We’re moving into poetry in the senior academic English class I’m teaching.  Poetry is one of those things that can seem a bit pretentious, especially to high school students.  We looked at contemporary lyric poems to begin with.  After some Practical Magic and other free verse I thought it might be time to take a swing at it ourselves.  I’m curious to see what students bring to class today.  Hopefully writing about something that interests them will remove that pretension and let them get some ideas on paper in the relatively unencumbered contemporary lyric format.

In My Pocket
あ and ん
alpha and omega
binary beginnings and silent ends.
ones and zeroes?
math is an abstraction
certainty is in the machine.
waves relentlessly pound our shores,
pass through us
quantify us
connect us
ensnare us
constant attention demanded
this raging sea of yes and no,
profound and banal
personal collective
private crowd.
information constellations
in magnetic grips
lighter than a glance,
more certain than a second thought.
frozen moments of certainty
tumble to an event horizon
making sense of the senseless
at a ferocious rate.
I have a text!

Infecting The System

If the internet is the nervous system for a new global
culture, should it be artificially limited by human
self interest?

Cory Doctorow ended a harrowing editorial on artificially limited computing in WIRED this month with the observation that the internet isn’t simply an information medium but has, in fact, become the nervous system of the Twenty First Century.

Doctorow begins by questioning why we shackle computers with controls that users can’t overpower, and in many cases don’t even know exist.  He uses the example of the Sony rootkit, that would install viral software on machines whenever a consumer would run one of their music CDs.  The idea was to curb pirating, the result was creating a blind spot in millions of customer’s machines that immediately got exploited by hackers.

Whenever we build a computer that is subservient to anything other than the user, we’re creating blind spots that hackers can exploit.  Whenever our software or hardware is artificially limited to satisfy human values, whether they be government or business or even educationally motivated, we are creating a machine that is flawed.

There is a simple honesty to computing that I find very appealing.  When we’re building a circuit or working with a computer or coding, students will often say that they didn’t change anything but got a different output, or that they did everything exactly right and it doesn’t work.  The subtext is always that computer is up to something.  Whatever the computer is up to, you put it up to it.  Computers don’t make mistakes, humans do.  This is why it’s vital that computers are not controlled by remote interests.  When remote interests dictate computer outputs, you end up with confused users who start to blame the machine.

… because someone programmed HAL to kill.
Machines don’t make mistakes, unless people tell them to.

I’ve long said that computers are merely a tool, but many people see them as intelligent entities with hidden agendas.  If we allow institutions to hard code their interests into our computers then we are intentionally allowing our flaws to infect one of the most honest expressions of human ingenuity.  We’re also creating that confusion around computers as entities with evil intent (we provide the intent).

What goes for our personal devices also goes for our networks.  Unless we are going to continually battle for net neutrality and efficiency over self interest, we’re going to find ourselves with hobbled machines on near sighted networks, seeing only what vested interests want us to see.  In that environment computers and the internet can very quickly move from democratizing force to Orwellian control.  Keeping computers free of human influence is vital to human well being.

I’ve been uneasy about the nature of the modern internet as distraction engine as well as the branding of edtech.  Both examples reek of the infected human influence that Doctorow refers to in his editorial.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if we, as a species, were on the verge of building a more perfect machine that allows us to move beyond our short-sighted selves, but instead of building that wonder we infect it with our own shortcomings and end up using it to create a kind of subservience never before imagined?

I see it every day in machines so locked down that they barely function as computers, with limitations on virtually everything they do.  This is done for ease of management, to satisfy legal paranoia and, ultimately, to ease the burden of digitally illiterate educators, but this approach has me watching whole generations growing up in an increasingly technology driven world having no idea what is is or how it works.  As a computer technology teacher this is difficult to swallow.

The only restriction on a computer should be the laws of physics and the state of the art.  Efficiency and user empowerment should be the machine’s and our only focus.  Everything should be up to the user otherwise these magical machines aren’t empowering us, they’re being used to create dangerous fictions.  Is it difficult to teach students how to use computers like this?  Perhaps, but at least we’d be teaching them a genuine understanding of what digital technology is, and how to wield that power responsibly.  All we’re doing now in education is feeding the infection.

What Does A Self Regulated Person Look Like?

Another one of those why I listen to CBC radio moments this morning.  Day Six interviewed Cody Wilson about his 3d printed gun – a weapon that you can manufacture out of plastic on a 3d printer.  Here is another example of the internet bypassing governments and regulations while radically empowering individuals with information.  If you have a few minutes listen to the conversation, Bambury really tries to get around the subject and Wilson is more than willing to address it head on.

It doesn’t matter what information wants,
in a digital world it is free, this is a simple fact

In a world where information is free whether we want it to be or not, and where the former owners of information (governments, corporations) find that they can’t regulate, control or censor it, where are we left when the means of manufacturing is removed from the moneyed classes as well?

3d printing is tumbling in price.  Wilson posted his gun design online last week only to have to withdraw it this week under a request from the U.S. State Department.  Wilson did withdraw the download, but it doesn’t matter, it’s out there now.  Copies of copies of copies spread across the internet.  No government can stop it, no corporation can prevent it, the information now has a life of its own online.  As Wilson mentions in the interview, this is just information, what people choose to do with it is their choice… and there are many easier ways to get your hands on better guns, especially in America, so if someone is going to use this to commit violence, they are doing it for a very specific political reason.

As a philosophical action, posting these plans online asks questions about a not too distant future where

The dawn of wiki-weapons

you will be able to build anything you like at your desk in much the same way you can print anything you want now.  Printing presses, once the domain of industrial giants, became democratized; small item manufacture is about to go the same way.  What does the world look like when anyone can design (and freely share) a lethal weapon, and anyone could build it without serial numbers or identifying marks of any kind?

They use a term radical libertarianism in the interview.  The digital space is the new frontier, and on that frontier stand the usual early adopters, the same kind of people that colonized North America, with the same mindset; staunch individualists who have moved into the power vacuum of the internet and pushed technology into areas that make traditional powers very nervous.

Is this madness?  Is radically empowered individualism nerve wracking?  I’d say yes, because the vast majority of people, if given that kind of power, wouldn’t do anything good with it.  While most of us are waiting to be told what to do with our new found freedom of information, radicals like Cody Wilson are taking what is already at hand and acting on it.

To paraphrase a famous evolutionary biologist, the future is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine.  I don’t know what a world where anyone can build whatever they want looks like, but as Wilson said, short of turning off the internet, you can’t stop the spread of information, and the internet has quickly made itself essential in this new age.  Turning it off isn’t really an option any more, and should we want to?

Ghost In The Machine

Watching how people drive cars is a study in their true nature.  In a car, much like being online, people feel anonymous and powerful.  They are less fearful of physical response and more likely to be adversarial, aggressive and greedy.  After driving a couple of thousand miles in the past week down and up the crowded east coast of North America I’ve a clearer idea of just how confused we are in this era of human/machine symbiosis.

Internet Disinhibition

Last night as we pulled into a parking lot after a long day of driving, a man backed out of his parking spot without so much as a shoulder check and almost t-boned us.  When we yelled for him to watch out he became incensed and started screaming back about how it was our fault that he almost ran into us.

This was an interesting reaction.  Had he walked into someone on the street he probably would have apologized and backed off, but in his car he immediately went on the offensive, like a small dog barking at someone from behind its owner’s legs.

People do this online all the time, it’s called flaming or trolling.  They shoot their mouths off without fear of consequence.  Technically this is called the Online Disinhibition Effect; an abandonment of social restrictions and inhibitions because people feel insulated by their anonymity online.  They experience the same false sense of empowerment while driving.

There seems to be a dishinhibition effect whenever people identify themselves through technology.  This is very odd because human beings are almost always the weakest link in any vehicle being driven or computer being operated.  That they hide their inferiority in the power the machine is truly perverse.

We drove miles out of our way to get off the crowded,
angry interstates

Driving out of Virginia Beach on the worst designed freeway I’ve ever been on we were stuck in stop and go traffic for the better part of an hour while people blasted up the clearly marked merging lane to pull in at the front of the line.  Their behavior was what was causing the slowdown, though they were the ones most angered by it.

The police ended up pulling up to the front and ticketing people who were driving up the shoulder to further slow down the flow of traffic.  People weren’t just making use of  the merging lane, they were pulling out into it to pass everyone else and further compress traffic.  In their cars these people are immediately willing, in front of a large audience of their peers, to ignore everyone’s best interests in order to serve their own ends.  I recently saw a link to self-driven cars and how they will be arriving soon; they can’t arrive soon enough.  Human beings aren’t capable of acting in everyone’s best interests, machines are.

I’m about to return to the classroom and teach students how to make effective use of technology in their lives, but there is virtually no examination of the effects on human psychology by these technologies.  I see it every day when students do inappropriate things online and are then astonished that they are reprimanded for it – they are used to online spaces being a free-for-all, the wild west.  Where they actually are is in a virtual place that is recording their every action.

Whether it’s on the road or online we increasingly identify our selves and our abilities through the machines that enhance us, but the motive power of a car or the communication reach of online tools are not ours to claim, we are merely the ghosts that inhabit and direct these machines, and many people do so poorly without any idea of what they are, how they actually work, and (as a result) how to make them work to best effect.

Humility, civil interaction and a clear sense of our limits seem to be the first victims of our increasingly virtual sense of self.  That so many of us, especially younger people, are wallowing in these delusions does not bode well for the future.  Technology should offer us insight into our selves, instead we are using it to hide our deficiencies.