Eponymous Laws and the Invasion of Technology

Unless you’ve had your head buried in a devilish software project that has consumed your every waking hour over the last month or so you cannot help but have noticed technology has been getting a lot of bad press lately. Here are some recent news stories that make one wonder whether our technology maybe running away from us.

Is this just the internet reaching a level of maturity that past technologies from the humble telephone, the VCR and the now ubiquitous games consoles have been through or is there something really sinister going on here? What is the implication of all this on the software architect, should we care or do we just stick our head in the sand and keep on building the systems that enable all of the above, and more, to happen?

Here are three epnymous laws* which I think could have been use to predict much of this:

  • Metcalfe’s law (circa 1980): “The value of a system grows as approximately the square of the number of users of the system.” A variation on this is Sarnoff’s law: “The value of a broadcast network is proportional to the number of viewers.”
  • Though I’ve never seen this described as an eponymous law, my feeling is it should be. It’s a quote from Marshall McLuhan (from his book UnderstandingMedia: The Extensions of Man published in 1964): “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”
  • Clarkes third law (from 1962): “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is from Aurthur C. Clarke’s book Profiles of the Future.

Whilst Metcalfe’s law talks of the value of a system growing proportionally as the number of users increases I suspect the same law applies to the disadvantage or detriment of such systems. As more people use a system, the more of them there will be to seek out ways of misusing that system. If only 0.1% of the 2.4 billion people who use the internet use it for illicit purposes that still makes a whopping 2.4 million. A number set to grow just as the number of online users grows.

As to Marshall McLuhan’s law, isn’t the stage we are at with the internet just that? The web is (possibly) beginning to shape us in terms of the way we think and behave. Should we be worried? Possibly. It’s probably too early to tell and there is a lack of hard scientific evidence either way to decide. I suspect this is going to be ripe ground for PhD theses for some years to come. In the meantime there are several more popular theses from the likes of Clay Shirky, Nicholas Carr, Aleks Krotoski and Baroness Susan Greenfield who describe the positive and negative aspects of our online addictions.

And so to Aurthur C, Clarke. I’ve always loved both his non-fiction and science fiction writing and this is possibly one of his most incisive prophecies. It feels to me that technology has probably reached the stage where most of the population really do perceive it as “magic”. And therein lies the problem. Once we stop understanding how something works we just start to believe in it almost unquestioningly. How many of us give a second thought when we climb aboard an aeroplane or train or give ourselves up to our doctors and nurses treating us with drugs unimagined even only a few years ago?

In his essay PRISM is the dark side of design thinking Sam Jacob asks what America’s PRISM surveillance program tells us about design thinking and concludes:

Design thinking annexes the perceived power of design and folds it into the development of systems rather than things. It’s a design ideology that is now pervasive, seeping into the design of government and legislation (for example, the UK Government’s Nudge Unit which works on behavioral design) and the interfaces of democracy (see the Design of the Year award-winning .gov.uk). If these are examples of ways in which design can help develop an open-access, digital democracy, Prism is its inverted image. The black mirror of democratic design, the dark side of design thinking. Back in 1942 the science fiction author Isaac Asimov proposed the three laws of robotics as an inbuilt safety feature of what was then thought likely to become the dominant technology of the latter part of the 20th century, namely intelligent robots. Robots, at least in the form Asimov predicted, have not yet come to pass however, in the internet, we have probably built a technology even more powerful and with more far reaching implications. Maybe, as at least one person as suggested, we should be considering the equivalent of Asimov’s three laws for the internet? Maybe it’s time that we as software architects, the main group of people who are building these systems, should begin thinking about some inbuilt safety mechanisms for the systems we are creating?

*An eponym is a person or thing, whether real or fictional, after which a particular place, tribe, era, discovery, or other item is named. So called eponymous laws are succinct observations or predictions named after a person (either by the persons themselves or by someone else ascribing the law to that person).

A Step Too Far?

The trouble with technology, especially it seems computer technology, is that it keeps “improving”.  I’ve written before about the ethics of the job that we as software architects do and whether or not we should always accept what we do without asking questions, not least of which should be, is this a technology step too far that I am building or being asked to build?

Three articles have caught my eye this week which have made me ponder this question again.

The first is from the technology watcher and author Nicholas Carr who talks about the Glass Collective, an an investment syndicate made up of three companies: Google Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers whose collective aim is to provide seed funding to entrepreneurs in the Glass ecosystem to help jump start their ideas.For those not in the know about Glass it is, according to the Google blog, all about “getting technology out of the way” and has the aim of building technology that is “seamless, beautiful and empowering“. Glasses first manifestation is to be Internet-connected glasses that take photos, record video and offer hands-free Internet access right in front of a users’ eyes.

Clearly the type of augmented reality that Glass opens up could have huge educational benefits (think of walking around a museum or art gallery and getting information on what you are looking at piped right to you as you look at different works of art) as well as very serious privacy implications. For another view on this read the excellent blog post from my IBM colleague Rick Robinson on privacy in digital cities.

In his blog post Carr refers to a quote from Marshall McLuhan, made a half century ago and now seeming quite prescient:

Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.

The next thing to catch my eye (or actually several thousand things) was around the whole sorry tale of the Boston bombings. This post in particular from the Wall Street Journal discusses the role of Boston’s so called fusion center that “helps investigators scour for connections among potential suspects, by mining hundreds of law enforcement sources around the region, ranging from traffic violations, to jail records and criminal histories, along with public data like property records.”

Whilst I doubt anyone would question the validity of using data in this way to track down people that have performed atrocities such as we saw in Boston, it does highlight just how much data is now collected on us and about us, much of which we have no control over of broadcasting to the world.

Finally, on a much lighter note, we learn that the contraceptive maker Durex has released their “long distance, sexy time fundawear“. I’ll let you watch the first live trial video of this at your leisure (warning, not entirely work safe) but let’s just say here that it adds a whole new dimension to stroking the screen on your smartphone. I guess this one has no immediate privacy issues (providing the participants don’t wear their Google Glass at the same time as playing in their fundawear at least) it does raise some interesting questions about how much we will let technology impinge on the most intimate part of our lives.

So where does this latest foray of mine into digital privacy take us and what conclusions, if any, can we draw? Back in 2006 IBM Fellow and Chief Scientist Jeff Jonas posted a comment on his blog called Responsible Innovation: Designing for Human Rights in which he asks two questions: what if we are creating technologies that go in the face of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and what if systems are designed without the essential characteristics needed to support basic privacy and civil liberties principles?

Jeff argues that if technologies could play a role in any of the arrest, detention, exile, interference, attacks or deprivation mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights then they must support disclosure of the source upon which such invasions are predicated. He suggests that systems that could affect one’s privacy or civil liberties should have a number of design characteristics built in that allow for some level of auditability as well as ensuring accuracy of the data they hold. Such characteristics as, every data point is associated to its data source and every data point is associated to its author etc. Given this was written in 2006 when Facebook was only two years old and still largely confined to use in US universities this is a hugely prescient and thoughtful piece of insight (which is why Jeff is an IBM Fellow of course).

So, there’s an idea! New technologies, when they come along should, be examined to ensure they have built in safeguards that mean such rights as are granted to us all in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not infringed or taken away from us. How would this be done and, more importantly of course, what bodies or organisations would we empower to ensure such safeguards were both effective and enforceable? No easy or straightforward answers here but certainly a topic for some discussion I believe.

The Tools We Use

Back in 1964 Marshall McLuhan said  “We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us”. McLuhan was actually talking about the media when he said this but much of what he said then has a great deal of relevance in today’s mixed up media world too.It occurs to me that McLuhan’s tool quote equally applies to the tools we use, or misuse, as software architects. PowerPoint (or Keynote for that matter) has received pretty bad press over the years as being a tool that inhibits rather than enhances our creativity. Whilst this does not have to be the case, too many people take tools, such as PowerPoint, and use them in ways I’m pretty sure their creators never intended. Here are some common tool (mis)uses I’ve observed over the years (anti-patterns for tools if you like):

  1. Spreadsheets as a databases. Too many people seem to use spreadsheets as a sort of global repository for dumping ideas, data and information in general because it gives them the ability to easily sort and categorise information. Spreadsheets are good at numbers and presenting analytical data but not for capturing textual information.
  2. Presentations as documents. Sometimes what started out as a presentation to illustrate a good idea seems to grow into a more detailed description of that idea and eventually turns into a full-blown specification! The excuse for doing this being “we can use this to present to the client as well as leaving it with them at the end of the project as the design of the system”. Bad idea!
  3. Presentations as a substitute for presenting. The best presenters present “naked”. Minimal presentations (where sometimes minimal = 0) where the presenter is at the fore and his or her slides are illustrating the key ideas is what presenting is or should be about. Did John F Kennedy, Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King rely on PowerPoint to get their big ideas across? I think not!
  4. Word processors as presentations. This is the opposite of number 2. Whilst not so common  people have been known in my experience to ‘present’ their documents on a screen in a meeting. It goes without saying, or should do, that 12pt (or less) text does not come across well on a screen.
  5. Word processors as web sites. Although most word processors have the capability of generating HTML this is not a good reason for using them to build web sites. There are a multitude of free, open and paid for tools that do a far better job of this.
  6. Emails as documents. This is variant (generalisation) of one of my favourite [sic] anti-patterns. e-mails are one of the greatest sources of unstructured data in the world today. There must be, literally, terabytes of data stored using this medium that should otherwise be captured in a more readily consumable and accessible form. e-mails clearly have a place for forming ideas but not for capturing outcomes and persisting those ideas so others can see them and learn from them.