1. 21

  2. 20

    “..Using computers is a public, socal act…”

    I don’t want to dive into a critique of this essay. I’m happy the author is working through these issue, if only from a rather odd angle (software freedom).

    But I do think there’s an important point here about humans, not computers. Humans are tool-using and social creatures. People say things like this all of the time. I don’t thnk we realize the depth of the point.

    If I want to join two pieces of wood, I gather the wood, I gather the nails and hammer, and I hammer the wood together. It is quite clear, both to me and any outsider passing by, what I am doing. People can offer to lend a hand. They might speculate on my style, wonder what other work I was planning. If I were working in a construction team, my boss could see what I was doing, the style and technique I masted. Perhaps he might offer pointers or demonstrate a better way of doing tings.

    As tech guys, we’ve focused so much on the supposed goal of the activity, joining wood together, that we’ve convinced ourselves that as long as that goal is reached, we’re done. Likewise nobody ever sits down and thinks about all of that social crap when they us a hammer. They just want wood joined.

    I read the other day that the Navy is moving away from glass command centers for ships. Good for them. Can you imagine the deck of a battleship in the middle of a war where everybody was contrrolling things from their smart phones? What a nightmare! How are things going? How’s the ship and crew respondning. Beats me. All I can see is a bunch of folks poking at little plastic boxes. There’s no observation, training, or team interaction there. Just somebody holding a box that might do anything … or nothing. They could all be playing Donkey Kong. Who knows?

    More to the point, when you confront many of us tech people with this, instead of admitting the problem, they just double-down. Well, you want to know how the ship is doing? Just give us the metrics! We’ll make dashboards! Woot! But I don’t know the metrics. There are no metrics. Human society is more than just bits flying around. I need to manage and interact with people, not stare at updating graphics. The real world doesn’t work lke a Sci-fi movie.

    Then we get into the whole “buy a general-purpose computer for one reason, end up using it for something else” problem, but that’s for another day. Our denial of the problem is probably a much bigger problem than the problem itself.

    1. 6

      I don’t want to dive into a critique of this essay. I’m happy the author is working through these issue, if only from a rather odd angle (software freedom).

      I wrote this mess (as indicated by the authored below the title). If you do get around to it, I’d be very curious to hear your criticism, setting aside my inability to write a normal text. As I point out a few times, I’m very sceptical about the idea. The thought experiment is just a vehicle to think about these concepts.

    2. 6

      Interesting, but silly. Where’s the money coming from? How can there ever be privacy in a world where all of your computing is visible to admins? And when you get kicked off your local computer for life because you transgressed some stupid local custom?

      Computers had to be personal in order to grow. There needed to be customers before the days of network effects, in order for the early iterations to happen at all.

      1. 6

        Where’s the money coming from

        This is what I ask every time I look at the incredible ongoing failure that is mass personal automobile infrastructure

        1. 3

          That money comes from taxes and fees people pay for the multiple “personal cars” they buy and keep in their houses.

          And most of it came long after the idea of private ownership of cars.

          1. 6

            So what you’re telling me, is there’s this thing called taxes, which pays for public services and assets?

            That money comes from taxes and fees people pay for the multiple “personal cars” they buy and keep in their houses.

            From what I’ve personally seen in my unhealthy obsession with learning about public transport, this is generally not true. While it varies broadly from municipality to country, most places will only end up paying around half of their road budget with taxes collected directly from motorists. E.g.,

            The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings $34 billion annually.

            And that’s only federal highways…

        2. 4

          How can there ever be privacy in a world where all of your computing is visible to admins?

          This is not implied by the article. A centralized but local computer can be designed to protect private information from administrators.

          Also, the level of privacy of the average “PC” user today can be very small, given that 99% of the sources of information we consume are somewhere in a large company datacenter.

          1. 4

            IMO they also had to be personal in order to give the user / developer total control.

            Arguably we’ve never had that fully (even the first micros came with ROMs burned by the manufacturer) but I’m not sure how the ‘communal computing’ model would work in light of the current evolution of maker culture and the like.

            1. 2

              Computers had to be personal in order to grow.

              That’s also an interesting question. Should it have grown to the size it is now?

              1. 1

                In a word, yes.

                You could argue that the first 20+ years of personal computers were very ill suited to their users needs, but that would also eliminate the admittedly fringe case of users who stumbled upon the hidden world of programming by virtue of that ‘poor’ design and the ever-present READY BASIC prompt with the blinking cursor greeting them on boot :)

                But IMO there’s also a real argument to be made around the fact that engineering is an iterative process, and that without those early machines we wouldn’t have the advances we have today.

                Then there’s the whole “What do you define as a computer?”

                Is a totally locked down tablet a computer even if you can’t directly program it?

            2. 4

              What if Utopia were not meant as a warning for the fallacy of a theory of a perfect society?

              What if humans were like ants instead of self-centred primates?

              What if people learned a lesson from the various experiments with enforced collectivism, artificially limited freedom to explore and restricted freedom of expression?

              Why is it that ideas like these keep on surfacing even though the human race has proven it does not lend itself to the creation of an ideal society? While Homo Sapiens as a species might be characterised as a social creature this can not be said to hold for the individual. Some people thrive best when they have the maximum amount of personal freedom, others do better when embedded in social structures which give handholds for every-day events from dawn to dusk. The progress of the species has been characterised for a large part by developments initiated by the former which got implemented and perfected by the latter. While it is currently fashionable to describe the progress of the species in negative terms - which is largely made possible by that same progress as it has given people so much free time and so little existential stress that their survival mechanisms have turned upon themselves due to a lack of stimuli - it can not be denied that Homo Sapiens is one of the success stories of evolution on this planet. The species has risen like a star and is probably on the verge of spreading beyond the bounds of its original planet.

              Would the same have been possible in an enforced collective society? With history as a teacher the likeliness of such seems slim to non-existent. Collectivist societies tend to end up being ruled by a self-selected minority which sets the rules and the bounds within which societal discourse is to be kept. The fate of those who stray from the doctrine vary from shunning to punishment. This is not only unjust to those individuals, it is also a terrible waste of human ingenuity.

              In short: personal computers are like personal diaries, not to be shared by the collective other than by explicit intent of the user.

              On the subject of free software it might be worth considering that most of it comes from societies which are far from collectivist.

              1. 2

                I was using the term “Utopian” in the sense of a “non-place”, a state of affairs existing in our mind rather than in reality. Other than that, I don’t see why what I describe should be an ideal society. I indented for the illustration to be a different one, and as such something we could reflect on. This is certainly more of a peaceful rant, than a call to action.

                1. 2

                  I know, my answer was not directly aimed at your thesis, it is more meant to be a reply to the resurgence of utopian socialist ideologies, the ghost of which is echoed by your writing. You chose free software as a vehicle to question the evolution of individual computing versus some form of communal computing, something which to me is almost antithetical to the spirit of freedom which underlies free software. Free software thrives best in the free societies which gave birth to the phenomenon, often in reaction to the restrictions in freedom posed by commercial interests, more recently also in opposition to societal and political restrictions on freedom of expression - PeerTube versus Youtube being a good example. After all, the core of free software is freedom.

                  1. 2

                    something which to me is almost antithetical to the spirit of freedom which underlies free software.

                    Are you sure? I mean, the entire story behind free software starts in the MIT labs, back when individual computing really wasn’t a thing, and operating systems were much more conscious about user collaboration. I remember reading once that the ITS gave everyone read/write “permission”, prefiguring what later turned out to become a “wiki”. At the same time, when people “work” on the same systems, sharing scripts, hacks, etc. becomes easer, though I see how networking and standardized systems help overcome this point.

                    1. 1

                      Yes, I’m sure. It was the demise of the freedom which characterised the AI lab at MIT which gave rise to the GNU project. It was the freedom from overarching invasive licenses and lawyer-types which boosted the Berkeley (BSD) Unix implementation. The keyword here is freedom, the freedom to use the software as seen fit, the freedom to modify and distribute it. The GNU project was started by Stallman, BSD got its start at the university of California in Berkeley, one an individual, the other an institute. The road taken differed but the goal was largely the same: freedom. Neither the GNU nor the BSD license try to enforce any form of collectivism, the difference between the two being mostly that GNU puts more weight on future freedom while BSD is more about opening up to as many uses and users as possible.

                      You mention the term ‘wiki’ as an example of something which might have risen out of the openness of the ITS system (I think Ward Cunningham differs on how he got the idea for a multi-user editable web space, he seems to have been inspired by Hypercard and Vannevar Bush’s ideas on shared information spaces). I think Wikipedia, arguably the most well-known wiki at the moment, is a good example of where enforced collectivism eventually ends up in that many areas of interest have been taken over by vociferous groups of opinionated editors who defend their own stance on ‘their’ subject as being the one and only true version. Those who dare to change ‘their’ articles in ways which go against the dogma quickly see their edits disappear and, on repeated attempts to open up the subject to a different view, can expect to be banned from editing that area under the pretext of ‘vandalism’ or similar accusations. These editor groups are an example of the self-selected minorities which end up controlling - and thereby often destroying - collectivist societies.

                      Now imagine these groups in control of the ‘communal computing facilities’ which would be the alternative to personal computers and realise where that would end.

              2. 2

                Oddly enough, in the ’90s I volunteered in this exact kind of space, as an administrator and teacher.

                The Metro Blue Line Televillage, AMA.

                1. 2
                  1. 2

                    Something like this has happened before. In the early days of the ARPANET, you could fairly easily get access to one of the MIT ITS machines, which was (I’m given to understand) very much a communal environment. There were mechanisms to see what other people were doing on the system, to look over the shoulder of somebody attached to a network terminal, to ask for help, etc. There is also SDF, which (still!) provides a shared UNIX system with accounts available to anybody who asks, and in fact started out as a bulletin board system.

                    Both of these facilities were (and in SDF’s case, still are) inherently social. As I understand it, though (keep in mind, this was all before my time), the dream was always for computing to be personal, to have the complete resources of an entire machine at one person’s command. The existence of the shared access systems was a side effect of the fact that computers were too expensive for a single person to own.

                    I don’t actually have a point here, just more to reflect on :-D

                    1. 2

                      This world seems dystopian to me. If the only way for me to use a computer was in a public space controlled by human administrators who could see what things I compute, intervene in them ostensibly for my own good (or for the administrators’ conception of social good), I’d like to think that I would join up with groups of hackers trying to invent something like a personal computer, that didn’t have these restrictions.

                      In fact, insofar as the modern internet is actually trying to return computing to a world of human-administrator-controlled walled, moderated siloes ostensibly for people’s own benefit or for social benefit (see any discussion at all about the social and political consquences of big social media), I do resist these trends, politically and technologically. Running a PeerTube node so that you have a place to host and share your video if YouTube censors you for offending the wrong people is the actual existing equivalent of building your own computer that you can run in your home wirh your male friends outside the watchful eye of the computer center administrators who don’t want you and your male friends doing things that make the public computer center too much like a boy’s club, with respect to the OP’s world.

                      1. 1

                        So basically instead of stopping at 8bit computers that were still relatively primitive to manufacture (I know of 8080 clone made in former Czechoslovakia, for example), take apart, examine or even hack and extend, we’d have these central mainframes that are probably orders of magnitude more complex, but more importantly are not physically accessible to the general public, which just have to trust the hardware (incl. terminals), the software and the administrators of such system.

                        I think you should suggest this concept of Free Software to NSA.

                        1. 1

                          The latest episode of the Jason Scott Talks His Way Out Of It podcast made me think of this topic, even though the podcast topic is at best a tangent off this post.

                          The episode talks about a time when the author rented a cage for his machine to be hosted, and about how he feels like we’re losing something in this age of cloud everything, because there was something to be gained by interacting with the physicality of machines.

                          I certainly don’t agree with him for simple hosted environments like that, but I DO miss the days when computers weren’t quite so ubiquitous and like minded people had to actually go somewhere to use them :)

                          1. 1

                            PCs are rotting in the shadow of their capabilities

                            1. 1

                              On a local or communal level, all residents would have access to computer systems, and persistent accounts. With time and technological development, the ability for non-residents to access their home systems should have been granted.

                              I was contemplating the same idea before Internet became fast enough to allow ajax and then webapps.

                              Today’s computing is either ultralocal or completely delocalized. Rather than personal, we can call it individualistic computing.

                              It’s interesting to notice how commenters confuse shared computing with invasion of privacy. Yet, today we share code on forges, opinions on boards and social networks. What if public computer were used for public computing? E.g. running a multiplayer game where users access the same running process.