I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard

What is the proper way to look at privacy, secrecy and freedom?

2015-06-27 by Nick S., tagged as freedom, privacy

I've already written one entry inspired by a recent Conversation article in which Graham Murdock suggested that "surveillance threatens us with a new serfdom". It's not an easy article to understand, and I'm still uncertain if he is trying to cover too much in too little space, or has just mashed choice bits of history, politics and modern technology into an incoherent fantasy of totalitarian government. Whatever Murdock's intent, an alien reading the comments on the article would be certain that Australia and countries like it are totalitarian states.

I dithered for a while over whether I'd bother to write a comment of my own, in part because I wasn't sure I understood Murdock's point, in part because I wasn't sure I had anything (new) to say, and in part because I feared that questioning anti-surveillance rhetoric would have me perceived as a champion of totalitarian surveillance. The last motivation is the most interesting to me now, and ultimately led me to decide that I should comment by way of accepting my own criticism of the idea that secrecy protects us from discrimination. The same might be said of my previous blog entry, which contained a few rhetorical questions that I can imagine being answered with contemptuous and/or increduluous rants from anti-surveillance commenters and cyberlibertarians.

As it turned out, no one replied to my comment at all, so I either didn't offend as many people as I feared, wasn't as interesting as I'd hoped, or didn't make enough sense of my own. So what did I have to fear, if not ridicule from commenters who I've dismissed as ranters and fantasists anyway?

In working through my previous blog entry, I came to realise that a large part of my difficulty came from from trying to confront anti-surveillance rhetoric on its own terms, in which "surveillance" is presumed to imply arbitrary discrimination and persecution, and "privacy" is presumed to imply freedom. But the whole purpose of my critique is that this view is confused and unhelpful, not to mention absurd if its adherents really hold that Australia is a totalitarian state or anything close to one.

One cure might then be to eschew terms like "surveillance" and "discrimination", and instead draw on terminology developed within a more nuanced worldview. Of course I can't make everyone else adopt whatever terminology or worldview I choose, certainly not within the scope of a comment on an article. But this challenge does encourage me to think carefully about how I present my ideas.

Responding to Murdock's article, I cobbled together something about control of information, which is a bit of mish-mash of an idea that appeared (somewhat vaguely) in the article, and the view of privacy as being about use of information that we used when I was developing experimental privacy protection systems. I'm ultimately not all that happy with this response, though I hope I at least indicated that "privacy", "secrecy" and "liberty" might not have quite the straightforward relationship that anti-surveillance rhetoric supposes.

On freedom in the ninja-costume state

2015-06-18 by Nick S., tagged as freedom, government, privacy

In responding to a recent Conversation article on surveillance, I drew an analogy between the wearing of ninja costumes and secrecy-centred approaches to privacy. I've used this analagy several times elsewhere on this blog, but writing on The Conversation — where even comments probably receive far more attention than this blog — forced me to focus on the quality of the analogy.

In trying to portray rants about surveillance as simplistic and beside the point, I worked out a brief description of a world in which we used ninja costumes and ID numbers to prevent anyone finding out about us. I later wondered, off-line, if the imagined world was not just as absurd as I intended it to be, but also just as bad for freedom as the totalitarian state being imagined by the author of the article (Graham Murdock) and most of the other commenters. On the face of it, feeling compelled to wear ninja costumes and answer to ID numbers sounds very much like the dehumanised totalitarianism that Murdock and commentators say they fear.

Of course surveilling electronic networks doesn't work quite the same way as surveilling the streets: the kind of information involved is quite different, and computers can process and record much greater quantities of information than street-walking spies. But nor is it entirely different: both forms of surveillance can support the kind of arbitrary discrimination that anti-surveillance rants presume to be the goal of surveillance systems, and both can be combatted by a tell-nobody approach.

Re-reading my previous blog entries on privacy, I realised that I'd come across the key point in a Conversation article from Ashlin Lee and Peta Cook: a large part of freedom concerns the freedom to express oneself, and it is exactly this freedom that would be threatened by the ninja-costume state. Sure, the government would be unable to persecute any of its ninja-citizens, but no one would be able to do what they wanted to do anyway (unless all they wanted to do was to dress as ninjas).

Now suppose I encrypted and anonymised all of the entries in the blog, and all of my comments on the Conversation, just to make sure that no government or corporate overlords could pick me up in a crackdown on people with English names, long hair, or sceptical views on technology boosterism. I'd be free to have all the views I liked, but no one would be able to read them (they're encrypted), and no one would know that I'm a person who identifies with these characteristics. Is this a freedom worth having?

I suppose that critics of Lee and Cook's idea might argue that they want to express themselves to certain chosen people, but not to the world at large for fear of embarrassment or persecution. I can see a certain amount of pragmatic appeal in this position under various circumstances, but how does one identify those chosen people in the first place? And would not limiting our expression to only a select few like-minded fellow citizens leave us in a filter bubble from which we were unable to see perspectives other than our own?

Or perhaps we'd like to express ourselves to the world at large, but have the government and corporations politely ignore us. But, again, how do we choose those whose attention we want to attract and those by whom we wish to be politely ignored, and how do those parties know what we want of them? And, come to think of it, do we really want a government that ignores us anyway?

Standing up for advertising

2015-06-02 by Nick S., tagged as commerce

Three months ago, I wondered who would stand up for advertising and its role in funding news, entertainment and other things that we think of as being "free". David Glance's Conversation column this week drew a few commenters who are, indeed, prepared to stand up for advertising.

Glance himself wonders if ad-blocking software will kill off on-line advertising as a business model, which he has read to be struggling to be relevant in an article in The Atlantic. That the advertising revenues of Google and others have already survived ten years of ad-blockers leads me to be sceptical of the threat they pose, but here I'm more interested in the comments on the article.

William Ferguson wisely points out that the adherents of ad-blocking need to be careful what they wish for: those ads are what pay for the goodies, and without revenue the goodies cannot continue to be made. He draws specific attention to advertising's support for small-time developers who don't have the fee-charging power of major software development houses. Michael Cahill argues that "the use of adblock software is morally equivalent to any other form of piracy" in that it is effectively taking something without paying the price, and implies that he'd rather have the advertising than have to pay.

(As an aside, Ferguson also notes that "it is extremely rare for anyone to shell out a couple of dollars on a totally unknown product, even with refund periods", which itself says something about the cheapness of software-buyers. I, and I'm sure plenty of other people, routinely pay much more than this to try out a new beer, a new restaurant, or a new holiday experience, so why do we baulk at paying a couple of dollars to try out an app?)

Perhaps it's worth noting that both Ferguson and Cahill are content producers according to their taglines (a software developer and journalist, respectively), while their opponents appear to be content users or at least thinking only about how they can use content. Ferguson and Cahill want to be paid for what they do, and know that they couldn't continue to do it if there wasn't money for it. User-centred critics, on the other hand, assert that it can all be done for nothing, but are conspicuously silent about actually doing it.

While I may have less love for advertising than either Ferguson or Cahill — I usually take the paid version given the choice, and I dread the idea of having to make my living from advertising — we're all of one mind in recognising that art (and software) needs to be resourced in one way or another. My view of apparently-free content isn't even incompatible with theirs: those who live by advertising know all too well that it's not just there out of some perverse desire to annoy users, but in fact an integral part of providing the services we like to call "free".

Are machines taking our jobs, or are we working despite them?

2015-05-31 by Nick S., tagged as employment

David Tuffley recently asserted in The Conversation that we [humans] need new jobs as the machines do more of our work. I immediately saw something fishy about the article's premise, in which "governments are encouraging healthy older people to postpone retirement and keep working" on one hand, while "jobs are not easy to come by these days" on the other. Tuffley goes on to consider what might happen, and how we might respond to it, as even more present-day jobs become mechanised. But if jobs are not easy to come by because machines are doing all the work, from where arises the need to have humans keep working in the first place?

I suppose that Tuffley developed his premise by accepting two popular narratives with their own internal logic, but whose internal logicks conflict such that a naïve combination of the two does not make sense. Many of the commenters on the article (including me) perceive this as a symptom of flaws in the worldview in which the aging-population and machines-are-taking-our-jobs narratives flourish.

Tuffley seems to subscribe to the traditional counter-Luddite view that a growing economy will find new non-automated work for displaced human workers, or at least that it must be somehow made to do so. Many of the commenters are not so sure, though few if any of us have a clear idea on how to bring about an alternative.

It's well beyond the scope of this blog — and probably my whole academic career — to have "the dismal science [economics] ... rebuilt from the ground up", as Graeme Martin's comment suggests. But in a previous entry or two on work and mechanisation, I've looked at certain kinds of work as being satisying in their own right, and wondered if anyone would want this work to be taken away by machines.

Several months ago, I happened to pick up Simon Birnbaum's Basic Income Reconsidered (2012). The most powerful memory I have of the book is where Birnbaum questions the notion that the worthiness of a member of a society should depend on paid work, which (notoriously) discounts the value of such things as raising children, caring for sick relatives, and cleaning the house. Not to mention all that produsing that we're supposed to be doing. (A "basic income" is a government payment made to every citizen irrespective of the citizen's income — or lack of it — from other sources.)

Whatever one thinks of basic incomes, Birnbaum's perspective gets at the dilemma that I had when contemplating being replaced by technology about a year ago. Markets provide an incentive to replace labourers with technology if the technology can make products less expensively, and this might be a great thing if the labour is boring or dangerous — but where does that leave those of us who derive satisfaction from our work? Especially if society continues to insist, as Tuffley presumes, that its members keep in paid work for forty hours a week even while more and more work is done by machines.

Rather than talk of machines taking jobs, perhaps we ought to be talking of how best to distribute the wealth created by advancing machinery, and how best to use it in pursuing what we really want to do. As some of the commenters noted, thinkers as diverse as John Maynard Keynes and the writers of Star Trek have grappled with these ideas, but it never seems to have caught on in a society that insists we prove our worth with forty hours of drudgery each week.

How creative is "produse" anyway?

2015-05-05 by Nick S., tagged as intellectual property

I recently picked up Copyfight (2015), a collection of Australian essays on copyright edited by Phillipa McGuinness. Most of the essays are sympathetic to copyright and the plight of artists who feel that infringement shows a lack of respect, but a few — such as Dan Hunter and Nic Suzor — celebrate so-called remix culture and fear that the copyright industries threaten the ability of "produsers" to copy-paste music and video into mash-ups.

My first reaction was to wonder: so, where are all these produsers? I've never heard of the heroes of Hunter and Suzor's essay; infringement apologists are overwhelmingly complaining about the cost and availability of major label music and Hollywood blockbusters, not a shortage of prodused video clips; and none of my friends are sending me amusing mash-ups. I've heard plenty of remixes and samples on the radio and on the "bonus tracks" at the end of albums, but in the vast majority of cases I've felt that the original mix was the only one worth listening to. Nor can I think of a remix achieving any sort of lasting popularity or repute (though there are some classic cover versions).

Maybe I don't hang around the right people or the right places, leaving me in some elitist bubble that pays attention only to serious professional art — though I enjoy the company of plenty of people who take their own photographs, play their own music, build their own mediaeval costumes and cook their own treats. Or maybe I'm not of the new generation — though I know and teach many people who would have been in nappies when people like Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler and Clay Shirky began celebrating this stuff, not to mention that Lessig et al. themselves are all older than me as far as I know.

Whether or not I see much of it, and whatever I think of what I do see, some more thought got me wondering: might complaining that copyright is making it difficult to re-use existing recordings actually be proving copyright's worth, if it is forcing people to go out and create new recordings instead of re-using old ones? And, faced with the "time-critical participant" defence of infringement of the copyright of popular television series, might not one ask: wouldn't a really active participant in culture have friends and adventures of their own to talk about, rather than needing to download them from some giant television studio?

That's not suggest that there's no place for making use of existing art: I often use quotes when I'm writing, many of my musician friends play music that was written by someone else, and I follow recipes when I cook. But let's not pretend that the stuff we're building upon is manna from heaven, or that we're helpless without it: much of it was funded by copyright, and we have the choice to go elsewhere if we don't want to pay the going price. And, speaking of cooking, does anyone suggest that having to pay for ingredients inhibits the creativity of cooks anyway?