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October 25, 2019

When we were

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"These people changed the world," said Jeff Wilkins, looking out across a Columbus, Ohio ballroom filled with more than 400 people. "And they know it, and are proud of it."

At one time, all this was his.

Wilkins was talking about...CompuServe, which he co-founded in 1969. How does it happen, he asked, that more than 400 people show up to celebrate a company that hasn't really existed for the last 23 years? I can't say, but a group of people happier to see each other (and random outsiders) again would be hard to find. "This is the only reunion I go to," one woman said.

It's easy to forget - or to never have known - CompuServe's former importance. Circa 1993, the Twitter handle now displayed on everyone's business cards and slides was their numbered CompuServe ID. My inclusion of mine (70007,5537) at the end of a Guardian article led a reader to complain that I should instead promote the small ISPs it would kill when broadband arrived. In 1994, Aerosmith released a single on CompuServe, the first time a major label tried online distribution. It probably took five hours to download.

In Wilkins' story, he was studying electrical engineering at the University of Arizona when his father-in-law asked for help with data processing for his new insurance company. Wilkins and fellow grad students Sandy Trevor, John Goltz, Larry Shelley, and Doug Chinnock, soon relocated to Columbus. It was, Wilkins said, Shelley who suggested starting a time-sharing company - "or should I say cloud computing?" Wilkins quipped, to applause and cheers.

Yes, he should. Everything new is old again.

In time-sharing, the fledgling company competed with GE and IBM. The information service started in 1979, as a way to occupy the computers during the empty evenings when the businesses had gone home. For the next 20 years, CompuServers invented everything for themselves: "GO" navigation commands, commercial email (first customer: HJ Heinz), live chat ("CB , news wires, online games and virtual worlds (partnering with Fujitsu on a graphical MUD), shopping... The now-ubiquitous GIF was the brainchild of Steve Wilhite (it's pronounced "JIF"). The legend of CompuServe inventions is kept alive by by Sandy Trevor and Dave Eastburn, whose Nuvocom "software archeology" business holds archives that have backed expert defense against numerous patent claims on technologies that CompuServe provably pioneered.

A panel reminisced about the CIS shopping mall. "We had an online stockbroker before anyone else thought about it," one said. Another remembered a call asking for a 30-minute meeting from the then-CEO of the nationwide flowers delivery service FTD. "I was too busy." (The CEO was Meg Whitman.). For CompuServe's 25th anniversary, the mall's travel agency collaborated on a three-day cruise with, as invited guests, the film critic Roger Ebert, who disseminated his movie reviews through the service and hosted the "Ask Roger Ebert" section in the Movies Forum, and his wife, Chaz. "That may have been the peak."

Mall stores paid an annual fee; curation ensured there weren't too many of any one category of store. Banners advertising products were such a novelty at the time - and often the liveliest, most visually attractive thing on the page - that as many as 25% of viewers clicked on them. Today, Amazon takes a percentage of transactions instead. "If we could have had a universal shopping cart, like Amazon," lamented one, "what might have been?"

Well, what? Could CompuServe now be under threat of a government-mandated breakup to separate its social media business, search, cloud provider, and shopping? Both CompuServe and AOL, whose speed to embrace graphical interfaces and aggressive marketing led it to first outstrip and then buy and dismantle CompuServe in the 1990s, would have had to cannibalize their existing businesses. Used to profits from access fees, both resisted the Internet's monthly subscription model.

One veteran openly admitted how profoundly he underestimated the threat of the Internet after surveying the rickety infrastructure designed by/for academics and students. "I didn't think that the Internet could survive in the reality of a business..." Instead, the information services saw their competition as each other. A contemporary view of the challenges is visible in this 1995 interview with Barry Berkov, the vice-president in charge of CIS.

However, CompuServe's closed approach left no opening for individuals' self-expression. The 1990s rising Internet stars, Geocities and MySpace, were all about that, as are today's social media.

So many shifts have changed social media since then: from topic-centered to person-centered forums, from proprietary to open to centralized, from dial-up modems to pervasive connections, the massive ramp-up of scale and, mobile-fueled, speed, along with the reconfiguration of business models and Some things have degraded: past postings on Twitter and Facebook are much harder to find, and unwanted noise is everywhere. CompuServe would have had to navigate each of those shifts without error. As we know now, they didn't make it.

And yet, for 20-odd years, a company of early 20-somethings 2,500 miles from Silicon Valley, invented a prototype of today's world, at first unaware of the near-simultaneous first ARPAnet connection, the beginnings of the network they couldn't imagine would ever be trustworthy enough for businesses and governments to rely on. They may yet be proven right about that.

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Illustrations: Jonathan Zittrain's mockup of the CompuServe welcome screen (left) next to today's iPhone showing how little things have changed; the reunion banner.

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.

October 18, 2019

I never paid for it in my life

lanier-lrm-2017.jpgSo Jaron Lanier is back, arguing that we should be paid for our data. He was last seen in net.wars two years back, arguing that if people had started by charging for email we would not now be the battery fuel for "behavior modification empires". In a 2018 TED talk, he continued that we should pay for Facebook and Google in order to "fix the Internet".

Lanier's latest disquisition goes like this: the big companies are making billions from our data. We should have some of it. That way lies human dignity and the feeling that our lives are meaningful. And fixing Facebook!

The first problem is that fixing Facebook is not the same as fixing the Internet, a distinction Lanier surely understands. The Internet is a telecommunications network; Facebook is a business. You can profoundly change a business by changing who pays for its services and how, but changing a telecommunications network that underpins millions of organizations and billions of people in hundreds of countries is a wholly different proposition. If you mean, as Lanier seems to, that what you want to change is people's belief that content on the Internet should be free, then what you want to "fix" is the people, not the network. And "fixing" people at scale is insanely hard. Just ask health professionals or teachers. We'd need new incentives,

Paying for our data is not one of those incentives. Instead of encouraging people to think more carefully about privacy, being paid to post to Facebook would encourage people to indiscriminately upload more data. It would add payment intermediaries to today's merry band of people profiting from our online activities, thereby creating a whole new class of metadata for law enforcement to claim it must be able to access.

A bigger issue is that even economists struggle to understand how to price data; as Diane Coyle asked last year, "Does data age like fish or like wine?" Google's recent announcement that it would allow users to set their browser histories to auto-delete after three or 12 months has been met by the response that such data isn't worth much three months on, though the privacy damage may still be incalculable. We already do have a class of people - "influencers" - who get paid for their social media postings, and as Chris Stokel-Walker portrays some of their lives, it ain't fun. Basically, while paying us all for our postings would put a serious dent into the revenues of companies like Google, and Facebook, it would also turn our hobbies into jobs.

So a significant issue is that we would be selling our data with no concept of its true value or what we were actually selling to companies that at least know how much they can make from it. Financial experts call this "information asymmetry". Even if you assume that Lanier's proposed "MID" intermediaries that would broker such sales will rapidly amass sufficient understanding to reverse that, the reality remains that we can't know what we're selling. No one happily posting their kids' photos to Flickr 14 years ago thought that in 2014 Yahoo, which owned the site from 2005 to 2015, was going to scrape the photos into a database and offer it to researchers to train their AI systems that would then be used to track protesters, spy on the public, and help China surveil its Uighur population.

Which leads to this question: what fire sales might a struggling company with significant "data assets" consider? Lanier's argument is entirely US-centric: data as commodity. This kind of thinking has already led Google to pay homeless people in Atlanta to scan their faces in order to create a more diverse training dataset (a valid goal, but oh,.the execution).

In a paywalled paper for Harvard Business Review, Lanier apparently argues that instead he views data as labor. That view, he claims, opens the way to collective bargaining via "data labor unions" and mass strikes.

Lanier's examples, however, are all drawn from active data creation: uploading and tagging photos, writing postings. Yet much of the data the technology companies trade in is stuff we unconsciously create - "data exhaust" - as we go through our online lives: trails of web browsing histories, payment records, mouse movements. At Tech Liberation, Will Rinehart critiques Lanier's estimates, both the amount (Lanier suggests a four-person household could gain $20,000 a year) and the failure to consider the differences between and interactions among the three classes of volunteered, observed, and inferred data. It's the inferences that Facebook and Google really get paid for. I'd also add the difference between data we can opt to emit (I don't *have* to type postings directly into Facebook knowing the company is saving every character) and data we have no choice about (passport information to airlines, tax data to governments). The difference matters: you can revise, rethink, or take back a posting; you have no idea what your unconscious mouse movements reveal and no ability to edit them. You cannot know what you have sold.

Outside the US, the growing consensus is that data protection is a fundamental human right. There's an analogy to be made here between bodily integrity and personal integrity more broadly. Even in the US, you can't sell your kidney. Isn't your data just as intimate a part of you?


Illustrations: Jaron Lanier in 2017 with Luke Robert Mason (photo by Eva Pascoe).

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.

October 11, 2019

The China Syndrome

800px-The_Great_wall_-_by_Hao_Wei.jpgAbout five years ago, a friend commented that despite the early belief - promulgated by, among others, then-US president Bill Clinton and vice-president Al Gore - that the Internet would spread democracy around the world, so far the opposite seemed to be the case. I suggested perhaps it's like the rising sea level, where local results don't give the full picture.

Much longer ago, I remember wondering how Americans would react when large parts of the Internet were in Chinese. My friend shrugged. Why should they care? They don't have to read them.

This week's news shows that we may both have been wrong in both cases. The reality, as the veteran technology journalist Charles Arthur suggested in the Wednesday and Thursday editions of his weekday news digest, The Overspill, is that the Hong Kong protests are exposing and enabling the collision between China's censorship controls and Western standards for free speech, aided by companies anxious to access the Chinese market. We may have thought we were exporting the First Amendment, but it doesn't apply to non-government entities.

It's only relatively recently that it's become generally acknowledged that governments can harness the Internet themselves. In 2008, the New York Times thought there was a significant domestic backlash against China's censors; by 2018, the Times was admitting China's success, first in walling off its own edited version of the Internet, and second in building rival giant technology companies and speeding past the US in areas such as AI, smartphone payments, and media creation.

So, this week. On Saturday, Demos researcher Carl Miller documented an ongoing edit war at Wikipedia: 1,600 "tendentious" edits across 22 articles on topics such as Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, and the Dalai Lama to "systematically correct what [officials and academics from within China] argue are serious anti-Chinese biases endemic across Wikipedia".

On Sunday, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, an American professional basketball team, withdrew a tweet supporting the Hong Kong protesters after it caused an outcry in China. Who knew China was the largest international market for the National Basketball Association? On Tuesday, China responded that it wouldn't show NBA pre-season games, and Chinese fans may boycott the games scheduled for Shanghai. The NBA commissioner eventually released a statement saying the organization would not regulate what players or managers say. The Americanness of basketball: restored.

Also on Tuesday, Activision Blizzard suspended Chung Ng Wai, a professional player of the company's digital card game, Hearthstone, after he expressed support for the Hong Kong protesters in a post-win official interview and fired the interviewers. Chung's suspension is set to last for a year, and includes forfeiting his thousands of dollars of 2019 prize money. A group of the company's employees walked out in protest, and the gamer backlash against the company was such that the moderators briefly took the Blizzard subreddit private in order to control the flood of angry posts (it was reopened within a day). By Wednesday, EU-based Hearthstone gamers were beginning to consider mounting a denial-of-service-attack against Blizzard by sending so many subject access requests under the General Data Protection Regulation that it will swamp the company's resources complying with the legal requirement to fulfill them.

On Wednesday, numerous media outlets reported that in its latest iOS update Apple has removed the Taiwan flag emoji from the keyboard for users who have set their location to Hong Kong or Macau - you can still use the emoji, but the procedure for doing so is more elaborate. (We will save the rant about the uselessness of these unreadable blobs for another time.)

More seriously, also on Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Apple has withdrawn the HKmap.live app that Hong Kong protesters were using to track police after China's state media accusing and protecting the protesters.

Local versus global is a long-standing variety of net.war, dating back to the 1991 Amateur Action bulletin board case. At Stratechery, Ben Thompson discusses the China-US cultural clash, with particular reference to TikTok, the first Chinese company to reach a global market; a couple of weeks ago, the Guardian revealed the site's censorship policies.

Thompson argues that, "Attempts by China to leverage market access into self-censorship by U.S. companies should also be treated as trade violations that are subject to retaliation." Maybe. But American companies can't win at this game.

In her recent book, The Big Nine, Amy Webb discusses China AI advantage as it pours resources and, above all, data into becoming the world leader via Baidu, Ali Baba, and Tencent, which have grown to rival Google, Amazon, and Facebook, without ever needing to leave home. Beyond that, China has been spreading its influence by funding telecommunications infrastructure. The Belt and Road initiative has projects in 152 countries. In this, China is taking advantage of the present US administration's inward turn and worldwide loss of trust.

After reviewing the NBA's ultimate decision, Thompson writes, "I am increasingly convinced this is the point every company dealing with China will reach: what matters more, money or values?" The answer will always be money; whose values count will depend on which market they can least afford to alienate. This week is just a coincidental concatenation of early skirmishes; just wait for the Internet of Things.

Illustrations: The Great Wall of China (by Hao Wei, via Wikimedia).

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.

October 4, 2019

Digital London

cropped-view-from-walkie-talkie-2017.jpgAnyone studying my travel patterns on the London Underground will encounter a conundrum: what makes a person undertake, once or twice a week, a one-way journey into the center of town? How do they get home?

For most people, it would remain, like Sudoku, a pointless puzzle. For Transport for London, the question is of greater importance: what does it plan for? On Monday, at an event run by the Greater London Authority intelligence unit to showcase its digital tools, a TfL data analyst expressed just this sort of conundrum. I had asked, "What's the hardest problem you're working on?" And he said, "Understanding human behavior." Data shows what happened. It gives no clue as to *why* unless you can map the data to other clue-bearing streams. If you can match the dates, times, and weather reports, the flood onto and into buses, trains, tubes, and taxis may be clearly understood as: it was raining. But beyond that...people are weird.

And they're numerous. As London's chief digital officer, Theo Blackwell, said, London is now the largest it's ever been, only recently passing the peak it reached in 1939. Seventy-odd years of peace and improving public health has enabled uninterrupted growth to 9 million; five or six years hence it's expected to reach 11 million, a 20+% rise that will challenge the capacity of housing and transport, and exacerbate the impact of climate change. Think water: London, is drier than you'd expect.

A fellow attendee summed this up this way: "London has put on an entire Birmingham in size in the last ten years." Two million more is approaching the size of greater Manchester. London, in a term used by Greenwood Strategic Advisors' Craig Stephens, is an "attractor city". People don't need a reason to come here, as they do when moving to smaller places. As a result, tracking and predicting migration is one of the thornier problems.

TfL's planning problems are, therefore, a subset of the greater range of conundrums facing London, some of them fueled by the length of the city's history. David Christie, TfL's demand forecasting and analytics manager, commented, for example, that land use was a challenge because there hasn't been an integrated system to track it. Mike Bracken, one of the founders of the Government Digital Service, reminded that legacy systems and vendor lock-in are keeping the UK lagging well behind countries like Peru and Madagascar, which solve services in 12 weeks. "We need to hurry up," he said, "because our mental model of where we stand in relationship to other nations is not going to stand for much longer." He had a tip for making things work: "Don't talk about blockchain. Just fix your website."

Christie's group does the technical work of modeling for TfL. In the 1970s, he said, his department would prepare an input file and send it off to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency's computer and they'd get back results two months later. He still complains that run times for the department's models are an issue, but the existing model has been the basis for current schemes such as Crossrail 1 and the Northern Line extension. What makes this model - the London Simulator - sound particularly interesting was Christie's answer to the question of how they validate the data. "The first requirement of the model is to independently recreate the history." Instead of validating the data, they validate the model by looking to see what it's wrong about in the last 25 years.

Major disruptors TfL expects include increasingly flexible working patterns, autonomous vehicles, more homes. Christie didn't mention it, but I imagine Uber's arrival was an unpredictable external black swan event, abruptly increasing congestion and disrupting modal share. But is it any part of why the car journeys per day have dropped 8% since 2000?

Refreshingly, the discussion focused on using technology in effective ways to achieve widely-held public goals, rather than biased black-box algorithms and automated surveillance, or the empty solutionist landscapes Ben Green objects to in The Smart-Enough City. Instead, they were talking things like utilities sharing information about which roads they need to dig up when, intended to be a win for residents, who welcome less disruption, and for companies, which appreciate saving some of the expense. When, in a final panel, speakers were asked to name significant challenges they'd like to solve, they didn't talk about technology. Instead, Erika Lewis, the deputy director for data policy and strategy at the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport, said she wanted to improve how the local and city governments interface with central government and design services from the ground up around the potential uses for the data. "We missed the boat on smart meters," she said, "but we could do it with self-driving cars."

Similarly, Sarah Mulley, GLA's executive director for communities and intelligence, said engaging with civil society and the informal voluntary sector was a challenge she wanted to solve. "[They have] a lot to say, but there aren't ways to connect into it." Blackwell had the last word. "In certain areas, data has been used in a quite brutal way," he said. "How to gain trust is a difficult leadership challenge for cities."


Illustrations: London in 2017, looking south past London Bridge toward Southwark Cathedral and the Shard from the top of the Walkie-Talkie building.

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.