To hear the digital enthusiasts talk about it, you would not think that e-commerce could have a dark side. The picture that is ordinarily painted is one of progress, efficiency, liberation, and choice for the individual. Perhaps. But are there prices to pay?
"Knowing the user" is a stock phrase in human-computer circles. In its usual sense, it means knowing how the human user experiences the technology they are working with: having a degree of empathy with the user of computer systems who might be experiencing confusion, difficulty, frustration. What it means in e-commerce is far different.
What it means in e-commerce is knowing the personal and financial data about whoever it is who has logged on the Internet, is looking about, who may be tempted to buy, who may be buying. It means knowing the name, age, gender, address, living patterns, social security number, bank account numbers, credit number of the person--whether they would like you to know that or not.
Unlike non-e-commerce, where you can enter the store, purchase something, pay and leave without leaving large traces behind you, in e-commerce the maximum personal and financial data about you is what is of moment.
And, it's valuable, too. Companies gather such information and sell it, all without your knowledge. The supposed justification is that this knowing about you the user as consumer will make life better and easier for you. Yes, you can "opt out" if you don't want your most personal information turned into a commodity that others peddle and profit from. BUT...you have to write in (usually to some anonymous post office box in Des Moines or wherever--these companies are expert in hiding themselves, in protecting their privacy) and don't want your information to be used and sold.
There is no acknowledgement that it might be more fair and ethical for them to ask you up front whether you might allow to have information about you gathered, collated, and commodisized. No, they do it to you first, and, if you object...of course you first have to discover that there are using such information...it's up to you.
What gall! What presumption! What arrogance! the consumer might be tempted to say... Right. And it's done to the consumer all the time.
Remember back when the camera didn't lie? That when you took a picture, the image itself could be regarded as incontrovertible evidence of such-and-such? Yes, photos could be faked, but it was hard to do, and in many if not most instances, easy to detect.
Things are different now.
Through digital image processing, all things are possible. Not too long ago, Scientific American published a picture showing Marilyn Monroe snuggling up to Abraham Lincoln, her arm locked through his. Also, another picture shows President George Bush walking through a garden with former British Minister Margaret Thatcher.
National Geographic on its cover a few years ago showed the three great pyramids of Egypt from an unfamiliar angle, that is, unfamiliar to those who know the pyramid site well. Digital image processing had moved the pyramids closer together in order to make, the magazine said later, a more pleasing composition.
This gaffe on the part of National Geographic drew considerable ire. The magazine is an venerable one, dating from the beginning of the last century, and has certain cachet from its sponsorship of notable expeditions and its distinguished roster of board members. It also has been in many homes for generations, and has the reputation of being the one magazine that people--no matter how many had accumulated in the den or attic--didn't through away.
And, here it was fudging pictures, on its cover no less, and about not just any old scene, but graphically shoving the pyramids about...
The thing about digital images-- and just about anything digital--is that, given the right equipment, you can do with them just about anything you want. Decoupled from any embeddedness in physical "media," the image can be chopped, cut, re-worked, stretched, compressed, added to, subtracted from, blended with whatever, and on and on. Being digital, and as such, being pure information divorced from any tangible substrate, their content is up for grabs.
If a picture can now lie, whereas formerly they could not easily do so, then what is their value as "evidence" that something is or is not the case. If, formerly, we saw a picture of Lincoln with Marilyn Monroe, then we had little choice but to think that either he in fact lived very long, or she was a bit older than her publicists were willing to say she was. We've also seen in the movies Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump standing along side Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, as well as Woody Allen standing betwixt Lenin and Stalin...
But what about now? Well, if we see so-and-so with so-an-so, then it could be that they were indeed in each other's company--but not necessarily. That is, with respect to its evidentiary quality, the photographic (now digital) image does not necessarily not lie.
The same goes for certain documents as well. Suppose Mr. Jones gets caught in a compromising situation with someone not his wife at some motel. There are pictures to prove it. There's his car, its license plate clearly visible, right there in from of the Red Rose Motel or wherever. There they are, entering and leaving together, and doing whatever else in Room 514. And that's not all. There are Discover card records and receipts to back up Mr. Jones visit. Can Mrs. Jones nail him on the basis of such incontrovertible evidence?
No, she can't. Because its not incontrovertible any more. The photos can be faked, as that Marilyn Monroe with Abraham Lincoln. The Discover charge record is also "just bits," and can be digitally generated as well.
And, in a digital world--where it's all bits anyway--anything is possible. That's why, when the announcement of this or that electronic feat is announced in The New York Times, the response increasingly--for me anyway, and I suspect also for many others--a simple ho-hum. Why not? Sure, why not. In a world where anything is possible, the impossible becomes commonplace. Bits remove the buzz.
And, what might it mean for privacy in a world where all documentary evidence can be faked, wherein records can be generated to prove just anything about you--for instance, that you were in Pittsburgh last week in a rented car, and that the security cameras caught you robbing a bank and a 7-11 to boot?
What might it mean for security when digital records showing that your were running a porn ring out of your home for the last seven months can all be faked, can he hacked into the appropriate machines and data bases to establish just that?
Well, in a world where anything al all might be faked, then none of it may well be true. It may come to mean that all such digital evidence will be thrown out of court. And, we'll revert back to the older "analog" kinds of evidence, such as eye-witness testimony--from a person, not a camera eye.
That is, we may well come full circle. From the reliability of people's testimony with all its potential faults and flaws, to the camera of yore which didn't by it's nature lie about what it saw, to the digital image which could be anything someone wanted it to be then back to the personal testimony of someone who was at the scene.
It may take some time. And, a secession of (controversial) court decisions. But it's hard not to conclude such. Where all things can be made to seem possible, then none can really be believable. As an instrument of verification, the digital signature will swallow itself. And, the fallback will be something from the early twentieth century and before: another person's in-person testimony.
Peter Laslett, a British historian published in 1965 a book titled The World We have Lost. The book is about England before the Industrial Revolution. In it, Laslett describes how English society ran before the introduction of the stream engine, the factory system, the rise of the bourgeoisie capitalistic class who drove the financial side of the industrial revolution in England.
He tells of the function of the large landed estates--what we now call "stately homes." They look like beached whales to modern eyes, and people wonder what possible function--beyond ostentation--they might have served. In pre-industrial England the stately homes did indeed serve an important function; specifically, they were visible reminders of the governmental presence which reached out into even the remotest parts of the realm.
In that England, only about one person in 5000 had any role in governing the realm; the balance of the population live under the law, but had no role in shaping it. The ordinary person's basic rights, for example to be secure in their property and to a trial by jury or at least a hearing by a magistrate, were protected under the Common law.
What of now? Conventional wisdom has it that we are in the midst of an information revolution, with far-reaching effects, effects that will fundamentally and permanently change our relations to one another and to the world of money and commerce. What are some of those changes, and what might be lost in the midst of all of them.
Professor Seymour Papert has written about "the gears of my childhood," and how, as a child, manipulating sets of gears concretely elucidated the concept of the equation for him, how the differential gears of an automobile, offered a tangible embodiment of the concept of the differential equation.
Such exemplars of concrete items becoming metaphors for an abstract idea are increasingly missing from modern life. In today's world, we rarely have the opportunity to see directly the working innards of everyday items.
Much of the contrast lies in the mechanical and the electrical. For instance, when I was small, there were mechanical clocks my brother and I could and did take apart -- Baby Bens by Westclock. They had real gears inside.
But no more. Alarm clocks, like so much else, have no user serviceable parts inside.
Or, take autos. My brother at age 15 took apart a model a Ford engine, the parts strewn all about the kitchen floor. He put it back together, and it ran. This was no different from what many boys (girls as well?) of his age did back then. However, it is the rare teenager who could do that today, or even care to do it, what with 50-60 computer parts in an auto.
What has been lost in the electronic age is the direct apprehension of how things work, of direct intuition of what is going on
In an essay titled "Intuition, which appeared in the Journal Research & Development, writer Erwin A. Frand pointed out how
...products have become more powerful and versatile, but harder to use, with even the common telephone coming with 20- to 30-page manuals. Things have become less mechanical--where we could intuitively figure them out, on the basis of the seven basic simple machines (gear, lever, etc.) and more electronic where the operations are arbitrary, designed by people who may not know much about the way people behave, with instruction manuals written by poor writers.
This loss of direct grasp of how things work extends to information as well. As expressed by Jack Falvey in his article "Deaf, dumb and blind at the helm," in the Manager's Journal section of The Wall Street Journal:
Increasingly, executive communicate data with one another not ideas, for while some of them may have become acquainted with the use of spread-sheets, there is the accompanying loss of how to think about that data--which requires linear thinking and the skill to communicate in words. The spread sheet has replaced the well-reasoned report as the medium of communication. Instead of conclusions and support reasoning, we get data. To be able to write down an idea in a couple of sentences is a dying art..."
Less TV, Less Weight, Study of Children Finds
--from The New York Times, in "National News Briefs," Thursday May 6, 1999. p. A 24.
San Francisco, May 5 (AP)--
Turning television off for even a few hours a day could keep children from becoming overweight, a new study suggests.
In the study, researchers persuaded nearly 100 third and fourth graders in San Jose, Calif., to reduce their television -viewing be one-quarter to one-third. At the end of the school year, the youngsters had gained about two pounds less on average than peers who kept up their normal television-watching habits.
Thomas N. Robinson, assistant professor of pediatrics and medicine at Stanford University, did the study and presented it on Tuesday to the Pediatric Academic Societies.
Twenty years ago, 10 percent of children were overweight; now the figure is 20 percent, said Len Epstein of the State University of New York at Buffalo, who studies pediatric obesity.
Some researchers are focused on the goal of making the computer into a conversational partner, chatting not about things "out there" -- concrete things in the world external to both the human speaker and to the machine -- but in having a one-to-one relationship with the machine. The computer would be a "boon companion," would exhibit "personality ," would even have likes and dislikes of its own, purposes, and so forth., That is, the machine would be a surrogate human being, or, even some kind of sentient entity not necessarily modeled veridically on a human, but nonetheless taking its inspiration from the human as model.
Here, the computer would be a companion, an electronic friend, listening post, sounding board, confidante, aide--what have you. Or, even a butler who knows our needs and wants intimately, even tries to build and share household secrets with you.
One could make the case, though, that such attempts are a trifle misguided on several accounts, or at best are somewhat confused as to what machines are, and what people are.
Yes, it is true that we, especially as children, and even as adults, commit what is known as the bathetic fallacy: the imputation to inanimate objects ("things") the personality and attributes of a living being. Thus, as children, we talk to our teddy bears, we name our bikes, we bid good night to Mr. Moon.
Yet, we don't really feel that those things are "people" like our parents are. Or, do we? Perhaps children don't make careful distinctions, or even deliberately try not to make distinctions at all; perhaps they are too busy elaborating the fantasy of the thing-come-alive. Anyway, it's all great fun, possibly deliciously scary too. And, except in the pathological instances where a child might elaborate a fantasy world and not care to come out of it, it all seems to parents to be quite harmless.
Then, as adults, we may kick and curse the Coke machine as it swallows our money (!) and refuses (!) to give our money back. We abundantly praise our old heap of a car as it doggedly (!) lumbers up s steep, snow-covered hill. We call "Ok, where are you?" to the golf ball, hidden somewhere in the rough where we sliced it. Again, as long as we don't believe the objects in question are really sentient, thinking, and feeling, we are not in psychiatric trouble.
We can distinguish at least two conjunctions of feeling and machine. One is where the machine makes inferences about the emotional state of the human, and modifies and modulates its behaviors accordingly. An example, taken from the MIT Media Lab's consortium-based program in "Things That Think," is where one or more sensor devices detect some sign or signs given off by the human, make an inference about the import of those signs, possibly to take some appropriate action.
For example, suppose, given a world of intelligent and sentient things (read: things with embedded logic chips and micro-sensors) you are packing for a tennis vacation, you put your left sneaker in your suitcase but leave the right one in the closet. What would be the intelligent, appropriate action for the system of things to take? Tell you by way of the nearest loudspeaker (maybe the one in your suitcase lid) not to forget the right sneaker still in the closet?
But, while the omission in itself might indicate mere overlooking, it may be symptomatic of something deeper. The system of things checks your pulse as given by your wristwatch band, your blood pressure as given by your tee-shirt cuffs, as well as checking whether the household microphonics detect a rising pitch in your voice. Sensors in the rug and in your shoes show that your steps have become more rapid (agitated??), and that you are doing a lot of pacing about. Those cues may well add up to an inference on the system's part that you are becoming stressed out in anticipation of your imminent trip. The system recalls that you are usually anxious prior to any trip on a plane. All these cues add up to the inference that the real emergency is not that you might leave your right sneaker behind, but that you are stressed-out. The appropriate action may well be not to remind you to pack your right sneaker, but to take steps to help you deal with your stress.
The system of things has been in touch with your airline. It now tells you that your plane is late, and that you have a lot more time than you think you had. It tells you it, the system, has already ordered your cab, and that you'll be in plenty of time. It may even begin to play your favorite piece of soothing music. A bit later, when you close up your suitcase, it reminds you to fetch that right sneaker from the closet.
Now, while the inferences and actions that the system has taken are intelligent and appropriate, and probably are the right things to do under the perceived ("sensed") circumstances, the basis of the system's actions are neither complex and arcane. The system has been programmed to take in certain indicators, examine them in various ways, search for "meaningful" patterns, and take certain actions according to the pattern of circumstances. It is really no difference, in principal, from a household thermostat which, when detecting the room temperature falling below 60 degrees, turns on your furnace. The number of sensed readings may be greater, the conditions and contingencies weighed more complex, the possible alternative actions greater in number, but it all is a more or less direct mapping form detected conditions to one or more actions taken.
The words "perceived" and "meaningful" in the above paragraph deserve a second look. What a set of sensors and chips can do is sense conditions, such as temperature, pressure, orientation, etc., but not perceive images.
Amidst the ongoing debate surrounding intellectual property on the Internet is the experiment by author Stephen King to market a serial novel, The Plant. The idea was for him to write the novel in a series of installments that would be available for downloading. Payment for each installment, payable by credit card, check, or money order, was to be on the honor system, one dollar for the first installment, rising to two dollars for part 4--a longer section--with part 6 to come out in late December, 2000, for free.
While King's assistant, Marsha DeFilippo, said that payments for the first four episodes amounted to more than $500,000, King has decided to shelf the project for the time being. [See: "Stephen King decides to put his online thriller on hold." The Boston Sunday Globe, December 3, 2000, p. E8.]
While about 75% of readers paid for the first installment, the fraction of paying readers dropped steadily downward to about 46%.Though DeFilippo said that King's decision not to continue the novel came prior to his review of figures reflecting how many downloaders were actually paying for the installments, it is hard not to read in some importance of the figures to his decision--particularly since King had warned at the outset that he might drop the project if readers refused to send in payment for what they took.
Now, amidst the debate about intellectual property on the Internet--and particularly in light of the fracas over the mass downloading of songs via Napster whereby neither the performing artist(s) nor the record company would get any payment or royalties--the stance taken by those who supported Napster was that it was all in the name of the "free information" society. The stance taken by those opposed to the gratis downloading was that it was thievery. For them, it was hard to think on anything more fatuous, not to mention smug, than for someone who already "has it made"--financially or professionally--to advise others to work for "tips."