Mathias Klang opened this year's Akademy with a keynote look at freedom
internet. It was something of a cautionary tale that outlined the promises
that technology brings, while noting that the dangers are often being
overlooked. Klang comes from an academic and legal background—he is
currently a researcher and senior lecturer at the University of Göteborg in
Sweden—which gives him something of a different perspective on technology
Klang's talk was titled "Expressions in Code and Freedom", but he came up
with a different title the night before the talk: The TiVo-ization of everyday
life. That title is "silly", but it does reflect some of the dangers he
sees. He noted that he is not a programmer, but is surrounded by them, and
they "put up with my stupidity". His background in the law means that he
"likes reading licenses" and thinks everyone should. His current research
is looking into social media, particularly in the area of control by the
There have been multiple revolutions in communication over the years, with
writing only coming about 6000 years ago or so. Punctuation did not arise
until 200 BC and putting spaces between words is only 1000 years old.
(who Klang called "The Steve Jobs of his day") revolutionized writing once
again with the
printing press, but the digitization of information was arguably the
Once information has been digitized we can start connecting up the devices
that store that data, which leads to the internet. The internet
is not a bad thing, per se, but it is set up for control. The
promise of the open web ("so wonderfully open, so wonderfully free") is
great, but that openness invites people to come in and start closing it down in various ways.
The web started as an open platform, but that "wild web" is becoming an
endangered species. For example, he said, we don't actually publish our
own links anymore, instead we use various social media services to send
each other links. That leaves us more and more dependent on the people
who collect and store our data. It is becoming rare for people to
create their own permanent web sites to store their data as it is largely
being stored under the control of social media service providers.
"What would newspapers write about if we didn't have Facebook?", Klang
asked. Perhaps they would write about the euro crisis instead, he joked.
More seriously, social change is happening and much of it is being brought
about by technology.
For example, he noted that online Scrabble games are all the rage right
now. Two years ago, you wouldn't go to the pub and brag about playing
Scrabble. But in Sweden (at least), people are constantly posting their
high scores and such to Facebook.
Social media is set up to "create a performance lifestyle", he said. The
whole idea behind it is to have an audience, but the tools used to reach
that audience are controlled by the providers. Another example is Klang's
Facebook post of a picture of his morning coffee as "my amazing coffee".
He gets comments from people all over the world who are "lurking around my
digital life". It is a bit creepy, overall. The things he routinely does
online today would have been considered stalking ten years ago, but "now
The walled gardens and information silos that typify many internet services
are a threat. The service providers ensure that they "keep us entertained
so we will supply them more data", he said. But, without access to the
underlying code and data, we are totally at their mercy.
Klang gave more examples of how technology, social media in particular,
is worming its way into everyday life. "People say that if you want to
start a revolution, use Facebook", he said, and they generally point to the
recent events in Egypt as an example. In Sweden, educators are asking
"should we be teaching Facebook in school?" and "how do I use Facebook" as
an educational tool?
Beyond that, even police departments are going online. The Swedish police
now have a Facebook presence and have even had crimes reported to them via
that mechanism. There was recently a "wonderful or sad" twitter message
(i.e. "tweet") about a man lying unconscious in Göteborg. Klang does not
think that's a good way to report such things, "but the police think it is
and that's sad".
Certainly social media sites increase our ability to talk to one another,
which is good. But much of that communication is being forced into these
walled gardens, he said, "and that's scary".
"It's only technology" is something that is heard a lot, but that's
something of a slippery slope. As an example, he pointed to tubular anti-homeless
benches in Tokyo. Instead of passing a law against sleeping in parks or
putting up a sign, the benches make it almost impossible to sleep on them.
This is an example of TiVo-ization in real life, he said. If we create a
law against sleeping on benches, there will be complaints about human
rights, but creating a technological measure avoids those problems.
"Design choices have consequences", Klang said.
"The more technology we embed into our lives, the less freedom we have", he
said. We should all "love technology", but recognize that every piece of
it has an effect on our lives. That includes all kinds of technology, not
just gadgets and web sites, but things like chairs, desks, and carpets as well.
One of the problems is that the educational system teaches students how to
use technology, "but we don't teach them code", Klang said. Sweden, for
example, has been focusing on the use of various gadgets in schools, but
you don't have to be "vaguely technical to use an iPhone or iPad".
Educators are asking how to use the iPad in the classroom, rather than
asking whether they should use the device.
He referenced Douglas
Adams's notion of
"digital natives", that those under a certain age (15, say) natively
understand technology changes while those over a certain age (e.g. 35) will
always be immigrants and lack that understanding. Klang would like to see
everyone become a digital native so that the understanding of technology and the
consequences of technological change become widespread.
He had several suggestions toward that goal. To begin with, we should all
try to "hack society for openness". Our infrastructure remains open, so
far, but much of what runs atop it isn't. Richard Stallman, was "not being
friendly" when he started the free software movement; "he was being right",
"Be that guy", he suggested, and tell people what their information habits
are doing to their (and other people's) lives. He likened it to getting a
PhD, where you do research that "you and four other people in the world
care about", but when people ask, you explain what it is and why it's
important. In this case, it is necessary to make people aware of the
problems that arise when "going from an information deficit to an
information circus", which is what we have seen over the last decade or more.
He also said that we should read all of the end-user license
agreements (EULAs) and terms of service that are presented to us, but "I
know you won't".
He closed with the idea that developers should at least think about what
their code does, and "how you are affecting other people". All of the
different gadgets out there "manipulate lives", but who decides
how they do that, he asked. Everything we do with technology has effects
on others, so he encouraged developers to think about those effects. He
was clear that he wasn't advocating not building new devices and
technologies, only asking that developers think about how those
technologies might be used—or abused.
[ The author would like to thank KDE e.V. for travel assistance to Tallinn
for Akademy. ]
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