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Rethinking Social Media : A Self-Contradictory Opinion

Stamp US 1977 2c Americana

Should the USA nationalize Facebook?  Um, no.

To be more specific, aside from it being the USA – a country which tends to believe in the market doing a better job of looking after people’s interests than the government – there are any number of reasons why you don’t want a state running a social network.  A good example would be “People from other states use it too”.

Should any other country nationalize Facebook?  Still no.  If you can explain why having a public social network is more important than good public transport, or good public healthcare, or good public education, you are a better person than me.  No wait, you are a far worse person than me, and you don’t deserve to have an opinion on anything.  Go away.

But the article makes a good point that it would be nice to have a trusted social network – one that would support people in countries where they don’t have freedom of speech.  Of course, no government would do this, because it would either involve being seen as siding with enemies of states you might want to still pretend to be friendly with, or it would involve coming up with a system which would be as useful to enemies of your own state.  The terrorists would have already won (even if all they won at was Mafia wars… which presumably some of them would be quite good at.)

However governments are not usually the protectors of free speech.  In general they tend to protect ‘the sort of speech we want, but not that other speech which tends towards the nasty and evil’.  To protect free speech, I would look instead towards various charities – the Amnestys, and EFFs and CPJs of the world.

And, in thinking of those charities, it occurs to me:

Would there not be some place in the world for a ‘free speech social network’, supported by a non-profit foundation, and presumably grants from both right on for-profit organisations and charities of the sort I’ve described before?

Here is my thinking – if I were to set up this sort of social network, it would have to have the following characteristics:

It would have to compete head to head with Facebook and Twitter and whoever else.  You want this network to be the place everyone goes to, the place everyone knows about – because you don’t just want freedom of speech for specially equipped activists, you want freedom of speech for absolutely everyone.  You want it to be easy and safe to say what you want as and when and why you want.

Because people wish to shut down free speech, and because there is no legislature that could be trusted with protecting a free speech social network, it would have to be distributed.  In saying that, I worry too much that I’m contradicting what I have previously said about social networks not needing to be distributed.  I would like, if I may, to plead a technicality:  There would be a core site for the social network (or perhaps a core site in each country).  All the sites would communicate to each other.  And all would interoperate with each other.  And, if you wanted higher levels of security still, you could run your own version of the site.  Now some of these sites may need to block particular content for legal reasons – but that wouldn’t be a problem, people could simply go to other sites (which would be well known about) hosted in other jurisdictions if they wanted that content.  So what I’m talking about here is not ‘lets build some distributed software, and try to get a network to take off based on it”, I’m talking about ‘lets build a good social networking site, and by the way, you can mirror some or all of the content, and interoperate with it in a distributed way if you want’

To achieve the goal of distribution, its going need cryptography.  Things like ‘only distribute this to my friends’ can only be done with crypto in a distributed system.  But crypto can also be used to solve other issues like ‘this proves who I am’.  The trick here would be to hide the crypto from the end user as much as possible – which is to say, they should never need to know that crypto is involved.

It should play well with TOR – some people who would want to use this network would need TOR – but the site that most people see would be hosted on the open internet, because that is the obvious place to host such things.

It would have to be free to everyone.

I’m optimistic that this could be done.  The wikimedia foundation has worked, and has managed to produce not just Wikipedia, but the software which powers it.  I see no reason why similarly generously spirited people shouldn’t get together to create the ultimate social network.  One which cares about its users, and which is free, because it is funded by people who care about freedom, not by people who care about adverts.

Will it happen?

It could.  And possibly it should. I think it might just be an idea whose time has come.

Some things you may not realise about Britain (if you are from abroad, watching the Olympic opening ceremony, or a particular type of Tory)

2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony (5)

So, the Olympic opening ceremony was too multicultural was it?  That ceremony which included athletes from all over the world, all together in one stadium, was too multicultural?  Its laughable.  Even a second contemplating it is too much.  Its a complaint by someone so privileged they have nothing else to complain about.  So lets not.

Lets instead consider this:  I didn’t notice any multiculturalism in the ceremony before the athletes came out.

I didn’t notice a mixed race family

I didn’t notice the lesbian kiss

I didn’t realise there was anything particularly urban about grime.

I didn’t realise that there was anything multicultural about showing the Windrush

Why?  Because all of these things are part of the culture I lived in and grew up with.  I went to school and church with second or third generation West Indian immigrants.  I have a number of LGBTI friends and co-workers.  Grime music makes me think more of the very middle class Cabaret act Frisky and Mannish than it does a rioting underclass of graffiti daubing asbos.

There is no need to complain about multiculturalism in the Olympic opening ceremony, because the ceremony was not showing multiculturalism.  It was showing one culture – the culture than anyone growing up  in Britain considers their own. It isn’t a mythical culture that may have existed 100 years ago – or in the minds of people isolated from the Britain most of us live in by public school education and cushy political or journalistic jobs. Its the real culture, the one down the road, at school and at work.

And this is Britain.  My Britain.  It is truly something remarkable about Britain that so much from so many places has become part of who we are.  It is literally remarkable.  I have many immigrant friends, and they are not shy to remark about it.  We don’t throw out other cultures, we embrace them – and offer them a cup of tea and a chicken tikka masala.

Why I want do is point out the things in the opening ceremony which I think have been missed in all the complaining about a posh man wanting to draw attention to himself.  The things which others might have missed about who, exactly, we are:

We are proud of the NHS.  I have heard people say ‘but other countries have free healthcare – sometimes better than ours’ and this is true.  We are not especially proud of free healthcare, because we consider it something normal, a bit like air and water.  We are horrified at the barbaric ways of those countries who refuse to treat people without a credit card imprint.  No, we are not proud of free healthcare.  we are proud of the NHS.  We are proud of why the NHS was created.  We are proud of the people who work in the NHS.  The opening ceremony wasn’t about doctors, it wasn’t about healing.  It was about Great Ormond Street,  It was about nurses (we are proud of inventing nursing) and it was about caring.

We have a dark side.  Voldemort.  The Queen of Hearts.  Captain Hook.  The Child Catcher.  All dark, all warped, all terrifying.  And Mary Poppins?  Perhaps Poppins is the darkest of them all.  You’ve seen the Disney Poppins,  the Americanized Poppins.  You probably haven’t read the (frankly pagan) books.  There wasn’t just a green and pleasant land, there were also dark satanic mills.  We have a pride in who we are (as misplaced as it might or might not be), but we are not especially proud of how we got there.

Our music and entertainment industries are not dead.  Yes we created the Beatles and Stones, but we haven’t stopped.  We may not be the america of world culture, but we are a cultural influence which punches above our weight.  But there were also jokes meant just for us:  the theme tune to Eastenders, the theme tune to the Archers – we take pride in the fact that some of Britishness only the British can truly understand – and laugh at.

Did I mention that we laugh at ourselves?  What other nation would have their head of state parachute into the stadium?  We can do pomp and circumstance, but Danny Boyle wisely chose to leave that at the jubilee and give us Mr Bean and bicycling doves.  Its weird. Unexpected.  Self demeaning. And so very very right.

When you are a child, you worry so much about growing up.  As a teenager, you spend your life trying to prove you are an adult.  As an adult, you spend more and more time trying to prove you know what you’re doing (because deep down, you know that you don’t)  It is only with old age that you begin to revel in yourself – using senility or eccentricity or things being different in your way to excuse your behaviour.  Britain isn’t a world power any more.  we are a small nation.  Some things we do wrong.  Some things we do right.  We still have some influence.  And we are showing our age.  The opening ceremony was about saying ‘we don’t care, this is what we’re like’

And I liked it.  It entertained me.  I think it entertained our nation.  And if anyone else got some of the jokes, and felt they had a bit of fun, thats good too.

Meanwhile, I – someone to whom sport is about a foreign as our royal family – and my  wife Adelina, born in Romania and soon to get her British Citizenship. was sandwiched between the El Salvator and Chinese delegations at the Olympic shooting yesterday, and saw the first medals of the olympics going to China and Poland.  In Woolwich.  Just down the road from where I use to go swimming, to the cinema, and to the best birthday parties (the ones in the Woolwich branch of McDonalds).

That is multiculturalism.  I kinda like it.

More Frighteningly Ambitious

Continuing my discussion of Paul Graham’s frightening ambitious ideas:

The Next Steve Jobs

I don’t see how a company can set out to be the next Apple, or how an individual can set out to be the next Steve Jobs.  This isn’t the way the world works.  Apple didn’t set out to be the Apple of today.  Sure, perhaps, early on, Jobs saw the plausibility of turning computers into household appliances, but I’m guessing he wasn’t thinking of the devices we have today – because back in the early eighties, they weren’t thinkable… and Jobs was a realist – a special type of realist who knew just how far reality could be distorted in his favour at any particular point in time.  And Jobs didn’t set out to be Jobs.  Not the Jobs we knew at the end.  That Jobs was created by the successes and failures of the younger, brasher, less tidied up Jobs.

But more than anything, I dint think Jobs would have set out to be the next anything else – he would have set out to be the first Steve Jobs.

Now – there is absolutely space for people to try to bring better design to the tech industry.  and there is space fot people who want to move on the capabilities of existing technologies.  These are things we need to see.  What Jobs had was a combination of good design, a step forward in capabilities and a strong brand behind him.  The strong brand was important – the strong brand is what gave Jobs the clout to get entertainment industries and telecoms industries moving into step with him.

Getting a strong brand is hard.  But these days its easier.  Facebook might, potentially, have some of the clout we are talking about, and its still young.  But to become a strong brand quickly requires a low cost of entry for the users – and that pretty much precludes being involved in making innovative consumer electronics.

So the future of design is going to start in software.  It’ll be when one of the guys behind some particularly popular and well designed website says “screw this – I don’t want you making my site ugly” to advertisers and finds another way to make money – possibly by extending his brand into the physical world that we’ll see changes happening…

Though the other place I would look to is kickstarter and etsy.  There are more and more iphone cases and ipad covers that exude beauty.  What if one of these designers were to build a wrapper around something cheap and generic (say the Raspberry Pi) and turn it into something better.  I don’t know what that something better might be, but we are at a place where design first development of products is looking plausible.

Bring Back Moore’s Law

To be honest, i’m not hopeful that someone is going to come out and say “Look at my new compiler, it avoids all the problems with parallel processing”.  But my experience is stat you never have to solve all of the problems, just some of them.

That said, I don’t think Moore’s law is the problem that needs to be solved, when it comes to parallelism.  I think scalability is the problem.  You want a program that runs as well on 12 cores as it does on 1 core – thats Moore’s law being brought back [we all know Moore's law hasn't gone anywhere in hardware - I'm talking about getting software to take advantage of it] – but you also want a program that runs on a million cloud based servers as it does on one core.  That is a different problem.  And its a problem we’re not close to solving.  So it really is frighteningly ambitious.

Programming languages, as they have taken off in real world usage have gone from being wrappers around assembly language [C] to being more and more abstract [C++, Java], and usable [Python, Ruby] and less woried about the processors control flow and more worried about the user’s [Javescript].  Operating systems used to just cove over the complexities of the CPU, now they provide more and more abstraction – to the extent we even have hypervisors – operating systems for operating systems.  But operating systems still work like CPUs do.

There is another layer of abstraction to be jumped to.  Abstraction over the cloud.

We have various parts of this.  Hadoop is the sort of engine we need inside such an OS.  The web provides us with a user interface to it.  But we don’t have the full tools.  What should happen is this:  I right a program which handles a users request, prcreeses it andprovides a response.  A simple program.  one that doesn’t worry about what else is happening.  Perhaps I write more programs to handle background activities and the like.  And I set all these programs running on ‘my cloud’ – something which I access through a browser, develop on through a browser and which looks like one big computer to me.  The cloud takes my code, and does all the work.  It figures out what the complexities are, what the things my code requires.  Where my code needs to scale by being broken down into multiple jobs.  And it compiles the code, and runs it appropriately – probably recompiling sections of the code in response to runtim analysis of modules.  The suer doesn’t have to understand how file storage is spread across a billion disks – just like right now I don’t have to understand about my single disk’s sector sizes and rotation speeds.

And yes – if it turned out that my cloud was a single corred mobile phone, then, yeah – why shouldn’t it be able to target that too?

All of this is possible, its just a huge and frightening task.  If someone were to take it on, the world would look a very different place immediately.

Ongoing Diagnosis

The problem with healthcare monitoring is – unlike most of the other ideas – it requires hardare.  And hardware is hard to make, expensive to ship, breaks, and is generally quite big.  So the problem is making light cheap healthcare sensors.  Which is something I’m absolutely not qualified to talk about.

But two things I do know about hardware are – it is cheaper to make hardware which is dumb, and it is cheaper to make hardware which is produced en mass.

Dumb hardware simply needs to communicate with software which can do the real processing – and combine the information from lots of sensors to build a bigger picture.  It may be the market itself is not in making the sensors, but it being the best diagnosis engine combining the inputs from lots of sensors and looking them up against a database.

Getting the first sensors cheap enough is a bigger problem. Were I going into this area, I would be looking at the developing world.  Right now, parts of the word are crying out for a doctor in a box.  It doesn’t need to be small enough to fit into your mobile phone or training shoe – just into the back of a Toyota Hilux.  But if it can be made fairly cheap, the market is out there – and there are Bill and Melida Gates’s who will pay you to make your product – and to make it cheaper and smaller, and more efficient.

While we could revolutionise first world healthcare (and that is probably where the big bucks are), while we are developing this, we might accidentally make the world a far beter place.

I don’t know healthcare.  I don’t know everything that can be done.  But I know that is the sort of accident I would like my startup to have.

How privacy is nothing but a modern menace

Is it possible that our current view on privacy is actually quite new?

Lots of people are trading their privacy for being allowed to use websites – or for cheap downloads.  Increasingly we have no privacy.  The new age of the net is taking our privacy from us.

But is the view that we have a right to privacy a new one? Not long ago, many more people lived in villages, proper communities, places where everyone knew everyone else. Back then, if you wanted a job, your prospective employer would know all about you or would know someone who did. I’m guessing this all changed with growing urbanization- or possibly with the growth of personal transport, and perhaps the suburbs.

Right now, the privacy we value may only be 60 or so years old.

What the net has done is made the world smaller.  Your Facebook profile is your gossipy friend. Google is the old lady twitching the curtains -the one who always knows what everyone is doing. Twitter is where your conversations down the pub can be overheard. Its a cliché, but it really is a global village. And for all the benefits that brings, the village gossip is the price we pay.

And we benefit by being in this community, because everyone else has lost their privacy too, the moment they joined.

Is it possible that privacy only really existed because we could travel faster than our social networks?

Understanding America

I’ve just been on a road trip around the US, and I’ve figured out a few things about American culture which had previously eluded me.  You may well know these, but I’ve managed to hold a European superiority complex for thirty three years and not notice why American was the way it is

Firstly – the USA is vast.  Huge.  You can’t comprehend how bit it is.  Nor can you comprehend how big small parts of it are.  Looking at some of the deserts, plains and canyons, my mind just shut down and said “don’t really believe what I’m looking at”.  I think this vastness has an effect on the American psyche.  Its easy to understand why the US might be slow on the uptake with environmentalism.  American has a hell of a lot of environment.  And more of it is unspoilt.  And it seems inconceivable, looking at the vastness that there could ever be a lack of anything.

Secondly, the US is at one with nature.  This is going to take some explaining to my European brethren so hold tight:  As soon as you step outside of a city you see that nature controls where people build things.  Roads run alongside rivers.  They turn only to meet mountain passes.  And some close for months in the winter, because fighting nature would be crazy.  People use the wind to pump their drinking water from wells.  People farm – and sure, they irrigate the land to make it farmable – but only to the extent of their irrigation systems.  And when they top – nature returns.  People in America love the land – they hunt (which is natural) and they hike.  They travel around in monstrous RVs in order to be part of nature – not to raise a finger to it.  And sure, there are cancers.  LA is a huge growth which wants to spread out and encroach everything, killing all the nature in its path.  But there will be fighting back – and even now, the sprawl of LA is held at bay by mountains.

Thirdly, Americans are inquisitive.  They want to know about the world.  It may well be that there is so much of the USA they don’t have the time or opportunity to travel beyond it – but they want to hear about it.  They want to talk to travellers.  And they want travellers to enjoy the US as much as they do.

Forth, America remains a land of opportunity.  It may have terrible social mobility and a huge rich/poor divide, but it does something that no european country does:  it allows people in so called menial jobs to feel proud about what they do.  A new friend of mine out here has worked as a Barrista for several years, and he talked about it with pride – he talked to other barristas about it – and he talked about how some baristas are better at there jobs than he will ever be.  This is a man with dreams, a man looking forward.  But its also a man who is accepting the hand he is currently being dealt and making the most of it – in fact enjoying it thoroughly.  Because its a land where, if you value what it is you do, then what it is you do has value.  An land different from the carping criticism of Daily Mail Britain.

Finally, it isn’t all about politics.  In europe we’ve taken to seeing the US as a Red/Blue divide.  And thats wrong.  Its a country full of people – fascinating people – people who all look out at the world in their own way, and care about their families, friends and the travellers they meat.  They are individuals, shaped by their land, their communities, their isolation or submergence into urban sprawl, their faiths and their cultures -both present and those of their forefathers.  No one here talked to me about politics – but I’ve heard lots about churches, jobs, communities, friends, pets and travel.

 

This isn’t meant to be a love letter to the US.  Escaping the US insanities and returning to European and British insanities still feels like coming come – and I appreciate my home more and more.  But it is a lesson never to judge, and to walk a mile in someone elses shoes (or, in my case, drive 2000 miles in Hertz’s rented SUV)

Its a land of freedoms, restrictions, imbalances and communities and a home of the brave, the scared, the downtrodden and the optimistic.  And it is a land you have to visit to understand – 15 years of teleconferences haven’t given me half the idea of America that driving down its highways and interstates has offered.

 

© Ben.Cha.lmers.co.uk
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