Houses like trees

Zenrainman’s house is like a tree.

Grown out of the earth of its own basement on the edge of Bangalore, pressed into bricks. 

Nurtured entirely by water and light from its own roof. 

It breeds, symbiotically, large primates to maintain it. 

Treating their sewage. 

To water a rooftop rice paddy ready to grow enough to feed them. 

The spaces are full of art and light. 

Architecture students come and go, borrowing books.

They’re a means of reproduction, working nearby to design hundreds of similar houses.

The press call to ask a question on water. Bangalore is short of it, a chance at last for change. Sustainable water use. 

An itinerant British computer programmer appears for dinner.

They talk about technology and politics, about when opening data harms the common man, about dark mountains, about stamps, about China, about villages which aren’t on Google maps, about wasted tomato harvests, about building a helpful information society. 

All find Zenrainman in his chair. 

The house/tree attracting the world to one room like flowers to bees.

Just as our cells and our bacteria are equal in number… Is the organism the house or the rice or the human?

I imagine a million years passing, the methods maturing, the earth scattered with these strange complex constructs. 

An alien passes. What are these novel trees? 

Changing money 

Oh India! 

There’s always another surprise, toughening your way through the day. 

This week Modi, the Hindu nationalist PM, announced to the nation that the two largest bank notes were now worthless pieces of paper.

This clamp down on black markets and electoral bribes has a complex set of rules which let you trade in the old notes in limited ways, and heavily restricts use of ATMs. 

As a result, for the last few days banks have turned into queues like these ones in Hyderabad. 

Note the white pieces of paper everyone is clutching, forms to let them pay in the obsolete notes. 

Tourists are hit in an unusual way. India is largely a cash economy. While you can buy long distant bus tickets using various wallet apps, as far as I can tell you need an Indian bank account or credit card to load them up. Many hotels don’t take cards. 

So most tourists get out a lot of cash from ATMs, way more than any of the new limits on available money. 

As a result newly arrived backpackers in Delhi are living moneyless off the beneficence of strangers.

You can read my own experiences on this forum. In short I’m just about getting enough money, have cut my budget, and am now only using guest houses which take Visa. 

A few people have asked me to change notes in the street, and at a chat stall just now somebody explained that he is getting by on borrowing. Local suppliers are giving credit to people they know.

There are also good things. Hopefully India will become a bit more electronic. This bus ticket agent in Nagpur was putting up signs proud that they take credit cards. 

I arrived in Hyderabad near midnight two nights ago. A rickshaw driver was ripping me off, giving me 400 only for one of the old 500 notes.

A boy operating a nearby petrol pump was so upset at this he took out his own wallet and changed the 500 for five 100s. He gave a speech about India’s honour and reputation. Moving! 

In India everyone asks, if you’re a foreigner, to take a selfie with you. This gets gruelling at tourist resorts. In jokey frustration I often pretend to charge 100 Rs for this, making everyone laugh. 

Yesterday at the Buddha statue in the lake in Hyderabad on the spur of the moment I said, “yes, if you’d change an old 500 note for me”. The lovely matriarch of the family smiled and got out her purse. We laughed and all took some nice photos. 

She then offered to change another 500!

wp-image-1955554286jpg.jpg

Communal pets

India is unusual in having two shared public “pets”.

Dogs are the ones that I’ve seen before in other countries, prowling every street and temple. These puppies with their sore-furred mum are in Pushkar.

Unusually, people feed them. The other day while waiting for a safari at a tiger reserve, I saw a woman feed a whole packet of sweet biscuits to a cute dog with lovely fur. Apparently the last chapati of a batch is reserved for a dog.

These are really friendly dogs. I’m a bit scared of dogs (I was bitten by one in Cambridge a while ago). A guide told me these peaceful ones that roam all Indian streets are nice because they, like many people here, are vegetarian…

The most famous communal Indian pet is of course the cow. Sacred in Hinduism, they really do just walk about by themselves, such as in the alleyways of Delhi.

And block the traffic – this van in Pushka had to wait 5 minutes to get these cows to move. 

This group are mooching on a major road by the station at Vadodara.

Some gangs cownap these free souls and smuggle them across the border to be slaughtered for meat.

In response, pro-cow vigilantes raid trucks at intersections, banging them to provoke any hidden cows to make a sound and sniffing to smell them out.

There’s talk of rounding up stray cows into sheds. Which would be sad to me, as they are a loving presence everywhere. 

Zero marginal cost

The next page I found in the notebook (after the last one) is my own view of the problem of information goods having zero marginal cost, so not functioning within capitalism. Paul Mason describes this in Postcapitalism.

Walking through the diagram…

“Zero marginal cost newtech” is the starting point. A “marginal cost” is a business term for the extra amount it costs to make one more of something. For digital goods, such as MP3s or converted PDFs, this is essentially nothing. This leads to the possibility of cheaper and cheaper, more and more freemium business models, driving the value of the information good in and of itself to nothing. The arrows lead out to four options at this point.

1.”Hard to build small business” means you slowly and tirelessly build up a tiny, global business which eats on the scraps left, the stubborn customers, the niches. This doesn’t make much profit, and is hard work. Look at pay for email companies, as an example.

2.”Monopolies” is when you force the market to have no choice but pay you, such as Windows in the 1990s. Or perhaps where you reduce the cost to zero to gain the monopoly, and use advertising for revenue – such as Google Maps. TomTom’s old business looks weak nowadays!

3.”Low profit” means there isn’t much money in any pure software businesses there are. This leads to “Poor computer security architecture”.

“Corporate privacy invasion” is done deliberately by the zero-charging monopoly to help sell adverts, or to sell your data to insurance companies, or whatever. It is done accidentally by poorly architected security in low margin software businesses, meaning you have data breaches and loss of privacy.

4.”Social info goods (Linux, Wikipedia)” describes the plus side of the zero marginal cost. You can make public goods and distribute them to millions or billions of people cheaply and easily. This is very satisfying.

“Non-market value” explains that the value of these social information goods is not measured by flow of money. Actually, that’s true of the value of zero-charge capitalistic goods too.

“Low GDP” – so the economic productivity of your nation looks much lower than it is. It doesn’t include encylopedias any more, even though people are getting huge value from them, more than ever. 

“Low wages, part time jobs” – finally both the power of global monopolies, their reduction in local services, and the general reduction in visible GDP caused by zero-cost information goods, reduces wages and increases part time jobs.

This is really a variant on the classic “robots will eat all the jobs” argument. It’s a simpler version of it, based on the robot we all have called a computer, which can infinitely replicate a digital good, tirelessly and at no (marginal) cost.

It’s worse than for physical goods, as you can’t even tax these robots to fund a basic income.

Sea. Sunlight. Calm. Trees. Laughter.

I found another oldish notebook. It’s about the edge of chaos.

The more lightly shaded left hand edge is absence, null, non existence. The dark shaded right hand side is total chaos, randomness. The sharp line down the middle is the edge of chaos – where things are balanced, interest lies, life grows.

There are four examples.

1. “Too few forum members” vs “Too many forum members”. If you start a new community, and nobody joins, it’s pointless emptiness. If it goes wild, and too many join, it ends up like a newspaper comments thread. There’s a pure balance, where the community is interesting and viable. (Reddit tries to avoid this dilemma by dividing itself in a cellular way making lots of subreddits)

2. “House alone” vs “Metropolis”. Living completely alone gives you no services no redundancy, living in a metropolis with tens of millions of people gives you slums and impossible property prices.

3. “No tech” vs “Intense tech”. Without any technology you’re impoverished. With too much, too fast, you can’t absorb it, polish it, make it fair, its dangerous side is emphasised.

4. “No customers” vs “Commodity competition”. When choosing a product/marketspace to enter you might pick one nobody will care about until after you’re bust. Or, just as bad, you might pick one where there isn’t just competition, but industrialised competition, where it is a standardised commodity impossible to compete with.

In every case there’s a balance. The question is, how to viably (with tangled hierarchy?) sustain that balance? A simple feedback loop will eventually steer you off into the void or into the white noise.

Everything that is good, everything that is alive, is at such a balance.

Sea. Sunlight. Calm. Trees. Laughter.

On finding political axes using maths

Drifting in the sea of political beliefs, left and right don’t seem to have any meaning any more.

It’s possible to make up new axes. Alas, these aren’t grounded in real views of the population, instead they’re distorted by the politics of their creators.

Luckily, there is a way of finding actual axes by experiment, using opinion polls and maths.

Back in 2005, my friends Chris and Tom persuaded a youthful YouGov to add a complete set of political position questions to their demographically weighted UK poll.

The results are summarised in these slides they made at the time.

(See methodology details with discussion in a blog post by Chris)

So to summarise, there are only two axes of political belief they observed by using maths to find which beliefs are correlated together.

The most powerful axis combines opposition to the EU, support of capital punishment, dislike of state funded international aid and wanting to tax working people less. I’d like ideas for what we should call each end of it – trust / distrust, soft / hard, open / ordered, internationalist / nationalist, remain / leave?

The second axis, which is quite a bit weaker, combines agreement with the Iraq war, love of free trade, support of genetic engineering and not wanting to tax rich people more. This is neoliberal / not neoliberal – it’s tempting to call it left / right or socialist / capitalist but I think that loses important nuance.

Those first two axes only account for 27% of the variation in beliefs. There are lots more political beliefs, but those are independent of each other. They don’t form useful clusters for the purpose, say, of forming political parties.

Referendum on EU membership

As a remain voter, the political establishment has largely backed my soft, trusting, open, internationalist viewpoint for the last 20 years. Pro immigration, pro international aid, against capital punishment.

My view is that this left half the population disenfranchised. They tried voting UKIP, but because of our electoral system, that got no power. In the end, the only way they could express their views was by threatening to split the Tory vote, forcing a referendum, and taking that one opportunity to exert one binary digit of power.

This is backed up by Eric Kauffmann’s research, summarised by the BBC as “The link between Brexit and the death penalty“.

In short, voting leave is highly correlated with being nationalist on the most significant axis of political belief.

Situation the Labour party is in

The Labour party has leadership and unity troubles at the moment. Would this were the worst of its problems.

The real problem is that the Labour party have lost lots of seats to the SNP, will lose more due to the reduction in number of MPs to 600 (analysis), and are in danger from UKIP in the North of England (analysis).

The referendum result, combined with knowledge that the main axis of political grouping is internationalist / nationalist (not some meaningless left / right), show a significant realignment of UK politics. Any Labour strategy to form a Government needs to take account of this – blindly supporting, say, a second EU referendum without would be foolhardy.

My personal view, especially as a green party member, is that if the Labour party continues to have internal divisions it might be time for them to unify on a platform of implementing proportional representation. The tactic would then be to join a progressive alliance to win a majority in favour of PR, then safely split the party based on other divisions later.

Hacking democracy when not represented

The first past the post electoral system hangs over lots of drama in UK politics.

It makes it impossible to form new parties, meaning any political view opposed by Labour and the Conservative party gets no political representation.

I think of the desperate strategies people have to take in response to that as “hacks” on the political system. They aren’t signs of a functional democracy, which takes on board significantly held views.

Here are three such strategies that have at least somewhat worked:

  1. Form a regional party, and so get lots of seats like the SNP (they have the least votes per seat).
  2. Wait nearly 30 years of pain being under-represented in Parliament like the Lib Dems, until there is a hung Parliament, then join a coalition with a voting reform referendum as the prize.
  3. Form a party like UKIP representing a cluster of unrepresented beliefs on an important political axis, get a couple of MPs by defection (and none from later winning 12.6% of the vote), use that to threaten to split (the vote of) another party, thereby forcing a referendum on leaving the EU.

The Green party’s call for a progressive alliance to implement PR is a new variant of 2. Given the situation of UKIP, it is a bit more plausible now than when the Lib Dems last tried their variant of it.

Conclusion

Ideally, I’d like the research Chris and Tom did to be run again, so we can double check they’re still the axes in 2016.

Meanwhile, I’d like commonly used names for positions on these two axes. Just to improve the quality of political conversation, as it is pretty incomprehensible without such names.

What names would you use?

History of libraries

Thanks to the excellent Thinking Liverpool [1], a lunchtime talk about the history of libraries caught my eye.

I mention the history of public libraries worryingly often. I make an analogy between libraries in the age of the printing pres and the modern need for equivalently novel public institutions in the age of the networked computer. Time to find out more.

It was in the Victoria Gallery, just across the road from work. Great!

Victoria Gallery and Museum

Mark Towsey, the historian speaker, said many things. I’m going to highlight a few at random which struck me.

The price of books has shrunk in imaginative ways for centuries. One unusual example of how is in the form of James Lackington, a bookseller in London from the 1770s. He noticed that when sales of a book slowed, publishers kept the price full and pulped anything they couldn’t sell. He saved these books from destruction, sold these “remaindered books” at knock down prices, making both lots of money and increasing use of books in society.

This is a picture of the “The Temple of the Muses” bookseller which he started in Finsbury Square.

Temple of the muses

Liverpool had several interesting early libraries. In 1758, The Liverpool Library was established in a schoolmaster’s house. By 1802 they built the Lyceum building at the bottom of Bold Street to hold the library. It’s now a somewhat destitute building – Mark said that if anyone has a bequest of a million pounds, he has a plan to turn it into a beautiful museum of the history of libraries!

The Lyceum

The Liverpool Medical Library was started in 1799 by a group of important Liverpool doctors. There were some very expensive medical texts at the time, that local booksellers didn’t stock. One doctor could only afford a small number of books – together lots of doctors could buy them all. (Reminds me of what PledgeBank was trying to achieve with our local pledges).

This is Robert Hooper’s “A Compendious Medical Dictionary, containing an Explanation of the Terms in Anatomy, Physiology, Surgery”, published in 1798, and perhaps the kind of book they were buying. (I’ll try and get back to the Gallery to take a photo of a real book they actually bought, unless anyone already knows of one online…)

Hooper Vade Mecum

As caricatured in this painting by Isaac Cruikshank, circulating libraries concentrated on more downmarket books. At least, the romances and the novels in the cartoon are all taken out, whereas the worthy histories and philosophies are still on the shelf. Not so different from complaints in my lifetime about television being downmarket – just before it entered its current phase of Dickens-like quality.

 

The Circulating LIbrary

At each stage of this, books became cheaper and more accessible to more people, and literacy levels rose. One of the final steps in free access to books for everyone was the Public Libraries Act 1850. That’s a full four centuries after the printing press seriously came to Europe.

Afterwards, I asked Mark about the analogies I’ve been making between the modern world and libraries. He wasn’t aware of anyone who was specifically researching or thinking on that basis. A “future of libraries” meeting a few years ago was about the physical spaces, not, say, about public space on the web.

He did say that there are numerous ideas to mine from the history, some which worked for a while, some which didn’t work, as well as those we still know and use now. It turns out the vast, wild sea of ideas of the modern web, things like Patreon and Wikipedia, is an echo in new technology of a soup of ideas a few centuries ago.

He recommended that I should read A Nation of Readers by David Allan. Alas, a bit out of print!

A Nation of Readers

The talk was in honour of a new exhibition a the Victoria Gallery, of very old Liverpool books. Hopefully I’ll remember to go back one lunchtime while it is still on.

[1] A site which lists interesting talks in Liverpool each week. Interestingly, scraping wasn’t good enough to make the site – Paul instead outsources some of the process of finding a curated, clean list of events via UpWork to a fully qualified, fluent English speaking lawyer in the Philippines.

Don’t play the game, mutate the board

I found some notes I’d written at the start of this notebook, a few months old.

Notebook cover

I used to campaign in Cambridge for more Fairtrade coffee and chocolate. That was a “closed” tactic, as opposed to an “open” tactic like open source software or open data.

It worked – even the best selling chocolate bar Dairy Milk is Fairtrade now. The tactic slightly shifted the board of global economics.

These notes are about this question – what tactics create the change in the world that I want?

Fairtrade was a closed tactic of certification (for many!) which I loved and which shifted the board

Simon Wardley has a kind of map of evolution of technology. He encourages organisations to make such maps to improve their strategic awareness.

Vinay Gupta made a game called nuclear poker. It has simple rules that simulate the important game theory of nation states and nuclear weapons.

I played it once, and to start with I wanted to win! The natural urge, when just told the rules, is to collect the cards, to gain abilities. Before I knew it I was thinking I might nuke someone pre-emptively to stop them becoming a  superpower before me… Then I realised I’d turned into a psychopath.

(I role played the next round as Hans Blix, weapons inspector, trading and discarding key parts of the nuclear tech stack to eliminate them from the game)

Much like Vinay’s poker game, when I see Simon’s maps of tech, they at first make me want to win. Unfortunately, because of the structure of capitalism and technology, that essentially means frig the game so you get a monopoly and make billions.

However, the idea doesn’t inspire me. I know the monopoly would have to be broken down later to make things fair. And that it’ll happen anyway, someone else will find it. It doesn’t feel like it changes the game.

(Of course I’d love to make billions, and partly I’m just hiding because it is hard, and risky to try more. But nevertheless, as a goal it doesn’t inspire me like it does some people.)

Simon's board makes me want to play chess... (like Vinay's nuclear game) ... to win! Which implicitly in capitalism means make a monpoly and make money in $Bn.

I’d much rather mutate the board, change the game. Or force others to mutate the board for me.

In the past I’ve used tactics to do that – more open, more innovative, more fun! They’re not directly what I’m after, they’re just new things to use that let me change the board.

Actually what I want is 1) to end poverty of all kinds, 2) to make civilisation fundamentally sustainable for tens of thousands of years, 3) to fully understand the universe and our minds.

For me winning is mutating the board and forcing others to mutate the board to make it more open, more innovative, more fun, to end poverty, sustainble, understand universe. These three crosed out are tactics or actions that worked for me before. They are not goals.

My dumb error for a while was to think it was the framed societal goal (money) of the board, or the tricks that worked for me before (open) that I liked.

My dumb error was to think it was the framed societal goal (money) of the board, or the tricks that worked for me before (open) that I liked.

I was around at the start of both Open Knowledge and mySociety. I always preferred mySociety’s tactics, because they were about an end goal (usable Government) rather than about a means (open data).

You can blindly promote Freedom of Information (it’s under threat by the way, and you can help) in the hope that it reduces corruption. It might not. You can promote open data in the hope that it improves Government efficiency. It might not.

In contrast, the aspects of mySociety that were about usability – they were more straightforwardly successful. The means were also the end. And they inspired the Government Digital Service to take that further.

What we were doing at mySociety was taking the culture of open source and the culture of the web, and applying it to Government. We didn’t strategically know what we were doing. Although we had a strong sense that this new technology could help with some political problems.

That is OKFN's error against mySociety. FOI may be (or may not be - leaks better!) a good tactic against corruption and inefficiency. Random open data may help with efficiency or fun. Showing user centric government digital as possible did create GDS in the end. We were playing with open, usable web culture to see what good new things it could produce. Largely blind to the strategic situation.

The next, and final, page of my notes gets less clear and more speculative. Here I think I’m saying that the overall strategy of large, classic NGOs isn’t very clear.

It is those NGOs which are trying to deliver the end of poverty, the sustainability which I gave as goals earlier.

The NGOs have no strategic play either.

I’m now wondering, where can the strategy for those things come from? How can we learn to change the game so the whole system is more sustainable, or has less poverty?

What created the web and open source culture, that our intervention at mySociety completely depended upon? I’m curious how to make more such cultures.

Is the Wardley map any good for this kind of analysis? I suspect not – it is designed for technology capitalism. Which is perhaps why I always find it frustrating. Maybe there is a way of using it that will help with what I need.

Either way, Wardley’s innovation/commoditisation cycle with dependencies and user needs is useful background.

Why was web culture there??? Wardley maps any use! or too focussed on tech capitalism? Nothing on risk, say. It is not the map that is clever, but understanding techs innovation/commoditisation cycle and its dependency on other tech and user needs. Innovators dillemma says new things that beat commodity will come from bespoke.

I leave the question hanging, how do we map the board so we can make interventions to improve the overall outcome of the game?

Back page of notebook

Sync/Backup workshop at Redecentralize Conference

The fabulous Redecentralize Conference was organised by Ira and a bunch of other volunteers. Its subject – how do we make the net resilient, private and fun again?

It was an unconference, so I decided to do a session on a personal itch I’ve had for the last few years – file synchronisation and backup.

I don’t have a nice way to manage my files – documents, music, photos, email. Syncing them across devices and keeping them backed up seems strangely harder than it did in the 1990s. At least, if you don’t just go all in and trust Google or Dropbox with them.

Redecentralize Conference
Photo by Luigi Bozzo

The idea of the workshop was to find out what decentralized software technical people actually use every day for syncing and backing up their files.

We wrote down all the tools on cards, and voted with sticky notes if we used them. I was hoping there was some amazing tool based on newish technology like Distributed Hash Tables that I could use. There wasn’t.

So here’s the tools geeks use, working up to the favourite at the end.

Syncthing (0 votes)

This is one of the few actually peer to peer tools which came up – it directly syncs files between devices. Lots of people mentioned it, which is why it got a card even with no votes. Alas, none of us use it day to day. It just isn’t mature enough. Every six months I try it again, hit an unsolvable problem and revert to BitTorrent Sync. They’re working hard to improve Syncthing, and I’m sure would welcome more help.

PhotoBackup (1 vote)

Looks like a nice solution to get files off your camera phone and onto your own server. It’s a pain that it needs a special server to post the files to – I’d like it more if I could configure it to just use SCP (see the SSH section below).

Carbon copy cloner (1 vote), Time Machine (2 votes)

A few people recommended proprietary Mac tools. They considered them decentralized, because they keep the backups on their own multi-terabyte hard drives at home, rather than putting them in one central cloud. No doubt they’re polished and easy to use – I still use CrashPlan on an old Mac for that reason! Alas, they’re no good if you have even one device with another operating system.

ownCloud (2 votes)

This self-hosted email/calendar/contacts/file sync tool is a powerful combination. Surprisingly few people use it. My theory is that it tries to do too much itself, and does none of it quite well enough. I found it too slow, clunky, and unconvincing to trust my most valuable data to. I’m optimistic that it’ll continue to improve.

duplicity (2 votes)

While researching backup for myself, I find price is a constant frustration. All the most open ones require a server with a live disk mounted on it. S3, an Amazon service that can just store blobs, is considerably cheaper. It’s even cheaper than Dropbox, which is built on top of S3 and adds a margin!

A couple of people at the workshop took advantage of this price while keeping privacy by using duplicity. It encrypts files and stores them in S3. I find that a bit of a cheat – some control is still lost, it isn’t resilient. As economies of cloud storage scale even more, I’m open to changing my mind!

Tarsnap (2 votes)

This technically excellent Unix backup tool also uses S3 behind the scenes. It is by all accounts easy to set up, fast and powerful. My one concern is that it is too dependent on its founder Colin Percival. You really want backup software to have a whole community maintaining it, or a strong company with incentives to keep the service running. Or it won’t be there when you really need it.

SSH (4 votes)

People using SSH probably overlap with the rsync people below, or they were using scp or bup or unison or something similar. All of these excellent command line sync and backup tools need a protocol to send files remotely, and that’s SSH. Stalwart, and to this day what geeks use to write data remotely from automated processes. It’s that basic writing functionality which I want some funky new DHT to improve.

rsnapshot (5 votes), rsync (1 vote)

It’s hard now to remember how revolutionary rsync was when it came out (apparently in 1996!). Rolling checksums make file copying fast the second time, enabling all sorts of new backup and sync possibilites. The raw technology idea was vital to Dropbox’s genesis. Nearly everyone at the workshop used rsync via rsnapshot, a layer which can backup whole machines and archive their history.

git (6 votes), git-annex (1 vote)

I use git with an auto-commit script to keep important text documents. One workshop member used git-annex, making even large files not a problem. It’s very geeky, but it’s very reliable – history and checksums and decentralization make it very hard to lose data. It does two way sync, but unlike Dropbox actually merges the files.

A key problem for me with this is that Android support is woeful. In the end, I fix that with a nasty hack – I use BitTorrent Sync to transfer a directory on my phone to a server, and have a script there which merges and commits.

Thinking about it, git is the biggest obvious opportunity which came from this workshop. Just as Dropbox was built on rsync technology, could something very user friendly be built on top of git, for the purpose of personal document syncing? Add a peer-to-peer transfer protocol, a beautiful GUI, three way merge of Word documents… The internals built by Linus would make it robust and reliable.

Why you might want to decentralize your files
Why you might want to decentralize your files

OS file browser + standard protocols (1 vote)

At the end I asked the room, “who is happy with their solution?”. Only one person put their hand up. She had tried every nerdy backup tool imaginable, and abandoned them all.

Instead, she keeps files on her computer and her relative’s computer. If she’s making a document she cares about, she transfers it by USB stick between the computers, to make sure there are multiple copies in different places. And that’s it.

Unsophisticated? Not at all. Way easier than backing up paper. Understandable by anyone. Full control. Cheap.

Conclusions

Thanks to everyone who came to the workshop. I was disappointed that there wasn’t a solution to my problem. However, I learnt several valuable things, including one to improve what I do in the short term.

I need my own (virtual) server (again) – there were several folk from Bytemark at Redecentralize. They made me realise that I had been trying for a while to not need my own server. Alas, the fully distributed solutions just aren’t good enough yet. You need something you can make web requests to and SSH to if you want to use OwnCloud, git, ssh or rsync. It’s a relief to accept this.

Simple is better, sometimes – the happiest person was doing manual file copying like you would have done before “the cloud” in the 1990s. It’s obvious to non geeks, don’t be afraid of doing this. Of course, you accept downsides, but you gain upsides of simplicity and peace of mind.

Someone will win with an inspiring UI on top of Git – merging of text files, robust history, fast and reliable. There are fundamental technical reasons why git is good for some of this stuff. Just as Dropbox used rsync technology and brought it to hundreds of millions, one day somebody will bring these benefits of git to the world.

We need low level distributed storage / naming – personal servers running Dropbox clones will keep us going for a while, but at the end of the day this worrying about servers, about named computers, is part of the problem. At some point, a distributed file storage will take off. IPFS is exciting, although it has no charging mechanic so can never be “fire and forget”. My best hope right now is MaidSafe. When they ship!

There is a market for a geeky command line sync/backup tool – despite all the open alternatives, nothing works well enough that it has dominated the market. I’m confident that technical people haven’t solved this problem for themselves, and want it solved. Powerful interfaces can then be built on that stable base.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!

Making our information society safe and fair

The topic of how to make our information society safe and fair regularly comes up in conversations.

I think we need some quite big, radical things. They’ll need new public service Internet organisations to implement.

This is my high level view list.

1. Access to culture

“People have too much knowledge already: it was much easier to manage them twenty years ago; the more education people get the more difficult they are to manage.” (one MP’s response to the Public Libraries Act 1850)

Liverpool Central Library
The printing press wasn’t a fair innovation until centuries later, when Victorians made the public library widespread. Some of the Internet is free at the point of use, due to advertising and due to the free culture movement. Some of it isn’t.

Much of the most detailed, intelligent reporting – such as the Financial Times and the Economist – is not free. Much vital culture – such as the Wire – is not free.

There are numerous business publications and research organisations, which aren’t free.

I think we’ll need a method, similar in purpose to public libraries, which gives poor teenagers access to the same culture as rich ones. Which gives someone with few resources starting a new business access to the same data as a rich corporation.

Where to start: Build on existing physical libraries – make sure they have subscriptions to paid for aspects of research and culture. Build on free culture. Imaginative ideas for new funding methods.

2. Digital literacy

Peasants on a collective farm in Livezeni village, Arge? County being read a newspaper in 1950

Many technology innovations only reach their best when complemented with mass education.

We teach nearly everyone in the UK to read and write. A majority learn to drive. Without that quite complex training, the printing press and the car would be just for an elite.

What could everyone learn which would help us make better use of computers? Usability, which I love, will only get us so far. Until we have strong Artificial Intelligence (it’ll be a while), many people in society will need to understand computers well.

There are still plenty of technology changes to come, and we can’t know exactly what to teach until after they’ve happened. Meanwhile, we can make a start, and iterate as we learn more.

Where to start: Teach children to code. Make sure employees can use spreadsheets in a sophisticated way. Even teach police to type! (Richard Pope‘s idea after seeing a desk sergeant who was very slow at entering his paperwork)

3. Professional programming

Tacoma Narrows bridge

Engineers don’t build bridges that fall down, not any more. Software is constantly broken, our data stolen and our privacy breached.

There’s a whole lot of it which needs rebuilding in new ways which are barely researched yet. The industry needs to be professional to do this.

Ethical policies which help defend privacy. Quality policies which make it secure. Diversity policies which makes it usable for everyone… There are lots of things a professional programming organisation could improve.

I’ve benefited a lot from the accessibility of programming – I learnt as a hobbyist child from my father. We can make programming both accessible, and professional.

Where to start: Look at other engineers. Look at other professions, like doctors and lawyers. Join and improve ethical professional bodies. Consciously try to not harm the freedom which general access to programming gives in the process. Create standards.

4. Building regulations

Building regulations

Increasing skills is important, but won’t be thorough enough. We need to enforce standards by law too.

Some of these will be mundane but vital, such as websites using only a few standard sets of terms and conditions. Others will be life saving, such as making sure your driverless car manufacturer has a high standard of software engineering practice.

Where to start: Regulate to stop coding in unsafe languages. Support organisations like I Am The Cavalry (automotive software safety). Build on industry guidelines until they are mandatory (e.g. MISRA).

5. Ethical cryptography

First woman jury, Los Angeles

It would be foolish to use no encryption, allowing Governments and criminals to spy on everything we do. And completely unethical.

It is just as wrong to hope that all things will be encrypted in a libertarian utopia. There are criminals and enemies who courts should be able to get evidence from.

This blog post by Vinay Gupta describes the three actors which cryptography should model – the users, the Government and criminals. It describes a much more sophisticated threat model than we tend to talk about.

Where to start: Implement ideas like Cheap ID and jury-based crypto. Develop capability to practice a hybrid of law and tech. Use that to develop technical / legal systems similar to constitutions.

6. Power framework

Hal, 2001

There’s a war over who has access to the core ability of computers – to program them in arbitrary ways.

How is what computers do controlled?

To understand the issue, read Cory Doctorow’s article The Coming Civil War over General Purpose Computing. It’s a very complex question.

Where to start: Build on organisations like the Free Software Foundation, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Open Rights Group. Academic research which combines the abstract philosophy of delegated agency with practical user needs.

Conclusion

What do you think needs doing to make our new information society safe and fair? Leave a comment!