I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard
Archive for june 2013

Imagining totalitarianism

2013-06-21 by Nick S., tagged as government, privacy

The Conversation (amongst others) last week had plenty to say about "PRISM", with all of Philip Branch, Sean Rintel, Alan Woodward, Grant Blank, and Ashlin Lee and Peta Cook having something to say about the US National Security Agency's alleged programme to collect information from the servers of US Internet companies.

I found it curious that the criticisms levelled at this kind of surveillance are largely (though not completely) theoretical, in the sense that they don't much discuss actual instances of people suffering at the hands of such systems. A mention or two of Watergate seems to be about it, and that happened forty years ago.

Now, what constitutes "suffering" may be a matter of opinion. Does it do someone harm to be embarrassed? To be in the NSA's files? To be judged by information collected by Google and Facebook? And perhaps it's hard to find people suffering because such systems haven't been widely used in Western countries (though Lee and Cook's contribution suggests otherwise).

The orthodox view amongst those who write most about privacy seems to be that the collection of data is harmful in and of itself. The classical view amongst technologists, in particular, is that privacy consists of never telling anyone anything, and hence their fascination with technology like Tor and Bitcoin. It certainly seems sinister enough to imagine that there's some organisation watching one's every online move. After all, what good could such an organisation possibly do for the person being watched?

The answer is that, whatever conspiracy theorists might like to imagine, I don't think there are any organisations that collect data simply for the sake of it. Google, Facebook and the rest collect data in part to serve the immediate needs of their users and in part to meet their own business needs. The NSA and similar organisations collect data to serve what they perceive to be the public interest. To get worked up about the mere collection of data is to miss the point: the real question concerns the purpose the data is used for, and whether or not the benefits of this purpose outweigh the costs.

Making simple allusions to totalitarian states and Orwell doesn't answer this question. The problem with totalitarian dictators isn't so much that they spy on their citizens, it's that they persecute citizens who hold views disagreeable to the dictator. Indeed, any organisation that simply collected data for its own sake would just be a corporate variant of the oddballs that appear on Collectors.

Technology to the rescue

2013-06-12 by Nick S., tagged as dependence, prediction

Apparently deciding to take a break from electronics for the month, IEEE Spectrum takes a look at agricultural technology for its June 2013 issue. Spectrum is sufficiently impressed with what it sees to predict the coming of an age of plenty with food for all, whatever food crises and starvation might be feared by less optimistic forecasters.

Keith Fuglie (pp. 20-26) leads the optimism with an article explaining his supreme confidence that agricultural technology will provide nutrition for everyone into the foreseeable future. Whether or not we're going to starve is a topic for a different blog, but I do want to comment on the technology-bound world-view apparent in Fuglie's article and many of the others that follow it.

From the standpoint of technological optimism taken by Spectrum's contributors, all problems can, must and will be solved by technology. While a technology magazine like Spectrum could be expected to focus on the technological aspects of its subject matter, technology-bound articles like Fuglie's do not even appear to imagine that solutions might also come from policy, design, economics, culture and other areas. It's technology or bust (but of course there will be no bust because technology is presumed capable of solving any problem).

One can imagine an engineer who, upon seeing a piece of litter beside the road, sees an opportunity to develop an army of rubbish-collecting robots. A city taking up this army could spend millions of dollars to free its citizens from the trivial hassle of putting their litter in a bin. Pro-robot councillors, I suppose, might argue that litterbugs will drop litter regardless of how cheap and easy the bin seems to tidier citizens, and the robots will completely solve the problem where civic virtue might only partially solve it. But that tells a pretty sad story of the cost of laziness and irresponsibility: one might say that the technology has improved, but the citizens haven't.