I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard
Archive for july 2013

Free flows of information [about someone else]

2013-07-31 by Nick S., tagged as law, privacy

After the fuss surrounding PRISM last month, I was bemused to find the historical pages of the July 2013 issues of IEEE Computer reporting that, thirty-two years ago, "worldwide protectionist legislation is threatening the free flow of information across borders". This lament is attributed to W. Michael Blumenthal in the July 1981 issue of the same magazine (p. 115), who was then the chairman of the Burroughs Corporation (now part of Unisys).

How things change! I thought. In 1981, Blumenthal feared that governments might enact legislation preventing the free use of private data. In 2013, computer enthusiasts fear that governments themselves might be making free use of private data.

Reading the original article in its entirety, I realised that the two attitudes probably aren't as contradictory as they first seemed. I take Blumenthal to be referring to computer companies' ability to use data as they please, while modern critics of PRISM are referring to the government's ability to use data as it pleases. The two sentences in the previous paragraph are perfectly consistent when interpreted in the light of self-interest: the computer industry would like to do as it pleases with whatever data it can collect, while it has nothing to gain from law enforcement agencies' use of similar data. For law enforcement agencies, it's the other way around.

I think just about all credible systems of ethics, justice and law try to resolve this problem by demanding some variant of the Golden Rule: treat others as you would have them treat you. Or, that everyone is equal before the law. In a privacy context, I may not have anything immediate to gain from someone else's use of data, but it would be irrational (or at least egomaniacal) for me to deny someone else use of data in a way that I believe I'm entitled to do myself. If I think beyond my immediate self-interest, I see that I do have an interest in allowing other people to make use of data insofar as it provides a moral basis for my right to use data in the same way.

Computer companies and law enforcement agencies, though, differ markedly from individuals and from each other. Law enforcement agencies do plenty of things that would be regarded as vigilantism if I did them myself, and I have no conceivable need to sell customer information since I'm not an ad-supported business. Yet I appreciate enforcement of the rule of law and (sometimes) ad-supported services, so it's not so simple to say that I should treat them as I would have them treat me. So perhaps we need something a little more nuanced.

I was recently introduced to the work of John Rawls, who proposed that a "just" system of laws is one that would be agreed to by people with no knowledge of what social position they were going to be born into. I wonder if computer companies, law enforcement agencies and the rest of us could learn from similarly pondering how we would establish rules for the sharing of data without any knowledge of the industry in which we were to be engaged?

One man's enthusiasm and another man's inanity

2013-07-08 by Nick S., tagged as dependence, experience

This quarter's issue of IEEE Technology and Society presents the results of a survey of blog entries concerning tablet PCs conducted by Efpraxia D. Zamani and colleagues. Two things about the survey struck me immediately: that "most of the bloggers hold upper level managerial positions", and that nearly all of the material quoted from their blogs seems rather inane. Zamani et al. could almost be writing a parody of Dilbert's Pointy-Haired Boss.

To be fair to upper-level managers, Zamani and colleagues compiled their material in a way that seems likely to select only the most inane stuff: they searched for "blog" and "iPad", and discarded any technical reviews. That is, they sought out casual writing about iPads and explicitly ignored rigourous reviews of the technology. We can still hope that most upper level managers actually have better things to do than write uninsightful observations like "it was ultra-convenient to just flip out the iPad ... without having to whip out a laptop or projector" (p. 76), which I would otherwise expect to find only in mediocre undergraduate essays. What, exactly, is the difference between "flipping out" and "whipping out"?

Whatever the merits of the bloggers' own observations, Zamani and colleagues identify a euphoric attachment to technological devices that seems totally alien to me. There are plenty of devices that I find useful for one purpose or another, and occasionally I might even mention so in conversation or on this blog. But I don't think I'd ever use words like "love", "passion" and "excitement", as Zamani and colleagues do in the last part of their article (p 78). I don't, for example, feel any loss when going for days or even weeks without my phone or computer when camping or travelling. (I do eventually wonder if any of my friends sent me any e-mail, though.)

In part, I guess this reflects my engineering background. For me and other engineers, technological artifacts are simply the end result of sound engineering principles. If we get excited about anything, it's the cleverness and power of the principles themselves. For non-engineers, however, technological artifacts can be magic boxes to be marvelled at in their own right.

Perhaps I'm also just not one to feel attached to non-human objects. Similar enthusiasm about cars and pets, for example, leaves me feeling cold. I do feel sentimental about objects I've owned for a long time, and I hate throwing things out. But I can't imagine myself writing a blog entry praising the guitar I've owned for twenty years (but rarely play), or chronicling the life and times of my once-sturdy pair of cargo pants that were torn beyond repair during a hike last month.

I certainly can't imagine anyone wanting to read such a blog entry. But I guess iPad enthusiasts probably don't find my actual blog very interesting either.