Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us | WIRED

“Each of us has our precious things, and as we care for them we locate the essence of our humanity.”

—Bill Joy, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Wired. April 2000.

Figured it was time to revisit this old classic and get a feel for how prescient it was almost 20 years on. Still feels right on, particularly around CRISPR. The problems of runaway nanotechnology still seems far off, but it’s visible on the horizon.

Open question: Can technology’s risk of causing human extinction be mitigated?

Tech Veganism

“One place where the veganism metaphor breaks down is that, although nearly anyone can be a vegan, tech veganism is mostly practiced by those who are expert enough or privileged enough to learn the elaborate workarounds to avoid the GAFAMs of the world. Setting up an Ubuntu laptop, a LineageOS phone, a Fastmail account, and wiring it all together so that you actually get calendar notifications is no easy feat. You will probably have to get your hands dirty on the command line.

I find that there’s a bit of a ‘let them eat cake’ attitude among tech vegan boosters, because they often discount the sheer difficulty of all this stuff. (‘Let them use Linux’ could be a fitting refrain.) After all, they figured it out, so why can’t you? What, doesn’t everyone have a computer science degree and six years experience as a sysadmin?”

-Nolan Lawson, “Tech Veganism.” nolanlawson.com. May 31, 2019.

Reposting my comment here:

The point that a lot of people miss is that there are two tech revolutions going on.

On one end, there’s the application, end-user technology that is designed to fit some specific need and be easy to use. Ideally, it’s just tapping buttons on a screen.

These tend to follow direct physical analogs of specific, single purpose tools: Search/Keep replaces the file cabinet, Maps replaces maps, YouTube is mobile television, Play is mobile board games, News replaces the newspaper, Gmail is mail, Contacts replaces the Rolodex, Drive replaces the suitcase, calendar replaces the Day Planner, Translate replaces the foreign language phrase book, Photos replaces the photo album, etc.

They do one thing. They do it well. They are useful. And they are all being combined in one device. But, they aren’t the standard by which every tool needs to be judged.

Some tools are general tools that can be applied to a wide variety of problems. Any idiot can pick up an arc welder or write a Python script. But, it takes time to learn how to use these general purpose tools well. They’re never going to be easy in the way that using email is easy. And there is no need to use Python or an arc welder on your phone.

Should TeX be compared to Word? It’s apples and oranges. How much does that Venn diagram overlap, regardless of definition?

Emacs is as different from a word processor as a word processor is from the legal pad. There’s inherent capability that doesn’t reduce down to the level of a pull-down menu or button. As soon as you make ease of use the defining feature, you narrow down capability to what a pull down menu can handle.

Most people aren’t solving problems that require training A.I.s, collaboratively writing programs with a tool like Git, making CGI movies with Renderman, etc. So, they have no need to learn these tools, and these tools do not need to simplified to suit them. They are what they are. OpenBSD is about security, not being “user-friendly” to the novice user. If you want “user-friendly,” use what everyone else uses.

“Tech vegans,” as you describe them, have different needs and different values. Some day, it would be nice if a LineageOS device were available at your telephone carrier’s store, Google didn’t mess with ad blocking extensions in their browser to make more money, and so forth. But, the incentives are what they are. Opting out of the default is hard by design. That’s not only a technology problem. It’s also an economic one.

The Unlikely New Generation of Unabomber Acolytes

“What is bad about an article like the one I expect you to write is that it may help make the anti-tech movement into another part of the spectacle (along with Trump, the ‘metoo movement,’ neo-Nazis, antifa, etc.) that keeps people entertained and therefore thoughtless.”

—Ted Kaczynski quoted in John H. Richardson, “Children of Ted.” New York Magazine. December 11, 2018.

I’ve read Ted Kaczynski’s collected writings, Technological Slavery. His analysis, particularly around genetic technologies like CRISPR, is insightful. His central idea is that technology cannot abide a limit. If it is possible, it will eventually be done, whether it is genetically designed humans, tactical nuclear weapons, or what have you. Even absent extreme scenarios, technology is already fundamentally undermining human freedom, and it will only get worse.

But, what is to be done? Kaczynski believes in a model based on communism and vanguardism. According to this view, if pressure is applied in the right places by an activist minority at the right moment, there will be a general system collapse, a rough period of die-off of most of the human population, followed by a return to nature. And, you could point to Castro or Lenin to show how a small group has successfully led a change when faced with impossible odds.

Except, this view is more akin to Marx’s ideas that the state would fall away after these revolutions, when the state was no longer necessary. There’s never been a general revolution of the sort Marx envisioned, only regional and local collapsing of states.

When the state fails, it fragments power into the hands of regional and local warlords. Without the modern state to support the technological apparatus, technological capability becomes significantly reduced. But, it is not a return to nature and bands of hunter/gatherer tribes of people.

Further, Lenin leads to Putin. Revolution brings new unwritten rules to replace the formal codified rules of the past. It will be in the interests of individuals and groups within a society to harness technology to project power for their faction. And in the end, reconstituted technological institutions and applications will be the outcome of any “revolution,” even one that occurs in a fundamentally world-changing scenario, such as a 200 meter rise in sea level.

The anti-tech “movement” will always be a spectacle because you cannot form a community or a way of life around a negative. Being Amish is a lifestyle. In it, the impact of technology on individuals and communities is the litmus test of whether to adopt it or not. What life can be built around being against any kind of technology? The real issue is having a heuristic for choosing technologies and coming up with a regime of imposing limits beyond hoping that the capability will simply disappear.

Civilization brings material comforts and domination. But, the dream of civilization, like the American dream, is a dream to escape the grinding gears of social domination and at least riding along on the tractor, if you cannot be the one driving it. Wishing that people would prefer to maintain their and other people’s freedom rather than prefer convenience and comfort is to wish people to be other than how they are. It’s utopian foolishness.

What Does It Mean To Be Amish?

There were a group of tourists in a bus in Amish country. Getting off the bus, they saw an old Amish man standing nearby.

One of the tourists asked the old Amish man, “What does it mean to be Amish?”

The old Amish man, who we’ll call Amos, started talking about Jesus, and before too long, another tourist stopped him. He said, “We know all about Jesus. But, what does it mean to be Amish?”

Amos stopped for a moment and thought. Then, he asked, “How many of you have television sets?” Raising his hand to indicate they should do so to say they did.

Every hand went up.

Then, he asked, “How many of you think that television, on balance, has a negative impact on your life and on your communities?”

Again, every hand went up.

Finally, he asked,”How many of you are willing to give up television?”

They group looked to one another, but no hands were raised.

“That is what it means to be Amish.”

End of Trust

“The first all-nonfiction McSweeney’s issue is a collection of essays and interviews focusing on issues related to technology, privacy, and surveillance.

The collection features writing by EFF’s team, including Executive Director Cindy Cohn, Education and Design Lead Soraya Okuda, Senior Investigative Researcher Dave Maass, Special Advisor Cory Doctorow, and board member Bruce Schneier.

We also recruited some of our favorite thinkers on digital rights to contribute to the collection: anthropologist Gabriella Coleman contemplates anonymity; Edward Snowden explains blockchain; journalist Julia Angwin and Pioneer Award-winning artist Trevor Paglen discuss the intersections of their work; Pioneer Award winner Malkia Cyril discusses the historical surveillance of black bodies; and Ken Montenegro and Hamid Khan of Stop LAPD Spying debate author and intelligence contractor Myke Cole on the question of whether there’s a way law enforcement can use surveillance responsibly.”

End of Trust

Watching Babylon 5 in 2018

Note: I’ve tried to avoid any spoilers, which significantly limits this discussion.

In June 2018, Babylon 5 became available on Amazon Prime. On Amazon Prime, the series starts with The Gathering, which is a 2 hour pilot that lays out the narrative framework with different actors from the main series. Then, it’s 5 seasons of 22 episodes of ~45 minutes a piece. So, if you want to watch it, you’re looking at investing about ~85 hours of your life. Is it worth it?

Babylon 5 was planned from the start to be a 5 season series. It has a multi-season narrative arc that uses an ensemble cast with characters and situations that evolve in a way that is interesting and engaging. From episode to episode, different characters are central to the story, which gives each character a depth that is unusual for any television series, even today.

It’s an epic science fiction story. It involves a couple of thousand years of history but is focused on just 5 crucial years within that span, with each season lasting a year. It’s a complete world, with multiple alien civilizations and individuals that are central to the narrative, where Earth is one culture among many. While evolving technology plays an important role in plot dynamics, it’s really the relationships and interplay between different people and cultures that drive the action. Every character and society has strengths and is flawed in some important way, which really breathes life into the series.

Clearly, Babylon 5 has had a major impact on rethinking what kind of story a television series could convey, and it was a precursor to the best television series of today. But, it does have some weaknesses.

The CGI from the mid-1990s has not aged well, but I don’t think it detracts significantly from the story. You could make the argument that while Season 5 ties up a lot of loose ends, it is the weakest season and could be skipped. Some of the acting is stilted. There are elements of the story that are reminiscent of a soap opera. There are also some story lines that end abruptly because of personnel changes or they are just left dangling. On the whole, Babylon 5 feels like an organic piece of story-telling, but it is a little messy. In many ways, it’s reflection of real life. It also explores universal questions about love, time, addiction, diversity, cooperation, brokenness, etc. There is much to consider beyond the story itself.

Watching it now, in the context of a global move to nationalist politics and fear of the Other, I found that there was much in the story that speaks to our historical moment, even though there is almost 25 years separating them. Despite its weaknesses, I enjoyed watching Babylon 5 in 2018. It may be eclipsed by the likes of The Sopranos, Band of Brothers, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and the many excellent series that exist today, but it is still good enough to be included in any conversation about important series worth watching. If you are a fan of other science fiction series beyond Star Trek variants and Star Wars, i.e., Farscape, Firefly, X-Files, Quantum Leap, Sense8 (also by J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5), etc., chances are good you will like Babylon 5.

If you’re on the fence, try the first five episodes of Season 1.

How to Boost Your Data Privacy With a Virtual Private Network

“Data privacy matters, and we all deserve respect and consideration from those we visit on the internet. As shown by the numerous data breaches that have affected companies and individual users around the world, individuals and governments, however, we must also look out for our own personal data and privacy. Using a VPN to obfuscate your location and encrypt data is a powerful way to prevent the tracking, stalking and theft of personal and private data.”

—Eric Jeffrey, “How to Boost Your Data Privacy With a Virtual Private Network.” Security Intelligence. November 2, 2018.

A layman’s explanation of VPNs and why you should be using them. I’ve mentioned VPNs before. If interested in using one, check this website for a comparison of different services.