Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"In Dreams Begin Responsibilities"

Let us put the polemic aside and accept, just for the moment, some of the premises of what I yesterday called "new utopianism." Rather than agonizing over the narrow view of technocentrism or the threat of a "new serfdom," let's just try and look down the road being proposed to us. In fact let us concentrate on one particular part of the vision, which JP Rangaswami just went to great lengths of clarify over on confused of calcutta:

An integral, essential part of the web as it is today is its writ ability, its “liveness”. When you comment on a blog or add an entry to Wikipedia, what you are doing is uploading text. It is no different from what you do when you contribute a photograph to Flickr or a video to YouTube.

This writ ability is key. It is what allows conversations to take place, learning to take place, democratised innovation to take place, culture to form and morph. It is what makes today’s web what it is.

You don’t have to participate. But you must have the right to. That is what makes today’s web different from yesterday’s web. Any organisation which seeks to gain value from today’s web needs to understand this. The web is two-way. So when you want to take advantage of YouTube, you need to understand this two-way-ness. And be part of it.

This morning Tom Espiner of CNET News.com released a story that may turn out to indicate the consequences of these "virtues of writability" in both organizational and personal settings. The story is about how, once again, the development of malware is keeping up with the development of the technologies on which it preys:

Google is warning Web users of the increasing threat posed by malicious software that can be dropped onto a computer as a Web surfer visits a particular site.

The search giant carried out in-depth research on 4.5 million Web sites and found that about 1 in 10 Web pages could successfully "drive-by download" a Trojan horse virus onto a visitor's computer. Such malicious software potentially enables hackers to access sensitive data stored on the computer or its network, or to install rogue applications.

Google's report (PDF: The Ghost in the Browser: Analysis of Web-based Malware), published last week, said the rise in Web-based malicious software has been aided by the increasing role that the Internet plays in everyday life, along with the ease in setting up Web sites.

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, said Google is highlighting a worsening trend and "a considerable problem" for businesses and individual Web navigators.

The point I wish to make is that, as it becomes easier to create new content for the Web (by virtue its "writ ability"), it will also be easier to create sites that are vulnerable to attack. Students of history know that this is hardly a new story. Some of us even remember the first time Usenet got spammed (and spam has been with us, in a variety of guises, ever since).

Hence my invocation of Delmore Schwartz in my selection of title. Yes, we have the dream; and there are all sorts of paths connecting the dream to the reality of the Web. However, the evangelists never seem to get around to talking about the responsibilities that are contingent on those resulting realities. When the Kathy Sierra story first broke, my immediate reaction was to return to the Declaration of Independence and revisit the question of what our rights are and how those rights should be secured. Looking back I realize that the real issue at stake concerned this "right to writ ability;" but what had been overlooked was that, if this right was to be "secured," what individuals and/or institutions would be responsible for that security? I do not believe that this question was ever answered in all of the discussion ensuring from Ms. Sierra's experience, even though it forced us all to stare into the abyss of the consequences of our utopian visions. Furthermore, I believe that the lack of progress probably has to do with the fact that none of us (not just the technocentric evangelists) have either the inclination or the will to talk about responsibility.

There is a sad irony here. As I previously reported, my reaction to the Kathy Sierra story was to try to start a conversation about governance; and this provoked a counter-reaction to focus on the problem of "getting identity right." The irony is that, in any social setting, responsibility is one of the key factors that determines identity! The wizards of LambdaMOO knew this, and they took their responsibilities very seriously. The most important element in Espiner's story is not the proliferation of malware but that Google undertook the study, because that indicated the responsibility they feel for the safety of the likes they provide to anyone using their search facilities. In other words their corporate identity is at stake unless they at least recognize, if not act upon, the need to take responsibility for the malware problem. Wikipedia, on the other hand, has certainly been confronted with questions of responsibility but does not appear to have given much attention to those questions (at least not yet).

My concluding point is that, to go back to my original premise, we do not have to look very far to see where some of these utopian roads may lead us. My guess is that most of us will not like what we see. Unfortunately, my other guess is that very little will be done about it; and the corollary to that guess is that, when something is done, it may well undermine many, if not all, of the virtues towards which the utopians have been striving.

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