schlemiel or schlemihl or shlemiel

One of the main benefits of the web is the mass of totally meaningless information that is just waiting to be discovered. It could be used for amusement, procrastination or actual meaningful use (whatever that is…)

A fantastic resource is the old fashioned A.Word.A.Day mailing list administered by Anu Garg. It’s a daily email with an interesting word, with its background, meaning, etymology, pronounciation and more. Just check out some excerpts from the information about today’s word: schlemiel

MEANING:
noun: An inept, clumsy person: a habitual bungler.
ETYMOLOGY:
From Yiddish shlemil, from Hebrew Shelumiel, a Biblical and Talmudic figure who met an unhappy end, according to the Talmud. Earliest documented use: 1892.
NOTES:
No discussion of schlemiel would be complete without mentioning schlimazel, one prone to having bad luck. In a restaurant, a schlemiel is the waiter who spills soup, and a schlimazel is the diner on whom it lands.
What’s not to love?

Dangerous Bits of Information: Notes from a lecture

Last week was an intense week of lecturing, which means that I have fallen behind with other work – including writing up lecture notes. One of the lectures was Dangerous bits of information and was presented at the NOKIOS conference in Trondheim Norway. Unfortunately I did not have much time in the city of Trondheim but what I saw was wonderful sunny city with plenty of places to sit and relax by the river that flows through the center. But there was not much sitting outside on this trip.

The lecture was part of the session “Ny teknologi i offentlig forvaltning – sikkerhet og personvern” (New Technology and Public Administration – security and data security). In the same session was Bjørn Erik Thon, Head of the Norwegian and Storm Jarl Landaasen, Chief Security Officer Market Divisions, Telenor Norge.

My lecture began with an introduction to the way in which many organizations fail to think about the implications of cloud technology. As an illustration I told of the process that surrounded my universities adoption of a student email system. When the university came to the realization that they were not really excellent at maintaining a student email system they decided to resolve this.

The resolution was not a decision of letting individuals chose their system. But the technical group (it was after all seen as a tech problem) was convened and decided in an either – or situation. The decision placed before the group was whether we go with Google or with Microsoft. The group chose Google out of a preference for the interface.

When I wrote a critique of this decision I was told that the decision was formally correct since all the right people (i.e. representatives) where present at the meeting. My criticism was, however, not based on the formality of the process but rather about the way in which the decision was framed and the lack of information given to the students who would be affected by the system.

My critique is based on four dangers of cloud computing (especially by public bodies) and the lack of discussion. The first issue is one of surveillance. Swedish FRA legislation, which allows the state to monitor all communication, was passed with the explicit (though rather useless) understanding that only cross border communication will be monitored. The exception is rather useless as most Internet communication crosses borders even if both sender and receiver is within the same small state. But this cross-border communication becomes even more certain when the email servers are based abroad – as those of gmail are.

The second problem is that some of the communication between student and lecturer is sensitive data. Also the lecturer in Sweden is a government official. This is a fact most of us often forget but should not. Now we have sensitive data being transferred to a third party. This is legal since the users (i.e. the students) have all clicked that they agree the licensing agreements that gmail sets. The problem is that the students have no choice (or very little & uninformed – see below) but to sign away their rights.
The third problem is that nothing is really deleted. This is because – as the important quote states – “If you are not paying for it you are not the customer but the product being sold” – the business model is to collect, analyze and market the data generated by the users.

But for me the most annoying of the problems is the lack of interest public authorities has in protecting citizens from eventual integrity abuses arising from the cloud. My university, a public authority, happily delivered 40000 new customers (and an untold future number due to technology lock-in) to Google and, adding insult to injury, thanking Google for the privilege.

Public authorities should be more concerned about their actions in the cloud. People who chose to give away their data need information about what they are doing. Maybe they even need to be limited. But when public bodies force users to give away data to third parties – then something is wrong. Or as I pointed out – smart people do dumb things.

The lecture continued by pointing out that European Privacy Law has a mental age of pre-1995 (the year of the Data Protection Directive). But do you remember the advice we gave and took about integrity and the Internet in the early days? They contained things like:

  • Never reveal your identity
  • Never reveal your address
  • Never reveal your age
  • Never reveal your gender

Post-Facebook points such as these become almost silly. Our technology has developed rapidly but our society and law is still based on the older analogue norms – the focus in law remains on protecting people from an outer gaze looking in. This becomes less important when the spreading of information is from us individuals and our friends.

The problem in this latter situation is that it extremely difficult to create laws to protect against the salami-method (i.e. where personal data is given away slice by slice instead of all at once).

At this stage I presented research carried out by Jan Nolin and myself on social media policies in local municipalities. We studied 26 policies ranging between < 1 page to 20 pages long. The policies made some interesting points but their strong analogue bias was clear throughout and there were serious omissions. They lacked clear definitions of social media, they confused social media carried out during work or free time. More importantly the policies did not address issues with cloud or topics such as copyright. (Our work is published in To Inform or to Interact, that is the question: The role of Freedom of Information & Disciplining social media: An analysis of social media policies in 26 Swedish municipalities)

Social media poses an interesting problem for regulators in that it is not a neutral infrastructure and it does not fall under the control of the state. The lecture closed with a discussion on the dangers of social media – in particular the increase in personalization, which leads to the Pariser Filter Bubble. In this scenario we see that the organizations are tailoring information to suit our needs or rather our wants. We are increasingly getting what we want rather than what we need. If we take a food analogy we want food with high fat and high sugar content – but this is not what our bodies need. The same applies to information. I may want entertainment but I probably need less of it than I want. Overdosing in fatty information will probably harm me and make me less of a balanced social animal.

Is there an answer? Probably not. The only way to control this issue is to limit individual’s autonomy. In much the same way as we have been forced to wear seat belts for our own security we may need to do the same with information. But this would probably be a political disaster for any politician attempting to suggest it.

Surveillance, Sousveillance & Autoveillance: Notes from a lecture

The theme for today’s lecture was about online privacy and was entitled Surveillance, Sousveillance & Autoveillance.

The lecture had to open up with a minor discussion on the concept of privacy and the problem of finding a definition that many can agree upon. Privacy is a strange mix of natural human need and social construct. The former is not easily identifiable and the latter varies between different cultures.

It is not enough to state that privacy may have a natural component – sure, put too many rats in a cage and they start to kill each other – you also need the technology to enable our affinity for privacy to develop.

For example in At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson writes that the hallway was absolutely essential for private life. Without the hallway people could not pass by other rooms to get to the room you need to go to – but they would have to pass through the other rooms. Our ideas of privacy were able to develop after the “invention” of the hallway.

In order to settle on a definition I picked one off Wikipedia …(from Latin: privatus “separated from the rest, deprived of something, esp. office, participation in the government”, from privo “to deprive”) is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively.

And to fix the academic discussion I quoted from Warren and Brandeis The Right to Privacy, 4 Harvard Law Review 193 (1890)

The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world…solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress…

I like this quote because it also points to the effects of modern inventions on the loss of privacy.

In closing the lecture introduction I pointed out that privacy intervention consists of both data collection and data analysis – even though most of the history of privacy focused on the data collection side of the equation. In addition to this I broke down the data collection issue by pointing out that integrity consists of both information privacy (the stuff that resides in archives) and spatial privacy (for example surveillance cameras & the “right” to be groped at airports).

For the next section the lecture did a quick review of the role of technology in the privacy discussion. Without technology the ability to conduct surveillance is extremely limited. The early origins of tax records and collections like the Domesday book were fundamental for controlling society. However, real surveillance did not really begin until the development of technology such as the wonderful Kodak nr 1 in 1888. The advantages of this technology was that it provided a cheap, easy to use, portable ability to take photographs. Photographs could be snapped without the object standing still. A whole new set of problems was instantly born. One such problem was kodakers (amateur photographers, see “’Kodakers Lying in Wait’: Amateur Photography and the Right to Privacy in New York, 1885-1915”, American Quarterly, Vol 43, No 1 March 1991) who were able to suddenly able to take photographs at of unsuspecting victims.

Surveillance: A gaze from above

The tradition concerns of surveillance deal with the abuse of state (or corporate) power. The state legitimizes its own ability to collect information about its citizens. The theoretical concerns with surveillance are the abuse from the Big Brother state and foremost in this area is the work of Foucault and his development of the Panopticon (all-seeing eye prison). Foucault meant that in a surveillance society the surveilled, not knowing if anyone was looking, would internalize his own control.

Sousveillance: A gaze from below

The concept of sousveillance was originally developed within computer science and “…refers to the recording of an activity by a participant in the activity typically by way of small wearable or portable personal technologies…” Wikipedia

But in the context of privacy the idea was that our friends and peers (especially tricky concepts in Social Media) will be the ones who collect and spread information about us online.

We are dependent upon our social circle, as Granovetter states: “Weak ties provide people with access to information and resources beyond those available in their own social circle; but strong ties have greater motivation to be of assistance and are typically more easily available.” (Granovetter, M.S. (1983). “The Strength of the Weak Tie: Revisited”, Sociological Theory, Vol. 1, 201-33., pp 209).

This ability of others to “out” us in social media will become more interesting with the development of facial recognition applications. These have already begun to challenge social and legal norms (Facebook facial recognition software violates privacy laws, says Germany – The Guardian 3 August 2011).

Autoveillance: a gaze from within

The final level is Autoveillance – this is obviously not the fact that we are looking at ourselves but attempts to address the problems of our newfound joy in spreading personal information about ourselves.

Is this a form of exhibitionism that enables us to happily spread personal, and sometimes intimate, information about ourselves? Is this the modern version of narcissism?

Narcissism is a term with a wide range of meanings, depending on whether it is used to describe a central concept of psychoanalytic theory, a mental illness, a social or cultural problem, or simply a personality trait. Except in the sense of primary narcissism or healthy self-love, “narcissism” usually is used to describe some kind of problem in a person or group’s relationships with self and others. (Wikipedia)

We have always “leaked” information but most of the time we have applied different strategies of control. One such strategy is compartmentalization – which is the attempt to deliver different information to different groups. For example my mother, my wife, my co-workers, my friends and my children do not need to know the same stuff about me. But social media technology defies the strategy of compartmentalization.

At the same time as this is happening our social and legal norms have remained firm in the analog age and focus on the gaze from without.

Then the lecture moved from data collection to data analysis. Today this is enabled by the fact that all users have sold away their rights via their End-User License Agreements (EULA). The EULA is based upon the illusion of contracts as agreements between equals. However, as most people do not read the license, or if they read the license they don’t understand it, or if they understand it the license is apt to change without notice.

Today we have a mix of sur, sous & autoveillance. And again: regulation mainly focuses on surveillance. This is leading to an idea about the end of privacy. Maybe privacy is a thing of the past? Privacy has not always been important and it may once again fall into disrepute.

With the end of privacy – everyone may know everything about everyone else. We may have arrived at a type of Hive Mind. The hive mind is a concept from science fiction (for example Werewolves in Twilight, The Borg in Star Trek and the agents in The Matrix). An interesting addition to this line of thinking is the recent work by the Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö who argues that it is information inequality that is the problem.

The problem with Tännsjö’s arguments is that he is a safe person living in a tolerant society. He seems to really believe the adage: If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. I seriously doubt that the stalked, cyberbullied, the disenfranchised etc will be happier with information equality – I think that they would prefer the ability to hide their weaknesses and to chose when and where this information will be disclosed.

The problem is that while we had a (theoretical) form of control over Big Brother we have no such control over corporations to whom we are less than customers:

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

The lecture closed with reminders from Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble that with the personalization of information we will lose our identities and end up with a diet of informational junk food (the stuff we maybe want but should not eat to much of).

Then a final word of warning from Evgeny Morozov (The Net Delusion) to remind the audience that there is nothing inherently democratic about technology – our freedom and democracy will not be created, supported or spread just because we have iPods…

Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Connected

Oscar Wilde wrote A Few Maxims For The Instruction Of The Over-Educated (First published, anonymously, in the 1894 November 17 issue of Saturday Review) this version online here

Education is an admirable thing.  But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.

Public opinion exists only where there are no ideas.

The English are always degrading truths into facts.  When a truth becomes a fact it loses all its intellectual value.

It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information.

The only link between Literature and Drama left to us in England at the present moment is the bill of the play.

In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public.  Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.

Most women are so artificial that they have no sense of Art.  Most men are so natural that they have no sense of Beauty.

Friendship is far more tragic than love.  It lasts longer.

What is abnormal in Life stands in normal relations to Art.  It is the only thing in Life that stands in normal relations to Art.

A subject that is beautiful in itself gives no suggestion to the artist.  It lacks imperfection.

The only thing that the artist cannot see is the obvious.  The only thing that the public can see is the obvious.  The result is the Criticism of the Journalist.

Art is the only serious thing in the world.  And the artist is the only person who is never serious.

To be really mediæval one should have no body.  To be really modern one should have no soul.  To be really Greek one should have no clothes.

Dandyism is the assertion of the absolute modernity of Beauty.

The only thing that can console one for being poor is extravagance.  The only thing that can console one for being rich is economy.

One should never listen.  To listen is a sign of indifference to one’s hearers.

Even the disciple has his uses.  He stands behind one’s throne, and at the moment of one’s triumph whispers in one’s ear that, after all, one is immortal.

The criminal classes are so close to us that even the policemen can see them.  They are so far away from us that only the poet can understand them.

Those whom the gods love grow young.

Not sure if we have groups of over-educated people online but I am in a bit of a Wilde period right now and I wonder what would be the list of few Maxims for the instruction of the over-connected.

Any suggestions?