A safer, fairer information society

Thoughts in response to Francis Irving’s post, Making our information society safe and fair, to which I added the following comment:

I don’t disagree with these, Francis, but would maybe (because I have increasingly tended to come at the problem from the campaigning end of things?) take a tougher – or at least different – line on some of them.

I’m glad your #1 was access to (use of?) culture, and your #2 literacy. Both essential. No point arguing chicken and egg, but I fear you have to be more radical yet if you’re relying on the public libraries to ‘save us’.

What I – and others, but possibly most articulately @billt – think we need is a genuine ‘Digital *Public* Space’. This is difficult to unpack, but (for me) lies somewhere around the notions of public parks, public libraries, public service broadcasting and pop-up art spaces. What most people think of as ‘public’ these days is nothing of the sort; this is becoming as true off-line as on.

Key to truly public is truly anonymous.

So, while I agree with #5, I believe ‘fair and equal’ requires the ability to join the network anonymously – though, of course, to be able to provide trustworthy bona fides when/if justifiably¬† challenged. This requires a radical rethink of the network, which is why redecentralisation caught my attention when I first saw you mention it.

I’m pretty hard core on ‘literacy’. I was training as a teacher as the current National Curriculum was being issued, and had a go at what briefly became known as the BBC’s ‘Digital Curriculum’ in the late 90s/early 2000s – but what we have in schools and more generally these days is woefully inadequate.

Media Studies used to be a ‘joke’ subject; these days, I’m half convinced a radically-improved version of it should be a core subject or key component of every subject.

I now know several people from their 20s to mid-30s who were failed utterly by school, who are functionally illiterate when it comes to the written word, but who over the last 5-7 years have educated themselves on YouTube (or equivalent, but mainly YouTube). For free. They are interested/engaged, interesting to talk to and coherent – but it cost them a LOT of effort. What they lack is a map.

Maps are hard.

Search is easy. Search makes you think you know stuff you actually don’t – because if you can’t even identify the context you borrowed for the information, you don’t know what you ‘know’, and what you don’t.

Maps distil a bunch of stuff that helps people find their way around; to get a sense of what they know, and what they don’t. It’s entirely possible – if costly – to make (good) maps but we should do MUCH more of that, and publish them for free.

A person with a map can make all sorts of choices they otherwise wouldn’t know were there. People with maps tend to be freer / more autonomous than those without them…

(N.B. Better maps may also help other initiatives, such as ‘open’ – which is flailing around a lot at present, trying to find how it relates to principles and disciplines it barely appreciates and a landscape it hasn’t even really begun to explore.)

A lot of the (digital) learning and ‘literacy’ I see is misdirected at activities that aren’t fit for purpose; teaching people to drive software – rather than to build it themselves, or to be able to fix it, or at the very least to be able to appreciate the good, bad, ugly and dangerous parts.

#3 shows you appreciate that coders will always be an elite, so you clearly appreciate that teaching everyone to code isn’t the answer. I think the (mass) answer will ultimately be somewhere on the ‘aesthetic’ rather than the technical end of things – ‘play’ vs ‘study’; educating people to at a minimum be able identify code/data products and services that safely meet their needs and desires.

Professionalising programming is, I fear, a more-than-generational problem.

I know folks at BCS and others are trying to think about this. I’ve spoken to several members of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists(!) over the years – at least one a University Vice-Chancellor – and no-one who takes this seriously doubts that this is huge.

Take psychology as an analogy; a practice most people would recognise as some sort of scientific discipline. As a professional practitioner, you can be a Chartered Psychologist or member of one of the established Psychological or broader Scientific Institutions or (Royal) Colleges. You can study a bunch of internationally-recognised courses in established Universities to get a bunch of letters after your name.

This has been true across the world for quite a while and while it doesn’t stop, e.g. Scientology or NLP ‘life coaches’ continuing to abuse psychological techniques for money, or didn’t stop Nazis doing appalling experiments in WWII, it does tend to mean that people who do such things are sanctioned to the extent that a professional community can do so, i.e. various forms of marginalisation / exclusion or removal of official approval.

And this has taken about 100 years.

Ethics in psychology ‘borrow from’ general research and medical ethics; programming has no such ‘base’ to work from, but – as we’ve seen with care.data and NHS handling of medical information more generally – research and even medical ethics can be applied, when what you’re doing affects people (which, by definition, personal data does).

Of course, while people like @RossJAnderson build conversations between the psychologists and security engineers, Number 10 reads an interview with Malcolm Gladwell and builds itself a ‘nudge unit’ which a couple of years later privatises itself…

So I agree with #3, but would (pragmatically) prefer to encourage a feeling of ‘chivalry’ amongst the taught and self-taught for now – rather than put too much effort into creating yet another ‘priesthood’.

I do think you’re right about standards and ethics and professionalism. I just don’t think things will settle enough for several decades or more for anything other than a handful of highly dedicated people to keep steering things as best they can from the handful of international and international bodies that haven’t been corrupted or co-opted.

Revolutions aren’t the times to build institutions; they’re the times we discover (and defend) what our REAL values are – or what we want them to be.

The only one I instinctively disagree with is #4. Do we want to trigger another ‘Elf and Safety culture? Bad enough that Data Protection in the UK and elsewhere seems to have gone that way (it’s always a stupid idea to separate legal compliance from fundamental human rights).

Let’s leave laws for discernable crimes and transgressions, and be much clearer about (and stick to!) the underlying principles. Giving people handbooks makes them stupid – cf. the standards-compliant British e-passport, the chip with which ‘we’ were able to do pretty much everything the Home Office said we couldn’t. Because (a) we actually read the standards, and (b) we understood them.

I care a lot about #crypto and #control, but I confess I rely on trusted others’ deeper knowledge to guide me. I’ll really miss @CasparBowden for that, and e.g. recently @richietynan‘s take on the destruction of the Guardian laptops gave me even more serious pause for thought.

As I said above, I think (initial) anonymity is key. But what does this even mean if at a hardware/firmware level you can’t even guarantee your keypad and its invisible 2Mbit of storage isn’t a keylogger for the Chinese Central Communist Party?

Thanks for provoking what I hope wasn’t too verbose a response. I’ll cross-post to my blog, just in case this doesn’t upload.


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