Quite the opposite actually. MacKinnon argues against a UN-led organization and is looking for a multi-stakeholder organization including representatives from government, corporations, civil liberties groups and the public at the table. And the table is an important one. These sovereigns are not just offering another product:
Unlike companies that produce sportswear or toothpaste, the value proposition of Internet-related companies relates directly to the empowerment of citizens.
She spends a lot of time talking about social media. One interviewee argues that Facebook has become a public square of the internet. Facebook!? What a shame. Why can’t the “Internet” be the “public square” of the Internet?
A few times I found that MacKinnon did not give very clear definitions of open source, sharing economy and digital commons, which she tended to conflate (cf. loc 541). Furthermore, she doesn’t really talk about the non-financial costs of using “free” (ie. gratis rather than libré) web platforms for activism. Though, we have other authors that cover that particular topic.
Furthermore, there is a lot of talk about “social justice” and working to “maximize the chances that [internet] businesses will genuinely improve the world”. Her anti-corporatism goes a bit far for me. She says that the “point of activism is to reach, convince, and engage the largest number of people” to which my inner-cynic says: “and not to actually provide solutions?!”
A final criticism is to ask if this book is really about the internet at all. It certainly is about free speech and censorship, surveillance and corporate exploitation of private information. I agree that “People need to stop thinking of themselves as passive ‘users’ and ‘customers,’ and start acting like citizens” but it does not mean we need the new classification of “netizen.” Discourse between citizens should be protected whether it is “digital” or not. Still, outlining how digital discourse is particularly vulnerable is an important contribution, and I applaud her wish to build “a more citizen-centric and citizen-driven information environment.”