Tag Archives: technology

The Social Media Dilemma

Woke up today morning and saw this piece on High Frequency Trading. I have already read Michael Lewis’Flash Boys and The Big Short which has kindled a strong dislike towards this HFT, not before dreaming about millions by doing it. When I hit this

We tend to understand the concept of actively using technology to achieve certain ends (exercising agency), but we find it harder to conceptualise the potential loss of agency that technology can bring. It’s a phenomenon perhaps best demonstrated with email: I can use email to exercise my agency in this world, to send messages that make things happen. At the same time, it’s not like I truly have the option to not use email. In fact, if I did not have an email account, I would be severely disabled. There is a contradiction at play: The email empowers me, whilst simultaneously threatening me with disempowerment if I refuse to use it.

my mind automatically went to one point of long time consternation – Facebook. With the recent reports of both Google and Facebook pushing for face recognition technologies and even people at MIT Technology Review are wondering what it means and how people take it, I am more spooked on the issue than I usually am.

The Dilemma

I am trying to setup something which requires inputs from a number of people intellectually, monetarily and personally. And one place where all these people could be reached out easily, coordinated, and followed upon is Facebook. There is no denying it. I have seen a lot of groups coordiante a lot of stuff over there before I deleted my account. It has become so ubiquitous in everyday lives of millions of people that people like me will be looked down as the ‘anti-vaxers’ of the digital connectivity. I am also finding it increasingly hard to explain why I don’t have account, more so when it comes to why I deleted it.

For most people the perceived threat of someone owning our identity in some distant place as one among the millions far outweighs the benefit of being ‘connected’ to friends and family.

The email empowers me, whilst simultaneously threatening me with disempowerment if I refuse to use it.

This sounds so much like

The Facebook empowers me, whilst simultaneously threatening me with disempowerment if I refuse to use it.

The compromise of having to let facebook’s scripts stalk me, monitor me, and feed me what it thinks is good for me in order for me to setup and run things I want to has resulted in a dilemma like no other.

Probable Ways Out

  • The old way: Restrain from going to FB and do things the old way. Which is call the first person you know, get to know about the next person and from him the next one. So on so forth. While it is entirely doable, it does involve retelling the same story multiple number of times.
  • Be the hypocrite: Let somebody else do the co-ordination on platforms like Facebook like celebrities do. I don’t think I am that wealthy or famous to hire a SoMe firm. It also involves being a hypocrite for using Facebook and calling it a bad thing.
  • One among the millions: Throw out all reservations and jump into FB. Let whatever hits the millions hit me.

All the three is equally straining for a variety of reasons. And is killing me.

 

People’s Mobile

Caution: This is a bit wild man.

Here is my idea.

Open a part of the spectrum used for mobile communication for public non-commercial use

Really!? What to do with it?

My plan is to run a community/volunteer/enthusiast/philanthropist sponsored mobile network which is free for everybody to use. That is, if you could bear the initial installation charges. If we could put enough towers in enough places, we could all talk to each other for free, send messages for free, access internet for free throughout our lives. And we can put an end to all this noise that projects messaging apps as technology disruption, we can engage in more serious pursuit that shout on the road internet for net neutrality, do away recharge coupons, payment gateways like PayTM, freeCharge etc., …… oh my, we can actually do away with a lot of unnecessary stuff.Then, we would have an open internet with all the bandwidth that the technology could offer -say “bye bye data plans”.

Wonderful!

Exactly. Isn’t this the best thing you have heard in a while.

Yay, I am the man from an utopian future.

Sadly this won’t happen – Money.

Net-neutrality. This is why.

This post is a reply to the previous post by me titled Why Net-Neutrality? or Why not tiered pricing?.

After a hour long discussion and debate with a couple of people, these are the things that tell me why net-neutrality is essentially a social issue and not a capitalist one. I am going to outlay the arguments that I made in the previous article and try to point out the flaws and get a better understanding.

1. Greed of companies like Netflix and YouTube

The flaw with the argument “since these services use the ISP’s pipe for their service, they owe a part of income to the ISP” is akin to arguing a runner ran through this road to win his marathon and thus owes a part of the prize to the local government.

The point that it is streaming that clogs the pipe is countered by the argument that it is precisely because of those services, the size of the pipe is getting bigger and definition of broadband internet getting revised to higher speeds.

2. The cost of usage

I have argued the one difference between electric company and ISP is the cost of usage. While an electric equipment doesn’t mean recurring income to the manufacturer, a web service gets an income. Thus there is cost involved in usage of internet services which the ISPs want a slice of.In short, the ISPs are greedy.

Because the initial cost for both the internet and electric connection are very similar. Replace the electric line with a coaxial or CAT line, replace the local transformers with switches and repeaters, replace the high tension substation transformers with the servers of ISP, we have almost exactly the same setup except only electricity is an utility and internet is not

3. More speed more money

I argued why would any ISP want to create a slow lane if they make more money for more speed / more volume. Simply put, why would there be a fast lane and a slow lane?

It seems that it is exactly for the same reason “more speed/volume more money”. In a situation when the ISP can more money why would he be willing to give out a connection involving the same initial costs for a low volume low income connection? The flaw here is assuming that volume/speed is limited and the ISPs are really worried about their precious resource from getting sucked up by the streamers. I should have known better.

Finally

I previously concluded,

I as a layman consumer is completely ok with the current state of affairs and don’t mind if the billing becomes usage based, or someone creates a fast-lane for those who pay more as long as the slow lane is at the mandated minimum speed, which is the present case anyways.

Though I still say the same, I would say it in fewer words – I want a neutral net, which is the present case anyways 🙂

Why Net-Neutrality? Or Why not tiered pricing?

Update: Kindly read the follow up article Net-neutrality. This is why.

I have genuine question. Why net neutrality? I know there are reams of pages of content answering the question, but I am asking from a completely lay man non-techie version of the question. Why? The only answer that I seem to get is – It protects the interests of the consumer.

Interest or Greed?

The current pricing model used by the internet service providers is something akin to an electric connection. They give you a line to use and bill based on the connection speed and the quantity of data or amount of time you spend online. The electric company doesn’t worry whether you use a geyser or lamp as long as you pay the bill. Similarly the present ISP models doesn’t care whether you stream YouTube or read Wikipedia. The analogy seems extremely apt, except for one difference – the cost of usage.

In case of an electric connection, you buy any equipment that you want to use and pay the cost of the hardware. The more you use the more the electric company gains, the equipment manufacturer gets nothing most of the time. Exceptions like cable TV exist, but again cable is another utility altogether and we will get into that shortly. But in case of the ISP, you buy services over its line which earns money for those services. In this case it is completely opposite; the ISP gains almost no money no matter how much you use any kind of service over their lines.
For example, using geyser on a daily basis could consume a lot of energy and prove to be great revenue for the electric company, whereas streaming movies 24×7 is going to benefit only Netflix of YouTube and does nothing to the ISP except choking their lines.

The ISPs this want to take a part of the money paid to the service as it also utilizes on their resource. The invention of thing like Fair Usage Policy (FUP) is a way to limit this choking of the lines.
So when companies like Google talk about net neutrality (against tired pricing), the real question is whether the company is really trying to protect the consumer or just trying to enjoy the free ride that it currently enjoys.

The Cable TV Pricing

From a consumer standpoint this is certainly against the interest because we don’t really want to pay more for certain services. It is time we visit the cable TV evolution and see what the consumer really has said and done about it.

Initially there were there was only one way of getting satellite TV – Using a Dish Antenna. The intial investment was huge. Then came cable operators, who charged a certain amount of fees for certain number of channels, no choices, all just paid an amount. After that came the Direct to Home (DTH) services replacing the cable TV operator with a corporate body. Until to this day we pay per channel, called packages. And the customer has hopped on merrily with some noises here and there. Nothing in the transition has affected the channels’ (services) revenue.

Applying the same route, we are currently in the cable operator state, where the ISP is giving us a cable, we pay an amount. If the model evolves into one which prices textual data, VOIP, and media streaming at different rates, like that of a channel based DTH pricing, and bills the consumer on what is consumed, a lot of people would might end up paying a lot more as well as a lot less. Just as I avoid all sports channels, I might avoid all VOIP usage. If I am programmer, most of my requirement is software package and code, there is no need for me to pay more. But people preferring YouTube to TV would pay a lot, and thus reduce revenue to business like Apple TV, Google TV, Netflix, etc., but taking away a share of the pie. So for me a consumer, paying on how much traffic I use seems as much legit as big truck paying more than car on a toll road, simply because I use more resource.

This argument so seems biased towards ISPs. What if things like the ones below, said in Wikipedia, happens?

From Wikipedia
Neutrality proponents claim that telecom companies seek to impose a tiered service model in order to control the pipeline and thereby remove competition, create artificial scarcity, and oblige subscribers to buy their otherwise uncompetitive services.

From HuffingtonPost
A fast lane would let some websites operate at higher speeds and essentially relegate many sites — likely smaller, less-moneyed ones — to a slower pace.

Where are the regulatory authorities who enforce mobile communication and telecommunication pricing? Why such an authority can’t be created and clear rules saying what could and couldn’t be charged drafted? Why can’t things like slow lanes be completely outlawed? Say we create a law which says Non-profit sites like Wikipedia, Khan Academy should never be charged (extra) even for streaming content and pricing can only be done on For-profit entities like YouTube and Netflix. Calls for making internet a utility are a step in this direction of regulation. Why would anyone really want to create a slow-lane if more speed and more data transfer results in more money for the utility provider?

So.,

The entire thing about raising hue and cry over differentiated pricing seems to be for only one reason – Greed.
The greed of the companies to make money. They pull us, consumers, into the issue by terrifying us that our bills would shoot sky high and ISPs will fleece consumer. If that is the real issue, I think it is better dealt by talking to (or even creating new) regulatory authorities, consumer protection agencies and other similar governmental organizations and certainly not by tactfully converting a purely capitalistic issue a social issue involving rights and freedom.

I as a layman consumer is completely ok with the current state of affairs and don’t mind if the billing becomes usage based, or someone creates a fast-lane for those who pay more as long as the slow lane is at the mandated minimum speed, which is the present case anyways.

Facebook Account Deletion

I just now deleted my Facebook account.

Why?

  1. Freedom – Day by day using it makes me feel as if someone is dictating me how and what I should be talking to people about. The rampant, out of the blue censors by law enforcement and judiciary are the reasons. Even though I have never been a part of any such action, the atmosphere is getting too toxic over there in that domain.
  2. Irrelevancy – Most of the content that I encounter on my timeline are completely irrelevant to me and the only content that I engage with are blogs like Lifehacker and posts of a set of very few friends, both of which I think I can do without having to endure a non-free environment.
  3. Privacy – It has been a great concern for me ever since I became aware of its importance and ethics. Somehow kept telling myself, nothing would affect me. I think underestimating risks is something I am unwilling to do these days after reading “Fooled by Randomness“.
  4. Paranoia – Closely connected to “Privacy” – I was always thinking what if someday I discover that all the stuff that I have shared is sold/shared to someone and that someone uses it for purposes I never suppose it to be? Am I planning murder? No. But what if someone frames me for it? I am NOT paranoid by nature, I walk 1 among the billion+ in the country. But again, not all billion+ walk around recording data about what they read, where they go and what they think.
  5. Narcissism – One of the biggest effect of Facebook on character is, I think, breeding narcissism. It breeds a kind of self importance and provides an easy sense of achievement and forces a person to project a personality, real or otherwise. This becomes especially stressful when considering the fact when one is connected to all sorts of people from high school friends to working colleagues. A few recent encounters with people has left a bad taste in  mouth about the whole “sharing” thing.
  6. Spam – Spam, spam, spam – there is just no end to it. I am generally very efficient in ignoring Ads and spam because all that I look for is content from people and never click any link other than blog-posts. But most of the time genuine and original content is very hard to come by and all sorts of false claims on history, technology, identity creep in along with celebrity, movie and all sorts of eye-ball catching stuff.

After considering all this, the most logical decision to make seems to be to leave the system and reduce a lot of responses that brain generates due to unnecessary stimuli.

Will I ever get on a social network again?

I currently do not have an answer to that. There are a lot of things to be considered as listed above and see how they play out to make a decision. With the current turmoil of internet censorship across the world, misuse of it as tools of destruction, authoritative control, capitalist bait holder, and as an enterprise looking to make money indirectly by using my data, I don’t think I am getting onto it (FB) any time soon. I specifically mean FB here because, there exists an alternate platform called Diaspora* which deals with all of my above concerns (okay, maybe not narcissism), but  jumping into such a platform is pointless if I don’t really have the people I want to interact.

Book – The Soul of a New Machine

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The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder is one of the best books I have read in my life. The book is a chronicle of how project Eagle came into being at the company Data Central and its progress. The most important thing about the book is it doesn’t chronicle the technological milestones, rather the people and their (let me say) soul.

One thing that really struck me is how those engineers involved were portrayed as human beings who were vulnerable, who feared, who were unsure yet persisted and how it was not a super-human who carried it forward. Having born so late into this world when computers were already ubiquitous, and the people who were involved in their development had already become cult idols, it struck me very differently, giving a grasp into the reality.

Personally speaking– I, for one thing, clearly understood the meaning of “bigger than oneself”. The looked back 7-15 years in my life and understand why certain things happened that way.

Some of the things that I highlighted while reading is:

Most Engineers, I think, consider themselves to be professionals, like doctors or lawyers, and though some of it clearly serves only the interests of corporations, engineers do have a professional code. Among its tenets is the general idea that the engineer’s right environment is a highly structured one, in which only right and wrong answers exist. It’s a binary world; the computer might be its paradigm. And many engineers seem to aspire to be binary people within it. No wonder. The prospect is alluring. It doesn’t matter if you’re ugly or graceless or even half crazy, if you produce right results in this world, your colleagues must accept you…

West usually left to work for a little after seven in the morning and set out for home a little less than twelve hours later. The drive took only about twenty minutes, but the distance he traveled couldn’t be measured that way.

Engineers are supposed to stand among the privileged members of industrial enterprises, but …. are not content with their jobs. Among the terms used to describe their malaise are declining technical challenge, misutilization; limited freedom of action; tight control of working patterns. No one who made it through the Eagle project could in fairness have raised such objections.

I think, there are actually far more important lines to note and I haven’t done it because I was enjoying it so much I didn’t want to spoil it by stopping to read and do highlighting.

E-Books & DRM for the Simple Man

What are these E-Books?

E-Books, in short for Electronic Books, are digital forms of Books. These were created, so that we all could read books in our personal computers, cellphones, tablet computers, or even dedicated devices like Kindle.

What is this DRM?

DRM, in short for Digital Rights Management, is a technology used by companies producing digital content in the form of music, ebooks, games, software ..etc., to restrict the misuse of the content. For example, you buy a software for your personal computer, but you want to install the same software in your friend’s computer, DRM helps in preventing you from doing it. Because, it is you who has paid and your friend cannot have it for free.

So what is it with pricing and DRM?

In a game situation, it is a all gain or all lose stance for the publisher because, if the game is good, more people want to play it, if it is bad, no one wants to play. The pricing and the DRM has to be perfect for the content creator-cum-publisher to make money. If the game is great and has no DRM, then it can be distributed over the internet and still end up as loss for the publisher.

In a book situation, it is a complex thing. Making it simple, the writer gets a amount of money to cover his bread if he gets a publisher to publish his book. The publisher gets to pay his bills if the retailer could sell more number of books than a threshold level, and finally the retailer gets to feed his family by taking a profit selling all kinds of books. So where does DRM and Pricing come into picture? Pricing comes into picture with the publisher, he has to set the correct price, so that all the three could benefit.

And DRM …

As you can see that it is publisher’s head ache to tune the pricing to sell more number of copies, so one would assume it is his work to set right the DRM as well. But that doesn’t apply to ebooks. The people who actually do it in case of e-books are the retailers like Amazon, Apple, and Flipkart.

Why is that?

It is because a publisher is NOT needed anymore. A publisher was need in the 20th century to get the manual work done, like proofreading, typesetting, sourcing paper, printing and selling. Perhaps a century or two back, there wasn’t any publisher. There were writers and printers, that’s all. It was the writer’s headache to sell his books. Coming back to the 21st century, in the digital era, there is no typesetting, no papers, no printing. The author proofreads and the retailer sells. Now all we have left in digital book scenario is the content creator and the retailer. And retailer decides the pricing, hence the DRM.

To give a real life example, the cost of Hunger Games Part 2 was $6.78 the moment after I bought Part 1 in Amazon, but dropped to $3.75 when I bought a month later. Now Amazon is trying to sell me Part 3 for some $9.45. (sigh) This is how retailers manipulate prices for gains.

Who benefits from this DRM?

Obviously the Writer and the Retailer.

Who is affected by DRM?

You and me. The people who read books.

How?

In order to understand how, first we need to see what a idle digital book could offer us.

To put simply, it offers seamless usage in all things digital. An idle ebook, could be read in any device you choose, can be annotated anywhere you want, can have any number of bookmarks, highlights, notes attached to any place in the book. You could buy a book and your whole family could read it at the same time, instead of waiting for turns. Instead of photocopying pages of your interest, you could take clean printouts with custom typeset and paste in your bedroom walls. You can read one page at home computer, next in phone as you commute and the next perhaps in your school/office tablet. And the possibilities are endless. Content sharing would be intertwined with our lives so much that we wouldn’t really be talking about books as objects as we see it today. Think about it, the entire collection of books in the state library accessible from anywhere by anyone and still be able to use it as his personal book. It is a book lover’s paradise. But mind it, all for a price and not free.

But DRM, in its present state, takes away your liberty to use the book the way you want completely and makes you use it how the retailer tells you to do it. All the fantastic things in the above paragraph will remain a fantasy with DRM. Moving a step down, the DRM that now exists removes whatever liberty that even printed books provided.

Here are the pain points:

  • Sharing: Physical books could easily be shared between family members, friends, co-workers, teachers and students. No longer. Either you will have swap the device itself that contains the book or buy buy separate copies. What we see as a convenience, the writers and publishers seem to see it as a nuisance. They have found a way to stop this sharing and increasing their sales through DRM. What we see as savings, they see it as potential losses. Which means, what the freedom that digital era brought, was usurped by the same digital tech called DRM. Now people cannot share the books they buy even with their kids.
  • Walled gardens: Multiple device sharing being a very important advantage of digital content, retailers are rolling out applications for all major platforms, so that the same book could be shared between multiple devices seamlessly. But the catch is, they will dictate how wee do it. For example, you cannot buy a book to be read from Amazon and read on a device other than one supported by Amazon. Which means, Amazon dictates how I use my book where. If you are going to buy books from multiple retailers, you are going to end up in multiple islands with a character and climate of their own; unlike a physical book which remains the same irrespective of the retailer.
  • Content: Using the content the way we want is one best thing digital technology gives us. You could use the same text in umpteen different ways in umpteen different contexts with very little physical effort. You could quote complete paragraphs effortlessly, print your favourite versus or even make posters of famous quotations typesetting as per your like. But it is all a no go with DRM. No copying content anywhere. One could of course make posters and small passage print outs with a bit of workarounds. But they again are based on the whims and fancies of the retailers. For example Flipkart doesn’t allow you to share more than 140 characters.
  • File Formats: Almost all the weapons of DRM are wielded by the hand called file format. The same book is sold in different formats by each retailer that can only be read by his software or device, which means, you cannot open a Flipkart book in Amazon device. Even in your phone you need to install two different software for books from different retailers and save any notes you make in two different software. All of which makes one wonder, whether technology is making our lives simpler or more complex. The worst of this multiple format nightmare is they cannot be converted from one to another easily bring more pain than ease.

With the above restrictions imposed by the retailers, the e-books actually look like a step back in the technology that a step forward in the life of books. It is not technology that is at fault here, open formats like EPUB exist solely for e-books, which could be used by any retailer. But retailers choose DRM over open standards, and that creates the mess for common people like us.

What does the future hold?

I am unsure how the future will unfold. There has to be a perspective change in the publishing industry for openness to occur and all the benefits of digital books to be harnessed. The view of seeing ebooks just like conventional books and fixing costs per unit sales and restricting their usage has to change. Just like software, books with better features could be sold for different prices, say a open format book would cost a dollar more than a retailer specific format. Provide additional formats, content copying abilities, multiple device support, etc., could be added at an additional cost. And that could create a new dynamics in book pricing. Or may be someone creates a open store where an author could publish his book and is free from all the retailer and DRM mess.

And I am hoping for such a day.