The Whale and the Reactor (7)

The idea that Reagan Ruined Everything seems to dominate, silently, the next chapter, “Decentralization Clarified.” I take this passage from its last paragraph to be its central idea:

In Kropotkin’s of G. D. H. Cole’s time it was still possible to imagine an entire modern social order based upon small-scale, directly democratic, widely dispersed centers of authority. Industrial society had not yet achieved its mature form; it was thinkable that decentralist alternatives might be feasible alternatives on a broad scale. Today, however, ideas of decentralization usually play a much different role, an expression of the faint hope one may still create institutions here and there that allow ordinary folks some small measure of autonomy.

A melancholy statement, and one that is truer now than when Winner wrote it. After all, it was about halfway between the writing of this book and out own moment when Scott McNealy told us, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

Which in alternate moments makes me want to give up and makes me want to renew my determination to escape from Google. Ah, my early and innocent determination, how beautiful it was — and how distant it now seems. . . .

portability policies

A typically thoughtful and thought-provoking essay by Jonathan Zittrain, emphasizing the need for internet users — especially those reliant on the cloud for storage of their data — to think about portability as much as they think about privacy:

We enjoy access to massive archives of our digital trail in the form of emails, chats, comments, and other bits of personal ephemera, all stored conveniently out in the cloud, ready to be called up or shared in a moment, from wherever we happen to be, on whatever device we choose. The services stowing that data owe a commitment of privacy defined by a specific policy—one that we can review before we commit. Yet if any of the cloud services we use restrict our ability to extract our data, it can become stuck—and we can become locked into those services. The solution there is for such services to offer data portability policies to complement their privacy policies before we begin to patronize them, to help preserve our freedom to choose services over the long term. By dismissing the principle of net neutrality, however, we endanger that ability not just by one cloud service provider but across the board: ISPs can perform deep packet inspection to glean whatever they can about us as we correspond with different sites across the Internet, and our data can become stranded in places as the shifting sands of our ISPs’ access policies constrict access to places they disfavor. Just as international diplomacy depends on the principles of the inviolable embassy, la valise diplomatique, and mutual reciprocity to operate in the ultimate best interests of all involved, so does net neutrality depend on maintaining an online environment that preserves those aspects that made it such a valuable and central part of modern life in the first place.

The analogy to international diplomatic law is especially interesting. My view of cloud storage for my own data seems to change day by day. . . .

the commodification of intimacy

This sobering post from Nick Carr suggests that we ought to be worried, or at least seriously reflective, about “web revolutionaries” who are pushing the commercialism and commodification of human intimacy:

What most characterizes today’s web revolutionaries is their rigorously apolitical and ahistorical perspectives — their fear of actually being revolutionary. To them, the technological upheaval of the web ends in a reinforcement of the status quo. There’s nothing wrong with that view, I suppose — these are all writers who court business audiences — but their writings do testify to just how far we’ve come from the idealism of the early days of cyberspace, when online communities were proudly uncommercial and the free exchanges of the web stood in opposition to what John Perry Barlow dismissively termed “the Industrial World.” By encouraging us to think of sharing as “collaborative consumption” and of our intellectual capacities as “cognitive surplus,” the technologies of the web now look like they will have, as their ultimate legacy, the spread of market forces into the most intimate spheres of human activity.

I think Nick is right about this — as is Jaron Lanier when he sounds a similar note — and I say that as someone generally enthusiastic about the entrepreneurial possibilities of online culture.

On some level we all know this commodification of intimacy is happening: no thoughtful person can possibly believe that Mark Zuckerberg’s crusade for “radical transparency” is a genuine Utopian ethic; we know that he’s articulating a position that, if widely accepted, yields maximum revenue for Facebook. But we are just beginning to think about how radically transparent we are becoming, and if Nick Carr is right, we very much need some “web revolutionaries” who really are revolutionary in their repudiation of these trends.

In other words, the problem isn’t the businessmen who want to dig around in our brains — of course the business world wants to dig around in our brains: haven’t you seen “Mad Men”? — the problem is the failure of influential wired intellectuals to provide the necessary corrective pushback.

writing, silence, and privacy

From a brilliant essay by Jed Perl:

Writing, before it is anything else, is a way of clarifying one’s thoughts. This is obviously true of forms such as the diary, which are inherently solitary. But even those of us who write for publication can conclude, once we have clarified certain thoughts, that these thoughts are not especially valuable, or are not entirely convincing, or perhaps are simply not thoughts we want to share with others, at least not now. For many of us who love the act of writing — even when we are writing against a deadline with an editor waiting for the copy — there is something monastic about the process, a confrontation with one’s thoughts that has a value apart from the proximity or even perhaps the desirability of any other reader. I believe that most writing worth reading is the product, at least to some degree, of this extraordinarily intimate confrontation between the disorderly impressions in the writer’s mind and the more or less orderly procession of words that the writer manages to produce on the page. . . .I am not saying that writers need to be or ought to be isolated, either from other writers or from the reading public at large. But writers must to some degree believe that they are alone with their own words. And writers who are alone with their words will quite naturally, from time to time, conclude that some of those words should remain private. This needs to be emphasized right now, when so few people in the publishing industry understand why anything that has been written, and especially written by a well-known author, should not be published, and not published with the widest possible readership in mind.. . . What I fear is that many readers are coming to believe that a writer who holds something back from publication is somehow acting unnaturally. Nobody understands the extent to which, even for the widely acclaimed author with ready access to publication, the process of writing can sometimes necessitate a rejection or at least an avoidance of one’s own readers. That silence is a part of writing — that the work of this day or this week or even this year might for good reason be withheld — is becoming harder and harder to comprehend.

The dominance in our culture of social networking, especially but not only Facebook, intensifies this problematic situation. Shyness and introversion, as a search for either of those words on Amazon.com will show you, are regularly seen as pathologies; Eric Schmidt thinks that if you don’t want Google to know everything about you you must have something discreditable to hide; Mark Zuckerberg believes, or says he believes, that the exposure of your life on Facebook promotes honesty and integrity. Clearly there are people who would like to see a social stigma attached to a concern for privacy: will they succeed in making it happen?

dragged back into the maw of the Beast

I think I’m re-Googled. My escape attempt has, I fear, failed.

Mail is the main issue. Fastmail is a fine email service, but I need more email organizational-fu than I can get via their web interface. That means using Apple Mail, tricked out with some plugins . . . but Mail is, frankly, a mess of an application. It has never worked well for me: it’s often unresponsive, and will sometimes spin its wheels for an hour without managing to open a folder, eating crazy amounts of CPU as it does so. Also, I don’t use Microsoft products, and the Mozilla-based alternatives (Thunderbird, Postbox, etc.) aren’t sufficiently integrated into the OS to make them attractive alternatives.
Meanwhile, Gmail is super-fast and has a suite of organizational tools that I have used for years and have fine-tuned to my needs: labels, filters, and Superstars allow me to classify every email I get in useful ways.
So I think I’m going back. Which probably means going back to Google Reader as well, since it’s so much faster than Fever and handles all my feeds flawlessly. (Fever tends to lose some.)
You gotta handle it to those Google people. They make some first-rate products. And they have responded much more appropriately than Facebook to privacy concerns. I think I can control my privacy settings in my Google services sufficiently well to salve my conscience . . . I think . . . I hope . . .

the dichotomy

Clay Shirky:

There are two principal effects of the Internet on privacy. The first is to shrink personal expression to a dichotomy: public or private. Prior to the rise of digital social life, much of what we said and did was in a public environment — on the street, in a park, at a party — but was not actually public, in the sense of being widely broadcast or persistently available.This enormous swath of personal life, as we used to call it, existed on a spectrum between public and private, and the sheer inconvenience of collecting and collating theoretically observable but practically unobserved actions was enough to keep those actions out of the public sphere.That spectrum has now collapsed — data is either public or private, and the idea of personal utterances being observable but unobserved is becoming as quaint as an ice cream social.

simpler = privater?

Technology Review: “On stage this morning at TechCrunch Disrupt in New York City, Facebook vice president of product, Chris Cox, promised ‘drastically simplified’ privacy controls, which should be available on the site on Wednesday. Though he declined to give any details of how they will work, the company is clearly feeling the sting of the recent storm of criticism.

“It will be interesting to see how the privacy controls actually look. Simpler controls don’t necessarily mean more privacy. It’s entirely possible that it will remain difficult for users to keep the company from making large portions of their data public.”

more on sharing and oversharing

Tim O’Reilly takes a line similar to that of Steven Johnson:

The essence of my argument is that there’s enormous advantage for users in giving up some privacy online and that we need to be exploring the boundary conditions – asking ourselves when is it good for users, and when is it bad, to reveal their personal information. I’d rather have entrepreneurs making high-profile mistakes about those boundaries, and then correcting them, than silently avoiding controversy while quietly taking advantage of public ignorance of the subject, or avoiding a potentially contentious area of innovation because they are afraid of backlash. It’s easy to say that this should always be the user’s choice, but entrepreneurs from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg are in the business of discovering things that users don’t already know that they will want, and sometimes we only find the right balance by pushing too far, and then recovering.

To his credit, O’Reilly goes on to say that Facebook isn’t acting out of any commitment to the public good, and he endorses a recent Bill of Rights for Facebook users. But his approach troubles me in a number of ways.First, he sees virtue only in “pushing the boundaries” in one direction, towards the reduction or elimination of privacy — but he never explains why that direction is the one that counts. Some of the people striving to create alternatives to Facebook are exploring the idea that tighter privacy controls are more generally desirable. Second, O’Reilly talks about companies like Facebook “correcting” their invasions of user privacy and then “recovering” — but, as we learned from the Google Buzz fiasco, information doesn’t go back in a bottle. You can stop sharing, but you can’t unshare what’s already out there. Facebook may “correct,” but users can’t “recover” privacy they’ve lost. Finally, he’s failing to make an important distinction. It’s absolutely true that “entrepreneurs . . . are in the business of discovering things that users don’t already know that they will want,” but historically they have discovered those “things” and then sold them to users. But what Google and Facebook have recently done is different: they have sold (or given away) a particular service and then altered it significantly without consulting or even warning users. Imagine getting up one morning and, as you’re leaving for work, discovering that your sports car has overnight been transformed into a minivan — there’s a note on the windshield from the car manufacturer saying that they know you’ll really enjoy all the features this new model has that the old one lacked. Would you say that the car company was being “entrepreneurial”?

Facing Facebook lock-in

A long time ago (in internet terms anyway) I explained why I was an early adopter and then an early abandoner of Facebook. Given the path Facebook has followed in its treatment of its users — this chart tells you everything you need to know about that — I’m really glad I got out when I did, because I know what it’s like to feel locked into a digital environment I have serious qualms about: thus my ongoing Google emancipation project. If I had been using Facebook regularly for the past few years, I’m sure it would be hard for me to figure out how to do without it, because there are no alternatives to Facebook. Not right now at least, though some folks are hoping and others are trying.But even if a legitimate alternative emerges, you can’t just make the unilateral decision to move there — you have to get your friends to move also, and to move to the same alternative that you’ve chosen. My rejection of Google has been difficult enough, and it doesn’t pose that problem: email is email — based on a set of open protocols, thanks be to God — so while I may experience some annoyance at losing my favorite Gmail features, I can communicate with all the same people I communicated with before, and in just the same way. The transition is seamless. Similarly, thanks to the assistance and server-provision of my friend Matt Frost, I’m getting my RSS feeds via Fever — and RSS and Atom are similarly open standards, so that it’s trivial to shift from one client to another.Facebook doesn’t work that way: everything about it is closed and proprietary, and since it’s fundamentally social, it doesn’t even make all that much sense to talk about taking your own data out of Facebook: the value of the service lies in the relation of your data to other people’s data, and the only way for that value to be ported elsewhere is for all your friends’ data to move along with yours. But that would likely be a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”: any other company that held that much social information would be unlikely to wield its power any less crassly than Facebook has. Power corrupts, and lots of power corrupts a lot. To coin a phrase.The only answer to this difficulty — since danah boyd’s idea that Facebook should be regulated as a utility is manifestly ridiculous — is for everyone’s social presence online to become more widely distributed among multiple services. But of course that would mean the end of the convenience of having a one-stop social shop.So Facebook users are presented with a choice: they can have more privacy, more control over their own personal information, or they can have convenience. I bet I know what 95% of them will choose — and again, I might be making the same choice if I had been putting stuff into Facebook for the past three years.Moral of this story: before buying into an online service, always make sure you know where the exits are. And that they’re unlocked.(By the way, I wonder if Farhad Manjoo still thinks there’s no legitimate reason for not using Facebook?)(Also by the way, much of what I say here about Facebook is also true of Twitter — but some of it isn’t, which is why I’m not getting off Twitter anytime soon. Maybe I’ll find time to explain this later.)

technology update

So about a week ago I was reading a book on my Kindle when suddenly it disappeared. Not the Kindle, the book. The screen went blank, the Kindle restarted, and when restart was complete, the home page informed me that I had zero items on the machine and zero archived items. I set it aside and came back a few minutes later, and now, it seemed, I had many archived items but none on the Kindle. I tried downloading one of my archived books, but after five or six minutes the “your book is downloading” message (which usually stays on screen for about ten seconds) was still there. An hour or two later I looked again, and my books had returned.This has since happened twice more, both times when I was seriously engaged in what I was reading. A disconcerting experience. Because I dropped this Kindle the first time I touched it and slightly damaged one corner — a sad tale I told on this blog — I doubt that Amazon will give me a replacement. But I will ask, and report what I learn.On another front, my emancipation from the clutches of Google remains incomplete. Gmail is gone, replaced by Fastmail, and that’s working out well, with the minor quibble that Fastmail’s spam filter is not as good as Gmail’s — a few items of spam are getting through and there have been some false positives as well. When I used Gmail I just didn’t think about spam.Also, for a long time now my wife and son and I have been coordinating our calendars using Google Calendar, so I don’t think I can change that anytime soon. I also miss Google Reader: Bloglines updates slowly and inconsistently, though the new beta site looks very nice, and that’s the only real option for syncing my RSS feeds on my iPhone. But since I don’t read RSS feeds on my iPhone very often, I think I’ll stick with a desktop RSS reader, either the full-featured NetNewsWire — with which I have a long history — or the beautiful NewsFire.These are slight annoyances, but, simply put, I don’t trust Google to use my data appropriately, so I can put up with them.