Essays on Technology and Culture

The Anger and The Gun

76 school shootings since Newtown.

Every time something like that happens, I think: “That could have been me holding the gun.” Why? I already wrote about that. Easier to say why not. One was that I didn’t have access to a gun. The other reason is that I was able to escape the toxic environment that was driving me to either suicidal or homicidal despair. Many kids lack that option. In the deepest pit of my darkest years, I didn’t know I had the option, and so The Anger grew.

The Anger is in all of us. The Anger manifests itself differently in each person, to different degrees. The Anger can be eased, it can be released safely, but it never goes away. You have to be taught how to deal with The Anger, but few people ever learn on their own. Fewer still know how to teach it. Instead, we try to sublimate The Anger, hide it, pretend it doesn’t exist. But it doesn’t go away. Without a way to acknowledge The Anger, to release it in a safe way, The Anger explodes, increasingly in a hail of gunfire.

Put a gun in someone’s hand, and say “go nuts.” Some point it at other people. Some point it at themselves. Some put it down and walk away. The Anger doesn’t dictate what a person does with a gun, but it influences that decision. If we don’t know how to deal with The Anger, it will be the loudest voice in our head, demanding we pull the trigger, that we hurt something to make it go away.

We need to deal with The Anger before we deal with The Gun.

But we also have to deal with The Gun. Those who say The Gun is the solution are a victim of The Anger. You can see when you ask them to put The Gun down. Somewhere along the line, there was a cultural shift, and The Gun went from being an object of respect, to an object that confers respect. A gun is a deadly weapon, and you show respect for it by treating it as such. You lock it up, keep it maintained, and secure. You learn to use it properly—not just how to shoot, but where, and when. Strapping an AR-15 to your chest to get a burrito is the opposite of respect. It turns The Gun into a status symbol, an object of fashion.

Gun ownership is about being a “gun owner,” and not what that gun is for. When you can fulfill the educational requirements of a concealed carry permit “can now be taken in minutes at a gun show, revolving-door style”, that’s proof enough of what owning a gun means. It’s a lifestyle choice, and given all the thought that we put into what phone we carry, or what brand of soda we drink. When you combine this with The Anger in all of us, it’s a dangerous cocktail.

A culture that straps an AR-15 to their chest to buy a burrito is not one that’s going to think about whether it’s right to shoot first. Gun makers know if they market a gun as a lifestyle choice, it will sell better than if they market it as a dangerous weapon that requires more of its owner than the price of ammunition. But, The Anger knows what The Gun is for, and The Anger will make us reach for it and spill blood.

But The Gun is as ingrained into American life as The Anger is ingrained in all of our psyches. When we say that perhaps it should be harder to get a gun, and that it might prevent future tragedies, gun owners hear: “I want to take away part of who you are,” and react accordingly. The Anger is there, and it lives for moments like these. The Anger grows every time we are spurned, denied, hurt, and abused. The Anger feeds on fear.

And The Anger knows that The Gun is an easy way to unleash itself, to devastating effect.

I want to be clear that I’m not anti-gun. As an ex-Boy Scout, I’ve been around guns, albeit usually .22 caliber rifles. I have relatives in law enforcement, who own guns, and treat them with the respect they deserve. Their guns are under lock and key, kept unloaded, and secure. They’re not carried unless they are needed. I do not own a gun, nor do I have any desire to, despite living in cities all my life and having experienced:

I’ve had cause to want something to protect my life and property with. I still don’t own a gun. Yet, I understand that there’s perfectly valid reasons to own one. The lifestyle of being a gun owner does not appeal to me. Why? I can’t say. Maybe, it’s because I know The Anger is within me, that it’s spilled out in dangerous ways before, and will again. The last thing I need is a gun when that happens. I respect The Gun, and I respect The Anger.

When we talk about how to solve the problem of gun violence in America, be it school shooters, seemingly random mass shootings, or gang violence on inner city street corners, the conversation hits an impasse. The culture of The Gun doesn’t want to give up their guns, and the other side can’t find a way to address the topic without putting The Gun first. We can’t solve the problem without addressing The Anger, too. Until the culture shifts, and we talk about the “why” we have this violence, instead of the “how,” we will be in this predicament—not just because the “how” will always be the same thing as the proposed solution, The Anger manifested yet again.

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.

Apple’s Priority

The takeaway from Apple’s iPhone 5S and 5C announcement by most people was that Apple had released some fairly boring new phones, one with a plastic case, and the other with a fingerprint reader in the home button. Apple, for the umpteenth time in a row, utterly failed to do what the technology pundits said they should do, which was release a cheap phone to cut into the low end of the cell phone market, dominated by cheap Android phones. Some of the wishful thinking on the part of pundits was misinterpreted as rumor, and so the Apple post-announcement stock price has tanked. Again.

We’ve seen this before. The pundits demanded Apple release a netbook. They got the MacBook Air, which is decidedly not a netbook in anything but size—an 11" model that came out nearly three years after the original. The last time Apple took the advice of pundits was to license their operating system to hardware clones. It damn near killed them. Only the return of Steve Jobs, who quickly shut down the Mac clones and turned the company towards a small, focused product line brought them back to profitability. Something they haven’t had a problem with since.

Apple doesn’t behave like a regular company. It’s not that they don’t want their products in everyone’s hands. Instead, they decided they’d rather make money selling high quality products at a significant margin. I doubt they would mind if every smartphone sold was an iPhone, they’re not going to do it if it means making cheap iPhones that don’t meet their standards. As recent history has shown, Apple’s market share as a priority rests somewhere between making sure there’s decent coffee in the break rooms and keeping the metal floors at the Apple Stores polished on the list that Tim Cook keeps taped to the mirror in his master bathroom.

Who should we listen to? The pundits who keep insisting Apple needs to do x to be successful, or the quality of the devices we choose to use, and the quarterly profit statements and massive cash hoard that seem to say Apple’s doing something right. I’ll opt for the latter. That’s not to say Apple doesn’t have some hubris, embodied in charts that show total iPhones sold since ’07. What that little exposé ignores, however, is the spikes in iPhone sales that come with each new release keep getting higher. It also ignores the far more important principle that Apple is making plenty of money from iPhones. They make more money in smartphone sales than any other company. Even if Samsung overtakes them, they’ll still be making money hand over fist for a while.

Selling quality products to a dedicated audience is a great way to make money. It works for Apple, and it works for Jonathan Coulton. Of course, JoCo isn’t publicly traded (yet). If the prevailing wisdom on Wall Street is that market share is more important than profitability, it should make people question Wall Street more than Apple. [1] Certainly this line of thought explains Amazon’s stock price. It’s a problem of conflicting philosophies, and the only real remedies are for Apple to either take the company private, which would be difficult and costly, or tough it out until people come to their senses.

Thinking about it, maybe they should go for the take-private. It would probably be easier.

  1. It’s safe, I think, to assume Wall Street doesn’t give a crap how good a product is, as long as they sell.  ↩

Notes From An Ex-Telemarketer

Recently, Marco Arment tweeted about jobs that make the world worse. Naturally, because Marco is both wealthy and coming from a place of privilege—both things I think Marco has not denied—his views are tainted. Speaking as someone who worked in one of those careers Marco demonized (hint: not Patent Enforcement), I disagree with those who call him out. Marco is right. Maybe not 100% right, but he’s right about telemarketing—well, some forms of it.

First, some background. While attending college, I landed a part-time telemarketing job with the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. I spent half the year calling subscribers to raise money for the theatre’s Angels fund, a couple months calling existing subscribers to renew their subscription for the next season, and the rest of the year calling to sell new subscriptions. I worked this job, with a few short gaps, from January 2005 to August 2012. After graduating college in 2008, I struggled to find full-time work until I was convinced by a headhunter to take a job with Market Resource Partners, a Philadelphia based “lead generation” firm—business-to-business telemarketing—and worked there from October 2008 to February of 2010.

I took both jobs because I needed money, end of story. In the annals of telemarketing, the job with the Walnut Street Theatre was actually a lucky break. It was selling a legitimate product, without a great deal of completely cold calling. The environment was supportive, the pay was good, and the free theatre tickets were a great perk. While nobody wants to be called at dinner time, as long as I was friendly, polite, and brief, most people were okay with it. [1] I made a good living there during college, and even kept with it for the extra income after I graduated. I also kept it up because I love the performing arts, and felt that I was actually making the world a slightly better place by raising money and putting butts in the seats of a 200+ year arts institution. There are few telemarketing jobs that can inspire that feeling.

Case in point: the fourteen months I spent as a business-to-business telemarketer. This is where I realized how awful the job truly was, and why B2B telemarketing as a profession will hopefully wither and die—hopefully, soon. My role with Market Resource Partners was to contact IT departments, and convince them to take a second call from a representative of one of the most beloved companies in technology at the time, Sun Microsystems. [2] As much as people hate being called during dinner, people really hate being called at work—especially IT people. When you’re trying to get work done, that is the last time you want someone to interrupt you and demand any of your time, especially to sell you on new IT hardware. It’s why large organizations established safeguards to prevent people like me from reaching the people who make IT purchasing decisions. They have enough to do.

It’s worth noting here that I sucked at my job. After fourteen months, and enough bosses tut-tutting at my lack of performance, I was shown the door. I was glad, too. Part of the reason I sucked was that my skills at dealing with “warm” calling theater fans and subscribers didn’t translate easily to calling harried IT professionals and pushing a product I didn’t believe in. Another reason I sucked was that I knew I wasn’t doing anything worthwhile. I was interrupting people to get them to take a call from an actual sales person—not even a sales person who worked for Sun, but for a Sun Value-Added Reseller—and further take them away from the actual work they had to do.

I realized pretty quickly that my role was one of an easily ditched middleman. If an IT person needed new hardware, what was stopping them from doing their own research? We have the Internet for that, and they can squeeze a Google search or two into their day easier than they can squeeze a sales call in. When I was told to pack up and leave, I did so gladly, knowing that I would no longer be debasing myself at a job that had no intrinsic value beyond the money the company made per lead generated—which I never actually saw. It’s telling that the Monday after I was let go, the company actually let go about half their employees as Oracle, who had recently purchased Sun, terminated their contract. Thus always to middle-men, though I felt bad for the co-workers who were unceremoniously shitcanned.

  1. “Dinner time,” I quickly learned, runs from about 5PM to 9PM. Shifts at the Walnut were typically from 6PM to 9PM, so any call could conceivably come as someone was sitting down to dinner.  ↩

  2. N.B.: the epithet “most beloved company” applied to Sun Microsystems should be read with as much sarcasm as the human brain can muster.  ↩

Knowledge, Power, Corruption, and Lies

So, it’s come out that the security apparatus of the American government knows even more about us than it’s let on, to the utter lack of shock and surprise of everyone who’s been paying the slightest bit of attention. This lack of surprise is also, however, not surprising—as is the lack of sustained outrage from those outside the technology sphere. The technological sophistication that defines the NSA’s digital spying system is mind-blowing and the scope is incredible. Unless you’re an expert in technology and security, it’s hard to grasp the full extent of what’s going on. Most people are not experts in technology and security.

PRISM, X-Keyscore, and whatever else is up the sleeves of the NSA and similar organizations, are endemic of a real divide between the understanding of technology between the people who have the power to create and implement such programs, and the people being spied upon. They’re based on the implicit understanding that the average Internet user has no real understanding about how the Internet works, where their data goes, and who can access it. To be fair, the NSA isn’t the only one benefitting from this. Google tacitly acknowledges that it’s keeping an eye on what you use it for to better serve you advertisements, but they’re not going out of their way to call attention to it. Doing so would undermine their bottom line.

What Google does for their profits, however, is fundamentally less terrible than what the apparatuses of the United States government—and very likely other governments—are doing. The worst we can say about Google is they want to make money to pay their employees and make more stuff. The NSA is collecting data with a far more sinister purpose in mind. They’ll find a way to put what they’re collecting to use to accomplish something that, to the eyes of a technologically unsophisticated populace with an equally technologically unsophisticated government, allows them to get a bigger share of tax revenues, and justify their continued existence.

Actually, the NSA and Google aren’t so far removed, after all. The difference is that Google serves some utility to most of us, while the NSA does not. The NSA serves the political interests of those who want to look tough on terrorism, crime, and the moral panic of the day. Whichever of these the NSA can use their data to justify going against, that’s all it will take for the tide to swing in their direction. Google’s PR problems are harder to solve.

This is why it’s important that we find a way to educate people about not only the extent and power of the NSA’s online domestic spying program, but also about how this affects them and the technology they use on a daily basis. We need to know the tradeoffs. I’m reminded of a worry my father had about the E-Z Pass system used to automatically pay tolls on turnpikes and bridges. The logic worked like this: if they know when you go through each toll plaza, they know how fast you were going, and can send you a speeding ticket. This hasn’t happened, probably because it’s not quite that simple. My father was aware of the potential even in the early 2000s. (He’s since started using an E-Z Pass.)

People like my father are the exception rather than the rule, when it comes to thinking about technology’s effects on our lives. We see all the positive outcomes, because that’s all we hear from the commercials and mainstream news. Technology journalism sometimes covers potential downsides, but it’s just as likely to be retreads of corporate talking points that make an ostensibly objective product review read like advertising copy. Being “informed” and “knowledgeable” about technology is more about knowing how to read spec sheets and feature comparison checklists, rather than knowing how devices work and what we can do with them.

Knowledge is power. Right now, the people with the most knowledge of how these tools and services we use can be exploited are the ones exploiting them. They have the power to see who we are, what we’re doing, and send armed men to your door because of it. Though some have sniffed out potential BS around this story, the idea that a series of innocuous Google searches might set off alarms in the bowels of some computer system makes sense. Our credit and debit cards use a similar system to prevent fraud. Buy two tanks of gas and a pair of sneakers with your card and see what happens.

The only people with the knowledge of what constitutes a red flag, or how many red flags it takes to get a visit from armed men in black SUVs are the folks running the system. It’s to their benefit that we don’t know. We need to take that power out of their hands, and the only way to do it is by learning and understanding as much as we can about the tools and the technologies we use on a daily basis—and how they can be used against us. From there, we can decide how, when, and why to use them, and prevent future abuses.