More people than bots?

In 1975, BusinessWeek magazine imagined the rise of the paperless office as computer use became more widespread. Of course, over the following two decades, consumption of paper doubled. A couple more decades on, we are finally seeing year-on-year decreases in office paper use, at least in North America and Europe.

One recent tech fascination is bots. Retailers are especially interested in bots which will allow consumers to ask unstructured questions about products and help them order pizza or whatever. Bots may be the latest advance in customer service automation, but, they aren’t quite up to scratch. There are still plenty of limits to overcome with machine-learning and natural language processing. It will not likely take four decades like the paperless office, but automated sales bots are still a ways off. In the meantime, what is likely to happen? To put it another way, how will the “paper double”?

Continue reading “More people than bots?”

What sucks about blogging and how to fix it

Andrew Sullivan’s ending of his 15 years of blogging has sparked discussion about the health of blogging in 2015. I started blogging in 2004, pre-Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the like. A friend and I created a group blog about foreign and current affairs. It was an auspicious time for blogging and I made many contacts and friends through the blog. At its height, we would post a few times a day, and had a decent amount of traffic. But things changed.

A few years later “blog networks” became a thing — think of Nick Denton’s Gawker network. The only way to collect on the so-called “digital dimes” was to gather together under a banner, pool audiences and centralize advertising (This has been recently happening in podcasting too). Later, news organizations started to blog. Blogosphere centralization started to set in. Professionalism of the writing (theoretically) increased, but the real number of independent bloggers began to fall (again, see podcasting).

Then social media happened.

I find blogging now to be a wholly different beast. Kottke says it is dead. It certainly has changed, mainly in terms of engagement.

For example, the media critiques I have produced recently received a fair bit of feedback… but none in the comments. All the engagement happened on Twitter and Google+ (lest we forget, I don’t use Facebook). Referring to Ben Thompson’s Social/Communications map below, engagement has gone symmetric.

Social communications map by Ben Thompson

This is a shame. On my media pieces, a lot of the feedback I got contributed to what I wrote. Rather than having a one-on-one communication with me, if the feedback had been posted as a comment on the original post, everyone would have benefitted.

The main difference between blogging then and blogging now is the disintermediation of engagement.

When you distribute your work out onto various social channels to “where your readers are”, they engage with you on those channels. RSS wasn’t interactive. Blog comments used to be a watering hole where everyone coalesced for group discussion. In the age of social media, this is no longer.

Vox co-founder Ezra Klein notes points out:

Blogging encourages interjections into conversations, and it thrives off of familiarity. Social media encourages content that can travel all on its own.

“[B]logging is a conversation,” says Klein, “and conversations don’t go viral.” Yet he is bullish on blogging, and talks about how both Vox and Gawker are “bringing back blogging” in 2015. I certainly have tried to up my output and blog more since late last year, so I am doing my part.

Okay, so old school blogging is a different modality. That’s fine. In the age of social media, how do we incentive the conversationality (even at the expense of virality)?

Novel commenting systems like what Medium uses, where comments are annotations, might be a solution. Inline comments are by definition in context. This makes comments on the post more valuable than their social media equivalents.

Another approach that I haven’t seen would be some sort of clipping service. Imagine a bookmarklet allowing a blogger to instantly send a social media post to the related blog post, appending it to the comments section. The blogger can harvest symmetric feedback, curating and aggregating the best commentary to the relevant post for the benefit of everyone.

The best solution may just be culture. Fred Wilson has no problem getting feedback on his blog. The comments section there is very lively. Using Disqus and social sign in certainly lowers the barrier to commenting on the page. But having a core group of commenters to show someone the ropes certainly helps. Like many things, the solution might be social rather than technological. From now on, when I get good feedback on social media, I intend to personally encourage those people to comment on the relevant post, and contribute to building that culture around my own blog.

To blog in 2015 like we did in 2005 takes a bit of strategy and audience education. The blogosphere now has to compete with social media. This is just another evolution of a web-native medium, and a sign of its maturity. Different is not dead.

Computing in North Korea

RedStarOS screencap

There has been a wave of information about the computing environment and networking capabilities of North Korea coming out in the past week. Vice reported on the the release of a torrent of RedStar OS, a North Korean fork of Fedora. Combined with heightened interest over the purported Sony hack, there have been a lot of tear-downs of RedStar on security sites, including this one of the Naenara browser. Among other things, it hints at how the Nork internet is like a SME intranet, and not a private part of the global internet.

Another great piece is this CCC talk about teaching computer science in North Korea. Will Scott taught at PUST (Pyongyang University of Science & Technology) in 2013, a couple of years after Suki Kim did. Her book about her experience there is recommended (read my review: Emotional prisoner — a review of Without You, There Is No Us). In this talk Scott gives a demo of RedStar, and puts it into context of the day to day computing in North Korea, which he says is mostly WinXP. The demo is sort of a bizarro world Steve Jobsian demo, as the RedStar UX is heavily, heavily influenced my Mac OS X. He also demos an Android tablet.

Language is obviously a challenge, since not a lot of English-speaking security researchers can read Korean. But the code is much more legible, being that most coding conventions are based on English (a little bit of Anglo developer privilege there). Regardless, any glimpse into the “Hermit Kingdom” is a welcome one.

Foreign Affairs: Cash but no plan

Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada announced $9 million dollars in funding in partnership with the Munk School of Global Affairs at U of T for something called the “Digital Public Square project.” The CBC dubbed the project an experiment in digital diplomacy. The Globe called it “direct diplomacy.” The coverage in the National Post, Toronto Star et alia related how the project aims to allow government firewall circumvention, information sharing, and increase government accountability for citizens in “oppressive societies.” Leaving aside the questions around the efficacy of “digital diplomacy” (UPDATE: Taylor Owen outlines some of the perils), I was curious as to why there were no details on the “how.” Where is this money going to? Much of the news coverage focused on current efforts to engage Iranians, which is pretty confusing since the project seems to be about spreading to other countries. But how can we tell? There is no roadmap, and the hard questions have yet to be asked by the press. How can you announce $9M without saying how it will be used?

Until we get some more information, I took a look at the current Munk Center-backed program to engage Iranians.

Rial politik

The Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran site and its accompanying Google moderator sites sure don’t seem like something you throw $9M at. The RouhanimeterThe Rouhani Meter is some pretty good transparency propaganda, but Iran is awash in foreign propaganda (see below). The results seem impressive:

On May 10th, 2013, the Munk School launched a new kind of digital public square for Iran. … within two weeks, more than 360,000 unique users had connected with the Global Dialogue from inside Iran, and had visited the site over 1,490,000 times.

I am unclear as to how you would measure success. Iranians are notoriously political. Robert D. Kaplan once compared getting into a taxi in Tehran with getting into a taxi in Damascus: in Tehran the cabbie would right away start bitching about the government, while in Syria the cabbie was silent.

My experience was like this too. In 2004, during Ahmadinejad’s antagonistic era, I was in Iran covering the US presidential election (when George W. Bush was elected for a second term). Everybody wanted to talk to me about politics. Admittedly, I did spend most of my time with the kind of people who would hang around foreigners. They all listened to the BBC because they couldn’t trust their own newsmedia. However the blue-collar folk that I stayed with for my last week thought the BBC was propaganda. There are sharp divisions in the country to be sure, but Persian-language satellite channels, radio, websites etc. abound, especially thanks to the diaspora in Los Angeles. For years now, there has been a lot of civic activity around getting anti-regime voices to Iranians in country. I am unclear as to how a “digital public” square would be perceived any different. And it doesn’t explain how Iranians are being protected online.

Too many tomans?

So why is the Canadian government putting $9M in? That is a princely sum for a small startup guy like myself. Just from the news coverage, I don’t get it. I reached out to the Munk Center on Twitter and they recommended a couple of sources. Again, they related only to the current Iranian efforts, nothing about the future. Still, it did answer a couple of my questions.

Psiphon Inc logoFor example, circumvention. Psiphon originated as a project at the Citizen Lab (one of my fave orgs). They use a combination of VPN, SSH and proxies to get you around official barriers. Open source too. I am sure these guys could use some funding, so I hope they see some of that 9 mil.

Another org Munk pointed me to is ASL19, which seems like a sort of Citizen Lab focused on Iran. They have links with other orgs and other cool sites like Meidoon Watch which is kind of like a Hacker News for Iranian stuff. Seems useful. I wish I knew how much activity on that site is actually from inside of Iran. The Iranian diaspora is in the millions.

Mo’ money, mo’ problems… need mo’ info

There is certainly a network of organizations working on the Iran problem. The new Foreign Affairs money must be going to replicating these networks in other countries. I am just frustrated that Foreign Affairs and the Munk Center aren’t giving us more information on their plans, and that the press hasn’t asked for more. Sorry for this rambling post, but there is a bit of an information vacuum here, and I thought I would draw attention to it. I will gladly update this post if someone can provide answers. Or feel free to add some in the comments.

Photo credit: Me.

“The means of information”

Information Doesn't Want to Be Free by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow’s new book Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free is ostensibly a guide for creators on how to approach the Internet, and does so in an extremely informative, yet conversational manner. Furthermore it is concise, making it very accessible. When people ask me why I care so much about copyright and DRM, I will point them to this short and entertaining book.

Funnily enough, this book reminded me a lot of Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (which I was critical of in my Literary Review of Canada review). One thing I didn’t like about her book was tone. I had even expressed that she be more academic in her approach. I think that opinion was wrong. She should have taken an approach more like Doctorow: conversational and entertaining.

Doctorow lays out a lot of the challenges that today’s creators face. He is familiar with the means of production and the regulations concerned (he did spend a number of years at the EFF fighting this stuff) and communicates it easily. Furthermore, he offers realistic solutions. This is the kind of book I wish Taylor had produced.

Although I didn’t think People’s Platform was all that great, I still recommend it to people because it encapsulates a lot of the Internet criticism of the past five years or so. Doctorow essentially does the same thing for copyright, piracy and digital locks, and then shows how it affects the wider society through censorship, privacy and surveillance. I prefer his execution. There is some overlap (and sometimes conflicting), but otherwise I think these books complement one another, and will probably recommend them as a pair. I would love to see Taylor’s review of Doctorow and vice-versa.

Mobile-induced disestablishmentarianism

Over 2014 I saw the rise of mobile in a new light. The web is diminishing as the window to the internet. Benedict Evans expressed it well in the most recent a16z podcast: New questions in mobile (I recommend the listen, but here is the article if you would read it instead.) Evans does some back-of-the-envelope math:

… we are now well on our way to having some 3.5bn to 4bn people on earth with a smartphone – there are probably 2bn today, and close to 4bn people with a mobile phone (the number of duplicate SIMs makes the number of active connection closer to 6bn). This compares to around 1.6bn PCs, of which roughly half are consumer and half corporate. So there will be something like 5 times more smartphones than consumer PCs, and those devices are always with you and, with all their apps and sensors, are much more sophisticated than PCs ever were, seen as internet devices.

This scaling trend has been talked about before. Early on only the military and universities owned computers. In the seventies and eighties the “personal computer” exploded that number. In the late nineties, with the growing popularity of the World Wide Web, PC penetration exploded again. Now smartphones.

I asked on Twitter:

Mobile is changing everything. The two fields that I work in now — online commerce and advertising — are being revolutionized. I see it every day, unfortunately they are often trying to hold on to the past.

I know I am not presenting any new information. This has been a trend in the making for the past 5 years or so. In the final year of my old consultancy we started projects with API design. This is a very profound shift that cannot be summed up with the pithy “There’s an app for that.” Thus this post is is more of a resolution to myself to strictly separate the once interchangeable terms “internet” and “world wide web.” A sort of separation of church and state.

It is also an exercise to think more critically of what it means for “general computing.” Mobile has certainly contributed to less tracking by advertisers (except for “social”, which is another new space in ads), but it means even more stronger social control through digital locks and exclusive ecosystems. “Tethered appliances” as Zittrain called them. How can we bring the benefits of “general computing” to mobile, while leaving behind some of the weaknesses? Watching some of the presentations from the 31st Chaos Communication Congress, I think security is the first priority. It is an old problem, endemic to the system. A proverbial “big hairy audacious goal.” Like the Grail. A worthy goal, methinks.

Politics over politech

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 Yorker essay 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.)

Cited — A review of Consent of the Networked

Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom

Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom by Rebecca MacKinnon

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.”

The Internet Archive

See all photos

For our final night in San Francisco before heading back to Canada, we saw the Lost Landscapes of San Francisco show which was put on to benefit the Internet Archive which suffered from a fire recently. The showing was inside the Archive and featured footage of SF from the 1920s to 1980s. The soundtrack was simply the crowd, as they yell out recognized locations and ask questions, etc. It was very fun and interesting to see places that we had been to over the past month, but in a different era.

The Internet Archive (which has the Wayback Machine) is located in a former church. The grand hall is where the show was held, and you can see from the pictures, the church pews are still intact. In the alcoves at the back are two server racks which store the master copy of the Archive. Along the sides of the church are little statues. These are representations of people who dedicated many hours volunteering for the archive. The one I happened to photograph is Aaron Swartz.