All posts filed under “Technology underclass

Dependence

Karel Donk has some intriguing thoughts on ‘maximising the upside’ of life, by reducing dependence on other people, status and possessions, so that there is less to lose:

So one of the important things in life is to be as independent as possible and rely on very few things. After all, when it comes down to it, the only thing you can really and always depend on in life is yourself. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t want a lot of things in life. Want and have as much as you like, but require as little as possible. This is the simple rule you can use to guide you in making decisions about what you want to depend on in life.

Interestingly, he also hits on the ‘architectures of control’ issue, briefly:

Today’s world, and indeed for a very very long time now, is structured in such a way where people are directed, if not forced, to become dependent. Dependent on the system, or dependent on others. When you do enough research, you will find that this is all by design. I won’t go into details in this post, but certainly will in the future. For now it’s enough to note that this is by design. The reason why things are set up in this way is of course to be able to control people and limit their freedoms. When people depend on you, you can manipulate them into behaving the way you want. Because they depend on you, they have little choice but to go along with anything you say because they fear losing what they get from you. By definition if someone depends on someone else, or something else, that person has something to lose.

I’m looking forward to reading Karel’s future thoughts on this. Creating dependence, or at least creating a need/desire/requirement to consume more, is a fair characterisation of many architectures of control we’ve looked at on this site, from printer cartridge sneakiness to outright chemical addiction; whether a simple razor-blade model (you need to buy more of this, because it’s the only thing that fits) or something more sinister, Karel is right: the common thread is dependence.

To a large extent, I think this is why education is so important. If we understand the systems around us, technical, political and cultural, we are able to make (better) decisions for ourselves. If, however, we ‘leave it up to others who understand all that stuff’, we become dependent on them.

Digital control round-up

Digital architectures of control

Some developments in – and commentary on – digital architectures of control to end 2006:

  • Peter Gutmann’s ‘A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection’ (via Bruce Schneier) looks very lucidly at the effects that Vista’s DRM and measures to ‘protect’ content will have – on users themselves, and knock-on effects elsewhere. The more one reads, the more astonishing this whole affair is:

    Possibly for the first time ever, computer design is being dictated not by electronic design rules, physical layout requirements, and thermal issues, but by the wishes of the content industry.

    Vista appears to be just about the worst consumer product of all time. However, unlike other discretionary purchases, consumers will have less of a choice: Vista will come with any PC you buy from a major store, and all the hardware manufacturers will have to pass on the extra costs and complexity required to customers, whether or not they intend to use that hardware with Vista. When critical military and healthcare systems start to be run on Vista, we’ll all end up paying.

    As Peter puts it:

    The Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history

  • In a similar vein, the ‘format wars’ over high-definition video appear to have descended into a farce:

    Basically, what we have is a series of anti-consumer DRM infections masquerading as nothing in particular. They bring only net negatives to anyone dumb enough to pay money for them, and everything is better than these offerings. They sell in spite of the features they tout, not because of them.

    And, of course, HD-DVD encryption has already been “(partially) cracked” as Uninnovate puts it, with that decryption effort being triggered directly as a result of consumer frustration with incompatibility:

    I just bought a HD-DVD drive to plug on my PC, and a HD movie, cool! But when I realized the 2 software players on Windows don’t allowed me to play the movie at all, because my video card is not HDCP compliant and because I have a HD monitor plugged with DVI interface, I started to get mad… This is not what we can call “fair use”! So I decide to decrypt that movie.

  • “Consumers buy only 23 songs per iPod” – clearly, the vast majority of music on iPods and other portable music players has been acquired through CD-ripping or file-sharing, something which we all know, but which has been an elephant in the room for a long time when the industry is discussed (and remember that the Gowers’ Review has only just recommended that ripping CDs be legalised in the UK).

    Of course, Bill Gates also recommends ripping CDs (see also some great commentary from LilBambi on this).

    Andrew Kantor in USA Today has some pragmatic analysis of the situation:

    People want their music without restrictions, and too many legal downloads, like those from iTunes, come with restrictions. You can’t copy them to another player, or you’re limited to how often you can do it, or you have to jump through the hoops of burning your iTunes tracks to CD and re-ripping them to a more useful format… as cellphones with built-in MP3 players gain popularity, users will find themselves up against an entirely new set of usage restrictions. Some subscription services will delete the music from your player when you cancel your subscription.

    Buy a CD or use a program like eMule… and you have no restrictions. And that’s what people want.

    They don’t want to have to match their music store with their music player any more than they want to have to match their brands of gasoline with their brands of car. They want, in short, to be able to use today’s music the same ways they used yesterday’s: Any way they want.

    In fact, the industry’s been down this road before and hit a similar wall. In the first decades of the 20th century, the wax cylinders (and, later, 78rpm disks) on which music was recorded worked only with specific players. Industry attempts to monopolize the technology led only to poor sales.

  • Finally, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer tells us that in 2007 the consumer will be “back in control”. It doesn’t mean much out of context, nor in the context he used it in fact, but it looks like Doublespeak is alive and well.
  • Projected images designed to scare an enemy

    The figure of the Martian devil looms over London: from Quatermass & The Pit, 1958
    The figure of a Martian devil looms over London*: from Quatermass & The Pit, 1958, written by the late Nigel Kneale

    A couple of years ago, after seeing a programme by Jon Ronson, I was reading about the First Earth Battalion and came across a link to an apparently real document, Nonlethal Weapons: Terms and References, edited by Robert J Bunker of the Institute for National Security Studies at the USAF Academy, Colorado. It’s available on the Memory Hole, here.

    Amid the various physical, physiological and psychological techniques described (some of which I’ll be looking at in later posts, as they’re pertinent to architectures of control), one section especially stood out – from page 15 of the document:

    K. Holograms. Hologram, Death: Hologram used to scare a target individual to death. Example, a drug lord with a weak heart sees the ghost of his dead rival appearing at his bedside and dies of fright. Hologram, Prophet: The projection of the image of an ancient god over an enemy capitol whose public communications have been seized and used against it in a massive psychological operation. Hologram, Soldier-forces: The projection of soldier-force images which make an opponent think more allied forces exist than actually do, make an opponent believe that allied forces are located in a region where none actually exist, and /or provide false targets for his weapons to fire upon. New concept developed in this document.

    Now, these are interesting techniques. I don’t know if ‘hologram’ is being used in the right way here, since these sound like simple projections, e.g. onto clouds (or maybe, in the case of the ‘ghost’ appearing next to the drug lord’s bedside, some kind of volumetric display). And whether such projections would really work in terms of scaring or misleading the enemy – who knows?

    Have they ever actually been used? Dummy tanks are a well-known way of deceiving an enemy, but would people be taken in by a “projection of the image of an ancient god”? How would they know that what they were seeing was the “ancient god”? If the image used were such a common representation that it was instantly recognisable, wouldn’t it seem obviously fake? Or would any giant figure looming over a city scare people sufficiently, whether or not they realised what it was supposed to represent? (It’s been suggested that the Angels of Mons, if they existed, may have been “images of angels that the Germans had projected onto the clouds at the outbreak of the battle in order to try and scare the troops on the opposite side…But apparently this idea had backfired, in that the troops had seen these images and believed them to be St George, Joan of Arc, actually leading them against the Germans.”)

    The projection of “soldier-force images” has more credibility. Odd atmospheric effects seem to be the explanation behind the various reflected “cities in the sky” that have occasionally been seen: taking this further, it is surely possible to create a mirage-like effect of a massed army to intimidate an enemy.

    So, outside of the military context, is there potential for this kind of false image to be used to manipulate and control the public? Not obviously, perhaps, but as the police in many countries become increasingly militarised in outlook (particularly in “security” situations), would the tactic of projecting images of massed officers (maybe with riot shields covering their faces, to make extensive detail less necessary) be considered? Cardboard cutout police cars are occasionally used to scare motorists, as are fake speed cameras (often placed by members of the public) and, of course, fake CCTV cameras.

    It also makes me wonder what the legality is of members of the public projecting images onto buildings, clouds, etc. Much of this so far has been done for promotional reasons – e.g. FHM‘s projection of Gail Porter onto the Houses of Parliament – or a technology college in Surrey, the day after A-level results:

    “While projection on to a building is not illegal as such, you will be asked to move on by the police because laser projection is viewed as a distraction to drivers and hence a hazard,” says Dominic Bean, formerly head of marketing and business Development at NESCOT. He used projections to promote North East Surrey College of Technology and found that the response from the authorities was far from harsh. “Policemen on Epsom Downs (ten miles away from the projection site) spotted our projection on to Tolworth Towers – near the A3 in Surrey,” says Bean. “It took them nearly 50 minutes to drive over and ask for the image to be removed. They were amazed to see it, and saw the ‘fun’ side.

    Guerrilla ‘photon bombing’ or ‘projection bombing’ clearly has a lot of potential for allowing members of the public, activists and counterculture groups to promote their messages, but so far doesn’t appear to have been used for truly subversive ends on a large scale. There is some very clever work going on in this field, such as Troika’s SMS Guerilla Projector, but imagine a politician’s press conference where giant images of his opponent or opposing slogans are projected behind him, or a televised sports event where logos of the sponsor’s rivals are projected (by someone in the crowd) onto the faces of players being shown in close-up. It may have already happened; if not, it won’t be long before it does.

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    Sniffing out censorship

    News Sniffer
    Image from News Sniffer

    News Sniffer‘s Revisionista monitors alterations to published news stories from a variety of sources by comparing RSS feeds, sometimes revealing subsequently redacted information or changes of opinion (e.g. note the removed phrase in the first paragraph of this story about Cuba). While many of the changes are simply re-wordings for clarity or to correct grammatical errors, there are certainly also some instances of more substantial revisions – see the ‘recommended’ list.

    Perhaps more revealing is News Sniffer’s Watch Your Mouth, which shows the reactively moderated comments removed from the BBC’s ‘Have Your Say’ threads. I’ve been reading this for a while – in fact I think I might have been one of the first subscribers via Bloglines – and am still amazed by just how many comments are removed by the BBC’s moderators, often making points which, though maybe controversial, are very much the voice of the common man and woman. Some are offensive, yes; others are genuine expressions of frustration or even first-hand annotations to or clarifications of aspects of the story above. Many are critical of the BBC, including those criticising the moderators for censorship of the very comments under dicsussion.

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    Locking out IE users

    UPDATE: The code being used is from the Explorer Destroyer project, which has an explanation of its rationale here. It’s worth noting that it’s not just ‘Get Firefox’, but ‘Get Firefox with the Google Toolbar’, hence the $1 referral fee… I’d much rather have Firefox with some degree of privacy, to be honest. Thanks for the info, Joshua.

    This is what Töshöklabs’ website looks like in Firefox:

    Toshoklabs.com on Firefox

    And this is what it looks like in Internet Explorer (with a close-up of the text):

    Toshoklabs.com on IE
    Toshoklabs.com on IE

    I came across this site via an interesting piece at 3.7 crea.tv:

    “While I understand the frustration many designers have when dealing with making a site IE compatible, and I absolutely love the idea of more users browsing with Firefox, we have an obligation to make sure the IE version of a site looks just as good as its Gecko counterpart. It is, after all, the most common browser in use hands down… It wasn’t until I saw this “IE incompatible site” that I realized how bad this trend has spread… The designers outright do not let you browse their site if you are on IE. They shut out 80% of the Internet without batting an eye. This is no different than the painful old trend of stating how the web page should be viewed, IE: “Best viewed in 800×600 on IE 3.2″.”

    The thing is, the Töshöklabs site is not actually ‘IE incompatible’ at all. The site is deliberately made unusable in IE by showing a hidden layer, invisible to Firefox (and Opera) users:

    Toshoklabs.com source

    This is a clever trick; I’m not quite sure what my reaction should be. Are the site’s creators saying “IE users aren’t the sort of people we want using our site”, or just “Get educated“? It’s surely the latter, but they perhaps forget that many possible visitors are stuck in offices where they’re just not permitted to install Firefox (or other alternatives), or are using other types of specialised browsers*, screen-readers, etc. Not everyone is able to make a choice about the software he or she uses.

    I understand exactly what Töshöklabs are trying to do, and the aim of spreading the message of alternative software is a laudable one (as is their giving away DRM-free music), but the implementation is only one step away from MSN’s deliberate anti-Opera behaviour. It would be better from a usability point of view to have that “We see you’re using Internet Explorer…” message as part of the homepage, large enough to catch visitors’ attention but not take control away from them.

    *e.g. here’s what it looks like in Lynx – not a very intelligent script, then!
    Toshoklabs.com on Lynx
    Toshoklabs.com on Lynx

    A vein attempt?

    Blue lighting makes it more difficult to see veins
    Blue lighting makes it more difficult to see veins

    Blue lighting is sometimes used in public toilets (restrooms) to make it more difficult for drug users to inject themselves (veins are harder to see). The above implementation is in Edinburgh, next to the Tron Kirk.

    It was more difficult to see my veins through my skin, but there was normal-coloured lighting in the street outside, and one would assume that the users would thus just go outside instead, though the risk of detection is greater. (An additional result of the blue lighting is that, on going outside after spending more than a few seconds in the toilets, the daytime world appears much brighter and more optimistic, even on an overcast day: could retail designers or others make use of this effect? Do they already?)

    So the blue lighting ‘works’, but is it really a good idea to increase the risk that an injection will be done wrongly – maybe multiple times? This is perhaps a similar argument to that surrounding delibrately reducing visibility at junctions: the architecture of control makes it more dangerous for the few users (and those their actions affect) who ignore or bypass the control. This seems to be an architecture of control with the potential to endanger life, although the actual stated intention behind it probably includes ‘saving lives’.

    Without knowing more about addiction, however, I can’t say whether making it difficult for people to inject will really help stop them doing it; it would seem more likely that (as in the linked Argus story), the aim of the blue lighting is to move the ‘problem’ somewhere else rather than actually ‘solve’ it – as with the anti-homeless benches, in fact.

    Another example in this kind of area is the use of smoke alarms specifically to prevent people smoking in toilets, e.g. on aeroplanes (the noise, and embarrassment, is a sufficient deterrent). There’s even been the suggestion of using the Mosquito high-pitched alarm coupled to a smoke detector to ‘prevent’ children smoking in school toilets (I’d expect that quite a few would deliberately try to set them off; I know I would have as a kid). A friend mentioned the practice of siting smoking shelters a long way from office buildings so that smokers are discouraged from going so often; this backfired for the company concerned, as smokers just took increasingly long breaks to make it ‘worth their while’ to walk the extra distance.