John F. Kennedy and One Person, Armed With Powerful Technology

John F Kennedy Official Portrait

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I wasn’t alive when it happened, so it is not an event that really touched me personally. Yet, the anniversary has led me to reflect on it quite a bit, if only for the fact that it is really difficult to avoid all of the media coverage.

And what strikes me is that it was a profound precursor to the world we live in now: one person, armed with powerful technology, can absolutely change the world with just an idea and three presses of a finger.

Hard to fathom in the ’60s. Routine today.

Avoiding the Near Occasions of Sin

Greetings. I hope this post finds you well. It is September and school is back in session. I took a couple months off this summer from blogging and following the tech news. It can be so easy to get so wrapped up in the chase—keeping on top of breaking news, commenting, figuring out something good to say, writing it up, seeing if people respond. But I’m not ever sure if it is helping me become a better thinker or just a better chaser.  So, I thought some disconnection was in order.

At the end of July, Matt Gemmell (Working in the Shed) put well when he noted:

The internet isn’t to blame – it’s us. We’re weak, and our natural tendency is to feed that weakness rather than struggle against it. Some people are more prolific than others, but the boundaries don’t lie where we think they do: context and self-discipline are much, much more important than your personal pace or ability. The difference that a creativity-conducive environment can make is profound.

I personally don’t seem to be able to choose to ignore Twitter, or email, or BBC News when they’re available. I can manage for short periods, but sooner or later I’ll give in. What I can do, though, is remove the temptation. Counting the chocolate bars in the cupboard doesn’t work half as well as just not buying any. I know it, and so do you.

There is a great old school term for this in the Catholic tradition: “near occasion of sin”.  Something is a near occasion of sin when it draws you into doing something that is going to be bad.  The near occasion might be good or bad in itself. (Chocolate is one thing, but meth is quite another.) But it is really more about the particular combination of me/you and that thing leading to doing things that separate you from a balanced and connected life. Chocolate isn’t one of mine, but Cheetos are.

Somehow, it seems like the net is a massive collection of near occasions.

Ideally, time off can help create the space and energy we need to create better habits. But, at the same time, we can only really create good habits once we are back in contact with that thing. We only feed the strength when I struggle with the things that make us weak.  In the long run, I have to figure out how blog without the chase.

I think the two months off helped, but we’ll see.

(Really?) Free The Pictures – Review with PSA

Brian S. Hall has a overview of free cloud picture services at ReadWrite. Interestingly, before he gets to the review itself, he notes

Before diving into the features of the various services, it should be noted that taking advantage of any of these free cloud services comes with a potential price. As the saying goes, if an online site isnt selling you a product, then you are the product.

Good to see a public service announcement of sorts about the costs of “free” services becoming a normal part of a review. While well known to folks who keep up on tech issues, this material is still unknown to many people.

This Can’t End Well: 3D-Printed Gun in Israeli Parliament

At some point, maker culture opens the door to un-maker culture…

Imagine a person holding a gun on his lap, fully visible, while in the same room as President Barack Obama. The equivalent recently happened in Israel when investigative journalists from Channel 10 TV tested government security by slipping a functioning 3D-printed gun into the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, and into an address by the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In fact, the journalists got past Knesset security twice. The Channel 10 journalists printed the gun based on designs from U.S. nonprofit Defense Distributed, and although it contains one metal part, a nail that serves as a firing pin, the gun even made it past a metal detector.

(Via Sean Captain at | 3D-Printed Gun in Israeli Parliament Ignites Security Concerns. Story has links through to the original Israeli news report.)

Markey Letter to ATF re: Printed Guns

U.S. Congressman Ed Markey’s letter to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives about Defense Distributed’s manufacturing of 3-D printed guns (public domain)

In an interview that covered key ideas on the singularity, advanced technology proponent Ray Kurzweil argued that while new, powerful technologies open the door to harm and terrorism, humans have the power to rein in the danger. But to do that, he suggests “we need to give a higher priority to preparing protective strategies and systems. We need to put a few more stones on the defense side of the scale.”

Given what has been revealed about the NSA data gathering and the broadening legal acceptability of online surveillance, somehow I don’t see anyone adding “more stones” to law enforcement anytime soon. Indeed, part of the motivation for printed guns seems to be precisely protection from the “defense side of the scale”.

Not to be a total downer, but how does this end well?

And what was that about an eye for an eye leaving the world blind?

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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