Week 154

Dog on a roomba! Also: a few additional thoughts on the NSA leaks and why we discuss it here.

In case you’re wondering why we’re continuously using our company’s blog to voice our concerns about the NSA revelations and government overreach, you have to understand how we ended up doing the job that we are doing and being company owners in the first place.

The web had a large influence on my overall socialization and on my understanding of the world as it works and of how I wish it would work. I was too young to participate actively in what happened during the New Economy, but when the first ripples of the Web 2.0 came to be, I was – mostly out of pure luck and genuine curiosity – at the right place at the right time. I met the right people and had the fortune of being taken into various communities that supported exploration and tinkering early on.

With the help of a community on IRC, I stopped using Windows about ten years ago and switched fully to Linux. By learning how to use this powerful technology, I acquired an understanding of the technologies that power the internet. One doesn’t need to be a developer to have the ability to understand how a system works (although it certainly makes it easier).

Later on, I started blogging around 2004 without knowing about the fuzz that was being made about it at first. For me, publishing on the internet wasn’t really new. Back than I didn’t make a distinction between having hourl-long discussions about the things that make the world work on various IRC chats and publishing with the help of a CMS. It was all “the web” for me.

Obviously, things have changed. We all developed a stronger awareness of what was happening and what we all have been accomplishing. I started to be more interested in the technology’s influence on human behavior than in the technology itself.

We all were of the web, not only on it.

The disillusionment with how the web is evolving started long before the Snowden leaks, but those are the most substantial ones. Yesterday, at JSConf, Alex summarized it quite adequately:

We’ve turned mankind’s greatest technical achievement into a lifestyle magazine that spies on you.

Dang. That is exactly how many people, those who are of the web, feel these days. Somebody came along and pulled the rug from under our feet. Things that where taken for granted are not so anymore.

It is time to take back what is ours.

Whatever political or economical consequences might arise from those leaks, the real implications are still hard to grasp. Many people in the technology community are ready to do whatever it takes and attack the struggle for power head on and however this will materialize itself, it will shape the work of this company too, because it will shape us as people.

But beware, this is a story without a clear ending. While Silicon Valley will still try to determine for a long time how new technologies come into the world, it shouldn’t be regarded as an archetype anymore. Technology as industry has been corrupted by the same things that it wanted to disrupt in the first place. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at how those tech giants have responded so far to those leaks. Or take a look at how those big shot technology investors are talking on the record about what should be done.

With all that being said, I don’t want to end this week note with those dark scenarios. So I will finish with a Vine of a dog riding on a Roomba instead.

Have a nice week, everybody. Oh, and if you are interested in learning how to make your Mac a bit more secure, come by our office at Rosenthaler Str. 34/35 on Thursday at around 5pm. We will show you how to encrypt your emails, how to use Virtual Private Networks (VPN) and the TOR browser bundle and other little tweaks that won’t stop the NSA completely, but will make their dragnet surveillance a little harder.

Week 152

A few thoughts on the current state of affairs in the debate about the NSA leaks by Ed Snowden and the reluctance and inability of Germany’s government do anything about the revelations.

Yesterday, Germany witnessed the debate between the two candidates to become the next Chancellor of Germany. Mrs. Merkel, the incumbent against Mr. Steinbrück, the candidate from the SPD, Germany’s largest opposition party today.

With that, we also witnessed the perceived state of the NSA / GCHQ / Snowden debate. Germany’s society made it painfully clear that it is not prepared to punish the ruling administration for not preventing the misdeeds that have been committed by foreign – and probably national – intelligence agencies. As Sascha Lobo noted in one of his many columns for Spiegel Online: what else needs to be revealed that would convince anybody that what has been happening should be punishable for all parties involved? All of what have been revealed so far should have been enough to get people in masses to the streets and should have been noticeable in polls for the upcoming in election September 22nd. Instead, we get nothing.

Obviously people have different priorities and I’m the first one to say that being 30 does make me less anxious about topics as the pension while others are more immanently affected by those. I know that and I’m trying to develop a sensitivity to accept that as a viable argument.

Yet, what I find myself thinking more often than not is the fact that financial security seems to trump any democratic principles and values. At this point, the free market mechanics managed to make people believe that capitalism equals democracy. In an economically shaken Europe, Germans seem to be content with the fact that at least in this uncertain times they are not measurably paying with their wallets.

Another, significant, aspect in this topic is its sheer complexity. I’m tremendously grateful to people like Ed Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. They are prepared to risk everything to guide us into the world of unimaginable corruption. While they are busy doing that, we need a media that is prepared to guide us to a point when we are not only talking about what has been happening, but also speaking up – clearly and unambiguously – about what needs to be done to stop this. We see little, if anything of this. Maybe that needs to change. Maybe the role of journalists in the 21st century needs to be more clearly articulating what needs to happen instead of document what has happened.

This is not something that should be taken lightly. It all starts with the “I don’t have anything to hide”-argument and some people might even think that in times of global unrest the things the intelligence community is doing might actually be a good thing. I don’t. And not only because I was born in a state that oppressed its citizens and minorities for the sake of the greater good while only few really profited from it. It’s also not because I live in a part of Berlin which only 25 years ago was still under the iron fist of the same regime, one that had no regard for its citizens, privacy or the right for self expression.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” said somebody a long, long while ago. While I’m not sure that we are literarly speaking about hell, one does not need to be a historic scholar to see many precedents in history in which excessive disregard for individual rights, privacy by the powerful few did not lead to the greater good. “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.”, said Joseph de Maistre. We, as society, might be getting what we deserved. Question is: is it really what we want for the future? If this is the state of things to be what do we want to leave the next generation with?

I’m writing this all while sitting in a train back to Berlin. It’s a monday after a 90 minute long debate between two people who are aspiring to become the most powerful person in the nation. A debate which had 4 moderators and in all of that we heard little more than a few questions on this topic without a clear, articulable message of what will happen. We heard a chancellor who full knowingly tried to reframe the discussion into being about something that it is clearly not and we heard a Mr. Steinbrück who seems to hope that this topic could cost Mrs. Merkel more points on election than it actually will.

On top of it all, there is an elderly women standing across from me in the train. Standing, not because they are no seats, but because she doesn’t dare to sit. She is afraid that she will be killed by CIA agents, she’s rambling about various known and unknown conspiracy theories, she shouts about her experience with the Stasi and how the world is unraveling. While she is clearly ill, she unfortunately doesn’t sound crazy at this point.

It is up to us all to do something. When we can go about our day, discuss new projects, discuss new opportunities, debate the flatness of design on iOS7, we also can debate and act and stand up to the people who fill that they are in charge now.

A good Monday to you all.

What we read this week (28 June)

Infrastructure fiction, life lessons from Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, Booz Allen and its relationship with US intelligence, barriers for growth in emerging markets and using data more effectively in marketing.

Quote of the week

Focusing on a clearly identified destination is highly overrated.

Adam Brault

We owned the devices, but they owned the servers. They won.

Shoshana Zuboff

Articles of the week

  • An Introduction To Infrastructure Fiction
    Writer, futurist and infrastructure researcher Paul Graham Raven in a piece for Superflux, in which he describes how the thought processes of design fiction can be used to work on serious, though perhaps less sexy, infrastructural problems, with the goal of creating a more sustainable way of living. Some great argumentation, complete with helpful Douglas Adams metaphors.
  • Six Things We Learned From Patagonia’s Founder Yvon Chouinard
    A refreshingly direct Chouinard on making the world better through pessimism, the importance of connecting to nature and taking things slow, avoiding consumerism and cheating, and other life lessons.
  • Booz Allen, the World’s Most Profitable Spy Organization
    More on the Snowden saga, this time with a portrait of the company he worked for, Booz Allen, its cooperation with government intelligence agencies, and how this relationship inadvertently made room for events like the recent leaks to happen.
  • Emerging Markets, Hitting a Wall
    “Sustained, meteoric growth in emerging economies may no longer be possible,” as this New York Times article explains, as a result of increased automation, global supply chains, greater economic gaps and aging populations, and why this all means that developing countries may never fully develop.
  • The ‘Big Data’ Fallacy
    Eoin Townsend makes the case for a operating system of sorts for marketing, which would combine Data Management Platforms (DMPs), Demand Side Platforms (DSPs) and other sources of data to ensure that the data isn’t simply collected, but put together in such a way as to be useful in developing strategies.

Week 142 – Working in Times of Strangeness

It’s an essential part of building a business for the 21st century to deal with the “strangeness” of our times.

We featured this quote in some of our presentations:

You can’t help but realize, that the next 10-to-40 years are going to be really strange. Totally strange. And… that rate of strangeness seems is going to get exponentially more strange. And the problem we have right now is the people that are in charge of this stuff don’t understand a) how strange it’s going to be, or b) the form of the strangeness itself.

Ben Hammersley

And then we have days like yesterday that are best summed up this way:

Twitter today reads like a @GreatDismal novel in realtime, and reality unfolds like a Jason Bourne plot in realspace #EdwardSnowden

– Juha van ‘t Zelfde (@juhavantzelfde) June 23, 2013

I find myself going back and forth between different layers in my everyday life these days. As we mentioned in previous weeks, work is plenty. Currently, our greatest challenge is how to get all those projects done. Then I open my Twitter app and a completely different world opens up in which our worst apprehensions are coming true. The US and UK governments have found ways to track and collect our complete digital communications and are chasing the guy who told us around the world.

So there are tons of work and tons of things to think about and I’m asking myself how to behave in a situation like this. Do I just close all input channels, put on some music and drown myself in work to wait and see what will come of it all? Do I immerse myself in every little news item that emerges, join and start endless conversation about what this means and where it will take us? Should I move all our company data away from any of those US platforms that are involved in PRISM or would that make our work impossible? What role should privacy and data security play in my consulting work? This is but a fraction of the questions lingering at the fringes of our minds at the moment.

There are no easy answers these days and we embrace that. It’s an essential part of building a business for the 21st century to deal with the “strangeness” of our times. To immerse and retract, to drown and zoom out, to adapt and resist. We move back and forth to keep the balance and to avoid the two extremes we fear the most: lethargy and panic. Practically, this means that we prepare a workshop or develop a strategy deck in the morning and write an essay on the problem of the commercialization of technology in the afternoon.

What we’re finding right now to be most important for us is to organize ourselves even more then before. With so much work, input and conversations going on, we need fixed points to regroup and re-plan. Inspired by the agile development system, we’ve started doing quick stand-up meetings in the morning and the afternoon to quickly discuss what each one of us is working on in the next hours. This also helps our minds to keep on track and to feel more accountable for how we spend our days. It’s just one very practical tool to keep organized.

I don’t know exactly why this is like that, but somehow all the “strangeness” happening around us is invigorating. Everything is uncertain, nothing is determined. I feel extremely privileged to be in a position where this is a blessing, not a curse. How dare I not make a move.

So, how do you adapt your work in times of strangeness?

Week 140 + 141

While we are busy churning away multiple projects, Igor takes a closer look at an aspect of how to deal with the revelations made by Edward Snowden’s leaks.

Busy two weeks. We are dealing with multiple concurrent client projects and planing new ones. When a project got postponed, we used to fall out of productivity rhythm. Now, we just turn our head to the next big todo. We like how things are working out these days.

What didn’t help to stay on track where the revelations about the NSA. Those kind of stories are right up our alley. They a broad, many people provide valuable perspectives and we are very keen to understand it all. So here is our take on what is happening right now.

Revelations about the scale of the surveillance state have been making their rounds on every media channel. The leak by Edward Snowden seem to have started something that should have been going all along: real reporting on the issues. We’ve been seeing multiple articles emerge that look deeper into what seems to be an extraordinary setup by the US government to spy both on its own citizens as well as on the rest of the world.

We live, once again, in times in which the future that we’ve used to read about in science fiction books is not only upon us, but is even scarier.

But I want to focus on one specific aspect in this situation. Not many years ago, the most convincing argument why companies like Google can’t screw with privacy too much was: it’s very easy to switch from one service to another. Especially when it’s a search engine. As we can see today, this is not the case anymore. Many of the big players in the technology business managed to integrate themselves into our life in a similar manner as the financial institutions did. Technology is now also too big too fail. To switch away from Gmail, Dropbox and Facebook means severing oneself from an ecosystem that many other, small vendors use to make their product work. The APIs that we hailed as saviors of the open web, those who helped create those ecosystems in the first place, are now coming to hunt us.

There are, of course, alternatives to all those services. Open source alternatives and ones that provide the user with a lot more security and privacy. And yet, convenience and the existence of those proprietary ecosystems make it very hard for people to make the switch. This is both because the lock-in mechanisms have been designed to keep user in, but it also because the open, more secure alternatives aren’t making their argument in the most effective way.

For a long time, I have been a strong supporter of the open source movement, used to run my machines on Linux and kept away from proprietary solutions as much as possible. That changed a couple years ago. Not because my views changed necessarily. I just discovered that for this stage in my life, I want convenience and “just works” more.

The same applies to security. As an informed user, I can take care of quite of few precautions. I’m mostly only going online through a VPN, I have a Tor browser installed and I could reactivate my GPG key. But this is not a scalable solution. Even after the revelations about the extend of NSA’s capabilities to tap into our data, we will not see mass adoption for those security measures.

We obviously can not rely on our governments to protect us. We also can’t rely on the companies who host and own our data to prevent governments on accessing it as they see fit.

In a world in which we still need to fight arguments like “I don’t have anything to hide”, who will be able to provide both new questions and the ways to answer them that are adequate to the world that we live in?