Technology and Mediation

Open source photography -- are you in or out?As I mentioned before, I recently took a level 1 mediation course and in doing that, I began looking at many things through a new lens. It’s a process, and since it’s my life, much of what I’ve looked at relates to technology.

Looking through such a lens, though, reveals a mess.

Nature, Tech and Mediation

When we think of technology these days, we tend to think of the Internet related technologies, technologies that through our lifetime have run through our lives like fire – seemingly unstoppable, without an ability to individually control them and how they impact our lives. This is because fire, like the wheel and other technologies like them, are based on natural laws. There is no control over natural laws, there is only an understanding of them and use of that understanding.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.
– Richard P. Feynman, Appendix F of the Rogers Commission Report (on the Challenger disaster).

With Internet technologies, though, it’s not so much about nature because, while the platform is derived from natural laws, what is used on them is defined by human minds. By code, and what that code works on: our content.

The Code

Why does code work the way it does? It’s typically consensus of the group involved with writing it, which varies. The Open Source and Free Software communities have a meritocracy structure, and proprietary approaches tend to a more corporate structure. The ‘object oriented’ approach means code gets re-used, which means that it becomes something plugged into applications it may not originally be designed for – and because it works for the criteria of the project.

Just because something works for the criteria of a project, though, doesn’t mean it’s the best fit – something I’ve seen all too many times. And the criteria of the project are almost never complete; when you set code out in the wild of the world subject to users, their interactions can take projects down paths one never expected.

In this way, code and fire are similar. Software Engineers and companies like to think that they have everything thought out, but we typically miss something as we chase a deadline or the deadline chases us. And this is where that similarity with fire disappears: the code evolves, or the project dies.

In all of this, where does mediation happen? Absolutely nowhere. Any piece of code is a balance of negotiations between what the developers think the consumers want, the timeline, and whatever the company or open source community decides …and nowadays, what the company and the open source community decide.

The end users, the consumers, the majority of people, really don’t have too much of a say in any of this. There is one methodology that forces consumer interaction more than others (DevOps), but it’s only for more finite projects and even then is a negotiation with an opportunity of mediation that I have never seen or heard of happening.

“You get what we write.” – every software company, ever, til they get sold or closed.

The Content

The Internet evolved and continues to evolve because of the complexity of the platform allows it to. While we tend to think we have control over this, it has encircled smaller communities without it, raging like a wildfire. A lot of that has to do with content.

When it comes to content there’s no true mediation, either – my last entry on journalism and social media points to people deciding to mediate – to actively listen, to actively summarize, and to be neutral. Of course, that’s all silly because humans aren’t very good at that. As a society, we’re happier with 30 minutes of silly people screaming at each other over non-issues than we are with a 2 hour documentary on why silly people scream at each other. It boggles the rational mind, but there it is. Our technology has outstripped us in this regard.

A controversial blog post with a catchy title will be shared across social media even if it’s completely wrong. Statistically, the people who share actual scientific research is pretty slim – but the people who share opinions on such things is devastatingly large. There is a happiness people find in this conflict that baffles the calm mind.

So, all this content is out there – generating money, having political importance, allegedly influencing elections (another thing to have an opinion on) – and that drives the underlying technology, both hardware and software.

Hardware, for the most part, simply makes things possible and makes things faster. Software gets more and more bloated as software manufacturers make it easier to write code within their own frameworks – nothing beyond the box is encouraged. Thinking inside the box is where the majority of developers now live, depending on a framework to make a living.

There’s just no mediation here.

And the question arises whether there should be.

 

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Beyond Network Neutrality, and TATT

Net neutrality is repealed, and while the long battle over it seems over, there’s still some hope for it.

There’s been folly in conversations related to Network Neutrality and Over The Top Services (OTT). It limits the conversation to be about who owns the infrastructure and who uses the infrastructure – which is a good place to start, but is at least a decade outdated. Even the global conversation has fallen behind reality; the wheels of bureaucracy turn much slower than technology and technology use evolves.

We live in a world where the infrastructure, while important, isn’t the only thing that can be used to be unfair. Amazon and Google are presently in a content war with each other; the latest blow being Alexa being unable to pay YouTube videos. In an age of ‘IoT’, or ‘Internet of Things’, devices unable to use services isn’t being determined by who owns the infrastructure – it’s about who owns the services as well.

Right now, getting information from the browser you’re reading this in will tell what sort of browser you’re using, what operating system and what version – amongst other things. It doesn’t say anything about you, personally – Luddites, come back! But anyone with a website or a service can see what sort of software you’re using to connect to them – just so that they know how to change the content, if necessary. They can also tell where you are with a level of knowledge that can be a bit disconcerting – where your computer, phone or tablet – or internet enabled refrigerator, for that matter – is communicating from.

And they can decide what you can see and what you can’t. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has found YouTube videos that I couldn’t watch because, ‘content is unavailable in your country’. Here I am, an Amazon Prime user, and I can’t watch certain content because… ‘content is unavailable in your country’. There are reasons for the latter – I think they are bad reasons, but there are reasons related to broadcast rights. And yet, it shows that infrastructure isn’t the only thing that can be used to make services incompatible.

This is nothing new. The Browser Wars were the first real issue – and if you ask a web developer of worth, they will tell you that they persist, even when only a Cold War. When an app only works on Android or Apple device, it’s the same thing. Which brings up what can go into the Apple Store or the Google Store – and how it’s approved and whether they can pull it or simply decide that they don’t want to carry it because it competes with their own service.  

This is the larger conversation that is being missed by just about everyone. When Network Neutrality conversations first started, this issue hadn’t evolved – and despite it’s name, the overall concept has been specialized when, in fact, it should be generalized.

When it comes to the hardware and infrastructure alone, the Carterfone laid the groundwork in the United States that ISPs like Digicel are against: that devices could be connected to infrastructure owned by a corporation as long as they did not damage the infrastructure. Moving that forward, the same should apply to services. It’s that simple, but the waters are muddied based on the misconception that it’s their network. From a legal standing, this may be true – but from a business perspective, it’s not as true: Without customers, the network has no value, and therefore the customers also have control of the network – assuming that there is competition, and assuming that the ISPs will not coordinate to assure that Law makes it possible for all ISPs to throttle communications as they see fit. Bad assumptions, really, if we take a look around just about anywhere in the world.

And on top of all of that, we have the lack of network neutrality in services being provided across these same networks.

TATT needs to step back and understand the underlying philosophy and not get drawn into the weeds. Does TATT stand for corporations, or does TATT stand for the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago?

That answer will dictate their policy. I expect that they’ll tell us soon enough.

Technology And Arts

Sisyphean TechnologyPeople in technology of my era and later are strange creatures that delve into the depths of understanding the cold and relentless logic of systems that they create and maintain. We see the same in other fields, in Law, in Medicine, Accounting and so many others.

Today, as Lessig wrote, ‘Code is Law‘, and Law wrestles with technology even as technology works to circumvent existing Law. Law, as a freshman student will tell you, is not Ethics – it is an attempt at the codification of Ethics in a society. That distinction is important yet routinely forgotten by many – and that’s where some empowered by technology have an ax to grind. Others are just in it for the money, or for some political agenda.

One of the problems we face, as a global society of screen-watchers, is that we have separate silos of technology and arts – where technology is often used as a platform for the liberal arts.

Buying the Future – What are we buying?

Skynet for DummiesA while back, I wrote about the Tyranny of an Inefficient Skynet. I found the thought of a Skynet that is buggy and makes a lot of mistakes a bit scarily amusing. We project our logic onto what we build and we almost always imprint at least some of our irrational behavior on it. Software developers of all ilks have their own styles; the conformists are usually the ones who made the wrong choice in major and feel like they have to suffer for it for the rest of their lives. Either way, all these people hammering out Code. Remember Lessig’s Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0?

Now we have the Internet of Things. IoT. A dressed up and marketable version of Web 3.0. People attaching all manner of things to the Internet, collecting data, acting on data when the people themselves may not even know what the data is. Privacy is traded for convenience and the ability to post cat videos on Facebook. The data is collected, decisions made – enough so where people will quite literally have worse lives if they don’t meet the criteria the algorithms (written by those software developers, remember them?)  fit, even if the data is misrepresentative or outright wrong.

That’s where we are now.

And with 3 decades of using and adapting technology behind me, I can’t help but wonder where exactly we’re headed as a society. Feynman spoke about it in his lectures (The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist) – from his perspective, it’s society that drives how we use science and technology. From the Atomic Bomb to your smartphone and it’s applications, small decisions add up to societal decisions… and ultimately, this Skynet we’re building. The Cold War gone, we live in an era where governments war over the Internet with propaganda machines powered by technology and hackers who have an allegiance of some sort, be it to a government or to a corporation or to themselves – rarely for society itself.

Children that used to go outside to play stay indoors, using software (games), living in worlds created by the imagination(s) of teams and implemented by programmers, increasingly educated by the same software with data that is selectively converted into information. And it happens faster and faster. Remember Gleick’s Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything?

So where am I going with this? I’m just wondering more and more often what sort of society we’re buying with our finances that are upended by algorithms on Wall Street. I’m wondering about all the shoddy software pushed out to meet some business need before it’s ready, fragile enough in certain spots that it allows breaking and bending at the weak points. We’re changing the world and we hardly know it as we drive into work, sipping coffee as we dodge traffic – but soon, the cars will be transporting us around.

The Internet has allowed people with common bonds to work together, play together – but in doing so, inadvertently, it has also allowed us to war against those we dislike – from CAPS-LOCK stuck on to outright attacks on someone else’s systems.

Transporting us around so that we can write code to buy things and influence our own future without a thought as to the long term consequences of our actions in a period of time where medicine and associated technologies will have us living longer to see the consequences of our collective decisions.

The small unconscious decisions making the big unconscious decisions for us, mindfulness out the window.

I suppose I may be in a dark mood this morning. I suppose that this may seem pessimistic or cynical. I suppose it’s disturbing if one were to think about it all.

We should go buy something to feel better about all of this…