Category: Politics

White European Males, GamerGate and DongleGate

First things first, a disclaimer:

  1. I don’t condone, nor I accept any form of harassment, physical, verbal or electronic.
  2. I don’t mix technical qualities with life situations. Your choices, opinions, abilities and disabilities may affect the quality of your work, but this is not about those, but about the result: your work.
  3. I don’t promote abusive behaviour as a form of getting your point across, even if no abusive intention was meant.
  4. I do promote inclusion in STEM to balance towards the real proportion in society.
  5. Both GamerGate and DongleGate were disasters on their own, for very different reasons. I want neither to happen.
  6. I have Asperger’s Syndrome and see things more black and white than most people. I cannot accept qualitative features being used for quantitative purposes. None of this is meant as an offence, or to explain or validate harassment, abuse or any other unethical behaviour. It’s just an analysis.

What was

When Charles Babbage begun creating his analytical machine, he was worried about the hardware and the implications of it for mathematics and the world. But we all know that hardware is only as good as its software, and so Ada Lovelace’s work was of equal importance on that critical milestone. Both of them were mathematicians of an elite that weren’t thoroughly recognised until much later. Both were extremely methodical, eccentric and disconnected from reality. All well known characteristics that Hans Asperger recognised circa 1920 as what we now know as autism.

In the 40’s to 60’s, only really brilliant mathematicians could understand computing, mostly because they were just developing it, but thousands of men and women took part in building and using them. At that time, the proportion of people “using computers” was closer to the social distribution than it is today. However, the number of people working “with computers” was independent of their understanding of the underlying technology. Naturally, the distribution then follows the source group’s own. But after the first real case for general computing (WWII), the world was left with a tool that could do so much more, and people realised that they needed to take it to the next level.

Still too many people were clueless as to how computers worked, and a huge effort was made to get people “into computing”. But the importance and prevalence of computing those days were inexistent, so the appeal to the general public, men and women, were close to zero. The kind of people that felt attracted by it then, and during the 70’s and 80’s were the same groups as Babbage, Lovelace, Turin: people in the autistic spectrum. This is not to say that non-autistic people did’t do it, or worse, that they couldn’t do it. On the contrary, the proof that this is not an autistic-only field is today’s proliferation of computer scientists around the world, regardless of their mental status, gender, race or culture.

During the 70’s, computers had specific purposes, and only universities and very big companies had them. The 80’s saw the first boom in “personal” computing, but it was still dominated by self-built kits, and those like me that remember that time fondly, know how much of a weirdo we were in the eyes of the general population. While more people were taking on computing careers, those experimenting at home still had a clear autistic predisposition.

It was only in the 90’s, when Bill Gates became a millionaire, that people started giving “some” credit to the field, and personal computing toppled and then completely replaced mainframes. During the 80’s, operating systems were developed for the common tasks like word editing, spreadsheets and simple databases, but it wasn’t until the 90’s that most people had one in their homes and small shops. It became ubiquitous only then.

But even in the 90’s, all the attempts to simplify programming (Logo? Basic?) couldn’t really help you do much with computers. They were (and still are) basically toys. So, people that learnt Basic have realised early on that they couldn’t write anything meaningful and would either have to delve deep into C, or give up completely. That was still promoting those of the more autistic disposition to stay and the rest to find something more interesting to do.

The niche

But as with every spectrum, thresholds are biased.

If you understand a bit about autism, you know that all we want is to be left alone to our own devices. Don’t come to my house telling me what to do and how. This is most upsetting for autistic people and you will be faced with some unintentional harsh responses due to the genetic reasons that autistic people cannot control or fix.

Autistic people were *always* banned from social life for thousands of years (maybe more?), and since ever they tried to group into segregated societies, often characterised with bigotry and rudeness, not uncommonly harassment. The Royal Society was such a place, and not unlike the current computer science scenario, was dominated by “White European Males“.

It seems obvious to me that the “White European” part is easily explained because of the degree of development that Europe had at the time (1600’s), compared to everywhere else in the world. The parallel with modern computer scientists is clear: North America and Western Europe have a much higher rate of Caucasians well educated and positioned in society, for obvious reasons that don’t fit this text to discuss, than the other groups.

When a field is new and needs pressure to get to, most of the people that will get in will be of a similar disposition. In the same way that most voluntary army cadets will have a similar mentality. I would never be an army volunteer, but I was a computer enthusiast since I was 5 years old.

Recent studies have shown that the proportion of males and females in high-functioning autistic people (the ones that like to solve complex problems for fun) is 4:1. But boys and girls behave very differently, with boys having a lot more physically and verbally violent games, and girls being more sensitive. With a start ratio of 4:1, it’s not hard how that biased self-selection can get to 10:1 or more.

What has become

But after the initial self-balancing, true bigots and abusers (trolls), saw the chance to belong to a society that was professing, for completely different reasons, that different people be kept out. I hope it’s clear enough that high-functioning autistic people have a valid and important reason to keep people out of their lives and groups. Otherwise, they cannot function properly.

Moreover, autistic people have the tendency of responding badly to social pressure, and that includes behaviour that is often misinterpreted as harassment, bullying and violent. It is not uncommon to see very drastic ends to really sad stories.

Autistic people also have a higher than usual rate of trusting people, and therefore much more easily abused by trolls, who will become part of a community and extend their modus operandi, but not necessarily their intention.

People on less advantageous backgrounds (wealth, disabilities, minorities, life choices) had even less chances of getting in a club that was trying to keep people out. But with trolls inside, they’ll make sure this becomes impossible, and that’s how situations like GamerGate happen.

It is important to separate the original cause of aggregation and demand for separation, sometimes aggressively, as a classic high-functioning autistic process, from the subsequent harassment and directed intentional aggression that trolls had after they took over well meaning but fearful and trusting mostly autistic people.

That fact, however, does not condone any aggression, including from autistic people. But what people have to understand is that, if the aggression comes from an autistic person, even high-functioning, they very likely cannot control it and need help. Being offended is ok, but reserving the right to then discharge your own contained aggression, even if you are a minority, is not the way to solve this.

We all have problems, but turning off your care-meter because you are a minority and have just being offended is not ok. And that includes autistic people, too.

Why is this important?

Because computer science has moved on from the nerd-zone for at least 20 years, but much more so in the last 10.

Nowadays there are a huge number of architectures, languages, tools, spare parts and they’re all accessible to a huge chunk of the world to play with. It is not a mostly autistic activity any more, and there are languages (like Python, Java, Haskell, Go, Swift, even JavaScript and Scratch) and hardware (like RaspberryPi, Arduino, Mindstorms) which allow you to do amazing things very easily.

The barrier into technology is so low now that anyone can enter, and once they’re in, they don’t need to be autistic to enjoy. Furthermore, neurotypical people can be as good (or better) than autistic people even in the hardest of problems. After all, being high-functioning autistic doesn’t mean you’re smarter, just means you want to do something that keep you away from people, and talking to machines is the best thing I can think of.

So nowadays we have all kinds of people, and with that, we’re back to the real distribution that societies have. All minorities are now represented by what they are in society. But trolls are haters, and they know some very cunning ways to keep unwanted people around, mostly using subversive tactics like physical, verbal and social abuse, doxing, DDoSing, etc.

We need to remove the trolls from our societies together. This is not a minorities vs majorities fight, this is a fight for the right to be safe. The new minorities have as much right to be safe as the original minority who created the space. And both minorities have the right to be represented, but so does the majorities. The only thing we want to get rid of are the trolls.

What we should move towards

So, autistic people want a space of their own, trolls take over, destroy the Internet. Minorities try to participate, trolls shoot them down, behave like assholes. What else is news? As it all started in the 40’s, we need a compatible distribution with the rest of society. The very definition of minority is that there is less of. So it makes no sense to expect an equal distribution of minority and majority on each specific scale.

For instance, on average worldwide, we have half men, half women. So I would expect the same distribution in STEM subjects. We may be far from it in computer science and physics, but not in biology or chemistry. It’s still not 50/50, so we can’t take each topic to be exactly 50/50, but we can expect the whole STEM subjects to be around that ballpark.

Of the world population, at a glance I see 18% is Han Chinese, while about two thirds of that is “European”, and a third of each Arabic, Hindu and African, living all over the world. The real distribution doesn’t matter much, but I’d expect a similar distribution for STEM in the same way.

Now, getting there will involve two distinct activities:

  1. Deep grass root movements to increase the development and literacy of impoverished communities, education of better off communities regarding equality and inclusion.
  2. Improve STEM inclusion and attractiveness for all members of society, as well as remove the exclusion characteristics (trolls) of the already existing community.

People that are keen on seen global equality (1) have to fight that battle outside of STEM subjects. The fights you should have inside are those that discriminate minorities that can already be represented in STEM subjects (2).

For example, all the feminists advocate for inclusion in open source communities already have the will and ability to participate on equal grounds as men. The fact that someone is gay or transgender makes absolutely no difference in a STEM community and should bear no value in inclusion or acceptance. The fact that they are not included is a horrible mistake and has to be fixed inside STEM communities.

We should move towards STEM communities that have a relevant distribution as far as STEM can have on its own. We’re not looking for equal numbers of all minorities, we’re looking for equal distribution of minorities, and those are two very different things.

What we cannot have

What seems to be happening, and it’s something that will not fix anything, is that we’re moving to the other side.

We have to discourage any kind of troll, regardless if they agree with you. It may be satisfying to see someone on your side trolling someone you’re against, but that’s as bad as their side’s troll behaviour. Encouraging hate, even in the form of biased consensus and imposed cultural traits is just as bad as any other form of harassment.

More importantly, it’s that form of harassment that gets to the core of autistic people, including high-functioning ones. It’s the very reason why we hide from people and talk to machines. Cases like DongleGate are as extremist as GamerGate, and as offensive to me.

The fact that one misinterpreting person with one picture and one tweet can get someone fired is disconcerting beyond words. As disconcerting as people ganging up on girls just because they want representativeness on their games, or some of those girls ganging up back and doing horrible things with the “excuse” of retaliation. All those behaviours are equally beyond words.

What we cannot have is to flip sides and have the suffering minorities so far gaining the upper hand and gaining the right to harass the majority or worse still, the forgotten minority that started it all and had no intentional part in any of the bullying.

We need to protect the minorities from abuse, and that includes the odd folks that don’t look mentally retarded or deficient in any way but behave oddly and sometimes aggressively. Those people are too often interpreted as bullies when all they want is to be left alone, and all they need is help adapting to an alien society.

Collection of data is not the only problem

What the NSA has taught us is that mass surveillance is not as hard as people used to think. Other governments, and most commercial companies, do that, too. With the advent of smartphones we’ve learned to ignore most of that for the sake of convenience, and most of the time, it’s ok.

It’s true that the bulk surveillance from governments can spark enough false positives to make people worried, or that Google and Facebook are using your personal details to make a bucket load of money, and some others are selling those details, sometimes not even realising.

When you think of all the power that the government can do with your data, or all the money that big corporations are making with your personal information, it’s nor surprising to think: “where’s my share in this?”. Some people even tried to evaluate how much would you get for selling different types of personal information to corporations. But, is that the real question that we should be asking?

Should we be concerned with what data do we leak and try to minimise it, or should we really be thinking what can they really do with that information? Of course, any answer will be a mix of both (since not all investigating parties are well intentioned or law abiding), but there is the limit of government and corporation’s powers that can go a long way of making the data useful but not harmful.

Privacy

I said this before and I still maintain my position that no one has ever had privacy. Parents eavesdrop on their kids behaviour since the dawn of humanity as a way to grow them into responsible adults. The concept of “being responsible” has changed over the millennia, but parents have not.

Law making and enforcing bodies have eavesdropping as their primordial way of acquiring information. Since people normally only do bad stuff when no one is looking, expecting the police to only use highly visual enquiring methods (such as asking personally or patrolling an area) become impossibly expensive very quickly. It is true that random checkpoints, fake speed cameras and signs do help awareness, but that’s also not optimal from a monetary point of view.

Privacy also goes against any common sense in the outside world. If you take a bus, every one in that bus knows you’re there, even if they don’t know who you are. If there is a picture of you on the bus saying “wanted, dead or alive”, they will see you and report you. There’s little you can do, besides hiding and never showing your face again. Famous people (actors, etc) have the same problem and the solution is pretty much hide.

Data

The data you “leak” is also the data that defines you. Where you have been, what you like, where you work and live, what food you eat and what you do on Saturdays. Collecting that data and providing a service on that is actually extremely beneficial to you. The problem is who has access to that information.

Tesco knows what I need to buy better than I do. They send me vouchers with discount on fresh mozzarella cheese, fresh basil and fresh tomato on the vine. They know I love Caprese salad, and I actually like Tesco knowing that, because I get a slightly cheaper Caprese salad once in a while.

Google Maps knows where I live and work, so that when I’m going home I can just say: “Ok Google, go home”, and it does the rest. If I don’t share that kind of information with Google, it would never be able to do what I want it to. Examples like that are everywhere, and each company must have access to a wide range of data from you (location, shopping habits, browsing habits) for them to be able to do so. It’s the unavoidable fact of information theory that you need enough entropy to find patterns.

Legality

The real problem here is what companies end up doing with your data, and how well they protect it from malicious outsiders. Even if the company is benign, once they get hacked, your bundle of personal data which is enough to infer pretty accurate patters about your personal life, are out there. Who know what the attackers will do you that?

Another problem is blanket approvals to bypass any legal system and arrest, judge and execute individuals solely based on bulk surveillance patterns that are known to generate an immense amount of false positives, not only because the algorithms are inexact, but because the people filtering and creating the rules don’t posses enough knowledge to know what they’re looking for in the first place.

Finally, what happens if the benign company that provides you an invaluable service is suddenly acquired by an unscrupulous company? Can the reach of the service widen based on the parent company’s privacy policy? Or is the data protected like source code that is licensed as open source with, for example, the GNU license?

Solutions

So, a pragmatic view on surveillance should attack the problem of the legality of actions on data, not just the legality of acquiring data in the first place. The legal system can already cope with that, for instance when evidence is found via illegal means (unapproved wire or microphone), it cannot be used against the accused. The “Patriot Act” changed all that in the US, and in other countries, and that’s the first thing that has to be changed back to a sane standard. Governments should never have the ability to bypass the judicial and executive system based on *any* collected data, especially if it was done in bulk, with irrelevant patterns to match.

Another topic that needs addressing is licences on data, especially collected data for the purposes of personal services. There are licenses that cover open data, such as Creative Commons, but these cannot be applied to private data that a company has access with the sole purpose of providing a service. Each company has a different privacy policy and the EFF has great tools to monitor them all, but all of that is solely dependent on the company’s ethics.

A change of the board, or the managing directors, or even an acquisition, is enough to pervert the privacy policy and render the previous data they had on you (that you cannot ever delete any more) to their benefit. What we need is a data license that is not open (since it’s private data), but that is protected in the same way against future changes.

There may be cases for more or less stringent licenses (like GNU vs. BSD) for different uses, but once they’re standard licenses, we don’t need to read every single privacy policy of every company every time they change some minor wording, we’d know what kind of freedoms and guarantees we’re getting, and companies won’t have the right to subversively change it.

Finally, there should be a guarantee in the license that the company is required to store such data in a protected way, following a set of standard cryptographic techniques and solutions, and there should be a clause on how they would destroy the data on the minimal attempt of intrusion. To compensate the total loss of service for all users, they must store such data in different locations, using different techniques and keys, and distribute it across multiple locations.

It may seem daunting for small companies to provide small services, but so did cheap scalable storage and service providing until Amazon created the AWS and all others followed suit. If there is a demand, someone will create the solution. That has been the human response to everything since we came down trees to conquer the planet and we won’t stop here.

Conclusion

It’s not the data, it’s what governments and corporations can do with the data, and how to protect it from malicious parties.

Tale of The Water

In a village, far from any big city, there lived a family which had access to clean water from a nearby river. With the rain from many spring and autumn months being abundant, the family never had any trouble to wash clothes, cook and drink, or even have a good long bath. But the village, as any good village in the world, grew along that river, and each family had access to clean and fresh water.

As times pass, the legend of good water spread across the land, and more and more people joined the thriving community of the water village. But with growth, there’s lack of space, and not everyone had direct access to the river, but had to cross the original settlers’ gardens to get to water. Some fights and some profits later, the community, that now extended across several rows of houses on both sides of the river, as far as the eye could see, had a meeting to decide what would be done about the “water problem”.

The eldest, and self-elected leader of the community, had many friends among the first settlers. He wasn’t himself living by the river, since he got there not long ago, but with a few favours (especially helping increasing the profits of the original settlers to share their water with the newcomers), he got himself in a pretty good spot, and had enough contacts on both sides of the river to reign almost unimpeded.

To no surprise, he was the first to speak: “Friends of the Water Village, we gather today to decide what to do with the water.” Half-way through the sentence, every body had stopped talking, so he proceeded: “We all know that the water in this village is of the best quality in all the land”, and a chorus in the background said “yeah!”. “We all know that the first settlers have the rights in accessing and distributing the water, which you all know I am not part of, nor I profit from their enterprise, I only help to see that their profits and rights are guaranteed.” There was silence, for most knew that it was a lie, but they either didn’t want to oppose (at least not publicly), or didn’t care.

“But recent events called for a special gathering. So many of you hear that there are people accessing the river via the bridge, which blocks the crossing and put the bridge, which is not of the best quality, in danger!”. “Not to mention that this is a disrespect with the original settlers, that fought so hard to build our thriving community, and gave us the bless of such good water, and have helped us in reaching the water in such beautiful and useful buckets of their own creation.” “We owe them the right to share with us their water, the right to charge for the tireless efforts to provide our homes with the best water, carefully selected and cared for.” There was a faint ovation from the bench where the original settlers were, with many of them only shrugging, or not even that.

“Some of you reported the efforts of our friend that decided to pass a pipe through his land to make it easier to other villagers to have access to water, and that was already dealt with. We destroyed his pipe, and let that be a warning of anyone trying to pervert the art of the original settlers, as we owe them our delicious water!”. “Now, as with any democracy, I open the floor for comments, on how are we going to solve this problems.”

With this, some of the original settlers mentioned how the town should restrict the access to the bridge, and to charge a fee to cross, so that people that uses the bridge have the intention to cross the bridge, not to collect water. Others mentioned that it still wouldn’t stop collectors, but, as some said, they could restrict the validity of the tickets to a short period of time, in which a new charge would be collected.

About the pipe “problem”, many suggested that it should be made illegal to have pipes in any house, not just on the original settles, because connecting pipes between houses was not technically difficult, and it would be hard to solve the problem in case many houses ended up connecting to each other, as it was already happening in the north area.

When all the citizens were heard, and all the votes were taken, most of the ideas were unanimously approved. When the final hammer stroke down, finishing the meeting, one citizen, who was not one of the original settlers rose up: “This is outrageous! It doesn’t make sense, the water comes from the rain, and there is no innate right of the original settlers to charge anything for it!”. As he was saying this, one of the man standing behind the bench left in silence.

To that, not much was done from the central bench, where the eldest was sitting in the middle. He slowly rose is head, adjusted his glasses and smiled. “Friend, we’d be happy to hear your pledge, but as you all know, you don’t have the right to address the council. Only original settlers, and those appointed by them, can speak at the council. If you want to voice your concerns, I suggest you talk to your representative.” To which the man responded: “But my representative is an original settler, and I can’t vote for anyone that is not one, so they don’t represent me, they never had!”. “I’m sorry friend, but this is how democracy works, we can’t change the world just because of you.”.

The villager’s face was red, his eyes twitched slightly. The despair in his mind was clear, but he didn’t have much time to fall into it, for the silent men returned to the settlers’ bench and whispered something to the eldest’s ear only. The eldest turned his head again to the nonconformist villager. “Dear sir, we hear stories that you have been consistently using the bridge in the past days, is that true?”. “Well, yes, my sister lives on the other side, and I go visit her every day.”. “The reports also say that you take a bucket with you, and that you fill it with water, do you agree?”. “Well, yes, of course, I take the water for my sick sister, she needs it to aid her recovery.”. “And you haven’t paid a single settler for more than a month, how much water do you have stored at your house, dear sir?”.

It didn’t take long for the strong men behind the bench take the poor villager into a closed room, and he was never heard of ever again. Even though the water is a resource from nature, and despite the fact that water is essential to every living creature, the innate right of ownership of basic needs is common place in many parts of the world.

Creativity is a gift we received from evolution, as a way to save ourselves from more powerful foes. Creativity has a large proportion of imitation, since other living beings have different ideas, equally effective, against our common foes, and those that copy and share ideas, survive for longer. And yet, out society believes, for some serious distortion of natural reality, that the right to own something is more important than the right to survive.

If you read this story again, but replacing “water” with “music”, and making the appropriate changes, you’ll see that it makes as much sense as the original tale. And yet, a huge empire is built on the presumption that creativity can be owned by anyone. Who was the first to play certain tune? How many completely separate cultures have the same beat on their millenarian songs? There are infinite ways of combining words, but only a few actually make sense, and a lot less than that ends up beautiful.

Songs, poems, tales, videos, films, theatre are all forms of expressing the same feelings in different ways, but some people have the luxury of owning the rights of a particular way of expression, mainly because the law is written to favour them, than because they have actually created something truly new. No one has.

We all copy ideas. That’s called survival. That’s genetic. That’s what define us.

Why are we so ashamed of our own past? Why do we accept that the rich gets richer on our own account? Why do we agree that paying millions of dollars to an already filthy rich actors, directors and producers makes sense, for them to give us the benefit of watching the “Hangover III”, when it’s an absolute copy of itself for the second time, when the original was a pout-pourri of many other films and stories? Why do we accept a law that makes us criminals by sharing creativity, a basic instinct of the human race?

What has come of the human race to accept this as “normal”?

Hypocrite Internet Freedom

Last year, the Internet has shown its power over governments, when we all opposed to the SOPA and PIPA legislations in protests across the world, including this very blog. Later on, against ACTA and so on, and we all felt very powerful indeed. Now, a new thread looms over the Internet, the ITU is trying to take over the Internet.

To quote Ars Technica:

Some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes introduced a new proposal at the World Conference on International Telecommunications on Friday that could dramatically extend the jurisdiction of the International Telecommunication Union over the Internet.

Or New Scientist:

This week, 2000 people have gathered for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to discuss, in part, whether they should be in charge.

And stressing that:

WHO runs the internet? For the past 30 years, pretty much no one.

When in reality, the Internet of today is actually in the precise state the US is trying to avoid, only that now they’re in control, and the ITU is trying to change it to an international organization, where more countries have a say.

Today, the DNS and the main IP blocks are controlled by the ICANN, however, Ars Technica helps us reminding that ICANN and IANA are:

the quasi-private organizations that currently oversee the allocation of domain names and IP addresses.

But the ICANN was once a US government operated body, still with strong ties with Washington, localized solely on the US soil, operating on US law jurisdiction. They also failed on many accounts to democratize their operations, resulting in little or no impact for international input. Furthermore, all top level domains that are not bound to a country (like .com, .org, .net) are also within American jurisdiction, even if they’re hosted and registered in another country.

But controlling the DNS is only half the story. The control that the US has on the Internet is much more powerful. First, they hold (for historical and economical reasons), most of the backbone of the Internet (root DNS servers, core routers, etc). That means the traffic between Europe and Japan will probably pass through them. In theory, this shouldn’t matter and it’s actually an optimization of the self-structuring routing tables, but in fact, the US government has openly reported that they do indeed monitor all traffic that goes within their borders and they do reserve the right to cut it, if they think this presents a risk of national security.

Given the amount of publicity the TSA had since 2001 for their recognition of what poses a security threat, including Twitter comments from British citizens, I wouldn’t trust them, or their automated detection system to care for my security. Also, given the intrusion that they have on some governments like the case of Dotcom in January, where national security operations in New Zealand were shared inappropriately with the American government, I never felt safe when crossing American soil, physically or through the Internet.

Besides, Hollywood has shown in Scandinavia and in UK that they hold a strong leash on European governments when related to (US) copyright laws, forcing governments, once liberals, to abide to American rules, arresting their own citizens, when content is being distributed over the Internet. It’s also interesting to remember than SOPA, PIPA and ACTA, mainly driven by Hollywood, were all created within closed doors.

So, would ITU control be better?

No. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although, in theory, it’s more democratic (more countries with decision power), this decision power has been sought for one main purpose: to enforce more strict laws. I generally agree that the ITU would not be a good controlling body, but believing that nobody controls the Internet is, at least, naive, and normally a pretentious lie.

A legal control of many countries over something as free as the Internet would impose the same dangers as having it free of legal control, since it leaves us with indirect control from the strongest player, which so far, has been the US. The other countries are only so strongly minded about the ITU because the US won’t let them have their voices, and the ITU is a way to create an UN for the Internet.

In that sense, the ITU would be a lot like the UN. Worthless. A puppet in the hands or the strong players. Each country would have more control over their borders, and that would impact almost nothing in the US, but the general rules would stop being valid, and the US (and other countries) would have to do a lot more work than they do today. One example is the stupid rule in the UK where the sites, including international ones, have to warn users that they are using cookies.

Don’t be fooled, the US government is not really worried about your safety and security, nor your freedom. They’re trying to avoid a lot of work, and a big loss in market in the Middle East and South Asia. With countries (that they like to say are authoritarian regimes) imposing stricter rules on traffic, including fees, taxes and other things that they have on material goods, the commerce with those governments will be a lot more expensive.

Ever since the second world war, the US economy is based mainly on military activities. First, helping Europe got them out of the big depression, then they forced rebellions throughout Latin America to keep the coins clinking and currently, it’s the Middle East. With the climate change endangering their last non-war resources (oil), they were betting on the Internet to spread the American Way Of Life to the less fortunate, with the off chance of selling a few iPads on the process, but now, that profit margin is getting dangerously thin.

Not to mention the military threat, since a lot of the intelligence is now being gathered through the Internet, and recent attacks on Iranian nuclear power plants via the Stuxnet worm, would all become a lot harder. The fact that China is now bigger and more powerful than they are, in every possible aspect (I dare say even military, but we can’t know for sure), is also not helping.

What is then, the solution? Is it possible to really have nobody running the Internet? And, if at all possible, is it desirable?

Mad Max Internet

I don’t think so.

It’s true that IPv6 should remove completely the need for IP allocation, but DNS is a serious problem. Letting DNS registration to an organic self-organized process would lead to widespread malicious content being distributed and building security measures around it would be much harder than they already are. The same is true with SSL certificates. You’d expect that, on a land with no rules, trusted bodies would charge a fortune and extort clients for a safe SSL certificate, if they actually produce a good one, that is, but this is exactly what happens today, on ICANN rule.

Routing would also be affected, since current algorithms rely on total trust between parties. There was a time when China had all US traffic (including governmental and military) through its routers, solely done via standard BGP rules. On a world where every country has its own core router, digitally attacking another country would be as easy as changing one line on a router.

We all love to think that the Internet is a free world already, but more often than ever, people are being arrested for their electronic behaviour. Unfortunately, because there isn’t a set of rules, or a governing body, the rules that get people arrested are the rules of the strongest player, which in our current case, is Hollywood. So, how is it possible to reconcile security, anonymity and stability without recurring to governing bodies?

The simple answer is, it’s not. The Internet is a land with no physical barriers, where contacting people over 1000s of miles is the same as the one besides you, but we don’t live in a world without borders. It’s not possible to reconcile the laws of all countries, with all the different cultures, into one single book. As long as the world keeps its multiculturalism, we have to cope with different rules for different countries, and I’m not in favour of losing our identity just to make the Internet a place comfortable to the US government.

Regulating multi-body

It is my opinion that we do, indeed, need a regulating body. ICANN, ITU, it doesn’t matter, as long as the decisions are good for most.

I don’t expect that any such governing body would come up with a set of rules that are good for everybody, nor that they’ll find the best rules in the first N iterations (for large N), but if the process is fair, we should reach consensus (when N tends to infinity). The problem with both ICANN and ITU is that neither are fair, and there are other interests at play that are weighted much more than the interests of the people.

Since no regulating body, governmental or not, will ever account for the interests of the people (today or ever), people tend to hope that no-rule is the best rule, but I hope I have shown that this is not true. I believe that instead, a governing multi-body is the real solution. It’s hypocrite to believe that Russia will let the US create regulations within its borders, so we can’t assume that will ever happen from start, if we want it to work in the long run. So this multi-body, composed by independent organizations in Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa and Americas would have strong powers on their regions, but would have to agree on very general terms.

The general terms would be something like:

  1. There should be no cost associated with the traffic to/from/across any country to any other country
  2. There should be no filtering of any content across countries, but filtering should be possible to/from a specific country or region based on religious or legal grounds
  3. It should be possible for countries to deny certain types of traffic (as opposed to filtering above), so that routing around would be preferred
  4. Misuse of Internet protocols (such as BGP and DNS spoofing) on root routers/DNS servers should be considered an international crime with the country responsible for the server in charge of the punishments or sanctions against that country could be enforced by the UN
  5. Legal rights and responsibilities on the Internet should be similar (but not identical) as they are on the physical world, but each country has the right and duty to enforce their own rules

Rule 1 is fundamental and would cut short most of the recent ITU’s proposals. It’s utter nonsense to cross-charge the Internet as it is to do it with telecoms around the world, and that is probably the biggest problem of the new proposal.

Rules 2 and 3 would leave control over regional Internet with little impact on the rest. It’d also foment creation of new routes around problematic countries, which is always beneficial to the Internet reliability as a whole. It’s hypocrite to assume that the US government has the right to impose Internet rules on countries like Iran or China, and it’s up to the people of China and Iran to fight their leaders on their own terms.

It’s extremely hypocrite, and very common, in the US to believe that their system (the American Way of Life) is the best for every citizen of the world, or that the people of other countries have no way of choosing their own history. It’s also extremely hypocrite to blame authoritarian governments on Internet regulations and at the same time provide weapons and support local authoritarian groups. Let’s not forget the role of the US on Afghanistan and Iraq prior to the Gulf War, as opposition to Russia and Iran (respectively), and their pivot role on all major authoritarian revolution in Latin America.

Most countries, including Russia and the ones in Middle East would probably be fine with rules 2 and 3, with little impact on the rest of the world. Which leaves us with rule 4, to account for the trust-worthiness of the whole system. Today, there is a gang of a few pals who control the main routers and giving more control over less trust-worthy pals over DNS and BGP routes would indeed be a problem.

However, in fact, this rule is in vigour today, since China routed US traffic for only 18 minutes. It was more a show of power than a real attack, but had China been doing this for too long, the US would think otherwise and with very strong reasons. The loose control is good, but the loose responsibility is not. Countries should have the freedom to structure their Internet backbones but also do it responsibly, or be punished otherwise.

Finally, there’s rule 5. How to account when a citizen of one country behaves in another country’s website as it’s legal for his culture, but not the other? Strong religious and ethical issues will arise from that, but nothing that there isn’t already on the Internet. Most of the time, this problem is identical to what already happens on the real world, with people from one country that commit crimes on another country. The hard bit is to know what are the differences between physical and logical worlds and how to reconcile the differences in interpretation of the multiple groups that will take part on such governing multi-body.

Conclusion

ITU’s proposal is not good, but ICANN’s is neither. The third alternative, to lack complete control is only going to make it worse, so we need a solution that is both viable and general enough, so that most countries agree to it. It also needs to relinquish control of internal features to their own governments in a way to not affect the rest of the Internet.

I argue that one single body, being it ITU or ICANN, is not a good model, since it’s not general enough nor they account for specific regions’ concerns (ICANN won’t listen to the Middle East and ITU won’t regard the US). So, the only solution I can see possible is one that unites them all into a governing multi-body, with very little in global agreement, but with general rules powerful enough to guarantee that the Internet will be free forever.

The American constitution is a beautiful piece of writing, but in reality, over the years, their government have destroyed most of its beauty. So, long term self-check must also be a core part of this multi-body, with regular review and democratic decisions (sorry authoritarian regimes, it’s the only way).

In a nutshell, while it is possible to write the Internet Constitution and make it work in the long term, humanity is very likely not ready to do that yet, and we’ll probably see the destruction of the Internet in the next 10 years.

Sigh…

 

Anarchy and Science

If the world needed more proof that rational thinking is off the menu when concerning humans, we now have a so-called anarchist group attacking science. Bombs, shootings and sabotage, with one single goal: to stop science destroying our lives once and for all.

If you didn’t get it, you’re not alone. I’m still trying to understand the whole issue, but the more I read, the more I’m sure it’s just humanity reaching record levels of stupidity. Again.

Anarchy

First of all, the actions don’t make sense in the realms of anarchy. For ages, anarchism has been a non-violent banner. The anarchist is not tame, but a pacifist. Anarchists fight for freedom of everything, mainly from violence and oppression. Since every state, no matter controlled by whom, is oppressive, anarchists fight the very existence of any central form of coercion.

Bakunin once wrote:

“But the people will feel no better if the stick with which they are being beaten is labeled ‘the people’s stick’.” (Statism and Anarchy [1873])

This clearly means governments that base their choice on the people, such as democracies. For an anarchist, a democracy is as bad as dictatorship, as even in its purest form, it imposes the will of the average citizen onto the majority of the population. (If you thought it was the other way around, you clearly don’t understand democracy!).

In essence, anarchy is all about a long and non-violent migration to the total lack of central government, leaving the people (organised in local communities) to decide what’s best for themselves. If that works or not on a global level, I don’t know. But two key words pop out: non-violent and lack of central power.

Science

In Peter Kropotkin’s own words:

Anarchism is a world-concept based upon a mechanical explanation of all phenomena, embracing the whole of Nature–that is, including in it the life of human societies and their economic, political, and moral problems. Its method of investigation is that of the exact natural sciences, by which every scientific conclusion must be verified. Its aim is to construct a synthetic philosophy comprehending in one generalization all the phenomena of Nature–and therefore also the life of societies (…) [source]

Thus anarchy, as science, is the art of finding the best answer by an iterative and non-violent method, without centralised powers dictating what the answer should be, but finding the answers by experimentation and verification, where everyone should come to the same conclusions.

Science has no central power and doesn’t provide support to any government or controlling body. There isn’t any scientist or organization in the world, nor ever has, that can dictate what scientists believe or can prove. The scientific method is the most democratic method of all, where every one can repeat the same experiments and reach the same results, otherwise the hypothesis is plain wrong, and there is nothing anyone can do to force it to be true.

Science has been used by governments to impose lifestyles, borders and general ignorance, yes. Science has been used to develop unfathomably powerful bombs, yes. And used over and over again to control and dominate countries and continents, yes. But that was never a merit of science, but of governments. Every major blame on science is, actually, the people. Describing how science has made our lives better, would be boring and redundant.

The blame?

If some scientists are idiots, it doesn’t mean the whole science is. If governments abuse of the power, and science provide that power, it doesn’t mean science is to blame, but governments. If some bishops should burn in hell, it doesn’t mean religion is to blame, but what people make of it. The climate change fiasco, the US national health program criticisms and the whole “God Particle” boom in recent religious people has shown that people are still complete ignorants and prejudicial when evaluating external information.

Pen and paper have been much more harmful to the world than science, and over a much longer period. Pride and honour have wiped out entire civilizations for millennia, well before science was such embedded in our culture. Barons, kings and presidents don’t need science to destroy our lives, but it just happen to be available.

So, science and anarchy have two major points in common: non-violence and the lack of centralised government. Why on Earth would an anarchist group gratuitously attack scientists? Because they are not anarchists, they are just idiots. I truly hope this is an isolated incident. If anarchists of the world lose their minds like these ones, the only hope for humanity (in the long term) will be lost, and there will be no return.

Further reading:
Anarchy Archives
Anarchist science policy

In the future…

In the future, people will be able to project three-dimensional films using holograms. These holograms could be placed among us, rather than at a stage, to give us a much better sense of reality and emotions than it is possible on a theatre or cinema.

When this technique gets common place, it’ll be possible to use it in the classroom. Actors would re-enact events in history, and children will be able to live the moment, rather than just listening to stories. The teachers, then, will have a much more fundamental role in teaching. They will comment on what’s happening, rather than merely serve as a narrator.

Holographic teaching has numerous advantages. Seeing the streets of London in 1666 on fire, running for your life is much more vivid than just chalk traces on a blackboard. Seeing Jews suffering on German camps, being a Jew on a German camp (minus the physical harm, of course), gives us a much better tool to avoid this in the future, and to do it to other people.

In the future, children will be able to live the credit crunch, the Syrian civil war, how the international community helped, and provoked, several conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. How people in the poorest parts of this world live without clean water or food, and how their parents die of unimaginable diseases and it falls on them the responsibility of raising a family, by the age of 4.

Children won’t be listeners, any more, they’ll live the moment, feel the pain, and learn that this is not acceptable, under any circumstances, for any living bean: Humans, animals, aliens.

However, you don’t have to wait for that glorious future to fix society. If things continue how they are, it is very likely that this future will never come to pass. If there is one constant in human history is the force of self-destruction. The more humans we have (we passed the 7bi barrier long ago), the stronger this force is.

There are several ways any of us can help save the world. The single most important you can do is to teach your children that ruthless selfish behaviour is not accepted, that the ends don’t justify the means, and that people deserve freedom to live and think for their own. Other things involve going to the most affected areas and work to revamp those cultures (not just bring food and water), help re-structure their governments (on their own terms) and work with your own government to stop invasive manoeuvres and third-party destructions for their own benefits.

A simple start is to help Avaaz. They do most of the bureaucracy, they go into the countries, they empower people, they turn rogue legislations around and, more importantly, they warn you before it’s too late.

Signing to their mailing list will give you a much better view of the world. You don’t have to donate money to help, just by signing the petitions, showing you care, is already a good start. The best part is that they will always ask you what’s the next step. How much effort they have to spend on this or that, and how much (and which) technology they have to develop to help their – our – cause.

I’m following Avaaz for a few years now, probably since its foundation, and I have to say that, not only they surpassed my expectations on what they could do with the world, but also on clarity, openness and use of technology and resources. They’re not a charity, they’re an activist group, and a very good one at that. If you were looking for something to support to help change the world, Avaaz is a great start.

Eventually everyone wants to be AOL

After a good week battling against SOPA, it’s time to go back to real life, to battling our own close enemies.

As was reported over, and over, and over again (at least in this blog), Google is dragging itself towards a giant dominant player it’s becoming, much like Yahoo! and AOL in previous times.

Lifehacker has a very good post about the same subject (from where the title of this post was deliberately taken), around Google+ and the new Search+ (or whatever they’re calling that), and how the giant is loosing its steam and trying so solidify its market, where it’ll comfortably lay until the end of its days.

True, Google has a somewhat strong research department, and is working towards new TCP/IP standards, but much of it was done by Yahoo! in the past, towards FreeBSD, PHP and MySQL. Yahoo! actually hired top notch BSD kernel hackers (like Paul Saab), MySQL gurus (like Jimi Cole and Zawodny) and the PHP creator, Rasmus Lerdorf. And they put a lot back to the community. But none of that is true revolution, only short reforms to keep themselves in power for a bit longer.

The issue is simple, Google doesn’t need to innovate as much as they did in the past, as did Yahoo! and AOL. Even Microsoft and Apple need to innovate more than Google, because they have to sell things. Software, hardware and services, not only cost money, and time, but they age too rapidly and it’s not hard to throw loads of money at a project that is borne dead (like Vista). But Google get its money for free (so to speak), their users are not paying a penny for their services. How hard it is to compete with that model?

Like Google, Yahoo! had the same comfort in their days. They had more users than anyone else, and that was the same as money. They did get money from ads, like Google, only not as efficient. And that put them in a comfort zone that it’s hard not to get used to, which was their ultimate doom. This is why, after 25 and so years failing, Microsoft is still a strong player. This is why Apple, after being in the shadow for than 20 years, got to be the biggest Tech company in the world. The must innovate at every turn.

Yahoo! displaced AOL and bought pretty much everyone else because they’ve outsmarted the competition, by doing the same thing, but cheaper and easier. Google repeated the same stunt, on Yahoo! and is beginning to age. How long would that last? When the next big thing appears, making money even easier, Google will be a giant. An arrogant, slow and blind giant. And natural selection will take care of them as quick as it took of AOL and Yahoo!

Post-SOPA-protest, what’s on?

So, the day has ended and we’ve seen many protests around the world. Did it help? Well, a bit, but don’t hold your breath right now.

European citizens are still being sued by the American government and being extradited to the US because their sites had links to copyrighted material. So, in a way, what SOPA and PIPA stands for is already reality, but it takes the US government a lot of effort and money to do so. With SOPA and PIPA, enyone in the world could end up in Guantanamo Bay, as easy as any American.

While I welcome the protest, and feel that Americans did a good job converting 30 more senators to their cause (it was 5, now it’s 35), it’s far from enough. I think people still haven’t realised that this is not an American issue. Just like American copyright laws have bankrupted creativity around the world (think Mickey Mouse effect) and the American patent system has destroyed technological advancement (patent trolls, et al), SOPA and PIPA will spread throughout the world and be the icing on their cake.

The people that are so desperate to preserve their profits by breaking the rest of the world are the people that already have more than anyone. Last year, Viacom’s CEO had a 50mi raise in his salary. Not a bonus, mind you, a raise. To protect those people’s profits, we’re letting them destroy the entire world, stop technological advancements (that don’t give profits to them) and kill all the artists in the process.

If you, like me, are outside of the US, please make sure your government stops short of bending to the US government, as they always do. Europe, and particularly UK and France, has been America’s puppet for far too long. The US is not the only country in the world, and nowadays, it’s not even the most important one. We need to change the world to multi-polar and promote countries like China, Russia, Brazil, India. Not that I like any of them, but we must not put all our coins into one crazy country, we need more crazy countries to re-balance the world.

Now, for some of the protests

Apart from the obvious Wikipedia, Google, WordPress, there were some others I’ve seen that are worth mentioning.

It was not just that, some people actually went on to the streets (NY and SF) and it seems most senators’ phones and websites went dead for the traffic. It’s working, but this is not the end, nor this is just about copyright. This is about freedom of thought, freedom to share, freedom to be a human being. Stopping SOPA/PIPA is just the first step, we need to undo most of what the media/war/oil/tobacco industry has done for the past 80 years, unless you like dictatorships, of course.

Privacy on Modern Societies

The concept of privacy is born from the antagonism between individuality and the desire to belong to a group. The instinctive drive to form groups – for protection, mating and warmth – is much older than the human race itself. It’s an instinct of almost every animal, and a successful characteristic or many plants and fungi. Individuality itself comes from pride and greed, two characteristics more specific to higher animals (such as felines, canines and primates).

Pack animals, like zebras, benefit a lot from being indistinguishable from each other (this is why they have stripes). Other animals, such as most felines, have leaders and there’s a succession line (much like royalty, but favouring physical strength). However, even on hierarchical species, the people is just the people, and they’re fine with it. Even on primates, you seldom see identification of one’s work or specific concerns with privacy. You can see them mimic privacy (if you beat them when doing something you wouldn’t do in public), but that’s Pavlov’s conditioning more than anything else.

Communism

However, group behaviour’s strengths and benefits if applied to the human race are quickly dismissed as communism.

There was a lot of group psychology in Marx’s political views (and a lot of Marxism in Pavlov’s ideas), hence, there was a strong rejection of any conditionalization of the people impose by the state or any strong enough body, on the capitalist side of the world.

The individual entrepreneurism of modern capitalism (as opposed to the original binary model from Adam Smith and co.), borne during the colonisation of America (no rules, no government), has been revamped by communism fears during the cold war, Cuba and now China.

Faith

As with any faith, the belief that individuality is the landmark of the human race brought its own problems.

First, individuality goes against most of other values we have as humans. My right to fart in a bloated bus goes against the respect I should have for others. My right to eat my pudding goes against the compassion I should have to spend the same amount for the mains of an impoverished child. My right to press the tooth-paste in the middle goes against my love for my wife.

Putting individuality higher than other important human values, such as respect, compassion and love, makes it a lot harder to live in societies. And given that we are now passing the 7 billion people, it’ll be a lot harder to be alone. But faith has no boundaries, nor logic. People were raised believing their individuality is more important than anything else and they die for it.

Biting the hand…

But life has it’s ways of being ironic, and deeply satisfying at it, for the bystanders. Extremely capitalist countries (like UK and US) have figured out long ago that such freedom cannot be. There is no society based on individuality (they’re antagonistic, after all). Worse still, a society that is purely based on individuality is a society without government. That, whose people have the right to do whatever they please. For this society to thrive, people would choose the right thing to do more often than not. That apolitical society has a name: anarchy. I don’t believe any government would like that!

To control people without telling them they’re being controlled, you have to resort to subversive techniques, extensively described in Orwell’s 1984. For centuries, both sides of the Atlantic have resorted to such measures, but today, no country is more Orwellian than the US.

Countries in Latin America or old USSR are failed nations (in the ayes of the American Government), where people know how bad it is and, well, live with it.

West European countries have, to a certain extent, succeeded in creating a more stable, if somewhat socialist, government. People still have their own liberties, but the government is strong and has it’s strong hand (NHS, public schools, social security, etc.). While they could do much better on many things, people know the failures and, well, live with it.

But the US is a special case. And the critical elements in the country’s history of the aggressive capitalism (internally and externally), individualism and greed, is biting the hand that fed it. For decades now, the government is increasing the grip on people’s freedoms, while increasing the liberty of major industries such as media, software, pharmaceutical, weapons on its grip of the government. After all, the recent breakdowns (like the one in 1929) of Enron, the Internet bubble and now the housing market and the financial crisis are signs that capitalism still has a lot to go wrong if unrestrained.

And still, the government gives more power to those same companies every year. The social reform Obama promised is yet to be seen, the technology-savvy campaign he did turned out on a technology-moron government, failing to understand basic concepts of day-to-day life that most Americans already know for ages. And since the US has such a power on the world’s economy, they’re spreading their chaos to Europe, as they did with Latin America for centuries (ever since Monroe Doctrine).

Recent court battles in EU for copyright infringements, the three-strike laws (rushed in by puppy Sarkozy even before the US) and all the prosecutions over Europe regarding software (Microsoft) and stupid hardware patents (Samsung vs. Apple), shows that stupidity took over the world, for good.

SOPA

After the recording industry successfully convincing underpaid musicians that they were being robbed by piracy, and the successful creation of the the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, making legal things such as DRM (and illegal to have the right of privacy), and crippling their own patent system with useless patents (giving birth to a whole new industry, called patent trolls), the US government now is superseding itself by creating the Stop Online Piracy Act, the new idiocy that goes beyond any idiot boundaries any human being has ever gone.

The US government has consistently and strongly reminding us, the rest of the world, of countries like China, where people don’t have the right to freely access the internet (due to the Big Firewall of China), and how much better is the freedom that capitalist countries give you. That freedom, ultimately linked to individuality and the greed to make more money that your peers, is what makes the American capitalism thrive. But every action, every argument has been destroying this dream, for more than a decade already.

Of course, as with any decent Orwellian government, they don’t tell you your freedoms are being displaced. And people that do say that, like Richard Stallman, are tagged as crazy lunatics, in spite of what GNU has done for society in the last 30 years. Anyway, the government’s arguments are, actually, promoting freedom. The freedom for the companies to make pornographic profits at the expense of the population’s freedom.

We, the people

But the people is not fooled. Recent movements to occupy Wall Street and the increasing mention that capitalism is failing in the alternative media (blogs, independent media channels, etc.) are clear indications that the nation’s mindset is changing.

A recent survey has shown that 75% of the Americans disagree with the outrageous fines (or any fine at all) for copyright infringement. Actually, most of them are knowingly infringing copyright themselves.

So, how does this happen? From a nation that valued their individuality and community to a nation of filthy pirates that don’t give a dime about other people’s property? Well, nothing has actually happened. To the people, I mean. But two things have, indeed, happened to the government.

First, the notion of property, individuality and respect, that were never meant individually, are now showing its colour. Second, the greed in which people were bred made them respect so much their individuality that other people’s profit is not as important as their own comfort. While this is the driving factor behind the population fight against the failed patent and copyright system (a fight that I do support), it’s for the wrong reasons.

Respect

My view is that the patent system, copyright, the media industry, the firewall of China, etc. fail on a basic respect level. Not only individualism, mas also the sense of society and community. Respect is by far more important than individualism or community. It’s a concept that, when applied correctly, can derive communities that do respect your right to individuality and privacy, at the same time that it stops abuse short of damaging others.

Respect is not perfect, nor equal to everyone. There are always those that abuse of the system and people will get hurt, or killed, before the community can do anything about it. But isn’t it true to every kind of community? Do you really believe that SOPA will stop piracy more than harm loyal customers? Did DRM? Did DMCA? Did the Terrorism Act really stopped more terrorists than it locked up regular air travellers?

All those solutions were direct infringements of privacy, the right to defend yourself (ex. Guantanamo Bay and patent trolls), the right to share and give away (DRM), the right to use your property where and how it’s meant to be used (DRM). Now, the US is also losing the right to use the Internet. And don’t think that this is staying within their borders… it’s most definitely not!

Expect Cameron and Sarkozy to be adhering to that idea sooner than the Americans do…

Science vs. Business

Since the end of the dark ages, and the emergence of modern capitalism, science has been connected to business, in one way or another.

During my academic life and later (when I moved to business), I saw the battle of those that would only do pure science (with government funding) and those that would mainly do business science (with private money). There were only few in between the two groups and most of them argued that it was possible to use private money to promote and develop science.

For years I believed that it was possible, and in my book, the title of this post wouldn’t make sense. But as I dove into the business side, every step closer to business research than before, I realised that there is no such thing as business science. It is such a fundamental aspect of capitalism, profit, that make it so.

Copy cats

Good mathematicians copy, best mathematicians steal. The three biggest revolutions in computing during the last three decades were the PC, the Open Source and Apple.

The PC revolution was started by IBM (with open platforms and standard components) but it was really driven by Bill Gates and Microsoft, and that’s what generated most of his fortune. However, it was a great business idea, not a great scientific one, as Bill Gates copied from a company (the size of a government), such as IBM. His business model’s return on investment was instantaneous and gigantic.

Apple, on the other hand, never made much money (not as much as IBM or Microsoft) until recently with the iPhone and iPad. That is, I believe, because Steve Jobs copied from a visionary, Douglas Engelbart, rather than a business model. His return on investment took decades and he took one step at a time.

However, even copying from a true scientist, he had to have a business model. It was impossible for him to open the platform (as MS did), because that was where all the value was located. Apple’s graphical interface (with the first Macs), the mouse etc (all blatantly copied from Engelbart). They couldn’t control the quality of the software for their platform (they still can’t today on AppStore) and they opted for doing everything themselves. That was the business model getting in the way of a true revolution.

Until today, Apple tries to do the coolest system on the planet, only to fall short because of the business model. The draconian methods Microsoft took on competitors, Apple takes on the customers. Honestly, I don’t know what’s worse.

On the other hand, Open Source was born as the real business-free deal. But its success has nothing to do with science, nor with the business-freeness. Most companies that profit with open source, do so by exploiting the benefits and putting little back. There isn’t any other way to turn open source into profit, since profit is basically to gain more than what you spend.

This is not all bad. Most successful Open source systems (such as Apache, MySQL, Hadoop, GCC, LLVM, etc) are so because big companies (like Intel, Apple, Yahoo) put a lot of effort into it. Managing the private changes is a big pain, especially if more than one company is a major contributor, but it’s more profitable than putting everything into the open. Getting the balance right is what boosts, or breaks, those companies.

Physics

The same rules also apply to other sciences, like physics. The United States are governed by big companies (oil, weapons, pharma, media) and not by its own government (which is only a puppet for the big companies). There, science is mostly applied to those fields.

Nuclear physics was only developed at such a fast pace because of the bomb. Laser, nuclear fusion, carbon nanotubes are mostly done with military funding, or via the government, for military purposes. Computer science (both hardware and software) are mainly done on the big companies and with a business background, so again not real science.

Only the EU, a less business oriented government (but still, not that much less), could spend a gigantic amount of money on the LHC at CERN to search for a mere boson. I still don’t understand what’s the commercial applicability of finding the Higgs boson and why the EU has agreed to spend such money on it. I’m not yet ready to accept that it was all in the name of science…

But while physics has clear military and power-related objectives, computing, or rather, social computing, has little to no impact. Radar technologies, heavy-load simulations, and prediction networks receive a strong budget from governments (especially US, Russia), while other topics such as how to make the world a better place with technology, has little or no space is either business or government sponsored research.

That is why, in my humble opinion, technology has yet to flourish. Computers today create more problems than they solve. Operating systems make our life harder than they should, office tools are not intuitive enough for every one to use, compilers always fall short of doing a great job, the human interface is still dominated by the mouse, invented by Engelbart himself in the 60’s.

Not to mention the rampant race to keep Moore’s law (in both cycles and profit) at the cost of everything else, most notably the environment. Chip companies want to sell more and more, obsolete last year’s chip and send it to the land fills, as there is no efficient recycling technology yet for chips and circuits.

Unsolved questions of the last century

Like Fermat’s theorems, computer scientists had loads of ideas last century, at the dawn of computing era, that are still unsolved. Problems that everybody tries to solve the wrong way, as if they were going to make that person famous, or rich. The most important problems, as I see, are:

  • Computer-human interaction: How to develop an efficient interface between humans and computers as to remove all barriers on communication and ease the development of effective systems
  • Artificial Intelligence: As in real intelligence, not mimicking animal behaviour, not solving subset of problems. Solutions that are based on emergent behaviour, probabilistic networks and automatons.
  • Parallel Computation: Natural brains are parallel in nature, yet, computers are serial. Even parallel computers nowadays (multi-core) are only parallel to a point, where they go back on being serial. Serial barriers must be broken, we need to scratch the theory so far and think again. We need to ask ourselves: “what happens when I’m at the speed of light and I look into the mirror?“.
  • Environmentally friendly computing: Most components on chips and boards are not recyclable, and yet, they’re replaced every year. Does the hardware really need to be more advanced, or the software is being dumber and dumber, driving the hardware complexity up? Can we use the same hardware with smarter software? Is the hardware smart enough to last a decade? Was it really meant to last that long?

All those questions are, in a nutshell, in a scientific nature. If you take the business approach, you’ll end up with a simple answer to all of them: it’s not worth the trouble. It is impossible, at short and medium term, to profit from any of those routes. Some of them won’t generate profit even in the long term.

That’s why there is no advance in that area. Scientists that study such topics are alone and most of the time trying to make money out of it (thus, going the wrong way and not hitting the bull’s eye). One of the gurus in AI at the University of Cambridge is a physicist, and his company does anything new in AI, but exploits the little effort on old school data-mining to generate profit.

They do generate profit, of course, but does it help to develop the field of computer science? Does it help tailor technology to better ourselves? To make the world a better place? I think not.