Recommended Posts on Power, Culture, and Privacy

Lots of talk about privacy lately. Much of it has been spurred by the completely unsurprising revelations about NSA spying. But we were primed for that by the discussion surrounding Facebook Home and Om Malik’s widely noted reaction (“Why Facebook Home Bothers Me“) back in April.

Server room in CERN (Switzerland)

Server room in CERN (Switzerland) (© Florian Hirzinger)

Over the past day, I’ve read two standout posts that I’d really recommend. At the New Yorker, Jill Lepore has an engaging piece entitled Privacy in an Age of Publicity on the history of our modern notions of privacy. She connects a number of disparate points, including the shift in our meaning of “mystery,” early ideas about publicity from Jeremy Bentham (of the oft-discussed “panopticon” ), the development of the notion of a domestic sphere of life, and the legally foundational 1890 article on privacy by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. By the end of the article, it made a whole lot of sense why people just aren’t that bothered by the NSA’s practices. As she put it:

There is no longer a public self, even a rhetorical one. There are only lots of people protecting their privacy, while watching themselves, and one another, refracted, endlessly, through a prism of absurd design.

That’s the cultural side of things. But there’s also the power side of things. Dave Winer takes up that side (“The Quiet War In Tech“) noting:

In th[e] war [of information], the governments have more in common than they have differences. …What they want is to keep order, I really believe that. The order that keeps the rich rich, and more or less ignores the challenges we all face in keeping our species alive on this planet. I understand the sentiment. …If you were President of the United States, and you saw a certain probability of [tech collapse] happening, you’d re-up on the side of preserving order. …And in that context, it’s not surprising that our, the people’s, information access systems are really weak compared to the ones the governments have.

By now it should be obvious that the big tech companies are not our friends. They’re more like the government than they are like you and me. Maybe not their fault, maybe they didn’t see it coming, but I doubt they’d deny that they’re there now.

Winer goes on to spin out some important implications for programmers and tech users, so it is worth a read.

Great insights.

Defending Patents Against Patents

Some news in the tech patent world yesterday, where Jared Favole and Brent Kendall reported in the Washington Post (Obama Plans to Take Action Against Patent-Holding Firms) that

The White House on Tuesday plans to announce a set of executive actions President Barack Obama will take that are aimed at reining in certain patent-holding firms, known as “patent trolls” to their detractors, amid concerns that the firms are abusing the patent system and disrupting competition.

Mr. Obama’s actions, which include measures he wants Congress to consider, are intended to target firms that have forced technology companies, financial institutions and others into costly litigation to protect their products. These patent-holding firms amass portfolios of patents more to pursue licensing fees than to build new products.

Original patent for the first pedal-driven bicycle, filed by Pierre Lallement

Original patent for the first pedal-driven bicycle, filed by Pierre Lallement

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The Fairphone—A Good Start at Ethical Hardware

Casey Johnson at Ars Technica (“Fairphone” looks to give power back to customers):

The “Fairphone,” a phone that purports to approach smartphone design in the most ethical way possible from every conceivable angle, opened for preorders last Friday. The phone uses only conflict-free resources wherever possible, it has an open design, and it is marketed in a transparent way to customers.

Starting small.  Android only, Europe only, and about $400.  As a product, it probably won’t have a huge impact in and of itself. Hopefully it will serve as a very successful proof-of-concept that we can do tech in a way that both respects everyone involved (trying to improve practices along the way) and is financially viable.

Fairphone

© Fairphone

Binge Watching Is Changing Us: Recognizing the Power of Imagination

It may not be one of the great novels of all time, but one of my favorite reading experiences was Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Genre wise, it is a historical-fiction whodunit set in a medieval monastery.  The story and action are great (which the film version attests to), but it also has an intellectual depth that only a professional semiotician like Eco could bring to the table.  As the novel unfolds, Eco probes the deeply symbolic side of our lives, exploring how the categories we think with structure our actions and passions. (Think of the short ancient language and culture sections in Snow Crash, but this time marinating the whole thing, not just peppering here and there.)

Monastery Davidovica

Monastery Davidovica (© Vhorvat)

For Eco, the swirling liturgical and religious imaginations of monks in medieval Europe shaped—for good or for ill—the way that monks understood the world.  Indeed, that imagination, populated by angels, devils, and biblical figures, is almost a character of its own

Looking back, I probably liked The Name of the Rose so much because I read it as I travelled in Europe for the first time. I picked up the novel as I waited for a train in London at the start of a long solo trek to Florence.  I had spent months poking around churches, castles, and museums in England during classes, so my head was full of the images Eco drew upon.  I was in the perfect place—both literally and figuratively—to enjoy the work.

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Ends, Beginnings, and All Along the Ways: Invocation for Commencement

Last weekend was graduation here at Saint Joseph’s University. I was honored to be asked to give the invocation prayer at the undergraduate commencement ceremony on May 11.  All went well, as far as that sort of thing goes. (Can you really evaluate a prayer?)

Invocation photo

Melissa Kelly/Saint Joseph’s University

For me, the most compelling thing about the experience was the silence. Several thousand people were there, and yet there was so little to hear. For all the busyness of the day and of our lives, it is nice to have moments where we pause to quiet ourselves and attend to the depth of our experience, even for just a moment.  All the more powerful when it is in such a big group.

Perhaps these sorts of experiences are better left to memory. But I thought I’d post the prayer for those who might like to remember such things.

~~~~~

Holy and loving God,
    We ask you to be with us on this wonderful day;
    a day of transition and a day of transformation.

We ask you to be with us today
    just as you have been with us each and every step of the way.

Be with us as you have been with us each morning,
    as we bent our minds to the rigors of the classroom
    and struggled to navigate life with roommates.

Be with us as you have each noon
    sharing lives with friends over a meal;
    and grading papers and preparing lectures for students.

Be with us as you have been with us each afternoon,
   in the lab, parsing the secrets of creation;
   and at service sites, putting flesh on your call to justice.

Be with as you have each evening,
    training our bodies in practices and games;
   and working overtime to pay tuition bills.

Be with us as you have been with us each night,
    reading the next book and writing the next paper;
   and gathering to praise you in liturgy;

    lying awake, worrying about a son or daughter so far from home;
    and resting our minds and bodies for the days ahead.

Spirit of God—breath of life—continue to be with us today
   as we celebrate the many things we have accomplished together.

Bless this moment, and these lives we have woven
   and the lives that we begin today.

In your name, we pray.
    Amen.

Coins to Tunes

Mom found one just like Grandpa's bank!As a six year old, one of my favorite things about visiting my grandparents in their small, southern Illinois town was the thrill of splitting the pile of change from my grandfather’s piggy bank with my brother.  It wasn’t a piggy, actually, but a portly, tonsured monk, complete with fake fur for hair. The classic Friar Tuck, really.  I’m not sure if it was supposed to be an image of frugality or a critical commentary on medieval monks. But either way, we were glad that my grandfather was frugal so that we could feel a 6 year old’s version of gluttonousness.

We don’t have a piggy bank these days, but the change abounds.  Which is why I loved seeing Kelly Hodgkins short piece at TUAW.

You are probably familiar with the coin-counting service Coinstar, which offers cash in exchange for your loose coins. Instead of receiving a cash voucher next time you turn in change, select an iTunes gift certificate and you will receive a receipt with an iTunes redemption code.

The funds will be added to your Apple ID and you can use it to buy iOS Apps, OS X apps, music, movies and books. Coinstar waives the coin-counting fee with these gift certificates, so you will walk away with your full balance. The coin-counting service occasionally offers an iTunes promotion thatll give you an extra $10 when you redeem a minimum amount usually $40. You can find promotions on Coinstars Special Offers webpage or be alerted via email when you sign up for a Coinstar account.

I’ve never used Coinstar machines because they charge that fee. But this looks like a great way to put that change to good use while bringing back the thrill of the coin pile.

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