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The convenience

Houston-HV-FINAL-Mobile-Van-2.jpgA couple of days ago, MSNBC broadcast a segment featuring a mobile vaccination effort in which a truck equipped with a couple of medical personnel and a suitably stored supply of vaccines and other medical equipment, was shown driving around to various neighborhoods, parking in front of people's homes, where the personnel would knock on doors. There was a very brief clip of a woman identified as reluctant. "What made you decide to take the vaccine after all?" the interviewer asked (more or less). "The convenience," she said, from behind her mask.


It's always been - or should have been - obvious that all vaccine hesitancy is not equal. Some people are just going to be born rebels, refusing to do *anything* an authority tells them to do, no matter how well-attested the instruction is or how much risk accompanies ignoring it. Some have adopted resistance as a performative or tribal identity. Some may be deeply committed through serious, if flawed, assessment of the vaccine itself. Some have serious historical and cultural reasons to be distrustful. Others have medical contraindications. Some may actually even be suicidal. But some - and they may even be the majority - could go either way, depending on circumstances. As a friend commented after I told them the story, imagine a single mother with three kids, one or more jobs, and a long daily to-do list. Vaccination may be far, far down the list in terms of urgency.

Even knowing all this, seeing the woman state it so baldly was breathtaking because we've gotten used to assuming that anyone opposing vaccination does so out of deeply-held and angry commitment. The nudge people would probably be less surprised. For those of us who spend time promoting skepticism, the incident was also a good reminder of the value of engaging with people's real concerns.

It also reminds that when people's decisions seem inexplicable "the convenience" is often an important part of their reasoning. It's certainly part of why a lot of security breaches happen. Most people's job is not in security but in payroll or design or manufacturing, and their need to get their actual jobs done takes precedence. Faced with a dilemma, they will do the quickest and easiest thing, and those who design attacks know and exploit this very human tendency. The smart security person will, as Angela Sasse has been saying for 20 years, design security policies so they're the easiest path to follow.

The friction they add has been a significant reason why privacy tools have often failed to command any significant market share: they require exceptional effort, first because of the necessity of locating, installing, and learning to use them and second because so often they bring with them the price of non-conformance. Ever try getting your friends to shift from WhatsApp to Signal? Until the recent WhatsApp panic, it was impossible because of the difficulty they could foresee of getting all their other contacts - the school and church groups, the tennis club, the neighbors - to move as well. No one wants to have to remember which service to use for each contact.

One or another version of this problem has hindered the adoption of privacy tools for nearly 30 years, beginning in 1991 when Phil Zimmermann invented PGP in an effort to give PC users access to strong encryption. For most people, PGP was - and, sadly, still is, too difficult to install and too much of a nuisance to use. The result was that hardly anyone used encrypted communications until it became invisibly built into messaging services like WhatsApp and Signal.

The move away from universally interoperable email risks becoming a real problem in splintering communications, if my personal experience is any guide. A friend recently demanded to know why I didn't have an iPhone; she was annoyed that she couldn't send me messages on her preferred app. "Because I have an Android," I said. "What's that?" she asked. For her, Android users are incomprehensibly antisocial (and for new-hot-kid-in-town Clubhouse we are not worthy.)

On a wider canvas, that issue of convenience is most of the answer to how we began with a cooperative decentralized Internet and are now contending with an Internet dominated for most people by centralized walled gardens. At every stage from the first web sites, when someone wanting to host a website had to do everything themselves, to today's social media new companies succeeded by solving the frustrations of the previous generation. People want to chat with their friends, see photos, listen to music, and build businesses; anything like a technical barrier that makes any of that harder is an opportunity for someone to insert themselves as an intermediary or, as TikTok is doing now, to innovate. The same network effects that helped Facebook, Apple, and Google to grow to their present side make it difficult to counter their dominance by seeding alternatives.

It did not have to come out this way; ISPs (and, later, others) could have chosen to provide tools and services to make it easy for us to own our own communities. For anyone trying to do that now it's a hard, hard sell. Those of us who want to see the Internet redecentralize will have to create the equivalent of a mobile vaccination van.

Illustrations: Houston Vaccines' mobile unit.

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.


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