March 27, 2015

Five impossible things before breakfast

One: Monday evening saw a Cybersalon debate at the House of Commons on digital citizenship with the aim of redirecting policy to recognize that "digital citizen" means a lot more than "digital consumer". When, as Cybersalon organizer Eva Pascoe asked not long ago, did the future become something that happens to us rather than something we plan for? cybersalon-hoc-digitalcitizen-2015-03.jpgThe plan is to spend the next six months working out what "digital citizenship" really means. Meantime, said Tom Watson, the Labour MP for West Bromwich East, with the general election only six weeks away and political party membership dropping in some areas to double digits, it's a good opportunity to join and influence their policy direction.

Two: Last week's Intelligence and Security Committee report on surveillance was generally taken to give surveillance a pass. While it criticized the laws' opacity and recommended increased accountability and transparency, it said GCHQ's activities were legal. Less discussed is the growing government schizophrenia of advocating both greater infrastructure cybersecurity *and* security service/law enforcement back doors in encryption software and hardware, a desire most explicitly stated by British Prime Minister David Cameron to kick off the electioneering season in January. It's a great example of magical thinking: believing that it's possible to make a hole that only good guys can use.

Three: Instinctively, it's hard not to be outraged on discovering that in 21 US states, lobbying has produced laws banning municipalities from deploying their own public broadband. Last month, the . Apologists for such laws tend to argue that municipal broadband distorts the market and discriminates against smaller ISPs that need the cross-subsidy from municipalities' customers to fund spreading broadband into the surrounding rural areas that municipal broadband won't serve. In a country the size and lack of density of the US, there are plenty of such unincorporated areas, and commercial services are often not particularly interested in serving them either. Rural areas need broadband the most, but unfortunately they generally have the poorest availability - cable doesn't typically go there, and many residences are too far from their nearest exchanges for DSL. But there is another wrinkle: what if the price of free municipal broadband is data privacy? This issue was raised by the Electronic Privacy Information Center as long ago as 2006, but more recently, Purple Wifi made a deal with the City of York that the city boasts gives it data to analyze and share with local businesses. Economic realities mean that the people with the least choice, the people government should be protecting, will be the ones least able to opt out.

Four: "What should the BBC do?" The person asking me was a BBC researcher who had asked me to speak to a bunch of his colleagues in February. First thought: you're asking *me*? Further thoughts followed immediately. More or less in order:

- Save the license fee;
- Understand itself as not just a "broadcaster" but as part of a conversation;
- Grow its own stars by sharing and teaching skills;
- Provide public access to studios, both radio and TV, much the way US municipalities required cable companies to do as a condition of licensing. Sure, that let to many 1980s programs mocked in movies and on sitcoms, but it continues today and also led to some good stuff (much like the internet). Even if YouTube's terms and conditions weren't changing, why should it be the preferred location for UK creators' content?;
- Foster genuinely local television, perhaps through peer-to-peer;
- Stop buying programs from Rupert Murdoch.

Five: The tiny cul-de-sac I live on is having a dispute with the residents of a much larger street across the railway line and running alongside it (where we dead-end into it). At issue is their desire not to look at graffiti murals sprawled over the sides of our houses versus our desire not to have an 11-foot fence blocking the light from the end of the street. Or, to be more precise, a newly-built six-foot fence built above an existing five-foot brick wall. Disputes like these, where no one is particularly wrong but where competing interests collide, is why you need someone - in this case, local councillors - to come in and try to balance the competing demands. Unfortunately for us, the population that hates graffiti has been complaining copiously for ten years and is a lot larger and noisier than the population of our small street, who would just like our light and the look of our street back and didn't have anything to complain about until last week. (The lack of consultation is a separate issue.) When we talk about governance on the internet and the rights of digital citizens, this is the kind of balancing act we will need to create structures to enable. Most net.wars are more directly opposed: the trauma of public shaming and abuse versus the right to freedom of expression; rights holders versus file-sharers; open versus closed. If we want real digital public spaces, we will need more nuanced arbiters than today's take-it-or-leave-it contracts imposed without negotiation by corporate owners.


Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

March 20, 2015

Agreeing the truth

"It's just a database. It's just *software*."

Folks, Preston Byrne gives you...bitcoin.

At this year's Tomorrow's Transactions Forum, there was a sense, more than in previous years (such as 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2010), of standing at a crossroads. The zeitgeist was less about the desirability of getting rid of cash (though host Dave Birch - head.jpgDave Birch, the "global ambassador" for Consult Hyperion, still longs for death for both cheques and cash), and more about upcoming "monetary pluralism". The latter theme was reflected in art competition assignment to devise monetary systems with embedded social values. The three shortlisted artists proposed trading based on environmental effects, financial transfers effected by transferring bacteria between humans (people on antibiotics: the new underclass), and virtual theft of historic buildings.

The point about bitcoin's being "just software" is this: scalpel away 1ibertarian gold-bug hype and what remains is the blockchain, a technology Byrne's company is working with to enable faster, cheaper chains of transactions. In practice, Elizabeth Rossiello, the CEO of BitPesa, explained her booming Nairobi-based 18-month-old business: someone sending money to Africa starts in their currency of choice, BitPesa transfers it as bitcoin and dispenses local currency at the other end. BitPesa's commission: 3 percent. The point, Rossiello said, is that in the countries she serves banks don't operate, Paypal is blocked, and "There's nothing that works right now." Bitcoin, she said, isn't vaccinating kids or cleaning up the water supply, but it is fulfilling a real user need "even though the technology might be meant for something else". Within a week of her company's launch, "We proved that one aspect of being poor is not lack of skills or equipment, but lack of liquidity." As backup, Jem Bendell cited Will Ruddick, who started an alternative currency in Kenya to help alleviate the waste of human lives.

These solutions to real problems put a different cast on technologies and solutions more typically presented in first-world terms of not wanting to think about money when completing a transaction, to which it's hard not to think, "That's because you *have* it." Removing friction that slows customers down is a yay for retailers, brands, and people in the supermarket checkout line, but in other contexts keeping some friction in the loop may be desirable. It's an essential part of Michael Lewis's case in Flash Boys: shaving milliseconds off the transit between exchanges was giving certain traders unfair advantages and disrupted transparency. On the indebted-individual level, yes, race through the supermarket checkout - but never turn on "one-click".

Heather Schlegal suggested that an important element of the "sharing economy" is the separation of payment from personal transaction. It's a lot easier to make friends with the guests and hosts/drivers you meet through Airbnb or Lyft because handing over cash disrupts in-person emotional connection. It made sense when she said it; a day later, it sounds like a delicate suspension of disbelief, like buying a girlfriend experience. Her story, however, pointed to one of Birch's top five trends for 2015, which he believes will effect radical transformation: in-app payments. Today, 90 percent of mobile phone payments are inside apps "despite the fact that apps are a bit rubbish". As they improve they do they will talk to each other: the train app will be paid directly by the American Express app, and all you will know is you got on the bus and traveled successfully to your destination.

As a consequence, Birch said, "The pressure of globalization from the last 18 years begins to go away." Re-localization: part of the success of global credit cards such as Visa and Mastercard is that no one wants to carry a thousand cards. If they're all on one phone, who cares? This was Byrne's point about blockchains: the rule books are distributed; all changes are tracked; write permissions are controlled by public key cryptography; knowledge of the rules does not confer the ability to change them. It is a system for "agreeing the truth".

Many more kinds of money is a logical consequence of all this: BitPesa users don't care if BitPesa transfers everything in bitcoin or frequent flyer miles as long as they put in British pounds and the recipients get Kenyan shillings. We only care about such intermediate transfers today because of the cost and difficulty added by myriad middlemen all take their cut and add delay. Collapse all that, mix in incipient open banking, and there's the "midlife crisis" Birch says money is having. In his 2013 book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media, the First 2,000 Years, Tom Standage argued that the centralized corporate media of the last 150 years was historically the anomaly; true of money, too?

Even if Schlegal's emotional connections sounded uncomfortably Californian, given the British context, she touched on an aspect of money that was outlined by Nigel Dodd, a sociology professor at the LSE and author of the recent book The Social Life of Money. In it, he, too, sees monetary pluralism in our near future. Money, Dodd said, is "shaped from inside by the social practices of its users". We think of it as a noun - something we have. Instead, he sees it as a verb: something we do. "Money is a process, not a thing." Isn't that just like software?


Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.