Optimistic Blogging

Techie and long time writer Tim Bray wants you to know he’s still blogging in 2017. Publishing in his own space in this age of massive media platforms.

Not alone and not un­read, but the ground un­der­foot ain’t steady. An in­stance of Ho­mo eco­nomi­cus wouldn’t be do­ing this ?— ?no pay­day loom­ing. So I guess I’m not one of those. But hey, when­ev­er I can steal an hour I can send the world what­ev­er words and pic­tures oc­cu­py my mind and lap­top. Which, all these years lat­er, still feels like im­mense priv­i­lege.

Not sure I would use the word privilege, but I can’t think of anything better, so let’s go with that. I certainly feel grateful that anyone besides me reads this stuff.

Cartoon: Shakespeare at a computer thinking to blog or not to blog, that is the question.

So, where is this blogging stuff going (and maybe we need a new term for that as well)?

I won­der what the Web will be like when we’re a cou­ple more gen­er­a­tions in? I’m pret­ty sure that as long as it re­mains easy to fill a lit­tle bit of the great names­pace with your words and pic­tures, peo­ple will.

I hope so. It’s fun being able to add my ideas to the great mix. And I enjoy reading the wide variety of thought bits contributed by others who still write in their own spaces.

I’m also “still op­ti­mistic about what­ev­er this thing is I’m do­ing here”.

The Price of Privacy

Sign about not having anything to hide

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I don’t think most people understand online privacy.

They’re pretty sure the NSA and other government agencies are sucking up their data, and probably have been for years. But they largely adopt the philosphy in the image and assume their phone calls and internet traffic are not important enough for anyone to notice or care about.

Their information is inconsequential by being buried in a giant pile with trillions of other bits. Or they are resigned to the matter and offer a “what can you do” shrug. Or worse, they support the idea of that giving up some of their privacy will result in greater protection from the bogey man being presented to frighten them this week.

On the other hand, whatever the attitude towards government surveillance, most people seem quite complacent when it comes to Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other tech companies collecting their data2. In fact, they upload their personal information to these sites at a furious pace every day. And a growing number of people are happily adding to that data pile by buying devices that keep a running record of what they say and do.

For some reason, people seem to assume these billion dollar corporations (and a vast of array of cool startups) have their best interest at heart. The settings Facebook provides by default will assure their privacy. Amazon won’t tell anyone about the products I’ve bought. Google will keep my search history and email contents secret.

Sure. Except for the information provided to the marketing departments of thousands of companies. Companies who pay large amounts of money so you can have “free” services. When you pour all of that data together into some increasingly sophisticated algorithms, they gain some very valuable information. About what you buy (or want to buy), where you travel, who communicate with, and much, much more.

Now, I could very easily drop into conspiracy theory territory in this post, and I don’t want to go there. Many of these free online services have great value. In fact, I add many little bits of personal info to Google’s massive data pile every day. I even teach classes on their map-related resources to help teachers use them with students, and I have no illusion that Google isn’t collecting information from interactions with those maps.

But I’m also very picky about which services I use and what information I will provide. For example, I don’t post anything to Facebook (I do have an account) for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is their TOS. And I’ve actually read more than few terms of service documents, and keep a short list of interesting translations and sites that help others understand what they are agreeing to.

Regardless of my personal preferences, however, this is a topic that all teachers need to better understand. They must help their students learn to protect themselves online, as well as doing a better job of evaluating the software and web services they bring into the classroom.

It may appear that Google, Microsoft, and the other companies (big and small) are keeping their free/cheap education web services “closed” to the outside world. But students (and you) are still providing data with everything they do. (Just look at what can be learned from a single photograph.) And those corporations are getting better everyday at monetizing your information.

Legislating Government Censorship

In May 2014, the high court of the European Union declared that EU citizens had a “right to be forgotten” online, derived from the Union’s stringent personal privacy laws. The information is actually forgotten, of course, just removed from our collective memories, also known as Google.

The “right to be forgotten” in the European Union originated from a court ruling demanding Google and search engines remove links to a story that embarrassed a Spanish man because it detailed a previous home repossession. The story was not factually inaccurate. He insisted it was no longer relevant and that it embarrassed him, and the court agreed he had the right to have the information censored from search engines.

Recently courts in the EU have found exceptions to that absolute right, but here in the US many lawmakers and pundits have speculated as to whether we should have the same right and the Europeans.

This week, two members of the New York legislature decided the answer is yes, and have introduced their own interpretation that actually goes beyond the rights granted to European citizens. Because if anything is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.

Censorship 1

Their bill would require the removal of “content about such individual, and links or indexes to any of the same, that is ‘inaccurate’, ‘irrelevant’, ‘inadequate’ or ‘excessive’”, from both search engines and the original website, within 30 days of a request.

Basically, with some exceptions for information about certain crimes and matters of “significant current public interest”, the law requires anything posted on the web that someone claims is “no longer material to current public debate or discourse” must be forgotten. Under penalty of some heavy fines.

What could possibly go wrong with a poorly defined (at what point does content become “excessive”?) law like that?

So, under this bill, newspapers, scholarly works, copies of books on Google Books and Amazon, online encyclopedias (Wikipedia and others) — all would have to be censored whenever a judge and jury found (or the author expected them to find) that the speech was “no longer material to current public debate or discourse” (except when it was “related to convicted felonies” or “legal matters relating to violence” in which the subject played a “central and substantial” role). And of course the bill contains no exception even for material of genuine historical interest; after all, such speech would have to be removed if it was “no longer material to current public debate.” Nor is there an exception for autobiographic material, whether in a book, on a blog or anywhere else. Nor is there an exception for political figures, prominent businesspeople and others.

I’m not a Constitutional expert, but even I realize a law like this would never survive a many First Amendment challenge.

But beyond the legal issues there is a far more concerning 800-pound gorilla. Right now we have far too many “leaders” who lust for tools that would allow the government to review and censor the online discussions of it’s citizens.

We don’t need a right to be forgotten in the US as much as we do a right to be left alone.

Alexa: Don’t Screw Up My Kid

Articles about new technologies in the general media usually fall into one of two categories: breathless, this-is-the-coolest-thing-ever puff pieces or those it’s-gonna-kill-you-if-you’re-not-careful apocalyptic warnings. Occasionally writers manage to do both at the same time, but that’s rare.

A recent piece in the Washington Post leans toward that second theme by letting us know right in the headline that millions of kids are being shaped by know-it-all voice assistants. Those would be the little, connected, always-listening boxes like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home that sit unobtrusively on a side table in your home waiting to answer all your questions. Or order another case of toilet paper.

Many parents have been startled and intrigued by the way these disembodied, know-it-all voices are impacting their kids’ behavior, making them more curious but also, at times, far less polite.

Wow. Must be something in a new study to make that claim, right?

But psychologists, technologists and linguists are only beginning to ponder the possible perils of surrounding kids with artificial intelligence, particularly as they traverse important stages of social and language development.

Siri 800x300

I would say we’re all beginning to ponder the possibilities, good and bad, of artificial intelligence. For society in general in addition to how it will affect children as they grow.

But are the ways kids interact with these devices any different from technologies of the past?4

Boosters of the technology say kids typically learn to acquire information using the prevailing technology of the moment — from the library card catalogue, to Google, to brief conversations with friendly, all-knowing voices. But what if these gadgets lead children, whose faces are already glued to screens, further away from situations where they learn important interpersonal skills?

I don’t think you need to be a “booster” of any technology to understand that most children, and even some of us old folks, have the remarkable ability to adapt to new tools for acquiring and using information. If you look closely, you might see that many of your students are doing a pretty good job of that already. And those important interpersonal skills? Kids seem to find ways to make those work as well.

Anyway, the writer goes on trying to make his case, adding a few antidotes from parents, some quotes from a couple of academics, and mentioning a five-year old study involving 90 children and a robot.

However, in the matter of how children interact with these relatively new, faceless, not-very-intelligent voices-in-a-box, there are a few points he only hints at that need greater emphasis.

First, if your child views Alexa as a “new robot sibling”, then you have some parenting to do. Start by reminding them that it’s only a plastic box with a small computer in it. That computer will respond to a relatively small set of fact-based questions and in that regard is no different from the encyclopedia at the library. And if they have no idea what a library is, unplug Alexa, get in the car and go there now.

Second, this is a wonderful opportunity for both of you to learn something about the whole concept of artificial intelligence. It doesn’t have to get complicated, but the question of how Alexa or Home (or Siri, probably the better known example from popular culture) works is a great jumping off point for investigation and inquiry. Teach your child and you will learn something in the process.

Finally, stop blaming the technology! If a parent buys their child one of these…

Toy giant Mattel recently announced the birth of Aristotle, a home baby monitor launching this summer that “comforts, teaches and entertains” using AI from Microsoft. As children get older, they can ask or answer questions. The company says, “Aristotle was specifically designed to grow up with a child.”

…and then lets it do all the comforting, teaching, and entertaining, the problem is with a lack of human intelligence, not artificial kind.