Essays on Technology and Culture

The Internet (Probably) Won’t Save the World

I recently picked up Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything Click Here. It’s an interesting polemic against the Internet-focused “solutionism” to social problems as espoused by technologists, tech entrepreneurs, and Venture Capitalists. While I’m not sure I agree with all of Morozov’s criticisms of technologically focused solutions, I’m glad to be reading a contrarian’s opinions. They provide some much-needed perspective in a space that is all-too-often caught up in the next new gizmo and the next new deceptively simple technological solution to an age-old problem. Morozov is not anti-technology, let alone anti-Internet. He advocates for perspective—stepping back and adding nuance to a debate that too often is caught up in technology for its own sake, ignoring the potential consequences and pitfalls.

Part of the problem is that it’s so easy for us to get caught up in novelty. If you’re the sort who is wired up to be a geek, and lust over technology, it’s even easier. All the new gadgets, networks, apps, and services appeal to our desperate desire for something new. The early adopter types glom on to the shiniest of new technology, embrace it, and defend it against all comers with religious fervor. We see it play out writ small in the flame wars in technology forums over iOS vs. Android, open vs. closed, and copyright vs. public domain. Few budge from their viewpoints, and everyone is armed with enough anecdotes masquerading as data to defend their stance. This is nothing new, nor is it limited to technology. Examples are unnecessary.

But, compare the rhetoric of Internet-focused solutionists who claim the network will solve all our problems with the pragmatism of Ev Williams and his recipe for a successful tech company: “Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time… Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.” That’s it. The great successes of the Internet-era have all built from that formula. So have all the great pre-Internet successes. It’s the history of service-based Capitalism: make it easier for people to do things they want or need to do. History repeats, and technology is no exception. We may look back on these heady days as the dawn of a new epoch, but what sort of epoch has yet to be determined. You can’t look back on something if you’re right in the middle of it.

This is the ultimate problem with making proclamations of technological supremacy. We don’t know anything about what’s happening until it has happened—and we have enough time and distance to figure it out. In the middle of the storm, anything can happen, and the situation can change in an instant. The Internet is a bunch of cables and computers, yes, but “The Internet” is something else, and we don’t know what it really is. We may never know, because it’s constantly changing, and our attempts to impose definition upon it could be rendered useless tomorrow. I think about the people bemoaning the death of the Internet to mobile apps. Was there this much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth when the Web usurped Gopher Holes?

It’s funny that the same voices who bemoan anything that might alter their definition of “The Internet” look at the industries they’ve altered and shrug. “Disruption,” they call it, with no sense of compassion for the people who have lost their livelihoods. The best you can hope for is “teach them to code.” Any technology has the potential for unintended consequences, but the privileged technological elite don’t have to worry about them. Responsible use of technology means making sure as few people get hurt as possible. The “fail fast, fail often” mantra that defines technology companies doesn’t do much for people who lack a net to catch them.

We can use technology, including the Internet as a tool, to better lives, but the very presence of the tool alone will not do it. You can buy the greatest hammer, and the greatest saw, but they won’t build a bookcase unless you pick them up. Data alone is useless, even harmful, without the ability to both understand it and manipulate it. And, yes, some things are better kept a secret. If it’s wrong when the government sees all you do, it’s just as wrong when it’s a private company. Instead of charging into someone else’s idea of future, let’s slow down and try to figure out where we are first. Tomorrow’s not going anywhere.

Some Thoughts on Dropbox, Privacy, and Dr. Rice

It’s a weird time to be a Dropbox user. They just announced some really awesome new features and apps, got geeks super excited, and then announced that former Bush Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is joining the board. Less than 24 hours after the wave of excitement over Carousel and Mailbox for Mac, a Drop Dropbox movement began. They also make some very good points that resonate with my borderline Bleeding-Heart Liberalism—especially her support of torture and domestic spying. And I’m not happy about it.

If only it were easy to leave. Dropbox had integrated itself so firmly into how I run my online life that I can’t see how to go without it. Everything I write is stored in Dropbox. I have scripts and services that connect and dump data into Dropbox. I share files with friends over Dropbox. Half of all the apps on my iPhone connect to Dropbox to store data. Not only is Mailbox my iOS email client of choice, I only signed on to Mailbox affer they were purchased by Dropbox. Why? Because I trust them.

Yes, Dropbox had security lapses. They were responsive and fixed things quickly. Yes, Dropbox is part of PRISM, but as with all technology companies implicated in NSA spying, I chalk it up to coercion. Men with guns can be very persuasive. Yes, Dropbox had been doing DMCA takedowns of content on people’s accounts, but again, men with guns can be persuasive. There is precious little Dropbox has done that is offensive or dangerous to me that they had a choice to do otherwise. Until now.

What can I do? There is no other solution that is quite as robust for doing what I use Dropbox for, with the level of integration in the apps I live in, and is even half as compelling. The best options are Google Drive, and I’m wary of giving Google more data, and iCloud which doesn’t work how I work. Box has no app support. There’s no way I could afford to set up my own private cloud, either. It’s Dropbox, or go back to the dark ages before I could expect to have all my data in one place. The only real option is to hold my nose.

Thankfully, the John Siracusa gave an even-handed breakdown of the real effects of Dr. Rice’s role on the board on the latest Accidental Tech Podcast. In short: “The NSA already has all your data.” I’m not worried about the NSA having access to my Dropbox files. This is more akin to the flap over ex-Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. I found his political views on homosexuality as abhorrent as I find Rice’s views on privacy and war. However I didn’t uninstall Firefox over it. The idea never crossed my mind, largely because I don’t use Firefox anymore. Unless Eich ordered his team to add filters blocking LGBT content—which is unlikely—his bigotry wasn’t going to affect the product. I doubt Dr. Rice’s views will affect the product.

It still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’m hoping the backlash hits critical mass and that Dropbox repents. Their recent statement says they’re standing by Dr. Rice, but it will take time and more high profile people leaving the service. For the time being, I’ll stay, but if anyone knows of an option for replacing Dropbox that has the same level of compatibility on iOS, I would love to hear about it.

Control Pays Off

The real dividends of technology are only paid out to those who know how to control it. I don’t just mean this financially, though web programmers are in a good place to make a lot of money. Control of technology pays off in less obvious ways. The NSA and CIA know how to control technology—it’s how they’ve been able to peek into our digital lives for the past several years. They know more about how to use technology than the people who are elected to oversee how they use it. That is a dangerous combination.

For ordinary people, however, controlling technology allows us to bend it to our will. Treating our devices as the tools they are prevents us from being tools of our devices. Controlling technology doesn’t mean “owning the full stack,” or being Richard Stallman and only using free, open-source software and hardware. It just means knowing the limitation of the technology, and the dangers. It means knowing where and when to rely on the tool, and where and when to rely on yourself. Doing this takes time, and a willingness to learn. Not everyone has that.

It worries me when people gush over the latest new gadget without thinking about how it fits in to the bigger picture of both how we use technology, and how we control technology. Look at smartwatches. The biggest use case anyone can seem to come up with is a “second screen” for your smartphone. A smartwatch is just something to show you notifications so you know whether or not to take your phone out of your pocket. Wouldn’t it make more sense to rethink how our phones decide to notify us, when, and why? That way, we know that when our phone buzzes, it’s automatically something worth taking it out for.

Of course, that’s not going to sell another $249 device to an audience of gadget-hungry nerds. It’s easier for a technology company to feed the human craving for novelty, rather than come up with a real solution to a real problem. Occasionally, they’ll manage to do both, but the hits are few and far between. Besides, we already have the power to solve the problem in the palms of our hands. No matter the device you own, it’s possible to make it shut up, or set it to only bug you about the things you think are important. Unfortunately, this is a power-user move.

Those of us who live in and of the world of technology, who have identified the problem, need to find real solutions for the real people who are being overwhelmed. We should be teaching people how to take control of their technology. So much technology education in schools is still about how to use Microsoft Office, and not much else. There’s a full toolbox at their disposal, and all we’re teaching the average person is how to swing a hammer. If Facebook can make it easy for an ordinary person to give up all their personal information, we can make it easy for an ordinary person to understand what they’re giving up. It’s not easy for us to do it, nor was it easy for Facebook, but it can be done.

Too many of the companies we depend on build a financial livelihood making it harder for us to be in control. Developers and technology companies should make it easier for their customers to take control of their technology. Companies that intentionally make it harder for us to control our devices should be taken to task for it. Whether it’s hardware manufacturers capitulating to carriers demands to load crapware , or Apple’s lack of inter-app communication, the pushback has to be made. More importantly, it has to come from more than just the technological elite. If we can bring ordinary people on our side, make them understand, and make them care about the tools they use and the potential they carry in their pockets, it can lead to a better technological world for all of us.

A Brief Update on Google Now

After replacing my shared iCloud calendar subscriptions in Google Calendar with actual calendar events, Google Now actually became a service that worked almost as advertised. Almost, but not close enough. I started getting push notifications for the events on my calendar, but the wrong ones, and at inopportune moments. I don't need to be told traffic is bad and I should leave for work at 8:35 when I'm already on my way to work—by subway. Certainly not after explicitly telling Google Now I don't drive, and to only give me public transit directions.

I put up with Google Now's lunacy for a few days, hoping it would get better. After a Google Now card telling me to go to work, when I was already at work, by walking around the block, I gave up. I turned off Google Now, uninstalled the app, moved my calendars back to iCloud, and now I'm waiting to see what Apple has in store for Siri in iOS 8. Public transit directions in Apple Maps are a given, at least. My only hope that Apple's context-aware solution will work better than Google Now or any of the third party alternatives, is that Apple tends to not release half-baked new features. 1

It's not hard to get the data. My iPhone knows where I live, where I work, and where the next event I'm going to in the evening is. It's doing useful stuff with the data that's hard. It's so easy to picture my phone buzzing while I'm eating breakfast to say “Get your butt out the door, the F train is delayed. You can switch to the E at Union Turnpike, and get to work five minutes faster if you leave now. By the way, your package from Amazon is out for delivery, and it's your best friend's birthday tomorrow.” I know I can count on the last two, but the first is still up in the air. About a year ago, Harry C. Marks described what the Google Now dream would be. We're tantalizingly close, but it's still far away. How frustrating to see the future, to reach out and touch it, only to smash your hand on its glass case.

  1. Three-quarters baked, certainly, to repeat a joke I made before. 

What Are Our Gadgets For?

I’m starting to wonder if I have too many gadgets. I have the Apple User Trifecta of a MacBook, an iPhone and an iPad—along with a Kindle Paperwhite, a Fitbit, and a bunch of related accessories. To give you a short list: an external keyboard, an iPad stand, a Magic Mouse, a Cosmonaut stylus, a Glif, three pairs of EarPods(?!), a laptop sleeve, and all the attendant hubs, cables, and power supplies. In fact, through no obvious fault of my own, I now have more iPhone charger cubes than I could possibly need.

What are all these things for? My iPhone is a communication device, though far too often only a one-way one as I dive into the various streams. My MacBook is my workhorse. I needed the power to chew on editing and producing hour-plus length podcasts, though with Crush On Radio on hiatus, it’s vastly overpowered for the tasks of writing in plain text, listening to music, and checking Facebook. I stare into this screen all the time, and when I’m not staring into this one, I’m staring into the smaller screen I keep in my pocket, or I stare into the big screen at my office, and occasionally the composition notebook sized screen of my iPad.

The iPad has had the hardest time finding a role in my life. What it’s settled into is being my portable writing machine, which seems a bit of a waste of $499. (At least I already had the bluetooth keyboard.) I take it with me once a week to a writing group, and I occasionally take it into the living room after my girlfriend has gone to sleep. If I’m not using it for writing, it’s a social media device, and maybe an occasional comic reader. That’s it. If I travelled more, it would be useful as a travel computer, but only because my MacBook is a giant 15" non-Retina model. I opted for that over the Air or Retina Pros because I still need to use an optical drive from time to time. If I had a MacBook Air, I don’t know if I’d ever need an iPad.

What are all these things for? So much of it is for everything. I remember in the days before the iPhone, when everyone was preaching about the Convergence of Devices, I remained skeptical that I could just carry one thing that would be my camera, my music player and my phone. This was because all the devices on the market in the early 2000s that promised to be all these things were both far out of the price range of a college student, and sucked at being any of the things they promised. I’d much rather ten tools that do one thing well than one tool that does ten things, but does them to mediocrity.

It’s why I’ve gravitated back to the Kindle for much of my reading. It’s a purpose-built device that sucks if you try to use it for anything other than reading books. A while back, Stephen Hackett ditched his iPhone for a flip phone. I’ve given thought to trying a distraction-free iPhone setup, just to free up the mental clock cycles I spend on Twitter and elsewhere, but I do use the darn thing for legitimate work purposes, which makes that difficult. [1]

A thought that has been running through my head, off and on, for over a year is: “How can I use technology better?” Part of the answer is finding the role of all of this in my life. Nick Wynja’s latest piece had me thinking a lot.

I won’t let a computer tell me what to do. I’m going to choose what I want to do with my life, thank you very much. Then I’m going to do it and not tweet about it and just sit outside with a beer and watch the sun set. Because I’ve missed too many of those sitting in front of this harsh, heartless machine.

One of the differences between Nick and myself is that I like sitting in front of this harsh, heartless machine. It’s how I’m wired. There’s an outside, and there’s experiences, and I can be there and of them, but I keep coming back to the machines because I like them. I like the Internet, and the social media streams, and occasionally diving into a Wikipedia or TVTropes K-Hole.

But, fundamentally, these machines are tools, and their job is to enable us to live the life we want to lead. If that life involves seeing more sunsets, then using technology better means using it less. I don’t care that much about watching sunsets, but some of the things I do care about might just mean using the technology less—or at least being mindful about what, how, and when I use it. The hard part is overcoming that Pavlovian training and the Fear of Missing Out, and use the tools instead of letting them use me.

What are all these things for? To use to our great ends.

  1. Testing responsive email designs, for one.  ↩