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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



Archive for the ‘Society’ Category



When do you stop being a reader online, and start being a participant? This would seem to be an important question, especially among those who insist that the exact ratios between consumers and creators should determine how significant the result is. That is, if most “user-generated” content on the Net is made up of a tiny percentage of the overall audience, should we care about it less? Me, I don’t think so, but for arguments that get bogged down in exactly how “democratic” the Internet is, it does seem to be critical.

What I do think is that the very fact that the line is blurred is in itself significant. Let me contrast it with my experience growing up in the Seventies and Eighties. I didn’t go to arty clubs in London; I didn’t make my own teen fanzine. I didn’t even send off for any fanzines. What I did was buy Time Out, and FactSheet Five, and read the reviews. Obsessively. I loved it. I don’t know why I rarely watched the films I read about, or buy the thousands of zines that Mike Gunderloy (pboh) obsessively reviewed each issue. It just seemed a step too far, somehow. I was perhaps a little scared that the reality wouldn’t live up to the dream. But I’m sure there were thousands, hundreds of thousands like me. People read books, never knowing there are whole communities of book-readers who create conventions and have conversations about those books, writing fan fiction and holding long correspondences with the author. It’s not that they can’t imagine it, but it’s that there’s a natural stopping point. You’d have to be crazy to finish the latest Neil Gaiman book, and then think you could write him a letter.

When I went online for the first time, that distinction blurred for the first time. I’d read my heroes posting items, and then I’d reply (just really because the keyboard was there, and the bulletin board prompt gave you that option), and my heroes would write back. I’d be involved. It was barely a transition. It’s the same frisson people get when celebrities call them out on Twitter. Actually, they don’t even have to be acknowledged; just the figment of a conversation is more than you’d expect reading a book or watching a film.

This may be obvious, or even hard to imagine a world without that lack of transition if you’ve grown up with the Net. Talking to Debbie today, she described how Sears Catalogues were called “wishbooks” in the early West, and we talked about how FactSheet Five was a wishbook, too. It broadened your mind: but it only occurred to the most ambitious (or deluded) that you could actually pursue those wishes, or that they represented anywhere that was truly accessible: just viewable. I think old media taught us to observe the spectacle, but assume it took place somewhere else, somewhere remote.

It takes a while, even online, to notice this is possible: that such-and-such may have a blog, and might read the comments, and might reply. But it’s not quite the same leap, especially as you quickly find yourself in a community of others making those leaps just like you. It’s not how many create; it’s how easy the jump from watcher to do-er is. The two are connected: the easier the transition, the more creators there are. But the transitions the thing. Not everybody wants to be a creator; but everybody who wants to create should at least know that that is an option.


where i’ve been, what is up

Brief summary: Having a great deal of fun.

I am currently trying to break my brain by simultaneously book-kegging Austrian economics and feminist science fiction (as well as the conventions thereof). I am truly enjoying the mental thrashing I endure as I flick from glorious syndicalist manifestos to fierce denunciations of unionism, optimistically chatting with Seasteaders while sceptically surveying current libertarian paradises. I’ve been reading up on Dale Spender and William F. Buckley, Murray Rothbard and Murray Bookchin. I’ve gone politically non-linear. It’s akin to snorting magical policy pixie dust off Ken Macleod‘s bare back. I hope to have some screwed-up ideas of my own, very soon.

I also have a s3krit pr0ject, which I am currently bad at, but getting better. You shall not hear of it until I fail to suck. I also have a not-so-secret work project, which I hope to introduce to you soon, if only as I angst through to its final production. But most importantly, I have agreed to conduct an internal psychological experiment (n=1) that will involve far more blogging. Hooray! Onward! Outward! Excelsior!


things which are still here: fishcam, me

So my schedule these days — I have a schedule! Do you know what a change that is in my life? — anyway, my schedule these days generally involves collapsing asleep at 9PM and waking up, actually refreshed, at around 8PM. I have traded away several hours of my life in return for not feeling attached by a very taut piece of elastic to whatever is the closest bed, tugging tugging tugging me back.

I greatly enjoy feeling well-slept, but it does mean that my usual hours of blogging (and doing any other writing or wild-eyed crazy plotting) are now contemptibly small.

Like everyone, I am still working out how to make do with less.

Also like almost everyone, I stayed up very late on New Years Eve 1999/2000. I wasn’t wandering the streets, drunk like a skunk. I was inside Netscape Communication’s server management offices, munching on sushi, and watching techies desperately guarding against the chance that the Y2K bug would take down and other important pieces of Internet infrastructure.

A few minutes before the clockover, I realised that all the clocks in the ops center were set to slightly different times (all the better to see which ones failed, I guess), and I would have no real idea of when midnight actually happened. I eventually got hold of an accurate time signal (I think I caled POPCORN, which is the US’s speaking clock). I was the only person in the cubicles who actually knew what the time really was.

In the seconds around midnight, different engineers would shout out to their colleagues that key services were still operational: “Web3 is okay!” “DNS3 is Okay”.

At the exact moment of 00:00AM, 2000 AD, I can reveal that, at Netscape, the primary concern was the fishcam. “Fishcam is … okay!” (Big cheer).

You’ll be pleased to know it’s okay again.


in which i demonstrate remarkably personal hindsight

So I now have some clues as to why I suddenly stopped blogging twenty days ago. Looking over the black box recording, I note it coincides with me engaging in a rash of travel, and also obtaining a prescription for sleep medication for the first time in my life.

That makes sense. When I go on a longhaul plane for a speaking engagement, I go out into deep-space coma until I return. It’s the whole being ferried around by machines, and deposited into womb-like hotels thing. Add to that my discovery of a pharmaceutical that magically medically increases the amount of blood in my caffeinestream, and you’re going to lose me to forty-years worth of sleep catch-up and shoddy hotel connectivity.

Plus I swear to God, everyone I knew spent a few weeks wandering around in a post-election haze. Last week, I spoke at the University of Maryland (which was awesome, but I am an all-comers speaker: if you are at a US college, force your school at gunpoint to book me here: all the money goes to EFF). Honestly out of nowhere people would end any normally pessimistic discussion with this dreamy-eyed “but now, with this spirit of reconciliation in the air”, and stuff like that. Even the NASA guys at the hotel were cheery. Of course, that’s all in the beltway, but there’s languour elsewhere: Republicans are punch drunk and lolling, and the news media is sort of just lying there on the tarmac, having collapse in a heap and lazily eyeballing Obama nominations from one half-closed eye.

Things finally picked up this week, just in time to slam into Thanksgiving, which, to translate for British readers, is really the American Christmas (the real Christmas being more like a Bank Holiday with religious pretensions). You know what I think they should do to boost the economy here? Hold another couple of elections. People would be buying new cars just to have somewhere to put the bumperstickers.


python class Culture:

Every Friday at EFF, we have a Python class, where anyone in the org (and a few friends from outside) join up to learn a little Python, talk about coding and share what they’ve learnt. There’s a good mix of seasoned python hackers, coders who don’t know much python, casual programmers, and people for whom this is their first experience of programming.

The part i enjoy the most (apart from congratulating myself for reaching a level of maturity that means I don’t go I KNOW I KNOW whenever i know the answer) is the material that isn’t about the technicalities of programming, but of the culture. We often discuss, for instance, about the most aesthetically pleasing way of writing code. Watching smart coders attempt to verbalise those instincts is fascinating, especially when the instincts begin to spread through the group.

To give an example, we’ve been coding up a Python version of Conway’s Game of Life. We all spent a fair bit of time discussing that niggling problem with counting up how many neighbours a cell has. Do you do it “manually”:

or iteratively:

I think most coders would end up doing the first, but they would feel a bit dirty doing it, just as I always feel a bit dirty when I have x and y as attributes, instead of being able to treat them as different aspects of the same thing. It’s the right instinct to try and generalise, and it was fun seeing starter programmers expressing their mild discomfort.

After we’d got Life to work, Seth rewarded us by showing Golly, which is a great cross-platform Life simulator with many pre-programmed patterns. I really had no idea that they’d managed to code up a Turing machine in Life, let alone patterns that emulate a universal machine, running a program that runs the Game of Life.


hacker spaces and recessions

It’s awful to say that there are parts of recessions that I rather like. Maybe it’s just familiarity: I came of age in the early eighties, and left college in the 1990-1994 recession. My sense of what’s important gets confused in upturns: everyone is talking all at once about matters that I just can’t get excited about, but I feel somewhat silly for even thinking they might be wrong. Then the recession comes, and all my clever cynicism is (selectively) rewarded. In a recession, the signal to noise ratio seems greater. It’s easier to pick out promising ideas, and it feels better for the soul if you can express optimism when everyone else needs some extra.

I bumped in Jake Applebaum today, and we talked a little about NoiseBridge, the San Francisco Hacker Space that he is helping to launch. It’s a little surprising that SF hasn’t had one before, but I think that’s partly because there are lots of informal, ad hoc spaces, and also because during boom times, there’s little need. Every start-up has a tiny piece of what you need to make a hacker space, and won’t give it up.

The timing to me seems perfect, though. It’s a good time to pool both resources and ideas: gather together everyone to work and talk together about their projects, and co-operate on relieving some of the burdens of getting ideas off the ground. I’ve already thought about how, given that I’m probably going to be moving into an even smaller space myself, how I could deposit some of my most valuable textbooks at NoiseBridge: saving me space, and increasing their use. A lot of people will be wanting to broaden their skills, or spryly cross over to wherever there is a demand for hackerish minds (I remember well the great Perl hacker bioinformatics migration of 2001), so crossover technology like a chemistry lab and dark room is useful.

Something I noticed about the old recessions – the eighties, the nineties, the noughts, was that technology became a route out of poverty and dead-ends: there’s a huge proportion of system administrators and programmers who never made it through college, or high school, and found themselves in Silicon Valley, being airlifted to a sustainable life by one another’s efforts. I imagine this will happen again in this recession too. If we hunker down to build what comes next, it’ll be good to do it in a place where teenagers can help lead the charge.

Now I’m thinking of backspace on the banks of the Thames: an engine that seeded excitement behind a bunch of art and business projects (especially those that could not decide which they were). Is there a new hacker space imminent in London, Edinburgh, Manchester or elsewhere? I think it’s about time. Plenty of city business spaces going spare and empty, soon! Lots of advice available!


technological determinism, open exceptionalism, defensive politicisation

Even though I end up being the person at the party who is (almost literally) contractually obliged to defend a fairly radical set of positions with regards to the Net, I’m often far more fascinated in probing other people’s views on how the Net works, and how it should work — even when they appear to agree with me. Of course, there have been alternative points of view since the Net began: it’s not everyone who was comfortable with the individualist libertarian free-speech default settings that dominated the early Net. But beyond the surface policies, I think there might be a deeper divide in expectations about the future of the net, even among believers in a common set of values. Those who believe in the positive values of having an open Internet, with unencumbered free communication, with non-proprietary solutions to most problems, often have diverging ideas about how those positions should best be defended.

The first, and earliest stance, is technological determinism, which is the stance that assumes that the technology just naturally rolls along to maximize the right degree, and kinds of freedom. The internet is genetically immune to censorship; privacy is provided by encryption, and those who don’t use it deserve to lose theirs; corrupt empires are always stupid, and always fall. If you feel this way, then you probably don’t feel much of a need to overtly defend anything, apart from in Slashdot comments. If a particular situation occurs, you might even argue that its existence gives it a kind of moral credibility (Huge privacy violation? Inevitable consequence of sharing too much online). A lot of people still hold with this position. If you become disillusioned with it, you often end up with a far more sceptical position of the Nets benefits than average. I often read critiques of the Net that starts with a personal voyage of discovery that begins with this stance, and ends with wholesale cynicism of the corporatist, ad-ridden, society-undermining filth of the interwebs. It’s also the most common position to project onto your opponents if you’re criticising “techno-utopianism”.

A modified version of technological determinism states that while the Net and allied systems doesn’t always provide positive values, it can certainly protect its best values when assaulted by alternative models. I guess the earliest model for this is the pragmatically-arguedThe Cathedral and the Bazaar. In this, open systems are presented alongside more closed systems, and it’s posited that they while there’s no inherent technological inevitability about them, their benefits are such that they can hold their own in a free market against other technological futures. There’s still a touch of determinism: Windows’ market share was always going to be eaten away a little by little by Linux; but only by virtue of the fact that Linux’ openness provided key advantages against a more closed system. AOL and TCP/IP can do battle, and AOL could win, but TCP/IP would more likely to, because its’ values of openness provided for better solutions than AOL. Call it open exceptionalism: the open solution will triumph, not because it’s right, nor because it’s built into the nature of technology, but because it has an unassailable market advantage. I think that open exceptionalism is probably the default position of the Google/Linux generation. It implies a greater degree of activity in the world in order to achieve good results than technological determinism, but not by much. It’s sort of the difference between salvation through faith alone and salvation through faith and good works.

And then you have a Lessig-like pessimism about the inevitability of those positive values. Openness is good, but the Net doesn’t always show it, and the preservation of its best attributes requires constant vigilance against vested interests that would undermine it. There’s no exceptionalism here: the Internet was incredibly lucky to reach the place it did quickly enough before anyone realised it would be a threat. It existence is a good in itself, but it can always be bent to bad ends, and may already be collapsing without us realising. We must use all our political tools to protect it, or risk losing any benefits it might once have offered us: a defensive politicisation of the Internet’s basic values.

it’s surprising how these frames of mind can put similarly-thinking people on the opposite sides of policy decisions; think about net neutrality, ISP filtering, DRM, open standards for government in any of these contexts and you’ll see what I mean. I personally oscillate between defensive politicisation and open exceptionalism.

And of course like everyone else I spend a lot of time trying to clarify the often incredibly vague ideas of “open” and “free” that muddy any of these stances.


petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.