internet rules and a bit of gdpr

People who are familiar with this blog will know that I occasionally veer off into thoughts and links to do with privacy and security. The other day I was listening to an episode of a podcast called Firewalls Don’t Stop Dragons. The episode was about Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR. The host, Carey Parker, was interviewing an American lawyer Ruth Carter, who has been spending a lot of time looking into GDPR, and its ramifications for people and businesses in the US.

The episode is fascinating, and it’s clear that I need to do some cleaning up of various online materials as a consequence of GDPR. You can listen to it here if you are interested in GDPR:

americaoutloud.com/gdpr-here-i-come-ready-or-not

At the end Carter gives a little bit of advice about putting anything online. Her rules are:

  • imagine that it is appearing on the front page of a newspaper
  • imagine that it will be read by your best friend, your worst friend, your mother, and your boss.

I have no idea why people’s mothers – rather than our fathers – should be some kind of limtus test of whether to post something online or not. I imagine it has something to do with mothers being more sensitive than fathers, or some other lame-arse gender thing. Nevertheless, I like the principles of her thinking; a means to ground and help us (and particularly younger people) think through participation online.

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the system

My friend and colleague Scott deLahunta suggested not so long ago that I might be interested in Ellen Ullman’s 1997 book Close to the Machine.[1] It’s a great read, and surprisingly relevant given how much the internet and technology has changed since the late 90s.

Here she is talking about the system:

I remembered the first time I saw a system infect its owner. It was early in my career, at my first software company. I had just installed a new system at the offices of a small business in Central California. … The company’s employees had been there for ten and twenty years, particularly the women, mostly clerical workers. They were the ones who would be most affected by the new system, yet they went about learning it with a homey cheerfulness that surprised me.

The installation went smoothly. Later, after the women returned from training, I visited the office again. The business owner, an apparently good-natured Rotarian, was heartily pleased with his new computer. He insisted upon taking me out to dinner. … I thought I was going to get through the evening pleasantly. But just after we ordered dessert, Mr. Banner leaned over to me and asked, “Can you keep track of keystrokes?”

“To keep keystrokes? I don’t know off hand. But why? Why would you want to do that?” William Banner dug into his ice cream, which had just been put down before him. “Well, take Mary. I’d like to know everything that Mary does in a day.” Mary was the receptionist and general office manager. She was William Banner’s oldest employee, twenty-six years. As I recalled, Mary knew everyone of the company’s clients by name. For the first several years of her employment, when Mr. Banner’s kids were small, she used to pick them up from school, take them home, and pour them milk. “But why do you want to keep on eye on Mary? She’s doing very well with the system. I mean, is there a problem?” “Oh, no. No problem,” said William Banner, “but, you know.. .. Well, I’m just curious. All those years she’s been out there running things, and now I can find out exactly what she does.” “So you want to know about Mary just because you can?” I asked. William Banner swirled his ice cream around like a kid, then licked a big wad off his spoon. “Hmm. That’s it, I suppose. The way I look at it, I’ve just spent all this money on a system, and now I get to use it the way I’d like to.”

“Keystroke monitoring. It’s a bad idea. The system is a tool to help people do their work, not a watchdog. If people feel they are being watched, they put their creative energies into hiding things.” “Oh, well, that’s possible. But when I saw the system running, I thought to myself, ‘I bet this thing can tell me what everyone is up to all day.’”

The system was installed, it ran, and it spoke to him: you can know every little thing you always wanted to know. You can keep an eye on the woman you trusted to pick up your kids from kindergarten. You can count every keystroke, and you want to count them simply because it’s possible. You own the system, it’s your data, you have power over it; and, once the system gives you this power, you suddenly can’t help yourself from wanting more.

I’d like to think that computers are neutral, a tool like any other, a hammer that can build a house or smash a skull. But there is something in the system itself, in the formal logic of programs and data, that recreates the world in its own image. Like the rock-and-roll culture, it forms an irresistible horizontal country that obliterates the long, slow, old cultures of place and custom, law and social life. We think we are creating the system for our own purposes. We believe we are making it in our own image. We call the microprocessor the “brain”; we say the machine has “memory.” But the computer is not really like us. It is a projection of a very slim part of ourselves: that portion devoted to logic, order, rule, and clarity. It is as if we took the game of chess and declared it the highest order of human existence.

We place this small projection of ourselves all around us, and we make ourselves reliant on it. To keep information, buy gas, save money, write a letter – we can’t live without it any longer. The only problem is this: the more we surround ourselves with a narrowed notion of existence, the more narrow existence becomes. We conform to the range of motion the system allows. We must be more orderly, more logical. Answer the question, Yes or No, OK or Cancel.


  1. Ellen Ullman (1997). Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents. San Francisco: City Lights Books, pages 85–90 (abridged)  ↩

 

cognitive biases

I really like Jason Kottke’s blog at kottke.org where he covers diverse topics about culture, design, and technology (etc). More than a year ago he posted a link to a cognitive bias cheat sheet written by Buster Benson who writes over at betterhumans.coach.me.

Cognitive biases – “systematic patterns of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment”[1] – are fascinating. And what that little definition doesn’t really get at is that cognitive biases are actually the norm. We can think we don’t fall prey to them but …

Some of my particular favourites are about how and why we notice the things we notice: confirmation bias, subjective validation, [observer effect](observer effect) and the availability heuristic.

As both Kottke and Benson point out, the wikipedia page on cognitive biases is both remarkable and a remarkable mess.

So Benson spent a chunk of time thinking through the wikipedia page and came up with what he calls a cognitive bias cheat sheet. His post is fantastic, and he categorises the biases as being related to four problems:

  1. There is too much information.
  2. There is not enough meaning.
  3. We need to act fast.
  4. What should we remember?

The entire post is here and it’s worth every moment of your time: https://betterhumans.coach.me/cognitive-bias-cheat-sheet-55a472476b18

To cap things off, Benson produced a “diagrammatic poster remix” of his post:

benson-biases.jpeg

Source: https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/2000/1*71TzKnr7bzXU_l_pU6DCNA.jpeg

 

ambition

I used to be a member of The Place’s associate artist scheme called Work Place, and I see that my 2011 biography still exists on their site: https://www.theplace.org.uk/simon-ellis. The meetings were at times quite stimulating and there was a sense of the group trying to make sense of our differences as artists (and people) and what the purpose or role of the Work Place might be.

At the end of 2012 we had a meeting that I wasn’t able to attend. Instead I made a little video about ambition and difference and I thought that some of the ideas might be interesting to anyone thinking about making art (or just making anything), economies of scale, and ambition.

 

obfuscation

In the academic part of my professional life I spend a lot of time practising to write more clearly and directly. That is, to avoid unnecessary ambiguity or obfuscation. I do this because I am interested in not only who might be reading the things I write (thanks Mum) but also who isn’t reading the writing. That is, when I choose to use particular syntax, structures, or words who might I be inadvertently excluding from the writing?

In this blog I’ve previously (2008) quoted Don Watson discussing the language of groups, and recently I read Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style:

Pseudo-intellectuals spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say. Academics in the softer fields dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.[1]

But then recently I heard the word obfuscation used in a very different context. I like this about language: that one word can have different uses – even different values – depending on context.

In internet privacy, obfuscation has to do with reducing how recognisable one’s digital thumbprint is based on generating more data, and thereby making your thumbprint more common (and more difficult to isolate or pinpoint):

the production of noise modeled on an existing signal in order to make a collection of data more ambiguous, confusing, harder to exploit, more difficult to act on, and therefore less valuable.[2]

Obfuscation in this sense is a kind of digital camouflage, and one example is the Firefoex browser extension called TrackMeNot which works through “noise and obfuscation”.

In both senses of the word obfuscation we are hiding something, but the conditions, values and politics of that hiding are beautifully distinct.

practice of value

The value of practice gets discussed a lot in dance. I remember US choreographer Deborah Hay saying something like, “99% of my choreography is the practice of my choreography”, and practice in the context of practice-as-research is clearly fundamental.

But I wonder about this word value. And I wondered what it might be to practise it. To have a practice of value(s).

The value of practice.
The practice of value.

resistance to blogging to save the new precariat

Last week I posted about the absurdity of blogging to save the new (academic) precariat. The next day Agnes Bosanquet (the slow academic) quoted some writing/thinking by sociologist Barbara Grant:

Collective political resistance to [research audit regimes] has not been a feature of the academic landscape … In [our] interviews, there was largely an absence of the emotions of anger, fear and frustration usually associated with collective resistance … Unlike fear, anxiety seems a weak basis for political action …

Yet other forms of resistance were present … individually and collectively. Individuals were deliberately maintaining their research interests in defiance of perceived [audit]-rewarded tends; departments were actively pursuing collegial rather than competitive practices …

https://theslowacademic.wordpress.com/2017/03/06/stars-small-targeted-acts-of-resistance/

I find Bosanquet’s thinking (and in this case her admiration and citation of Barbara Grant) inspiring and far more positive than just admitting defeat to the accelerated academy.