The Great Disconnect and Digital Exile

I come from a country where in the last century a number of our most famous writers have left these shores for a life of enforced exile. You’re not going to compare yourself to Beckett or Joyce now (are you?) I hear you ask in disbelief. Why no, not at all. But I have been trying to construct an analogy for what I feel must be done to reclaim ourselves in these empty digital times.

I will be leaving the world of social media and instant messaging. Not that anyone will care. I have few followers on any given platform, nobody hangs on to my every given word. And that’s okay with me.

I am sick of silos.

I want proper federation. I want my social media to work like phone numbers, postal addresses, email, and internet relay chat. Federated and open.

Here is a list of the digital silos I use: Skype, Viber, Instagram, Linkedin, Twitter, Academia.edu, Google+, Hangouts, … they’re just the main recognisable ones, the list goes on and on. It’s a royal pain in the neck managing them all and every silo is yet another opportunity to be fleeced, sold, upsold, and monetized in various ways.

All these companies need to come together to agree on a common federated instant messaging and social media standards and then build those standards into their products. Open Social made some waves at one point and I thought diaspora* was going to take off but then it didn’t.

Instant messaging can be broken into two parts: text and audio/video. Social networking and instant messaging should be kept separate.

I will still be contactable. If you want to get in touch with me in writing you can email me. If you want to talk to me you can call my number. And for nostalgia’s sake you could always pop it in the actual mail.

Cambrian Explosion in Abstraction (part i)

The Cambrian Explosion as you’ll remember refers to an epoch recorded in the fossil record which is known as, in the words of noted archaeologist Bill Bryson, “[…] the moment when complex life burst forth in dazzling profusion — the famous Cambrian explosion”. We’re talking 500-million-plus years ago.

I want to suggest that something similar happened in the Axial Age roughly 2,500 ago, but with thought. According to Karl Jaspers in his work Origin and Goal of History something profound or pivotal happened between the 8th century BCE and the 3rd century BCE in China, India, and Greece. World-spanning religions were formed. Itinerant scholars† plied their trade. According to Karen Armstrong in The Great Transformation what is now called The Golden Rule was formulated simultaneously and what seems like independently. Axiomatic math was laid out by a dude called Euclid. David Graeber in Debt: The First 5000 Years‡ argues that it is the simultaneous and independent invention of coinage that spurred this social complexity. But to have coinage one must have not just the technology but the idea of coinage. Witness bitcoin where tech capability pre-dated invention by 30 years or so. And for an idea like coinage one needs abstraction. And we know what that age also gave us, the birth of philosophy, and if there is one thing a philosopher gets off on it’s abstraction.

David Foster Wallace argues (convincingly in my opinion) that what set the Ancient Greeks apart from their Babylonian and Egyptian neighbours was abstraction. Everything and More is where that’ll be found.  Abstraction, which metaphorically and etymologically means to draw away [from] is the mental procedure of hoisting oneself one rung up your mental ladder away from the concrete world of the senses towards the ethereal realm of pure relation and symbol. From seeing a red patch on a wall to the curious notion of redness shorn of substance. From the use of capital to the ideology of capitalism.

To explain why an Aristotle then at that particular time and not before and not elsewhere. That is the challenge.

Rewind to a bit to just before the Cambrian explosion in abstraction. All ancient cultures had an origin myth. Not that they thought it was myth, mind you. It was their way of answering the mind-bending and soul-crushing question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” And who would blame them? In those times they were  big on the spirit world — you inhabited the spirit world before you were incarnated, post-mortem you returned to the spirit world. All entities be they living or non-living led a “spirited” existence. Reincarnation doesn’t change this story. And because agency and spirit are intertwined concepts people could believe such things like a hammer was to blame if when wielded it accidentally struck another. Try to imagine such a world-view.

All ancient cultures believed that everything is made out of the same basic stuff. The primitive elements. Mostly there were believed to be four elements, you know them: earth, wind, fire, water. Sometimes there was a fifth special one which is where we get that beautiful word quintessence from, which is one of those arresting poetic words that would never actually be used in a poem by an any way decent poet. But I digress. I used to think how ridiculous that anyone could believe that all things were materially reducible to just four paltry elements. But as a first approximation it’s not that bad a conjecture and when you think about it it’s non-obvious that a thing’s stuff and its appearance are at variance. That’s quite a leap to make. And clearly there is solid organic stuff, liquidy* things, airy stuff that fills our lungs, and fire from lightning, volcanoes and sparks from flint. So, like I say, as a first approximation, not bad.

Then look what happens in Ancient Greece. Thinkers begin to try to reason from first principles, they begin to look for natural causes and explanations for natural phenomena, and their thinking becomes much more abstract.

Lore tells us … okay, okay, records inform us that Thales of Miletus was the first philosopher in this tradition,

Yet they do not all agree as to the number and the nature of these principles. Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says the principle is water (for which reason he declared that the earth rests on water), getting the notion perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the moist and kept alive by it (and that from which they come to be is a principle of all things). He got his notion from this fact, and from the fact that the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and that water is the origin of the nature of moist things.

Aristotle, Metaphysics Alpha, 983b18

This is a highly informative paragraph. First it shows that there was intellectual disagreement and that tradition did not trump enquiry. This means that by the time of a mature Thales (c. 600 BC) the intellectual support structures were in place to allow his type of enquiry. Second we see a thinker trying to reason from first principles, trying to look for natural explanations, attempting to use abstract reasoning. Third it shows that Thales gave reasons for his beliefs and these reasons are important to Aristotle.

It should be noted that others (Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Xenophanes, …) conjectured that the first principle was one of the other elements: be it air, or fire, or earth. Empedocles thought the elements to be irreducible. So we have an inching forward of thought while still clinging to mythos. But it is with Anaximander that we get a leap in abstraction, he claimed that apeiron (that which is without limit) was the first principle. This can be thought of as formlessness or chaos. Anaximander is interesting also because he posited that the Earth is a free-floating body in space, which was a revolutionary idea, seemingly self-evidently false†† being completely at odds with the information we receive from our senses. With Anaximander we seem to get abstraction working on itself recursively, this is the difference.

 


 

† Made you look; footnotes are fun, aren’t they?

‡ A book I’ve been meaning to read since it came out.

* Firefox’s spell-checker is underlining liquidy with a red squiggly line.

†† Logicians

Gogol – Dead Souls [unexpected ending]

These rulers have put up their own conditions, their own values, and even their prices have now become generally known. And no ruler, though he be wiser than all legislators and rulers, has it is in his power to correct the evil however much he may curtail the activity of bad officials by putting them under the supervision of other officials. It will all be in vain until every one of us feels that as the time of the general rising up of all the peoples, he armed himself [his enemies?], so he must now rise up against injustice. As a Russian, as one tied to you by bonds of birth and blood, I now appeal to you. I appeal to those of you who have some idea of what is meant by nobility of thought. I invite you to remember the duty which every man, whatever post he may occupy, has to perform. I invite you to examine more closely your duty and the obligations of your earthly service because that is something which all of us are only dimly aware of, and we scarcely …’

[Here the manuscript breaks off]

[The following fragment turned up in an old hotel dresser in Odessa]

I have come to revise my opinion of late. It was a conversation with blind Igor that did it. Now I believe the order of the day should be boundless tyranny and absolute control.

I cannot understand how my spine grew weak. I came to identify with the common wretch. How disgusting, I recoil from those days of delirium. My own skin repels me. The sweet embrace of totalitarianism is just the ticket. “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” What truth those words contain! I wish I had said that.

Hacker News and Machine Learning

I recently did a search on the big G for “Hacker News” and “Machine Learning” to see which posts had attracted the most amount of search attention. I thought it might be the recent announcement of TensorFlow[0] from the aforementioned Google or the even more recent announcement of the Distributed Machine Learning Toolkit (DMLT)[1] from Microsoft. These two multinational corporations are not the only tech giants to have entered this arena. Amazon Machine Learning[2] has been in this space since April albeit they’ve taken their traditional SaaS route so while technically speaking they are providing machine learning services they don’t have an open-source toolkit offering a la Google and Microsoft. Rather, TensorFlow and DMLT follow on the heels of community offerings Torch[3] and Theano[4].

Sometimes it’s hard to spot a trend that’s right under your nose. It will be interesting to see the worlds of humanities computing and machine learning collide.

Anyway, no one posting caught my eye. What I did notice is that several companies have written about the classification of Hacker News(HN) posts. The three articles I noticed were this one about news categorizing by MonkeyLearn, this one about algorithmic tagging by Algorithmia, and this one about autotagging by Dato. There appear to be supervised and unsupervised versions of these algorithms. The supervised version matches on a predefined list of categories and training data whereas the unsupervised does not need any training data. Dato call the unsupervised approach autotagging and the approach with a training dataset simply classification. Being new to the machine learning camp I couldn’t say if these terms are standard or not. All three articles are informative, and interesting for their different take on things.

A more descriptive term than classification (which seems overly general) is topic analysis or topic modeling and this is the term I have been using in my collaboration with the originators of Saffron(Bordea, 2014). Relatedly I was looking at the introductory video for TypeScript by Anders Hejlsberg today and was struck by the applicability of the notion of type inference to topic analysis. I think we should call all these classification methods topic inference and when those topics are related one to the other then we have topic modeling, or ontology inference of one stripe or another.

I honestly couldn’t say what I’m trying to get at with this short blog post. It merely amused me that a number of machine learning shops had hit upon the same task to demonstrate their tools and wares.


[0] TensorFlow
[1] Distributed Machine Learning Toolkit
[2] Amazon Machine Learning
[3] Torch | Scientific computing for LuaJIT
[4] Welcome — Theano 0.7 documentation


Interpreting the results of Ireland’s 2015 marriage referendum

I think we go too far in calling the results tabulated the 23rd of May, 2015, as “overwhelming” or “resounding”[1]. The difference between the majority of roughly 62% and the minority of roughly 38% is about 24%. That is a mere quarter of the electorate that cast their vote. Put it another way, we would do well to remember that 734,300 people said No to equality.

The electoral constituencies[2] do not map evenly to the counties[3] of the Republic of Ireland but I have totted up some averages by giving all constituencies and parts of constituencies equal population weighting. This has led to discrepancies in the counties of Kerry, Limerick and Leitrim here. I doubt the discrepancies are large but they exist nonetheless and I will re-run the averages properly at a later date. Provisionally we’ve got the results I’ve screen-grabbed and placed at the end of this post (hint: scroll down). The spreadsheet I used is also linked to below[4].

As has been pointed out, the only constituency to return a majority No was Roscommon – South Leitrim. This caused Roscommon to trend on Twitter[5] (for the first time ever in all likelihood). The taunts and jibes were as lame as they were predictable. Taking into account that Donegal South-West voted in favour by a stylish 33 persons (about the amount you’d pack into a Bundoran chipper) and the ratio in Cavan – Monaghan was 50.65% to 49.35% it’s not like the sentiment in Roscommon – South Leitrim was markedly at variance from its neighbours. This has been already pointed out by at least one pundit[6]. Besides, in a democracy to vote against the wishes of the majority is not to vote wrongly. We are meant to respect differences of opinion, not pillory them.

As you can see below the provinces of Connacht and Ulster were almost uniformly the least in favour of the amendment to the constitution. With one exception, county Galway in Connacht. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the discrepancy. Galway city is a major urban centre, a major university town[7], a vibrant and multicultural place. Anyone who has spent any time in Galway city would have predicted that the constituency that included the city would be more in favour of this amendment than its neighbours. And so we see that Galway East polled at 53.28% in favour – in line with, say, Mayo at 52.02%. This is in contrast to Galway West[8] (which includes Galway city) which polled at 61.50% and is more similar to Limerick city at 64.15% than its neighbour.

Indeed, if you factor in population density the three least densely populated counties (in order, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon) placed in the bottom six of the table and the five least densely populated counties (adding Kerry and Donegal) placed in the bottom ten. This tells us that there is a marked rural/urban divide on social issues if we needed convincing of this at all. It explains why the Munster counties of Cork, Waterford, Clare, and Limerick placed far higher than Tipperary or Kerry. Clare does seem to be a bit of an anomaly here with a low population density but I think this may be due to Ennis being quite a large urban centre in a large sparsely populated county, Ennis is nearly as large as Navan in county Meath and Bray on the east coast. It could also just be that Clare people are really gay.

If you view positive attitudes towards equality as a good thing then the concerns of the No voters ought to be addressed. Here are some of the reasons I’ve encountered.

  1. I’m against the redefinition of marriage
  2. I’m against the institution of marriage itself
  3. I believe it’ll lead to a marked increase in commercial surrogacy
  4. I don’t believe that referendums should be used to assign or take away rights
  5. I’m against the change on religious grounds

These concerns can be dealt with individually and will cause the 734,300 number to slowly decrease. Legislation should appease those who hold position 3. Whilst I agree with position 4 I figure it’s a done deal now and that voting No is too blunt a method for expressing this concern, abstaining would be the better method. The same applies for position 2 whereas here deliberately spoiling your vote in a way that catches the eye might be more appropriate. I think that the teaching of philosophy in secondary schools[9] will go towards helping erode dogma wherever it rears its head – this is something I feel strongly about and it’s something that the Joe Humphreys in the Irish Times[10] has written about with a nod of the head to our own Dr Vittorio Bufacchi here in University College Cork. This, in the long run, should sway some of those who might take position 5. Position 1 is a genuine position I believe, but the majority disagree, they feel that the category of marriage can be expanded to include same-sex unions. Those who believe otherwise will shuffle off their mortal coils as we all must and all newborns will be born into a world where the definition and practice of marriage includes same-sex unions, they will know no other way except through historic retelling.

But really what the analysis shows though is that there is a social imperative in creating a large urban centre ex nihilo somewhere in the West Midlands. This is a radical idea but hear me out.

Probably make it somewhere new as I’m sure no existing town would agree to such a radical altering of its identity. Probably along the current N4 and with the M4 extended to join the new urban centre to Dublin. And when I say large, I mean large. Between 250,000 and 500,000 inhabitants. A city to challenge Dublin on the world stage in some respects, as this country of ours has grown very imbalanced, I think most would acknowledge this. I picture this being the second city of the Republic of Ireland, a place to construct a modern vision of an urban Ireland. A new university town. A new university hospital. A new national stadium. An olympic-sized swimming pool. A new theatre and gallery complex. A live music venue. The works. Locate it along the existing Dublin-Sligo rail corridor. Locate it by or near a lake on the Shannon. Either build a new airport or construct a direct and quick link to Galway airport or some other existing aerodrome close by, expanding as necessary. I realise that this may sound like a pie-in-the-sky idea but it’s been done before in Ireland and abroad[11] to varying degrees of success and so is not without precedent. Something like Adamstown[12] but an order of magnitude larger with at least 100,000 residential units and the social amenities this implies. And if the result of the referendum shows us anything it is that we can imagine into being a different reality. Something along the lines of what Calatrava has done for Valencia. For energy tap into the Corrib gas field and renegotiate the existing deal with Shell which is a rubbish deal for the State anyway, anybody with eyes in their head can see this. Build an incinerator and maybe even *shock* a nuclear power station (located near the Shannon for its water needs). Within two generations social attitudes in provincial Ireland will shift dramatically, to be more in line with attitudes in Munster and Leinster. Invite our emigrants back to help us build it. Invite those fleeing conflict and strife to help build it. Some of those invited may disagree with the views held by the majority of secular Ireland but so be it, we are a mature pluralist republic now.

And finally, speaking of secularism, I think it should be obvious to anyone that the referendum result shows that the Catholic Church has lost its grip on Ireland’s flock. Though 84% in Ireland still profess to hold the Catholic faith these people clearly follow their conscience and not the instruction of the Church[13]. Attendance has dropped from 90% in the mid nineteen-eighties to 18% nowadays. In fact, as we have recently seen even Church operatives, such as Donegal priest Fr Brian O’Fearraigh[14], fail to follow dogma and some have come out as gay[15].

Set aside for a moment the historic precedent of becoming the first country in the world to legalize same-sex unions by popular vote. Set aside also the simultaneous shrugging off of the “Conservative Catholic Ireland” mantle. A take home point from this referendum is the disenfranchisement of huge swathes of rural or provincial Ireland. Somehow this disenfranchisement must be tackled. I have suggested one radical way.

[1] Ireland has left tolerance behind, by Fintan O’Toole

[2] Thirty-fourth amendment of the constitution (marriage equality) bill 2015

[3] List of Irish counties by population

[4] Marriage referendum spreadsheet

[5] Roscommon trending

[6] Roscommon / South Leitrim: bold child or ‘Deliverance’ country

[7] National University of Ireland, Galway

[8] Map of Irish constituencies and how they voted in the 2015 referendum

[9] Say no to groupthink: how philosophy can transform learning

[10] Introduce philosophy into the leaving certificate

[11] List of planned cities

[12] Adamstown

[13] Numbers continue to drop

[14] Donegal priest to say Yes

[15] Gay Irish priest comes out to parishioners


 

Results of the marriage referendum, with additional demographic details. Sorted by those in favour.

Results of the marriage referendum, with additional demographic details. Sorted by those in favour.

Epistemic Flatland

Imagine that you had to develop a working toy model of reality that captured not the entire facts of the matter as they are in our world but instead was required to model solely the epistemological[1] part. You might imagine the world as a boundless two-dimensional spatial plane, something like Flatland[2] perhaps. Let us call this toy model Epistemic Flatland. I am not suggesting an infinite plane, perhaps the plane wraps around on itself like the surface of a sphere, in such a way that it is finite but with no edges. On the plane “live” two-dimensional beings that have two sense organs, one for input, one for output, and a rudimentary “brain” with the faculty of language.

What internal machinery would these toy beings need to perform basic cognition and recognition. What internal machinery would these micro-inforgs[3] require to “speak”, make simple judgements and perform elementary logical operations, perceive and make sense of their world? Would these beings exhibit emotion and display affect as they each internally simulate their own little world and have their expectations met and thwarted? Each being or system would have a permeable boundary that encloses its internal structures and separates the system from its environment but allows data and information to pass through. It seems like an impossibly complex micro-world to construct; it seems like a thought experiment whose realization in the actual world is an impossible task. Nonetheless it is a thought experiment that I have found illuminating and instructive to play with.

In software engineering confounded programmers routinely ask for help with non-working code on web forums. A common request by the peers of the perplexed is for a minimal working example[4]. That is to say a snippet of the entire whole is requested that demonstrates the piece of non-working code or markup is requested. All other non-impinging details are stripped away to reveal the essential workings of the problem. What I am suggesting is that the grand project of epistemology is nothing else but to construct Epistemic Flatland. How much of this world (our universe) can we strip away and yet retain beings with the features of basic learning, basic cognition, basic pattern-matching and semiosis? The beings would not have to be recognisably human in any way but they would have to exhibit the recognisably epistemic features of human beings: language, subjectivity, and so on. How much “cheating” would be allowable, how atomic would this micro-world have to get in other words.

I believe that there could be value in creating a global challenge with a substantial monetary reward the better to spur research (something akin to the Millennium Prize Problems) with Epistemic Flatland as the goal.

Imagine if this universe we find ourselves in is just that minimal working example, perfectly coincided with it! And imagine further if we could prove that situation to be the case.


obligatory wikipedia links :)

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inforg

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimal_Working_Example

plugins and packages and extensions and bundles, oh my!

I’ve had a gripe about open-source (okay, free software!) package management for the longest time.

I would give a kidney (I swear I nearly would) if my OS’s package manager managed all my packages.

But it does you say?

No. I just spent the last 10 minutes installing a plugin (Vim-Ruby) for Vim. First I decided which Vim package manager I should use. I chose Pathogen fairly arbitrarily. Then I checked whether Ubuntu itself packaged Pathogen. Yay, it does. Then I checked whether the Ubuntu version is fairly up to date. Yay, it is. Then I installed Pathogen via Synaptic hoping that it will stay current. This is not always the case. Ruby gems (and their attendant package managers (yes, plural!) Rubygems and Bundler) are a big not always the case. Then I install Vim-Ruby like so:

git clone git://github.com/vim-ruby/vim-ruby.git ~/.vim/bundle/vim-ruby

And then I have to remember to keep this up to date independently of apt.


Why, can’t sub package manager’s hook into the system package manager? I want to be able to go to one place to install a blob of code, be it a system level package, a language level package, an editor level package, a browser level package. Last I checked:

PHP             Pear
Ruby            Rubygems, (mention not RVM...)
Python          Eggs
Haskell         Cabal
Chrome          Extensions
Firefox         Add-ons
Eclipse         Aaaaaaargh
Vim             Pathogen
Emacs           ELPA (? I don't know, I'm a Vim guy)
Perl            CPAN
LaTeX           CTAN

There has to be a better way people. Even if it’s just exposing each plugin/package/extension sub-system to a central registry so that they appear centralised in Synaptic. I think I may have blogged about this before. In a fevered dream.

I’d be grateful for any corrections and more subsystems to add to the list, probably should make a wiki.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the enormous coordination problem. But if we can do it at the OS level, can we not do it at the subsystem level. I guess it’s mostly programmers that’ll encounter this, or maybe it isn’t? There must be a better way.

The Different Types of Open

I used to think open beat closed and that was that. Linux goodWindows bad. Open better. Closed worse. One type of open. Simples.

A neat and easy dichotomy, open versus closed source, one type of open, what’s not to get?

Take the word better and apply the is/ought distinction to it. Not that simple it turns out. The free software movement is predicated on the notion that proprietary software is anti-social and, to put it bluntly, immoral – it is worse in the ethical sense. The open source camp take a more pragmatic approach – they say that proprietary software is a worse way engineering-wise to build software. I won’t go into the fine details here, I’ve done so elsewhere. But you get the idea.

Now the free software foundation defines software to be free (open if you will) if the software adheres to four freedoms

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Mostly this gets boiled down to having access to the source code. The source code is open to you. For now let’s just pretend that these finer distinctions don’t matter.

For the longest while I thought that this was the openness that mattered. Initially it came from the desire to being able to tinker (pragmatic) but then once I saw how proprietary software could lead to abuse I began to take a more moral stance. But I’m not a zealot, I run Ubuntu which has non-free bits and have run MacOSX in the past and will use Windows in the university. But generally speaking I have drunk the FOSS kool-aid.

But actually, in the first place, for the longest while I had no conception of this distinction. It was something I luckily managed to learn. Partly from being a dilettante developer and tinkerer. Partly fortune. Most people never come to conceive of the divided state of affairs in software in this manner.

It was with the release of iOS and the iPhone and the Apple Store that I realised that there is for sure more than one type of open. Say I develop an app for the iPhone. I need to pay Apple money and get their permission and abide by their rules to get my app in front of users. Wow. I don’t think this was ever in Microsoft’s DNA. That is why proprietary (rather than closed) software is a better moniker for software where one does not have access to the source. Because DOS and Windows have never precluded 3rd party developers from their platform in that way (give or take secret APIs and breaking the software of direct competitors: *cough* DrDOS *cough*by way of example). So in a way DOS back in the day and Windows were open to some extent and so calling them closed misses the mark, proprietary (or non-free) is more apt. Hence the PC revolution. Nowadays Android allows what is called side-loading. Android is not only more open because the source code is not proprietary but it is more open because you can side-load. MacOSX has always allowed this so Apple has made its mobile offerings more restrictive than it s desktop and server offerings (because they are aware that the paradigms are seen as different and there would be a geek revolt). Thems are nice handcuffs Apple. So this is kind of freedom 0, being able to get the bloody app onto your device in a fairly hassle-free manner. Jail-breaking does not count. Let’s call this open loading.

Now Microsoft has long made its document files opaque binary blobs. Let’s call this open formats. Software is data and code. Data gives us format tussles. Code gives us source tussles. And what about opaque binary network protocols? Let’s call this open wiring. Again, the internet is the internet because the wiring is open from the bottom of the stack to the top. As opposed to Netware, say, or SMB.

I think that it is safe to say that a lot of battles have been won in relation to open source, loading, formats and wiring. Let’s call these collectively open platforms.


 

The free software movement started way before the web was a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eyes. (That reads badly, never mind – this is off the cuff.) I want to talk about two other types of open that become apparent in a radically networked world. The first is the openness that federation brings. The second is the openness that Karl Popper referred to in The Open Society and its Enemies.

Let me make this clear. The postal service is open because it is federated. The plain old telephone system is open because it is federated. Email is open because it is federated. Internet relay chat (Irc) is open because it is federated. Don’t get me wrong. I have a fixed line or mobile telephone provider but I can switch if I’m unhappy and the person I’m calling does not need to have the same provider. By this way of thinking Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, Line, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, ICQ, Apple iMessage, Microsoft WhateverItIsCalledIDoNotActuallyKnow, and on and on, I’ve probably forgotten a whole bunch, are not open. We can clearly see from this that social networking and instant messaging are not open. Let’s call this open social.

I think that it is safe to say that the defenders of openness haven’t even gotten to this battlefield yet. This is an exaggeration, sure – a rhetorical flourish. There is Diaspora* and the Freedom Box and SIP and Jabber and so on but we’re a long long way from the Android of open social.

Let’s call open platforms and open social together open ecosystems. To my mind if you use Linux and email (and irc) you’re more or less using an open ecosystem but you don’t have the key parts of social like following and un-following and rating and sharing and so on. What social networking and instant messaging desperately needs is radical federation and it can’t come soon enough for this despairing digital voice.

Since Snowden began revealing what “intelligence” agencies do in the dark we have been getting a steady drip-drip of troubling revelation after revelation. It would in truth be just too depressing to even begin to enumerate the ways in which our notions of our digital lives as private have been eviscerated. (My editor promises me that that sentence will be put through the wringer.) Government (or the State) argues that there must be a certain amount of secrecy for it to function effectively. I think the defining political challenge of our time in the era of digital technology is to figure out how transparent government needs to be.

When we have open ecosystems and open government then we’ll have an open society. I think while we’re waiting for open government we need open ecosystems plus pervasive and strong and secure encryption. I believe Popper argued that only open societies can do science. I think that claim has been falsified by all actually existing nation states. I think science happens despite the lack of openness in society. I don’t think we’ll get open societies without open ecosystems and ubiquitous and rock-solid encryption. It would be interesting if we were able to perform sociological simulations that could give us a blueprint for which types of societies nurture openness best. I know that sounds like total pie in the sky but maybe we’ll be able to perform such magic sooner rather than later.

Does anyone out there have any other types of open they’d like to share?

(1st draft, getting it out there, pointers to typos and brain-farts gladly accepted)

I wish someone had told me

that The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the unholy union of The Stand by Stephen King, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance by Robert M. Pirsig and Hunger by Knut Hamsun.

Except I think that King does post-apocalyptic ghoulishness better and more scary, Pirsig does father/son road trip better and more philosophical, and Hamsun does starvation better and more funny.

You can probably see from this how I practically failed English Lit. as an undergrad.

    Do I have to finish the book, Papa?
    Yes son, yes you do.
    I'm scared Papa.
    Dont be son, The Stand by Stephen King is hella scarier.