Charlie Stross on the Dystopia of our near future

My friend Dave linked me to this blog post by Charlie Stross about how to write fiction for the near future. Charlie states that there is a bit of a boom in young adult dystopian fiction (the Hunger Games, etc.) and what the near future could look like for people born today as they enter their 30′s. Of course, Charlie discusses the U.K. but the future sounds about right for the U.S. as well.

I have talked a little about our grim future at different times on this blog. I am not ready to stockpile canned food just yet, but when I think about the lives my parents led and I compare it to my own, I do notice a sharp decline in material success. I grew up thinking that if I did what my father did (go to college, get a white collar job, marry a white collar woman) I would enjoy the same success that he did. Given that my father had to overcome a tough rural upbringing and fighting in the Viet Nam war, it was not unreasonable to expect that I could actually see more material success than that of my father.

The key difference between my father’s generation and mine, is that my father’s generation had a direction, and mine really doesn’t. 9/11 proved to me and everyone younger than me just how uncertain the future will be. The results, a decade of economic uncertainty, political polarization, and police statehood have permanently altered the course for me and for my children.

The reason that I’m not in survivalist mode is because I have faith in the maker movement. Inspite of (or perhaps in order to spite) the poor policy decisions made by our myopic oligarchy, I do not fear social collapse. If society as we have come to know it does collapse under its own weight we can use the wreckage as raw material for a new, freer and more open society using open source design, peer-to-peer infrastructure, and old fashioned punk rock DIY ethos. The same goes for the economy. In the vacuum created by another economic collapse, we can use new tools (cryptocurrency, crowdfunding, microfinance) to build a newer and freer economy.

The only thing I fear about the future is timing. I worry that I, and others like me, will not have enough time to spread our ethos.

The Dream Phone Initiative(tm) Part 5: Breaking the Strata of the Communications Stack

In part 4, I wrote at length about the convergence of telephones and computers into the smartphone and the “post-smartphone device”. I criticized mobile carriers for their preoccupation with smartphones, or rather, their campaigns to create the need for mobile subscribers to buy over priced phones and subscribe to overpriced data plans. Another criticism that I have is the way that mobile carriers and Internet messaging providers erect barriers in order to jealously guard their networks from innovation from the outside.

Mobile carriers and handset makers make it difficult to spread your communications over multiple devices, as if all communication should be confined to a single device. The methods by which we contact each other have been stacked on top of each other (SMS on top of mobile calling, instant messaging on top of mobile broadband, etc.) and then solidified into a kind of strata: layers of communications technologies that do not really intersect. This means that you really have no choice in your preferred methods of communication, when you should be able to text, call, email and surf on the devices of your choosing. The devices you use to keep in contact should work together to deliver the best possible experience even if they come from different vendors, and most of the time they really don’t. The reason these devices don’t play so well together is that they represent different “camps”: different technology markets and in some cases, entirely different industries. Software makers, handset makers, and mobile carriers have different priorities. Those priorities aren’t necessarily to deliver a simple and affordable experience to the consumer.

In the mobile handset camp, hardware companies like Apple, Samsung, Moto and Nokia are constantly adding compute power and screen real estate in order to lure you into your next upgrade. Your choice of hardware directly affects your availability of operating system. The latest handset is a several hundred dollar commitment that directly affects which operating system might be available to you. The gadgets that you already have can greatly influence your decision thanks to vendor lock-in. You ought be free to choose the best device for your needs.

In the software camp, Internet titans like Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft are looking to hook users into a software ecosystem of applications and services. Your operating system determines the store where you get your apps from, and your selection of apps determines just what you can do with your phone. If your phone, tablet, and computer represent different ecosystems, you may have to choose your apps carefully to be sure they are present in each of your respective app stores. This isn’t hard if you stick with popular apps, but some apps simply aren’t present in a particular store. I got rid of my iPad because of the lack of wifi diagnostic apps. In this day and age, your devices should all integrate together, even if you aren’t fully vested into a given ecosystem.

In the mobile carrier camp, telcos like Verizon, t-Mo, and AT&T look to charge premiums for mobile data and text messaging plans, and to lock users into 24 month contracts by subsidizing costly mobile handset upgrades (which are obsolete in 13 months). They also offer in-network discounts (unlimited calling or text between other customers of the same carrier) in order to encourage customers to choose a carrier based on their social circles. Again, offering discounts and the like is great for the consumer, but this isn’t about competing, it’s about binding a user to a specific carrier, another type of vendor lock-in.

The different barriers arise when the Internet titans collude partner with the handset makers to create a need for ever more powerful phones, and then make these infernal bargains partnerships with the Telcos. The result is strata of carrier-locked hardware, carrier-exclusive handsets, planned obsolescence, locked app stores that censor tethering apps, and arbitrary rules about which apps get to do what on which carriers’ mobile broadband. Looking into other markets around the globe, I suppose Americans should just be thankful that using a computer for telephony isn’t totally illegal like it is in some other countries.

We are starting to see progress. There and there are MVNOs on the Sprint network helping to increase competition for mobile service and broadband, although it’s primarily price based rather than feature based. Verizon is doing away with 2 year contracts in favor of monthly payment plans with options for annual upgrades. Here are some other things that I would like to see handset makers, service providers, and carriers do in the future:

  • Mobile Carriers Should Embrace Advanced Calling Features – Most VOIP providers offer some form of ring group and/or hunt group functionality and mobile providers should as well. The whole reason that I insist on using Google Voice as my primary number is that my smartphone often dies or gets left in the last place I plugged it in, so I use multiple calling and messaging apps on my tablet and computer. It would be great if my carrier could see that my phone has gone off the grid and could execute some sort of contingency plan like forwarding calls to my burner or my desk phone at work. I would settle for the ability to set up routes for calls to and from my mobile via a website. If I realize that I have left my phone at home or at work, I would love the ability to log on to the Verizon or T-Mobile website and view missed calls and read on respond to text messages. I could then forward calls and texts to another number. In the absence of such capability, I use Google Voice to Ring All The Things, and forward calls to other phones and apps. This is super easy to do with either VOIP or Google Voice, but is next to impossible with a non-working phone that may not be in your possession. My wife learned this painful lesson when her iPhone died recently, taking all of her contacts and the ability to receive texts and calls with it. The goal of The Dream Phone is to never be reliant on a single device for all of your communication needs.
  • Messaging Providers Should Embrace Open Communications Protocols – Products like Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and Facebook messenger could all inter-operate if one or two open protocols for chat were adopted, such as XMPP or SIP. The value of a network is determined by the number of its nodes, therefore messaging providers want to maximize the number of people acting as nodes. However, having to run 4 or more messaging apps simultaneously on your device in order to stay connected to all of your friends means that most messaging networks are overvalued by a factor of at least 4. This is known as the walled garden problem, and it’s only getting worse as messaging providers build more walls in order to differentiate their ecosystems. Skype will be doing away with it’s desktop API, thereby rendering all third party accessories and applications useless (bad news for podcasters) and Google will be dumping XMPP access to its Google Voice service, rendering devices like the OBI and apps like Groove IP useless for outbound calling via GV. A simpler way would be to let send voice and text messages to and via XMPP and SIP. This would immediately add value to Skype, Google Hangouts, and Facebook while making life infinitely easier for The Rest Of Us(tm). Then we would only need to run the app that we use most (FB, Skype, Gchat etc.) and we would not need to run 4 separate apps or keep 4 separate tabs open in a browser in order to avoid missing out. With a SIP URI, we could map a PSTN number to our preferred communications app, so that we could also answer telephone calls using our app of choice. As I write this, I have 6 chat windows open on my PC: 3 in Facebook Messenger and 3 in Google Hangouts. For some reason I am using both FB Messenger and Hangouts to chat with the same person. The issue compounds exponentially when you add in emerging messaging apps like Snapchat.
  • Mobile Handset Makers Should Also Think “Fixed” – Years ago the concept of “fixed-mobile convergence” was floated to the business world as a means of extending the corporate VOIP PBX onto the corporate mobile phone. This idea has merit, but most of it can be accomplished by dynamically forwarding calls via the PBX. I wish that fixed-mobile-convergence meant the opposite: using mobile technologies in a fixed application, such as the hybrid mobile+VOIP handsets I mentioned in part 2. It turns out that mobile things don’t have to be actively moving in order to be useful. Here are a few ways that technologies from the mobile world could benefit from being in a fixed location:
    • Mobile carriers should also provide SIP credentials – If you are a mobile carrier like T-Mobile or Verizon, you should let your subscribers opt for SIP credentials that work with their mobile number, for a fee of course. SIP credentials let users use their mobile minutes to make and receive calls using non-mobile devices like Analog Telephone Adapters, VOIP handsets, and soft phones. The benefit to offering SIP credentials are:
      • Mobile phones would become more reliable by virtually eliminating the “no signal in my house” or “no signal in my office” problem that keeps many mobile subscribers from completely cutting the cord. I have friends who recommend using Facebook Messenger instead of SMS to reach them because of this problem. You mobile carriers are really missing the boat on this opportunity.
      • It eliminates the need to use expensive femtocells or signal boosters in situations where mobile service is mission critical. Mobile carriers don’t sell a lot of that equipment, and when they do it doesn’t sell well. A $40 ATA will fix the problem for 80% of your users for significantly less.
      • It could relieve some of the strain on mobile voice networks by offloading a portion of voice and data traffic to another broadband network such as that of the cable company. One of the reasons that people use VOIP services like Vonage is that mobile phones can sometimes be unreliable or they get misplaced easily.
      • It could relieve a lof of the complexity, fear and mistrust that surrounds international mobile roaming. My wife went to Canada recently and we communicated via Skype exclusively for both text and voice messaging because Verizon just doesn’t understand that American non-millionaires also travel to other countries.
    • SIP credentials from your mobile carrier could be a great value add for your business customers who only want one number for both mobile and office use.
      1. SIP credentials offer an opportunity to get into the business VOIP and handset market. Think about it: you could be selling your small business customers smartphones *and* VOIP speakerphones – and believe me them shits ain’t cheap.
      2. A pre-programmed VOIP handset that just plugs into a network and automatically provisions itself would be an awesome product. Here in Cincinnati, our local carrier offers a kludge of business services because there aren’t many competitors, but it’s not really an integrated package. A packaged offering tailored to small businesses would be a real disruptive innovation in my humble opinion.
      3. You could sell your medium and large business customers some form of hosted/managed PBX solution. The big carriers (AT&T and Verizon) already have landline, VOIP and broadband businesses, so it wouldn’t be a huge leap to get into the mobile+VOIP hybrid business as well. It would make your mobile minutes (you know, those things that your customers don’t really use anymore) worth a lot more all of a sudden
  • Broadband Carriers Should Do Apples to Apples Comparisons Of Their Service Offerings – Wireless broadband from mobile carriers like Verizon and wired broadband from local phone and cable companies should be compared head to head as if they were competitive products, BECAUSE THEY ARE. Cable companies offer home phone services, and mobile broadband providers are starting to offer residential broadband via 4G/LTE/WiMax, but it’s not yet an apples to apples comparison because:
    1. Everyone still lies about the word “Unlimited” – your cable company does (and they will *ALL* be instituting transfer caps at some point), your mobile carrier does, anyone who sells broadband is lying about what “unlimited” means.
    2. Everyone lies about their upload and download speeds – your wired providers lie about how fast their services are, and your wireless providers lie about the consistency of their speeds. Time Warner will deliver you 20mbit down, but only from their gear downtown. Past that you will be lucky to get a third of that speed to a major backbone. 4G/LTE is fast, but only in a lab, in a major population center with no mountains or bodies of water, on a clear day, when you aren’t moving.
    3. Everyone lies about how much you are actually paying for their services – I am a filthy scumm pirate living in a house full of gamers, so I completely saturate my network connection 24×7 (~25gb per month, ~$100 for 10mbit down/ 1mbit up, approx $4 per GB). I also pay to host a virtual server and I pay for all transfer in and out ($20/month for the VM with 200gb of transfer, approx $.10 per GB, assuming that my monthly cost is purely for bandwidth provided at cost by the host, which it isn’t). I pay about 40 times as much for transfer at home compared to my hosted box. I get that the last mile is an expensive network to maintain, but is it really 4000% more expensive? My selfish consumption is also offset by a lot of people who pay the same as me and probably use way less bandwidth than I do. My business mobile data plan ran around $40 per month a couple of years ago when I controlled the bill, and I’m sure it costs a lot more now. At my most active I’ve used 2GB in a month (streaming Netflix one night while tethered, sshh don’t tell) so that came out to be something like $20 per GB, or 5 times as much as my home broadband (and 200 times more expensive than transfer to my hosted box). Again, a mobile broadband network is probably way more expensive than a wired residential one, but is it really 500% more expensive?
    4. Everyone Has A Legacy Business They Are Trying To Protect – Land lines, cable TV subscriptions, and mobile messaging and minute plans are these incredible shrinking cash cows. They represent The Old Income that made these monopolies possible. As the world shifts to Everything Over IP, houses won’t really need separate subscriptions for TV, telephone, and security monitoring; they’ll only need power, water, and broadband. They may also not need both wireless and wired varieties of broadband either. Man, competition sucks for people who only know how to run monopolies.
  • Handset and tablet makers need to quit being dicks about handheld storage – The premiums charged for internal storage on smartphones are out of control. Clouds and streams are great until you are stuck on a long flight, or insomnia strikes at the in-laws and you forgot to ask for the WPA key for the wifi. Do the world a favor and add more internal storage, then add micro SD slots. Large tablets should probably have two micro SD slots, just in case. You could also offer some sort of wifi/NFC sync thing where devices act as backups for each other. I get that Android does USB OTG but it’s not the same.
  • Moar Androidz plz – I have spoken at length about crazy phones and tablets that I’d like to see on the market, but the idea of the Android Mobile OS spreading to other gadgets is gaining traction. As far as I am concerned, the more crazy Android devices in the market, the better.
  • Everyone Should Embrace Competition – I get that monopolies hate and fear competition, but I wish that telcos, cable cos, mobile carriers, and Internet companies would offer more services that let them directly compete. Instead of being angry at pure play providers like Skype or Netflix for allegedly running businesses on top of your networks for free connectivity providers should embrace pure play prividers. Pure play apps are why your customers sign up for your service in the first place. If pure play is hurting your bottom line, why don’t telcos offer similar services with convenient billing options? t-Mo could totally offer home telephone service, residential broadband, and even security monitoring services all via their mobile 4G network. They could probably even deliver them cheaper than AT&T or Verizon can over their fiber networks. Sure it won’t be as fast as fiber, but that’s not the point. Even if T-Mo can’t deliver better or cheaper residential services, they could totally deliver them in a self-serve-web-app fashion that would totally appeal to people under the age of 30. Time Warner and Comcast could totally get into the mobile phone business as well, especially if they got creative with wifi the way that Republic Wireless or Ting has. Amazon could do something similar and offer an unlocked smartphone version of its Kindle devices along with convenient ordering and online activation of prepaid SIMs, which is kind of a challenge in the market today. There are lots of reasons why these ventures wouldn’t work, but that’s not competition’s fault.

As I see it, the failings of software makers, handset makers, and mobile carriers are systemic. They all come from an anti-competitive desire to lock users into an entire ecosystem replete with unimaginative devices. What’s even worse is that they are keeping me from having my Dream Phone(tm) that lets me choose which devices I use based on my personal needs. In part 4, I talked about phones mutating to have computer-like powers, computers mutating to have phone-like powers, and how the tablet isn’t so much a third mutation as it is a kind of telecommunications singularity where humans stop having control over their devices. I also extolled the tablet’s virtue as a possible low-cost alternative to the mobile phone and the computer not only in terms of hardware, but also in terms of connectivity, if only small tablets came with 4G connectivity. The trend is fairly clear: general purpose computers are in decline, If we cannot break the strata of the communications stack, we could end up with a market saturated by giant, over priced, one-size-fits-all superphones and little else to choose from in terms of devices. The post-convergence future of devices could be a phablet that is expected to replace all other devices and do all of your computing and communicating via the cloud. Such a device is basically the opposite of the Dream Phone(tm). I call it the Nightmare Phone(tm).

Ironman 3′s Crazy Twitter Meme

Stark Bunny watches quietly.I just discovered this, two years after it happened.

Nerds were drooling over the Ironman 3 trailer when it first came out, like nerds do. Then someone mentioned a giant stuffed bunny that was on screen for a split second. Theories were exchanged, one thing led to another, and the Stark Bunny suddenly had a Twitter feed.

Twitter is home to a lot of its own phenomena, like fake account, weird bots, and trending games. I miss most of these things because I really only check Twitter when I’m waiting for something, I guess this is why the Ironman 3 thing feels like such a great find.

Bruce Sterling on the Debris of Big Data

I highly recommend watching the whole video, but here are a few interesting things I took away:

  • The NSA and other intelligence services as a kind of high tech secret police, and how fascist mass surveillance is somehow not as bad as the surveillance marketing of Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Why is mass surveillance not as bad creepy advertising? I guess because while we as individuals are never sure if we are under active surveillance by government agents, we are all certain that we are under surveillance by Google, Facebook, and Amazon. It’s also funny when surveillance marketing gets it wrong. After buying books for my daughters for Christmas one year, Amazon thought that I was a 12 year old girl who loved computer hacking. A few years ago, Facebook mistakenly thought that I was African American for like 6 months, and would display these shockingly racist ads about being a father and getting help with child support litigation.
  • The west coast student socialist radicals might have grown up to become our high tech capitalist landlords, thereby living long enough to become the villain.
  • Instead of hacking art out of the high tech debris, the Internet of Things is going to enable artists to build their own new things. This is a fundamental change in the digital art world order. Instead of scavenging beauty and creativity from recently deceased or discarded commercial merchandise, the artist has the potential to be first to market.
  • Casting off the Googles and Apples of the world and surrounding yourself with physical open source could be a fulfilling way of life. This is a sort of stark contrast to Sterling’s criticism of an environmental policy of martyrdom which he succinctly describes as “hairshirt green.” It’s also sort of in keeping with Sterling’s call to reduce the physical and commercial clutter in your life and replacing it with beautiful, meaningful, and highly functional objects.

I find this all to be very compelling, especially after my rant about The New Yorker piece on the maker movement.

Steam Box and Other Alternative Consoles

The Steam Box controller was revealed a while back, and it’s an interesting development. The controller looks to be replicating WASD + a mouse, so it seems that the intent of the Steam Box is to be a living-room-ified PC rather than a proper console the way the XBox or PSX is. I like Steam, especially as a delivery mechanism for impulse purchases of weird games that I might not otherwise have purchased. I have even tolerated the occasional lockout from a game at its hands from lost contact with the mothership. It saddens me to say this, but as a guy that games on both consoles and PCs, this might be a gadget that I pass on.

What I am most interested in seeing is an inexpensive low-end console that is small enough to be semi-portable. Consoles rule for simple setup of multi-player games, and a small console with 2-4 controllers would be a great thing to take on trips to the lake with the family. We have had some success in the past with portable consoles like the Nintendo DS, but we have traditionally enjoyed sitting around a console the most, with multiplayer tablet games coming in a distant second place. I have enough gear to stream movies and whatnot at home, but it would be nice for the device to also have a VLC equivalent media player as well for playing movies and TV shows off of a thumb drive or SD card since the lake is so remote that Internet access can be problematic. If I had my way, it would also let you use an Android or iOS device as a third and fourth controller just so I don’t have to pack 4 separate controllers.

The Ouya looks good on paper for this role (minus using a mobile device as a controller), and as long as it can run emulators for the Nintendo there won’t be a shortage of cool games to play on it. A am also intrigued by the small crop of generic no-name Android consoles coming out of China, and I would like to see a “real” brand bubble up to the top.

While this device is neither inexpensive, nor low-end, the Mad Catz M.O.J.O. does look pretty slick and offers access to Google Play stuff, whereas the Ouya is locked to its own proprietary game store. There are also rumors of an Amazon set-top box/console which is also not very low-end, but interesting in that it could be taking on both the XBox and the Apple TV at the same time thanks to Amazon’s awesome media library. I kind of talked about an Amazon set-top like device in my one of my Dream Phone Initiative(tm) posts, but I didn’t really talk much about a pure Android game console. I am not sure that such a device would appeal to hardcore gamers, but it would definitely be interesting to see what the different console designers will come up with and what new directions they could push the idea of the game console in.

The other place that low-end consoles could gain traction is in developing countries where the infrastructure to provide power and connectivity is behind that of the Western World.

I too am an Internet freedom hipster

I have expressed a kind of disappointment with our President in other posts on this blog. I am not certain that this is entriely Obama’s fault. I wish that he would be honest with the American people about why all this Stasi-NSA crap is so important, but I think that We The People simply overestimate the capabilities of the office of the President of the United States. Whomever is in the office just doesn’t have the power to change things in the manner that the American people have been led to believe. You can vote for Ron Paul all day long and it’s just not going to make a difference. That may be by design since the office of the President was seen as ripe for abuse by the founding fathers, but it also may be due to corruption of the office by monied interests. Congress plays a significant role, for better or worse, but so do government agencies which are not always under the control of either Congress or the President yet similarly vulnerable to influence by monied interests.

EDIT: I forgot that I had this GIF.

New Yorker Piece About the Maker Movement

My friend Dave shared this New Yorker piece with me. It’s a nice intellectual exercise to conflate the maker movement with a political or social movement, but the exercise reveals how little the author understands the hacker ethic that is so central to the maker movement.

Before I dig into just how misinformed I think the author is, I want to share the two basic tenets of the hacker ethic:

1. The belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing open-source code and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible.
2. The belief that system-cracking for fun and exploration is ethically OK as long as the cracker commits no theft, vandalism, or breach of confidentiality.

The first tenet is what powers all things open source, from software, to hardware, to documentation. It sets up the gift economy that is the essence of hacking, and now of making. Because the community gives you tools and knowledge for absolutely nothing, you have an ethical duty to share what you have learned and to create new tools and knowledge. All hackers start off the same way: with little or no knowledge and equipment, yet rich in terms of time and energy. Over time the hours spent reading, getting flamed for asking stupid questions, and above all else, hours spent trying and failing all give way to expertise. That expertise leads to confidence, camaraderie, sometimes to employment opportunities, and possibly even a certain small amount of fame. All along your journey the community supports you, not often in a loving way, but it supports you none the less. It provides you with documentation, it answers your questions, it makes fun of your failures, and it challenges you. Along this journey, it’s your duty to be part of the discussion. You have to share what you have learned, and to answer (and possibly flame) those same stupid questions that you once asked. In time, you will find yourself so busy that you don’t have time to be part of the discussion as much, and you give back in other ways. My work with Hive13 and Cinci2600 is how I give back to the hacker, maker, and open source communities that have taught me so much and helped my career in such a meaningful way.

The second tenet is equally important and is paradoxically linked directly to the first. In the dark ages of computing, computers were very expensive and owned only by big businesses, big universities, and the government. This meant that if you wanted to learn about computers but you didn’t work for a big business, university, or government, then you either did without access or you accessed a computer system without permission. In either case, however, shared what you learned. If you found a flaw or vulnerability in a system, you shared it with the system owner so that it could be remedied before a less ethical person made use of it. If you found a vulnerability in a piece of software, you shared it with the software maker so that everyone who used the software benefitted. The act of cracking something is not in itself unethical, failing to share and disclose your findings is. Undisclosed findings are what give zero day vulnerabilities so much power.

Today, computers are cheap and ubiquitous, but the spirit of the second tenet is stronger than ever. Every day we come into contact with systems with strict rules about what you can do with them. Even though we own computer controlled telephones, game systems, cars, and household appliances, they are not ours to do with as we please because of these terms and conditions. Manufacturers, service providers, and media companies force us to agree to strict terms in order to use these devices that we have paid money to own or services that we have paid money to subscribe to. Tinkering with an electronic device or digital file that you own may very well be a violation of numerous agreements that you have made with some company. It is now possible to be a criminal system cracker on your own computer.

The second tenet is why we fight. We fight for access. We fight for privacy. We fight for control. We fight for freedom to make our own apps, to do our own repairs, and to force innovation from the outside. We fight to be able to make an object do something it was not meant to do.

The New Yorker article compares the maker movement to a 100 year old failed labor movement and craftsmanship renaissance known as the Arts and Crafts movement, where everyone was supposed to stop toiling away at corporate drudgery and pursue a philosophical life of mastering the creation of artisanal objects. According to the article, economics drives people to value utility and low cost over aesthetics. This trend toward consumerism is supposed to doom the maker movement as well. While it is possible that consumerism may run afoul of Marxist labor reform, hacking is not about socialism, nor is it about consumerism. The author clearly does not understand the two tenets of the hacker ethic. He conflates the maker movement with a kind of nouveau Marxist labor movement, and then criticizes tech entrepreneurs for getting rich by capitalizing on consumerism. No where in these two tenets is there a call for a socialist labor revolution, nor is there a call to reject capitalist consumerism.

The New Yorker article irks me by basically calling the maker movement a distraction from social and political activism. It basically accuses makers of being tool worshippers rather than people interested in meaningful action, as if engineering and social change are somehow mutually exclusive. Not only is that unfair because social and political philosophy is outside the scope of the maker movement, it’s also completely wrong.

Seeking salvation through tools alone is no more viable as a political strategy than addressing the ills of capitalism by cultivating a public appreciation of arts and crafts. Society is always in flux, and the designer can’t predict how various political, social, and economic systems will come to blunt, augment, or redirect the power of the tool that is being designed. Instead of deinstitutionalizing society, the radicals would have done better to advocate reinstitutionalizing it: pushing for political and legal reforms to secure the transparency and decentralization of power they associated with their favorite technology.

I can tell you from experience that getting hacker and maker types to be socially engaged can be an insurmountable challenge, but that is not the fault of the tools, nor of the tool creators. It is the fault of the people who have access to the tools of social change but do nothing to make it happen. It is also the fault of those who desire social change but do not make effective use of the tools that can make change happen. While we in the west distract ourselves by using Facebook and Twitter to talk about football and celebrity mating habits, people in the Middle East used them to foment the Arab Spring. With that said, if you are interested in starting a movement of any kind, you are going to need tools, things like secure communications and strong crypto for storing sensitive documents. For that, I recommend at least one hacker, preferably a cipherpunk. You also need music, because you can’t have a revolution if the music isn’t right.

To be completely honest, the preoccupation with tools as things that cause evil is, in my opinion, a real failing of the east coast liberal intellectual establishment. In the case of this article it’s technology causing sociopolitical malaise. In other media outlets of similar geo-political affiliation it’s guns causing murders. The preoccupation needs to stop. Stop letting your irrational fear of something that you don’t understand lead you to blame an inanimate object for something caused by an individual’s poor decision making. This is no different than the religious right’s crusade against gay marriage, which is also based on irrational fear. Letting your rhetoric be dictated by fear and misunderstanding undermines your message. It makes you look stupid, like those d-bags that oppose gay marriage. A tool can no more create a movement than a gun sitting on a table can commit murder. In both cases, a live body has to stop browsing Reddit, take their hand out of their pants, and actually do something.

If you are reading this and are suddenly inspired to do something, might I suggest starting with the Electronic Frontier Foundation?

There choice bits of history and philosophy throughout the article, but this paragraph towards the end really sums up the conflation issue:

A reluctance to talk about institutions and political change doomed the Arts and Crafts movement, channelling the spirit of labor reform into consumerism and D.I.Y. tinkering. The same thing is happening to the movement’s successors. Our tech imagination, to judge from catalogues like “Cool Tools,” is at its zenith. (Never before have so many had access to thermostatically warmed toilet seats.) But our institutional imagination has stalled, and with it the democratizing potential of radical technologies. We carry personal computers in our pockets—nothing could be more decentralized than this!—but have surrendered control of our data, which is stored on centralized servers, far away from our pockets. The hackers won their fight against I.B.M.—only to lose it to Facebook and Google. And the spooks at the National Security Agency must be surprised to learn that gadgets were supposed to usher in the “de-institutionalization of society.”

Sure, everyone is on Facebook and GMail, but the real work gets done using tools like Tor, PGP, TrueCrypt, not to mention BitTorrent. They have their flaws, but they keep a good deal of your conversations and data out of the view of oppressors and provide a virtually unstoppable method for distributing your movements’ media. If you do not agree with the Google or Facebook stack, you can always run your own servers and use your own tools. Again, if you don’t want to do it yourself, I recommend getting a hacker to help you.

The hacker ethic and the maker movement are about sharing tools and knowledge, full stop. If all you’re interested in is social change, you’ve joined the wrong movement. Making and hacking are about enabling and empowering people to do things. The hacker ethic focuses on computer hardware, software, and networks, while the maker movement focuses mostly on mechanical and electrical engineering, but both disciplines don’t really leave much room for philosophy, politics, religion, or economics. Political, social, or economic issues might motivate you to hack or to make things, and the things you hack or make might support or your social or political activism, but the disciplines themselves don’t really feature much philosophy. I know hackers who are randian objectivists, bay area campus liberals, man hating feminist lesbians, transgendered, Scientologists, Sikhs and Muslims. They are free to organize or evangelize any cause that they want. That’s the great thing about being a hacker: none of your personal crap matters as long as you have something cool to share.

But don’t take my word for it, read the end of the Hacker Manifesto:

This is our world now… the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn’t run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore… and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge… and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias… and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it’s for our own good, yet we’re the criminals.

Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.

I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto. You may stop this individual, but you can’t stop us all… after all, we’re all alike.

The Dream Phone Initiative(tm) Part 4: Computer and Telephone Convergence

In part 2 of this series, I talked about hybrid mobile and VOIP devices and the need for greater diversity of handsets in the mobile market. In part 3, I then went on to talk about how tablets have filled in much of the grey space between smartphones and computers. In this post, I will be discussing the convergence of computers, telephones and all of the devices in between into a kind of post-smartphone world, where the difference between a telephone, a computer, and a tablet is really a matter of physical form, rather than a matter of connectivity. The post-smartphone device could form the foundation for my Dream Phone(tm). I will then discuss how mobile carriers like AT&T and communications vendors like Skype are doing their best to keep that from happening.

The clearest example of the convergence of the computer and the telephone is obviously the smartphone. It’s literally a telephone-sized computer that connects to both the PSTN and to the Internet, but it is also a different category of device thanks to mobile messaging systems like SMS and MMS. Prior to the mobile phone (and VOIP), telephones delivered voice exclusively and computers delivered text exclusively. As I discussed in parts 2 and 3, there is more to life than smartphones, and there is more to phone and computer convergence as well.

In addition to the smartphone, there are three other ways to look at computer/telephone convergence: 1) using a telephone to interface with a computer system, 2) using a computer as an interface to a telephony service and 3) using a tablet or other non-phone and non-computer device for text and voice communictaion.

The clearest example of the first case – using your telephone to interact with a computer – is the automated telephone menu. Known in the telecom world as IVRs, these universally reviled systems let you interact, often ineffectively, with the lower tiers of many customer service and tech support systems. Despite our hatred of IVR’s, Text-To-Speech systems do make it possible to interact with and be served by a computer when we do not have access to the Internet. In cases where you need both your hands and eyes free, such as driving, these systems can help you to make use of time that would otherwise be lost because using a touch screen while driving is so dangerous. It’s also easier to get a mobile telephone signal or a dial tone than it is to get mobile data service or wifi. Voice connectivity is one of the last things to go when you are in a poor area for mobile signal. Being able to call in to a computer and use your voice to access messages and information could be a real lifesaver in some circumstances. The advanced features and add-ons to business telephone systems like Asterisk make it possible to check news and even send dictated text messages and email by using a telephone, I am surprised that mobile carriers don’t offer something similar to discourage texting while driving OR to convince people to use their voice minutes. Instead, we have voice activation features on smart phones, like Siri.

The best example of the second case – using a computer as a telephony device – is IP telephony or Voice Over IP. Either in the form of computers as telephony clients with a softphone, or in the form of a computer hosted telephony service such as Asterisk, VOIP software lets you use a computer for voice calling to both other computers and often to traditional telephones. Free and low cost IP telephony software and services are, in my opinion, seriously under-appreciated in the market, perhaps deliberately so. Hosting your own telephony service gives you greater control over how your voice communication happens. You get to dictate more than just which device(s) you will use. You can set up ring and hunt groups, and have your voice mail delivered to multiple locations. These features can help to free you from being bound to your smartphone 24×7.

Because of the tablet’s ability to blur the edges between the computer and the smartphone, case 3 was discussed at length in part 3 of this series. What’s important to keep in mind as you read this post is that the tablet could become the low cost alternative to both computers and smartphones. A tablet with sufficient mobile connectivity could also be an alternative to the mobile phone as well. This has the potential for a cost conscious (and single) consumer to be able to buy only one device (a tablet) and subscribe to only one service plan (mobile broadband) instead of having three or more devices (phone, computer, and other) and three separate service plans (mobile phone, mobile data, and residential broadband). This is why most low-end tablets like the Google Nexus 7 don’t offer 4G connectivity. The problem, as I see it, is that the markets for devices and connectivity are really concerned with keeping everything separate, isolated, and therefore redundant. The thing that keeps the tablet firmly in the “other” category is mobile access to broadband, which as you will read further down, is a major barrier to The Dream Phone(tm) initiative.

Instead of creating three isolated markets for devices (phone, computer, and other), two markets for connectivity (mobile broadband and wired residential broadband), and two markets for operating systems (computer and mobile) I would rather see the barriers between these products and services erode a bit in order to give consumers more flexibility and choice. When I think about the mobile handset and mobile carrier marketplace, I see that some pretty serious changes need to happen before my Dream Phone(tm) could become a reality.

In the computing camp, software titans like Google, Apple and Microsoft want users to have easy access to their applications and cloud services. This means a multitude of applications, platforms, and platforms within platforms. Google Chrome is a good example of a platform-within-a-platform-problem, with the Chrome store offering to turn your browser running on Windows, MacOS, or Linux into a platform unto itself, even offering to launch applications from outside of the browser. I stopped using Firefox because of all the gadgetry I had to install to make it useful, now it would appear that Chrome has done something similar, but to a much greater extent. The reason the platform is an important starting point is because of vendor lock-in. Whether you are an Apple fanboi, a Google elitist, or a Microserf, the OS for your smartphone pretty much dictates the rest of your buying decisions.

In the mobile camp, handset makers like Apple, Motorola (now Google), and Samsung want us to upgrade to the latest phone every twelve months. They add compute power and screen real estate while not offering user serviceable batteries or storage so that the phones we love slowly devolve into irritations just in time for the new models to come out, yet long before your contract with your carrier is up. Samsung and Amazon are also playing the platform-within-a-platform game, with Amazon offering its own separate Android app store alongside Google’s, and Samsung is pushing its own API’s to developers so that there is a layer of Samsung goop sitting on top of Android, much like Amazon, but far worse. Competition is always good, but I think the platform-within-a-platform game more about vendor lock-in.

The name of the game in the mobile market seems to be selling an ecosystem. It begins with choosing an OS for your smartphone that seems to dictate many of your subsequent choices. While that helps vendors to corral customers into convenient silos for marketing and upselling, something went wrong somewhere. Somehow the use case for telephones and computers stopped being dictated by consumers. Companies like Apple aren’t really looking to their users for inspiration and are instead looking at their existing product lineup and telling customers what they will be buying next. The advent of the smart watch that may or may not tell time is a great example. I quit wearing a watch years ago when I carried both a pager and a mobile phone and I decided that having a third object on my person that tells time seemed superfluous. I have zero interest in using an over-sized watch to interface with an oversized smartphone.

So my dream of having a phone that isn’t necessarily a phone so much as a tiny connectivity and communications server that I can wirelessly link screens and other peripherals to is probably ahead of its time. The world may not be ready for the difference between a smartphone and a computer to be largely academic, but that day is coming. That doesn’t change the fact that, ready or not, the lines between phones and computers are beginning to fall away. Residential landlines are fading away, and so are traditional PCs. What’s left is the litany of gadgets with the ability connect to both the Internet and the PSTN at the same time. The day is coming where a “telephone” is a computer with hardware optimized for voice communication, and a desktop computer is a smartphone optimized for working with text and images. The People have spoken with their dollars and it’s time for the market to break up the strata that is the mobile communications stack (mobile voice, mobile messaging, mobile data) so that consumers can use the devices they choose on their terms.

Creative Commons – Attribution (CC BY 3.0) Smartphone designed by George Agpoon from the Noun Project
Creative Commons – Attribution (CC BY 3.0) Computer designed by Edward Boatman from the Noun Project
Tablet image Designed by chiccabubble from the Noun Project and is Public Domain
Telephone Handset image designed by 1982 from the Noun Project and is Public Domain
Antenna image sesigned by Benjamin Brandt from the Noun Project and is Public Domain