You are not safe

IBM 360 Announcement center

I have been catching up on Halt and Catch Fire. It is a fiction based on various aspects of Silicon Valley lore. I have enjoyed watching it immensely to a point.

I was especially struck by  episode eight in the third series. One of the main characters in series three hacks his employer and releases their anti-virus software online for free. But its the mid-1980s through a thoroughly modern lens. It resonates because it speaks to our age, not to the 1980s or even the mid-1990s.

YOU ARE NOT SAFE

I, Ryan Ray, released the MacMillan Utility source code. I acted alone. No one helped me, and no one told me to do it.  I did this because ‘security’ is a myth.  Contrary to what you might have heard, my friends, you are not safe.  Contrary to what you might have heard, my friends, you are not safe.  Safety is a story. It’s something we search our children so they can sleep at night, but we know it’s not real.

Yes, there was software piracy, it was a mainstream part of computing culture which had sprung up from the ‘homebrew’ mentality.  Prior to founding Apple, Steve Wozniak used to give out the schematics of what then became the Apple I. Punched paper tapes of software used to be exchanged between members when they met up in aMenlo Park garage and later on in an auditorium at Stanford University.

Back then the narrative was overwhelmingly positive in terms of technology. The main problem was whether the Japanese, Microsoft, Intel or IBM was going to crush the rest of the technology eco-system in Silicon Valley. Consumers  had a bright new world of technology ahead of them.  Video games were still a niche interest compared to VCRs (video cassette recorders). VHS versus Betamax was as important a format war as Windows versus Macintosh.

Here’s the thing. This show (rightly or wrongly) may frame the way a lot of people think about this part of the digital age. For those who aren’t well read about the history of Silicon Valley OR didn’t live through the 1980s – it will colour their view of history. That detail rankled me a bit; I’m not quite sure why.  Part of it is knowing where we’re going is understanding where we have been in past.

That’s all very nice, but why does this matter? It provides you with perspective and the ability to critique ideas.

 

The media of me: it’s not about the technology

media of me post

Wadds came up with 13 theses about media with more than a nod and a wink to The Cluetrain Manifesto. The main thrust of it is that the media model is broken, technology has a lot of the blame at its door.

Picking through it are some worthy aspirations, but it was diagnosing symptoms rather than causes. I believe that the main problems are wetware, not software. People and civil society rather than networks and servers.

Technology has its own momentum
As with many things, the reality and where we are going is much more complex. Kevin Kelly posited that technological progress is a natural force of its own. He called this force the ‘technium’. It is not moral, it doesn’t understand good or bad. It can be slowed down for a time, but never stopped.

Even during the European dark ages, the golden age in Muslim countries saw Arab scholars:

  • Collate classical knowledge
  • Translate it into their own language
  • Build upon the body of knowledge

This knowledge came back into Europe. It helped provide a foundation for the renaissance.

We’re not going to be able to stop bots or algorithms. As they improve; their impact will be harder to discern. There will be a tension in online platforms; shareholder value versus good citizenship.

Digital is a winner takes all world
As with many previous technology markets such as the PC and smartphone operating systems online is an oligopoly of two. Digital media provides a disproportionate amount of benefit to very few platforms.

Facebook and Google count for 85-90% of online advertising growth.

In China, online media is dominated by Tencent and Baidu. We could ‘Balkanise’ the media landscape. But that would mean a poorer experience for users outside the US and China. The technology sector does not have:

  • Commercial scale in funding
  • Sufficient talent
  • Comparable addressable markets

Timms & Heimans hypothesis of ‘new power vs. old power’ rubs up against technology as an uncomfortable vector.

This all means that the tensions in society, civic society and societal discourse is accelerated and amplified.

From the perspective of technology platforms this isn’t their problem. They are only tackling it with reluctance, they don’t have a silver bullet solution.
In their eyes:

  • ‘Online’ isn’t a problem, it is the breakdown in social norms, which are then amplified and gamed online
  • In the real world we’re insulated from views unless we chose to explore alternatives. Algorithms have amplified this process further to create a filter bubble. Algorithms are only mimicing our natural desires. This is mirrored in the lack real-world discourse and polarisation of views
  • Algorithms are accused of having a reductive effect on an individuals breadth of media consumption. News feed algorithms jobs are to make platforms money. Before their widespread use netizens widely flocked to chatrooms and forums with a similar narrow focus. News readers using RSS which would allow individuals to read widely have proved to be only a niche interest

Reading widely is important to be being well informed, but its a conscious choice that people have to make. But in order to read widely one has to be:

  • Sufficiently educated to be confident in their reading ability
  • Confident enough to ignore any scorn that might come from ‘books, learning and being an expert’
  • Sufficiently curious to have the motivation to read
  • Having sufficient time to be able to read

These bullets are affected by quality of education, social norms and income. If you are just getting by with a series of side hustle jobs you might too time poor to read widely.

These are not universal traits in society. In the UK the idea of the self-educated literate working-man who goes to classes at the Mechanics Institute is long dead. That wasn’t done by Facebook or Google.

The notion of an easily swayed populus wasn’t an invention of Cambridge Analytica, Google or Facebook. The Roman poet Juvenal famous for the concept of ‘bread and circuses’ would see something similar in populist politics. From Brexit, to Germany’s AfD the focus on diversion, distraction and immediate satisfaction ‘palliative’. A significant amount of common people are selfish in nature and often pay little attention to wider concerns.

A quote from near the end of Jean-Paul Satre’s play No Exit sums it up quite well

“All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!”

Whilst in a democracy, all opinions should have the opportunity to be voiced; should they have a right to be heard? Should politicians really reflect the will of the people? I think there is a strong argument to be made against it. I am not advocating authoritarian rule, but that we need leaders who reflect on the greater good. Edmund Burke – one of the founding fathers of British conservatism is a widely cited example of a politician who didn’t reflect the will of the people. Burke recognised that democracy can create a tyranny over unpopular minorities. He didn’t consider politicians to be delegates; conduits for votes without moral responsibility.

He is widely cited as being a better man for it:

  • Burke viewed the British conduct in India under the East India Company immoral
  • He advocated representation for American colonists
  • Acknowledgement of wrongdoing by the Crown in America and an appropriate apology

Facts versus Emotion
Facts and emotion have always duelled and facts have frequently come off the worse for it. Western politicians from Adolf Hitler to Barrack Obama have little in common except being successful exponents of rhetoric and emotion in their speeches. Technical skills and knowledge don’t make the cut. A classic example of this is the dissonance between the advice of John Redwood as a strategist with Charles Stanley versus his political stance on Brexit. Mr Redwood knows what works as a politician.

Those that wield emotion now, have a greater understanding of how it works. It is why populist organisations win. It is why experts fail to persuade voters to act in their own interest. That won’t change with technology but with stonger, harsher electoral commission powers.

Fact versus Fiction
Yellow journalism and fiction has been with us for as long as civilisation existed. It’s modern roots are in the American media industry of the late 19th century, as publishers battled for circulation. They work because audiences love ‘good stories’. A good story is one that:

  • Surprises
  • Entertains
  • Reinforces our own beliefs

American journalist Frank Mott listed the following characteristics of :

  • Scare headlines
  • Lavish use of images
  • Faked expertise: misleading headlines pseudo-science and false learnings

All of Mott’s points sound like a thoroughly modern media playbook. Yellow journalism pioneers Hearst & Pulitzer were only stopped by public vilification and shame. Pullitzer Price, like the Nobel Prize was a penitent act at the end of a successful  media career. Hearst & Pullitzer were owner-proprietors, it is a lot harder (though not impossible) to shame a public company today. The bigger issue is that a century of mass-media practice has lowered the bar in standards for ‘new media’ companies. A brutal legislative machine that would replace compliance through guilt with compliance through fear is a possible solution. However the legislative executive by its nature tends to favour the wealthy.

More information
What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
Trend Watch: New Power v. Old Power by Beth Comstock
No Exit and Three Other Plays by Jean Paul Sartre
Satires by Juvenal
Media of me: 13 theses

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Five for Friday | 五日(星期五)

Things that made my day this week:

Pretty much everything that you really need to know about fake news.

Scott Galloway framed these questions as the ones that politicians should be asking of Facebook et al; I also think that smart shareholders should be putting these questions on the table as well

Air France Music – via our Matt

I love this tour though the history of the Honda Civic

“Tup-e-Tung”, or the Afghan War Rug – The Firearm BlogThe Firearm Blog – really nice article on how the series of wars that regularly punctuate the country’s modern history have impacted traditional carpet design

Out and about: Blade Runner 2049

*** No plot spoilers*** Where do you start when talking about the most hyped film of the year?

Blade Runner 2049 starts up some 20 years after the original film. It captures the visuals of the original film, moving it onwards.  The plot has a series of recursive sweeps that tightly knit both films together which at times feels a little forced, a bit like the devices used to join Jeremy Renner’s Bourne Legacy to the Matt Damon canon.

Blade Runner 2049

The 1982 film took the neon, rain and high density living of Hong Kong in the late summer and packaged it up for a western audience.  Ever since I first saw  it represented a darker, but more colourful future. I felt inspired, ready to embrace the future warts and all after seeing it for the first time.

The new film is a darker greyer vision largely devoid of hope. You still see the Pan Am and Atari buildings of the first film, now joined with brands like Diageo. The police cars are now made by Peugeot. It also captures the visual language of the book, something that Scott hadn’t done in the original to the same extent. In the book, Dick (and the Dekkard character) obsess on how the depopulated world’s crumbling ephemera is rapidly becoming dust.

Visually the film dials down its influences from Hong Kong, Tokyo or Singapore and instead borrows from the crumbling industrial relics of the west and third world scrap driven scavenging from e-waste in China and Ghana to the ship breaking yards of Bangladesh. The filthy smog and snow is like a lurid tabloid exposé of northern China’s choking pollution during the winter. It paints a vision more in tune with today. Automation and technology have disrupted society, but orphans are still exploited for unskilled labour and vice is rampant.

Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford do very capable performances. And they are supported by a great ensemble of cast members of great character actors at the top of their game. Dave Bautista, Robin Wright, Barkhad Abdi (Eye in The Sky) and David Dastmalchian (MacGyver, Antman, and The Dark Knight). The one let down is Jared Leto – who now seems to play the same character in every film since his career high point of Dallas Buyer’s Club – I suspect that this is as much a problem with casting as performance. I think he needs to be cast against type more.

For a three-hour film it still manages to hold your attention and draw you in to its universe without feeling tired. It’s also a film that forces you to think, so if you are looking for visual wallpaper for the mind a la Marvel’s Avengers series of films it won’t be for you.

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Apple Special Event and Security

@ WWDC

Apple’s facial recognition has spurred a number of discussions about the privacy trade-offs in the iPhone X.

Experts Weigh Pros, Cons of FaceID Authentication in iPhone X | Dark ReadingOne concern about FaceID is in its current implementation, only one face can be used per device, says Pepijn Bruienne, senior R&D engineer at Duo Security. TouchID lets users register up to five fingerprints. If a third party obtains a user’s fingerprint and reproduces it, and the user is aware, they could register a different unique fingerprint.

Can Cops Force You to Unlock Your Phone With Your Face? | The Atlantic – Even if Face ID is advanced enough to keep pranksters out, many wondered Tuesday if it would actually make it easier for police to get in. Could officers force someone they’ve arrested to look into their phone to unlock it?

How Secure Is The iPhone X’s FaceID? Here’s What We Know | Wired – Marc Rogers, a security researcher at Cloudflare who was one of the first to demonstrate spoofing a fake fingerprint to defeat TouchID. Rogers says he has no doubt that he—or at least someone—will crack FaceID. In an interview ahead of Apple’s FaceID announcement, Rogers suggested that 3-D printing a target victim’s head and showing it to their phone might be all it takes. “The moment someone can reproduce your face in a way that can be played back to the computer, you’ve got a problem,” Roger says. “I’d love to start by 3-D-printing my own head and seeing if I can use that to unlock it.” 

Now lets talk about the Apple Watch, which I consider to present more serious issues.
 
The Apple Watch 3 is interesting from a legislative point-of-view. The software SIM in the Apple Watch clones the number of your iPhone. The security services of the major powers generally don’t broadcast their capabilities. Politicians are generally untroubled by knowledge of what is possible. Giving politicians an inkling is likely to result in broad sweeping authoritarian power. 
Imagine what will happen when Amber Rudd goes into parliament looking for real-time access to everyone’s phones. She now can point to the Apple Watch 3 as evidence that LTE and 3G connections can be cloned. What kind of legislation will her special advisers start cooking up then?

Secondly, it will only be a matter of time before criminals either work out how to do it themselves, or co-opt mobile carrier staff. Two factor authentication that depends on SMS is already compromised. This allows it to be compromised and undetectable.

The Apple Watch 3 may have royally screwed us all.