York Festival of Ideas 2015

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Users vs. Techs

This year, I learned about York’s Festival of Ideas. Started in 2011, this year’s theme was “Secrets and Discoveries”, which included a whole day (today) on Surveillance, Snowden and Security. Right up my alley, so off I went. This article is really about things that were brought up in a panel discussion, entitled The Future of Cyber-Security. I don’t know if these things are being recorded and uploaded, but I’ll link if it becomes available.

The panel was composed of five speakers, with what could be called a range of experience; it was chaired by a BBC technology correspondent. Early in the main discussion came a generally-agreed maxim - that “we” shouldn’t let “the techies” determine our online future. Being as charitable as I can be to this idea, I think it’s expressible as “not everything that is possible should be permitted”. Or maybe, “techies should build the online environment we mutually agree we should have, rather than the one techies think is best”. At the time, it came across as being quite antagonistic - in any division of the populace between “techie” and “everyone else”, I’m surely in the former group, after all.

Later in the discussion, an illuminating window was shone on this attitude - at least for me - by a digression into the power that a small, elite group of technologists sitting in Silicon Valley and working on huge online edifices that we find ourselves willing, or forced, to use. Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc. These services and software companies mediate a large portion of online interactions, and to a very real approximation, they do decide what is possible online for people. This became evident in the last (and best) audience question of the session, where someone asked what alternatives there were to these behemoths - the questioner wanted to know what she could do, right now, to avoid them, if possible.

None of the panel could answer this. They all sheepishly proclaimed their allegiance to Google, or to Apple, and commuted the question to “can we do without this service?” or “what’s the minimum amount of information I can give to this company while still using their service?“. One of the panellists (I forget who) managed to note that alternatives do exist for some of these services, but didn’t know what any of them were, and opined that the cost of finding and using such an alternative outweighed the benefits of escaping the Silicon Valley set of solutions.

These people are users. More than that, they are consumers. Consumer activism, it turns out, is how they expect their online services to evolve in a direction that fulfils their wishes. (The pig-dog blog, incidentally, turns out to be consumer activism and it’s not a new thing. Who knew?) The techs are expected to present a choice of online services that represents the range of the possible (well, minus a few that have been determined ahead-of-time to be too dangerous), and consumer choice is meant to filter out the bad ones. Wouldn’t that be nice?

In reality, of course, the options open to me as a tech for any online service are much broader than the options open to a user, simply because many ways of providing a given service haven’t been productised in any sensible fashion. I host my own email and instant messaging, and create my own encryption keys to secure these things over the wider Internet. This is the online equivalent of brewing your own beer, or making your own biltong. Those who can’t are unlikely to ever have the dubious pleasure of tasting Henderson’s Relish biltong.

Anyway, these users have their view of what is possible shaped by the products that are currently successful. The “right to be forgotten” ruling came up partway through this panel. Removing search results from Google indexing is fairly pointless, a techie will cry - the content still exists, after all, and other search indexes also exist. You just can’t stop YaCy from indexing them. But it doesn’t matter to the user - the desired effect has been achieved according to their (limited) view of what is possible.

The idea of having your own email securely located in your own living room, or being responsible for asserting your own identity online, is a revolutionary concept to users in general. They’re just not aware that it’s an option until a helpful techie informs them that it is - brainstorming “alternatives to GMail” with such a group is going to throw up replies like “hotmail”. Their view of what is possible is shaped by the techies providing the services they already use.

Attempts to productise self-hosting of email, say, are ongoing - but it’s a niche thing. The other side of the coin is attempting to convince users to be more gung-ho with non-productised (or less-productised, I guess) solutions. If we’re sat in a wood, freezing to death, a decent proportion of us could make fire from first principles, even if we don’t have a Zippo lighter with us. As things are with online services, we wouldn’t even start collecting the analogous driftwood.

Groups of techies like those behind MailPile have got the right idea, I think, but it’s an uphill slog - and trying to make users aware of these possibilities, and get them into policy and legislative debates, is the hardest bit. The tech comes naturally to us, after all. Did I stand up and say any of this at the panel discussion? Of course not :p.