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December 30, 2011

Ignorance is no excuse

My father was not a patient man. He could summon up some compassion for those unfortunates who were stupider than himself. What he couldn't stand was ignorance, particularly willful ignorance. The kind of thing where someone boasts about how little they know.

That said, he also couldn't abide computers. "What can you do with a computer that you can't do with a paper and pencil?" he demanded to know when I told him I was buying a friend's TRS-80 Model III in 1981. He was not impressed when I suggested that it would enable me to make changes on page 3 of a 78-page manuscript without retyping the whole thing.

My father had a valid excuse for that particular bit of ignorance or lack of imagination. It was 1981, when most people had no clue about the future of the embryonic technology they were beginning to read about. And he was 75. But I bet if he'd made it past 1984 he'd have put some effort into understanding this technology that would soon begin changing the printing industry he worked in all his life.

While computers were new on the block, and their devotees were a relatively small cult of people who could be relatively easily spotted as "other", you could see the boast "I know nothing about computers" as a replay of high school. In American movies and TV shows that would be jocks and the in-crowd on one side, a small band of miserable, bullied nerds on the other. In the UK, where for reasons I've never understood it's considered more admirable to achieve excellence without ever being seen to work hard for it, the sociology plays out a little differently. I guess here the deterrent is less being "uncool" and more being seen as having done some work to understand these machines.

Here's the problem: the people who by and large populate the ranks of politicians and the civil service are the *other* people. Recent events such as the UK's Government Digital Service launch suggest that this is changing. Perhaps computers have gained respectability at the top level from the presence of MPs who can boast that they misspent their youth playing video games rather than, like the last generation's Ian Taylor, getting their knowledge the hard way, by sweating for it in the industry.

There are several consequences of all this. The most obvious and longstanding one is that too many politicians don't "get" the Net, which is how we get legislation like the DEA, SOPA, PIPA, and so on. The less obvious and bigger one is that we - the technology-minded, the early adopters, the educated users - write them off as too stupid to talk to. We call them "congresscritters" and deride their ignorance and venality in listening to lobbyists and special interest groups.

The problem, as Emily Badger writes for Miller-McCune as part of a review of Clay Johnson's latest book, is that if we don't talk to them how can we expect them to learn anything?

This sentiment is echoed in a lecture given recently at Rutgers by the distinguished computer scientist David Farber on the technical and political evolution of the Internet (MP3) (the slides are here (PDF)). Farber's done his time in Washington, DC, as chief technical advisor to the Federal Communications Commission and as a member of the Presidential Advisory Board on Information Technology. In that talk, Farber makes a number of interesting points about what comes next technically - it's unlikely, he says, that today's Internet Protocols will be able to cope with the terabyte networks on the horizon, and reengineering is going to be a very, very hard problem because of the way humans resist change - but the more relevant stuff for this column has to do with what he learned from his time in DC.

Very few people inside the Beltway understand technology, he says there, citing the Congressman who asked him seriously, "What is the Internet?" (Well, see, it's this series of tubes...) And so we get bad - that is, poorly grounded - decisions on technology issues.

Early in the Net's history, the libertarian fantasy was that we could get on just fine without their input, thank you very much. But as Farber says, politicians are not going to stop trying to govern the Internet. And, as he doesn't quite say, it's not like we can show them that we can run a perfect world without them. Look at the problems techies have invented: spam, the flaky software infrastructure on which critical services are based, and so on. "It's hard to be at the edge in DC," Farber concludes.

So, going back to Badger's review of Johnson: the point is it's up to us. Set aside your contempt and distrust. Whether we like politicians or not, they will always be with us. For 2012, adopt your MP, your Congressman, your Senator, your local councilor. Make it your job to help them understand the bills they're voting on. Show them tshat even if they don't understand the technology there's votes in those who do. It's time to stop thinking of their ignorance as solely *their* fault.

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.

December 23, 2011

Duck amuck

Back in about 1998, a couple of guys looking for funding for their start-up were asked this: How could anyone compete with Yahoo! or Altavista?

"Ten years ago, we thought we'd love Google forever," a friend said recently. Yes, we did, and now we don't.

It's a year and a bit since I began divorcing Google. Ducking the habit is harder than those "They have no lock-in" financial analysts thought when Google went public: as if habit and adaptation were small things. Easy to switch CTRL-K in Firefox to DuckDuckGo, significantly hard to unlearn ten years of Google's "voice".

When I tell this to Gabriel Weinberg, the guy behind DDG - his recent round of funding lets him add a few people to experiment with different user interfaces and redo DDG's mobile application - he seems to understand. He started DDG, he told The Rise to the Top last year, because of Google's increasing amount of spam. Frustration made him think: for many queries wouldn't searching just Delicio.us and Wikipedia produce better results? Since his first weekend mashing that up, DuckDuckGo has evolved to include over 50 sources.

"When you type in a query there's generally a vertical search engine or data source out there that would best serve your query," he says, "and the hard problem is matching them up based on the limited words you type in." When DDG can make a good guess at identifying such a source - such as, say, the National Institutes of Health - it puts that result at the top. This is a significant hint: now, in DDG searches, I put the site name first, where on Google I put it last. Immediate improvement.

This approach gives Weinberg a new problem, a higher-order version of the Web's broken links: as companies reorganize, change, or go out of business, the APIs he relies on vanish.

Identifying the right source is harder than it sounds, because the long tail of queries require DDG to make assumptions about what's wanted.

"The first 80 percent is easy to capture," Weinberg says. "But the long tail is pretty long."

As Ken Auletta tells it in Googled, the venture capitalist Ram Shriram advised Sergey Brin and Larry Page to sell their technology to Yahoo! or maybe Infoseek. But those companies were not interested: the thinking then was portals and keeping site visitors stuck as long as possible on the pages advertisers were paying for, while Brin and Page wanted to speed visitors away to their desired results. It was only when Shriram heard that, Auletta writes, that he realized that baby Google was disruptive technology. So I ask Weinberg: can he make a similar case for DDG?

"It's disruptive to take people more directly to the source that matters," he says. "We want to get rid of the traditional user interface for specific tasks, such as exploring topics. When you're just researching and wanting to find out about a topic there are some different approaches - kind of like clicking around Wikipedia."

Following one thing to another, without going back to a search engine...sounds like my first view of the Web in 1991. But it also sounds like some friends' notion of after-dinner entertainment, where they start with one word in the dictionary and let it lead them serendipitously from word to word and book to book. Can that strategy lead to new knowledge?

"In the last five to ten years," says Weinberg, "people have made these silos of really good information that didn't exist when the Web first started, so now there's an opportunity to take people through that information." If it's accessible, that is. "Getting access is a challenge," he admits.

There is also the frontier of unstructured data: Google searches the semi-structured Web by imposing a structure on it - its indexes. By contrast, Mike Lynch's Autonomy, which just sold to Hewlett-Packard for £10 billion, uses Bayesian logic to search unstructured data, which is what most companies have.

"We do both," says Weinberg. "We like to use structured data when possible, but a lot of stuff we process is unstructured."

Google is, of course, a moving target. For me, its algorithms and interface are moving in two distinct directions, both frustrating. The first is Wal-Mart: stuff most people want. The second is the personalized filter bubble. I neither want nor trust either. I am more like the scientists Linguamatics serves: its analytic software scans hundreds of journals to find hidden links suggesting new avenues of research.

Anyone entering a category that's as thoroughly dominated by a single company as search is now, is constantly asked: How can you possibly compete with ? Weinberg must be sick of being asked about competing with Google. And he'd be right, because it's the wrong question. The right question is, how can he build a sustainable business? He's had some sponsorship while his user numbers are relatively low (currently 7 million searches a month) and, eventually, he's talked about context-based advertising - yet he's also promising little spam and privacy - no tracking. Now, that really would be disruptive.

So here's my bet. I bet that DuckDuckGo outlasts Groupon as a going concern. Merry Christmas.

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.

December 16, 2011

Location, location, location

In the late 1970s, I used to drive across the United States several times a year (I was a full-time folksinger), and although these were long, long days at the wheel, there were certain perks. One was the feeling that the entire country was my backyard. The other was the sense that no one in the world knew exactly where I was. It was a few days off from the pressure of other people.

I've written before that privacy is not sleeping alone under a tree but being able to do ordinary things without fear. Being alone on an interstate crossing Oklahoma wasn't to hide some nefarious activity (like learning the words to "There Ain't No Instant Replay in the Football Game of Life"). Turn off the radio and, aside from an occasional billboard, the world was quiet.

Of course, that was also a world in which making a phone call was a damned difficult thing to do, which is why professional drivers all had CB radios. Now, everyone has mobile phones, and although your nearest and dearest may not know where you are, your phone company most certainly does, and to a very fine degree of "granularity".

I imagine normal human denial is broad enough to encompass pretending you're in an unknown location while still receiving text messages. Which is why this year's A Fine Balance focused on location privacy.

The travel privacy campaigner Edward Hasbrouck has often noted that travel data is particularly sensitive and revealing in a way few realize. Travel data indicate your religion (special meals), medical problems, and life style habits affecting your health (choosing a smoking room in a hotel). Travel data also shows who your friends are, and how close: who do you travel with? Who do you share a hotel room with, and how often?

Location data is travel data on a steady drip of steroids. As Richard Hollis, who serves on the ISACA Government and Regulatory Advocacy Subcommittee, pointed out, location data is in fact travel data - except that instead of being detailed logging of exceptional events it's ubiquitous logging of everything you do. Soon, he said, we will not be able to opt out - and instead of travel data being a small, sequestered, unusually revealing part of our lives, all our lives will be travel data.

Location data can reveal the entire pattern of your life. Do you visit a church every Monday evening that has an AA meeting going on in the basement? Were you visiting the offices of your employer's main competitor when you were supposed to have a doctor's appointment?

Research supports this view. Some of the earliest work I'm aware of is of Alberto Escudero-Pascual. A month-long experiment tracking the mobile phones in his department enabled him to diagram all the intra-departmental personal relations. In a 2002 paper, he suggests how to anonymize location information (PDF). The problem: no business wants anonymization. As Hollis and others said, businesses want location data. Improved personalization depends on context, and location provides a lot of that.

Patrick Walshe, the director of privacy for the GSM Association, compared the way people care about privacy to the way they care about their health: they opt for comfort and convenience and hope for the best. They - we - don't make changes until things go wrong. This explains why privacy considerations so often fail and privacy advocates despair: guarding your privacy is like eating your vegetables, and who except a cranky person plans their meals that way?

The result is likely to be the world that Microsoft UK's director of Search, advertising, and online UK, Dave Coplin, outlined, arguing that privacy today is at the turning point that the Melissa virus represented for security 11 years ago when it first hit.

Calling it "the new battleground," he said, "This is what happens when everything is connected." Similarly, Blaine Price, a senior lecturer in computing at the Open University, had this cheering thought: as humans become part of the Internet of Things, data leakage will become almost impossible to avoid.

Network externalities mean that the number of people using a network increase its value for all other users of that network. What about privacy externalities? I haven't heard the phrase before, although I see it's not new (PDF). But I mean something different than those papers do: the fact that we talk about privacy as an individual choice when instead it's a collaborative effort. A single person who says, "I don't care about my privacy" can override the pro-privacy decisions of dozens of their friends, family, and contacts. "I'm having dinner with @wendyg," someone blasts, and their open attitude to geolocation reveals mine.

In his research on tracking, Price has found that the more closely connected the trackers are the less control they have over such decisions. I may worry that turning on a privacy block will upset my closest friend; I don't obsess at night, "Will the phone company think I'm mad at it?"

So: you want to know where I am right now? Pay no attention to the geolocated Twitterer who last night claimed to be sitting in her living room with "wendyg". That wasn't me.

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.

December 9, 2011

Reversal of government fortunes

What if - I say, what if? - a country in which government IT projects have always been marked as huge, expensive, lengthy failures could transform itself into a country where IT genuinely works for both government and the people? What if the cheeky guys who founded MySociety and made communicating with your MP or looking up his voting record as easy as buying a book from Amazon were given the task of digitizing government? The guys (which I use as a gender-neutral term) who made e-petitions, PledgeBank, and FixMyStreet? Who embarrassed dozens of big, fat, failed government IT projects? What would that look like?

Government IT in Britain has been an expensive calamity for so long that it's become generally accepted that it will fail, and the headlines describing the latest billions lost in taxpayers' money have become a national joke on a par with losing at sports. People complain that Andy Murray hasn't won anything big, but the near-miss is thoroughly ingrained in the British national consciousness; the complaints are as familiar and well-worn a track as the national anthem. No one is happy about it - but it's like comfort food.

It was gently explained to me this week - in a pub, of course - that my understanding of how the UK government operates, based as it is on a mish-mash of single readings of Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels, repeated viewings of the 1980s sitcom Yes, Minister, and the occasional patient explanation from friends and acquaintances needs to be updated. The show was (and remains) a brilliant exposé of the inner workings of the civil service of the day, something that until then was completely obscure. Politicians repeatedly said it was a documentary, not fiction - and then they began to change in response to it. Who saw that coming? The Blair government bypassed the civil service by hiring outside consultants - who were expensive and, above all, not disinterested. The coalition has reacted by going the other way, thinking small, and hiring people who are good at doing things with all this fancy, new technology. Cheap things. Effective things. Even some of the MySociety people. I know, right?

The fact that people like Mike Bracken, who masterminded the Guardian's open platform and who is a founder of MySociety, are working in government is kind of astonishing. And not just him: also Wired UK, and who has gone on to work for the BBC and advise Ofcom on digital strategy and Richard Pope, another of the MySociety guys.

The question is, can a small cohort of clever people succeed in turning a lumbering ship like a national government, let alone one running a country so wedded to the traditional way of doing things as Britain is? This week, the UK government has seemed to embrace both the dysfunctional old, in the form of promising the nation's public health data to life sciences companies, and the new, in the form of launching the Government Digital Service. You almost want to make one of those old Tired/Wired tables. Tired: centralisation, big databases, the British population as assets to be sold off or given away to "users", who are large organisations. Wired: individual control, personal data stores, users who are citizens in charge of their own destinies.

Yesterday, Bracken was the one to announce the new Government Data Service. William Heath, who founded the government consultancy Kable (since sold and now Guardian Government Computing) and, in 2004, the Ideal Government blog in pursuit of something exactly like this, could scarcely contain his excitement.

What's less encouraging is seeing health data mixed in with the Autumn Statement's open data provisions (PDF). As Heath wrote when the news broke, open data is about things, not people. Open data is: transport schedules, mapping data, lists of government assets, national statistics, and so on. This kind of data we want published as openly and in as raw a form as possible, so that it can be reused and form the basis for new businesses and economic growth. This is the process that not the kind of data we want to open. Yes, there are many organisations that would like access to it: life sciences companies, researchers of all types, large pharmaceutical companies, and so on. This is a battle that has been going on in Europe for more than ten years and for a somewhat shorter amount of time in the US, where the lack of nationalized health insurance means that it's taken longer for the issue to come to the front. In the UK, Ross Anderson (see also here) and Fleur Fisher are probably the longest-running campaigners against the assembling of patient records into a single national database. As the case of Wikileaks and the diplomatic cables showed, it is hopeless to think that a system accessible by 800,000 people can keep a secret.

But let's wait to see the details before we get mad. For today, enjoy the moment. Change may happen! In a good way!

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.

December 2, 2011

Debating the robocalypse

"This House fears the rise of artificial intelligence."

This was the motion up for debate at Trinity College Dublin's Philosophical Society (Twitter: @phil327) last night (December 1, 2011). It was a difficult one, because I don't think any of the speakers - neither the four students, Ricky McCormack, Michael Coleman, Cat O'Shea, and Brian O'Beirne, nor the invited guests, Eamonn Healy, Fred Cummins, and Abraham Campbell - honestly fear AI all that much. Either we don't really believe a future populated by superhumanly intelligent killer robots is all that likely, or, like Ken Jennings, we welcome our new computer overlords.

But the point of this type of debate is not to believe what you are saying - I learned later that in the upper levels of the game you are assigned a topic and a position and given only 15 minutes to marshal your thoughts - but to argue your assigned side so passionately, persuasively, and coherently that you win the votes of the assembled listeners even if later that night, while raiding the icebox, they think, "Well, hang on..." This is where politicians and Dail/House of Commons debating style come from, As a participatory sport it was utterly new to me, and it explains a *lot* about the derailment of political common sense by the rise of public relations and lobbying.

Obviously I don't actually oppose research into AI. I'm all for better tools, although I vituperatively loathe tools that try to game me. As much fun as it is to speculate about whether superhuman intelligences will deserve human rights, I tend to believe that AI will always be a tool. It was notable that almost every speaker assumed that AI would be embodied in a more-or-less humanoid robot. Far more likely, it seems to me, that if AI emerges it will be first in some giant, boxy system (that humans can unplug) and even if Moore's Law shrinks that box it will be much longer before AI and robotics converge into a humanoid form factor.

Lacking conviction on the likelihood of all this, and hence of its dangers, I had to find an angle, which eventually boiled down to Walt Kelly and We have met the enemy and he is us. In this, I discovered, I am not alone: a 2007 ThinkArtificial poll found that more than half of respondents feared what people would do with AI: the people who program it, own it, and deploy it.

If we look at the history of automation to date, a lot of it has been used to make (human) workers as interchangeable as possible. I am old enough to remember, for example, being able to walk down to the local phone company in my home town of Ithaca, NY, and talk in person to a customer service representative I had met multiple times before about my piddling residential account. Give everyone the same customer relationship database and workers become interchangeable parts. We gain some convenience - if Ms Jones is unavailable anyone else can help us - but we pay in lost relationships. The company loses customer loyalty, but gains (it hopes) consistent implementation of its rules and the economic leverage of no longer depending on any particular set of workers.

I might also have mentioned automated trading systems, which are making the markets swing much more wildly much more often. Later, Abraham Campbell, a computer scientist working in augmented reality at University College Dublin, said as much as 25 percent of trading is now done by bots. So, cool: Wall Street has become like one of those old IRC channels where you met a cute girl named Eliza...

Campbell had a second example: the Siri, which will tell you where to hide a dead body but not where you might get an abortion. Google's removal of torrent sites from its autosuggestion/Instant feature didn't seem to me egregious censorship, partly because there are other search engines and partly (short-sightedly) because I hate Instant so much already. But as we become increasingly dependent on mediators to help us navigate our overcrowded world, the agenda and/or competence of the people programming them are vital to know. These will be transparent only as long as there are alternatives.

Simultaneously, back in England in work that would have made Jessica Mitford proud, Privacy International's Eric King and Emma Draper were publishing material that rather better proves the point. Big Brother Inc lays out the dozens of technology companies from democratic Western countries that sell surveillance technologies to repressive regimes. King and Draper did what Mitford did for the funeral business in the late 1960s (and other muckrakers have done since): investigate what these companies' marketing departments tell prospective customers.

I doubt businesses will ever, without coercion, behave like humans with consciences; it's why they should not be legally construed as people. During last night's debate, the prospective robots were compared to women and "other races", who were also denied the vote. Yes, and they didn't get it without a lot of struggle. The In the "Robocalypse" (O'Beirne), they'd better be prepared to either a) fight to meltdown for their rights or b) protect their energy sources and wait patiently for the human race to exterminate itself.

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.