Essays on Technology and Culture

False Transparency

Following the shooting death of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer, there was a push for body camera on police officers. The idea being that cameras on cops would reduce the potential for police brutality, and help officers behave. There may still be merit to this, as pilot programs for police body cameras show a decline in both the use of force, and complaints. However, it seems that data comes from a sum total of five studies, according to a piece in The Atlantic.

A few days ago, here in New York City, a Staten Island grand jury chose not to prosecute an NYPD officer accused of killing a non-violent offender, with an illegal chokehold. Unlike the Ferguson shooting, where all there was to go by was eyewitness testimony, the death of Eric Garner was caught on video. Even with the entire incident, from initial contact, to death, to the arrival of an ambulance all on video, the Staten Island grand jury opted not to prosecute. Grand juries often elect to prosecute, that is, unless they’re dealing with a police officer.

The principle behind body cameras on police, is that the officers will know they’re being watched—never mind the the cameras are worn on their bodies, meaning everyone but the officer is the one being watched—and as such, behave more ethically. It’s the same basic attitude behind other attempts to bring transparency to public organizations. The idea that enough people will have their eyes on what police officers, politicians, and any other organization that relies on the public trust will be enough to convince them to behave ethically only works if there are consequences for violating that trust. And if they can be caught doing so. Cameras can “malfunction,” video files can be lost in a crash. For other public servants, they can just dump enough data that even the most civically minded hacker can’t sort through and analyze it. Even adding a CAPTCHA before allowing a person access to data can be enough friction to shut down citizen watchdogs.

But why even bother with all of that work, when you know that you won’t even be held accountable when there’s incontrovertible evidence of your action spreading all over the Internet?

Technological solutions to societal problems are often a band-aid applied to a festering cyst. It’s a surface treatment that ignores the underlying issue. Or, as Douglas Adams said, “A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” When trying to put a stop to corruption, it’s easy to both under- and overestimate the ingenuity of complete assholes, to say nothing about the complacency of common individuals with no stake in the game. Of course, changing the expectations we have of public servants, is harder than just throwing money at hardware that provides false transparency. No wonder we’re so much more willing to do the latter.

The Right To Be Heard

In the United States, many people don’t understand the true, legal meaning, of their right to “freedom of speech.” It’s been shown time and time again that First Amendment protections towards speech have limits, ranging from protection against libel and defamation, controls on commercial speech, and restrictions on speech that can bring harm upon others: e.g. shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. These limitations leave a very wide open space for someone to express their opinion, though I bring them up to contrast with a right that does not exist: the right to be heard.

Case in point: the Gamergate Block List, as created by Randi Harper, a developer, and part-time GamerGate target. The idea such a tool exists has been met with cries of “censorship” among the people it keeps out of its users Twitter timelines. Never mind that the same tool can be turned around and used to block any group of people you don’t want appearing in your timelines, even the “Social Justice Warriors” that GamerGate rails against. [1] In other words, “freedom of speech” allows you to shout someone into silence, but not for them to tune you out. Particularly if you’re sea-lioning someone.

This is patent bullshit.

Freedom of speech is not, and has never been the same as freedom to be heard. Censorship is an organized effort of a governing body to silence something they don’t like, and it can be done by a government or a corporation alike. Individuals choosing who they do not wish to hear, and collaboratively tuning them out is within their rights by any legal framework. If Twitter, or any other service, were bound to force users to see replies from any Tom, Dick, or Harassing Harry on their service, it would be akin to Fox News having the legal right to pre-empt you watching CNN on your TV. (And that analogy works if you flip the networks around.)

There’s a culture of entitlement in the Internet age. Something’s brought out a craving in people to have their opinions acknowledged, approved of, and amplified. Perhaps it’s a relic of early days of Internet life where the space was small and intimate enough that it was easy to keep up with the demands of acknowledgement from your “audience”. Or, perhaps it’s because so much of the Internet is on-demand, we assume other people must be as well. Whatever the reason, it’s not the case that anyone is entitled to a response, or an acknowledgement via Twitter, email, or even face to face. To claim otherwise is to misunderstand, often deliberately, one’s relationship to others. The Internet and social media do not change that.

  1. Such a list exists, and I’m on it, but because of some concern around its creator, I’m not going to link to it. Google it.  ↩

Other People’s Home Screens

People love to look at home screens. The current wave of interest may have started with Episode 11 of Connected, at least among the indie tech writers and podcasters I follow, but the launch of Betaworks’s #Homescreen app has way more people talking about what’s on their iPhone home screen. It got [the crew of Accidental Tech Podcast to post and talk about theirs](and how they organize them.). Hell, even I posted my home screen with #Homescreen, [1]mostly because I’m a sucker for an easy to climb on bandwagon. Plus, #Homescreen is way easier to use than, and lets you identify the apps.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. The site First and 20 was posting the home screens of famous tech folks as far back as 2009, though stopped around the time Apple went to a phone with 24 app slots. David Sparks runs an ongoing series of interviews about home screens, going back almost as long. David, and his co-host Katie Floyd, even did a deep dive on their home screens on the latest Mac Power Users. Home screens are also common parts of interviews over at The Sweet Setup. Even when meeting fellow nerds in real life, we’ve swapped phones to check out home screens.

And I can’t get enough.

What is it about people’s home screens that intrigues us? In part, it’s a peek behind the curtain of people’s lives. When you see people’s phones—if you see people’s phones—you often see them running an app. If my morning commute is any indication, it’s usually Candy Crush. A home screen reveals someone’s priorities—the tools or toys they want immediate access to on a daily basis. These little rectangles in our pockets are capable of being so many things, the few we choose to give primacy says a lot about us. How we organize them—or if—says just as much.

Oh, and there’s the discovery thing. It’s hard enough to find apps in the App Store. To see the icon of something you’re curious about on the home screen of someone you admire is an endorsement. To see an icon you don’t recognize is a call to explore. I’m trying to get better at not installing apps without thinking about their utility, but I still can’t resist something shiny that could help me get more out of the screen in my pocket. As vices go, it’s a comparatively minor one. A voyeuristic desire to learn about other people, their relationship with their gear, and what I can take away from it a bad thing.

And I know I’m not alone.

  1. Bonus points to anyone who can identify the source of my wallpaper.  ↩

Neither Revolution Nor Restoration

Silicon Valley strives to “revolutionize” and “disrupt”, but are their many “revolutions” and “disruptions” actually all that significant? Were they absolutely inevitable? Were they necessary? And are people happy to perpetually accomodate these new technologies?

I’d say no on all counts. And I certainly wouldn’t consider a vast majority of technological innovations revolutionary.

J.D. Bentley – “Restoration vs Revolution”

There’s a popular image of Silicon Valley as a place where the future is made. After all, it birthed the microprocessor, the personal computer, the GUI, and the iPhone. The problem is that all but the last of those children of the Valley happened during the 60s to the 80s. Since then, it’s coasted on its reputation, and the occasional good idea—if not a “good” idea, at least a commercially successful one. With the rise of Startup Culture over the past few years, that image of Silicon Valley is being replaced by one of young people creating new companies that raise obscene amounts of Venture Capital funding to be bought out by Google, Facebook, or Apple. They’re not making microprocessors or iPhones, they’re making silly apps that get huge user growth, and promoting them with “disruption” or “revolution.”

No wonder tech news has become either boring, or an outrage factory.

This is why Silicon Valley is such an uninteresting place. Its culture is one of future worship without purpose, ever driven by the idea of the next development without any regard for whether or not it’s worth being developed. Silicon Valley is in the business of validating delusions while earning as much money as possible, even if its product is detrimental to the various communities who use it.

Here’s where J.D. and I differ. I don’t think the Valley worships the future, so much as they worship the investment cycle. The culture’s not about the idea of the “next development” as much as it’s about making a big win for your investors. This explains the “sharing economy” startups that hire contract workers for abysmal pay, so they can drive their numbers up and raise their valuation. You can’t tell me that Homejoy doesn’t know that charging $25/hr for cleaning a house isn’t a sustainable model. What looks like “future worship” is little more than marketing spin to get VCs to open their checkbooks, and customers to give up their data.

There are people using technology to solve real problems and do interesting things. Whatever your opinion is on Elon Musk, Tesla is creating real “disruption” in the automotive industry by making electric cars that people actually want to drive, unless you’re the sort of asshole who likes rolling coal. Which is why you have established business interests trying to keep them from selling cars. That’s disruption, not the crap Uber is pulling. [1]

That said, it’s a mistake to think you can solve a problem, or make people’s lives better by just throwing an app, or a piece of hardware at it. I don’t know if the rise of “[s]mall businesses who use traditional methods and local resources, who want to make quality products from the best materials.” is as much a frustrated reaction to technology not living up to its marketing spin as it is a rediscovery of our abilities to do things by ourselves. If it’s the latter, then it’s a rise enabled by technology that allows us to share knowledge of skills. Plug any skill you want to learn into YouTube, and you’ll come across someone willing to teach it. And this includes making real things, not just apps.

If that’s the real revolution, then it’s something we can credit, in part, to Silicon Valley, albeit the Silicon Valley of the late–80s and early–90s. If you want to talk about a technology people have been happy to adopt, I’d put the Internet at the top of that list. We can haggle on the pros and cons of that happy adoption, especially around the omnipresence of it in our pockets, but there have been quite a few positive outcomes. Though “revolution” might be the wrong word to describe this—as might be “restoration.” “Renaissance” might be correct, in the sense of a rebirth or renewal of some old ways of doing things, aided by technology. If so, it’s something I’m excited to be a part of.

  1. As an urban dweller, I’d like to see a startup try to improve public transit, not put more people in cars, but I don’t think there’s any money in it.  ↩

The Untitled Sanspoint Podcast Project

It’s barely been more than a month since I officially cancelled Crush On Radio, my long-running, low-listner show about music. It’s been a lot longer since I sat behind a microphone to record one. I never intended to completely quit podcasting, just to focus on where my bread and butter was: this very site. In the back of my head, I’ve been thinking about a podcast that relates to the stuff I write about here. If I were to do such a show, I knew I’d have to do something easy. No guests, minimal editing, and short. A good example is the Birch Bark Podcast, by Matt Birchler. A conversation on Twitter around the so-called “Podcasting Renaissance” left me thinking that’s space for more short shows.

Once all the ideas came together, the only thing left was to do it.

So I did.

The Untitled Sanspoint Podcast Project is a weekly podcast, about technology and culture. It’s fifteen minutes or less, and features only me, talking about what’s caught my attention. It also will feature a plug for something cool. New episodes will be released every Monday, but Episode 1 is available now, for your listening pleasure. It’s not on iTunes yet, but should be shortly. (Edit: It’s now on iTunes!) In the interim, you can subscribe by dropping this link in your podcast client of choice.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the show. You can shoot me an @-reply on Twitter, or use my Contact page. I’m super excited to be back in the podcasting seat.