Tags: power

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Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

Ways to think about machine learning — Benedict Evans

This strikes me as a sensible way of thinking about machine learning: it’s like when we got relational databases—suddenly we could do more, quicker, and easier …but it doesn’t require us to treat the technology like it’s magic.

An important parallel here is that though relational databases had economy of scale effects, there were limited network or ‘winner takes all’ effects. The database being used by company A doesn’t get better if company B buys the same database software from the same vendor: Safeway’s database doesn’t get better if Caterpillar buys the same one. Much the same actually applies to machine learning: machine learning is all about data, but data is highly specific to particular applications. More handwriting data will make a handwriting recognizer better, and more gas turbine data will make a system that predicts failures in gas turbines better, but the one doesn’t help with the other. Data isn’t fungible.

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

“I Was Devastated”: Tim Berners-Lee, the Man Who Created the World Wide Web, Has Some Regrets | Vanity Fair

Are we headed toward an Orwellian future where a handful of corporations monitor and control our lives? Or are we on the verge of creating a better version of society online, one where the free flow of ideas and information helps cure disease, expose corruption, reverse injustices?

It’s hard to believe that anyone—even Zuckerberg—wants the 1984 version. He didn’t found Facebook to manipulate elections; Jack Dorsey and the other Twitter founders didn’t intend to give Donald Trump a digital bullhorn. And this is what makes Berners-Lee believe that this battle over our digital future can be won. As public outrage grows over the centralization of the Web, and as enlarging numbers of coders join the effort to decentralize it, he has visions of the rest of us rising up and joining him.

Sunday, July 1st, 2018

Blake Watson | An ode to web pages

Before social media monoliths made us into little mechanical turks for advertising platforms, we had organic homes on the web. We had pages that were ours. And they could look however you wanted. And you could write whatever you wanted on there.

There weren’t comments if you didn’t want them. There were no photo dimensions to adhere to. No 140-character limits. No BS. Or lots of BS. Either way, the choice was yours because you owned your site and you could do whatever you wanted.

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

Should computers serve humans, or should humans serve computers? | Read the Tea Leaves

Between the utopian and dystopian, which vision of the future seems more likely to you? Which vision seems more true to how we currently live with technology, in the form of our smartphones and social media apps?

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018

Manual Aspire

If only all documentation was as great as this old manual for the ZX Spectrum that Remy uncovered:

The manual is an instruction book on how to program the Spectrum. It’s a full book, with detailed directions and information on how the machine works, how the programming language works, includes human readable sentences explaining logic and even goes so far as touching on what hex values perform which assembly functions.

When we talk about things being “inspiring”, it’s rarely in regards to computer manuals. But, damn, if this isn’t inspiring!

This book stirs a passion inside of me that tells me that I can make something new from an existing thing. It reminds me of the 80s Lego boxes: unlike today’s Lego, the back of a Lego box would include pictures of creations that you could make with your Lego set. It didn’t include any instructions to do so, but it always made me think to myself: “I can make something more with these bricks”.

Friday, June 1st, 2018

Let’s make the grimy architecture of the web visible again by Russell Davies

Beneath the URL shorteners, the web!

It’s increasingly apparent that a more digitally literate citizenry would be good for a thousand different reasons. A great way to start would be to make URLs visible again, to let people see the infrastructure they’re living in.

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

Scripting News: The Internet is going the wrong way

The Internet is a place for the people, like parks, libraries, museums, historic places. It’s okay if corporations want to exploit the net, like DisneyLand or cruise lines, but not at the expense of the natural features of the net.

Thursday, May 10th, 2018

Kumiho. — Ethan Marcotte

Ethan shares my reaction to Google Duplex:

Frankly, this technology was designed to deceive humans.

And he points out that the team’s priorities are very revealing:

I’ll say this: it’s telling that matters of transparency, disclosure, and trust weren’t considered important for the initial release.

Wednesday, April 4th, 2018

Brendan Dawes - I Heart URLs

When I’m asked to give an example of a beautiful piece of design, perfect in form and function, I often respond with “the URL.”

I love every word of this beautifully-written love letter from Brendan.

Friday, March 30th, 2018

Facebook Container Extension: Take control of how you’re being tracked | The Firefox Frontier

A Firefox plugin that ring-fences all Facebook activity to the facebook.com domain. Once you close that tab, this extension takes care of garbage collection, ensuring that Facebook tracking scripts don’t leak into any other browsing activities.

Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

The Missing Building Blocks of the Web – Anil Dash – Medium

Anil documents the steady decline of empowering features from web browsers: view source; in-situ authoring; transclusion, but finishes with the greatest loss of all: your own website at your own address.

There are no technical barriers for why we couldn’t share our photos to our own sites instead of to Instagram, or why we couldn’t post stupid memes to our own web address instead of on Facebook or Reddit. There are social barriers, of course — if we stubbornly used our own websites right now, none of our family or friends would see our stuff. Yet there’s been a dogged community of web nerds working on that problem for a decade or two, trying to see if they can get the ease or convenience of sharing on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram to work across a distributed network where everyone has their own websites.

(Although it’s a bit of shame that Anil posted this on Ev’s blog instead of his own.)

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

AMP News | CSS-Tricks

Chris is trying to give a balanced view on AMP, but it’s hard to find any positive viewpoints from anyone who isn’t actually on the Google AMP team.

I know I’ve covered a lot of negative news here, but that’s mostly what I’ve been seeing.

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

I, for one. — Ethan Marcotte

Ethan adds his thoughts to my post about corporations using their power to influence the direction of the web.

Heck, one could even argue the creation of AMP isn’t just Google’s failure, but our failure. More specifically, perhaps it’s pointing to a failure of governance of our little industry. Absent a shared, collective vision for what we want the web to be—and with decent regulatory mechanisms to defend that vision—it’s unsurprising that corporate actors would step into that vacuum, and address the issues they find. And once they do, the solutions they design will inevitably benefit themselves first—and then, after that, the rest of us.

If at all.

Monday, February 26th, 2018

Ends and means

The latest edition of the excellent History Of The Web newsletter is called The Day(s) The Web Fought Back. It recounts the first time that websites stood up against bad legislation in the form of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), and goes to recount the even more effective use of blackout protests against SOPA and PIPA.

I remember feeling very heartened to see WikiPedia, Google and others take a stand on January 18th, 2012. But I also remember feeling uneasy. In this particular case, companies were lobbying for a cause I agreed with. But what if they were lobbying for a cause I didn’t agree with? Large corporations using their power to influence politics seems like a very bad idea. Isn’t it still a bad idea, even if I happen to agree with the cause?

Cloudflare quite rightly kicked The Daily Stormer off their roster of customers. Then the CEO of Cloudflare quite rightly wrote this in a company-wide memo:

Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.

There’s an uncomfortable tension here. When do the ends justify the means? Isn’t the whole point of having principles that they hold true even in the direst circumstances? Why even claim that corporations shouldn’t influence politics if you’re going to make an exception for net neutrality? Why even claim that free speech is sacrosanct if you make an exception for nazi scum?

Those two examples are pretty extreme and I can easily justify the exceptions to myself. Net neutrality is too important. Stopping fascism is too important. But where do I draw the line? At what point does something become “too important?”

There are more subtle examples of corporations wielding their power. Google are constantly using their monopoly position in search and browser marketshare to exert influence over website-builders. In theory, that’s bad. But in practice, I find myself agreeing with specific instances. Prioritising mobile-friendly sites? Sounds good to me. Penalising intrusive ads? Again, that seems okey-dokey to me. But surely that’s not the point. So what if I happen to agree with the ends being pursued? The fact that a company the size and power of Google is using their monopoly for any influence is worrying, regardless of whether I agree with the specific instances. But I kept my mouth shut.

Now I see Google abusing their monopoly again, this time with AMP. They may call the preferential treatment of Google-hosted AMP-formatted pages a “carrot”, but let’s be honest, it’s an abuse of power, plain and simple.

By the way, I have no doubt that the engineers working on AMP have the best of intentions. We are all pursuing the same ends. We all want a faster web. But we disagree on the means. If Google search results gave preferential treatment to any fast web pages, that would be fine. But by only giving preferential treatment to pages written in a format that they created, and hosted on their own servers, they are effectively forcing everyone to use AMP. I know for a fact that there are plenty of publications who are producing AMP content, not because they are sold on the benefits of the technology, but because they feel strong-armed into doing it in order to compete.

If the ends justify the means, then it’s easy to write off Google’s abuse of power. Those well-intentioned AMP engineers honestly think that they have the best interests of the web at heart:

We were worried about the web not existing anymore due to native apps and walled gardens killing it off. We wanted to make the web competitive. We saw a sense of urgency and thus we decided to build on the extensible web to build AMP instead of waiting for standard and browsers and websites to catch up. I stand behind this process. I’m a practical guy.

There’s real hubris and audacity in thinking that one company should be able to tackle fixing the whole web. I think the AMP team are genuinely upset and hurt that people aren’t cheering them on. Perhaps they will dismiss the criticisms as outpourings of “Why wasn’t I consulted?” But that would be a mistake. The many thoughtful people who are extremely critical of AMP are on the same side as the AMP team when it comes the end-goal of better, faster websites. But burning the web to save it? No thanks.

Ben Thompson goes into more detail on the tension between the ends and the means in The Aggregator Paradox:

The problem with Google’s actions should be obvious: the company is leveraging its monopoly in search to push the AMP format, and the company is leveraging its dominant position in browsers to punish sites with bad ads. That seems bad!

And yet, from a user perspective, the options I presented at the beginning — fast loading web pages with responsive designs that look great on mobile and the elimination of pop-up ads, ad overlays, and autoplaying videos with sounds — sounds pretty appealing!

From that perspective, there’s a moral argument to be made for wielding monopoly power like Google is doing. No doubt the AMP team feel it would be morally wrong for Google not to use its influence in search to give preferential treatment to AMP pages.

Going back to the opening examples of online blackouts, was it morally wrong for companies to use their power to influence politics? Or would it have been morally wrong for them not to have used their influence?

When do the ends justify the means?

Here’s a more subtle example than Google AMP, but one which has me just as worried for the future of the web. Mozilla announced that any new web features they add to their browser will require HTTPS.

The end-goal here is one I agree with: HTTPS everywhere. On the face of it, the means of reaching that goal seem reasonable. After all, we already require HTTPS for sensitive JavaScript APIs like geolocation or service workers. But the devil is in the details:

Effective immediately, all new features that are web-exposed are to be restricted to secure contexts. Web-exposed means that the feature is observable from a web page or server, whether through JavaScript, CSS, HTTP, media formats, etc. A feature can be anything from an extension of an existing IDL-defined object, a new CSS property, a new HTTP response header, to bigger features such as WebVR.

Emphasis mine.

This is a step too far. Again, I am in total agreement that we should be encouraging everyone to switch to HTTPS. But requiring HTTPS in order to use CSS? The ends don’t justify the means.

If there were valid security reasons for making HTTPS a requirement, I would be all for enforcing this. But these are two totally separate areas. Enforcing HTTPS by withholding CSS support is no different to enforcing AMP by withholding search placement. In some ways, I think it might actually be worse.

There’s an assumption in this decision that websites are being made by professionals who will know how to switch to HTTPS. But the web is for everyone. Not just for everyone to use. It’s for everyone to build.

One of my greatest fears for the web is that building it becomes the domain of a professional priesthood. Anything that raises the bar to writing some HTML or CSS makes me very worried. Usually it’s toolchains that make things more complex, but in this case the barrier to entry is being brought right into the browser itself.

I’m trying to imagine future Codebar evenings, helping people to make their first websites, but now having to tell them that some CSS will be off-limits until they meet the entry requirements of HTTPS …even though CSS and HTTPS have literally nothing to do with one another. (And yes, there will be an exception for localhost and I really hope there’ll be an exception for file: as well, but that’s simply postponing the disappointment.)

No doubt Mozilla (and the W3C Technical Architecture Group) believe that they are doing the right thing. Perhaps they think it would be morally wrong if browsers didn’t enforce HTTPS even for unrelated features like new CSS properties. They believe that, in this particular case, the ends justify the means.

I strongly disagree. If you also disagree, I encourage you to make your voice heard. Remember, this isn’t about whether you think that we should all switch to HTTPS—we’re all in agreement on that. This is about whether it’s okay to create collateral damage by deliberately denying people access to web features in order to further a completely separate agenda.

This isn’t about you or me. This is about all those people who could potentially become makers of the web. We should be welcoming them, not creating barriers for them to overcome.

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

AMPlified. — Ethan Marcotte

As of this moment, the power dynamics are skewed pretty severely in favor of Google’s proprietary AMP standard, and against those of us who’d ask this question:

What can I do about AMP?

Saturday, February 10th, 2018

Make me think! – Prototypr

Maybe being able to speak a foreign language is more fun than using a translation software.

Whenever we are about to substitute a laborious activity such as learning a language, cooking a meal, or tending to plants with a — deceptively — simple solution, we might always ask ourselves: Should the technology grow — or the person using it?

See, this is what I’m talking about—seamlessness is not, in my opinion, a desirable goal for its own sake. Every augmentation is also an amputation.

Some questions for us to ask ourselves as we design and build:

  • Empowerment: Who’s having the fun?
  • Resilience: Does it make us more vulnerable?
  • Empathy: What is the impact of simplification on others?

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

Legends of the Ancient Web

An absolutely fantastic talk (as always) from Maciej, this time looking at the history of radio and its parallels with the internet (something that Tom Standage touched on his book, Writing On The Wall). It starts as a hobbyist, fun medium. Then it gets regulated. Then it gets used to reinforce existing power structures.

It is hard to accept that good people, working on technology that benefits so many, with nothing but good intentions, could end up building a powerful tool for the wicked.

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

It is as if you were doing work

Stop dilly-dallying and just get this work done, okay?

Friday, May 19th, 2017

Notes From An Emergency

But real problems are messy. Tech culture prefers to solve harder, more abstract problems that haven’t been sullied by contact with reality. So they worry about how to give Mars an earth-like climate, rather than how to give Earth an earth-like climate. They debate how to make a morally benevolent God-like AI, rather than figuring out how to put ethical guard rails around the more pedestrian AI they are introducing into every area of people’s lives.

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Designing digital services that are accountable, understood, and trusted (OSCON 2016 talk)

Software is politics, because software is power.

The transcript of a tremendous talk by Richard Pope.