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Dinner with a Statistic

December 17, 2010 Leave a comment

My younger son, Evan, turned five yesterday. Each year we let our boys pick a restaurant for their birthday dinner. Evan always picks Benihana. He likes to watch the chef cook our food at the table, and artfully toss a shrimp tail on top of his chef’s hat and in his shirt pocket. It’s a performance.

When you go to Benihana if you have only four people, you share your table with another group. At our table were three young women and a newborn baby in an infant car seat. The restaurant is down the street from Piedmont Hospital, and I’m guessing the Mom had just checked out of the maternity ward, and was celebrating with her friends on the way home. The baby looked only a day or two old.

The young women called over the waiter, and asked for the children’s menu. For a micro-second I thought, “they’re ordering food for a new baby??” My second thought was, “That kids’ menu is for people twelve and under! What are these young women doing trying to get away with ordering the kids’ meal?” But then I looked at them more closely, and it dawned on me. They were certainly lying about their age, but not by much. They were probably 14 or 15.

You can’t help paying attention to people at your same table at dinner. The young women (or girls) laughed and gossiped over dinner. They each pulled out their cell phones at least five or six times to get and receive texts. They hassled the waiter that Benihnana’s Americanized version of Japanese food wasn’t Americanized enough for them.  They protested, didn’t the waiter hear them when they asked for no vegetables? They acted, in short, like typical teenagers.

As we went to leave, I congratulated the Mom and told her how beautiful her baby boy is. They all wished Evan a happy 5th birthday. But all I could think about was what lays in store for their boy, and what his 5th birthday will be like. And the girls’ birthdays, when they turn 15 or 16.

My PhD student Betsy DiSalvo and I run a program called Glitch Game Testers, designed to help economically less advantaged urban youth choose to pursue higher education in computer science. I hear about our teens’ struggles directly and indirectly all the time. But I have the privilege to almost always see them at their best, in a context that makes me hopeful for their futures. I’ve always been happy that we’re trying to help. I left dinner last night despondent that we’re not doing enough. You read about the statistics, but you don’t often have dinner with them.

Categories: kids

“Zones of Domination”

December 4, 2010 1 comment

In 2000, science fiction author Neal Stephenson gave an inspiring talk at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP) conference. He entitled it “Zones of Domination.”  In the talk, he told the story of a whistleblower at the Hanford Nuclear Reactor. In the “big brother” model of authority, there is one entity and it is irredeemably evil. In Stephenson’s story, he followed our heroic whistleblower as forces from one federal government agency tried to frighten and falsely entrap him, but then the police and courts (local and federal) helped him resist and prevail. Stephenson’s point is that there is not one authority, but many. None are irredeemably evil. And the interesting activity is in the areas of overlap.

Roger Clarke posted some notes on the talk. He summarizes:

Big Brother Threat Model	The Domination Systems Threat Model

one threat			many threats
all-encompassing		has edges
personalised			impersonal
abstract			concrete
rare				ubiquitous
fictional			empirical
centralised			networked
20th century			21st century
irredeemable			redeemable
apocalyptic			realistic

(Roger Clarke, http://www.rogerclarke.com/DV/NotesCFP2K.html#Steph, 2000)

In much of the rhetoric about the Wikileaks incident, it seems to me that people are using a naive “Big Brother” model of government. The Government is one thing, and it is irredeemably evil. We can come to a more nuanced understanding of the situation by adopting a Zones of Domination model. There is not one univocal government–there are many interacting entities. None are irredeemable. The enemy is bureaucracy and opacity. The key to achieving just ends is increasing accountability and transparency within and between branches of government.

In the end, what we have is the hardest research problem in Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) one could imagine. And the most important. How do we increase transparency within and between branches of government? How do we do that and at the same time keep sensitive information secure? The presence of the Bradley Manning’s of the world makes this critical problem orders of magnitude harder.

Categories: CSCW, ethics, privacy

Why Wikileaks is Wrong

December 2, 2010 19 comments

I’m surprised to see entirely reasonable people I know pondering whether the Wikileaks release of diplomatic cables was ethical. Is this like The Pentagon Papers, they ask? I’m puzzled because to me it’s obviously not. And anyone in my undergraduate “Computers, Society, and Professionalism” class can tell you why.

As part of our class discussion of professionalism for software engineers, we review criteria for whistleblowing.  Our textbook, Ethics for the Information Age by Michael Quinn, offers these suggestions and insights. My teaching notes say:

  1. Work within the system first–there’s usually another way.
  2. Misguided protests can be damaging too–make sure you’re sure.
  3. Help people save face.
  4. Think clearly about what really matters and look for compromise.

Quinn quotes Richard De George’s five questions to ask before whistleblowing:

  1. “Do you believe the problem may result in ‘serious and considerable harm to the public’?
  2. Have you told your manager your concerns about the potential harm?
  3. Have you tried every possible channel within the organization to resolve the problem?
  4. Have you documented evidence that would persuade a neutral outsider that your view is correct?
  5. Are you reasonably sure that if you do bring this matter to public attention, something can be done to prevent the anticipated harm?”

(De George, quoted in Quinn fourth edition, p. 429).

De George says that if you answer yes to the first three questions, you may consider whistleblowing. If you answer yes to all five, you may have an ethical obligation to whistleblow. Of course these are written from the point of view of an employee considering reporting wrong doing in their company to outsiders, but the criteria still hold.

What serious harm to the public is Wikileaks trying to prevent? In what ways have they tried to work within the system first? It all doesn’t add up. On the other hand, the release of The Pentagon Papers quite clearly meets these criteria.

There are all kinds of negative consequences of the release of this information. Ignoring political implications of the specific content, the most serious consequence is a likely decrease openness and sharing within the US government. People will spend more time being paranoid, waste effort on more elaborate security procedures, and be less able to collaboratively make sense of what is going on in the world, and develop a coherent strategy. I believe in the good faith of the US government and the sincere intentions of our civil servants to make the world a better place for all nations. But even assuming you are the deepest cynic who doubts the US’s basic intentions, you can’t seriously believe that an increase in our cluelessness will help, can you? Regardless of your political leanings or nationality, this is a negative outcome for everyone.

p.s. And I really wish they wouldn’t call it “wiki.” This has nothing to do with wikis.

 

Addendum: Wikileaks vs. Bradley Manning

As folks point out in the comments, I think my problem is more with Bradley Manning (the person who released the information) than with Wikileaks.

Categories: ethics
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