Tags: ethics

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Going rogue

As soon as tickets were available for the Brighton premiere of Rogue One, I grabbed some—two front-row seats for one minute past midnight on December 15th. No problem. That was the night after the Clearleft end-of-year party on December 14th.

Then I realised how dates work. One minute past midnight on December 15th is the same night as December 14th. I had double-booked myself.

It’s a nice dilemma to have; party or Star Wars? I decided to absolve myself of the decision by buying additional tickets for an evening showing on December 15th. That way, I wouldn’t feel like I had to run out of the Clearleft party before midnight, like some geek Cinderella.

In the end though, I did end up running out of the Clearleft party. I had danced and quaffed my fill, things were starting to get messy, and frankly, I was itching to immerse myself in the newest Star Wars film ever since Graham strapped a VR headset on me earlier in the day and let me fly a virtual X-wing.

Getting in the mood for Rogue One with the Star Wars Battlefront X-Wing VR mission—invigorating! (and only slightly queasy-making)

So, somewhat tired and slightly inebriated, I strapped in for the midnight screening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

I thought it was okay. Some of the fan service scenes really stuck out, and not in a good way. On the whole, I just wasn’t that gripped by the story. Ah, well.

Still, the next evening, I had those extra tickets I had bought as psychological insurance. “Why not?” I thought, and popped along to see it again.

This time, I loved it. It wasn’t just me either. Jessica was equally indifferent the first time ‘round, and she also enjoyed it way more the second time.

I can’t recall having such a dramatic swing in my appraisal of a film from one viewing to the next. I’m not quite sure why it didn’t resonate the first time. Maybe I was just too tired. Maybe I was overthinking it too much, unable to let myself get caught up in the story because I was over-analysing it as a new Star Wars film. Anyway, I’m glad that I like it now.

Much has been made of its similarity to classic World War Two films, which I thought worked really well. But the aspect of the film that I found most thought-provoking was the story of Galen Erso. It’s the classic tale of an apparently good person reluctantly working in service to evil ends.

This reminded me of Mother Night, perhaps my favourite Kurt Vonnegut book (although, let’s face it, many of his books are interchangeable—you could put one down halfway through, and pick another one up, and just keep reading). Mother Night gives the backstory of Howard W. Campbell, who appears as a character in Slaughterhouse Five. In the introduction, Vonnegut states that it’s the one story of his with a moral:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

If Galen Erso is pretending to work for the Empire, is there any difference to actually working for the Empire? In this case, there’s a get-out clause for this moral dilemma: by sabotaging the work (albeit very, very subtly) Galen’s soul appears to be absolved of sin. That’s the conclusion of the excellent post on the Sci-fi Policy blog, Rogue One: an ‘Engineering Ethics’ Story:

What Galen Erso does is not simply watch a system be built and then whistleblow; he actively shaped the design from its earliest stages considering its ultimate societal impacts. These early design decisions are proactive rather than reactive, which is part of the broader engineering ethics lesson of Rogue One.

I know I’m Godwinning myself with the WWII comparisons, but there are some obvious historical precedents for Erso’s dilemma. The New York Review of Books has an in-depth look at Werner Heisenberg and his “did he/didn’t he?” legacy with Germany’s stalled atom bomb project. One generous reading of his actions is that he kept the project going in order to keep scientists from being sent to the front, but made sure that the project was never ambitious enough to actually achieve destructive ends:

What the letters reveal are glimpses of Heisenberg’s inner life, like the depth of his relief after the meeting with Speer, reassured that things could safely tick along as they were; his deep unhappiness over his failure to explain to Bohr how the German scientists were trying to keep young physicists out of the army while still limiting uranium research work to a reactor, while not pursuing a fission bomb; his care in deciding who among friends and acquaintances could be trusted.

Speaking of Albert Speer, are his hands are clean or dirty? And in the case of either answer, is it because of moral judgement or sheer ignorance? The New Atlantis dives deep into this question in Roger Forsgren’s article The Architecture of Evil:

Speer indeed asserted that his real crime was ambition — that he did what almost any other architect would have done in his place. He also admitted some responsibility, noting, for example, that he had opposed the use of forced labor only when it seemed tactically unsound, and that “it added to my culpability that I had raised no humane and ethical considerations in these cases.” His contrition helped to distance himself from the crude and unrepentant Nazis standing trial with him, and this along with his contrasting personal charm permitted him to be known as the “good Nazi” in the Western press. While many other Nazi officials were hanged for their crimes, the court favorably viewed Speer’s initiative to prevent Hitler’s scorched-earth policy and sentenced him to twenty years’ imprisonment.

I wish that these kinds of questions only applied to the past, but they are all-too relevant today.

Software engineers in the United States are signing a pledge not to participate in the building of a Muslim registry:

We refuse to participate in the creation of databases of identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin.

That’s all well and good, but it might be that a dedicated registry won’t be necessary if those same engineers are happily contributing their talents to organisations whose business models are based on the ability to track and target people.

But now we’re into slippery slopes and glass houses. One person might draw the line at creating a Muslim registry. Someone else might draw the line at including any kind of invasive tracking script on a website. Someone else again might decide that the line is crossed by including Google Analytics. It’s moral relativism all the way down. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t draw lines. Of course it’s hard to live in an ideal state of ethical purity—from the clothes we wear to the food we eat to the electricity we use—but a muddy battleground is still capable of having a line drawn through it.

The question facing the fictional characters Galen Erso and Howard W. Campbell (and the historical figures of Werner Heisenberg and Albert Speer) is this: can I accomplish less evil by working within a morally repugnant system than being outside of it? I’m sure it’s the same question that talented designers ask themselves before taking a job at Facebook.

At one point in Rogue One, Galen Erso explicitly invokes the justification that they’d find someone else to do this work anyway. It sounds a lot like Tim Cook’s memo to Apple staff justifying his presence at a roundtable gathering that legitimised the election of a misogynist bigot to the highest office in the land. I’m sure that Tim Cook, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Sheryl Sandberg all think they are playing the part of Galen Erso but I wonder if they’ll soon find themselves indistinguishable from Orson Krennic.

Tracking

Ajax was a really big deal six, seven, eight years ago. My second book was all about Ajax. I spoke about Ajax at conferences and gave workshops all about using Ajax and progressive enhancement.

During those workshops, I would often point out that Ajax had the potential to be abused terribly. Until the advent of Ajax, it was very clear to a user when data was being submitted to a server: you’d have to click a link or submit a form. As soon as you introduce asynchronous communication, it’s possible for the server to get information from the client even without a full-page refresh.

Imagine, for example, that you’re typing a message into a textarea. You might begin by typing, “Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf…” before calming down and thinking better of it. Before Ajax, there was no way that what you had typed could ever reach the server. But now, it’s entirely possible to send data via Ajax with every key press.

It was just a thought experiment. I wasn’t actually that worried that anyone would ever do something quite so creepy.

Then I came across this article by Jennifer Golbeck in Slate all about Facebook tracking what’s entered—but then erased—within its status update form:

Unfortunately, the code that powers Facebook still knows what you typed—even if you decide not to publish it. It turns out that the things you explicitly choose not to share aren’t entirely private.

Initially I thought there must have been some mistake. I erronously called out Jen Golbeck when I found the PDF of a paper called The Post that Wasn’t: Exploring Self-Censorship on Facebook. The methodology behind the sample group used for that paper was much more old-fashioned than using Ajax:

First, participants took part in a weeklong diary study during which they used SMS messaging to report all instances of unshared content on Facebook (i.e., content intentionally self-censored). Participants also filled out nightly surveys to further describe unshared content and any shared content they decided to post on Facebook. Next, qualified participants took part in in-lab interviews.

But the Slate article was referencing a different paper that does indeed use Ajax to track instances of deleted text:

This research was conducted at Facebook by Facebook researchers. We collected self-censorship data from a random sample of approximately 5 million English-speaking Facebook users who lived in the U.S. or U.K. over the course of 17 days (July 6-22, 2012).

So what I initially thought was a case of alarmism—conflating something as simple as simple as a client-side character count with actual server-side monitoring—turned out to be a pretty accurate reading of the situation. I originally intended to write a scoffing post about Slate’s linkbaiting alarmism (and call it “The shocking truth behind the latest Facebook revelation”), but it turns out that my scoffing was misplaced.

That said, the article has been updated to reflect that the Ajax requests are only sending information about deleted characters—not the actual content. Still, as we learned very clearly from the NSA revelations, there’s not much practical difference between logging data and logging metadata.

The nerds among us may start firing up our developer tools to keep track of unexpected Ajax requests to the server. But what about everyone else?

This isn’t the first time that the power of JavaScript has been abused. Every browser now ships with an option to block pop-up windows. That’s because the ability to spawn new windows was so horribly misused. Maybe we’re going to see similar preference options to avoid firing Ajax requests on keypress.

It would be depressingly reductionist to conclude that any technology that can be abused will be abused. But as long as there are web developers out there who are willing to spawn pop-up windows or force persistent cookies or use Ajax to track deleted content, the depressingly reductionist conclusion looks like self-fulfilling prophecy.

A map to build by

The fifth and final Build has just wrapped up in Belfast. As always, it delivered an excellent day of thought-provoking talks.

It felt like some themes emerged, not just from this year, but from the arc of the last five years. More than one speaker tapped into a feeling that I’ve had for a while that the web has changed. The web has grown up. Unfortunately, it has grown up to be kind of a dickhead.

There were many times during the day’s talks at Build that I was reminded of Anil Dash’s The Web We Lost. Both Jason and Frank pointed to the imbalance of power on the web, where the bottom line has become more important than the user. It’s a landscape dominated by The Stacks—Google, Facebook, et al.—and by fly-by-night companies who have no interest in being good web citizens, and even less interest in the data that they’re sucking from their users.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that companies shouldn’t be interested in making money—that’s what companies do. But prioritising profit above all else is not going to result in a stable society. And the web is very much part of the fabric of society now. Still, the web is young enough to have escaped the kind of regulation that “real world” companies would be subjected to. Again, don’t get me wrong: I don’t want top-down regulation. What I want is some common standards of decency amongst web companies. If the web ends up getting regulated because of repeated acts of abuse, it will be a tragedy of the commons on an unprecedented scale.

I realise that sounds very gloomy and doomy, and I don’t want to give the impression that Build was a downer—it really wasn’t. As the last ever speaker at Build, Frank ended on a note of optimism. Sure, the way we think about the web now is filled with negative connotations: it appears money-grabbing, shallow, and locked down. But that doesn’t mean that the web is inherently like that.

Harking back to Ethan’s fantastic talk at last year’s Build, Frank made the point that our map of the web makes it seem a grim place, but the territory of the web isn’t necessarily a lost cause. What we need is a better map. A map of openness, civility, and—something that’s gone missing from the web’s younger days—a touch of wildness.

I take comfort from that. I take comfort from that because we are the map makers. The worst thing that could happen would be for us to fatalistically accept the negative turn that the web has taken as inevitable, as “just the way things are.” If the web has grown up to be a dickhead, it’s because we shaped it that way, either through our own actions or inactions. But the web hasn’t finished growing. We can still shape it. We can make it less of a dickhead. At the very least, we can acknowledge that things can and should be better.

I’m not sure exactly how we go about making a better map for the web. I have a vague feeling that it involves tapping into the kind of spirit that informs places like CERN—the kind of spirit that motivated the creation of the web itself. I have a feeling that making a better map for the web doesn’t involve forming startups and taking venture capital. Neither do I think that a map for a better web will emerge from working at Google, Facebook, Twitter, or any of the current incumbents.

So where do we start? How do we begin to attempt to make a better web without getting overwehlmed by the enormity of the task?

Perhaps the answer comes from one of the other speakers at this year’s Build. In a beautifully-delivered presentation, Paul Soulellis spoke about resistance:

How do we, as an industry of creative professionals, reconcile the fact that so much of what we make is used to perpetuate the demands of a bloated marketplace? A monoculture?

He spoke about resisting the intangible nature of digital work with “thingness”, and resisting the breakneck speed of the network with slowness. Perhaps we need our own acts of resistance if we want to change the map of the web.

I don’t know what those acts of resistance are. Perhaps publishing on your own website is an act of resistance—one that’s more threatening to the big players than they’d like to admit. Perhaps engaging in civil discourse online is an act of resistance.

Like I said, I don’t know. But I really appreciate the way that this year’s Build has pushed me into asking these uncomfortable questions. Like the web, Build has grown up over the years. Unlike the web, Build turned out just fine.

Blame

There was an attempted break-in at the Clearleft office this week. Don’t worry—nothing was taken.

I mentioned the attempted break-in on Twitter (and Instagram). While most people offered sympathy and support, one person took me to task for talking about the incident at all. Not good for client confidence, apparently. And it gives us a bad reputation to boot.

This little dose of victim blaming reminded me of the incident in Douglas Rushkoff’s life that spurred him to write Life Inc.:

I had gotten mugged in front of my rental apartment—on Christmas Eve, no less—and had posted the time and location of my mugging to the Park Slope Parents list, a generally helpful, crunchy, and supportive message board for people raising kids in that section of Brooklyn and beyond. Within an hour, my email inbox was filling with messages from concerned neighbors. Scratch that: angry neighbors.

They wanted to know exactly why I had posted the exact location where the mugging had taken place. Didn’t I realize what this could do to their property values? No, these folks had no immediate plans to sell their homes—yet they were still more considered with the short-term asset value of their real estate than they were the long-term experiential value of their neighborhood!

Also: 137.