Category Archives: blog

Updates (2)

I feel like I haven’t had a lot to say about open source or, in general, tech for a while. From another perspective, I have a whole lot of heady things to say about open source and technology and writing about it seems like a questionable use of time when I have so much other writing and reading and job hunting to do. I will briefly share the two ideas I am obsessed with at the moment, and then try to write more about them later.

The Defensible-Charitable-Beneficent Trichotamy

I will just jokingly ha ha no but  seriously maybe jk suggest calling this the de Blanc-West Theory, considering it’s heavily based on ideas from Ben West.

Actions fall into one of the following categories:

Defensible: When an action is defensible, it is permissible, acceptable, or okay. We might not like it, but you can explain why you had to do it and we can’t really object. This could also be considered the “bare minimum.”

Charitable: A charitable action is “better” than a defensible action in that it produces more good, and it goes above and beyond the minimum.

Beneficent: This is a genuinely good action that produces good. It is admirable.

I love J.J. Thomson example of Henry Fonda for this. For a full explanation see section three at this web site. For a summary: imagine that you’re sick and the only thing that can cure you is Henry Fonda’s cool touch on your fevered brow. It is Defensible for Henry Fonda to do nothing — he doesn’t owe you anything in particular. It is Charitable for, say if Henry Fonda happened to be in the room, to walk across it and touch your forehead. It is Beneficent for Henry Fonda to re-corporealize back into this life and travel to your bedside to sooth your strange illness. P.S. Henry Fonda died in 1982.

I don’t think these ideas are particularly new, but it’s important to think about what we’re doing with technology and its design: are our decisions defensible, charitable, or beneficent? Which should they be? Why?

The Offsetting Harm-Ameliorating Harm-Doing Good Trichotamy

I’ve been doing some research and writing around carbon credits. I owe a lot of thanks to Philip Withnall and Adam Lerner for talking with me through these ideas. Extrapolating from action and policy recommendations, I suggest the following trichotamy:

Offsetting harm is attempting to look at the damage you’ve done and try to make up for it in some capacity. In the context of, e.g., air travel, this would be purchasing carbon credits.

Ameliorating harm is about addressing the particular harm you’ve done. Instead of carbon credits, you would be supporting carbon capture technologies or perhaps giving to or otherwise supporting groups and ecosystems that are being harmed by your air travel.

Doing Good is Doing Good. This would be like not traveling by air and choosing to still help the harm being caused by carbon emissions.

These ideas are also likely not particularly new, but thinking about technology in this context is also useful, especially as we consider technology in the context of climate change.

Vaccination

This is about why I decided to get vaccinated, and why that was a hard choice.

Note: If you have the opportunity to get vaccinated, you should. This is good for public health. If you’re worried about being a bad person by getting vaccinated now, you’re probably not a bad person. This is my professional opinion as a bioethics graduate student. Anyway, onward.

Not Great Reasons to Not Get Vaccinated

Reason one: Other people need them more.

There are people have a much higher risk of dying from COVID or having long term consequences. I don’t want to get a vaccine at the expense of someone who has much worse projected outcomes.

Reason two: I live a lowish risk life.

I have a low/medium risk lifestyle. I go to the grocery store, but I don’t do things like indoor dining. I have drinks with friends, outside, generally maintaining distance and trying to be polite and careful. I go on walks or sit in parks with friends. I have three people I see inside, and we don’t see anyone else inside. Through my school, I am tested regularly — though I am behind right now, I’ll admit. I work from home, I take classes on my computer. My podmates also work from home.

There are other people who live much higher risk lives and don’t have a choice in the matter. They work outside of their homes, they are taking care of other people, they’re incarcerated, their children go to school in-person. Those people need vaccines more than I do — or at least I feel like that’s the case. Even though I know that, e.g., parents won’t be able to get vaccinated unless they otherwise qualify, I still feel like I’d be doing them wrong by getting vaccinated first!

Reason three: I don’t want to deal with other people’s judgement.

When New Jersey allowed smokers to get vaccinated, wow, did people go off on how unfair that is. I’ve seen the same rhetoric applied to other preexisting conditions/qualifications. Boo.

Great Reasons to Get Vaccinated

I had a few good conversations with friends I respect a lot. They convinced me that I should get vaccinated, in spite of my concerns.

Reason one: I ‘m scared of COVID.

I actually find this the weakest of my reasons to get vaccinated: I’m scared of COVID. I get migraines. I downplay how bad they are, because I know other people who have it worse, but they’re terrible. They’re debilitating. COVID can increase your risk of migraines, especially if you’re already prone to them. They can last months. Boo. I’m terrified of Long COVID. A part of my identity comes from doing things outside, and this past year without regularly swimming or going on bike trips or going up mountains has been really rough for me. For my own sake, I don’t want to get sick.

Reason two: I want to protect the people in my life.

Being vaccinated is good for the people in my life. The current conversation I’ve heard is that if you’re vaccinated, you’re probably less likely to spread COVID to those around you. That sounds great! I’m not going to change my lifestyle anytime soon to be higher risk, but I like knowing that there’s an even smaller chance I will become a disease vector.

Reason three: Seriously, everyone should get vaccinated.

Vaccinations are key to fighting COVID. I am not an epidemiologist (though I did once consider become an epistemologist). I’m not going to pretend to be one. But they tell me that vaccines are really important, and the Intro to Public Health class I took agrees. We need to vaccinate everyone we can, everywhere in the world, in order to create the best outcomes. We don’t want some vaccine-resistant COVID variant to show up somewhere because we were jerkfaces and prevented people from getting vaccinated. Medical professionals and experts I talked with told me to get vaccinated as soon as the opportunity arose. Maybe they said this because they like me, but I think they’re also concerned about public health.

So you’re ready to get your vaccine!

I’m so excited for you! Sumana Harihareswara wrote this great blog post about getting vaccinated in New York City, though is probably relevant for New York State in general. Please check out your state’s guidelines and maybe do a little research or creative thinking about what counts. This Twitter thread Sumana shared talked about ADHD as a qualifying condition under “developmental and learning disorders.”

Your doctor might be super helpful! Your doctor might also not be helpful at all. When I talked to mine they didn’t know much about the vaccine roll out plan, criteria, or procedures around proof of medical condition.

Some vaccine sites also have waitlists for extra doses. A friend of mine is on one! For these, you generally don’t have to meet the qualification criteria. These are doses left at the end of the day due to canceled appointments and things like that.

A lot of states have useful Twitter bots and web sites. We have TurboVax. It’s great. Big fan. These are usually appoints for the day of or the next day or two.

 

 

Transparency

Technology must be transparent in order to be knowable. Technology must be knowable in order for us to be able to consent to it in good faith. Good faith informed consent is necessary to preserving our (digital) autonomy.

Let’s now look at this in reverse, considering first why informed consent is necessary to our digital autonomy.

Let’s take the concept of our digital autonomy as being one of the highest goods. It is necessary to preserve and respect the value of each individual, and the collectives we choose to form. It is a right to which we are entitled by our very nature, and a prerequisite for building the lives we want, that fulfill us. This is something that we have generally agreed on as important or even sacred. Our autonomy, in whatever form it takes, in whatever part of our life it governs, is necessary and must be protected.

One of the things we must do in order to accomplish this is to build a practice and culture of consent. Giving consent — saying yes — is not enough. This consent must come from a place of understand to that which one is consenting. “Informed consent is consenting to the unknowable.”(1)

Looking at sexual consent as a parallel, even when we have a partner who discloses their sexual history and activities, we cannot know whether they are being truthful and complete. Let’s even say they are and that we can trust this, there is a limit to how much even they know about their body, health, and experience. They might not know the extent of their other partners’ experience. They might be carrying HPV without symptoms; we rarely test for herpes.

Arguably, we have more potential to definitely know what is occurring when it comes to technological consent. Technology can be broken apart. We can share and examine code, schematics, and design documentation. Certainly, lots of information is being hidden from us — a lot of code is proprietary, technical documentation unavailable, and the skills to process these things is treated as special, arcane, and even magical. Tracing the resource pipelines for the minerals and metals essential to building circuit boards is not possible for the average person. Knowing the labor practices of each step of this process, and understanding what those imply for individuals, societies, and the environments they exist in seems improbable at best.

Even though true informed consent might not be possible, it is an ideal towards which we must strive. We must work with what we have, and we must be provided as much as possible.

A periodic conversation that arises in the consideration of technology rights is whether companies should build backdoors into technology for the purpose of government exploitation. A backdoor is a hidden vulnerability in a piece of technology that, when used, would afford someone else access to your device or work or cloud storage or whatever. As long as the source code that powers computing technology is proprietary and opaque, we cannot truly know whether backdoors exist and how secure we are in our digital spaces and even our own computers, phones, and other mobile devices.

We must commit wholly to transparency and openness in order to create the possibility of as-informed-as-possible consent in order to protect our digital autonomy. We cannot exist in a vacuum and practical autonomy relies on networks of truth in order to provide the opportunity for the ideal of informed consent. These networks of truth are created through the open availability and sharing of information, relating to how and why technology works the way it does.

(1) Heintzman, Kit. 2020.

Endorsements

Transparency is essential to trusting a technology. Through transparency we can understand what we’re using and build trust. When we know what is actually going on, what processes are occurring and how it is made, we are able to decide whether interacting with it is something we actually want, and we’re able to trust it and use it with confidence.

This transparency could mean many things, though it most frequently refers to the technology itself: the code or, in the case of hardware, the designs. We could also apply it to the overall architecture of a system. We could think about the decision making, practices, and policies of whomever is designing and/or making the technology. These are all valuable in some of the same ways, including that they allow us to make a conscious choice about what we are supporting.

When we choose to use a piece of technology, we are supporting those who produce it. This could be because we are directly paying for it, however our support is not limited to direct financial contributions. In some cases this is because of things hidden within a technology: tracking mechanisms or backdoors that could allow companies or governments access to what we’re doing. When creating different types of files on a computer, these files can contain metadata that says what software was used to make it. This is an implicit endorsement, and you can also explicitly endorse a technology by talking about that or how you use it. In this, you have a right (not just a duty) to be aware of what you’re supporting. This includes, for example, organizational practices and whether a given company relies on abusive labor policies, indentured servitude, or slave labor.
Endorsements inspire others to choose a piece of technology. Most of my technology is something I investigate purely for functionality, and the pieces I investigate are based on what people I know use. The people I trust in these cases are more inclined than most to do this kind of research, to perform technical interrogations, and to be aware of what producers of technology are up to.

This is how technology spreads and becomes common or the standard choice. In one sense, we all have the responsibility (one I am shirking) to investigate our technologies before we choose them. However, we must acknowledge that not everyone has the resources for this – the time, the skills, the knowledge, and therein endorsements become even more important to recognize.

Those producing a technology have the responsibility of making all of these angles something one could investigate. Understanding cannot only be the realm of experts. It should not require an extensive background in research and investigative journalism to find out whether a company punishes employees who try to unionize or pay non-living wages. Instead, these must be easy activities to carry out. It should be standard for a company (or other technology producer) to be open and share with people using their technology what makes them function. It should be considered shameful and shady to not do so. Not only does this empower those making choices about what technologies to use, but it empowers others down the line, who rely on those choices. It also respects the people involved in the processes of making these technologies. By acknowledging their role in bringing our tools to life, we are respecting their labor. By holding companies accountable for their practices and policies, we are respecting their lives.

COVID and Reflections on Jessica Flanigan

One  of the points Flanigan makes in her piece “Seat Belt Mandates and Paternalism” is that we’re conditioned to use seat belts from a very early age. It’s a thing we internalize and build into our understanding of the world. People feel bad when they don’t wear a seat belt.(1) They’re unsettled. They feel unsafe. They feel like they’re doing something wrong.

Masks have started to fit into this model as well. Not wearing a mask feels wrong. An acquaintance shared a story of crying after realizing they had left the house without a mask. For some people, mask wearing has been deeply internalized.

We have regular COVID tests at NYU. Every other week I spit into a tube and then am told whether I am safe or sick. This allows me to hang out with my friends more confident than I would feel otherwise. This allows me to be closer to people than I would be otherwise. It also means that if I got sick, I would know, even if I was asymptomatic. If this happened, I would need to tell my friends. I would trace the places I’ve been, the people I’ve seen, and admit to them that I got sick. I would feel shame because something I did put me in that position.

There were (are?) calls to market mask wearing and COVID protection with the same techniques we use around sex: wear protection, get tested, think before you act, ask consent before touching, be honest and open with the people around you about your risk factors.

This is effective, at least among a swath of the population, but COVID has effectively become another STD. It’s a socially transmitted disease that we have tabooified into creating shame in people who have it.

The problem with this is, of course, that COVID isn’t treatable in the same way syphilis and chlamydia are. Still, I would ask whether people don’t report, or get tested, or even wear masks, because of shame? In some communities, wearing a mask is a sign that you’re sick. It’s stigmatizing.(2)

I think talking about COVID the way we talk about sex is not the right approach because, in my experience, the ways I learned about sex were everything from factually wrong to deeply harmful. If what we’re doing doesn’t work, what does?

(1) Yes, I know not everyone.

(2) Many men who don’t wear masks cite it as feeling emasculating, rather than stigmatizing.

“Actions, Inactions, and Consequences: Doctrine of Doing and Allowing” W. Quinn

There are a lot of interesting and valid things to say about the philosophy and actual arguments of the “Actions, Inactions, and Consequences: Doctrine of Doing and Allowing” by Warren Quinn. Unfortunately for me, none of them are things I feel particularly inspired by. I’m much more attracted to the many things implied in this paper. Among them are the role of social responsibility in making moral decisions.

At various points in the text, Quinn makes brief comments about how we have roles that we need to fulfill for the sake of society. These roles carry with them responsibilities that may supersede our regular moral responsibilities. Examples Quinn makes include being a private life guard (and being responsible for the life of one particular person) and being a trolley driver (and your responsibility is to make sure the train doesn’t kill anyone). This is part of what has led to me brushing Quinn off as another classist. Still, I am interested in the question of whether social responsibilities are more important than moral ones or whether there are times when this might occur.

One of the things I maintain is that we cannot be the best versions of ourselves because we are not living in societies that value our best selves. We survive capitalism. We negotiate climate change. We make decisions to trade the ideal for the functional. For me, this frequently means I click through terms of service, agree to surveillance, and partake in the use and proliferation of oppressive technology. I also buy an iced coffee that comes in a single use plastic cup; I shop at the store with questionable labor practices; I use Facebook.  But also, I don’t give money to panhandlers. I see suffering and I let it pass. I do not get involved or take action in many situations because I have a pass to not. These things make society work as it is, and it makes me work within society.

This is a self-perpetuating, mutually-abusive, co-dependent relationship. I must tell myself stories about how it is okay that I am preferring the status quo, that I am buying into the system, because I need to do it to survive within it and that people are relying on the system as it stands to survive, because that is how they know to survive.

Among other things, I am worried about the psychic damage this causes us. When we view ourselves as social actors rather than moral actors, we tell ourselves it is okay to take non-moral actions (or in-actions); however, we carry within ourselves intuitions and feelings about what is right, just, and moral. We ignore these in order to act in our social roles. From the perspective of the individual, we’re hurting ourselves and suffering for the sake of benefiting and perpetuating an caustic society. From the perspective of society, we are perpetuating something that is not just less than ideal, but actually not good because it is based on allowing suffering.[1]

[1] This is for the sake of this text. I don’t know if I actually feel that this is correct.

My goal was to make this only 500 words, so I am going to stop here.

Updates

We are currently working on a second draft of the Declaration of Digital Autonomy. We’re also working on some next steps, which I hadn’t really thought about existing before. Videos from GUADEC and HOPE are now online. We’ll be speaking at DebConf on August 29th.

I’ll be starting school soon, so I expect a lot of the content of what I’ll be writing (as well as the style) to shift a bit to reflect what I’m studying and how I’m expected to write for my program.

Contact Tracing

Contact tracing is a necessary step

We’re entering the period of local pandemic (whether we’re ready or not) during which we open up our communities, track where we go and who we see, rigorously rest, and then retreat to our isolation should anyone test positive for Coronavirus.

Contact tracing — the process of keeping track of who you might be putting at risk of infection should you become sick — is a necessary step in increasing socialization. When done as an individual, this is record keeping. When doing it through computers, it is surveillance. We could track where we go through rigorous record keeping, which I think would not work out so well for me personally. Alternatively, we could deploy or commandeer a mobile app that would take care of keeping track where everyone is and when they’re there. [1]

[1]: Not everyone has a mobile phone. Let’s acknowledge that.

Contact tracing is surveillance

Computer assisted contact tracing is surveillance, and it will likely be carried out by corporations and governments. It’s information being gathered on our activities and associations, stored and analyzed, and used to report on the social and physical networks we build. This is a flagrant violation of our rights to privacy, to freedom of association, to freedom of assembly. Who we see and where we go will be turned into data points, stored and monitored.

Monitoring has a chilling effect. When people know they are being monitored, it affects their behavior. This is not just that bad behavior is deterred (and it generally is not), but people who would otherwise do harmless or even benevolent things do not, because they are afraid of the side effects it will have on them.

We will get used to surveillance. Whenever we lose some aspect of our privacy, we eventually get used to it. We stop considering it wrong or even an inconvenience, and are less inclined to argue about future erosion of our rights and privacy. When we become acclimated to the loss of a right, when we normalize it, we don’t even think to ask for it back. Rarely do we succeed in rolling back oppressive policies.

Free software is not enough to fight surveillance

Whenever we are being required to use a piece of software, the relevant organizations call for the demand that that software be free: released under a licensing that makes the code available, usable, shareable, and modifiable by anyone. This is a a reasonable request to make when dealing with an otherwise harmless piece of software, however contact tracing contains the potential to be weaponized against individuals and whole populations, carries with it chilling effects, and if, in fact, just another piece of surveillance technology. Even free technology can be unethical technology.

We must create a solution that protects people.

It is not enough to condemn using a technical solution – we must create one that protects the privacy and rights of those using it. Mobile technology is wonderful and we have this amazing opportunity to leverage the fact most of us carry around little computers when we’re on the move. We have the chance to create something that empowers us, giving us the freedom to leave our homes and begin to open our lives up again while building in fail safes for when people begin to get sick.

Software using a free license is part of this story, because it will create accountability for the creators of that software, as the working parts will be verifiable by third parties. However, it is imperative that the software itself is also designed to respect the fundamental physical and digital rights of the people using it: we must protect their anonymity, we must protect their freedom of movement, freedom of association, and freedom of speech. We must give them the opportunity to move through this world knowing they are being protected, not surveilled.

Iron Cocktail Club: Maximillian Affair

The Iron Cocktail Club challenges participants to make a riff on a cocktail based on whatever they have in their homes. I picked the Maximillian Affair because it was highlighted on PUNCH as part of their Tip Your Bartender initiative. In thanks, I tipped the Drink staff for each person in attendance.

The drink is marked by bright acidity, floral notes, and a subtle smokey bitterness. Punt e Mes is a vermouth, somewhere between Rosso Vermouth and Campari. Cazadores Blanco is a silver tequila, notable for its citrus notes, herbal aromas, and smooth finish.

Ingredients

1 ounce St-Germain
1 ounce Cazadores Blanco tequila
½ ounce Punt e Mes
½ ounce lemon juice

Combine all ingredients in a mixing tin and shake with ice. Strain into a chilled coupe.

My Recipe

1 ounce chamomile simple syrup
1 ounce Casamigos Repesado
¼ ounce Aperol
¼ ounce sweet vermouth
½ ounce lemon juice
3 dashes orange bitters

Combine all ingredients and shake with ice. Strain into a chilled mason jar.

Thoughts

I have no clue how I was going to approximate elderflower liquor, which to me is floral with some flavor qualities I also find in grape skin, grapefruit, and lychee. I settled on making a chamomile simple syrup to bring the floral and the sweetness. I thought about adding some rose water or orange blossom water, but decided against it for this case. Most participants used a Campari/vermouth mixture to replace the Punt e Mes. I’m out of Campari, so I used Aperol instead, which I generally treat as interchangeable with Campari in a pinch. I added the orange bitters to bring in some of the citrus the Cazadores Blanco claims to have.

Iron Cocktail Club: Davy Jones’s Locker

The Iron Cocktail Club challenges people to make riffs on cocktails based on whatever they have in their homes at the time. I picked this recipe out of the book Winter Drinks.

The actual recipe

2 oz. gold rum, ideally Appleton Estate Reserve Blend
1 oz. fresh grapefruit juice
1/2 oz. cinnamon simple syrup
1/4 oz. fernet-branca
1/4 oz. fresh lime juice
Garnish with a lime wheel

Mix all ingredients and shake with ice until chilled. Strain into a wineglass or coupe. Garnish with a lime wheel.

My recipe

2 oz. Sailor Jerry Rum
1 oz. Medium Pulp Orange Juice
1/2 oz. cinnamon simple syrup
1/4 oz. Campari
1/4 oz. store bought lime juice

Mix all ingredients and shake with ice until chilled. Strain into a small mason jar. Do not garnish.

Some thoughts

I really liked this drink! I thought the Campari brought a nice bitterness without the menthol (that I dislike) from fernet-branca. The orange juice was definitely a lot sweeter than grapefruit would have been. One of the other people that evening referred to my use of store bought lime juice, from a little squeezy green lime, as “the most offensive part.”