May 2014

Free software and Politics and Technology29 May 2014 at 9:35 by Jean-Marc Liotier

I stumbled upon a cute potted guide to open source history and found this paragraph interesting:

Software writers in the 1980s liked to talk about how object technology would be the silver bullet that allowed re-use and composition of software systems, moving programming from a cottage industry where everyone makes everything from scratch to a production-line enterprise where standard parts fit together to provide a base for valuable products. It wasn’t; the sharing-required software license was.

I feel that the author is using object oriented software modeling as a strawman, but his point still stands: the critical enabler of modern software is not technical, it is political.

I would go even further and argue that the critical enabler of modern technology is not technical, it is political – intellectual property law is but one egregious example of how political trumps technical in terms of impact… Technical is essential, but though it may subvert a system, it does not overcome oppression on its own.

So political apathy as shown by staggering voter abstention in the latest European elections has immediate technological impact. Political involvement is not futile – it is actually required for technological progress… Get political  !

Technology28 May 2014 at 10:55 by Jean-Marc Liotier

This passage from “Beacons, marketing and the neoliberal logic of space, or: The Engelbart overshoot” eloquently captures the displacement of pioneer ideals from media attention, replaced by the cult of the gold rushers:

There was a powerful dream that sustained (and not incidentally, justified) half a century’s inquiry into the possibilities of information technology, from Vannevar Bush to Doug Engelbart straight through to Mark Weiser. This was the dream of augmenting the individual human being with instantaneous access to all knowledge, from wherever in the world he or she happened to be standing at any given moment. As toweringly, preposterously ambitious as that goal seems when stated so baldly, it’s hard to conclude anything but that we actually did achieve that dream some time ago, at least as a robust technical proof of concept.

We achieved that dream, and immediately set about betraying it. We betrayed it by shrouding the knowledge it was founded on in bullshit IP law, and by insisting that every interaction with it be pushed through some set of mostly invidious business logic. We betrayed it by building our otherwise astoundingly liberatory propositions around walled gardens and proprietary standards, by putting the prerogatives of rent-seeking ahead of any move to fertilize and renew the commons, and by tolerating the infestation of our informational ecology with vile, value-destroying parasites. These days technical innovators seem more likely to be lauded for devising new ways to harness and exploit people’s life energy for private gain than for the inverse.

In fact, you and I now draw breath in a post-utopian world — a world where the tide of technical idealism has long receded from its high-water mark.

Design and Knowledge management and Politics and Security and Technology26 May 2014 at 14:07 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Skimming an entirely unrelated article, I stumbled upon this gem:

Recently, a number of schools have started using a program called CourseSmart, which uses e-book analytics to alert teachers if their students are studying the night before tests, rather than taking a long-haul approach to learning. In addition to test scores, the CourseSmart algorithm assigns each student an “engagement index” which can determine not just if a student is studying, but also if they’re studying properly. In theory, a person could receive a “satisfactory” C grade in a particular class, only to fail on “engagement

This immediately reminded me of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snow Crash where a government employee’s reading behavior has been thoroughly warped into simulacrum by a lifetime of overbearing surveillance:

Y.T.’s mom pulls up the new memo, checks the time, and starts reading it. The estimated reading time is 15.62 minutes. Later, when Marietta does her end-of-day statistical roundup, sitting in her private office at 9:00 P.M., she will see the name of each employee and next to it, the amount of time spent reading this memo, and her reaction, based on the time spent, will go something like this:
– Less than 10 min.: Time for an employee conference and possible attitude counseling.
– 10-14 min.: Keep an eye on this employee; may be developing slipshod attitude.
– 14-15.61 min.: Employee is an efficient worker, may sometimes miss important details.
– Exactly 15.62 min.: Smartass. Needs attitude counseling.
– 15.63-16 min.: Asswipe. Not to be trusted.
– 16-18 min.: Employee is a methodical worker, may sometimes get hung up on minor details.
– More than 18 min.: Check the security videotape, see just what this employee was up to (e.g., possible unauthorized restroom break).

Y.T.’s mom decides to spend between fourteen and fifteen minutes reading the memo. It’s better for younger workers to spend too long, to show that they’re careful, not cocky. It’s better for older workers to go a little fast, to show good management potential. She’s pushing forty. She scans through the memo, hitting the Page Down button at reasonably regular intervals, occasionally paging back up to pretend to reread some earlier section. The computer is going to notice all this. It approves of rereading. It’s a small thing, but over a decade or so this stuff really shows up on your work-habits summary.

Dystopian panoptical horrors were supposed to be cautionary tales – not specifications for new projects…

As one Hacker News commenter put it : in the future, you don’t read books; books read you !

Post-scriptum… Isn’t it funny that users don’t mind being spied upon by apps and pages but get outraged when e-books do ? It may be because in their minds, e-books are still books… But shouldn’t all documents and all communicated information be as respectful of their reader as books are ?