Friday, April 25, 2014

Feynman, education & public engagement on digital rights

This Horizon programme on Richard Feynman is full of terrific engaging Feynman observations.

I'll just pick out two that are close to home at the moment.

Feynman talks about teaching and how he didn't really know how to do it. To hook everyone with our different interests and different learning styles and aptitudes the teacher has to take a chaotic approach. Otherwise the teaching will only reach or appeal to one kind of person. The implication is that all the rest are locked out. He gives a lovely example of the stories he used to make up for his son exploring wood-like worlds which turned out to be tiny people living in a carpet land; and caves where the air flowing in was cold and air flowing out was warm - this turned out to be the dog's nose; then they could explore the respiratory systems and learn all kinds of real world things in a fun way. His daughter, on the other hand, didn't like him making up stories. She liked him to read proper stories from proper books. She had a different personality and different way of taking on the world

The top down superficial dogmatic ill-informed rhetoric driving formal education systems in the UK at the moment (and which has been doing so for a long time) has lead to systems that fail most of the people most of the time. They fail the teachers/lecturers trying to make them work against all the odds and they fail the children and older students that get processed from year to year, standardised widgets all.

The second thing that struck me was Feynman's ruse for avoiding the drudgery of academic administration. He would refuse to do it by claiming he was irresponsible and by implication could not be relied upon to do it properly. So every time he was asked e.g sit on an admissions committee he would say he didn't care about students (he did) and couldn't be bothered and anyway would be irresponsible. He'd say to himself let so and so do it - it was selfish but it left him time to do physics.

To do any kind of substantive work it takes absolute solid lengths of time. If you're working on something complex, he describes it like a house of cards. It's wobbly. All the ideas holding it together are like the cards. If you forget one or lose it the whole thing collapses and you have to start all over. If you are weighed down with administration you'll never have the time to do anything deep.

Well I've had three books in draft for several years and not had a substantive run at any of them. Much though I'd like to offload or avoid a chunk of my admin duties, Feynman style, that's not a realistic option in the short to medium term. The privilege of working at an amazing institution like The Open University brings with it the duty to engage in the requisite battles to protect its core values and terrific students and staff. I have an equivalent duty, however, to engage deeply with my academic areas of interest - including the digital rights arena - particularly when they have an impact that extends way beyond the boundaries of a single institution.

So something has to give and I've decided, no doubt to the collective background sigh of relief from organisational behaviour theorists, to abandon one of my draft books. Perhaps a little ironically it is the one on the convergent evolutionary bureaucratic cancerous insanity of large organisations. It is incredible the degree to which care, trust, goodwill, decency, simple understanding of the difference between right and wrong - the fundamentals of providing a good product or service - can get completely decimated in the labyrinth of tightly coupled, complex, often mutually exclusive and diametrically opposed rules, regulations, procedures, good intentions, sociopathic ambitions, agendas and ignorant digital Taylorism that constitute modern large mature organisations. Both in the private and public sectors. NASA's 'Criticality 1' waiver system - a procedure for bypassing safety procedures which had determined space shuttle components/systems were so dangerous as to be life threatening - is a classic example. The working title was The Insanity of Bureaucracy and the sound bite description, 'if large organisations were people they'd be diagnosed clinically insane.'

Will the dropping of the Insanity of Bureaucracy give me more space to work my tome on systems failure in the regulation of the Net? We'll see. The latter began as a collection of case studies on the emergent effects of the scientific and technical ignorance of policymakers. But in a world of mass surveillance these real life stories are not really enough. There is an urgent need for academics, techies, lawyers, engineers, scientists, educators to be better at explaining - through as many forums, physical and virtual, political and institutional, mass media, social networks and any other social, physical, technological, economic, environmental or cognitive construct of influence -  the maths, science and technology that forms the infrastructure of our information society. In ways and through narratives that are engaging, convincing, evidence based, entertaining (if necessary), chaotically as Feynman says, widely accessible and with memes that stick -
  • privacy AND security NOT privacy OR security
  • mass surveillance doesn't work
  • mass surveillance is sinister
  • mass surveillance is odious
  • mass surveillance is monstrous
  • mass surveillance is wrong
  • mass surveillance is poisonous
  • mass surveillance is corrosive
  • did I say mass surveillance doesn't work
  • we need intelligence lead targeted technological surveillance of individuals about whom there is reasonable cause to harbour suspicion NOT mass surveillance ... ok now you can see why I'd never get a job in PR or politics... (Marcus Lipton MP in 1957 (at 1min 50s) declared phone tapping of a suspected gangster "most sinister", "odioius" and "montrous", as did the outraged mainstream media at the time. How times have changed.)
  • censorship is odious...
  • hate mongering is poisonous...
  • demonisation of [minority target of choice] is monstrous...
  • Extraordinary rendition is odious, monstrous, wrong...
  • torture is odious, monstrous, wrong... 
  • enclosure of the public domain is wrong...
  • the best network is the hardest to monetise...
  • communications infrastructure is a public good...
  • concentration of control of communications infrastructure is contrary to the public good...
  • sound bite attack dog 'public debate' undermines our capacity to engage in informed, enlightened, collective, democratic policy making in the public good ... see - I can't do PR...
  • and just to prove I can't do PR... complex corporate welfare regulatory instruments built into secretly negotiated international trade agreements, which undermine both the sovereignty of nation states and fundamental liberties, and which are substantively written by the industries they are tailored to benefit, are contrary to the public good...
One book is a drop in ocean of this kind of essential public engagement but it is a drop I really need to carve out some time and space to deliver. Then when the grandkids, if I'm lucky enough to have any and supposing they can cope with the dysfunctional world we bequeath them, ask what the hell I was doing when my generation was so busy normalising the destruction fundamental liberties in the metaphorical blink of a historical eye, I may at least have a story or two to tell and a battered old monograph to point to on the shelf.

The third book in the Corrigan cognitive hinterland is a young adult novel with a Cory Doctorow type Little Brother / Homeland theme but in a sporting context. That's simply proving very difficult to write and has given me a greater respect than ever for children's authors who do an incredible job. (Cory's books are terrific btw and should be required reading for teens and adults everywhere). My kids sometimes encourage me to stop, rewind and repeat in short sentences using words of preferably no more than two syllables. I naturally point out that 'sentences', 'preferably and 'syllables' breach those rules... but writing for young adults is a much more challenging task than I had expected it to be.

The wet Friday afternoon contemplative musing will have to stop there for now, as the relentless clamour of the zombiecrats for boxes to be ticked, forms to be filled and meetings to be attended must be soothed. That's this evening. Tomorrow real students in a real classroom await and though there are reports to be filed in the aftermath, OU students almost invariably cheer me up.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Russia's surveillance state

The autumn 2013 issue of the World Policy Journal has the best outline of Russian mass surveillance I've seen to date By Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan. Not so long ago, Western media and politicians would have been all over this, condemning the unethical behaviour of the Russian state. But I guess that's difficult and/or potentially embarrassing when you've spent a lot of effort defending the same behaviour on the part of Western governments.
"In March 2013, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the U.S. State Department issued a warning for Americans wanting to come to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia next February: Beware of SORM. The System of Operative-Investigative Measures, or SORM, is Russia’s national system of lawful interception of all electronic utterances—an Orwellian network that jeopardizes privacy and the ability to use telecommunications to oppose the government. The U.S. warning ends with a list of “Travel Cyber Security Best Practices,” which, apart from the new technology, resembles the briefing instructions for a Cold War-era spy...
But the Russian surveillance effort is not limited to the Sochi area, nor confined to foreigners. For years, Russian secret services have been busy tightening their hold over Internet users in their country, and now they’re helping their counterparts in the rest of the former Soviet Union do the same. In the future, Russia may even succeed in splintering the web, breaking off from the global Internet a Russian intranet that’s easier for it to control.
Over the last two years, the Kremlin has transformed Russia into a surveillance state—at a level that would have made the Soviet KGB (Committe for State Security) envious. Seven Russian investigative and security agencies have been granted the legal right to intercept phone calls and emails. But it’s the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, that defines interception procedures...
...In Russia, FSB officers are also required to obtain a court order to eavesdrop, but once they have it, they are not required to present it to anybody except their superiors in the FSB. Telecom providers have no right to demand that the FSB show them the warrant. The providers are required to pay for the SORM equipment and its installation, but they are denied access to the surveillance boxes.
The FSB has control centers connected directly to operators’ computer servers. To monitor particular phone conversations or Internet communications, an FSB agent only has to enter a command into the control center located in the local FSB headquarters. This system is replicated across the country. In every Russian town, there are protected underground cables, which connect the local FSB bureau with all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecom providers in the region. That system, or SORM, is a holdover from the country’s Soviet past and was developed by a KGB research institute in the mid-1980s. Recent technological advances have only updated the system. Now, the SORM-1 system captures telephone and mobile phone communications, SORM-2 intercepts Internet traffic, and SORM-3 collects information from all forms of communication, providing long-term storage of all information and data on subscribers, including actual recordings and locations."
They are still working on how to deal with social networks but see mass surveillance, threats, net filtering, structural Balkanization of the net and the amoral self interest of the big tech companies (including Facebook and Google) as the key drivers of the evolution towards a much more controlled future.