Thursday, August 18, 2011

Demystification of technology

I have been surprised by the degree to which the openness of the Internet has been re-closed somewhat. The toothpaste has partially been put back in the tube. The "walled garden" model of closed apps for closed devices, in my opinion, runs contrary to real freedom and the kind of thing that can be empowering for ends that are positive for lots of people. The ends could assume more of a liberal model- a society with good governance and maybe social services in return for taxes, or it could assume the situation that is a de facto standard, second economy that libertarians may espouse, where internet-based crowdsourcing takes place. (A side note is that both models are okay in the hands of honest, competent actors, and both models suffer in the case of accidental or deliberate false positives in the ways that the economies run.) It seems to me that proprietary Apple apps and proprietary Google/Android apps, and Zuckerberg/Facebook and Twitter-the-company as a few gigantic platforms for "anyone who's anyone," take global communication and the empowerment possibilities for improving the lives of every single person, and dampen that down by more or less draconian central control over developers, users, perhaps censorship and editorial policies - every aspect.

Therefore, I'm interested in the demystification of technology. I'm interested in open-source hardware. I don't know exactly what the barriers are for making your own. The example of open-source software and the Free Software Foundation is inspirational, but software doesn't need physical stuff like plastic, metal and wood.

We rely on a network of cel towers. We rely on massive cables that go across the ocean floor and carry internet traffic. We rely on the formerly-ARPA backbone. But more and more I am starting to believe that any business too big to say 'no' to a government request will be micronationalized, cut loose, micronationalized, cut loose, as the government requires, and under those circumstances you might as well just consider them synonymous with government.

Cameron talked about shutting down Blackberry and Twitter. There was no iota of a possibility that Blackberry or Twitter would refuse. BART shut down cel communications in order to inhibit communication about a protest over BART police killing someone. Apparently the cel companies pay rent to BART, and that's why BART could ask and the companies said yes.

What I envision, and probably don't have the chops to write, would be something that goes open source one better. Vast software repositories are still cryptic, so it's great that it's open, but you still may not be able to work on it at will. (Or possibly the situation is that it calls out the programming chops of everyone who digs in to it, and some can, and some can't, and I can't! Heh. So in trying to democratize and demystify technology for the less brilliant, I'm trying to democratize and demystify it for myself, cause I am less brilliant than a lot of open-source software devotees.)

The thing that would revolutionize open source would be something that makes open source understandable in layman's terms, so that a person could re-build an open source project according to what it is supposed to accomplish, and if there are complicated algorithms involved, they would be broken down into some kind of understandable principle. Similar to the 200-in-one electronics kits, which go through the concepts of how capacitors and resistors work. I picture it as some kind of atomic-scale hypertutorial. I really adore what Khan Academy is doing, so why can't we have a step-by-step, work at your own pace tutorial to how Google works, or some other really "advanced" technology works?

I guess at some point what's unique about the big names is not the "10% inspiration" , but brute force maybe? And money? Like having the resources to host banks upon banks of servers. I seriously doubt whether the global crowd couldn't do this better with something like the SETI@Home project.

Another rebuttal is, "it's already going on, dude." It probably is - just the fact that I came upon the idea is not going to be pivotal in anything. But like Deep Throat said to Woodward, "follow the money." Demystification of technology could help with the very left-wing goal of redistributing income and/or the mainstream liberal/progressive goal of better lives for more people.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Violence and Disruptions

I'm a bit astonished by the presence of worries over violence as a new motif in news stories and commentary. It could be skewed by the outlets I am looking at, but after several days of (a) London (b) the BART thing (which I saw firsthand, although I was merely taking a hike on Hyde down to Civic Center and I was neither a daily commuter nor involved with the protest.) (c) Jack Cafferty talking about it, CNN being a fairly shitty news outlet and Blitzer being a fairly shitty anchor who fetishizes money, influence & power and pushes news for its impact on those people. (d) McWhorter and Loury on Bloggingheads discussing flash mobs (with the terminology reconfigured for its new sinister meaning) as well as London and other things, it seems like a lot to me.

A couple of thoughts. Strong encryption will be coming under scrutiny. I don't quite understand who wins this tug-of-war and why. Apparently the underlying technology of encryption is out of the bag and can't be stopped or blocked. That's what my friends who know more about it than I do say. If so, that's good. Except I've done other posts on my dismay at the disingenuous use of freedom as a cover for genuinely, unquestionably bad actions, like violence. I think the point that is being made by encryptors is that the debate ultimately doesn't matter - it's just going to happen and keep happening. Nobody in Anonymous seems to be interested in popularity contests. Of course, I could be buying in to a mythologizing of Anonymous as more influential and powerful than they are. Interfering with public websites is pretty unimportant. But I think anyone who encrypts is participating in a little bit of empowerment and just getting on with it. Doing something, methodically. Basically like unregulated, anarchist freedom with an impenetrable shell around it. Am I mistaken? I probably am. I'm trying to read more and break down my cartoony impressions into something more nuanced and accurate.

Well, whether or not the fightback by the authorities is irrelevant, they will try. And my worry here is the 'can't make an omelette' mentality. False positives may be hurt in the process of trying to prevent bad things from being allowed to be planned inside of encryption.

As I'm in the process of quitting Facebook, I might be using this blog as more of a home base for publishing drawings or something else. It's hard to just carry on with a middle-class lifestyle when so many fundamental assumptions are on quicksand. Of course, it's also hard to light a fire under apolitical friends who think you're exaggerating. Subway closures are concentrated in the *city*. BART police shooting someone is usually concentrated in the *city*. Out in quieter places it feels like nothing is happening. So is an urban resident going out of their way to overrepresent chaos in their life because it's titillating, or is a suburban resident putting a whitewash over how the world really is?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Austerity, unrest and technology

Here is a far-out premise. I could be wrong about this, but I think the recent push to stigmatize, maybe criminalize, anonymity, is correlated, maybe caused outright, maybe just co-occuring with the rioting and anger around the rethinking of the role of government in society.

As reported in several Real News stories, the push for austerity in many countries around the world is motivated by a desire to dismantle social safety nets and go back to 1890s-style capitalism. I believe it was James Crotty who said on the Real News, "They want the 1890s." After, or in conjunction with the push to cut back on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the U.S., I think there may be pushes to cut other programs that improve peoples' lives and protect them against sickness or death. Food safety? Civil rights? Worker safety? The 1890s were very different from the 2010s. Federal minimum wage? Child labor? Work hour limits and overtime rules?

I don't know what the limits will be, but I think some of these things are going to quickly come out of the realm of satire and become something that the right wants to cut or destroy altogether. As seen in the debt ceiling fight, some Republicans in Congress have a perverse, upside down view of destruction and are willing to use it in blackmail. I wrote a comment on Bloggingheads after noticing this clip where Michelle Goldberg mentions that some in the House GOP believe that within the bounds of some sort of christian anointedness, destruction would be a sort of "Jubilee year", where I guess something they like better would rise out of the ashes like a phoenix. So they are willing to screw over the wellbeing of a lot of people through fast, radical change.

I don't know if the lawmakers and bankers around Europe also have this evangelical christian motivation, but austerity is being adopted in many countries. The Real News reported on the agreement adopted at the G20 in Toronto in 2010, where member countries agreed to hit certain budget targets by certain dates.

In various places around the world, people are getting angry about these cuts. Even if the London riots did not have an explicitly political focus, I see it partially as the product of austerity getting down into peoples' bones. If someone else wants to condemn rioters doing violence and property damage, I don't disagree with that. I would listen to both views- the liberal view that it makes sense to look at root causes of crime, and the law-and-order view that you don't do that. You just say no, deploy police, enforce the law, catch criminals and try, convict and punish them.

Now the third motif is technology. I don't have any evidence that governments are *asking* technology companies to do anything. But I have some precedents. The NSA asked AT&T and other telcos for their cooperation in warrantless spying, and AT&T and other telcos said yes. (Maybe Qwest said no, but from what I understand, they were not especially heroic.)

Another precedent comes from this Frontline, Spying on the Home Front. Basically, the power that the U.S. government has, and exercises when it feels the need, is to do something I would call micronationalization. We have negative connotations around the idea of a massive "Big Brother"-style government database, like the War Games computer, WOPR, keeping dossiers on everyone and everything. So what governments can do instead is to cherrypick, micronationalize anyone they want. They can use National Security Letters. And this is what the Frontline described:

HEDRICK SMITH: [on camera] You can't have a big database-

PETER SWIRE: Yeah, you can't have the big Brainiac with the one database on all Americans run by the government. But here's the trick. What you can do, if you're the FBI, is you can ping the private sector database. "Hey, Lexis-Nexis."

HEDRICK SMITH: You can access it?

PETER SWIRE: You can access it. "Hey, give me some information on this person" or on that person. And as long as you just access it one at a time, which is the way it works anyways, Privacy Act doesn't apply because it's not a government database, it's the private sector database. The law doesn't apply to the private sector data.

HEDRICK SMITH: Why should Americans worry about the government having the same kind of information that private companies have, companies like Choicepoint?

MICHAEL WOODS, FBI National Security Atty., 1997-02: Well, the easy answer is that Choicepoint can't come and arrest you. They can't come search your house. They can't use that information to- to sort of put into motion the machinery of the justice system. Once it's in the hands of the government, it has those consequences, and that's why the government is looking for the information.

In place of Choicepoint, I would substitute Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter and RiM. I do not have any way of knowing which came first, the chicken or the egg. In recent weeks the following things have happened:

* Randi Zuckerberg (Mark's sister, and apparently just as much of an asshole) said, "I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away ... People behave a lot better when they have their real names down ... I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors." (Quotes from the Huffington Post via The Atlantic Wire.)

* Google Plus launched and they enforce a radical, pushy real name policy. If you try to circumvent the policy, you can lose your accounts on *OTHER* Google services. (This feels like a 'trust' to me. When this type of thing starts to be possible, I think Google is too big and should be broken up.) Google has changed a lot in a short time. I don't think anything that critics like Eli Pariser or Rebecca MacKinnon are saying in their TED talks is hyperbole. (I might be moving this blog off Blogspot if I decide to get on Google Plus for some reason. This radical new exercise of monopoly power is fucking unacceptable.)

* After several days of rioting in London, Prime Minister Cameron is considering shutting down social networking. The social networking companies are quick to confirm that they will work with law enforcement and government. This is fine so long as law enforcement and government is fair and accurate. But what if law enforcement and government is the Tea Party, willing to tear down society for a Jubilee year? Apparently Blackberry messaging is encrypted. I don't know the details of how good or secure it is. I'm sure Slashdot readers and people who are more hardcore or more informed than I am have three more things, new open-source products, to substitute for "Blackberry Messaging" which I won't even have heard about for another six months. That's all fine. I think there is always going to be a sliver of very savvy programmers who can still communicate securely, but these examples worry me because the bulk of all people are willing and/or able to be swayed. If the general flavor of anonymous communication and of strong encryption starts to be more negative, the Karen Silkwoods, Erin Brockovitches (I haven't seen either of these movies) may be stopped in their tracks. If surveillance is met with a shrug, it means that certain types of communication are not going to get through. And I think the push for austerity may lead to new categories of people who may have bread-and-butter economic reasons to oppose governments. It appears that an ideology that disregards the opinion of most regular people is gaining strength. I have a "What's the Matter With Kansas?" observation when I look at regular peoples' relationships with the technology oligopolies that would sell them out whenever a government asks.

Edits coming. To add. al-Awlaki. What if RiM cooperation with government leads to pre-emptive execution? Greenwald's point about the poor track record and the wild inaccuracies in Guantanamo detainees, people picked up for a bounty and so on. Also, a third example of micronationalization: Rotenberg on DN saying that these days, the private sector can do much of government's spying for it.