The Soft Computer

Let’s forget about technology for a moment. Let’s quit thinking about contraptions that rattle more than they hum, often alarmingly. Let’s not talk about technology at all.

Let’s talk about people instead.

‘What a piece of work is a man!’ says Hamlet. ‘How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!’

This speech has always puzzled me, because many of the human beings I know may qualify as a ‘piece of work’, but lack somewhat in the expressive, admirable, angelic and god-like categories. It only follows, therefore, that if humans are less than angelic in their actions, the things they do with technology might likewise be flawed.

The Australian government announced this week that they wanted to extend the temporary anti-terrorist powers granted to them following September 11, 2001. They proposed allowing employers to intercept their employees’ emails and other Internet communications without their consent. The justification they used was that the nation’s IT infrastructure could be used to attack its financial systems, power grid and even its transport.

Attorney-General Robert McClelland used the example of recent attacks on Estonia’s Internet services, which brought communications to a halt for days. Such a gambit, he warned, ‘would reap far greater economic damage than would be the case of a physical [terrorist] attack.’ He neglected to mention that it’s since been determined that the Estonian attack was the work of a single rogue hacker against a particularly vulnerable and poorly constructed communications system.

Security and privacy are often portrayed as a zero-sum game. Put plainly, this means that 100% security implies 0% privacy. Knowing what we know of human nature, such an assertion has alarming implications.

People are gossips and busybodies by nature. There are few, if any, exceptions to this rule. So it’s not difficult at all to imagine countless scenarios where a nosey boss might use the legally mandated right to snoop on his staff for any number of reasons other than fighting terrorism.

More to the point, it’s difficult to imagine how this attack on privacy could have any effect whatsoever in diminishing terror. Who but the most inept of terrorists would ever use the company email account to talk with his partners in crime?

Privacy and respect in the workplace are always in contention with the employer’s right to ensure that operations are smoothly conducted, that customer service is maintained at a high level, and that the company is not seen to be anything less than the paragon of corporate citizenship. On accepting employment within a given organisation, people willingly surrender some modicum of their individuality in pursuit of the company’s goals. But it’s a poor manager indeed who doesn’t recognise that staff will thrive through empowerment and responsibility. Constant scrutiny and mistrust have exactly the opposite effect.

Technology feeds the constant temptation to peer into other people’s lives. And people’s lack of understanding of the implications of a world-wide network often lead them to expose themselves far more than they would by other means.

A question: If you knew for a fact that the person taking a photo of you at a party, tipsy and laughing in a silly hat, would post it to Facebook, would you let them go ahead? What if you knew that prospective employers, contractors, media types – even police – would be able to see that photo for years to come? Would you still let that photo be taken?

Or what about that angry, poorly considered statement that you spurted out in a momentary fit of pique? What if you knew for a fact that it would be seen by someone you wanted to date? Would you be prepared to be judged by it for the rest of your life?

Very few people truly understand the vastly public nature of the Internet. The majority of people have trouble understanding how exposed they are to the scrutiny of others because they compose their missives in the relative privacy of their home or office. As far as they can tell, it’s something between them and their computer screen.

Others vastly underrate the impact of their snooping. Once again, because there’s no one there but them and the screen, they have trouble visualising how deeply uncomfortable it would be for both if the object of their curiousity were present in the room at the time.

Among those whose job it is to think about these things, there are two dominant responses. One side advocates an approach that can be summarised as Full Disclosure. They say, let’s accept that the information genie is out of the bottle and learn to live our entire lives in the open. Let’s not grant anyone the right or the ability to monopolise information. Let’s do that by making it visible to everyone.

Succinctly, Full Disclosure advocates assume that what’s good for the goose is what’s good for the gander. If I know something embarrassing about you and want to capitalise on it, I need to consider that you could just as easily find something embarrassing about me. As long as we all live our lives with the proper level of transparency and respect however, we can achieve an entente that will be acceptable to everyone.

At the other end of the privacy argument are those who advocate strict controls on access to information for anyone entrusted with it. The basic assumption here is that respecting individual privacy is a sacred trust that must not be abused. Advocates of this approach want strict limits placed on all entities with access to potentially compromising information.

There are compelling aspects to both these perspectives there is not enough space here to amplify on either. All this humble writer can do is implore you to consider how best to balance these considerations at the workplace, in policy and in your day-to-day life.

In Vanuatu the cornerstone of Kastom is respect. The vast majority here live as they have for over 3000 years. The Internet is in many ways a more fully realised rendition of Marshall McLuhan’s metaphor of the global village. McLuhan intended the image to be derogatory, ridiculing modern humanity’s embrace of television and mass culture. He imagined a world returned to a primitive state, staring dumbly at the flickering light of the TV screen, as he imagined villagers once gazed into the communal fire.

He was wrong, of course, to assume that village life was one iota less complex than in the 21st century. He was wrong to assume that village life lacked subtlety, nuance, even byzantine political and social machinations.

He was right, though, about one crucial thing. We all live in the same place now. Just as we weigh our words around the camp fire, just as we weigh the respect we show others in the nakamal against what we expect in return, we need to think carefully about what we say and do on the Internet.

One thought on “The Soft Computer”

  1. “We all live in the same place now. Just as we weigh our words around the camp fire… we need to think carefully about what we say and do on the Internet.”

    Although I do not argue your main points regarding privacy and security, and the fact that many lack Clue 1 about just how public their information has become, I am reminded again by this final paragraph that we who *are* connected vastly overestimate the impact of the internet on the rest of the world.

    The latest stats I can find still show that less than 40% of the world’s population has *regular, reliable* access to a computer. This figure is even lower if you factor in access to the internet, even lower if you add *uncensored*.

    Then, there is the issue of language. Having access to material you cannot read is not very useful. With the spectacular growth of the ‘not in English’ internet, a large language and cultural divide is opening on the net — one that will never close.

    We do not all live in the same village. Those who do not have access to the net are not affected at all. These are still the majority.

    Those who do have access are increasingly splintering into a series of villages, determined by language and government policies. Each village is different. In the English-language village, anything goes, as long as someone can pay the bills, which is why that public space increasingly looks like a cross between television and a highway plastered with billboards.

    The Chinese village looks a lot like any other Chinese village, as far as I can tell. Unless you read Chinese (and mine is so rusty as to be useless), it looks like a lot of incomprehensible signs on strange shops, overseen by the watchful eyes of the local Committee. You better be watching what you say, because you know for sure someone else is.

    And foreigners are regarded with deep suspicion, by the Committee, and by the locals, who wonder if they are really spies for the Committee.

    There is also a substantial Russian village, a Hindi village, an EU village, and so on. There is even a Srbijan village, and boy! does it ever reflect the culture it is embedded in! And each has its own mores, embedded in its own set of regulations.

    Despite the dreams of the 90s, the internet is not going to make us all one and free us from the constraints of human nature. Far from it. It is a human space, and therefore it can only reflect what we are.

    And we are a species given to splintering, to us versus them, to power relations and hierarchy and a myriad other traits that have kept us from realising our own dreams of utopia.

    Sure. Common sense tells us to watch what we say and do in any public space, and the issues of privacy and security are particularly acute in the English language village.

    But human nature makes sure that what can be said around this fire is heresy at that one, that the questions asked over here make no sense to the people sitting over there, and that, at any given hearth, someone will remark upon the weirdness and threat from the people at other hearths.

    The more it changes….

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