Saturday, November 16, 2013

Deep insights on info-age problems -- without solutions...

Here and there, we see glimmers of some folks out there starting to get it.  What this era is about.  What it needs.
privacy-commodityFor example, Josh Klein, on Slate, offers a thoughtful rumination, Privacy isn't a Right; It's a Commodity, on how big companies are accessing and using our meta-data… and that this is only truly unfair if it remains a one-way street.  He suggests that "privacy" isn't the issue.  It is how to enforce our rights and interests in benefiting from our own data.
Far more often, you find cases in which fine insights and great erudition culminate in… the most dreary of unimaginative conclusions, alas! Still, you take what you can get, these days, so let's  have a glance at one recent article that starts and continues brilliantly - laying down insights about the dilemmas of our age -- before a disappointing end, where the reader had hoped for cogent suggestions.
In the transcript of a speech,  "Tradeoffs in Cyber Security," Dan Geer - a computer security analyst and risk management specialist - offers up a paragraph redolent with insight and meaning, even extracted from his overall context:
"The essential character of a free society is this: That which is not forbidden is permitted.  The essential character of an unfree society is the inverse, that which is not permitted is forbidden. The U.S. began as a free society without question; the weight of regulation, whether open or implicit, can only push it toward being unfree.  Under the pressure to defend against offenders with a permanent structural advantage, defenders who opt for forbidding anything that is not expressly permitted are encouraging a computing environment that does not embody the freedom with which we are heretofore familiar."
(Sharp readers may note this echoes a particular scene in EXISTENCE.)
Cyber-securityGeer goes on to show the fundamental problem faced by anyone aiming to exert control, even control that aims for the safety and protection of the public:  "Moore's Law continues to give us two orders of magnitude in compute power per dollar per decade while storage grows at three orders of magnitude and bandwidth at four.  These are top-down economic drivers.  As such, the future is increasingly dense with stored data but, paradoxically, despite the massive growth of data volume, that data becomes more mobile with time."
It is a very rich speech - idea-wise.  Here's another pungent paragraph:
"We are ever more a service economy, but every time an existing service disappears into the cloud, our vulnerability to its absence increases.  Every time we ask the government to provide goodnesses that can only be done with more data, we are asking government to collect more data. 
"Let me ask a yesterday question: How do you feel about traffic jam detection based on the handoff rate between cell towers of those cell phones in use in cars on the road?  Let me ask a today question: How do you feel about auto insurance that is priced from a daily readout of your automobile's black box?  Let me ask a tomorrow question: In what calendar year will compulsory auto insurance be more expensive for the driver who insists on driving their car themselves rather than letting a robot do it?  How do you feel about public health surveillance done by requiring Google and Bing to report on searches for cold remedies and the like?  How do you feel about a Smart Grid that reduces your power costs and greens the atmosphere but reports minute-by-minute what is on and what is off in your home?  Have you or would you install that toilet that does a urinalysis with every use?"
These snippets merely sample an extremely thought-provoking speech that merits close reading. Another example: "It is not heartless to say that if every human life is actually priceless, then it follows that there will never be enough money.  One is not anti-government to say that doing a good job at preventing terrorism is better than doing a perfect job."
Where Geer fails is toward the end.  Having assembled many parts and perspectives of a daunting future, he disappoints with suggestions that amount to shrugs of "what'ch gonna do?"
ZeroSumGameAbove all, Geer fails to seek out the intrinsic ways in which these zero-sum or negative-sum problems can be turned positive sum, by turning away from the paternalistic protection model, and back to one that worked for our predecessors, stretching back 300 years, who also had to deal with their own crises of expanding information. They resolved the problem by relying primarily on the robust resilience of distributed systems, especially those consisting of a knowing and empowered citizenry. In other words, lateral stability and resilience, versus vertical fragility.
That is intrinsically the basis for our enlightenment and every aspect of our social contract, and yet it is the last approach that most people -- even smart ones -- ever turn to.  Least of all smug "heroes" like Julian Assange, who claim to have the Peoples' interests at heart. Fundamentally, the message preached by Hollywood has taken root: do not expect anything from your fellow citizens. The only ones you could possibly rely on, over the long run.
Geer does refer glancingly to this possibility of a positive sum outcome from synergies of reciprocal and isotropic transparency… alas, only to dismiss it from mind.  He starts by citing an old debate in this topic...
"David Brin was the first to suggest that if you lose control over what data is collected on you, the only freedom-preserving alternative is that if everyone else does, too.  If the government or the corporation can surveil you without asking, then the balance of power is preserved when you can surveil them without asking.  Bruce Schneier countered that preserving the balance of power doesn't mean much if the effect of new information is non-linear, that is to say if new information is the exponent in an equation, not one more factor in a linear sum."
== What does it all mean? ==
TransparentSocietyIt was honest of Geer to give this two-sentence nod to the alternative approach, the only alternative to his insightful, yet suggestion-free pessimism.
Alas, he goes on the cite Bruce Schneier's shallow and refutable dismissal of sousveillance -- the "exponent" incantation, an arm waved nostrum that Schneier has never once backed-up with actual research -- while ignoring the obvious answer…
… that individual citizens can cluster

 That they can join non-governmental organizations, like the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation, pooling their dues and enabling such groups to hire top quality lawyers, top technical people.  

ProxyActivism(Have YOU done this yet? It is a season when many folks start organizing their year-end giving lists. I urge you to have a look at this description of how you can help to make a better world, while barely lifting a finger.  If you can't even do this much, then don't look in the news for the root problem in the world; look in a mirror.)

 Moreover, such NGOs can also coalesce efforts and expertise from even wider arrays of volunteers, activists and tech-empowered smart mobs. (As I and some other authors portray happening ever-more in our future.) Indeed, such clusters can often rally support from foundations, companies… and even portions of government that are institutionally separated from the portions undergoing scrutiny.
One great way to enhance this effect might be to enact more substantial whistle-blower protection laws, plus philanthropist-funded "henchman's prizes" that lure the revelation of heinous schemes. Worth noting -- such methods could put an upper limit on the crucial product that gives conspirators their power -- secretiveness times nastiness times monetary resources times the number of underlings doing their bidding. If that product is kept small enough, by suppressing some factors, then those NGOs will have a real chance, and Schneier's entirely made-up "exponent" effect will be shown to be the chimera that it always was.
Indeed, my approach hearkens to the one, fundamental trick of the Smithian branch of the enlightenment.  To break up concentrations of power and to sic powerful elites against each other.  If civil servants and corporations and the varied branches of the wealthy, and NGOs and the press and academics and so on can be kept from colluding -- and incentivized to compete with each other warily, then the powerful will leap upon each others' malfeasances FOR us.  

This is not naivete, it is precisely the formula of three centuries. Moreover, snarkers who disdain this as utopian are not only unhelpful, they prove that they know nothing of the roots of their own civilization.  The factors that enabled them to sit where they now reside, mostly-free, mostly knowing -- empowered to grouse and complain.
We can argue forever over details, e.g. whether agile, analytical and deliberative tools will actually produce smart mobs as capable as I portray in EXISTENCE.  But the core point is this… not one of the grouches out there, whether brilliant as Geer or as sadly reflexive as Schneier, have ever once presented us with an alternative suggested recourse anywhere near as potentially effective as sousveillance and (near) universal transparency.
ReciprocalAccountabilityIndeed, whenever they try, a funny thing happens.
Grudgingly, half-heartedly, they wind up proposing that we use the cleansing, invigorating tonic of light. Amid much grinding of teeth, they suggest revelatory moves of reciprocal accountability that more and more resemble…
== But then… signs of hope! ==
Oh, but one sees glimmers all over! After years of misquoting my works and attributing to me positions diametrically opposite to those I clearly stated in The Transparent Society (thus proving that he never even cracked open a copy of the book), it seems that at last security maven Bruce Schneier is starting to get the need for an open and accountable world.  He still believes shrouds and secrecy can work for the common man, a charming naiveté.  But in another recent piece, it seems that at last he now accepts we must aggressively look back at power.
BattlePowerInternetIn The Battle for Power on the Internet, Schneier discusses how cloud computing and tighter vendor control over operating systems is forcing users into constraints that were much looser in old PC days.  "I have previously characterized this model of computing as "feudal." Users pledge their allegiance to more powerful companies who, in turn, promise to protect them from both sysadmin duties and security threats. It's a metaphor that's rich in history and in fiction, and a model that's increasingly permeating computing today."
And: "It's not all bad, of course. We, especially those of us who are not technical, like the convenience, redundancy, portability, automation, and shareability of vendor-managed devices. We like cloud backup. We like automatic updates. We like not having to deal with security ourselves. We like that Facebook just works -- from any device, anywhere."
-- Solid stuff… that I have been saying for years. Schneier goes on to describe how technological advances first are exploited by the nimble -- say "Robin Hoods" -- but eventually become power-multipliers for the already ponderous but mighty entities like nation states and corporations.
Bruce  then rises to exceptional cogency: "Transparency and oversight give us the confidence to trust institutional powers to fight the bad side of distributed power, while still allowing the good side to flourish. For if we're going to entrust our security to institutional powers, we need to know they will act in our interests and not abuse that power. Otherwise, democracy fails."
Will wonders never cease?  Welcome back toward the light.
== And finally ==
TheCircleMargaret Atwood provides a thorough and nuanced review of "The Circle" by Dave Eggers - a dystopian/utopian novel of the near future when a super version of Facebook collects all lives - mostly willingly - into a version of a Transparent Society.  Mind you I don't think things would work this way.  Humans - if empowered - would insist on an equilibrium with more enforceable zones of privacy than the toilet and bedroom. Eggers is not describing humans.
Above all, and key to my argument, is that citizens empowered by transparency would be ABLE to push for such consensus reserves -- realms to be left alone. Still, exaggeration -- such as we see in "The Circle" -- is a common and effective literary technique.  (In avoiding it, I may have hurt my commercial success!) I hope some of you will report back here what you think of this book. It is at-minimum a rumination that offers much for discussion.


Jumper said...

There is more symbolism to Eggers' "Forty" group than Atwood picked up on. An interesting review; thanks.
{"Playing God with the Forty Committee"}

Stephen Peterson said...

Huh. A town in Germany is doubling down on the same principle you cite in the "Ritual of the Street Corner"...

Though I also suspect that there's a lot of urban planning that needs to support such a thing, not to mention a few generations of baked-in civilization-loving courtesy!

David Brin said...

Thanks Stephen and Jumper.

Alfred Differ said...

It seems to me that even if 'new information is the exponent' the number of people collecting that information would be in the base power. We can vastly outnumber the elites if motivated and once in motion catch up and blow past them.

Non-linearity also depends on the structure of the organization doing the collecting and analyzing. Groups organized for a particular agenda can hinder themselves by limiting the analysis even if they are really good at collecting the original data.

Putting mathematics to these ideas strikes me as babble-speak at this point. We know enough to anticipate power laws, discontinuities, and the kind of dynamic results one gets from recursive uses, but that practically ensures the loss of predictability in any model beyond saying what CAN'T be done.

David Brin said...


LarryHart said...

From that "yipe!" Tea-bagger article:

Obama is not a natural born citizen eligible to be president of the United States, as he was not born in this country to two American citizen parents...

I've got two questions for anyone who repeats that talking point about "two American citizen parents" being essential to the definition of the admittedly-undefined term "natural born citizen":

1) Where the heck do you get the idea that "two American citizen parents" are essential to the definition of "natural born citizen", let alone that it is self-evidently so without further explanation?

2) (Especially for self-proclaimed Tea Partiers) So Ted Cruz is also ineligible for the presidency?

Bonus 3rd question) Back in 1961, what possible motive could anyone have had for planting fake news items in Honolulu newspapers trying to pretend that little Barry Obama was born in the United States? You think a black child was marked and groomed for the presidency in 1961? Seriously???

LarryHart said...

Sorry, I should probably stop reading (espeically with Dr Brin's political lamp off).

further propose that we borrow the techniques perfected and used by such epic crusaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, to show Obama and his enablers that the American people are more than fed up and will not take it any more.

What makes these right-wingers think that citizens are only "fed up and not going to take it any more" with liberal politicians? What happens when the millions of Americans who are fed up with the Republicans show OUR righteous indignation?

(Oh right, how could I forget? The government forces get to shoot us down in the streets, to the cheers and adulation of these so-called revolutionaries.)

David Brin said...

"Obama is not a natural born citizen eligible to be president of the United States, as he was not born in this country to two American citizen parents.."

Just because they are uniformly crazy does not mean the craziness is uniform. This idiot is a racist who wants to disqualify millions. But in fact, the " two American citizen parents" thing has been circulating for the last year as an ALTERNATIVE to insisting on native birth.

Why? Because of Cruz. Suddenly, they need a way to discredit Obama WHILE allowing in Cruz (born in Canada.) So you are native born if EITHER born inside the US or else with two citizen parents.

But yes, in any sane world, the copies of the Honolulu Advertizer would be enough. But this is the New Confederacy.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin,

I won't keep talking politics if you'd prefer not to, but as a direct response to your staement above: No, the birthers go beyond the assertion that two citizen parents are an ALTERNATIVE to native birth. They claim that EVEN IF Obama was born in Hawaii, the fact that his father was Nigerian disqualifies him. In other words, all of a sudden (and for the first time ever), native birth is NOT enough to make one a "natural born citizen".

Also, wasn't Cruz's father Cuban? Ok, I suppose he (the father) might have been a NATURALIZED citizen of the USA, but then why was Ted born in Canada? Is his MOTHER Canadian? I obviously don't have all the details straight, but I'm not clear that both of his parents WERE citizens of the US.

Note that when Cruz is in full campaign mode, this argument will be turned around, portraying Obama supporters as hypocritical for suddenly caring about the natural born citizen thing with Cruz "while giving Obama a free pass", completely ignoring the fact that Obama supporters aren't claiming that he shouldn't be held to the "natural born citizen" standard, but merely claiming that he passes that test. But Republicans claiming that Democrats are guilty of THEIR (Republican) sins is par for the course these days.

LarryHart said...

The statement from the article, which you just quoted above was:

"Obama is not a natural born citizen eligible to be president of the United States, as he was not born in this country to two American citizen parents.."

And whatever else you might think, the fact is that the clause following "as he was...", with "Ted Cruz" substituted for "Obama", is a true assessment.

So again, how does Cruz get a pass BY THEIR OWN ARGUMENT?

Robert said...

Because he's a white male Republican candidate.

Rob H.

David McCabe said...

Last thread, the 50/50 sex ratio was mentioned. Its prevalence has a more specific and elegant explanation, a feedback loop that forces most species into a nearly exact 50/50 split:

Every individual has two grandmothers and two grandfathers. Hence, in the medium term, the sexes' contributions to the gene pool are equal, *regardless* of the sex ratio. Hence, if there are fewer individuals of one sex, individuals of that sex will on average contribute more to the future gene pool. It therefore pays to produce children of whatever sex is less numerous.

This can break down in extreme edge cases, but has nothing to do with the higher variance in success amongst males compared with females. It only depends on the mean.

Alfred Differ said...

Amendment #14.

They can repeal it if they want to try.

Nuff said.

Alfred Differ said...

"Have you or would you install that toilet that does a urinalysis with every use?"

I would. You betchya. Kidney disease sucks. 8)

I'm a little miffed that the most innovative, personal level analysis tools coming out can't be purchased in the US yet. Too many legal hoops to jump through for the young entrepreneur involved. It's not like I would use them without supervision by my doctor, but I WOULD use them to watch more than once a month... except I can't do it legally. Time to talk to my relatives overseas I suppose.

Robert Poole said...

Dr. Brin, I think your essay would have been more enjoyable if you had refrained from directing so much snark at Bruce Schneier. I mean, putting scare quotes around "security expert" seems a little jejune; after all, Schneier arguably knows more about cryptography than most people, yourself included. It's his specialization.

After a quick read-through of Schneier's article that you linked, it seems that you cherry picked the points you agreed with. However, the overall tone of the piece suggests to me that he isn't actually endorsing your ideas as fully as you seem to suggest he is.

One quote that I find quite interesting: "[...] the distributed were more nimble and were faster to make use of their new power, while the institutional were slower but were able to use their power more effectively." The feudal computing powers may have been slower to figure out how to take advantage of the Internet, but they now wield far more power than the citizenry, academia, etc. Yes, this is a recasting of the so-called exponential incantation.

The problem is, NGOs and other organizations that can supposedly balance out Schneier's feudal powers can become corrupt, can cease to represent the interests of those who contributed to them. People can band together for self-interest, yes, but I find human nature to be entirely untrustworthy; it doesn't take much for an outsider to sneak into an organization and change its character (e.g., the NRA), nor does it take much for the worst parts of human nature to assert themselves and for initially well-meaning individual members to seize control of an organization and skew its agenda.

I suspect the best that any group of non-elites could hope for is brief, sporadic victories for their interests.

David Brin said...

Robert Poole I appreciate your criticism and indeed, it would be proper of me to stop mentioning Schneier at all. Hover please dig this: I made my remarks in a blog. Schneier has outright lied about me in far more public venues, ignoring me when I wrote (politely) to complain (at first as someone who thought that we were friends.)

Moreover, he has repeated these outright lies, relentlessly, holding me up as a strawman to beat up in public, knowing that I have sent him specific passages showing his diametrically opposite misreading of my work.

That is flat-out evil crap and I now know that he has done it to others.

Yet how have I sinned against him? By recommending that others go and actually read his articles? All right, so I pre-warn them to see this good element and be wary of that bad one. I still send him traffic, which he jealously has never done for me and anyone else he criticizes.

Frankly, his baseless, unproved and evidence free "exponent" argument is used to divert people from even considering the vast range of flattened information regimes. It is a cult incantation and it has proved very effective.

David Brin said...

BTW Robert Poole, your acceptance shrug toward the "exponent" argument was entirely subjective, a reflection of visceral reaction, not turning your head to even glance at the vast number of times that the flattened division of power method has in fact worked.

You ignore the fact that it is precisely the method that resulted in your present freedom to wallow in cynical pessimism and grouchy indolence.

Moreover, you ignore one more thing. The fact that Schneier and other cynics never propose actual methods to preserve freedom OTHER than the one that has worked so far. It's almost all "what'cha'gonna'do?"

Except on rare occasions, when he lifts his head and actually tries. And on those occasions, voila. It's all transparency.

David Brin said...

onward to next posting… follow us there if you like...