“Status: closed,” the website read. It gave the time as 10:30 p.m.
Except it wasn’t. It was 5:30 p.m., and the store was very much open. The website, instead of consulting the time zone the store – I mean, the store’s particular branch whose hours and address I had looked up – was in was taking the time from my laptop. Which I hadn’t bothered to switch to the US east coat from Britain because I can subtract five hours in my head and why bother?
Years ago, I remember writing a rant (which I now cannot find) about the “myness” of modern computers: My Computer, My Documents. My account. And so on, like a demented two-year-old who needed to learn to share. The notion that the time on my laptop determined whether or not the store was open had something of the same feel: the computational universe I inhabit is designed to revolve around me, and any dispute with reality is someone else’s problem.
Modern social media have hardened this approach. I say “modern” because back in the days of bulletin board systems, information services, and Usenet, postings were time- and date-stamped with when they were sent and specifying a time zone. Now, every post is labelled “2m” or “30s” or “1d”, so the actual date and time are hidden behind their relationship to “now”. It’s like those maps that rotate along with you so wherever you’re pointed physically is at the top. I guess it works for some people, but I find it disorienting; instead of the map orienting itself to me, I want to orient myself to the map. This seems to me my proper (infinitesimal) place in the universe.
All of this leads up to the revival of software agents. This was a Big Idea in the late 1990s/early 2000s, when it was commonplace to think that the era of having to make appointments and book train tickets was almost over. Instead, software agents configured with your preferences would do the negotiating for you. Discussions of this sort of thing died away as the technology never arrived. Generative AI has brought this idea back, at least to some extent, particularly in the financial area, where smart contracts can be used to set rules and then run automatically. I think only people who never have to worry about being able to afford anything will like this. But they may be the only ones the “market” cares about.
Somewhere during the time when software agents were originally mooted, I happened to sit at a conference dinner with the University of Maryland human-computer interaction expert Ben Shneiderman. There are, he said, two distinct schools of thought in software. In one, software is meant to adapt to the human using it – think of predictive text and smartphones as an example. In the other, software is consistent, and while using it may be repetitive, you always know that x command or action will produce y result. If I remember correctly, both Shneiderman and I were of the “want consistency” school.
Philosophically, though, these twin approaches have something in common with seeing the universe as if the sun went around the earth as against the earth going around the sun. The first of those makes our planet and, by extension, us far more important in the universe than we really are. The second cuts us down to size. No surprise, then, if the techbros who build these things, like the Catholic church in Galileo’s day, prefer the former.
Politico has started the year by warning that the UK is seeking to expand its surveillance regime even further by amending the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act. Unnoticed in the run-up to Christmas, the industry body techUK sent a letter to “express our concerns”. The short version: the bill expands the definition of “telecommunications operator” to include non-UK providers when operating outside the UK; allows the Home Office to require companies to seek permission before making changes to a privately and uniquely specified list of services; and the government wants to whip it through Parliament as fast as possible.
No, no, Politico reports the Home Office told the House of Lords, it supports innovation and isn’t threatening encryption. These are minor technical changes. But: “public safety”. With the ink barely dry on the Online Safety Act, here we go again.
As data breaches go, the one recently reported by 23andMe is alarming. By using passwords exposed in previous breaches (“credential stuffing”) to break into 14,000 accounts, attackers gained access to 6.9 million account profiles. The reason is reminiscent of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where access to a few hundred thousand Facebook accounts was leveraged to obtain the data of millions: people turned on “DNA Relatives to allow themselves to be found by those searching for genetic relatives. The company, which afterwards turned on a requireme\nt for two-factor authentication, is fending off dozens of lawsuits by blaming the users for reusing passwords. According to Gizmodo, the legal messiness is considerable, as the company recently changed its terms and conditions to make arbitration more difficult and litigation almost impossible.
There’s nothing good to say about a data breach like this or a company that handles such sensitive data with such disdainx. But it’s yet one more reason why putting yourself at the center of the universe is bad hoodoo.
Illustrations: DNA strands (via Wikimedia.
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.