Berlin, 2017-09-08

Grace Jones, Slave to the Algorithm...

On 2017-09-03, Mr Salvatore Iaconesi wrote about the Financialization of Life:

It is not the algorithm serving us, and what we want. It is the algorithm turning us into itself, making us become like it.

I see a problematic simplification in this. Little of human society is "us". Most of it is laws, police and jurisdiction that we created to achieve concepts of rights and justice, and to limit the power of the individuals in "us" - with the intent that abuse can be punished.

If society was indeed "us", then you wouldn't be able to walk about town without risking somebody kills you to have you for dinner. It is the laws that have produced an ethical society where manslaughter is disincentivized and frowned upon.

People think laws are made out of culture, but I have the impression culture at large emerges after the establishment of suitable laws.

Code Is Law... to our disadvantage!

Taking this into the digital, means that the algorithms become the new laws — and you heard that before: "Code is law." So the challenge is to understand how much the code is an implementation of ethical values and goals. Code must be under the same severe scrutiny by society as laws are.

Given our old-fashioned pre-liquid-democratic architecture, that mostly means that politicians should be in charge of deciding how these algorithms work. Regulation is the instrument to put ethical notions into the algorithms, and it is overdue. Politicians must no longer be bullied into being told to keep their hands off of technology, because even incompetent regulation might just be less bad than none at all. Instead the development of software and hardware has been, to the largest extent, let run wild under the auspices of capitalism, which has inherently conflicting interests with human society.

That is how algorithms can easily become "not us" much like laws can easily degenerate into not representing our idea of ethics and society. But laws are easier to read than code, in particular closed code that is distributed to use in machine executable form. Additionally, capitalism has invented the privilege of putting laws of technology behind copyright control, which wouldn't be possible with traditional written laws.

While conventional laws are transparent, the code is obfuscated both legally by a much contended notion of intellectual property and technically by the fact that your smartphone does not need access to actually human-readable source code to run the laws on your device, the extension of your self. Some folks out there have the privilege of writing the code that runs your life. So it is a logical deduction, that iPhones, Windows 10 and unrooted Android devices are, let's face it, totalitarian.

I have the maximum respect for the blockchain. It possibly is the technology which bears the highest potential for radical innovation and transformation today. With all its limits and problems.

I appreciate the kind words for distributed systems, but would like to point out that the blockchain really is just a minor primitive in the arsenal of distributed systems. It tends to get most of the attention even if its original patent was filed in 1979. Must have something to do with all the money involved. Distributed systems indeed deserve praise and attention. Putting emphasis on blockchains however is like focusing only on HTTPS when you actually need cryptography in general. Or like saying that the Mac will prevent 1984. No wait, that was a bad apple — I mean, comparison.

While distributed systems are merely not entirely in sync with ethics, which can be due to the stupid limitations of their design (typical for our young generation of blockchain applications) or because many blockchain enthusiasts have subscribed to the religion of anarcho-capitalism, other small groups of people have been putting the ethics at the forefront of software design (everything GNU for example, especially GNUnet and secushare — nothing of it has been designed just for the fun of trying out something new). Still we are talking about small, very small groups rather than society at large (which unfortunately is very difficult to achieve, so they are well excused).

So, what we have is the choice between totalitarian proprietary technology and a desperate attention economy of free and open source software — plus, in the last decade, a vast selection of half-baked in-between things.

Let's Seriously Democratize Technology

The next step, away from the concept of the benevolent dictator, onto an open societal pluralist discourse and a political control of code creation, are tools such as the impressive liquid feedback + git integration, where each change to the software fosters a democratic debate culminating into a vote whether to accept or refuse such a change. It even has the potential of integrating the opinions of non-tech people if the discourse describes what the code change does in human terms. Or otherwise you can just delegate.

Linux kernels, crypto libraries and most of all web browsers would look very differently today, if all through the time of their creation, each piece of code that enables surveillance had seen an open political discourse. Let alone how iPhones, Windows 10 and Android would feel like. Society simply wouldn't have let these things get out of hand in the first place. Google and Facebook just wouldn't have become the monopolistic empires they are.

As a society, we are now using Science and Data like once we used Religion and Magic. The Blockchain is one direct effect of this. [...] It compels you to trust, because it is the algorithm itself which embodies trust.

We are only in the 3rd or 4th decade of totalitarian technology. The way we are forced to "trust" it, is a malleable illustration of its totalitarianism, no different from having to trust Mr Mussolini. Is traditional democracy resilient and conscious enough to stop this before it's too late?


Last Change: 2019-03-22

P.S. Deutsche Leser sollten zur Auflockerung noch diesen Clip genie├čen: Code is Law - BiTS S02E31 - ARTE

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