Technology is a symptom

As “software eats the world,” further intertwining with our daily lives, more and more discussions that are ostensibly about tech are at heart political discussions. What looks like technology criticism is actually political critique, and therefore cannot be countered by arguments resting entirely within the niche of technology.

That is why I do not look for critical thinking about tech in tech publications. I am often disappointed by full-length books that are billed as deep, meaningful and thoughtful takes on society and technology.

In my heavily annotated copy of Douglas Coupland’s Kitten Clone (see review), there are a number of Post-it notes labelled with the admittedly dismissive tag: “old man problems.” Coupland’s tech-criticism-as-nostalgia is not satisfying to me by any means, and I am sure is completely dismissed by the Kool-Aid drinking techies in Silicon Valley. This type of “critical thinking” is of no help to anyone.
Continue reading “Technology is a symptom”

Pulling back the tattered ethical rags of the sharing economy

Mike Bulajewski has written a lengthy reflection on ethical consumerism singling out the “sharing economy.” His premise:

We’re led to believe that as consumers and suppliers for these services, we’re supporting ethical values of kindness, community-building and trust between strangers; living more sustainably by sharing unused property; building community wealth; reducing the power of centralized corporations by transacting directly with each other; and developing a new economic model which will solve global poverty.

We are wrong. Read the essay to find out why.

Tech and social control — an OKDG After Action

@sundaysociology and @chadkoh deep in discussion.
@sundaysociology and @chadkoh deep in discussion. Photo by @scdaustin

How does technology influence the social and political lives of humans? That was the central topic of discussion during the second half of last night’s OKDG event. I sat down with UBCO Professor of Sociology Christopher Schneider to talk about technology and social control.

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.

NOTE: If you are looking for a quick and easy primer, I highly recommend Shannon Vallor’s module An Introduction to Software Engineering Ethics.

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.)


Qualitative Media Analysis by Schneider and Althaide

Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience by Erving Goffman

Media Logic by Althaide and Snow

Digital Dualism

W.I. Thomas: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”

Cass Sunstein and Thaler “Nudging

Routine Activities Theory

Crime and Everyday Life by Marcus Felson

Crime as a social necessity

Toronto Police Service social media accounts
Richard Ericson

Crowd sourced policing

Reddit and the Boston Bombers

1992 LA Riots, media refusing to be a “deputy”

Aaron Doyle

Data Exhaust

Documentary: Terms and Conditions May Apply

Bruce Schneier, Trust and security

Balaji Srinivasan’s idea of the “Inverse Amish“. Also see Exiting Silicon Valley

Peter Thiel (paid kids not to go to college) and building offshore utopias

C Wright Mills

Cognitive Surplus

Neil Postman, technopoly: the cultural state of mind that assumes technology is always positive and of value

Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton

Sugar Hill Gang

The Filthy Fifteen

Adam Buxton sings “Help” the Police by NWA [EDITOR’s NOTE: Too funny!]

4 more horsemen — a review of Cypherpunks

Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet

Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet by Andy Greenberg

NOTE: Originally posted on Medium.

This book is really a footnoted conversation between Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn and Jérémie Zimmermann, some big names in the internet/activist/anarchist/online security communities. It would have been great to see this as a video, but in some cases the footnotes are essential.

Their conversation reminds me of the discussions we have in Talk Club (a local, salon-like discussion group): no holds barred, anything goes, blue sky solutioneering. But these guys are not only really smart, they are professionals in their fields. When they riff upon one another, sure some batshit crazy stuff comes out, but more often than not the reader is nodding his head along to some brilliant comment or another.

Some of it is just being clever. Says Assange:

Cryptography is the ultimate form of non-violent direct action.


A mobile phone is a tracking device that also makes calls.

but at a more profound level:

It was a fact of physics that it was possible to make an atomic bomb, and when an atomic bomb was made then geo-politics changed.

The “platonic realm” of the internet is the source of a political disruption on a grand scale for these four men, but it is also the salvation of the people. Their conversation serves as a warning to those people not to depend on government or corporate coddling, but to take responsibility online, to be the final arbiters of their online destiny.

This book is certainly a product of its time, especially since it is so lodged in the situations of WikiLeaks and Assange’s incarceration. The protests against SOPA and PIPA feature heavily as do ACTA, and the 2012 views on BitCoin seem quaint from our current historical vantage point. Regardless, it serves as a primer on cryptoanarchy, but furthermore on the problems of privacy and surveillance, freedom of expression and censorship, and the politics of a new web savvy activism. A quick read, you will probably be looking for more depth elsewhere. I suggest This Machine Kills Secrets by Andy Greenberg.

The New Banality — a review of The New Digital Age

The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business

The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen

Since I read This Machine Kills Secrets first, this book seems particularly dangerous to the web as a whole. Universal User Registration? A supranational committee for quarantining non-conforming IPs? This is a company guy and a government guy trying to organize and regulate the internet. Schmidt and Cohen speak as the establishment, and some of their proposals will scare proponents of the open Web. Many of their other proposals are basically blue-sky-solutioneering. I think this book will appeal to those already in power, which is disappointing because I find their view is far too statist and establishment to reflect the true disruptive power and decentralized nature that Web connectivity gives us. I suspect policy writers will point to this book as a mandate from the “tech elite” which makes it an important read. Study it closely and highlight as much as you can. There are many layers here. Think of who the messages are intended for, and be very critical in your assessment.


I wrote most of the above early last month on Goodreads. Today Julian Assange released an op-ed in The New York Times that basically mirrored my thoughts. Two choice quotes:

The prose is terse, the argument confident and the wisdom — banal. But this isn’t a book designed to be read. It is a major declaration designed to foster alliances.

But this is essential reading for anyone caught up in the struggle for the future, in view of one simple imperative: Know your enemy.

A new study finds that atheists are among society’s most distrusted group, comparable even to rapists in certain circumstances.

Possibly a bit of a sensationalist headline, but there is a key take-away in the final graf about battling anti-atheism:

“If you manage to offer credible counteroffers of these stereotypes, this can do a lot to undermine people’s existing prejudice,” he said. “If you realize there are all these atheists you’ve been interacting with all your life and they haven’t raped your children that is going to do a lot do dispel these stereotypes.”

Being vocal, standing up and being counted, coming out of the closet, conciousness-raising: this is how many censured social groups have overcome prejudiced attitudes. Like women, gays and racial/class minorities atheists too must also use these strategies to defend themselves and ultimately gain acceptance. This is the thinking behind things like The Out Campaign and other efforts by “outspoken” atheists.

I cannot make you come out, or burn the closet down around you. I can only encourage you to come out by letting you know there are many, many of us like you. Please make your voice heard.

A new study finds that atheists are among society’s most distrusted group, comparable even to rapists in certain circumstances.

But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay:
for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

Matthew 5-37

Some religious advice on avoiding nuance. Sure worked out for them…

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values


This book was a much more difficult read than his earlier books Letter and End of Faith. Rather than a popular, NYT best seller list-type book, this seems to target a more scientific audience. It should be studied rather than simply read. Moral Landscape is a very technical book both in terms of philosophy and neuroscience. Chapter 1, the introduction of the moral landscape concept, and Chapter 4, the teardown of religion and Francis Collins in particular, are the most accessible parts of the book. In between are some seriously academic chapters. It is all very interesting, however I wish he would have kept the academics in the endnotes to make the book flow more for non-technical readers. Unfortunately the endnotes are a mix of academic references and some good commentary, which turns things into a bit of a slog. That said, it is an amazingly ambitious book that could change the relationship between modern science and ethics, and well worth the read. To get a taste of the controversy, check out the TED talk (and resulting commentary) that made me pre-order the book right away.

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values