Life Without Friction

David pointed me to this excellent NYT opinion piece earlier. Great read, very thorough. So why am I talking about it, when I should just link it and then go my merry way?

Because I think he blows by something crucial, and that is how we have worked so hard to remove friction from all of our interactions. There’s a couple of things…first, it has become important to us to make sharing easy. As an example, I believe Google + would have more traction if it integrated more easily with existing apps like Twitter and Facebook. But it won’t, because Google wants the mindshare. What that means to me, a Google + user, is that I have to post info about this particular blog post more than once. I have to do it twice, at the least. Yes, it’s totally a first world problem, but this rings true for all of us.  Another example: swiping your credit card through a mag strip reader has become so cumbersome for Americans that we have implemented technologies that allow us to just wave the card in your general direction. I like how this particular example  removes ACTUAL friction, and not just perceived toilsome logic steps. Because of the removal of friction, we have become a society that overshares our data, and what government or business in the world doesn’t want that?

And then we get our panties in a wad when we read about how that government or organization is using those very same technologies to track our movements.

So, before I proceed further, I should make one thing clear. I don’t think ANY agency should be allowed to just approach my tracker carrier and get all of that information without a warrant. IMO, that is a fourth amendment violation. But we threw that right away, as a country, a LONG time ago.

The second part of this issue is that, by removing the friction, we have made the person and the data inseparable. There is absolutely no way to remove that data footprint from the digital world. This poses loads of challenges, not least of which is that we can no longer grow past any youthful indiscretion. That data will always exist, and will continue to exist long after our metabolic processes are history. And what about data that gets added to our digital life that isn’t ours? You think that doesn’t happen? Do you know how easy it is for me to impersonate you? It’s frightfully easy, and even if I’m only marginally successful, that data now has the potential to follow you around forever.

In my mind, I would like to have more friction. Friction is a reminder that I’m doing something real, and that I should think about the consequences of that particular action.


The double-edged sword

Here are some recent headlines about Twitter, culled from the technology site slashdot:

What strikes me most about this collection of stories is how difficult it is to run a journalistic enterprise. Twitter, like any company, is fundamentally in the business of making money for its employees and stockholders, but I’m sure the Twitter brain trust believe they have a somewhat higher calling. Twitter is justifiably proud of its role in the Arab Spring and other revolts against oppression, but the dividing line is often a blurry and uncertain one. Do you let Thailand censor tweets in exchange for allowing the Thai people to use Twitter? Do you give a user’s tweets—all of them—to the US government just because it asks for them? After all, the courts have ruled that Twitter users have no expectation of privacy, thus there is nothing to keep secret. Not all questions have a right or wrong answer.

Twenty-three centuries ago, Ecclesiastes wrote “There is nothing new under the sun” and “There is a time for war, and a time for peace.” If Ecclesiastes were alive today, he’d probably nod and say it again. The technology has changed, but the human condition has not. The challenge is how we use our double-edged technology.

“I’ve just made a deal that’ll keep the Empire out of here forever.”

Way, WAY back in the day, Cisco bought Linksys. Linksys was a hacker’s friend…you could root the box and install your own router on it with greater customization and security. Everybody was doing it, and it built a pretty big fan base.

Today I read this. In a nutshell, the newest Linksys routers came with an “auto-update” feature turned on, and the routers did just that.  They updated themselves, and then changed how users authenticate to the device by integrating it with their cloud service. Users revolted, much backpedaling ensued. But what’s really interesting is this paragraph that used to be part of the EULA (since removed):

When you use the Service, we may keep track of certain information related to your use of the Service, including but not limited to the status and health of your network and networked products; which apps relating to the Service you are using; which features you are using within the Service infrastructure; network traffic (e.g., megabytes per hour); Internet history; how frequently you encounter errors on the Service system and other related information (“Other Information”).

That’s some nasty stuff you are trying to doing there, Cisco. Consumers have come to expect this kind of stuff from ISPs (which is also shameful, IMO), but not necessarily from the companies that provide widgets. The thing about widget ownership is that we all feel that, when we buy it, it’s OURS. We have paid a distinct price set by you, Mr. Manufacturer, and now that we own it, we can do whatever we want with it. We know that we may be giving up on the warranty, but we usually don’t care. The usefulness of the device will always outlive any warranty that’s provided anyway. And if I want to hack my Cisco router and make a blender and pancake maker out of it as well, then I will do that. What we don’t like is when you, Mr. Manufacturer, try to extend your ownership past the point of sale. Yes, this happens alot. That doesn’t mean it’s right.

As Lord Vader put it: “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.”

This is precisely why we need investigative journalism. As you recall, journalism is dying because of the Internet, the very medium over which I am publishing this plea. On the other hand, journalism must be alive otherwise we wouldn’t have heard about this Cisco EULA. But I’m willing to wager that the person who uncovered the EULA isn’t getting paid what a former investigative journalists got paid. The money thingie still hasn’t worked itself out.