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2016-02-11

Emergent themes

Look! Another no-publicity big-star tv-imitating-but-not-actually-tv feature! One more, and we shall have a trend!

Looks like the Flirble Organization has finally sublimated. I must write a proper obit for it, and plum.flirble.org, which held together so much of the early British Internet scene. In the exodus, I’m temporarily stashing my decades-old home domain, spesh.com on an Amazon instance until I can find it a better home.

It’s pretty hard to navigate AWS’s billing system, but when I did, I found that I’d been paying them 3 cents a month for … quite a while. Digging around, I found that I’d already used it as a potential escape route — I created a backup copy of oblomovka from the time of the Haystack Affair. I don’t know if I ever actually switched Oblomovka over to that after Oblomovka started getting a lot of hits, but it’s been patiently waiting to deal with the failover ever since.

I really can’t escape the distant past in this posting series, can I?

I’ve often wondered what I would have done differently with Haystack, if I had the opportunity to go back in time. It seems like it was one of the first of a general rise in the j’accuse mode of dealing with issues in public infosec projects. I don’t do that sort of activism any more, I think because it’s far too stressful on everyone involved, and had a lot of less than optimal outcomes. The hope is that you can get people out of a bad situation quickly with gentler strategies.

I think this may be another emergent theme, though: large explosions of public group emotional intensity may be suspicious. I am certainly suspicious of them, and these days I actively avoid such events, perhaps a little too much. They are contagious, and defining — and are often effective.

It feels to me that part of the current meta-debate online is how emotion should be moderated online. What emotions should you express? What are you allowed to do or say with emotion as your impetus? Who is showing emotion, and who is showing no emotion? (Think of the discussions about trolling and harassment, of civil behaviour and safe and trusted platforms.) Who is deploying emotion, who is authentically demonstrating their emotion, what emotions can you/should you/must you empathise with. Which ones can you/should you/must you reject?

When I am discussing something intensely online (yes that is a euphemism for “being in a flame-war”), I am very emotional. I pace around, am distracted, am twitchy. A few times I’ve asked the other person in the argument how they feel, and I’m surprised when people say that they’re not feeling any emotion at all. Even when they’re writing twenty replies in an hour. Can that be true? I assume good faith, even in an Internet fistfight, but I find it hard to imagine. I have also noted that I have had to explicitly say I’m feeling emotional, because my written style never indicates that, because I’m usually trying to maintain the form of a “correct” Internet discussion.

It feels like one of the shifts in the last few years has been the acceptability of expressing strong emotion in discussion, especially in public debate. When the first time the tone argument (&c, &c, &c, &c, &c) was identified as a trope in online discussion, was also the place where people realized that being angry didn’t always reduce your points to rubble. That anger might actually help emphasise and underline your point. That it might be dishonest and unbalancing to discredit or put it to one side.

Yet when I say that, I am suffixing the description of this shift with “at least in one of the subcultures that might make a claim to define the broad parameters of Internet discussion.”

But what does *that* mean, in an Internet of billions?

I just spent a good 20 minutes attempting to eke out the first use of the phrase “tone argument.” I’m pretty sure most of my trails end just pre-Racefail, a seminal moment which brought many of these issues to a head in the online English-speaking science fiction community. But note that despite carefully picking out a broad set of sources above, I know at least two of the authors personally, heck I live with one of the founders of the definition sites linked to, and am probably within two hops, or 500 miles of almost all of the other authors. All of them come from political viewpoints that, while scattered across a political spectrum, are shared by a tiny (but growing?) percentage of the population, even in the countries they write from. Those countries, meanwhile, are all Western, and all in the anglosphere.

That parochialism used to be less weird. But given that part of this discussion is about diversity, it begins to get weirder. Much of the form of Internet discussion is formed by the protocols, and later the platforms that dominated it early on. But is it also defined by broad cultural rules that spread through that medium? Barlow’s Declaration has its force because it came from the epicenter. Now it feels like the strongest, most generative part of the current zeitgeist is a critique of that centering. But much of its most forceful forms come from incredibly close to the same epicenters, the same sources.

(I do apologise if none of this makes any sense to you! These are disjointed notes on my thinking than anything more substantial or coherent. I’m also a little weirded out by often I refer to myself in this. I think there’s an eventual version of this that doesn’t sound quite so personal or egocentric, but for now I’m stuck with being inside my own head, a place full of my personal effects.)

2016-02-09

Sick beats… paper? scissors?

Still incoherently poorly. I ended up trying to just poke some old emails, since I knew I’d be too lightheaded to feel entirely guilty at not replying to them, even though I should be.

I think the only meta-thought I had was about why this blog is so consistently retrospective, when I don’t believe I mull over the past that much. I certainly feel a little embarrassed talking about the past to other people: but perhaps that means that I think about it a lot, but it gets blocked at the level of action, so I don’t receive any feedback about it?

I’d much rather think about the unconstrained future! Or the promising present.

Well, one of those ancient emails is still relevant. Bobbie Johnson sent out a mail at the start of Ghost Boat, Medium’s investigative journalism project to discover what happened to 243 people who were supposed to travel from Libya to Italy in a refugee boat — but who disappeared. It’s still ticking along, driven by the momentum of its team, and their audience, who continue to eke out new leads.

There’s something in this, and Serial, and many of the Patreon projects I see, where a research project is drawn forward by its own supporters. A set of works that would normally be constrained by time (because periodicals don’t just pay for one story, and people usually need to move on in their lives), that are now stretching, becoming people’s sole pursuit. It’s not unusual: plenty of people work at one thing for a large period of their lives. But it’s a new way of creating that venture. Is it any more or less predictable or stable than other long-term sources of resources or minor income? Does it lead to a different pattern of investment? Different projects selected?

2016-02-08

Interdependence Day

I don’t what I was doing when Barlow’s Declaration came out. Looking now through some internal landmarks to orientate myself, I think I must have joined the exodus from Wired UK to Virgin Net a couple of months before its February 1996 dateline. The Wired UK essay was sent out a year, less a day, from the Declaration.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed it entirely. I don’t think I was hugely enamoured with West Coast techno-utopianism during this period.

What’s surprising, after placing it in the chronology, is how late that date feels. EFF had been around for six years; Wired magazine for three years, the Web for two years or so. The Californian Ideology, probably the most prominent critique of Barlow’s Jeffersonian framing, came out months before it did, in the Autumn of 1995.

It’s also worth digging around to see what the contemporary critiques of the Declaration were. At the time, I remember them as being pretty shoddy: not in terms of the points they made (which were significant, but largely obvious), but in their rhetorical heft. Zeitgeist doesn’t mean everyone thinks the same at the same time; it means that some ideas obtain a velocity that their critics, fighting headwinds, can only dream of achieving.

I wish I could understand more of this German one, awesomely named Die Anti-Barlow. The formatting obscures whether its conclusion is supposed to be a quote from John Perry, or another English-speaker, but it hangs in the air:

“Dominate culture today and you control the laws in 15 years.”

Five years on!

2016-02-07

Horace and Pity

I’m sick again, which is hopefully not the leitmotif of 2016. Nothing serious, just a cold, but I’d barely recovered from the last bout of flu. So I’m mostly sleeping, ssh’ing into things to move stuff out of the shutting-down coloc, and watching Louis CK’s Horace and Pete, which is like a little off-off-Broadway production if community theater had HD cameras, Steve Buscemi, Jessica Lange, Alan Alda, and Paul Simon. I don’t mean that in a bad way!

I appreciate CK’s deliberate attempts not to pre-publicise. The first anyone heard about the show was a short mail from him to his subscribers, announcing just the show’s title and the price, $5, payable in PayPal, Amazon, Bitcoin and the rest. A day or so later he explained a bit more:

Part of the idea behind launching it on the site was to create a show in a new way and to provide it to you directly and immediately, without the usual promotion, banner ads, billboards and clips that tell you what the show feels and looks like before you get to see it for yourself. As a writer, there’s always a weird feeing that as you unfold the story and reveal the characters and the tone, you always know that the audience will never get the benefit of seeing it the way you wrote it because they always know so much before they watch it. And as a TV watcher I’m always delighted when I can see a thing without knowing anything about it because of the promotion. So making this show and just posting it out of the blue gave me the rare opportunity to give you that experience of discovery.

It’s a TV show that hasn’t been broadcast on anything like a television network. Not unheard of, but it also feels like a play and a personal project. Is television simply a format now: episodic, under two hours, a budget within these boundaries? I expect that Horace and Pete will end up on TV eventually, but then so do films.

It’s pretty good. It kept my attention through the headaches and coughing and woe and the is and the me. It’s consoling to watch someone do a Mike Leigh about people I am like, rather than people I don’t like. Fumbled lines and good-enough first takes, make me fall in love with you, always. It’s a toolkit of forms and performances being put to good use.

2016-02-06

Thanking Hyperlinks For Their Service

Tidied up the sidebar a bit here. Happily deleted the Google Ads (what a strange and distracting experiment advertising proved to be. I mean universally, not here, where I think I got $10 or so across the decade. Entirely undistracted.). I felt sadder cutting down all the links to other people. The people are still here, but the destinations are long gone. I’ll replace them soon I hope, but I didn’t like the smack of anachronism a link to another person’s dead webpage had. That said, looking through some of the older blog entries here, maybe the Web and the Unixy way I had of looking at it was always a nostalgia-tainted vision of the future. Like we were recapitulating the dreams of the Seventies in an attempt to shove away the grip of the present. A short circuit.

I get the same generational cross-patch feel watching J.C.R. Licklider speaking in 1986. You can’t quite place where Licklider is in time here: he’s an old man, over 70, talking about man-machine prosthesis and virtual reality goggles as though they were ancient experiment. But you know that everyone there was looking in a straight line to the future, bucket-brigading these ideas out of the past, smuggling them past all those Eighties DOS boxes.

Those moments are disorienting, when a new future finds its secret history. When all the Rubyists began to find a joy (ha) and a history in Vim, a tool built for a different world; when young artists find themselves veering toward skills thirty-years gone instead of what they are supposed to learn in college. It’s not just about fashion, it’s about a second victory of an old school, on the verge of a total eclipse. There is a political analogy here; right now there always is with me.

(The other thing that’s caught my eye is differences in writing style in 2001. I’m possibly reading too much into a drily factual blog entry, but does even Glenn nowadays write like Glenn wrote then?

Permissionless society

I’m tentatively excited about keybase’s new filesystem, but I wonder if some of that excitement is simply because their directory structure — where I have a /keybase/public/<identifier> hierachy that can be mounted by anyone, and a /keybase/private/<me> folder that is synced only between machines I attest as controlling — maps so well to the structure I’ve been trying to use in my own home directories for, gosh, over a decade.

The top-level directory in my ~danny/ has a Private and a Public folder. The Private directory is encrypted, and is linked into by a menagerie of symlinks whenever I find something that I wouldn’t want the world to see, from configurations to tax documents. The Public folder, in theory, contains everything I wouldn’t care the world seeing. My ideal was that I’d just share ~/Public on a webserver, and I’d try to err on the Public side. In practice, I’ve never actually been brave enough to open up all of ~/Public. Too much private stuff gets emitted, even accidentally. As I was writing this, for instance, I realized that I had half-written a script that could be used to derive a relatively important password, and it was still slumped around in Public (I’ve always tried to keep all my ongoing code repositories on the Public side). Just the idea of  auditing the vast stash that has mounted up in there has lead to me growing ever more cautious.

I wish there was some middle ground between those two folders. But there isn’t, and that’s the world we live in. Unless I should mkdir ~/Obscurity one of these days.

2016-02-05

Anti-Social

I gave up social media for a month, like Lent, yesterday. It was a whim, at heart — I realised I was bouncing like a Pong puck between the stress of work, to evading work by browsing media, to bouncing back off into work from the stress of reading my social media.

After years of gleeful woolgathering, my social media makes me anxious. The Internet and its people: watching them interact now is like watching parents fight. My friends argue, or steam in their own rage, or trot out simple words that provoke me into argument, even when I don’t know or can no longer care what their original intention was. Every tweet had become a poke in the guts. Every notification had me flinching.

Look at my hat! Am I bad for not liking your hat? Am I not liking your hat because it is just a hat, and I am not interested in a hat right now, but I feel pressured to “like” you hat?

These terrible things are happening. Are you angry at me for not doing more? Are you doing even less, and a hypocrite?

These kittens, I acknowledge, are cute. But what about that bad thing I just saw? Are you trying to confuse me?

So I signed off from Twitter and Facebook.

I kept Tumblr, because my Tumblr is a strange distant thing, of a small group of strangers in their twenties I randomly discovered. They are smart and happy and have carefully moderated their distance from the drama surrounding them, even on Tumblr. I watch like a sci-fi scientist might use tachyons to light up the post-apocalyptic tribes of her dismal future. What can I learn from them? Can I use their obvious intelligence and hyper-evolved adaption to their devastated world to change my own fate?

Ironically, the day after I forswore social media, I ended up physically *at* Twitter. @Twitter. There was a meeting to discuss keeping people safe from harassment, which is the absolute pinnacle of the stress I have. All my online hyperventilation comes from the expectation that one day, everything I say (including this paragraph) will be used against me. I sat and chatted with people so abraded by mass harassment that they had a kind of shine to them, a sensitivity and an invulnerability. We argued a bit. We don’t necessarily agree. It was really nice. We’d argue a bit, and then mutter sorry under our breaths, and then find more pleasant things in common to talk about.

I wish I could work out how to map that: that joy of shared communication over exaggerated gulfs, back onto my Internet again.

This bit of the Net still feels okay, at least. I’ll be making camp for the month at least. Maybe longer. I might not write, but I’ll be doing some housekeeping. I’m not trying to be nostalgic. You can join me here if you like.

2014-11-29

)))))))))), or the dying words of John McCarthy

It’s now a few months after my 45th birthday, which is almost exactly the date when one can no longer, with any reasonable expectation of acceptance from anyone non-senile, call oneself “young”.

My main regret regarding my youth (and the one I’m sure most of my friends would hurl at me) is that I never actually finished much. Fortunately, one of those things I didn’t finish was my own life, so I still have a few more decades to wrap things up, put matters in order, settle accounts, tie a bow on it all, and so on.

So my new resolution, this year and ongoing is to stop starting new projects, and dedicate the remaining decades of my life to completing all the things that I started and let trail off.

Given my track record, this fortunately gives me an incredible set of audacious feats to carefully back-track and re-establish. These will include:

There’s probably some others, but that seems to be enough for the next forty or so years. The rest I think will be sitting around under a warm duvet of some design and trying to get Haskell things to compile.

Meanwhile, the first project I will officially declare completed is “being young.”

Tick! Check!

2014-11-22

Auxiliary Ancillary

I’m greatly enjoying Ancillary Sword, the sequel to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Everyone always goes on about Ancillary’s treatment of gender, but my favorite bits are Leckie’s gentle bit-twiddling of almost every other part of the Radch culture compared to the dominant Western default. The Radch idea of beauty tends to the “broad and heavy”. Despite being extremely officious and formal they indulge spoil their children terribly – my favorite scene in the novel so far is a tense social negotiation which is repeatedly interrupted by a one-year old stealing fruit from the protagonists from under their dining table. They have a thing about spiritual corruption and ritual soiling, but don’t seem that worried about toilet manners: one of the aide de camps constantly frets about using the correct tea sets and seating in a rough encampment, but all of the characters don’t seem that bothered by peeing in a bucket.

When a book so successfully paints a vividly strange human culture from the inside like this, I always wonder about how you would present it on television or film, where the audience has to begin at least as an outsider. (The Ancillary series has already been optioned for TV.)

My thought with the Imperial Radch would be to begin the film with, under the credits, a very slow and silent and precise sequence of Radch soldier dressing formally, reflected through a mirror so the soldier is looking straight into the camera. The Radch uniform is fairly muted and militaristic to begin with, but with placing each of those small pinned tokens, you could get the precision of it very well. It also gives time to notice the gender neutrality of the actor’s face, hands, and allow it to become normalized.

2013-08-06

On the Thoughts of Chairman Bruce

So I’m reading the latest missive from Chairman Bruce Sterling about Snowden and Assange, and even though I have some history with the guy, I’m clapping along, because he always writes a fine barnstormer.

Then, like Cory, I get pulled up by this bit. He’s reeling off a list of names, from 7iber to Bytes For All. I recognise them. They’re a list of activist groups I work with. The names are from a project I’m working on.

This what he says about those groups, in passing:

Just look at them all, and that’s just the A’s and B’s… Obviously, a planetary host of actively concerned and politically connected people. Among this buzzing horde of eager online activists from a swarm of nations, what did any of them actually do for Snowden? Nothing.

Before Snowden showed up from a red-eye flight from Hawaii, did they have the least idea what was actually going on with the hardware of their beloved Internet? Not a clue. They’ve been living in a pitiful dream world where their imaginary rule of law applies to an electronic frontier — a frontier being, by definition, a place that never had any laws.

Well, let’s go through the Chairman’s list alphabetically, and see if they have any excuse for their lack of aid and woeful ignorance about the electronic frontier.

First on the list, 7iber works in Amman, Jordan. 7iber is so politically-connected that their own government banned them last month from Jordan’s domestic Internet. I’m not sure reaching out to them was ever going to nab Snowden a safe harbor in the Middle-East. Probably the opposite: after all, they were were one of the groups translating Wikileaks into Arabic back in 2010, which didn’t exactly endear them to the local states.

Next up, Access. Access has a base in the United States, where aiding Snowden would get you hauled in for questioning on an espionage charge. I note they’ve been in such “a pitiful dream world” about the rule of law they spent a sizeable chunk of the last few years campaigning (with EFF and CPJ and many others) to get https turned on for a huge chunk of the Internet, thereby protecting it — I’m sure entirely accidentally — from unlawful NSA taps. You know, the ones that EFF has been telling people about since 2006.

Similarly, Agentura.ru must be incredibly ignorant about the surveillance state, given that it’s been investigating and whistleblowing on the Russian and American security service for 13 years. Enough to be detained and questioned several times by Russia’s secret police.

But hey, that’s just words on the Internet, right? What we really need is less of that online guff, and more direction action, right? Like our next witness, Aktion Freiheit statt Angst, who have been protesting surveillance in Germany since 2006, when they inspired 15,000 people onto the streets of Berlin.

Maybe you can explain to them how they can better make the security state a bigger issue in Germany this year on September 7th, at Potsdamerplatz. I can’t imagine any of those people will be agitating for better treatment for Bradley Manning or Snowden this year.

Moving on: here’s a pic from those NGO types at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

That’s the back of Nabeel Rajab. He sort of knows a little about the surveillance state, because his electronic communications and phones were monitored after receiving this beating from the Bahraini government.He’s been imprisoned in part for his work on social networks.

Besides the imprisonment of Rajab, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights in general also has some idea about the risks of Internet surveillance, because elevenother  twitter users in that country have been jailed because of anonymous tweets that were tracked by sending them malicious web addresses. Here’s their detailed report. Note that that particular report ends with an explanation of how you can defeat that kind of surveillance. You know, apart from that delusional rule of law.

Wrapping up those As and Bs, Bolo Bhi and Bytes for All are both conducting the most sustained and brilliant work I’ve seen in advocacy, fighting against surveillance and censorship in one of the countries most determinedly targeted by both its own government and the United States for anti-terrorist action: Pakistan.

The idea that these groups, who are fighting to keep the Internet defended in their own country, are supposed to drop their grassroots activism and start, I don’t know, hob-nobbing the people they are actively opposing in their own states to get Snowden a break, or have any illusions about the rule of law on the Internet right now, betrays a profound misunderstand about what digital activists actually do these days.

Online activists these days do policy work, but they do a lot more than that. They have to do a lot more than that, because these days what we do in the “electronic civ lib” world is actually defend real people targetted by this surveillance. It’s been like that since around about 2008, when all of this deeply stopped being theoretical. Because it’s around that time that we all started getting friends and colleagues on government watchlists, or getting thrown in jail as a result of surveillance or Internet activity.

And it’s weird that Bruce doesn’t know that things got this weird five years ago, because ten years ago, he predicted at least part of it. Here’s how another of his barnstormers, this time in 2002, to the O’Reilly Open Source Convention.

In times of adversity, you learn who your friends are. You guys need a lot of friends. You need friends in all walks of life. Pretty soon, you are going to graduate from the status of techie geeks to official dissidents. This is your fate. People are wasting time on dissident relics like Noam Chomsky. Professor Chomsky is a pretty good dissident: he’s persistent, he means what he says, and he’s certainly very courageous, but this is the 21st century, and Stallman is a bigger deal. Lawrence Lessig is a bigger deal.

Y’know, Lawrence, he likes to talk as if all is lost. He thinks we ought to rise up against Disney like the Serbians attacking Milosevic. He expects the population to take to the streets. Fuck the streets. Take to the routers. Take to the warchalk.

Lawrence needs to talk to real dissidents more. He needs to talk to some East European people. When a crackdown comes, that isn’t the end of the story. That’s the start of a dissident’s story. And this isn’t about fat-cat crooks in our Congress who are on the take from the Mouse. This is about global civil society. It’s Globalution.

Okay, that’s a bit over the top, even for a 2002 O’Reilly audience. But hey, a classic Sterling coinage! It’s “globalution”!

In the end, it wasn’t Lessig who got cracked down on by the US government. Ridiculous idea! No, it was his colleague, Aaron. Here they are at the time. They were both at that conference. Aaron left early, and so I think he missed that speech.  He blogged about it though.

Bruce continues:

I like to think I’m one of your friends. That’s easy enough to say. But one of the true delights of the world of free software is that it’s about deeds, not words. It’s about words that become deeds when they’re in the box.

So, I remember when the Bradley Manning story broke. Here’s Bruce’s words (and deeds) at the time, when the techie geek finally and horribly graduated to official dissident:

Bradley Manning, was a bored, resentful, lower-echelon guy in a dead end, who discovered some awesome capacities in his system that his bosses never knew it had… [People just like Manning] are banal. Bradley Manning is a young, mildly brainy, unworldly American guy who probably would have been pretty much okay if he’d been left alone to skateboard, read comic books and listen to techno music.

 


In 1998, I was one of a handful of fresh-faced newly-minted cypherpunk activists in the UK, trying ineptly to stop the roller-coaster of the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (and in particular the bit that would outlaw strong encryption in the UK) from being passed.

Doing this kind of tech activism outside the United States was, and frankly still is, a little frustrating. Whenever there was any story about our corner of the political universe — digital wiretaps, online censorship, public key cryptography — it always seemed to be about what was happening in the US, and not the rest of the world. Back then, I felt we needed the US media and policy space to pay attention to our fight: because we felt, very strongly, it was a global fight.

One day, we saw that Bruce Sterling was coming into town for a book reading, and we thought: here’s our chance. Like good Nineties digital activists, we’d all read our Hacker Crackdown, and knew he might be a friend in getting some rip-roaring coverage in the heart of the beast. After horribly hijacking him from what looked a nice literary meal, we took him to heroin-chic dive bar in Soho, told him our problems, and begged him to help.

Forget defending crypto, he said. It’s doomed. You’re screwed.

No, the really interesting stuff, he said, is in postmodern literary theory.

Honest to God and ask my friends, it broke my poor dork heart. I listened to him talk for a few hours about what was research for “Zeitgeist”, and then we went home and fought off the outlawing of crypto without him, but with a tiny bunch of committed Brits, some of whom are still working on that fight today.

Fifteen years on, the world sucks, but some parts are a bit better. As Bruce points out with his As and Bs, I live as part of a far greater and interlinked world of what he called “global civic society”, who, behind the scenes or in front of the microphones, actually do work together to defend people like Snowden, build tools for decentralisation and privacy, and frantically try and work out how to make them work for everyone.

Some of us work on policy, some of us work in a myriad other ways to change the world, including whistleblowing. We try to minimize the number who get beaten up or killed. I don’t think any of us live in much of a dream world any more. Pretty much all of us are more cynical than you’d believe after seeing what’s gone down. And I know, given the odds, some of it looks pathetic sometimes, but believe me, we can the hardest critics on each other about that. They’d laugh me out of town if I ever said “globulution”, for instance.

And, as the good Chairman says, you do learn who your friends are.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

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