Monday, May 31, 2010

Why I give service

I have just returned from working in the kitchen during a course at the Northwest Vipassana Center. During one of the breaks I had a fascinating conversation with one of the center managers, who it turns out experiences service very differently from me. She asked that I record my thoughts, and this is what I came up with.

Serving is no fun – for me, at least. Serving a course is about stress, anxiety and fatigue, with a few happy moments when I wish the meditators well as I pass them by. There’s no joy in doing the work, as there is for some, and no joyful release at the end; only relief that it’s over. It’s pretty much like sitting a course, with the difference that I’m just banging my head against a wooden wall, not a brick one.

So why do I do it?

I do it because I think it’s good for me. Working in the kitchen amplifies my weaknesses, and makes it easier to see when and where I’m being unskillful. I come face-to-face with my frailties and failings, and hopefully end the course with another sliver of wisdom.

I do it because serving is a middle ground between sitting practice and living in the real world. Like developing any skill - think about playing a musical instrument - meditation requires hours of solitary practice every day, over decades. However, that practice is only the means to an end, which is to live better with, and for, others. Serving on a course helps me try out the skills I’m learning in a realistically stressful but safe environment. Things can’t spin too far out of control; I’m back on the cushion every few hours, with an opportunity to reboot and start again. And I’m surrounded by people of good will, with direct access to teachers if I need it.

And I do it to repay, in small part, the debt I owe to all those people whose service have made it possible for me to learn this technique, and sit courses. I was able to sit because someone else was in the kitchen; now it’s my turn.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Improving FCC filing metadata

On 10 May 2010 I filed a comment on two FCC proceedings (10-43 and 10-44, if you must know) concerning ways to improve the way it does business. I argued that transparency and rule-making efficiency could be improved by improving the metadata on documents submitted to the Electronic Comments Filing System (ECFS).

I recommended that the FCC:
  • Associate a unique identifier with each filer
  • Require that the names of all petitioners are provided when submitting ECFS metadata
  • Improve RSS feed and search functionality
  • Require the posting of digital audio recordings of ex parte meetings
  • Provide a machine interface for both ECFS search and submission

Opt-in for Memory

The Boucher-Stearns privacy measure tries to do many things (press release; May 3 staff discussion draft); too many, according to Daniel Castro at ITIF.
One of the issues it doesn’t tackle – and legislation may or may not be the solution – is the persistence of digital information once it has been collected.

In a NY Times context piece called Tell-All Generation Learns to Keep Things Offline, Laura Holson writes that members of the “tell-all generation” are becoming more picky about what they disclose. There’s growing mistrust of social networking sites, and young people keep a closer eye on their privacy settings than oldsters. Holson reports on a Yale junior who says he has learned not to trust any social network to keep his information private, since “If I go back and look, there are things four years ago I would not say today.”

I expect that this concern will grow beyond information collection to encompass retention. (That's already a big concern of law enforcement, of course.) Explicit posts (photos, status updates) will live forever, if for no other reason than sites like the Internet Archive. However, the linkages that people make between themselves and their friends, or themselves and items on the web, are less explicit – and probably more telling. These links are held by the social network services, and I expect that there will be growing pressure on them to forget these links after some time. Finally, there are the inferences that companies make from these links and other user behavior; their ownership is more ambiguous, since they’re the result of a third party’s observations, not the subject’s actions.

My bet is that norms will emerge (by market pressure and/or regulation) that force companies to forget what they know about us. For the three categories I noted above, it might work something like this:
  1. Posts: Retained permanently by default. Explicit user action (i.e. an opt-out) required for it to be deleted
  2. Linkages: Deleted automatically after a period, say five years. User has to elect to have information be retained (opt-in).
  3. Inferences: Deleted after a period, say five years, if user opts out; otherwise kept. This one is tricky; I can also see good reasons to make deletion automatic with an opt-in for retention.

However these practices evolve, it’s become clear to me that neither the traditional “notice and choice” regime nor the emerging “approve use” approach are sufficient without a mechanism for forgetting.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

New Ethics as a Second Language

In lecture 27 of the Teaching Company course on Understanding the Brain, Jeanette Norden observes that we seem to learn morality using the same mechanisms we use for learning language.

Newborns can form all the sounds used in all the languages on the planet, but with exposure to their mother tongue they become fluent in a subset. It eventually becomes almost impossible to form some of unused sounds, and the idiosyncrasies of their language seem natural and universal.

This makes me wonder about the difficulties an immigrant might have in learning the peculiarities of a new culture. I’ve definitely been confounded from time to time by unexpected variations in “the right thing to do” – and there’s really very little difference between the culture I grew up in and the ones I moved to as an adult. “Culture shock” may not just be language and customs; it probably involves morality, too, since every system of ethics is a mixture of universals and particulars.

Of course, that’s not to say that one cannot become fluent in an alternative morality. It might just be harder than a native “moralizer”, particularly one who has never had to learn "ethics as a second language”, might assume.

And traditionalists around the world who claim that wall-to-wall American media “corrupt the morals of our youth” are probably right: I'd guess young people pick up the ethical biases of American culture by watching movies and TV even more easily than they pick up English.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Negotiating the Price of Privacy

Kurt Opsahl at EFF’s time line of changes to Facebook’s privacy policies over the last 5 years tells me a story of a shifting power balance. (Thanks to Peter Cullen for the link.)

It’s a quick read, but in a nutshell: in 2005, the user controlled where information went. By December 2009, Facebook considered some information to be publicly available to everyone, and exempt from privacy settings.

I vaguely remember Esther Dyson describing privacy more than two decades ago as a good users would trade. That’s how I read the time line. It’s an implicit negotiation between Facebook and its users over the value of personal information (let’s call it Privacy, for short) vs. the value of the service Facebook provides (call it Service).

In the early days, the service had few users, and the network effect hadn’t kicked in. Facebook needed users more than they needed Facebook, and so Facebook had to respect privacy – it was worth more to users than the Facebook service was:
Service << Privacy
Since the value of a social network grows exponentially as the number of members increases, the value of the service S grew rapidly as membership increased. A user’s perception of the value of privacy didn’t change much; it probably grew a little, but not exponentially. Probably sometime around 2008, the value of the service started overtaking the value of privacy:
Service ≈ Privacy
Facebook’s hard-nosed approach to privacy (or lack of it) makes clear that it now has the upper hand in the negotiation. An individual user needs Facebook more than vice versa:
Service > Privacy
One take-away from this story is that the privacy settings users will accept are not a general social norm, but the result of an implicit negotiation between the customer and supplier. When a supplier becomes indispensable, it can raise its prices, in explicitly ($$) or implicitly (e.g. privacy conditions). Other services therefore should not assume that they can get away with Facebook’s approach. They can make virtue of necessity by offering better privacy protection – at least until the day when their service is so valuable that they, too, can change the terms.