Q: About three-quarters the way through the Illustrated Hitchhikers Guide there is a strange illustration of 42 multi-coloured balls lined up in columns 6×7. I can only assume this is the famed “42 Puzzle”. My question is, how do you play? What’s the puzzle?
A: The point of the puzzle was this: Everybody was looking for hidden meanings and puzzles and significances in what I had written (like ‘is it significant that 6 * 9 is 42 in base 13?’. As if.) So I thought that just for a change I would actually construct a puzzle and see how many people solved. Of course, nobody paid it any attention. I think that’s terribly significant. – Douglas Adams
Reality is frequently inaccurate – Douglas Adams
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?” – Ford Prefect
The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought ’42 will do’ I typed it out. End of story. – Douglas Adams
“The best advice I think was given by Douglas Adams: “Don’t panic.”” – Arthur C Clarke
When I first saw the movie, Minority Report, I thought they had made a very plausible stab at addressing the issue of how futuristic computing interfaces might be designed and operate. I was mesmerised by those wonderful scenes with Tom Cruise waving his hands around, seemingly randomly, but actually interacting with a number of ghostly hologramatic system controls supported by additional voice commands. Nice.
Then I heard that filming those scenes was difficult because they could only do about 45 minutes before the actors became tired. I don’t know if that is really true or not, but it made some sense to me. Largely because I know how quickly I get tired when forced to play on the wii at Christmas. Whether or not the story about Minority Report is true, I can personally testify that playing on the wii for 30 minutes has me a little puffed, but the same game on a PC, I could play all day if I needed to. The simple differential between the 2 interfaces is that one tries to minimise the energy I expend to interface, and the other expands the energy I expend to interface. Of course, both outcomes are quite intentional.
I don’t think the wii has to worry about its place in the console world, the whole point after all, is to introduce athletic exertion into computer gaming. That’s a slam dunk in my opinion, but on the other side I am pretty certain that full body gestural interfaces will not become the reference format for computer operation. Getting physically tired by our increasing dependence on computing is just not going to float.
Thinking about the nature of interfaces raises some interesting thoughts about how we could more usefully categorise some of the nascent trends we see forming today. One of those trends, mobile, is I believe highly disserviced by the way we have named it.
You see, I don’t think we come close to succinctly summing up what’s important about how the mobile trend is changing actual behaviour. Mobility, in lesser forms anyway, just isn’t new. At the blunt end we have long had books and newspapers, both of which are generally designed with mobility in mind. In turn this means we have long had mobile advertising, whether that be in newspapers, magazines or perhaps even the on the radio. Mobile phones have been here for a while now, but even before that we invested, as nations and cities, in networks of public telephony.
Of course, all that is a pale image of what we can now do with our mobile devices. And that’s why the label, mobile, isn’t good enough. It doesn’t start to get close to identifying the key axis of what’s going on.
For me there are 2 key pieces of information.
- It’s actually about ubiquitous computing, both personal computing through PC’s and smartphones as well as infrastructural computing, freely enabled access and the growing internet of things and all the intersections therein
- There is a centralisation going on here, enabled by all this mobility. Increasingly our computing devices are becoming data viewers. Tools that can be used to consume, interact, create, distribute and edit the same pieces of content. You might own, or have access to maybe 4 computers, but increasingly you will work on the same data accessed from a central point of some kind, on whichever computer you are using, for whatever reason at whatever point in time.
Neither of those observations is encapsulated in the phrase du jour, mobile.
So, me, as a contrary bugger, what word would I use.
Screens. That’s what. That’s the word I’d use. Not terribly snappy I know, not a classic buzz word, but it does force you to think about computers and not phones, it delivers you directly to the proliferation of computing as viewing devices. It focuses your thinking on the interface. This is important. What general purpose people mostly experience, during the general computing experience is the interface. We have generalised ‘computing’ to a point where users don’t need to understand computing, they just need to understand how to operate their screens. The screen is the human bit. Particularly now that we have to touch it too.
We have 3 broad areas for interface development, to my mind. Hands and keyboards (evolutionary), gestural and vocal. I imagine we will see bits of all 3, and may even see an amalgamation of all 3 into a broader palette of interface options and interactions. But as far as I can tell, within my lifetime, there will always be a common role for screens. Until we interface computing with our neurology and our vision systems, we will be computing with and reading from glass and glass derivatives for some many years to come yet.
Have a look at this stunning video “a day made of glass 2”, from Corning incorporated, a specialist glass manufacturer. It’s a beautifully made vision of the future (the original ‘a day made of glass’ is also well worth a look) based around a surprisingly wide array of functional glass.
It’s as interesting a piece of imaginative futurology as I’ve seen in some time, looking at the issue with serious concern to the actual issues at hand. This is how the glass industry is seeing the future. Marvellous.
I mentioned in part one of this series that the RIAA and the MPAA had recently changed their tactics in the conflict against illegal file sharing. They had historically targeted the end user, the consumer who was actually getting something for free, which on the face of it seems reasonable. The truth is that this tactic, even, has proved to be controversial with extensive and powerful legal bodies essentially threatening and hounding teenagers and their families, for something that seems trivial in comparison, the copying of songs.
I, personally, do not think that the approach taken by Hollywood et al was sensible or proportionate. They were targeting regular kids, who had shared music, something all kids should be encouraged to do, and without which the music industry, as it stands now, could not have existed.
It is important to make a distinction between people sharing music, with no cash exchanged between them, and someone setting up a website hosting illegally copied files and asking for payment for access or downloads. There are plenty of existing laws to prosecute those that sell what is essentially counterfeit product.
Anyway, as much as I want today’s kids to be able to do what I did when I was their age, and copy music to enable sharing, I have to acknowledge that some of the conditions have changed.
When I was a teenager, my good friends and I all shared a broad taste in music, but there were still clear specialisms. One friend was a particularly intense Bowie fan, another Led Zeppelin and I decided that I would collect every album Queen ever produced. I also bought some Bowie albums and some Zeppelin albums. But I had copies of everything that all 3 of us owned. Getting 3 blank TDK cassettes in my Christmas stocking was a big deal, that was 6 albums I could copy !
6 albums, incidentally that I didn’t have the money to buy, all my spare cash having already been converted into vinyl as soon as it became available. Back then it seemed to me, there was little to no fear emanating from the content industries about spotty teenagers and pirated music on TDK cassettes.
We sort of knew it was illegal, but weren’t 100% sure. Quite frankly the best way to characterise how I felt about the chance of being caught or busted back then is to think of a 5 or 6 year old trying to grapple with the idea of Father Christmas not existing. There is a conflict, but in truth it’s a ludicrous conflict. The evidence – I’ve never seen Santa, or any evidence of supernatural abilities – versus the desire – but he won’t bring me presents if I don’t believe in him – which often resolves as a decision to keep on believing, just in case, for some time after you know it can’t be true.
So, it was with my fears of getting caught recording the top 40 on a Sunday afternoon. I knew it really was illegal, but it was so ludicrous to think that the police would come looking for me that I carried on as if it were legal anyway. And so did everyone else.
The big difference between then and now, of course, is the difference between my faithful TDK 90 minute audio cassette, and today’s ubiquitous computing, every computer a veritable AAA copying machine.
As much as I couldn’t afford to buy all the vinyl I wanted to, I also couldn’t afford to buy as many audio cassettes as I wanted to. That cost simply wasn’t trivial, whereas to today’s computer user the cost of copying a file is negligible. Once you have a computer well, copy one song, copy a thousand…. either way it isn’t going to hurt you financially.
Anyway, I digress. For whatever reason it is fair to say that today’s content industries are now very interested in stopping all this copying. However they have also discovered that going after the actual downloaders themselves doesn’t seem to work.
And so they have changed tack.
The SOPA and PIPA legislation, ACTA too pretty much and all the similar derivatives across the globe are trying to place controls onto the newly emerging essential carrier infrastructure – ISP’s, search providers and content aggregators – to either police the content on their networks, or censor specific sites, designated by ‘big content’ and without due process, under penalty of law.
This is why it has become important to understand how the internet works. We have an explicit conflict between what the rights holders want, and believe that the rule of law should deliver, and what the technical structure of the internet needs to retain functionality.
We can all, without too much cognitive struggle understand the issues pertaining to copyright infringement, file sharing and piracy. Even though many of the written polemics insist on muddying the waters, using incendiary language to confuse the definitions of theft and copyright infringement, I remain fairly convinced that only a cursory review of the legal definitions (the only ones that count in a legal dispute) is required to see the difference.
But, the same cannot be said of the internet itself, and how it works on a fairly deep technical level. The technology is pervasive, complex and highly variable. The internet is a big old thing, and it keeps changing.
So, why will these law changes be so destructive?
The content companies simply want the essential carriers to be given legal responsibility for the content hosted on their platforms, and hence have to face the penalties of non-compliance. The content industries don’t expect the essential carriers to breach the court orders, they expect them to make sure illegal content can’t be accessed, in order to ensure they don’t breach.
Court orders granted under this legislation could make it illegal for payment processors and ad networks to transact with infringing sites, which is not so destructive, but they can also make it illegal for search engines to link to these sites, or for ISP’s to allow access. All of this managed by a process that puts the onus of proof on the accused site, violating the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
So our first objection to these proposals must therefore be that they will violate principles designed to protect free speech, such as due process and innocence before guilt, let alone the potential for censorship by abuse.
Our second objection is more powerful, and is the technical problems and costs that compliance will cause. Rather sadly, I imagine that it will be these problems that lead to eventual sensible reform, not a principled conformity to the concepts of justice.
Even when people understand and accept the issues of principle many will still ask, why isn’t it reasonable to expect Google to make sure it’s links don’t point at copyrighted material? Or why would holding Facebook, or Tumblr, or WordPress responsible for what it hosts break the internet? On the face of it those sound like reasonable questions.
Well, there is a problem, and it’s the cost of policing all that content. Nothing principled really just business. It’s the same situation faced by Malcolm Mclean and his containers (part 2 of this series). When faced with the sheer scale of modern shipping, the cost of effectively managing a shipping line’s risk, if they were liable for the illegality of their cargoes, would be financially ruinous. The positive contribution provided by the container shipping industry, on a global scale is so valuable that we consider it sensible to ensure that it functions well.
One of the ways we do this is to shield it from the costs of policing the entire global freight industry, of policing not itself, but those that use their services. Now let that sink in a bit. Because it’s the crux of it. That’s a huge task. Modern government’s don’t effectively police 100% of global freight, they don’t even try. And that’s because it’s such a huge job and it would just cost too much. Instead they do what they can with the resources they have and some stuff just keeps on being transported illegally, and we all know and accept that even while border agents try to catch what they can.
But this is is exactly what SOPA and PIPA and all the other derivative legislation is asking us to do to today’s essential carrier infrastructure, the content hosts, the search providers the cloud hosts, social media and blogs. They are asking that the costs of policing what the world does online, is born by the industrial infrastructure that carries those communications. It does rather bring to mind the nervous phrase, ‘please don’t shoot the messenger’.
And that would be the end of the internet.
Either the essential carrier infrastructure stops operating, because its business model collapses, which is the nuclear option, if you like, or we revert, globally, to a time when communication was slow and limited. Speed reduced by autonomous and bespoke, checking mechanisms. Publishing too risky without armies of lawyers. Or at least, larger armies of lawyers.
Still, under current legislation rights holders have a reasonable expectation that the rule of law will be upheld and their rights will be enforced. And although they are proposing bad solutions, they are within perfectly reasonable territories to expect their rights to be enforced.
But when enforcing the well-meant intentions of the law looks set to wreak indescribable damage to essential carrier infrastructure you have to consider the other side of the equation. The question of whether the law, as it stands, is still appropriate, is a very sound question. But so far, we seem to only be looking at the law related to enforcement. There is absolutely no reason at all why we can’t reform the law that gives rise to these property rights instead.
We already have a body of law where rights holders have process by which their content can be protected. DMCA take downs are now common currency and Megaupload stands chained and accused, other digital lockers closing in a rush before the policeman comes for them too.
The content industries are not standing powerless. Neither are they suffering financially. Business is pretty good right now actually thank you. cough cough ahem.
So let’s be really clear here. Something has to go. There is a seemingly irreconcilable conflict between 2 authentic and valued mechanisms of society.
The functions of essential infrastructure need to be protected in some way. If modifying IP rights can achieve that we should explore those options too.
There was an incident recently in the US, where a respected journalist, a documentary maker, was arrested on the request of a republican politician for refusing to leave a public hearing. Whereas there is much worthy of debate in this incident, I was more intrigued by the comments threads that surfaced on a couple of web forums where I lurk and very occasionally contribute.
Specifically the meme that I found most interesting was the apologist “but he wasn’t a real journalist, so therefore he didn’t have a right to film” line which simply sought to justify the situation through an explanation of administrative oversight, his arrest inevitable when he was non-compliant with the request to leave a public hearing.
For me, it is simple, today, anyone who can record an event for posterity, is a journalist.
There is maybe an omission regarding the availability of a distribution mechanism in that definition but today with internet access very much the norm, not the exception, anyone wishing to distribute their reportage can do so.
So, is every teenagers’ diary an act of journalism? Well, certainly not if it is painstakingly written each night into a secret locked diary for a viewing audience of precisely one. But there are some circumstances where a teenagers diary should / could be considered journalism. It shouldn’t be a shock, we are comfortable with all sorts of diaries being published in national / regional papers and magazines. Animal diaries, sailor’s diaries, farmer’s diaries , sportsmen and women’s, etc. The line is a little blurry to be fair. Teen angst becomes journalism in only very specific situations.
Fortunately there is a much more important concept, other than function, that is fundamental and very clear in terms of defining what is and is not journalism, and it goes to the very heart of free speech and democratic process.
It is this. The government, or any controlling body for that matter, cannot and does not have the right to designate who is and who is not a journalist. To imbue the government with the right to designate journalistic credential is to deny a free press. What follows from this, is that anyone, absolutely anyone can be journalist, it is simply a matter of choice on their part, whether to distribute at all, and if so how they choose to distribute their writing.
In the example I gave earlier, there is a standard requirement for accreditation at public hearings in Washington and the journalist in question had failed to get such a permit. Historically, convention has it that in these circumstances a permit can be sorted there and then, space permitting. This was not what happened in this instance, where there was no problem with available space. The political outrage around this incident actually being focussed on this departure from normal convention, not the breach of accreditation. This is because the accreditation requirement is purely functional, and to prevent 400 film crews attending where maybe 5 or 6 can do it and share footage (a system that apparently functions very well by informal consensus amongst competitors). In short, the accreditation is not a denial of journalistic status, but a system of administration designed to make things function well for all involved.
So, now cut to Monday morning. I’m reviewing what’s what via my regular web surf. Yesterday was Wales’s first game in this year’s 6 Nations, against the Irish. A tense, competitive game which we won (Wales) with a last gasp penalty 23 -21. So, really I was revelling in it a little. Looking all over the place for views and information about the game.
I spend a lot of time in scrumv.co.uk, a Welsh rugby forum, my main source of rugby news. The key posters in that forum, men and women whose identities I know only through the nicknames they signed up with, are involved root and branch with the game in Wales. These are the guys who coach 10 year olds every weekend, who hoard all the stats from player performance to crowd attendance, who have jobs and voluntary roles at the smaller local clubs and some of them at the regions. In short it’s a melting pot of people passionate about welsh rugby.
But this morning I started with the BBC report. Then I read the guardian report. Happy that we were getting sufficient plaudits I decided to check the Irish press. RTE online and the Irish Times. They made a little more of the controversial referee, but quite frankly that makes sense, and overall I thought they offered a very balanced view of the game.
Next stop was the Welsh forum. This is where I expect to find the details, where people will seek out and present the actual written laws where there is controversy, will dissect the individual contributions of key players, offer detailed and conversational analysis of both tactical and strategic game issues. In short this is where I expect to get most of my detail. There was a thread on the contribution of the debutantes, the controversial spear tackles, the next game, selections for the next game, an update on injuries, positive take outs, negative take outs, the management and the captain. Each of those threads showcasing contrasting and supportive viewpoints.
Because of the controversy I thought I’d check an Irish fans forum. So, via google to munsterfans.com to see what they thought. Had they been robbed? Were they upset, was it a big old stink. And it wasn’t, they were much more concerned with other failings of their team.
Finally I looked up IC Wales, the Western Mail’s website, to watch the after match interviews and to enjoy a little patriotic triumphalism.
All that took maybe an hour. It was slightly indulgent.
The point, however, is more important than simply the best way to catch up on a rugby match. The point is that what I just described is how news can be gathered in today’s society. I chose a rugby match as an example, but any issue that can be considered national news could be approached in a similar fashion. This is modern news consumption, if you want. Of course, it’s not compulsory.
Contrast this with the assertion, of the aforesaid Washington apologists, that the documentary maker’s arrest was justified because he wasn’t a journalist. Now we can ridicule that perspective both as an article of a free society, as I mentioned previously, and as a simple idiocy. Any day of the week almost any country in the world you will find fans watching sport and then dissecting it afterwards in their forums. And they are all journalists. Every single one of them.
Somewhere along the way journalism got a lot bigger than it used to be. That change didn’t come without some kind of loss though. What we have lost is a certain type of trust. We still seek out authoritative sources, as we move through life, its just that they no longer need to live around the corner from you, to feel as if they are local.
An island with a new bridge and a new causeway changes within itself. People on islands rely on each other, for sure, but when you can get on and off 24/7, not so much. As we expand the personal reach of our communications, we don’t maintain equilibrium, trust in the local realm suffers.
Journalism isn’t hurting, not in itself, it’s growing and it’s becoming richer and deeper. It’s just that YOU need to do your part nowadays. It’s all there for you, served up on a plate. But you have to decide to find it and read it and assess it for yourself.