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Not Everything is a Tech Problem - Metaphors Are Lies

Not Everything is a Tech Problem

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Rant incoming.

So we have another proposed tech standard that will allegedly allow perfect privacy and security and safe social media and puppies and flowers for everyone — if we all just agree to use it and no one minds that moderation will be impossible:

The group, Cult of the Dead Cow, has developed a coding framework that can be used by app developers who are willing to embrace strong encryption and forsake revenue from advertising that is targeted to individuals based on detailed profiles gleaned from the data most apps now routinely collect.

Full encryption means that moderators won’t be able to see interactions that are harmful, which is one reason that Veilid’s own networking app will have users invite specific followers.

I should not have to tell you all the reasons why inviting specific followers is not going to be a panacea for the problem of abuse in social media. One of the people involved in the project mentions revenge porn as a motivation for working on it. But that person does not seem to give a thought to the difficulty of tracing back the source of revenge porn if everything is completely anonymous an entirely encrypted.

Which is my larger problem with these kinds of endeavors and organizations that support them like the Electronic Freedom Foundation. They are functionally useless. The stated goal is to produce social media networks that do not force users to participate in surveillance capitalism. And that is good. But that is not a technological problem, not really. It is a societal problem, something that these organizations are fundamentally incapable of dealing with.

Here is how this is going to work. Or rather, not work.

First, almost no one is going to participate in these systems. Right now, today, you could build a social network that did not track user personal information and sell it for ads. In fact, someone tried that already — App.net. It was not, to be kind, a success. To be unkind, it was the Ed Wood of social media. Even if people are now more aware of the problems of surveillance capitalism (something for which there is no evidence. None of the twitter clones have approached that model, certainly none that have even approached success), governments are not going to be keen on allowing complete encryption, for good reasons and bad. Yes, good reasons.

Crime is a thing, and sometimes there are good reasons to want law enforcement to have access to people’s communications. The afore mentioned revenge porn cases. People who post child pornography should not be allowed to get away with it. Many of the January 6th defendants have been caught and prosecuted based on their social media postings and private messages. Yes, there are downsides to this, as the recent cases of woman being prosecuted for abortions in part to their Facebook messages being provided to prosecutors. But the solution to that is making abortion legal. These are societal tradeoffs, not technical problems.

Once apps that have complete encryption are banned, as the UK, for example, is close to doing, app stores will not carry them. (And that can happen because there are only a couple of app store — oh, hey, monopolies. Another societal problem solved by government intervention!) So even if people wanted to use these systems — which, again, there is no evidence that people do and so no evidence that developers will develop to the new protocol — almost no one will have access to them except the most die hard. Meaning criminals and activists. Perhaps some good on the edges, but as much harm, and the real problem left unsolved.

You know what would solve surveillance capitalism? Outlawing it. I know, radical! Using the power of democratic government to regulate an aspect of business behavior that imposes detrimental external costs on the rest of society! How gauche!

A least, that seems to be the attitude of the people and organizations behind things like this approach. They appear to approach these questions from the mindset that the government is always wrong, that it cannot by definition be a force for good. The EFF, for example, cares as much about “creativity and innovation” as it does about privacy. It puts its trust in the libertarian ideal of capitalism to solve problems rather in the democratic ideals that have been the only thing that have resulted in any benefit to humankind in the last six thousand years. If you want to solve these problems, you need to engage with your fellow citizens democratically, not stick your head in the sand and pretend that you can tech your way into a solution.

I say this with all the love in the world, and with the deepest respect for your skills, but to my fellow tech nerds who think they can code their way to utopia: grow the fuck up. You do not live in a science fiction novel, you are not a special snowflake, and you cannot pretend you do not live in a society. Living with other people means coming to compromises and accepting tradeoffs. The best way to control the powerful is constrain them with democratic accountability. There is not now and never has been a magic bullet, technological or otherwise, that solves that problem.

If you want freedom, you require democracy. Code is no substitute and business is often its enemy. If you have lost democracy, you have a long, hard, uncertain road back and high tech is not likely to help you given the power imbalance (again, life is not a science fiction novel. Low tech communication is likely to be much more secure than digital communications, for example). If you want to help with your skills, go to work for the government to make it work better or volunteer for a nonprofit or campaign. But mostly, roll up your sleeves and do the hard work of civic engagement. Participate in democracy, not some stupid bullshit dream of waving a magic IDE (yes, yes, I know real programmers use VIM) and fixing everything with your special, special code.

That is, bluntly, a child’s outlook. We have real problems and no time for childish dreams. We need adults to do adult work.

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