The good fight

This week saw a small gathering to celebrate the 25th anniversary (more or less) of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, a think tank led by Cambridge and Edinburgh University professor Ross Anderson. FIPR’s main purpose is to produce tools and information that campaigners for digital rights can use. Obdisclosure: I am a member of its advisory council.

What, Anderson asked those assembled, should FIPR be thinking about for the next five years?

When my turn came, I said something about the burnout that comes to many campaigners after years of fighting the same fights. Digital rights organizations – Open Rights Group, EFF, Privacy International, to name three – find themselves trying to explain the same realities of math and technology decade after decade. Small wonder so many burn out eventually. The technology around the debates about copyright, encryption, and data protection has changed over the years, but in general the fundamental issues have not.

In part, this is because what people want from technology doesn’t change much. A tangential example of this presented itself this week, when I read the following in the New York Times, written by Peter C Baker about the “Beatles'” new mash-up recording:

“So while the current legacy-I.P. production boom is focused on fictional characters, there’s no reason to think it won’t, in the future, take the form of beloved real-life entertainers being endlessly re-presented to us with help from new tools. There has always been money in taking known cash cows — the Beatles prominent among them — and sprucing them up for new media or new sensibilities: new mixes, remasters, deluxe editions. But the story embedded in “Now and Then” isn’t “here’s a new way of hearing an existing Beatles recording” or “here’s something the Beatles made together that we’ve never heard before.” It is Lennon’s ideas from 45 years ago and Harrison’s from 30 and McCartney and Starr’s from the present, all welded together into an officially certified New Track from the Fab Four.”

I vividly remembered this particular vision of the future because just a few days earlier I’d had occasion to look it up – a March 1992 interview for Personal Computer World with the ILM animator Steve Williams, who the year before had led the team that produced the liquid metal man for the movie Terminator 2. Williams imagined CGI would become pervasive (as it has):

“…computer animation blends invisibly with live action to create an effect that has no counterpart in the real world. Williams sees a future in which directors can mix and match actors’ body parts at will. We could, he predicts, see footage of dead presidents giving speeches, films starring dead or retired actors, even wholly digital actors. The arguments recently seen over musicians who lip-synch to recordings during supposedly ‘live’ concerts are likely to be repeated over such movie effects.”

Williams’ latest work at the time was on Death Becomes Her. Among his calmer predictions was that as CGI became increasingly sophisticated the boundary between computer-generated characters and enhancements would become invisible. Thirty years on, the big excitement recently has been Harrison Ford’s deaging for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. That used CGI, AI, and other tools to digitally swap in his face from 1980s footage.

Side note: in talking about the Ford work to Wired, ILM supervisor Andrew Whitehurst, exactly like Williams in 1992, called the new technology “another pencil”.

Williams also predicted endless legal fights over copyright and other rights. That at least was spot-on; AI and the perpetual reuse of retained footage without further payment is part of what the recent SAG-AFTRA strikes were about.

Yet, the problem here isn’t really technology; it’s the incentives. The businessfolk of Hollywood’s eternal desire is to guarantee their return on investment, and they think recycling old successes is the safest way to do that. Closer to digital rights, law enforcement always wants greater access to private communications; the frustration is that incoming generations of politicians don’t understand the laws of mathematics any better than their predecessors in the 1990s.

Many of the speakers focused on the issue of getting government to listen to and understand the limits of technology. Increasingly, though, a new problem is that, as Bruce Schneier writes in his latest book, The Hacker’s Mind, everyone has learned to think like hackers and subvert the systems they’re supposed to protect. The Silicon Valley mantra of “ask forgiveness, not permission” has become pervasive, whether it’s a technology platform deciding to collect masses of data about us or a police force deciding to stick a live facial recognition pilot next to Oxford Circus tube station. Except no one asks for forgiveness either.

Five years ago, at FIPR’s 20th anniversary, when GDPR is new, Anderson predicted (correctly) that the battles over encryption would move to device access. Today, it’s less clear what’s next. Facial recognition represents a step change; it overrides consent and embeds distrust in our public infrastructure.

If I were to predict the battles of the next five years, I’d look at the technologies being deployed around European and US borders to surveil migrants. Migrants make easy targets for this type of experimentatioon because they can’t afford to protest and can’t vote. “Automated suspicion,” calls it. That habit of mind is danagerous.

Illustrations: The liquid metal man in Terminator 2 reconstituting itself.

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

Faking it

I have finally figured out what benefit exTwitter gets from its new owner’s decision to strip out the headlines from linked third-party news articles: you cannot easily tell the difference between legitimate links and ads. Both have big unidentified pictures, and if you forget to look for the little “Ad” label at the top right or check the poster’s identity to make sure it’s someone you actually follow, it’s easy to inadvertently lessen the financial losses accruing to said owner by – oh, the shame and horror – clicking on that ad. This is especially true because the site has taken to injecting these ads with increasing frequency into the carefully curated feed that until recently didn’t have this confusion. Reader, beware.


In all the discussion of deepfakes and AI-generated bullshit texts, did anyone bring up the possibility of datafakes? Nature highlights a study in which researchers created a fake database to provide evidence for concluding that one of two surgical procedures is better than the other. This is nasty stuff. The rising numbers of retracted papers already showed serious problems with peer review (which are not new, but are getting worse). To name just a couple: reviewers are unpaid and often overworked, and what they look for are scientific advances, not fraud.

In the UK, Ben Goldacre has spearheaded initiatives to improve on the quality of published research. A crucial part of this is ensuring people state in advance the hypothesis they’re testing, and publish the results of all trials, not just the ones that produce the researcher’s (or funder’s) preferred result.

Science is the best process we have for establishing an edifice of reliable knowledge. We desperately need it to work. As the dust settles on the week of madness at OpenAI, whose board was supposed to care more about safety than about its own existence, we need to get over being distracted by the dramas and the fears of far-off fantasy technology and focus on the fact that the people running the biggest computing projects by and large are not paying attention to the real and imminent problems their technology is bringing.


Callum Cant reports at the Guardian that Deliveroo has won a UK Supreme Court ruling that its drivers are self-employed and accordingly do not have the right to bargain collectively for higher pay or better working conditions. Deliveroo apparently won this ruling because of a technicality – its insertion of a clause that allows drivers to send a substitute in their place, an option that is rarely used.

Cant notes the health and safety risks to the drivers themselves, but what about the rest of of us? A driver in his tenth hour of a seven-day-a-week grind doesn’t just put themselves at risk; they’re a risk to everyone they encounter on the roads. The way these things are going, if safety becomes a problem, instead of raising wages to allow drivers a more reasonable schedule and some rest, the likelihood is that these companies will turn to surveillance technology, as Amazon has.

In the US, this is what’s happened to truck drivers, and, as Karen Levy documents in her book, Data Driven, it’s counterproductive. Installing electronic logging devices into truckers’ cabs has led older, more experienced, and, above all, *safer* drivers to leave the profession, to be replaced with younger, less-experienced, and cheaper drivers with a higher appetite for risk. As Levy writes, improved safety won’t come from surveiling exhausted drivers; what’s needed is structural change to create better working conditions.


The UK’s covid inquiry has been livestreaming its hearings on government decision making for the last few weeks, and pretty horrifying they are, too. That’s true even if you don’t include former deputy medical officer Johnathan Van-Tam’s account of the threats of violence aimed at him and his family. They needed police protection for nine months and were advised to move out of their house – but didn’t want to leave their cat. Will anyone take the job of protecting public health if this is the price?

Chris Whitty, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, said the UK was “woefully underprepared”, locked down too late, and made decisions too slowly. He was one of the polite ones.

Former special adviser Dominic Cummings (from whom no one expected politeness) said everyone called Boris Johnson a trolley, because, like a shopping trolley with the inevitable wheel pointing in the wrong direction, he was so inconsistent.

The government chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance had kept a contemporaneous diary, which provided his unvarnished thoughts at the time, some of which were read out. Among them: Boris Johnson was obsessed with older people accepting their fate, unable to grasp the concept of doubling times or comprehend the graphs on the dashboard, and intermittently uncertain if “the whole thing” was a mirage.

Our leader envy in April 2020 seems correctly placed. To be fair, though: Whitty and Vallance, citing their interactions with their counterparts in other countries, both said that most countries had similar problems. And for the same reason: the leaders of democratic countries are generally not well-versed in science. As the Economist’s health policy editor, Natasha Loder warned in early 2022, elect better leaders. Ask, she said, before you vote, “Are these serious people?” Words to keep in mind as we head toward the elections of 2024.

Illustrations: The medium Mina Crandon and the “materialized spirit hand” she produced during seances.

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

New phone, who dis?

So I got a new phone. What makes the experience remarkable is that the old phone was a Samsung Galaxy Note 4, which, if Wikipedia is correct, was released in 2014. So the phone was at least eight, probably nine, years old. When you update incrementally, like a man who gets his hair cut once a week, it’s hard to see any difference. When you leapfrog numerous generations of updates, it’s seeing the man who’s had his first haircut in a year: it’s a shock.

The tl;dr: most of what I don’t like about the switch is because of Google.

There were several reasons why I waited so long. It was a good enough phone and it had a very good camera for its time; I finessed the lack of security updates by not using the phone for functions where it mattered. Also, I didn’t want to give up the disappearing headphone jack, home button, or, especially, user-replaceable battery. The last of those is why I could keep the phone for so long, and it was the biggest deal-breaker.

For that reason, I’ve known for years that the Note’s eventual replacement would likely be a Fairphone, a Dutch outfit that is doing its best to produce sustainable phones. It’s repairable and user-upgradable (it takes one screwdriver to replace a cracked screen or the camera), and changing the bettery takes a second. I had to compromise on the headphone jack, which requires a USB-C dongle. Not having the home button is hard to get used to; I used it constantly. It turns out, though, that it’s even harder to get used to not having the soft button on the bottom left that used to show me recently used apps so I could quickly switch back to the thing I was using a few minutes ago. But that….is software.

The biggest and most noticeable change between Android 6 (the Note 4 got its last software update in 2017) and Android 13 (last week) is the assumptions both Android chief Google and the providers of other apps make about what users want. On the Note 4, I had a quick-access button to turn the wifi on and off. Except for the occasional call over Signal, I saw no reason to keep it on to drain the battery unnecessarily. Today, that same switch is buried several layers deep in settings with apparently no way to move that into the list of quick-access functions. That’s just one example. But no acommodation for my personal quirks can change the sense of being bullied into giving away more data and control than I’d like.

Giving in to Google does, however, mean an easy transfer of your old phone’s contents to your new phone (if transferring the external SD card isn’t enough).

Too late I remembered the name Murena – a company that equips Fairphones with de-Googlified Android. As David Pierce writes at The Verge, that requires a huge effort. Murena has built replacements for the standard Google apps, a cloud system for email, calendars, and productivity software. Even so, Pierce writes, apps hit the limit: despite Murena’s effort to preserve user anonymity, it’s just not possible to download them without interacting with Google, especially when payment is required. And who wants to run their phone without third-party apps? Not even me (although I note that many of those I use can still be sideloaded).

The reality is I would have preferred to wait even longer to make the change. I was pushed by the fact that several times recently the Note has complained that it can’t download email because it was running out of storage space (which is why I would prefer to store everything on an external SD card, but: not an option for email and apps). And on a recent trip to the US, there were numerous occasions where the phone simply didn’t work, even though there shouldn’t be any black spots in places like Boston and San Francisco. A friend suggested that in all likelihood there were freuqency bands being turned off while other newer ones were probably ones the Note couldn’t use. I had forgotten that 5G, which I last thought about in 2018, had been arriving. So: new phone. Resentfully.

This kind of forced wastefulness is one of the things Donald Norman talks about in his new book, Design for a Better World. To some extent, the book is a mea culpa: after decades of writing about how to design things better to benefit us as individuals, Norman has recognized the necessity to rethink and replace human-centered design with humanity-centered design. Sustainability is part of that.

Everything around us is driven by design choices. Building unrepairable phones is a choice, and a destructive one, given the amount of rare materials used inside that wind up in landfills instead of, new phones or some other application. The Guardian’s review of the latest Fairphone asks, “Could this be the first phone to last ten years?” I certainly hope so, but if something takes it down before then it will be an externality like switched-off bands, the end of software updates, or a bank’s decision to require customers use an app for two-factor authentication and then update it so older phones can’t run it. These are, as Norman writes, complex systems in which the incentives are all misplaced. And so: new phone. Largely unnecessarily.

Illustrations: Personally owned 1970s AT&T phone.

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

The end of ownership

It seems no manufacturer will be satisfied until they have turned everything they make into an ongoing revenue stream. Once, it was enough to sell widgets. Then, you needed to have a line of upgrades and add-ons for your widgets and all your sales personnel were expected to “upsell” at every opportunity. Now, you need to turn some of those upgrades and add-ons into subscription services, and throw in some ads for extra revenue. All those ad-free moments in your life? To you, this is space in which to think your own thoughts. To advertisers, these are golden opportunities that haven’t been exploitable before and should be turned to their advantage. (Years ago, I remember, for example, a speaker at a lunchtime meeting convened by the Internet Advertising Bureau saying with great excitement that viral emails could bring ads into workplaces, which had previously been inaccessible.)

The immediate provocation for this musing is the Chamberlain garage door opener that blocks third-party apps in order to display ads. To be fair, I have no skin in this specific game: I have neither garage door opener nor garage door. I don’t even have a car (any more). But I have used these items, and I therefore feel comfortable in saying that this whole idea sucks.

There are three objectionable aspects. First is the ad itself and the market change it represents. I accept that some apps on my phone show ads, but I accept that because I have so far decided not to pay for them (in part because I don’t want to give my credit card information to Google in order to do so). I also accept them because I have chosen to use the apps. Here, however, the app comes with the garage door opener, which you *have* paid for, and the company is double-dipping by trying to turn it into an ongoing revenue stream; its desire to block third-party apps is entirely to protect that revenue stream. Did you even *want* an app with your garage door opener? Does a garage door need options? My friends who have them seem perfectly happy with the two choices of open or closed, and with a gizmo clipped to their sun visor that just has a physical button to push.

Second is the reported user interface design, which forces you to scroll past the ad to get to the button to open the door. This is theft: Chamberlain is stealing a sliver of your time and patience whenever you need to open your garage door. Both are limited resources.

Third is the loss of control over – ownership of – objects you have ostensibly bought. With few exceptions, it has always been understood that once you’ve bought a physical object it’s yours to do with what you want. Even in the case of physical containers of intellectual property – books, CDs, LPs – you always had the right to resell or give away the physical item and to use it as often as you wanted to. The arrival of digital media forced a clarification: you owned the physical object but not the music, pictures, film, or text encoded on it. The part-pairing discussed here a couple of weeks ago is an early example of the extension of this principle to formerly wholly-owned objects. The more software infiltrates the physical world, the more manufacturers will seek to use that software to control how we use the devices they make.

In the case we began with, Chamberlain’s decision to shut off API access to third parties to protect its own profits mirrors a recent trend in social media such as Reddit and Twitter in response to large language models built on training data scraped from their sites. The upshot in the Chamberlain case is that the garage door openers stop working with home automation systems into which the owners want to integrate them. Chamberlain has called this integration unauthorized usage and complains that said use means a tiny proportion of its customers consumed more than half of the traffic to and from its system. Seems like someone could have designed a technical solution for this.

At Pluralistic, Cory Doctorow lists four ways companies can be stopped from exerting unreasonable post-purchase control: fear of their competition, regulation, technical feasibility, and customer DIY. All four, he writes, have so far failed in this case, not least because Chamberlain is now owned by the private equity firm Blackstone, which has already bought up its competitors. Because there are so many other examples, we can’t dismiss this as a one-off; it’s a trend! Or, in Doctorow’s words, “a vast and deadly rot”.

An early example came from Tesla in 2020; when it disabled Full Self-Drive on a used Model S on the grounds that the customer hadn’t paid for it. Over-the-air software updates give companies this level of control long after purchase.

Doctorow believes a countering movement is underway. I hope so, because writing this has led me to this little imaginary future horror: the guitar that silences itself until you type in a code to verify that you have paid royalties for the song you’re trying to play. Logically, then, all interaction with physical objects could become like waiting through the ads for other shows on DVDs until you could watch the one you paid to see. Life is *really* too short.

Illustrations: Steve (Campbell Scott) shows Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) how much he likes her by offering her a garage door opener in Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film Singles.

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

The one hundred

Among the highlights of this week’s hearings of the Covid Inquiry were comments made by Helen MacNamara, who was the deputy cabinet secretary during the relevant time, about the effect of the lack of diversity. The absence of women in the room, she said, led to a “lack of thought” about a range of issues, including dealing with childcare during lockdowns, the difficulties encountered by female medical staff in trying to find personal protective equipment that fit, and the danger lockdowns would inevitably pose when victims of domestic abuse were confined with their abusers. Also missing was anyone who could have identified issues for ethnic minorities, disabled people, and other communities. Even the necessity of continuing free school lunches was lost on the wealthy white men in charge, none of whom were ever poor enough to need them. Instead, MacNamara said, they spent “a disproportionate amount” of their time fretting about football, hunting, fishing, and shooting.

MacNamara’s revelations explain a lot. Of course a group with so little imagination about or insight into other people’s lives would leave huge, gaping holes. Arrogance would ensure they never saw those as failures.

I was listening to this while reading posts on Mastodon complaining that this week’s much-vaunted AI Safety Summit was filled with government representatives and techbros, but weak on human rights and civil society. I don’t see any privacy organizations on the guest list, for example, and only the largest technology platforms needed apply. Granted, the limit of 100 meant there wasn’t room for everyone. But these are all choices seemingly designed to make the summit look as important as possible.

From this distance, it’s hard to get excited about a bunch of bigwigs getting together to alarm us about a technology that, as even the UK government itself admits, may – even most likely – will never happen. In the event, they focused on a glut of disinformation and disruption to democratic polls. Lots of people are thinking about the first of these, and the second needs local solutions. Many technology and policy experts are advocating openness and transparency in AI regulation.

Me, I’d rather they’d given some thought to how to make “AI” (any definition) sustainable, given the massive resources today’s math-and-statistics systems demand. And I would strongly favor a joint resolution to stop using these systems for surveillance and eliminate predictive systems that pretend to be sble to spot potential criminals in advance or decide who are deserving of benefits, admission into retail stores, or parole. But this summit wasn’t about *us*.


A Mastodon post reminded me that November 2 – yesterday – was the 35th anniversary of the Morris Worm and therefore the 35th anniversary of the day I first heard of the Internet. Anniversaries don’t matter much, but any history of the Internet would include this now largely-fotgotten (or never-known) event.

Morris’s goals were pretty anodyne by today’s standards. He wanted, per Wikipedia, to highlight flaws in some computer systems. Instead, the worm replicated out of control and paralyzed parts of this obscure network that linked university and corporate research institutions, who now couldn’t work. It put the Internet on the front pages for the first time.

Morris became the first person to be convicted of a felony under the brand-new Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1986); that didn’t stop him from becoming a tenured professor at MIT in 2006. The heroes of the day were the unsung people who worked hard to disable the worm and restore full functionality. But it’s the worm we remember.

It was another three years before I got online myself, in 1991, and two or three more years after that before I got direct Internet access via the now-defunct Demon Internet. Everyone has a different idea of when the Internet began, usually based on when they got online. For many of us, it was November 2, 1988, the day when the world learned how important this technology they had never heard of had already become.


This week also saw the first anniversary of Twitter’s takeover. Despite a variety of technical glitches and numerous user-hostile decisions, the site has not collapsed. Many people I used to follow are either gone or posting very little. Even though I’m not experiencing the increased abuse and disinformation I see widely reported, there’s diminishing reward for checking in.

There’s still little consensus on a replacement. About half of my Twitter list have settled in on Mastodon. Another third or so are populating Bluesky. I hear some are finding Threads useful, but until it has a desktop client I’m out (and maybe even then, given its ownership). A key issue, however, is that uncertainty about which site will survive (or “win”) leads many people to post the same thing on multiple services. But you don’t dare skip one just in case.

For both philosophical and practical reasons, I’m hoping more people will get comfortable on Mastodon. Any corporate-owned system will merely replicate the situation in which we become hostages to business interests who have as little interest in our welfare as Boris Johnson did according to MacNamara and other witnesses. Mastodon is not a safe harbor from horrible human behavior, but with no ads and no algorithm determining what you see, at least the system isn’t designed to profit from it.

Illustrations: Former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara testifying at the Covid Inquiry.

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

Planned incompatibility

My first portable music player was a monoaural Sony cassette player a little bigger than a deck of cards. I think it was intended for office use as a dictation machine, but I hauled it to folk clubs and recorded the songs I liked, and used it to listen to music while in transit. Circa 1977, I was the only one on most planes.

At the time, each portable device had its own charger with its own electrical specification and plug type. Some manufacturers saw this as an opportunity, and released so-called “universal” chargers that came with an array of the most common plugs and user-adjustable settings so you could match the original amps and volts. Sony reacted by ensuring that each new generation had a new plug that wasn’t included on the universal chargers…which would then copy it….which would push Sony to come up with yet another new plug And so on. All in the name of consumer safety, of course.

Sony’s modern equivalent (which of course includes Sony itself) doesn’t need to invent new plugs because more sophisticated methods are available. They can instead insert a computer chip that the main device checks to ensure the part is “genuine”. If the check fails, as it might if you’ve bought your replacement part from a Chinese seller on eBay, the device refuses to let the new part function. This is how Hewlett-Packard has ensured that its inkjet printers won’t work with third-party cartridges, it’s one way that Apple has hobbled third-party repair services, and it’s how, as this week’s news tells us, the PS5 will check its optonal disc drives.

Except the PS5 has a twist: in order to authenticate the drive the PS5 has to use an Internet connection to contact Sony’s server. I suppose it’s better than John Deere farm equipment, which, Cory Doctorow writes in his new book, The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, requires a technician to drive out to a remote farm and type in a code before the new part will work while the farmer waits impatiently. But not by much, if you’re stuck somewhere offline.

“It’s likely that this is a security measure in order to ensure that the disc drive is a legitimate one and not a third party,” Video Gamer speculates. Checking the “legitimacy” of an optional add-on is not what I’d call “security”; in general it’s purely for the purpose of making it hard for customers to buy third-party add-ons (a goal the article does nod at later). Like other forms of digital rights management, the nuisance all accrues to the customer and the benefits, such as they are, accrue only to the manufacturer.

As Doctorow writes, part-pairing, as this practice is known, originated with cars (for this reason, it’s also often known as “VIN” locking, from vehicle information number), brought in to reducee the motivation to steal cars in order to strip them and sell their parts (which *is* security). The technology sector has embraced and extended this to bolster the Gilette business model: sell inkjet printers cheap and charge higher-than-champagne prices for ink. Apple, Doctorow writes, has used this approach to block repairs in order to sustain new phone sales – good for Apple, but wasteful for the environment and expensive for us. The most appalling of his examples, though, is wheelchairs, which are “VIN-locked and can’t be serviced by a local repair shop”, and medical devices. Making on-location repairs impossible in these cases is evil.

The PS5, though, compounds part-pairing by requiring an Internet connection, a trend that really needs not to catch on. As hundreds of Tesla drivers discovered the hard way during an app server outage it’s risky to presume those connections will always be there when you need them. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve come to accept that software is not a purchase but a subscription service subject to license. Now, hardware is going the same way, as seemed logical from the late-1990s moment when MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld proposed Things That Think. Back then, I imagined the idea applying to everyday household items, not devices that keep our bodies functioning. This oncoming future is truly dangerous, as Andrea Matwyshyn has been pointing out..

For Doctorow, the solution is to mandate and enforce interoperability as well as other regulations such as antitrust law. The right to repair laws that are appearing inany jurisdictions (and which companies like Apple and John Deere have historically opposed). Requiring interoperability would force companies to enable – or at least not to hinder – third-party repairs.

But more than that is going to be needed if we are to avoid a future in which every piece of our personal infrastructures is turned into a subscription service. At The Register, Richard Speed reminds that Microsoft will end support for Windows 10 in 2025, potentially leaving 400 million PCs stranded. We have seen this before.

I’m not sure anyone in government circles is really thinking about the implications for an aging population. My generation still owns things; you can’t delete my library of paper books or charge me for each reread. But today’s younger generation, for whom everything is a rental…what will they do at retirement age, when income drops but nothing gets cheaper in a world where everything stops working the minute you stop paying? If we don’t force change now, this will be their future.

Illustrations: A John Deere tractor.

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

Review: The Other Pandemic

The Other Pandemic: How QAnon Contaminated the World
By James Ball
Bloomsbury Press
ISBN: 978-1-526-64255-4

One of the weirdest aspects of the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol building was the mismatched variety of flags and causes represented: USA, Confederacy, Third Reich, Thin Blue Line, American Revolution, pirate, Trump. And in the midst: QAnon.

As journalist James Ball tells it in his new book, The Other Pandemic, QAnon is the perfect example of a modern, decentralized movement: it has no leader and no fixed ideology. Instead, it morphs to embrace the memes of the moment, drawing its force by renewing age-old conspiracy theories that never die. QAnon’s presence among all those flags – and popping up in demonstrations in many other countries – is a perfect example.

Charles Arthur’s 2021 book Social Warming used global warming as a metaphor for social media’s spread of anger and division. Ball prefers the metaphor of public health. The difference is subtle, but important: Arthur argued that social media became destabilizing because no one chose to stop it, where Ball’s characterization implies less agency. People have less choice about being infected with pathogens, no matter how careful they are.

Ball divides the book into four main sections reflecting the stages of a pandemic: emergence, infection, transmission, convalescence. He covers some of the same ground as Naomi Klein in her recent book Doppelganger. But Ball spent his adolescence goofing around on 4chan, where QAnon was later hatched, while Klein lets her personal story lead her into Internet fora. In other words, Klein writes about Internet culture from the outside in, while Ball writes from the inside out. Talia Lavin’s Culture Warlords, on the other hand, focused exclusively on investigating online hate..

“Goofing around” and “4chan” may sound incompatible, but as Ball tells it, in the early days after its founding in 2003, 4chan was anarchic and fun, with roots in gaming culture. Every online service I’ve known back to 1990 has had a corner like this, where ordinary rules of polite society were suspended and transgression was largely ironic, even if also obnoxious. The difference: 4chan’s culture spread well beyond its borders, and its dark side fuelled a global threat. The original QAnon posting arrived on 4chan in 2017, followed quickly by others. Detailed, seemingly knowledgeable, and full of questions for readers to “research”, they quickly attracted backers who propagated them onto much bigger sites like YouTube, which turned a niche audience of thousands into a mass audience of millions.

A key element of Ball’s metaphor is Richard Dawkins’ 1976 concept of memes: scraps of ideas that use us to replicate themselves, as biological viruses do. To extend the analogy, Ball argues that we shouldn’t blame – or dismiss as stupid – the people who get “infected” by QAnon.

This book represents an evolution for Ball. In 2017’s Post-Truth, he advocated fact-checking and teaching media literacy as key elements of the solution to the spread of misinformation. Here, he acknowledges that this approach is only a small part of containing a social movement that feeds on emotional engagement and doesn’t care about facts. In his conclusion, where he advocates prevention rather than cure and the adoption of multi-pronged strategies analogous to those we use to fight diseases like malaria, however, there are echoes of that trust in authority. I continue to believe the essential approach will be nearer to that of modern cybersecurity, similarly decentralized and mixing economics, the social sciences, psychology, and technology, among others. But this challenge is so big that no one metaphor is enough to contain it.

The documented life

For various reasons, this week I asked my GP for printed verification of my latest covid booster. They handed me what appears to be a printout of the entire history of my interactions with the practice back to 1997.

I have to say, reading it was a shock. I expected them to have kept records of tests ordered and the results. I didn’t think about them keeping everything I said on the website’s triage form, which they ask you to use when requesting an appointment, treatment, or whatever. Nor did I expect notes beginning “Pt dropped in to ask…”

The record doesn’t, however, show all details of all conversations I’ve had with everyone in the practice. It notes medical interactions, like noting a conversation in which I was advised about various vaccinations. It doesn’t mention that on first acquaintance with the GP to whom I’m assigned I asked her about her attitudes toward medical privacy and alternative treatments such as acupuncture. “Are you interviewing me?” she asked. A little bit, yes.

There are also bits that are wrong or outdated.

I think if you wanted a way to make the privacy case, showing people what’s in modern medical records would go a long way. That said, one of the key problems in current approaches to the issues surrounding mass data collection is that everything is siloed in people’s minds. It’s rare for individuals to look at a medical record and connect it to the habit of mind that continues to produce Google, Meta, Amazon, and an ecosystem of data brokers that keeps getting bigger no matter how many data protection laws we pass. Medical records hit a nerve in an intimate way that purchase histories mostly don’t. Getting the broad mainstream to see the overall picture, where everything connects into giant, highly detailed dossiers on all of us, is hard.

And it shouldn’t be. Because it should be obvious by now that what used to be considered a paranoid view has a lot of reality. Governments aren’t highly motivated to curb commercial companies’ data collecction because that all represents data that can be subpoenaed without the risk of exciting a public debate or having to justify a budget. In the abstract, I don’t care that much who knows what about me. Seeing the data on a printout, though, invites imagining a hostile stranger reading it. Today, that potentially hostile stranger is just some other branch of the NHS, probably someone looking for clues in providing me with medical care. Five or twenty years from now…who knows?

More to the point, who knows what people will think is normal? Thirty years ago, “normal” meant being horrified at the idea of cameras watching everywhere. It meant fingerprints were only taken from criminal suspects. And, to be fair, it meant that governments could intercept people’s phone calls by making a deal with just one legacy giant telephone company (but a lot of people didn’t fully realize that). Today’s kids are growing up thinking of constantly being tracked as normal, I’d like to think that we’re reaching a turning point where what Big Tech and other monopolists have tried to convince is is normal is thoroughly rejected. It’s been a long wait.

I think the real shock in looking at records like this is seeing yourself through someone else’s notes. This is very like the moment in the documentary Erasing David, when the David of the title gets his phone book-sized records from a variety of companies. “What was I angry about on November 2006?” he muses, staring at the note of a moment he had long forgotten but the company hadn’t. I was relieved to see there were no such comments. On the other hand, also missing were a couple of things I distinctly remember asking them to write down.

But don’t get me wrong: I am grateful that someone is keeping these notes besides me. I have medical records! For the first 40 years of my life, doctors routinely refused to show patients any of their medical records. Even when I was leaving the US to move overseas in 1981, my then-doctor refused to give me copies, saying, “There’s nothing there that would be any use to you.” I took that to mean there were things he didn’t want me to see. Or he didn’t want to take the trouble to read through and see that there weren’t. So I have no record of early vaccinations or anything else from those years. At some point I made another attempt and was told the records had been destroyed after seven years. Given that background, the insousiance with which the receptionist printed off a dozen pages of my history and handed it over was a stunning advance in patient rights.

For the last 30-plus years, therefore, I’ve kept my own notes. There isn’t, after checking, anything in the official record that I don’t have. There may, of course, be other notes they don’t share with patients.

Whether for purposes malign (surveillance, control) or benign (service), undocumented lives are increasingly rare. In an ideal world, there’d be a way for me and the medical practice to collaborate to reconcile discrepancies and rectify omissions. The notion of patients controlling their own data is still far from acceptance. That requires a whole new level of trust.

Illustrations: Asclepius, god of medieine, exhibited in the Museum of Epidaurus Theatre (Michael F. Mehnert 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

The grown-ups

In an article this week in the Guardian, Adrian Chiles asks what decisions today’s parents are making that their kids will someday look back on in horror the way we look back on things from our childhood. Probably his best example is riding in cars without seatbelts (which I’m glad to say I survived). In contrast to his suggestion, I don’t actually think tomorrow’s parents will look back and think they shouldn’t have had smartphones, though it’s certainly true that last year a current parent MP (whose name I’ve lost) gave an impassioned speech opposing the UK’s just-passed Online Safety Act in which she said she had taken risks on the Internet as a teenager that she wouldn’t want her kids to take now.

Some of that, though, is that times change consequences. I knew plenty of teens who smoked marijuana in the 1970s. I knew no one whose parents found them severely ill from overdoing it. Last week, the parent of a current 15-year-old told me he’d found exactly that. His kid had made the classic error (see several 2010s sitcoms) of not understanding how slowly gummies act. Fortunately, marijuana won’t kill you, as the parent found to his great relief after some frenzied online searching. Even in 1972, it was known that consuming marijuana by ingestion (for example, in brownies) made it take effect more slowly. But the marijuana itself, by all accounts, was less potent. It was, in that sense, safer (although: illegal, with all the risks that involves).

The usual excuse for disturbing levels of past parental risk-taking is “We didn’t know any better”. A lot of times that’s true. When today’s parents of teenagers were 12 no one had smartphones; when today’s parents were teens their parents had grown up without Internet access at home; when my parents were teens they didn’t have TV. New risks arrive with every generation, and each new risk requires time to understand the consequences of getting it wrong.

That is, however, no excuse for some of the decisions adults are making about systems that affect all of us. Also this week and also at the Guardian, Akiko Hart, interim director of Liberty writes scathingly about government plans to expand the use of live facial recognition to track shoplifters. Under Project Pegasus, shops will use technology provided by Facewatch.

I first encountered Facewatch ten years ago at a conference on biometrics. Even then the company was already talking about “cloud-based crime reporting” in order to deter low-level crime. And even then there were questions about fairness. For how long would shoplifters remain on a list of people to watch closely? What redress was there going to be if the system got it wrong? Facewatch’s attitude seemed to be simply that what the company was doing wasn’t illegal because its customer companies were sharing information across their own branches. What Hart is describing, however, is much worse: a state-backed automated system that will see ten major retailers upload their CCTV images for matching against police databases. Policing minister Chris Philp hopes to expand this into a national shoplifting database including the UK’s 45 million passport photos. Hart suggests instead tackling poverty.

Quite apart from how awful all that is, what I’m interested in here is the increased embedding in public life of technology we already know is flawed and discriminatory. Since 2013, myriad investigations have found the algorithms that power facial recognition to have been trained on unrepresentative databases that make them increasingly inaccurate as the subjects diverge from “white male”.

There are endless examples of misidentification leading to false arrests. Last month, a man who was pulled over on the road in Georgia filed a lawsuit after being arrested and held for several days for a crime he didn’t commit in Louisiana, where he had never been.

In 2021, a story I’d missed, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced it would discontinue using Proctorio, remote proctoring software that monitors students for cheating. The issue: the software frequently fails to recognize non-white faces. In a retail store, this might mean being followed until you leave. In an exam situation, this may mean being accused of cheating and having your results thrown out. A few months later, at Vice, Todd Feathers reported that a student researcher had studied the algorithm Proctorio was using and found its facial detection model failed to recognize black faces more than half the time. Late last year, the Dutch Institute of Human Rights found that using Proctorio could be discriminatory.

The point really isn’t this specific software or these specific cases. The point is more that we have a technology that we know is discriminatory and that we know would still violate human rights if it were accurate…and yet it keeps getting more and more deeply embedded in public systems. None of these systems are transparent enough to tell us what facial identification model they use, or publish benchmarks and test results.

So much of what net.wars is about is avoiding bad technology law that sticks. In this case, it’s bad technology that is becoming embedded in systems that one day will have to be ripped out, and we are entirely ignoring the risks. On that day, our children and their children will look at us, and say, “What were you thinking? You did know better.”

Illustrations: The CCTV camera on George Orwell’s house at 22 Portobello Road, London.

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.

The end of cool

For a good bit of this year’s We Robot, it felt like abstract “AI” – that is, algorithms running on computers with no mobility – had swallowed the robots whose future this conference was invented to think about. This despite a pre-conference visit to Boston Dynamics, which showed off its Atlas
‘s ability to do gymnastics. It’s cute, but is it useful? Your washing machine is smarter, and its intelligence solves real problems like how to use less water.

There’s always some uncertainty about boundaries at this event: is a machine learning decision making system a robot? At the inaugural We Robot in 2012, the engineer Bill Smart summed up the difference: “My iPhone can’t stab me in my bed.” Of course, neither could an early Roomba, which most would agree was the first domestic robot. However, it was also dumb as a floor tile, achieving cleanliness through random repetition rather than intelligent mapping. In the Roomba 1.0 sense, a “robot” is “a device that does boring things so I don’t have to”. Not cool, but useful, and solves a real problem

During a session in which participants played a game designed to highlight the conflicts inherent in designing an urban drone delivery system, Lael Odhner offered yet another definition: “A robot is a literary device we use to voice our discomfort with technology.” In the context of an event where participants think through the challenges robots bring to law and policy, this may be the closest approximation.

In the design exercise, our table’s three choices were: fund the FAA (so they can devise and enforce rules and policies), build it as a municipally-owned public service both companies and individuals can use as customers, and ban advertising on the drones for reasons of both safety and offensiveness. A similar exercise last year produced more specific rules, but also led us to realize that a drone delivery service had no benefits over current delivery services.

Much depends on scale. One reason we chose a municipal public service was the scale of noise and environmental impact inevitably generated by multiple competing commercial services. In a paper, Woody Hartzog examined the meaning of “scale”: is scale *more*, or is scale *different*? You can argue, as net.wars often has, that scale *creates* difference, but it’s rarely clear where to place the threshold, or how reaching it changes a technology’s harms or who it makes vulnerable. Ryan Calo and Daniella DiPaola suggested that rather than associate vulnerability with particular classes of people we should see it as variable with circumstances: “Everyone is vulnerable sometimes, and vulnerability is a state that can be created and manipulated toward particular ends.” This seems a more logical and fairer approach.

An aspect of this is that there are two types of rules: harm rules, which empower institutions to limit harm, and power rules, which empower individuals to protect themselves. A possible worked example soon presented itself in Kegan J Strawn;s and Daniel Sokol‘s paper on safety techniques in mobile robots, which suggested copying medical ethics’ consent approach. Then someone described the street scene in which every pedestrian had to give consent to every passing experimental Tesla, a possibly an even worse scenario than ad-bearing delivery drones. Pedestrians get nothing out of the situation, and Teslas don’t become safer. What you really want is for car companies not to test the safety of autonomous vehicles on public roads with pedestrians as unwitting crash test dummies.

I try to think every year how our ideas about inegrating robots into society are changing over time. An unusual paper from Maria P. Angel considered this question with respect to privacy scholarship by surveying 1990s writing and 20 years of papers presented at Privacy Law Scholars. We Robot co-founders Calo, Michael Froomkin, and Ian Kerr partly copied its design. Angel’s conclusion is roughly that the 1990s saw calls for an end to self-regulation while the 2000s moved from privacy as necessary for individual autonomy and self-determination to collective benefits and most recently to its importance for human flourishing.

As Hartzog commented, he came to the first We Robot with the belief that “Robots are magic”, only to encounter Smart’s “really fancy hammers.” And, Smart and Cindy Grimm added in 2018, controlled by sensors that are “late, noisy, and wrong”. Hartzog’s early excitement was shared by many of us; the future looked so *interesting* when it was almost entirely imaginary.

Over time, the robotic future has become more nowish, and has shifted in response to technological development; the discussion has become more about real systems (2022) than imagined future ones. The arrival of real robots on our streets – for example, San Francisco’s 2017 use of security robots to deter homeless camps – changed parts of the discussion from theoretical to practical.

In the mid-2010s, much discussion focused on problems of fairness, especially to humans in the loop, who, Madeleine Claire Elish correctly predicted in 2016 would be blamed for failures. More recently, the proliferation of data-gathering devices (sensors, cameras) into everything from truckers’ cabs to agriculture and the arrival of new algorithmic systems dubbed AI has raised awareness of the companies behind these technologies. And, latterly, that often the technology diverts attention from the better possibilities of structural change.

But that’s not as cool.

Illustrations: Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robots doing synchronized backflips (via YouTube).

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.