Thursday, May 30, 2013

Fighting to Keep the Web Open

While frontiers represent freedom, they also represent opportunity and potential. The untamed spaces have no limits, rules, or organizing communities, so one can venture into the frontier do as one pleases. The success of the frontier in this traditional context is the establishment of rules, limitations, and organizing communities. To realize any value from the frontier, one needs to establish security, infrastructure, and clear boundaries. To establish these things, the frontier must be domesticated. As such, the opportunity represented by the frontier is its own destruction, or the destruction of those features characteristic of a frontier. 

Yesterday, the EFF released a formal objection to the inclusion of DRM in HTML5. While that sounds pretty technical, the base idea is straightforward. The short version is that there is a proposal to include usage control and digital rights management capabilities in the next version of the markup language used to create web pages and consequently deliver content via the Web. HTML5 is a big deal for many reasons, not the least of which is the maturation of the Web's ecosystem. The last HTML revision happened in 1997, just as the Web was settling into mainstream life. When HTML was first written, there were no Internet connections capable of delivering embedded video to the everyday folks who used the Web. As a matter of fact, there were no everyday folks who used the Web, or even the Web as we think of it today. HTML was a visionary, forward-looking project, imagined as the solution to a problem that was just about to emerge: making creating and sharing content over computer networks easy for people to do.

Since 1990 when HTML was created, our networks and our computers have come a long way. We now use the Web for tasks that personal computers were not able to perform 23 years ago. In that time, we have also witnessed what are clearly the growing pains associated with the introduction of a new significant technology. The intellectual property debates and privacy issues that have been the focus of my academic research are two relevant examples here. Sharing is an important part of both human communication and HTML. Through embedding content in pages and linking to web-hosted files, we have used the Web to share lots of things with one another. As a content-delivery system, the Web has incredible capabilities, and those capabilities have grown as the supporting technology has improved. Digital publishing and digital distribution make it easier to create and share media, but the media industry has a long-standing concern that ease of sharing will dominate over their established business models. These concerns have resulted in the Digital Rights Management Act, the introduction of digital-rights management technology, and legislative tools like SOPA and ACTA to strengthen enforcement and control how users interact with media and other digital content.

All of these efforts are essentially directed at domesticating the Web, putting up fences and channels where there was once open space. Free Culture advocates, including some of the founders of the Web, argue that the move to domesticate and control the Web is antithetical to the original vision of the Web as a forum for unbounded communication and expression. Supporting that view are organizations like EFF, Wikimedia, Creative Commons, and others who believe that open communication is important as a fundamental human right or as a way to bring together a fractured global community.

What is so interesting about these efforts is the view, seemingly correct, that the Web loses value as it becomes less open. Unlike a traditionally understood frontier, the openness of the Web is the very source of its value: the opportunity to create without diminishing the ability of others to do the same. Placing restrictions on Web content, including DRM and usage control, introduces features more characteristic of a traditional frontier. Once one person has done it, no one else can do something too much like it, share it with others, or use it to build something new.

Understanding the Web in this way, I hope you can see why some of the people most closely involved with the Web argue in favor of its openness. There is a tangible sense in which openness directly ties to the value of the Web. In some ways, openness is embedded in the technology that drives the Web such as HTML, the linguistic structure that defines its content. While getting to California is far easier on the I-80 than on the Oregon Trail, we will have much more trouble navigating the Web and realizing its potential value if we allow boundaries and restrictions to creep into its foundations.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Brief, Non-Spoiling Review of Homeland

My partner and I just finished reading Cory Doctorow's young adult novel Homeland, our copy of which he kindly autographed for us at Octavia Books back in February. I can recommend the book without reservation, for young and old alike, but I wanted to focus on one particular merit. If you haven't read the book, what I am about to say shouldn't spoil anything, but does require taking in the whole of the book to appreciate, so hopefully it form an incentive to pick up and give it a shot. Since Cory Doctorow is also committed to free culture, you can find free copies of his books on his website. Try it for free, then buy one for a friend.

Anyway, in talking over Homeland with Tara, I decided that what I like most about it as a young adult novel is this: among other lessons the main character learns, the central theme is that he needs to learn to take control. Many of the main character's conflicts involve his reactive posture; the world happens to him, and he doesn't know how to deal with it. By the end of the book, our main character resolves his conflicts by becoming proactive, making something happen to which other people must react.

From what I can tell, that lesson is the most important part about really growing up. Some people learn when they're a little too young, and that can be a problem because they don't know what to do and their elders don't know what to do with them. Some people never seem to learn it and become adults in response to events, never taking responsibility for crafting their own existence. If you just react, the world is something that happens to you. To put it another way, you create a distance between yourself and the things you experience. Life is out there, and you have to deal with it from in here. The reactor is at the business end of their own existence. When you begin to see that you can affect events, you can exert effort, you can define your situation and your next move, you have acknowledged yourself as really part of the world, immersed into the same dynamic flow of events, an agent of causation just like any other. In that immersion is the seed of really feeling free, the potential to recognize oneself as the cause and the result at once.

If you want to see what that transformation looks like, read Homeland, then reflect on yourself and your own development. When you did you realize that you are an agent and not merely a patient of events? Have you?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Obama: Stag Hunter

Yesterday, President Obama delivered an extended address on US national security status and policy. The main theme of his future-oriented policy emphasized the importance of foreign cooperation to long-term stability and security. Throughout the speech, Obama emphasized that the warlike posture the US has adopted since Sept 11, 2001, is doing more harm than good because it is much harder to build alliances. Instead of funneling money into combat/tactical programs, he argued that it makes more sense to funnel money into foreign aid, to build up good will, to support emerging democracies, and help other nations build up their infrastructure and economies. All of these things diffuse violent radicalism because individuals in a free society can focus on cultivating their own opportunities. There is no hopelessness which breed fear and anger, and without fear and anger, no one will be looking around for someone to blame.

To a philosopher, Obama has done a good job of channeling John Rawls. The final point, that people do not turn to violence when they feel free and hopeful, is the essence of Rawls's view of the well-ordered society. If I have no grievances that cannot be addressed through some open, effective procedure, I have no reason to compromise the good will of my fellow citizens with propaganda of the deed or direct action against oppression. There is no oppression to act against. The larger point, also well-understood by Rawls but general to Game Theory, is that by extending the network of cooperation, we diminish motivation to engage in violent conflict. Rawls calls that a well-ordered society, but for Game Theorists, a more colorful bunch than Rawls, use the term "Stag Hunt."

Imagine you live in a hunter/gatherer society. If you want protein, you have two options: hunt stags with the group, or hunt rabbits alone. Rabbits don't provide a whole lot of protein, but you are likely to catch one, though you may have to work for a long time, snaring, trapping, or rock-hurling. The important thing is that you can catch a rabbit alone, with no help from anyone else in your society. Stags provide much more protein, but you can't bring down a stag alone; you need the cooperation of the other hunters in your society. The need for cooperation is both good and bad. The benefit is that you personally will have to do less work as the task is distributed across the rest of the hunters, and you get more protein than you could get from the rabbit, even after dividing it. The downside is that you have might not catch a stag, and if you don't, you won't have any time left for grabbing rabbits.

The choice is simple, you have to choose between a meager sure thing or a plentiful risk. If you have reason to believe that the other hunters are likely to abandon the stag hunt to catch rabbits, you're better off catching rabbits. If you have reason to believe that the other hunters are dedicated to the group hunt, you're better off cooperating, even if it means losing out on a sure thing.

Stag hunts are lurking behind much of what Obama said about foreign aid, and it's a good model for thinking about long-term security. If we turn the future into a cooperative endeavor, sending out lots of aid and support, helping developing nations develop, those governments will not want to support action against us. Maintenance of good relationships becomes too important, even if some small, sure gain can be had by sacrificing that relationship. Consider the case of North Korea: an isolated nation with few allies, an aggressive foreign policy, and lots of economic problems. They would be better off backing down from their insistence on maintaining military power (and the illusion of its superiority), but they have not (yet).

As the world's nation-states become more connected through communication technology and economic cooperation, stag hunts should become more common. We can all go after the big stag: global peace and prosperity, knowing that we all share in the benefits, and we collectively make do with the shortcomings. That last point is an important one, though. We have to collectively make do with the shortcomings. That is, when something doesn't work out, we need to maintain the base of cooperation, sharing whatever we do have, to establish and maintain that basis of goodwill. Otherwise, we'll just be chasing rabbits.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The obligation to BCC


Today I got a job-related rejection letter, delivered enmass to 151 candidates. I know it was 151 because the sender hit CC rather than BCC, so all of the recipients know. Furthermore, all of the recipients know who else was competing for the job, can look at their department profiles, and likely their CVs. For private individuals, academics tend to have a lot of Web presence, largely due to university/department websites. To a large extent, that's a good thing, but when combined with a leak like this one, that increased Web presence costs a good bit more privacy. Now, there are 151 candidates who get to take a peek at their competition, maybe stalk them on "the Facebook," maybe judge themselves and each other more harshly for it. At the same time, it is not unusual for departments to announce their new hires, so everyone also knows who got the job, enabling further judgement/comparison/stalking.

Situations like this really highlight how many informational traces we can leave while conducting what we could reasonably think of as our own business (and no one else's). One might think that respecting that sense of privacy would be a kind of professional ethic. Certainly, the system of recommendation letters, transcript deliveries, and application dossiers mean that there are a lot of individuals who may be clued in to the fact that a person is looking for a job. Yet, when it's not our business, we don't fish for more, put the clues together, and seek out further information. To so is considered a little creepy, right?


In general, being on the academic job market provides a window into a variety of university cultures and group norms. Unfortunately, one often learns a great deal about an institution's relationship to technology (or lack thereof). There is something about having your login credentials emailed to you in plaintext that just makes you feel...less than safe, especially considering the kinds of information provided to potential employers. Nevertheless, it's not neglect. I'm sure the folks "responsible" are really not aware of it as a problem.