Social Panic Attacks and Technology

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting blog post exploring why some technologies cause moral outrage or panic and some don't.

Technology and Moral Panic

Why is it that some technologies cause moral panic and others don’t? Why was the introduction of electricity seen as a terrible thing, while nobody cared much about the fountain pen?

It is a curious topic and working in technology in Libraries, I encounter some form of this panic on almost a daily basis.  The other day I tweeted a link to Eric Hellman's piece on the changing needs of library data and one of the first comments I got was an accusation of wanting to remove all humans from the library process.   I find I repeat some form of that conversation over and over again on almost a daily basis.  

Given that experience I'm not sure I just have a niche culture that reacts different or if I disagree with the WSJ author as to what generates panic about technology. 

More than our relation to space, time and people.  I think it's more about how big a contrast something is to the script we've written for ourselves.  Most people achieve a perspective on their life that ensures them what they do day to day is valuable and I think most go so far as to convince themselves of some form of moral "rightness" to not only what they do but how they do it.  It make sense that we do that and it's a valuable tool for getting through any particular day and getting up the next morning.  

I'd argue that it's the fundamental discomfort with changing not just a routine, but the thinking that has built up to make us accept that routine that is liable to cause panic.  When you challenge someone's basic precept of how they are going to get through their day, this seems to be a natural reaction.  

So I'm not sure if I disagree with the post or if I'm arguing semantics.  I think boiling it down to time/space and social interaction though subtracts from the basic concept that it's about security and a predisposition to creating a Panaglosian reality for our lives.   We're all in some form of a Cult of our Current Life and react violently to being reprogrammed.

The last part about the context of Comedy in all this I would also disagree with.  I think think Comedy is a social control mechanism, I think it's more of a social reinforcer.  Comedy is an important part of the assimilation of an idea in any culture, but I don't think it controls the idea as much as it makes it easier to process and assimilate.  Again, perhaps this is semantics but I think it's an important distinction.

Maintaining and Open Relationship with Google

Google's mission is to "Organize the World's Information" and they do a rather smashing job of it as long as they alone are doing it.   Even though they do a better job than most as staying open, there is still a significant risk when putting all your eggs in the Google basket and few options for backing out.   Particularly with the rise of Google+, Google Music beta and other such services going all in on Google could prove a big liability for individuals and companies in terms of being able to shift to new or better services as they emerge or just re-establish ownership over your own content.  Every business would do well to act with caution in opting for the convenience of any service as that convenience would too easily transform into abducting the ownership of your content.   I would suggest that losing control of your content in a world where ideas and content are a commodity is the same as losing control of your life or business.

With a little forethought however some convenient ways exist to both leverage the convenient services offered by Google and remain managers of your information.  The Digital Liberation Foundation launched it's "Google Takeout" service, that allows the harvesting and export of your information from various Google services into open formats.  Open formats are the key to keeping your content flexible and mobile and in a world where 5 years is an entire era of information management practices, this is critical to surviving and thriving in the modern world.  The group is starting with export features related to Google services but plan to expand their ability to other services as well.  I assume (hope) this means Facebook and Yahoo! based services but only time will tell.

Even with groups like this helping to keep information open and portable a healthy dose of caution is advised when flirting with services providers like Google.  Grass-roots efforts are fragile at best and ultimately the pressure needs to be on the big companies to keep their standards open.  A world that encourages the generation of ideas and helps communities evolve is what will bring the kind of innovation we're all seeking and like it or not our practices and the good faith of major corporations are going to heavily influence our success at this. 

They Shoot URLs Don’t They?

I've had a rather lengthy and interesting blogging life these last nine years and stopped over the last few for a number of reasons.  A backlog of 2400+ posts however have given me a rather interesting dataset to test when it comes to URL persistence and as I'm going over old posts I find and example of URL persistence that seems very backwards to me.

I use to run a funny little site for Gamespy called Paragon City Hall, just a community based site for an as-then-un-release game called City of Heroes and posted about that site back in 2002

In another post around the same time I reference my depression over a news story from Reuters that made me want to kill myself.  Over dramatic yes, but hey, it was 9 years ago so give me a break.

The amazing thing to me is that the Reuters story results in a dead link, nothing, no forward, no search suggestion, nothing.  The Paragon City Hall link however STILL WORKs, even though I shut the site down 8 years ago and it's unlinked by the network.

What kind of world do we live in when RPGPlanet has better URL persistence than Reuters?

Although I came to this realization later than I should have in my career, Content in the web is a Social Contract.  Tim Berners-Lee made this case quiet eloquently in an article I cite quiet frequently and while I might not expect Gamespy to understand it, of all agencies Reuters should get it.  They should have gotten it perhaps before even TBL posted anything about it in 1998.

A particular fear creeps over me when an agency like Reuters is letting links expire like that and offends me as an adopted digital librarian.   (They found me floating down a bitstream in a whicker basket and took me in as their own)

Let's hope these agencies realize are better about it 10 years from now than they were 10 years ago but honestly I'm not that confident about it since even today.  Reuters seems better from their URL structure though that hashed ID in the slug makes me a bit concerned.

I think I might sit down this weekend and write a quick script to see how many of the links reference in my blog over the last 9 years are still resolvable.  Could be interesting.

Gunshots by Computer

The Pentagon issued a much needed policy on cyber-attacks against the U.S. today, putting it in the same category as any other attack on the infrastructure.  Linked and quoting the opening below from the AFP for reference…

US 'to view major cyber attacks as acts of war

The Pentagon has adopted a new strategy that will classify major cyber attacks as acts of war, paving the way for possible military retaliation, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.

The newspaper said the Pentagon plans to unveil its first-ever strategy regarding cyber warfare next month, in part as a warning to foes that may try to sabotage the country's electricity grid, subways or pipelines.

Every nation is eventually going to have to express a policy related to cyber-warfare but this is less than half the picture.  It's not enough to just issue a policy related to acts against the country and we're going to struggle culturally with what we're ethically comfortable with in terms of launching cyber attacks.

The world breathed a collective sigh of relief when the STUXNET worm infected Iranian uranium enrichment plants, setting their nuclear program back a several years.  The mysterious originators of the virus were applauded for their innovation and service done to the world.  Following the pentagon policy however, this is an act of war and had Iran retaliated as such would they have been within their rights under international law?  That doesn't feel right of course but I think it expresses the fact that we're going to have to fully realize the implications of any policy related to cyber-attacks.

One of the great benefits of the internet and the information age is that it allows individuals or small groups to act on a scale previously reserved for governments and industry.  With trans-global groups like Anonymous acting with the power of governments this is going to get particularly difficult to enforce.  Who do you hold accountable for their acts in terms of your cyber-warfare policy?  Does a nation act against another because a large portion of Anonymous users are in a particular country?  Socially these kinds of movements aren't so different from from trans-national groups like Greenpeace or, in the worst case scenarios, terrorist organizations.

Philosophic debate aside, the first line of defense is really going to be individual IT professionals and IT shops.  Following best practices is the best defense for any shops on any scale but in a world of corner-cutting and outsourcing this generally does not rise high in the priority stack for most organizations.   Having contingency plans for backups, offline/off-site backups, offline service continuity plans and the like are all incredibly important for any organization to be able to recover after a large scale attack.  A well crafted emergency plan can be the difference between a temporary service outage and putting an organization out of business.  For Academic Libraries like my own it's particularly critical because it means the loss of potentially unique or irreplaceable information.  

A well crafted contingency plan for libraries would mean they can still function in terms of their collection on a day to day basis.  Provided servers, discovery tools and the like are able to be firewalled off from the outside world it's likely even online catalogs and digital repositories can maintain access from internal computers and systems and that most digital services can still be available on-site.  The trend in libraries of hosted and aggregated services though make us particularly vulnerable to the realities of cyber war.

Only time will tell and the early nature of these realities mean we're likely in for interesting times ahead.  Innovation and organization discipline are our only real defense.  It's our responsibility to advocate for it though and in that sense the Cyber-War began a long time ago for all of use.   Fight the good fight everyone.