Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Mind-takers

If I were to tell you that there was a group, funded by billions of dollars anually, supported by every major corporation in the world, whose sole purpose was to convince you to think a certain way, you'd be a little bit worried, right? What if I then told you that, instead of eliminating this activity, governments of the world merely seek to regulate it, so that beyond outright lying they can use any means necessary to bring you around to their point of view? They have wormed their way onto nearly every page on the Internet, sometimes even altering the text of the page itself, in order to bend you to their will. They not only appear in every form of mass media; in a very real sense they control all forms of mass media. They aggressively target children of any age. They use whatever means they can to stake out some territory inside your mind, and leave their message there, so that it appears again when they want it to, like a posthypnotic suggestion.

At some point while you were reading the preceding paragraph, you probably realized that I was talking about the ad industry, and a switch flipped in your head. "Oh," you thought, "he's talking about the ad industry, they're actually harmless! I will read the rest of this paragraph with that in mind, and appreciate the joke instead of being worried." Frankly, it frightens me a little, how willing everybody is to trust their impression of an industry that spends billions of dollars every single year with the goal of manipulating our impressions.

The Attention Economy

It seems pretty clear that people's attention has value - it's the premise that the entire ad industry is founded on, really. If attention has value, we should be able to treat it as property; it belongs to each of us. It can be thought of as similar to intellectual property, since it's an inherent product of our minds. When you have people's attention, you can put ideas in their heads, and this is immensely valuable if you have a cause (or a product) you'd like to spread around.

(Why don't we spend every waking moment taking in messages from others, giving away our attention to all who seek it? Because attention has value to us individually. To actually do things, and not just passively absorb things that others have done, we need to reserve some of our attention for ourselves.)

Attention can be sold. Every time you turn on the television, you're engaging in an economic transaction: In exchange for letting me watch Hugh Laurie cure people's ills with sarcasm, I agree to give up X number of minutes of my attention to watch these advertisements which are conveniently interspersed within the show. This commercial arrangement (pun unintended) was forced on us, so most of us don't really take it seriously - we ignore ads most of the time, or switch channels, or edit them out entirely if we have a good DVR. The idea is still there, though, even when we're not holding up our end of the bargain.

Attention can also be stolen. Take billboards, for example - you're not getting a damn thing in exchange for having to look at billboards during your morning commute. They've taken your property without your freely-given consent. Why do they get away with this? People don't generally consider their own attention to be their property, so forcing them to sit through commercial messages against their will is usually seen to be at most an annoyance.

Without realizing it, we've developed ways to get discounts on the attention we are charged. When commercials come on TV, we change the channel, and escape without paying attention. (Broadcasters see this as shoplifting, and would love to prevent you from changing the channel during commercials like DVDs already do - but they know how well that would be received. Pun unintended.) On the Web, our eyes slide right past increasingly distracting ads designed to hold our attention hostage - we've learned how not to pay them any attention. When we receive spam, we go several steps further, and have complex technological systems designed with the sole purpose of classifying and deleting spam before we even have to look at it. Marginal attention cost: zero.

Do Marketers Dream of Hypnotic Sheep?

(Yeah, that's not how hypnotic is used, but I really wanted it to rhyme :( )

Targeted advertising is incredibly primitive today. Marketers target incredibly broad categories, and while that level of targeting produces some results for them, it's laughable compared to what they could be doing. We know that they have access to increasingly comprehensive and diverse data about each and every one of us, and it really is worrisome. Today, though, given the sorry state of the art in targeted advertising, we don't have anything to worry about yet.


There are really three pieces here. They need raw data to start with, but they already have that coming out their ears, with the advent of electronic point-of-sale systems, and tracking cookies on the Internet, and pervasive CCTV cameras, and RFID tags, and any number of other new technologies. They need computer scientists (specifically, data mining specialists) to sift through that data, tease out correlations and useful facts, and find out everything there is to know about each of their consumers. They're making progress on this one. Finally, they need psychologists, to optimize their marketing so as to maximize their chance of influencing their targets. I don't know what the state of the art is here, but I sincerely hope it's nowhere interesting.

Because the psychological side of this could get very interesting indeed. There's already significant research that's been done on decision making, and on obedience, and on hypnosis, and on other tricks you can play with the human mind that I don't even know about. What if some enterprising young psychologist combined all that into a predictive model of the mind, where you could try out different inputs, and figure out how a person would respond to them, based on an existing profile of the sort we already have? It would be the next best thing to mind control, albeit for an individual.

Let's call this the manufactured meme. It's not a matter of if, but when - someday, people will be able to design viral ideas, and deploy them into an unsuspecting society. Viral advertising and catchy commercial jingles are the beginnings of this. Advertising is trying to evolve into meme manufacturing at this very moment, and the only thing holding it back is the limitation placed on it by our current understanding of the human mind.

The fear I have about advertising - the fear that makes me think we should dismantle the entire industry, while there's still time - is that they will connect the dots, and that they will pull in the specialists they need to sift through the mountains of data that they're collecting, and the psychologists to direct the use of that data and figure out what makes people obey, and they will create the most perfect form of population control that has ever been conceived of by man. Only a fool could think that, after creating a system that can influence populations with a high degree of accuracy, those in power would use it only for good.

History has repeatedly shown that, once a tool exists, it will eventually find its way into the worst possible hands. In this case, the worst hands I can imagine are those of a totalitarian government, or a corporate fiefdom. 1984 tried to predict exactly this, and Brave New World came somewhat closer to what's possible, but both these books depict some fairly coarse-grained population control. The possibilities that manufactured memes and individually-targeted advertising present are far more subtle and terrifying. Imagine an ad for a political candidate that changes what it says to be as convincing as possible to each person that looks at it. The candidate's actual views are irrelevant - as we've learned repeatedly, it doesn't matter a whole lot what they promise during an election. Imagine a government that enforced conformity by turning people against their neighbors when those neighbors didn't toe the party line. Imagine untraceable targeted assassinations through advertising - remember the killer Pokemon episode, that induced seizures? An ad platform that can show everybody a different message could do that to a select group for next to no cost. (Okay, that last one is a little farfetch'd. Pun intended this time.)

This is not science fiction. It may sound farfetched now, but I don't believe we're all that many breakthroughs away from this becoming reality. And it's not a reality I want any part of.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Late-night braindump!

Guys! We've totally missed the real potential with ChromeOS!

It's got potential as a netbook OS, sure. But, beyond that, appliance computing - embedding the OS in the hardware is a huge deal! Especially if it's stateless. Put two copies of the OS on separate flash drives, glue them in, reduce the moving parts (how many do you really need, anyway? OLPC got it down to 0, and something like 3 internal plugs), and you've got a 100% self-contained system that never needs maintenance! As long as we're borrowing tricks from OLPC, you could put a battery on it and have it portable too! Add a hand-crank and you've got truly mobile computing. Everything else along this line of thinking is just implementation detail, but yeah!

An interface (monitor, input devices, whatev) would be nice, but even nicer would be a system that's implicitly based on clustering. You'd take two or three or four of these, plug them into a switch, plug a monitor and a hard drive or two into that same switch, and you've got a computer that's resistant against hardware faults and completely network-based. You could upgrade it just by plugging new components in and... that would be it, yeah! Probably wouldn't even need a restart. We already have the foundations for zero-configuration networking, so this would be the easy part.

Oh hey! as long as it's network based, you could add multiple user terminals and have several people using a shared cluster with full access to all resources. I think most of the problems here are solved; the interesting one I see is networked storage - you'd need encryption, because we have to assume that anybody can see any hard drive, and hmm. That might actually be it. Obviously you'd need a way to provide a private key - maybe adding a USB port to the input devices and plugging in a flash drive. Idea! The input device could be a thin client with a custom interface, which you could carry around and plug in to any cluster. That would take a lot of the burden off the OS on the cluster nodes (which would have to be pretty stripped-down and generic to begin with) and oooh. That'd be neat.

Problem: untrusted clusters. Crypto-computation might be impossible (I have seen some laughably bad research attempting to solve it), so we might have to assume that any given node can potentially snoop on computations and alter them. It might be possible to finagle something with a signed system on the cluster nodes, but they'd be too much of a high-value target to trust that some other kind of manipulation wasn't going on. Trust is a fundamentally hard problem, let's ignore it for now and work around it. Either we implicitly trust the cluster (boring, stupid) or we figure out a way to run computations on untrusted nodes so that - dammit, back at crypto-computation. :[

If Light Peak lives up to its potential, it would be kickass for this. Everything would only need one plug. Problem: fiber is a lot less resilient than CAT-5. Ah, well, not like the layer-1 matters too much.

Appliances require maintenance sometimes! What we really want here is a computer that you can embed in the wall and forget about, and have as a seamless part of the network doing useful stuff, and be reasonably confident that it'll outlast the building. I can't think of a name for this right now, but it'd be pretty cool. Transparent computing? Ubiquitous computing? Ooooh! As long as we're sticking these in the walls, we could create a wireless mesh network with the neighbors and if this actually becomes widespread it'll be usable for stuff. Routing in mesh networks is hard and really outside the scope of this braindump but the potential payoff is too cool for me to ignore.

Anyway, back to transparent networked storage! I am imagining an interface where you can just dump data onto a network, and "pull" all data owned by you back onto your own system when you leave the network. This would be at least a billion times nicer than our current home network storage metaphor, which is complete crap. Network storage shows up as hard drives, which sometimes vanish, and may or may not be accessible based on remote configurations, which can change at any time, and concurrent access is a bad joke, and seriously who came up with this ridiculousness? But I digress. We want all storage to be accessed in a unified way, and always writable would be nice - a reciprocal protocol would guard against people just hogging all the storage, but dunno how that'd work yet. Future braindump topic! Maybe require people to provide all the storage they actually use, but distribute the data around the network so they get the benefit of insurance against disk failure.

(For any of this to be feasible, we have to be able to build 100% secure operating systems. Attention, programmers everywhere! Stop sucking. :( )

If we could set this up in such a way that you could charge people for using resources on your nodes, we'd have a completely distributed clone of EC2. Cool! (Oh, hey, that'd work for storage too. Two birds with one distributed ripoff! :D)

Back to the software side: to share compute resources, we'd need a virtual machine and a stable OS API so that different computers can use the cluster. There are a few good choices right now (JVM and CLR mainly, and LLVM is looking good). Randomly: it'd be nice to have a VM that supported distributed execution of a single program. Might get messy with failures -- no, wait, the VM should handle failures! And the program should just see a single (highly parallel) machine that never fails! Gosh, that'd be neat.

Years of utterly worthless computer security have left us in a state where we can't even pass a file between two computers without bypassing six different "security features" designed to keep computers from ever communicating, just in case one side or the other is infected with a virus. This is pathetic! Hardware is improving at an incredible rate, but that hardly matters when software is completely and pathologically unable to keep up. The true cost isn't that some things are harder than they should be; sending files at all is a parlor trick. The true cost of poor security is all the cool stuff we could be doing if we didn't have to treat every damn network service as an attack vector.

Technology is pretty neat and all, but sometimes I wonder that we don't fully appreciate how primitive this all really is.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Goodbye Twitter

It's been about eight months since I decided I'd start microblogging. How has it turned out? Actually, you can probably guess from the title that I'm ditching Twitter and just sticking with Identica.

So what's the difference? I started with both of them basically cold, knowing very few people on each. Twitter has the advantage of being a fad right now, so all sorts of people are using it. It's nearly achieved ubiquity; the API is simple enough that you can integrate Twitter support into just about anything. Identica, on the other hand, has some really, really nice features:

* Groups: Twitter has hashtags, where you can tag a notice as being about a particular topic. Groups take that to the next level, and let you subscribe to a topic. Twitterers: imagine being able to follow a hashtag and you'll understand. This makes it tremendously easier to get started with Identica. Instead of having to find interesting people to follow, you can subscribe to a group that interests you, and find the people you'd like to follow as they post interesting stuff to the group. Or, another way they're useful: on Twitter, if you want to ask a question, you have to either address it to somebody you know is knowledgeable (and hope they're around), or ask the world in general, and hope that somebody following you knows the answer. With Identica, you can address the question to a group (or even multiple groups), and get a good answer much more easily.

* XMPP: In all fairness, Identica's XMPP support doesn't always work (it tends to lag during upgrades, for instance), but when it's working, it's a thing of beauty. People sometimes describe Twitter as realtime, but I'm pretty sure that's just because they've lowered their standards; the latency is still measured in minutes even under ideal conditions. Using XMPP on Identica, I can use the site through my existing IM client (pidgin, yaaay), and the latency is measured in seconds. That's getting down to the speed of instant messaging - you can have actual realtime conversations with people on Identica through a chat client! Yeah, it's pretty badass.

* Context: Twitter includes a link on tweets to the tweet you're replying to. That's cute, Twitter! Identica has a similar link on updates, only instead of showing you the update it's replying to, it shows you the entire threaded conversation. Seriously, head over to my profile, and try one of the "in context" links. It's not perfect, since it's not always possible to infer which conversation an update is part of, but it works something like 90% of the time.

If I had to try to put my finger on the biggest difference between Identica and Twitter, it'd be this: Twitter seems to be focused on people, while Identica is focused on conversations. Twitter's social dynamics are interesting in an abstract, six-degrees-case-study sort of way ("how far can we get using just the social graph?"), but it seems to be remarkably resistant to the formation of communities. Conventions like retweets and Follow Fridays help here, but they don't exactly constitute a solution. Instead, they just serve to outline Twitter's real problems.

So farewell, Twitter. It's been fun, but Identica is just more interesting.