After lurking on the edges of the IEEE Society of the Social Implications of Technology for a while, wondering if I can and ought to get more active, I finally found the inspiration to contribute an article to The Social Interface, which was published last week.
Digital media and the, ahem, business model of the future is a topic close to my heart as both a researcher in intellectual property protection and a lover of music (and books, though the electronic book industry never seemed to make as many headlines as the former). The article grew out of what I perceived to be lazy and hackneyed advice to the music industry to "get a new business model" without offering any constructive suggestion as to what this magical business model might be, let alone show a willingness to make a living using whatever model the artists were supposed to adopt.
In one or two of the job interviews I did in the period after the conclusion of my time at the Multimedia Security Lab in Wollongong, I was asked what I thought the solution might be. Being thoroughly sceptical of bold predictions, I said something along the lines of "I don't know but we can keep experimenting and I'm hopeful we'll work something out."
Insofar as music is still being produced and sold, and music companies appear to remain in business, one might say that we have, indeed, worked something out, at least for now. It's hard to say exactly what it is, possibly because it's far more complex than what anyone could summarise in a pithy answer to an interview question. Maybe it's improvements in the user appeal and financial architecture of paid-for download services; maybe it's the recording industry's hounding of file-sharing networks; maybe it's a change in culture; maybe it's even those "movie piracy is theft" ads that film-goers continue to endure.
Most likely, it's combination of all of those things and more, and it'll continue to evolve as technology changes and new services emerge. At least I hope so, because I hate to think that there'll come a day when it's no longer profitable for artists to pursue their craft in the same way that I and other technologists pursue ours.
This month, a couple of the magazines to which I subscribe presented some challenges to the black box fallacy. February's issue of IEEE Spectrum (p. 23) outlines the views of Jakob Nielsen on Windows 8, whose lab testing of the new operating system leads him to suppose that "Microsoft tried to almost optimize for the mobile scenario, and that’s why their desktop design falls through so bad." APC Magazine's extensive review in November 2012 came to a similar conclusion, albeit without the precision terminology that Nielsen uses to explain his views in the full interview about his experiments. In the March 2013 issue of the same magazine, Tony Sarno's editorial (p. 3) lambasts the view that "the PC is dying", to be replaced by the present fashion for tablets and smartphones.
Now, I suppose that a mobile computing enthusiast might assert that the PC is indeed dying and that Microsoft is therefore doing exactly the right thing in optimising its operating systems for mobile computing devices. More accurately, if Microsoft sees its market as consisting largely of mobile devices (rather than office computers and server farms), then maybe it is indeed doing the right thing for its commercial purposes.
Yet, if for no other reason than the size of the screens involved, tablets and smartphones are surely not going to replace server farms, home theatres, and probably not even office computers in the foreseeable future. Obviously it's Microsoft's own business as to what market they want their products to serve, but I haven't heard the company announce an end to its interest in the PC market, and all of the reviewers mentioned above clearly expect Windows to continue to serve this market. Unless we've all completely mis-understood Microsoft's intentions for Windows 8, it seems that Microsoft may have fallen victim to a form of black box fallacy in which there is one grand unified interface suitable to interacting with all kinds of device, regardless of the device's purpose or form factor.
Considering APC's Future of the PC Poll, however, did give me some first-hand experience with why someone might forget about PCs: they are, it has to be said, pretty boring. I could, no doubt, amply answer the poll's question about what can be done with a PC, but word processing, software development and the hosting of web sites don't much inspire me to "suggest a positive marketing message or slogan that PC makers can use in their marketing". Then again, maybe that's exactly how you'd expect an engineer to answer. I find soap, say, pretty boring too, but my local supermarket still moves shelves full of the stuff.
Today I read two articles expressing more or less opposite views (or at least hopes) of employment in engineering. On one hand, IEEE Spectrum presented its annual round-up of dream jobs, beginning with a lament that "unflattering stereotypes persist, and they're tired [and] out of touch with reality". The Register, on the other hand, reports the views of one Mike Laverick that you need a home lab to keep your job — that is, you need to be exactly the kind of technology-bound stereotype that Spectrum wishes to take on.
Spectrum is, of course, cherry-picking a very small number of individuals who have what it describes as "dream jobs" involving travelling around the world, working on exotic projects and/or making noble contributions to humankind. The Register might be more representative of the common mass of engineers working on (presumably) worthwhile but unglamourous projects for mundane employers in their home town. The commenters on The Register's article certainly sound a lot more like the lab-at-home folks than the high-flying Rennaissance men and women featured in Spectrum.
I don't have a lab at home, and, indeed, resent the notion that I ought to spend my spare time training up for a job in which I have high formal qualifications, years of experience and continue to work in day-in day-out. Laverick's attitude seems to me to pander to what I think are wrong-headed views of programming that prioritise familiarity with the latest buzzword over the fundamental engineering skills possessed by truly competent programmers. Yet buzzwords are doomed to come and go, and, I, at least, feel I have better things to do than pursue them in a lab at home. What other trade or profession demands that its members practice their craft not just in their professional lives, but in their spare time also? (One even hesitates to imagine the goings-on in the home labs of, say, surgeons and nuclear engineers.)
So I'm probably more typical of the readership of Spectrum than of The Register. Indeed, it isn't immediately obvious that Spectrum's dream workers have a better lot than I do (though I suspect they earn more money). Simon Hauger appears to do more or less the same kind of work that I and numerous teachers do, while Marcia Lee appears to does more or less the same kind of work that I and numerous other software developers do, albeit for a better-known company than most of us (the Khan Academy).
Perhaps the most important aspect about Spectrum's dream jobs is that they show some vision for engineering beyond engineering itself. While Laverick and his followers are beavering away in their home labs in pursuit of yet more engineering cred (or at least buzzwords), Hauger, Lee and the rest are thinking about how science and engineering serve education, art, adventure and human development. This might sound like a utopian dream, but, if engineering isn't serving something like this, why are we doing it?
The Australian (30 January 2013, p. 3) reported Tim Berners-Lee's recent visit to Australia under the headline "Inventor against net regulation". The article itself specifies that Berners-Lee, among many others things, had actually spoken against regulation by the United Nations in particular, and doesn't specify whether he had any thoughts on who, if anyone, should regulate it.
Anti-regulation pronouncements like that implied by the article's title never fail to have me rolling my eyes at the naïveté of commentators whose primary criterion for regulation appears to be that it should be short. Of course no one would dispute that regulation ought to be constructed in as concise and straightforward a manner as possible in order to achieve its goal. But contemptuous references to "red tape" and the like frequently seem to me to conceal a lack of appreciation for the goal of regulation as well as the speaker's arrogance about his or her own perspective relative to that of others.
I suspect that phrasing regulatory arguments in terms of choosing whether to regulate or not is missing the point. Regulators must choose which interests to protect, and to what degree. In the context of the data-collection matters to which Berners-Lee apparently referred, for example, regulators must determine the degree which to protect the interests of private citizens by restraining the behaviour of data-collecting entities like Internet companies and government departments, and the degree to which protect the interests of data collectors by allowing them to collect and use data as they please. To say that there is some celestial state of nature with which regulators should not interfere is at best incoherent, and at worst lazy capitulation to the interests of the most powerful.
Of course technology companies would prefer that regulators favour their interests, as The Register lampoons in a recent article on Google's opinion of government data collection. Technology enthusiasts, for whom the computer industry is of unique importance, happily tag along with demands that Internet service providers be free from regulation (such as the recent SOPA legislation in the US) that might protect the interests of other industries or of governments — except, of course, when the same service providers want to do something that would impinge on the enthusiasts' own interests, such as harvest their personal data or cap the amount that they can download for their monthly service fee.
I don't envy the job of regulators. I don't imagine they receive many thank-you letters from regulatees, expressing gratitude for the legislation to which the regulatees are subject. Perhaps a regulator in the mould of Dilbert's Wally would welcome the demand to do as little as possible, but who'd want Wally on their staff?