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December 6, 2011

Filed under: tech»activism

Open House

Traveling in the modern age, no matter the distance, can be partially described as "the hunt for the next electrical outlet." The new stereo in our car has a USB port, which was a lifesaver, but each night played out similarly during our cross country trip: get into the hotel, let out the cat, comfort the dog, feed both, and then ransack every electrical socket in the place to recharge our phones and laptops.

I don't drive across the entire southern USA often, but I do spend a lot of time on public transit. So I've come to value devices that don't require daily charging, and avoid those that do. Until recently, I would have put my Kindle 2 in the former category, but over the last year, it has started discharging far too quickly--even after a battery replacement. There's clearly something wrong with it.

It's possible that the problem is simply three years of rough handling and being carried around in a messenger bag daily. Maybe something got bent a little bit more than the hardware could handle. I suspect that it's gotten stuck on some kind of automated process, indexing maybe, and as such it's not going to sleep properly. That has led to all kinds of voodoo trouble-shooting: deleting random books, disabling collections, even running a factory reset and reloading the whole thing. Has any of it worked? Um... maybe?

The thing is, I don't know. I don't know for certain what's wrong, or how to fix it, or if any of my ad-hoc attempts are doing any good. There's a huge void where knowledge should be, and it's driving me crazy. This is one of the few cases where I actually want to spend time providing my own tech support (instead of needlessly buying a whole new device)--and I can't. Because the Kindle, even though it's a Linux device under the hood, is an almost totally closed system. There's nowhere that I, or anyone else, can look for clues.

I was reminded of how much I've come to rely on open systems, not just by my Kindle worries, but by checking out some of the source code being used for Occupy Wall Street, particularly the OpenWRT Forum. That's a complete discussion forum written to run on a Linksys WRT wireless router--the same router I own, in fact. Just plug it into the wall, and instantly any wifi device within range can share a private space for discussion (handy, when you're not allowed to have amplified sound for meetings).

The fact that some enterprising coders can make a just-add-electricity collaboration portal out of off-the-shelf electronics owes everything to open source, albeit reluctantly. Linksys was forced, along with a lot of other router manufacturers, to release the source code for their firmware, since it was based on GPL code. That meant lots of people started messing with these boxes, in some cases to provide entirely new functionality, but in some cases just to fix bugs. That's how I ended up with one, actually: after we had a router crash repeatedly, I went looking for one that would have community support, as opposed to the original Linksys "release and forget" approach to customer service.

When something as faceless as a router can get new life, and clever new applications, through open source, it makes it all the more galling that I'm still having to play guessing games with my Kindle's battery issues. Indeed, it's frustrating that these "post-PC" closed systems are the way so many companies seem hellbent on pursuing: closed software running on disposable, all-in-one hardware. The result is virtually impossible to repair, at either the software or the physical level.

I'm not asking for open source everything--your microwave is safe. I'm not even necessarily arguing for strictly open source: I still run Windows at home, after all. I don't want to hack things for no good reason. What I think we deserve is open access, a backdoor into our own property. Enough of our lives are black boxes already. Ordinary people don't need to see it or use it, but if something goes wrong, the ability to at least look for an answer shouldn't be too much to ask.

November 23, 2010

Filed under: tech»activism

The Console Model Is a Regressive Tax on Creativity

This weekend I dropped in on the second day of the 2010 DC PubCamp, an "unconference" aimed at public media professionals. I went for the mobile app session, where I got to meet another NPR Android developer and listen to an extremely belligerent nerd needlessly browbeat a bunch of hapless, confused program managers. But I stuck around after lunch for a session on video gaming for marginalized communities, hosted by Latoya Peterson of Racialicious. You can see the slides and Latoya's extensive source list here.

The presentation got sidetracked a bit early on during a discussion of internet cafes and gender in Asia, but for me the most interesting part was when Latoya began talking about the Glitch Game Testers, a project run by Betsy DiSalvo at the Georgia Institute of Technology. DiSalvo's program aims to figure out why there are so few African Americans, and specifically African American men, in the tech industry, and try to encourage those kids to engage more with technology.

The researchers found several differences between play patterns of her black students and their white peers: the minority gamers began playing younger, tended to play more with their families and less online, viewed gaming as a competition, and were less likely to use mods or hacks. These differences in play (which, as Latoya noted, are not simply racial or cultural, but also class-based) result in part from the constraints of gaming on a console. After all, a console is one shared family resource hooked up to another (the television), meaning that kids can't sit and mess with it on their own for hours. Consoles don't easily run homebrew code, so they don't encourage experimentation with programming.

Granted, these can be true of a PC as well. I didn't have my own computer until high school, and my parents didn't really want me coding on the family Gateway. But I didn't have to leave the computer when someone else wanted to watch television, and I was always aware (for better or worse, in those DOS/Win 3.1 days of boot disks and EMS/XMS memory) that the computer was a hackable, user-modifiable device. Clearly, that was a big advantage for me later on in life. In contrast, console gamers generally don't learn to think of software as mutable--as something they themselves could experiment with and eventually make a career at.

It's hopelessly reductionist, of course, to say that consoles cause the digital divide, or that they're even a major causal factor compared to problems of poverty, lack of role models, and education. But I think it's hard to argue that the console model--locked-down, walled-garden systems running single-purpose code--doesn't contribute to the problem. And it's worrisome that the big new computing paradigm (mobile) seems determined to follow the console path.

Set aside questions of distribution and sideloading just for the sake of argument, and consider only the means of development. As far as I'm aware, no handheld since the original DragonBall-powered PalmOS has allowed users to write a first-class application (i.e., given equal placement in the shell, and has full or nearly-full OS access) on the device itself. At the very least, you need to have another device--a real, open computer--to compile for the target machine, which may be burden enough for many people. In some cases, you may also need to pay a yearly fee and submit a lot of financial paperwork to the manufacturer in order to get a digitally-signed certificate.

I think it's safe to say that this is not an arrangement that's favorable to marginalized communities. It wouldn't have been favorable to me as a kid, and I come from a relatively advantaged background. In terms of both opportunity cost and real-world cost, the modern smartphone platform is not a place where poor would-be developers can start developing their skills. As smartphones become more and more the way people interact with computers and the Internet, a trend like this would largely restrict self-taught tech skills among the white and the wealthy.

The one wild-card against this is the web. We're reaching the point where all platforms are shipping with a decent, hackable runtime in the form of an HTML4/5-compatible browser. That's a pretty decent entry point: I don't personally think it's as accessible as native code, and there are still barriers to entry like hosting costs, but JS/HTML is a valid "first platform" these days. Or it could be, with one addition: the all-important "view source" option. Without that, the browser's just another read-only delivery channel.

I think it's self-evident why we should care about having more minorities and marginalized groups working in technology. It's definitely important to have them in the newsroom, to ensure that we're not missing stories from a lack of diversity in viewpoint. And while it's true that a huge portion of the solution will come from non-technological angles, we shouldn't ignore the ways that the technology itself is written in ways that reinforce discrimination. Closed code and operating systems that are actively hostile to hacking are a problem for all of us, but they hit marginalized communities the hardest, by eliminating avenues for bootstrapping and self-education. The console model is a regressive tax on user opportunity. Let's cut it out.

August 10, 2009

Filed under: tech»activism

Is the Pushbutton Web Good for Activists?

The denial-of-service attack that took down several social networking sites (including Facebook, Twitter, and Livejournal) certainly seems to have caught some attention, especially after the revelation that the attack was primarily aimed at a political writer called "CYXYMU," which I assume makes more sense in Russian. Evgeny Morozov calls him the first digital refugee, and points out the very real danger that other digital activists could be silenced this way--not by direct attack, but by removal from social networks for terms-of-service violations (you know, for all the bandwidth they're "using").

It's in this environment that I've been thinking about PubSubHubbub, an HTTP/RSS-based push distribution system. Anil Dash calls it the start of the "Pushbutton web." Here's how it works, as far as I can tell:

  1. A content site publishes an RSS feed per usual, but includes in the metadata addresses of several "hub" sites that subscribers can use.
  2. After fetching the RSS for the first time, clients can send a message to one of the hubs asking to be notified of further updates via HTTP POST.
  3. Hubs take care of the dirty business of keeping up with feeds. Publishers can notify their hubs of new content by HTTP ping.
  4. When hubs are notified of new content by the publisher, they take care of sending it out to clients--thus distributing the publication bandwidth across many hubs, reducing load on the original content publisher, and reducing latency compared to polling models.
This is pretty cool stuff. At heart, it continues the trend of developing HTTP between servers as a high-level communication layer, and spreading the role of "servers" into clients to make them first-class citizens on the web, just as Opera's Unite was a system for creating a peer-to-peer web.

What interests me about all this is that it's potentially a really smart, high-level proxy/federation system, one that's built for the modern web, and that might have real implications for activists. Under PubSubHubbub, any given node in the distribution network can play multiple roles--a publisher or hub can also be a client, and vice versa. As this develops, it might be possible to build hubs that are capable of talking to each other to locate publisher feeds, thus adapting to outages or blocks--similar to the way that peer-to-peer protocols may share lists of working leaf nodes with each other upon connecting to the network for the first time. At the very least, it will be possible to enable realtime communication/distribution on a decentralized platform--one that's harder to block with a single rule, and can't necessarily be shut down by DOS attacks on the central distribution point.

Of course, right now, none of this is part of PubSubHubbub's plans. Right now, this is a technology for making sure that your shared items in Google Reader get pushed out to FriendFeed as fast as possible--thus fulfilling the golden rule of Web 2.0 technology: all the interesting stuff will be invented primarily to buff up the shiniest service (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) in the room. Indeed, this particular pushbutton protocol may never develop the way I'm hoping it will--and it probably doesn't solve the problem of DOS attacks entirely (seems like the original source is still vulnerable)--but it looks to me like the Internet zeitgeist is taking steps in the right direction. Potentially, that's good news for prospective digital refugees.

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