I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard
Archive for november 2014

Is privacy in need of secrecy, or of maturity?

2014-11-20 by Nick S., tagged as privacy

Not long after reading Evgeny Morozov's complaints about more or less everything technological, I happened to pick up Dave Eggers' latest novel, The Circle (2013), which features a utopian-minded Internet corporation dedicated to exactly the kind of "technological solutionism" that Morozov derides. One of the most prominent features of said company is "transparency" something like that envisaged by David Brin in The Transparency Society (1998), in which everyone's activities are open to an unstoppable wave of recording devices.

Eggers has his company promote transparency as the ultimate weapon for the accountability of public figures (and, eventually, everyone else). Morozov, however, asserts that such transparency leads to public decision-making becoming bogged down in the pursuit of trivial misdemeanours. I certainly found myself wondering if Eggers' characters could ever achieve anything given the amount of time they spend on commenting on each other, and perhaps Eggers in part intended to make us wonder exactly this. Morozov even goes so far as to claim that certain amounts of duplicity and hypocrisy are necessary to public decision-making, though I can't recall him giving any specific examples.

I doubt that many people would find the world of The Circle very appealing. For one, many would likely recoil in horror at the thought of being subject to some of the revelations made public about its characters, and at the unthinking vigilantism that sometimes follows. Many would also be very disturbed by the amount of power ceded to the private company at the heart of The Circle (though one might take the point of The Circle to be that we are presently handing this sort of power to real Internet companies of our own free will).

I nonetheless found a few things to question about The Circle's and Morozov's portrayals of transparency. For a start, current public debate, at least in Australia, is hardly a model of nuanced thinking and intellectual rigour, and one wonders if a transparent society would actually have any depths of triviality left to plumb.

Eggers and Morozov both seem to neglect the possibility that trivialisers and vigilantes would themselves be watched and criticised. I don't suppose that the public and the media outlets that serve them will leave off their pursuit of triviality after being scolded by the scholars that watch them — plenty of scholars have already done plenty of scolding — but those who make decisions do nonetheless have the choice to listen to the scholars rather than the trivialisers. And debates over the behaviour of public figures in venues like The Drum and The Conversation suggest to me that there are, indeed, watchers prepared to argue both sides.

I consequently wondered: is The Circle's problem transparency per se, or the trivialisation, discrimination and point-scoring to which people apply it? After I'd been studying privacy seriously for a while, I came to suspect that the privacy debate was bogged down in debating the collection of data, a debate that can only lead to absurd extremes of either transparency (from pro-surveillers) or opacity (for anti-surveillers). If we were to be confronted by a real world Circle — and some might argue that we already are — is the solution secrecy, or a bit of maturity?


2014-11-15 by Nick S., tagged as experience, mobile computing

Having built up a collection of electronic books and magazines to be read, and wanting to save space in my pack on a recent hiking trip, I decided to load all of the books and magazines into my phone instead of taking paper reading material on the trip. This was fairly effective for its purpose, but left me feeling slightly ashamed when I found myself sitting outside my tent with my phone (reading), looking for all the world like someone who'd rather spend time with a phone than with the natural environment I'd come to see.

Now, what I was doing with the phone was essentially the same as what I would do with a book, and I bring books with me whenever I travel. I suppose that one might also argue that reading books in hotel rooms or camp sites is wasting time that could be better spent experiencing the locale that one has come to visit, but I find reading indispensable for passing the time on aeroplanes, trains and buses, and for relaxing at the end of the day. For that matter, I also check my e-mail and answer phone calls while travelling, albeit with greatly reduced frequency to what I normally do. So why not use the phone for the same purpose?

In my mind, at least, I guess there's a great difference in the image projected by using a mobile phone as compared to a book. Sure, I might only be reading, but with a phone I could be checking in with work or providing banal second-hand experiences to my friends — and perhaps I shortly will be if I become accustomed to using to the phone. But a book can only be read, and anyone seeing me with a book knows exactly what I must be doing.

Now, why should I care what everyone thinks I'm doing anyway? Plenty of people respond with incredulity when I say I'm planning to walk or catch a bus where my audience would take a car, but I just explain to them that it's part of the adventure. Yet in doing this I guess I am trying to project an image of someone who isn't bound up with his technological devices, and enjoys spending time without them. I wouldn't like to think that I'd be doing something so crude as trying to be popular or conventional, but I am nonetheless looking after my image.

Later on one evening, I did receive a phone call from a friend. While I was a little surprised that the phone had reception at my camp site, I thought nothing of answering it until I started thinking on this blog entry. So perhaps I am just as much at the beck and call of my devices as the next person after all, at least when I'm not concentrating on resisting them.

Should coding be taught in school?

2014-11-03 by Nick S., tagged as education

Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's Minister for Communications, recently gave a speech calling for "coding" to be included in the school curriculum in Australia, arguing that "instead of teaching students how to be passive consumers of technology or how to use Microsoft Word or other proprietary software, our educators should be teaching students how to create, how to code". He backs up his views with a warning from the Australian Computer Society "that any delay to the teaching of coding would put students at a significant disadvantage from their peers in the UK", and the opinion of some unnamed advisors who "have compared the importance of coding to that of literacy and numeracy".

Commenters over at The Register, where I first saw the story, aren't so sure. Preparing students for creating computer technology sounds like a noble enough goal, but how realistic is it? And how necessary?

For a start, any contention that coding might be as fundamental a skill as literacy and numeracy is surely absurd, since literacy and numeracy are both pre-requisites to the ability to write code. To judge by my experience of teaching software development at university level, even many students who have chosen to enrol in computer science degrees finding coding difficult, so why expect primary school students to make much headway with it?

Still, one can imagine teaching something simpler than what we teach at university level. In my school days, we had BASIC and Logo, and later Pascal, for those of us wealthy enough to have access to computers (hm... maybe this coding-in-school stuff is not such a new idea after all). Learning some BASIC and Pascal in high school probably helped me identify an aptitude for programming, which ultimately led me to computer engineering (though I didn't actually make this choice until I'd studied the basics of all engineering in my first year).

Turnbull acknowledges that not everyone who studies coding in school will go on to be a software developer, just as not everyone who studies English will go on to write a novel. But I can see at least a prima facie case for some coding in school, even if it's a very limited form of coding compared to what professional software developers do, and it comes somewhat later than what its most enthusiastic proponents seem to imagine.

Yet, if the ability to create computer technology is worthy goal, what about the ability to create cars, roads, electrical power distribution systems, agriculture, and all of the other technologies that are essential to industrialised countries? I've often thought that if education departments listened to every professional society and trade association's suggestion that its pet subject be included in the school curriculum, we'd finish high school just in time to retire.

Since not everyone will go on to become a software developer, the real purpose of any coding in school cannot be to give all of us the ability to create computer technology. For me, it was part of making an informed decision about what to pursue after I'd completed high school, and this seems reasonable enough a justification as far as it goes. But determining the value of coding to society at large, relative to other things might be taught in school, requires input from a lot more than just software developers and other computer enthusiasts.