Tag Archives: politics

Techologists’ Role In Oppression


For years I’ve posted about various kinds of government oppression on Hacker News, and for years I’ve heard the same thing: This is all political bullshit. I want to hear things that are more important, like tech news or information about how to program better.

And it’s not just online boards. Many founders of popular internet sites all say the same thing: We’re here making the world a better place. You’re really going to like it! (We know this because we’re A/B testing every little thing we do). All that politics stuff is for politicians and loser political types. Come and make a better world so that information and freedom can connect all of us together. It’s going to be a beautiful future. We’re the good guys.”

Indeed. It seems that as long as you can wave your arms around, vaguely describe some super cool future with flying cars and borg-like clothing, everything is going to work out fine. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Pay no attention to how things are actually turning out.

Take a look at “The New Digital Age”, a book full of such baloney. Evgeny Morozov tears the book apart (as opposed to most of the tech media, which seems to still be buying it)

The original concepts introduced in The New Digital Age derive their novelty from what might be described as the two-world hypothesis: that there is an analog world out there—where, say, people buy books by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen—and a matching virtual world, where all sorts of weird, dangerous, and subversive things might happen. Or, as the authors themselves put it, “one [world] is physical and has developed over thousands of years, and the other [world] is virtual and is still very much in formation.“ As “the vast majority of us will increasingly find ourselves living, working and being governed in two worlds at once,” new problems will emerge and demand original solutions.

Cohen and Schmidt argue—without a hint of irony—that “the printing press, the landline, the radio, the television, and the fax machine all represent technological revolutions, but [they] all required intermediaries. … [The digital revolution] is the first that will make it possible for almost everybody to own, develop and disseminate real-time content without having to rely on intermediaries.” Presumably we will disseminate “real-time content” brain to brain, because that is the only way to avoid intermediaries. Coming from senior executives of the world’s most powerful intermediary—the one that shapes how we find information (not to mention Google’s expansion into fields like fiber networks)—all this talk about the disappearance of intermediaries is truly bizarre and disingenuous. This may have been more accurate in the 1990s, when everyone was encouraged to run their own e-mail server—but the authors appear to have missed the advent of cloud computing and the subsequent empowerment of a handful of information intermediaries (Google, Facebook, Amazon). Not surprisingly, Cohen and Schmidt contradict their own gospel of disintermediation when they mention just how easy it was to weaken WikiLeaks by going after companies such as Amazon and PayPal.

…Why do so many of the trivial claims in this book appear to have gravitas? It’s quite simple: the two-world hypothesis endows claims, trends, and objects with importance—regardless of how inconsequential they really are—based solely on their membership in the new revolutionary world, which itself exists only because it has been posited by the hypothesis. Consider another claim from Schmidt and Cohen’s book: that “governments … may go to war in cyberspace but maintain the peace in the physical world.” Something clearly isn’t right here. If governments are at war—a condition well-described in international law—then they are at war everywhere; as with pregnancy, one cannot be just a little bit “at war.” If governments engage in skirmishes that do not amount to war—a condition that is also well known to students of international law and politics—then they are not at war. It is certainly the case that increased connectivity has made it easier to engage in new skirmishes, but we are not dealing with anything even remotely revolutionary here. The banal truth buried in Schmidt and Cohen’s hyperbole is something like: governments can now mess up each other’s networks in much the same way that they mess up each other’s embassies. A revolution in global affairs it isn’t.

…When someone writes a sentence that begins “if the causes of radicalization are similar everywhere,” you know that their understanding of politics is at best rudimentary. Do Cohen and Schmidt really believe that all these young people are alienated because they are simply misinformed? That their grievances can be cured with statistics? That “we” can just change this by finding the digital equivalent of “dropping propaganda flyers from an airplane”? That if we can just get those young people to talk to each other, they will figure it all out? “Outsiders don’t have to develop the content; they just need to create the space,” Schmidt and Cohen smugly remark. “Wire up the city, give people basic tools and they’ll do most of the work themselves.” Now it’s clear: the voice of the “we” is actually the voice of venture capital.

Apologies for the extended quote. You really should read the entire article.

The rules for polite discussion in the tech community have been fairly clear: gossip and technical talk is okay. Better still is wild-eyed, empty-headed pandering with vauge statements about some utopian future that if we only keep writing more code and developing more products, will appear. The rest of the talk, about oppression and government intrusion of our lives, is “political bullshit”

Well the political bullshit chickens have come home to roost, and it’s time to start looking at our role in all of this.

Somewhere in the last 20 years a hacker created a hardware device that government law enforcement agencies can use to intercept and monitor cellular calls. Somewhere in the last 10 years a programmer wrote code that is being used to identify and kill dissidents. Somebody right now is creating and maintaining a portal that allows security agencies potentially unfettered access to all of our details.

The commercial sector creates things. We — programmers, hackers, and other technologists — are not creating a utopia. We are giving the rest of the world power tools to do bad things to each other and then washing our hands of it because trying to deal with the ramifications of what we’ve done is just too much for us.

I grew up with computers. In 1973, if you could have sat down with most anybody in the western world and described the amazing future technology of 2013, they would have been incredibly impressed. Connect to anybody world-wide for free? Have the world’s knowledge at your fingertips? Auto-drive cars? What an incredible future!

But then if you had explained to them the way these tools are used, their response would be much different. Controlling what people can learn, say, hear, or talk about? The ability to constantly track each person on the planet to a location within 50 meters or so? Automatically monitoring who talks to whom, what time, for how long, and so forth? Real-time information about purchases? Automatic computation of all of a person’s friends, with the ability to dive into exacting detail about their lives as well?

This is not the stuff of an incredible future. This is the stuff of a horrific science fiction movie. Nobody in their right mind would have traded all these cool gadgets for this kind of micro-cataloging of all of our lives. In fact, if the public had known exactly what was in store for them, and had they believed it, computers may well have been outlawed a long time ago.

This is not an argument against progress, or computers, or a rant on how the world is going to hell. I’m not saying that technology is the root of all evil. The world has a lot of problems that have nothing to do with technology. We’ve just help make them all worse.

This is a plea for us technologists to get our heads out of our collective asses and take a look around at what we are doing. It’s time to grow up, and it’s time to take responsibility for the surveillance states we’ve helped create. I don’t know the answer — I suspect that the best policy would be that anything the government can know, the average citizen should be able to know as well — but I do know we need to start talking about it. Not every now and then when a major story comes out, but on an ongoing basis. The impact of our work should be as important to us as the work itself.

Cross-posted from the original site

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Refactoring the United States

As a libertarian, I do a lot of whining and complaining. Seems like the government is always taking up for special interests and consuming more and more of my freedom in the process. No matter which party is in power, I can count on having less freedom by the time they’re through with me. Sometimes each party wants to screw me over different ways, but many times both parties are paid off by corporations and such and the only difference is what kind of political bullshit I have to listen to while my freedoms are being restricted.

Every week, it seems like it just gets worse and worse. SOPA/PIPA, NDAA, and so on. We keep getting laws passed with names like “The Protection of Bunnies and Children Act” which end up letting government do all sorts of nasty things that nobody who has really thought things through would agree with.

I’m getting tired of complaining. Today I thought I’d put some possible solutions out there. Suggest some ways to refactor the government:

  • Constitutional Amendment: The government shall not abridge the digital communication of data between people.
  • Constitutional Amendment: digital data collected by a person as part of a wearable or embeddable computational device shall be considered an integral and internal part of that person.
  • Constitutional Amendment: For any year that the Federal Government increases operating expenses more than 3%, or that the total federal tax burden is more than 20% of GDP, currently elected officials will not be eligible for re-election. (Also known as the “Warren Buffett” rule)
  • Constitutional Amendment: No federal law shall be valid for more than 40 years or less than 1 year.
  • Constitutional Amendment: The only form of tax collection authorized to the Federal Government is a flat tax on consumption, with blanket exemptions for certain types of consumption created and managed by law.
  • Constitutional Amendment: Each Congressional Representative shall represent no more than 100,000 people. (This would increase the size of the House to around 3,000 members, easily manageable by technology yet much more difficult for a 2-party system to control)
  • Constitutional Amendment: Senators shall be appointed by the legislatures in each state (This takes the Senate back to being an aristocracy, which was the intention of the body, and not just another place for populist grandstanding)

Admittedly there are probably a lot of problems with my suggestions. I would point out, however, that amendments are supposed to be simple and broad. They are later “colored” by court action. So although we have freedom of speech, we can’t yell fire in a crowded movie theater. Likewise, although we might have freedom of digital data transfer, this probably wouldn’t be construed to allow incarcerated drug lords to control their crime empires from prison. There will be many reasonable limitations to these amendments which will come out like always, through judicial interpretation.

I’d also caution against taking facile pot-shots at some of these ideas. It’s easy to sound like you’re making a valid criticism when in reality that’s not the case. For instance, one of the reasons we have a popularly-elected Senate is because the states did such a bad job of it. At one point a businessman in Illinois basically paid-off every legislator so he could be a senator. This makes for a wonderfully dramatic rhetorical point, but looking back I think it was a major overreaction to change the entire system simply because of local abuses. The way it was supposed to work was that the House was filled with people who lived next door. The Senate was filled with rich banker and lawyer types. That’s because the system is set up to be a balance between aristocracy and representative democracy. (Most graduates of High School civics classes are probably unaware of this fact.) What we’ve ended up with is both houses being full of banker and lawyer types — the reason is that the House is too small, limiting the number of seats available, and the Senate is too dependent on national political parties for their election. Let’s have some Senators chosen by states with 50/50 Democrats and Republicans. We know from past experience that we end up with a Senate that’s much less partisan and full of more calm, thoughtful, diplomatic members.

I could go on, but the point isn’t to defend each item. It would make for too long of a blog post. I just wanted to point out that I’ve heard many of the objections to these ideas. This wasn’t something I saw on TV somewhere or read about in the back of a libertarian comic book.

The important thing is putting something on the table. Complaining is easy. Suggesting fixes is not. The only way we can improve is to discuss our problems enough so that we can then begin outlining ways we might fix them. Democracies work on conversations. Whining and complaining is a good way to begin a conversation, but at some point you have to move on to the next step.

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NPR Syndrome

I don’t listen to the radio — I prefer listening to college lectures when I drive — but several times a year I find myself surreptitiously tuning in anyway, usually when I’m bored and wonder what other folks are listening to. Many times, after wondering around a sonic wasteland, I find myself on National Public Radio, or NPR.

NPR is mostly known for great classical music, at least where I live. Because NPR is partially funded by public funds, and because it sets itself up as an icon of shared common good, it always seems to be wanting to show that it’s smarter than the other radio stations. The classical music is many times deep dives, with an entire work examined and placed in context. The news tries to be level-headed, wide-encompassing, and neutral. The quiz shows are only for the erudite. Heck, even the car repair guys have degrees from MIT.

I used to love this. I could tune in at any time and feel like I was one of the few who understood and enjoyed Tchaikovsky the way he should be enjoyed. And lo, there were other people there like me! And why watch another episode of Jeopardy with it’s lightweight format when I could play along with quizzes that challenged my intimate knowledge of Russian literature? (Or lack thereof.)

This all changed when I finally figured out what was going on. It was NPR news that did it. It took many years, and my own experience working as a freelance writer, for me to figure it all out.

While not obvious to the casual listener, NPR does their news in a mechanical, ritualistic format. While I may get many details wrong here, the gist is correct. During the night, their fax machine churns with releases from various special interest groups. Save the kittens, eat the rich people, grow more bunnies, prevent hunger worldwide, eliminate nuclear weaponry, and so forth. Some are politically conservative groups, yes, but the vast majority are left of center. Sometimes far left. This is simply the reality of activist groups.

The editors sift through this pile of “Hey! This is really interesting! You should do a story on it!” material looking for something of value for their news shows. The vast majority of the releases are just the same stuff on a different day, so they get ignored. But every now and then one strikes the editors as unusual enough for their audiences. “Here’s one on how puppies are adversely affected by greenhouse gases!” an editor will say, and then they’re on to something.

First up, they come up with the hook. “Did you know that your puppy may grow an extra tail and try to eat you while you sleep? And the reason is greenhouse gases? According to a new study by the prestigious….” Next they call the people who issued the release, basing the bulk of the story around an interview with one of them. Extra credit points if this person has a good radio voice. Then they’ll dig through their academic contacts, looking for somebody to provide some context and background quotes. This will be the second part of their interview. Most academics lean left, but are able to backhandedly explain the other side of the opinion, so this counts as balance, I guess.

On a rare occasion they’ll look for somebody who may actually have an opinion that is different and deserves attention. Perhaps it’s an important issue and they want to devote more airtime. So they’ll go through their sources rolodex, finally coming up with some group named something like “All puppies must die” and find a PhD. who is willing to be interviewed. Usually this guy is so off the wall as to be laughable, so then they’ll go back to their pocket academic for some more context quotes before the reporter ends with a sort of “Well, you know, it’s all kind of the same, but it’s a very interesting subject, as you can see, so one thing’s for sure: the debate will certainly continue.”

I’m not trying to imply NPR is left-leaning. By no means. No implication needed. I’ll come right out and say it: they’re left-leaning. Worse still, everybody knows this, including NPR, so they try even harder to sound neutral. Their anchors adapt this singsong vocal style so lampooned on SNL’s skit “Scweddy Balls“. Their topics try to include something for everybody, including, presumably, those poor morons like myself who only pass through every now and then.

In their eyes, they are simply finding a story with a good angle, sourcing it, finding some context, maybe a little debate, and then presenting it in a completely anesthetic fashion. There’s no bias at all. It’s very sad, actually. In their efforts to try to be more neutral, because they don’t even understand what they are doing, they just make the product even worse. I’d rather just listen to a good rant from Olberman or Maddow. At least the entertainment value is higher.

It took me many years to realize this same pattern of news reporting happening over and over again. Not only was the fact that NPR had no idea what it was doing interesting, hell, people love this stuff. When fundraising time comes, they always ask “Where else folks are going to get this kind of high quality and informative news?” and the money just keeps pouring in.

But why?

To answer that question I need to broaden our scope a bit.

There has been a discussion lately on the need for a liberal education. College costs have gone through the roof yet graduates seem unable to find work. Outsiders see the cost going up and the results going down — some of us wonder if college is working as it should. It looks very overpriced and broken.

Of course, I’m a huge proponent of a liberal education and I love the arts as well as the sciences. But still, if you can’t get a job, whatever you have been studying, it was the wrong thing.

As part of that debate, which has gone on in multiple columns over the past few weeks, I came across an interesting one today. “Think Right, not Deep” It’s by a right-wing fellow, and he makes the standard arguments (true) that college is basically a training ground for young liberals instead of a place to actually learn a trade. So it’s mostly that blah-blah-blah stuff you hear from both left and right that has been going on for decades. But then he gets to an interesting point.

Finally, there’s the issue about whether people in the humanities and liberal arts are broadly educated. I don’t think they really are. My undergraduate degrees are in biology and biochemistry. Since I went to a non-elite public university I saw the full range of students, and those who were not science majors were often quite academically unmotivated and passed their classes through bursts of cramming. In the sciences the situation was different because failing was a much more clear and present option. Many people switched out of science majors when they hit organic chemistry or physical chemistry, because they failed them or knew they could not pass the courses.

When I met history or political science majors there were sometimes awkward moments because it was clear I knew more history and political science than they did. I have a strong interest in these areas, and in my naive youth I thought that someone majoring in history or political science would wish to discuss these topics. But usually the reality was that they’d rather drink a beer.

But is it better with genuinely smart students who went to the top schools? Unfortunately that hasn’t been my experience. As a specific example years ago I ran into someone at a party who turned out to have a background in classical Roman history from an Ivy League university. As a Roman history buff I was excited to talk to them about various issues, but I quickly realized that this individual was more interested in seeming smart than saying anything substantive (I wanted to discuss Bryce Ward-Perkins’ revisionist How Rome Fell, and my interlocutor seemed to lose all interest when I was not sufficiently impressed by their name-checking of scholars in the “Rome did not fall, it evolved” school of thought. They were not even prepared from what I could gather to defend that position on empirical grounds).

Too many smart liberal arts graduates remind me of the blonde douche in Good Will Hunting:

…4 – Those liberal arts graduates who are very bright are too often enamored of the latest intellectual fashion, and are keener upon signalling their ideological purity and intellectual superiority than actually understanding anything.

And there we have it: the difference between learning and social signalling. You spend a couple of years of life in your spare time learning Roman history, as this author might have, and you love history and want to learn more. You are excited when you meet somebody who majored in it because here is somebody who got all this stuff in school, taught by a real professor.

But too often, aside from name-dropping, perhaps an emotional rant about whatever the latest fad is, and plenty of signals to show that they think “correctly” about many issues, there’s nothing there. Like the guy said, they’d just rather have a beer.

We’re teaching people to put on the affectation of being smart, of having the right opinions, being upset at the right things, listening to the right radio stations, hanging out with the right crowd — without actually being smart. Being smart has become a brand.

NPR Syndrome is when there is a panache of intellectual fervor without the deep humility and curiosity that real intellectual depth brings. It’s a patina of understanding, the dropping of names, listing of book titles, the citing of experts, the glossing over of depth on both sides of key issues, the use of key words and phrases that signal I’m of the elite in this area.

The older I get, the more Socrates amazes me. One of the greatest philosophers of all times, and he insisted that he did not know much. I have a feeling he’d have a lot of fun today sitting out by the city gates, listening to the cognoscenti.

I don’t mean this rant as being anti-intellectual. Far from it. If anything, it’s a plea for true intellectualism; the pursuit of knowledge and treasuring of sharing and comparing views and opinions. But that’s not what I’m seeing when I look at large sections of the public. It’s not even what I read about when I read about how academia works on the inside. Instead I see people who wrap themselves in a little cocoon, listening to NPR and watching CNN, laughing at Stewart and hanging out at the Daily Kos, all the while feeling so superior to the common man and how easily he is manipulated and led. And yes, the right-wing does just as much of this as the left. But over on the right the intellectuals are mostly the tolerant ones. On the right it’s the anti-intellectuals that are intolerant. On the left the more education you have, the more isolated and bigoted you are. There have even been studies that show that the more education you have, the less economics you know, and the more sure you are of your own opinions about economic issues. It’s exactly the opposite from what we would expect.

Wonder why that is? And if people with college degrees can’t find jobs, and they’re actually understanding less and posturing more, could somebody explain to me as a taxpayer and voter I would want to pay for more of the same?

I had some comments on the clarity of this piece. My apologies if it rambled. To restate my thesis: what we’re getting for our tens of thousands of dollars of college education is a lot of graduates who have mastered the social signalling and habits of appearing to be educated, without actually being educated or having any sort of deep interest at all in the fields they are supposed to have majored in. NPR’s relationship to its audience, whether by design or accident, is illustrative of the power of social signalling and posturing in this manner.

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Causes for Drop in U.S. Credit Rating

Here’s the systemic problem, which has nothing to do with Treasury Bills, tax structures, or political parties.

Phases of political maturity:

1) Apathy. Political parties are like football teams. You pick one and they’re your guys. You root for them no matter what. If anything, there might be something wrong about folks who take these things too seriously.

2) Emotion. The other political party is the devil. They are out to destroy America.

3) Enlightenment. The other party is just full of people like me. There are some smart

folks, but the problem is that they have all the wrong incentives and conclusions.

4) Understanding. Gee, there are those same bad conclusions and wrong incentives in my favorite party too. Ergo, parties don’t matter. There are smart people everywhere. When the system fails, it’s a problem of the system, not of the people or parties.

The problem in the U.S. is that the majority of folks are in stage 1 or 2 when we need them to be in 4. So when deep structural conversations come along, they’re still either rooting for their team or blaming the other guys, when they should be talking about principles that need to be changed for the entire system to work better, no matter what the actual goals of any party.

There is another problem that helps create deadlock — an understanding of where the money comes from. I think many folks view the economy as something the government grows so that it can harvest money in the form of taxes. (This is not a Keynesian discussion, simply a discussion about taxes in general.) Other folks view the government as something the economy grows in order to keep it functioning. These are two deeply conflicting world-views. I’m not sure you’ll ever reconcile them. Some put trading first and sharing second. Many put sharing first and trading second. These two camps have come to demonize the others, sadly. (Which takes us back to the observation above)

For this problem to be solved, we need to give up on arguing specific issues or philosophical positions and instead talk about fixing structures so that the budget stays balanced long-term no matter who is in power or what their priorities are. Imagine a world in which the most bizarre and extreme liberal policies could come true. Make the system work in that scenario. Then imagine a world in which the most bizarre and extreme conservative policies could come true. Make the system work in that scenario. This is a meta conversation, the kind the framers had. I am very doubtful there is anyone around today in power that can handle it. All of the people in political power got that way by playing ideological and rhetorical games and by being fiercely loyal to their party. It’s the exact opposite qualifications that we need in folks for actually fixing anything. Not a happy outlook.

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The Gap

The internet has a democracy problem. It has too much of it.

What? You might ask: how could having too much of a democracy be a bad thing?

Because pure democracies are non-functional. Some folks think if we each had a voting button on our iPhone that somehow the world would be a fairer place, but it wouldn’t. One week we’d be invading Egypt, the next week Libya. One month we’d be bailing out banks. The next month we’d be throwing all bankers in jail. One month we’d elect one bunch of guys, the next month we’d throw them all in jail. People are fickle and easily moved by emotion — pure democracy is the mob, which never is a good thing.

That’s why many nations have a representative republic: we elect people who then make decisions for us for a period of time. Using this “proxy”, we manage to slow down the tempers of the masses and get things done (or so the theory goes)

But you’d be lucky to get that far in a conversation online. Voting? Good thing! The more of it, the better.

I love watching groups of people reach decisions, and I love seeing how some structures work and some don’t. What I’m seeing online, however, is that hundreds of millions of folks are having discussions in which, although they know nothing of the background, they are perfectly willing to apply some 3rd grade social studies ideas to how the solution is supposed to work. As we continue to democratize everything online, this lack of foundational knowledge is going to really hurt all of us.

There exists a gap between what’s required to do stuff folks want to do and the actual knowledge they have to go make it happen.

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The Case For Nothing

The TSA announced this week that they are going to start being more aggressive with their pat-downs. This, in addition to the virtual strip searches they want to perform, has made me want to stop flying commercially forever.

Folks seem to enjoy this kind of abuse of my freedoms, though — folks from all sides. When I’m in a conservative room and I complain about conservationists taking away my private property rights (or government telling me I have to buy insurance), everybody agrees. When I’m in a liberal room and I complain about the TSA or internet monitoring, everybody agrees.

Everybody seems to agree: whatever they want to do is more important than my freedom of action and my personal property. They know better than me, and they are very willing to decide that I need to make sacrifices to make them happy about something or another.

But I don’t want to talk about politics. Or at least not directly. I’d much rather try to go meta and talk about general principles. What I would like to talk about is the reaction of individuals when organizations do stupid things, because I see people doing this same thing to each other at all levels of organization, from tiny teams of a dozen or so up to the size of the United States Federal Government. And the response is always the same.


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Will The Social Compact in the United States Remain Valid?

Picture yourself as a colonist in America in the mid 18th century.

The British government is taxing your imports and exports. Their agents are everywhere in the bigger cities, making sure that the right companies are allowed commerce. When troubles arise, instead of the Brits coming over to fix it, they hire Germans to come and do their dirty work for them.

Even with all of the discontent, it was very difficult for the colonies to decide to leave the empire. When Jefferson sat down to write the Declaration of Independence, he listed all of the reasons the social contract with England had to be dissolved. The reasoning was basically “we kept up our end of the bargain, but you failed yours”

Adding fuel to the fire was Thomas Paine, who basically called the King of England a brute and said he had no business ruling England, much less the colonies. Paine spoke in a common, easy manner, and appealed directly to his countryman’s sense of fairness and justice.

I was thinking about Jefferson and Paine as I continue to read about the amount of public debt the United States is building up and planning to build up. Out of a need to do something, anything, I wrote my senator, Jim Webb.

I told Webb I was a big fan of his books and national service and asked him to do something about out-of-control spending. I told him I also liked his ideas on prison and drug reform. Prison and drug reform are things we can do that could actually raise more money for the government. They could give us more freedoms in our lives. But keep your priorities, I begged. I asked Webb to do what he could about holding runaway spending in check. Don’t make a big political scene, I told him. Nobody is looking for you to make a big break from your party. Just don’t be a political putz and do the right thing. Don’t be a party man. Be a representative.

What happened?

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