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January 28, 2011


"You don't need this old math work," said my eighth grade geography teacher, paging through my loose-leaf notebook while I watched resentfully. It was 1967, the math work was no more than a couple of months old, and she was ahead of her time. She was an early prototype of that strange, new species littering the media these days: the declutterer.

People like her - they say "professional organizer", I say bully - seem to be everywhere. Their sudden visibility is probably due, at least in part, to the success of the US TV series Hoarders, in which mentally disordered people are forced to confront their pathological addiction to keeping and/or acquiring so much stuff that their houses are impassable, often hazardous. Of course, one person's pathological hoarder is another's more-or-less normal slob, packrat, serious collector, or disorganized procrastinator. Still, Newsweek's study of kids who are stuck with the clean-up after their hoarder parents die is decidedly sad.

But much of what I'm reading seems aimed at perfectly normal people who are being targeted with all the zealotry of an early riser insisting that late sleepers and insomniacs are lazy, immoral slugs who need to be reformed.

Some samples. LifeHacker profiles a book to help you estimate how much your clutter is costing you. The latest middle-class fear is that schools' obsession with art work will turn children into hoarders. The New York Times profiles a professional declutterer who has so little sympathy for attachment to stuff that she tosses out her children's party favors after 24 hours. At least she admits she's neurotic, and is just happy she's made it profitable to the tune of $150 an hour (well, Manhattan prices).

But take this comment from LifeHacker:

For example, look in your bedroom and consider the cost of unworn clothes and shoes, unread books, unworn jewelry, or unused makeup.

And this, from the Newsweek piece:

While he's thrown out, recycled, and donated years' worth of clothing, costume jewelry, and obvious trash, he's also kept a lot--including an envelope of clothing tags from items [his mother] bought him in 1972, hundreds of vinyl records, and an outdated tape recorder with corroded batteries leaking out the back.

OK, with her on the corroded batteries. (What does she mean, outdated? If it still functions for its intended purpose it's just old.) Little less sure about the clothing tags, which might evoke memories. But unread books? Unless you're talking 436 copies of The DaVinci Code, unread books aren't clutter. Unread books are mental food. They are promises of unknown worlds on a rainy day when the electricity goes bang. They are cultural heritage. Ditto vinyl records. Not all books and LPs are equally valuable, of course, but they should be presumed innocent until proven to be copies of Jeffrey Archer novels. Books are not shoeboxes marked "Pieces of string - too small to save".

Leaving aside my natural defensiveness at the suggestion that thousands of books, CDs, DVDs, and vinyl LPs are "clutter", it strikes me that one reason for this trend is that there is a generational shift taking place. Anyone born before about 1970 grew up knowing that the things they liked might become unavailable at any time. TV shows were broadcast once, books and records went out of print, and the sweater that sold out while you were saving up for it didn't reappear later on eBay. If you had any intellectual or artistic aspirations, building your own library was practically a necessity.

My generation also grew up making and fixing things: we have tools. (A couple of years ago I asked a pair of 20-somethings for a soldering iron; they stared as if I'd asked for a manual typewriter.) Plus, in the process of rebelling against our parents' largely cautious and thrifty lifestyles, Baby Boomers were the first to really exploit consumer credit. Put it together: endemic belief that the availability of any particular item was only temporary, unprecedented array of goods to choose from, extraordinary access to funding. The result: stuff.

To today's economically stressed-out younger generation, raised on reruns and computer storage, the physical manifestations of intellectual property must seem peculiarly unnecessary. Why bother when you can just go online and click a button? One of my 50-something writer friends loves this new world; he gives away or sells books as soon as he's read them, and buys them back used from Amazon or Alibris if he needs to consult them again. Except for the "buying it used" part, this is a business model the copyright industries ought to love, because you can keep selling the same thing over and over again to the same people. Essentially, it's rental, which means it may eventually be an even better business than changing the media format every decade or two so that people have to buy new copies. When 3D printers really get going, I imagine there will be people arguing that you really don't need to keep furniture around - just print it when you need it. Then the truly modern home environment will be just a bare floor and walls. If you want to live like that, fine, but on behalf of my home libraries, I say: ick.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

January 21, 2011


The Reform Club, I read on its Web site, was founded as a counterweight to the Carlton Club, where conservatives liked to meet and plot away from public scrutiny. To most of us, it's the club where Phileas Fogg made and won his bet that he could travel around the world in 80 days, no small feat in 1872.

On Wednesday, the club played host to a load of people who don't usually talk to each other much because they come at issues of privacy from such different angles. Cityforum, the event's organizer, pulled together representatives from many parts of civil society, government security, and corporate and government researchers.

The key question: what trade-offs are people willing to make between security and privacy? Or between security and civil liberties? Or is "trade-off" the right paradigm? It was good to hear multiple people saying that the "zero-sum" attitude is losing ground to "proportionate". That is, the debate is moving on from viewing privacy and civil liberties as things we must trade away if we want to be secure to weighing the size of the threat against the size of the intrusion. It's clear to all, for example, that one thing that's disproportionate is local councils' usage of the anti-terrorism aspects of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to check whether householders are putting out their garbage for collection on the wrong day.

It was when the topic of the social value of privacy was raised that it occurred to me that probably the closest model to what people really want lay in the magnificent building all around us. The gentleman's club offered a social network restricted to "the right kind of people" - that is, people enough like you that they would welcome your fellow membership and treat you as you would wish to be treated. Within the confines of the club, a member like Fogg, who spent all day every day there, would have had, I imagine, little privacy from the other members or, especially, from the club staff, whose job it was to know what his favorite drink was and where and when he liked it served. But the club afforded members considerable protection from the outside world. Pause to imagine what Facebook would be like if the interface required each would-be addition to your friends list to be proposed and seconded and incomers could be black-balled by the people already on your list.

This sort of web of trust is the structure the cryptography software PGP relies on for authentication: when you generate your public key, you are supposed to have it signed by as many people as you could. Whenever someone wanted to verify the key, they could look at the list of who had signed it for someone they themselves knew and could trust. The big question with such a structure is how you make managing it scale to a large population. Things are a lot easier when it's just a small, relatively homogeneous group you have to deal with. And, I suppose, when you have staff to support the entire enterprise.

We talk a lot about the risks of posting too much information to things like Facebook, but that may not be its biggest issue. Just as traffic data can be more revealing than the content of messages, complex social linkages make it impossible to anonymize databases: who your friends are may be more revealing than your interactions with them. As governments and corporations talk more and more about making "anonymized" data available for research use, this will be an increasingly large issue. An example: an little-known incident in 2005, when the database of a month's worth of UK telephone calls was exported to the US with individuals' phone numbers hashed to "anonymize" them. An interesting technological fix comes from Microsoft' in the notion of differential privacy, a system for protecting databases both against current re-identification and attacks with external data in the future. The catch, if it is one, is that you must assign to your database a sort of query budget in advance - and when it's used up you must burn the database because it can no longer be protected.

We do know one helpful thing: what price club members are willing to pay for the services their club provides. Public opinion polls are a crude tool for measuring what privacy intrusions people will actually put up with in their daily lives. A study by Rand Europe released late last year attempted to examine such things by framing them in economic terms. The good news is they found that you'd have to pay people £19 to get them to agree to provide a DNA sample to include in their passport. The weird news is that people would pay £7 to include their fingerprints. You have to ask: what pitch could Rand possibly have made that would make this seem worth even one penny to anyone?

Hm. Fingerprints in my passport or a walk across a beautiful, mosaic floor to a fine meal in a room with Corinthian columns, 25-foot walls of books, and a staff member who politely fails to notice that I have not quite confirmed to the dress code? I know which is worth paying for if you can afford it.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

January 14, 2011

Face time

The history of the Net has featured many absurd moments, but this week was some sort of peak of the art. In the same week I read that a) based a $450 million round of investment from Goldman Sachs Facebook is now valued at $50 billion, higher than Boeing's market capitalization and b) Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is so tired of the stress of running the service that he plans to shut it down on March 15. As I seem to recall a CS Lewis character remarking irritably, "Why don't they teach logic in these schools?" If you have a company worth $50 billion and you don't much like running it any more, you sell the damn thing and retire. It's not like Zuckerberg even needs to wait to be Time's Man of the Year.

While it's safe to say that Facebook isn't going anywhere soon, it's less clear what its long-term future might be, and the users who panicked at the thought of the service's disappearance would do well to plan ahead. Because: if there's one thing we know about the history of the Net's social media it's that the party keeps moving. Facebook's half-a-billion-strong user base is, to be sure, bigger than anything else assembled in the history of the Net. But I think the future as seen by Douglas Rushkoff, writing for CNN last week is more likely: Facebook, he argued based on its arguably inflated valuation, is at the beginning of its end, as MySpace was when Rupert Murdoch bought it in 2005 for $580 million. (Though this says as much about Murdoch's Net track record as it does about MySpace: Murdoch bought the text-based Delphi, at its peak moment in late 1993.)

Back in 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, the New Yorker published an article (abstract; full text requires subscription) comparing the then-spiking stock price of AOL with that of the Radio Corporation of America back in the 1920s, when radio was the hot, new democratic medium. RCA was selling radios that gave people unprecedented access to news and entertainment (including stock quotes); AOL was selling online accounts that gave people unprecedented access to news, entertainment, and their friends. The comparison, as the article noted, wasn't perfect, but the comparison chart the article was written around was, as the author put it, "jolly". It still looks jolly now, recreated some months later for this analysis of the comparison.

There is more to every company than just its stock price, and there is more to AOL than its subscriber numbers. But the interesting chart to study - if I had the ability to create such a chart - would be the successive waves of rising, peaking, and falling numbers of subscribers of the various forms of social media. In more or less chronological order: bulletin boards, Usenet, Prodigy, Genie, Delphi, CompuServe, AOL...and now MySpace, which this week announced extensive job cuts.

At its peak, AOL had 30 million of those; at the end of September 2010 it had 4.1 million in the US. As subscriber revenues continue to shrink, the company is changing its emphasis to producing content that will draw in readers from all over the Web - that is, it's increasingly dependent on advertising, like many companies. But the broader point is that at its peak a lot of people couldn't conceive that it would shrink to this extent, because of the basic principle of human congregation: people go where their friends are. When the friends gradually start to migrate to better interfaces, more convenient services, or simply sites their more annoying acquaintances haven't discovered yet, others follow. That doesn't necessarily mean death for the service they're leaving: AOL, like CIX, the The WELL, and LiveJournal before it, may well find a stable size at which it remains sufficiently profitable to stay alive, perhaps even comfortably so. But it does mean it stops being the growth story of the day.

As several financial commentators have pointed out, the Goldman investment is good for Goldman no matter what happens to Facebook, and may not be ring-fenced enough to keep Facebook private. My guess is that even if Facebook has reached its peak it will be a long, slow ride down the mountain and between then and now at least the early investors will make a lot of money.

But long-term? Facebook is barely five years old. According to figures leaked by one of the private investors, its price-earnings ratio is 141. The good news is that if you're rich enough to buy shares in it you can probably afford to lose the money.

As far as I'm aware, little research has been done studying the Net's migration patterns. From my own experience, I can say that my friends lists on today's social media include many people I've known on other services (and not necessarily in real life) as the old groups reform in a new setting. Facebook may believe that because the profiles on its service are so complex, including everything from status updates and comments to photographs and games, users will stay locked in. Maybe. But my guess is that the next online party location will look very different. If email is for old people, it won't be long before Facebook is, too.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

January 7, 2011

Scanning the TSA

There are, Bruce Schneier said yesterday at the Electronic Privacy Information Center mini-conference on the TSA (video should be up soon), four reasons why airport security deserves special attention, even though it directly affects a minority of the population. First: planes are a favorite terrorist target. Second: they have unique failure characteristics - that is, the plane crashes and everybody dies. Third: airlines are national symbols. Fourth: planes fly to countries where terrorists are.

There's a fifth he didn't mention but that Georgetown lawyer Pablo Molina and We Won't Fly founder James Babb did: TSAism is spreading. Random bag searches on the DC Metro and the New York subways. The TSA talking about expanding its reach to shopping malls and hotels. And something I found truly offensive, giant LED signs posted along the Maryland highways announcing that if you see anything suspicious you should call the (toll-free) number below. Do I feel safer now? No, and not just because at least one of the incendiary devices sent to Maryland state offices yesterday apparently contained a note complaining about those very signs.

Without the sign, if you saw someone heaving stones at the cars you'd call the police. With it, you peer nervously at the truck in front of you. Does that driver look trustworthy? This is, Schneier said, counter-productive because what people report under that sort of instruction is "different, not suspicious".

But the bigger flaw is cover-your-ass backward thinking. If someone tries to bomb a plane with explosives in a printer cartridge, missing a later attempt using the exact same method will get you roasted for your stupidity. And so we have a ban on flying with printer cartridges over 500g and, during December, restrictions on postal mail, something probably few people in the US even knew about.

Jim Harper, a policy scholar with the Cato Institute and a member of the Department of Homeland Security's Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee, outlined even more TSA expansion. There are efforts to create mobile lie detectors that measure physiological factors like eye movements and blood pressure.

Technology, Lillie Coney observed, has become "like butter - few things are not improved if you add it."

If you're someone charged with blocking terrorist attacks you can see the appeal: no one wants to be the failure who lets a bomb onto a plane. Far, far better if it's the technology that fails. And so expensive scanners roll through the nation's airports despite the expert assessment - on this occasion, from Schneier and Ed Luttwak, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies - that the scanners are ineffective, invasive, and dangerous. As Luttwak said, the machines pull people's attention, eyes, and brains away from the most essential part of security: watching and understanding the passengers' behavior.

"[The machine] occupies center stage, inevitably," he said, "and becomes the focus of an activity - not aviation security, but the operation of a scanner."

Equally offensive in a democracy, many speakers argued, is the TSA's secrecy and lack of accountability. Even Meera Shankar, the Indian ambassador, could not get much of a response to her complaint from the TSA, Luttwak said. "God even answered Job." The agency sent no representative to this meeting, which included Congressmen, security experts, policy scholars, lawyers, and activists.

"It's the violation of the entire basis of human rights," said the Stanford and Oxford lawyer Chip Pitts around the time that the 112th Congress was opening up with a bipartisan reading of the US Constitution. "If you are treated like cattle, you lose the ability to be an autonomous agent."

As Libertarian National Committee executive director Wes Benedict said, "When libertarians and Ralph Nader agree that a program is bad, it's time for our government to listen up."

So then, what are the alternatives to spending - so far, in the history of the Department of Homeland Security, since 2001 - $360 billion, not including the lost productivity and opportunity costs to the US's 100 million flyers?

Well, first of all, stop being weenies. The number of speakers who reminded us that the US was founded by risk-takers was remarkable. More people, Schneier noted, are killed in cars every month than died on 9/11. Nothing, Ralph Nader said, is spent on the 58,000 Americans who die in workplace accidents every year or the many thousands more who are killed by pollution or medical malpractice.

"We need a comprehensive valuation of how to deploy resources in a rational manner that will be effective, minimally invasive, efficient, and obey the Constitution and federal law," Nader said

So: dogs are better at detecting explosives than scanners. Intelligent profiling can whittle down the mass of suspects to a more manageable group than "everyone" in a giant game of airport werewolf. Instead, at the moment we have magical thinking, always protecting ourselves from the last attack.

"We're constantly preparing for the rematch," said Lillie Coney. "There is no rematch, only tomorrow and the next day." She was talking as much about Katrina and New Orleans as 9/11: there will always, she said, be some disaster, and the best help in those situations is going to come from individuals and the people around them. Be prepared: life is risky.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.