Mathematics, psychology and sociology, philosophy.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Transparent Society, Foretold. Part III - The Tweetbowl

2011 May 31st
III. The Tweetbowl

... Because of a quirk of early communications technology, a small group of New Hampshire girls, including me, came of age on a primitive computer network — the Internet before the Internet.    -- Virginia Heffernan (see link [3])

I went to Dartmouth in the early 1980's, during the peak of XCALIBER, an online chatroom that typically linked 15 to 30 students at any time (day or night), including many people at other nearly schools. I introduced a friend to "the con", as we called it, where she soon met her future husband, a student at a distant school. I was skeptical of this new social medium[3] -- it's too easy to cheat at the Turing test -- but my friend's experience and those of many others in my circle made it clear that digital social networking would be powerful and effective.[1]
In part II, I described the Fishman Affidavit and Streisand effect, two examples of the perverse unintended consequences of trying to get between people and their information. In both of those cases, the information wasn't even of much importance or value to the thousands of people who helped spread it. But those were just warm-up acts.
With the advent of online social networking, and the new communications networks that come with it, truly important things can become the subject of grassroots political action -- such as diplomatic secrets or the government of Egypt. But these social networks have also brought us the fishbowl of Asimov's The_Dead_Past.
Celebrities are the pioneers of life in a fishbowl. Few people deserve the type of suffering that results from constant scrutiny (after, probably, leading a "normal" life for many earlier years of non-fame), and privacy laws such as those in the UK aim to help prevent this type of suffering[4].
Persuant to this end, the court provides a service, (to any citizen or corporation who can pay the price), of granting a sort of individual custom-tailored seditious libel protection. This service, a form of court order called a Superinjunction, orders someone (typically the entire population of the U.K. save the Members of Parliament) from talking about something, and furthermore, it orders them not to talk about the superinjunction. It is a gag-order, with a gag-order on the existence of the gag-order. A sort of Double-Secret Probation for the Red top tabloid press, if you will.
Unfortunately for the celebrities, and the courts, and for us, depending on where you stand and how it all plays out when one of these court orders is enacted, it happens to go directly against one of the sole remaining provisions of the Magna Carta, which states[2]:
"We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right."
Here is a good summary (on YouTube) of a serious incident from two years ago: the Trafigura affair, from the BBC programme "Have I Got News For You".

A celebrity decided to use this form of "superinjunction" after being blackmailed by a mistress who had no fears or misgivings about making the affair public. Some users of Twitter apparently felt this was a problem, and promptly published the details (well really, just the names, which was all they had to). The vast majority of retweets were positive, i.e. anti-superinjunction, and helped ensure that everyone in the UK know the identity of He-who-cannot-not-be-named.[5] This left the celebrity and his lawyers in the amusing position of having to sue Twitter, but unable to do so without revealing his identity. You'll find it all if you search for "twitter super injunction affair", if you really care.
Celebrity affairs do not really constitute an urgent need of the public good, but something like the Trafigura affair most probably does. As David Cameron said just before I began this three-part article,
The law and the practice has got to catch up with how people consume media today.
Perhaps it is the "old world order" of the 1950's that is unsustainable, in the light of the emerging digital community.


[1] Dartmouth also had BlitzMail, which brought a form of instant messaging for nearly everyone on campus due to its widespread adoption and ease of use. This was just part of an overall strategy Dartmouth had already been following for 15 or 20 years prior to my arrival. Computer use was a requirement in the freshman math class, and ease of use was the primary design criterion of every aspect of the computers at Dartmouth.

[2] From Commons Debates in Westminster Hall, the 17th March 2011 Backbench Business (skip down to "17 Mar 2011 : Column 140WH")

[3] Most people do just fine balancing the risks and freedoms afforded by chatrooms. Virginia Heffernan gives a great account of her experiences with XCALIBER in her New York Times column My Wired Youth, 2008 Feb 3.

[4] The UK court actions in question limit self-expression as provided by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, when such expression would interfere with "the reputation or the rights of others", or for various reasons that are in the greater public interest.

[5] He-Who-Cannot-Be-Named: This great nickname invoking Lord Voldemort is attributed to Forbes blogger Kashmir Hill

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Transparent Society, Foretold. Part II - Gorby, Bert, and Barbra

2011 May 26th
II. Gorby, Bert, and Barbra

If the broad light of day could be let in upon men's actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.    -- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis

In the late 1980's a revolution in transparent society came from a seemingly unlikely place: Soviet Russia. Most aspects of that period in the USSR's history are very hard to sort out, and clearly the policy of Glasnost put in place by Gorbachev had many effects, both intended and unintended. But the contribution of technology to transparency is fairly clear.
Prior to this time, every photocopy machine in the Soviet Union had been watched by a Communist Party member who approved anything copied on it -- lest it be used as an underground publishing tool[1]. The Soviets had begun to clone the Apple II and the ZX Spectrum and created several of their own designs locally. Cellular phones, satellite television and USENET were becoming more widespread[2],[3]. As all of this technology became common in the U.S. and Europe, the USSR had to keep up. A closed society was unsustainable in the long run, provided that it was to remain competitive in the world.

Information distribution can also bring about a more restrictive society. American proponents of personal privacy and free information exchange, such as supporters of the EFF, were clearly of the opinion that surveillance should be resisted in any way possible. I suppose most of them saw a downside only after 9/11.
Meanwhile, the same Internet that might have helped al-Qaeda plan its attacks in secret also gave us Evil Bert [4]. A curious chain of events led to Bert the Muppet's appearance in a pro-Osama rally in Bangladesh, seen here. The creator of the poster had collected photos of Osama bin Laden online, and neither he nor the other anti-US protesters realized Bert's significance.

Perhaps the greatest impact of widespread communication is exemplified by the reaction to Bert's appearance in Bangladesh. Most everyone was amused by this, except for the al-Qaeda supporters and the Sesame Street workshop. Soon, the whole Evil Bert website and its mirror were taken down -- but of course, it was too late. Attempts to remove a popular Internet meme fail, and usually also backfire.
The same social force that causes the spread of controversial (but deemed humorous) photographs also brings to bear upon issues of ethics and morality. This had long ago been demonstrated by the Fishman Affidavit, which showed that millions of people will copy something they didn't even care about prior to hearing of it, in the face of threats by a large and powerful organization, simply because its distribution is being suppressed for the wrong reasons. This phenomenon eventually came to be known as the Streisand effect, after a 2003 episode in which the celebrity called attention to herself by trying to avoid attention[5]. More on that in Part III...


[1] Los Angeles Times (David Owen), "Who Invented Xerox?", Power to the People: the Photocopier, 2004 Aug 10. Here is the relevant portion:
A telling indication of xerography's significance is that in the former Soviet Union, whose rulers maintained their power in part by monopolizing access to information, copiers were guarded more closely than computers, and individual copies were numbered so that they could be traced....

[2] InfoWorld (Paul Staffo), "Today the microprocessor is more powerful than the gun", 1991 Sep 2. Here is a part:
Within hours of Gorbachev's removal, messages were humming between the Soviet Union and points abroad via telephone and such computer networks as UseNet. One note from Moscow underscored the importance of the link: "Please stop flooding the only narrow channel. We need the bandwidth to help organize the resistance." Elsewhere in the Soviet Union, fax machines were zapping messages among resisters, while in the Baltic states, cellular phones allowed people to keep one step ahead of the events.

[3] I heard an anecdote about Gorbachev's house arrest during the August 1991 coup attempt. The anecdote states that, although Gorby's phone lines had been cut, the coup leaders did not cut off cell phone service and Gorbachev was able to call for help that way. 20 years later, I cannot find a source for this story.

[4] Evil Bert is seen here courtesy of, almost two years before 9/11. The reference to "the World Trade Center in New York City" refers to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

[5] Streisand sued (for $10 million in damages) the nonprofit organization that runs the California Coastal Records Project because her estate (along with every other house on the coast of California) was visible in an image on the website, and had been labeled with a caption contributed, wiki-like, by a website user. As described in a press release after the suit was rejected by the court:
...Streisand grossly overestimated the number of people who would use the caption to download or order pictures of her blufftop estate. In her declaration, Streisand claimed that it was likely that thousands of people had downloaded the frame to view her estate. In fact, prior to the lawsuit, only six downloads of that frame were executed (out of a total of over 14,000 downloads for the site as a whole), two of which were downloads by her own attorneys. Similarly, prior to the lawsuit, only three reprints of the frame were ordered through Pictopia - two by Streisand herself and one by a neighbor who is in a lengthy dispute with her over controversial expansion plans for her blufftop estate.    -- CCRP press release

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Transparent Society[2], Foretold

2011 May 23rd

I. The Dead Past

A recent story on the BBC World Service caught my attention. Lawyers representing an unnamed football player in the UK were going after Twitter to "subpoena" records of users who helped spread news of an affair, the mere existence of which could be spoken of within the UK according to a court order.

The privacy laws as practised in England and Wales, and the court's enforcement thereof, are intended to avert some of the Orwellian consequences of the pervasive media environment, by attempting to legislate and enforce a right to personal privacy. (Ironically, the celebrity mistress in question had been in the television programme Big Brother.) In this particular case the consequences were repressive, untenable (or at least "unsustainable"), and often laughably amusing to the point of complete humiliation.

I got my first really good grasp of the multiple issues involved from a short story by Isaac Asimov, which I will attempt[1] to summarize here:

The protagonist is a scientist and polymath, employed as a historian, who has been frustrated in his research on ancient Carthage. Unable to get viewing time on the government's Chronoscope (a massively expensive machine enabling one to view events in the past as if watching them live on TV), he begins conducting his own research and soon works out a way to build his own Chronoscope in his basement.
   He does so, and is met with three challenges in succession. The first challenge is that the machine does not work as expected. Beyond about 100 years in the past, the images are completely washed out by static and nothing useful can be seen.
   While attempting to work out flaws in the design, the inventor is confronted with a second challenge: his wife, who has yet to accept the tragic loss of their young child a few years earlier, starts using the machine to relive his brief life.
   He experiences the third and greatest challenge when, while he is preparing a paper on his Chronoscope work for the academic press, he discovers that the government is tracking his activity and trying to block publication.
   The government's supernatural ability to know what he is doing drives him to paranoia. After a few plot twists, and deciding to destroy his own chronoscope after his wife is reduced to dysfunctional obsession watching their dead child, he manages to get his manuscript out to several journals. Mere hours later, police surrounded his home and he is confronted by government agents.
   They explain to him how they were able to stalk him so effectively, and simultaneously reveal why the government's Chronoscope is so tightly controlled: The real flaw of the Chronoscope comes not from trying to watch the distant past of 2000 years ago, nor from watching a baby take his first steps 10 years ago -- but from watching events of one second ago. The Chronoscope allows anyone to instantly see everything that is happening, anywhere the viewer decides to look, violating every type of privacy with complete impunity.
   The scientist then reveals that he had succeeded in getting his paper to the journals some hours ago, and all parties, now feeling shared remorse, realize it is too late to stop publication. Soon everyone in the world will have the ability to spy on the present and past lives of everyone else. The agents wish the scientist a "happy fishbowl" and together they toast the dead past -- the simpler life that will never be again.
    -- (The Dead Past, by Isaac Asimov, here paraphrased from my memory[1])

I was initially attracted to this story because of its depiction of the academic community. Like the protagonist, I enjoy invention, research, and combining ideas from diverse fields. I was bothered by the story's depiction of a society that placed severe limits on academic research (particularly interdisciplinary research, which was effectively banned). The twist ending was a good contrast to some of the other futurism-related books I was reading at the time, such as Future Shock, 1984, Brave New World and the like.

A year or two later I learned about RSA encryption through the original (August 1977) Scientific American article. My main interest here was the calculation of large integer exponents, and I was disappointed they didn't explain the arbitrary-precision arithmetic in detail. The article discussed some of the applications of one-way or "trapdoor" codes, facilitating a certain type of privacy that would clearly have significant impact in the areas of spying, criminal activity and law enforcement. I also remember wondering at the time whether these codes could make it easier for someone to broadcast a secret without being caught. There was no clear answer.

Perhaps the biggest influence on my thinking about future social and political change came from Microtechnology for the Masses, the article[3] by Jon Roland for The FUTURIST magazine in 1979. This article explored the impact of an extrapolated Moore's law on most aspects of life and society. It correctly predicted many details, such as a worldwide data network accessed through dators, hand-held devices recognizable as today's smart phones. Possessing greater computational power than the fastest computer of the day[4], and a dator would be:

... a universal personal accessory that will be more important in our daily lives than the clock, the telephone, the typewriter, television, the calculator, the recorder, the copier, the checkbook, the camera, mail, books or files, because it will replace all of these things.

This article also left out a lot, but the creative reader could extrapolate and fill in many details. It was easy to predict an end to the sale of recorded music; somewhat harder to see whether the "datornet" would foster or discourage crime.

(Parts II and III are planned within the next few days)

[1] I have not read the story in 30 years, but the memory seems clear enough. I'll have to find my copy to see how much I got right...
[2] See The Transparent Society and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
[3] Jon Roland, The Microelectronic Revolution. The Futurist, April 1979.
[4] The fastest computer at the time of the Futurist article (April 1979) was a Cray-1. A present-day smartphone is at least as fast; see [5].
[5] Michael Croucher, Supercomputers vs Mobile Phones, ("Walking Randomly" blog article), 2010 Jun 2.