Letters From Somnolescent

Tools, Toys, and You and I
May 9, 2020

I live primarily online. It’s not exactly an exciting, healthy, nurturing existence. I won’t lie, this is partially my fault and partially circumstance, but it’s what I’ve got at the moment. As we continue to sit barricaded indoors, I’ve been thinking more about what here I rely on, why I rely on it, and whether it’s even especially reliable going into the future.

I’ve never been especially trustful of the internet. I know that sounds strange to say, given my footprint, but I’ve always considered it a tool and a toy, not an extension of my real life. Especially as the focus has gone from empowering humans to manipulating humans, it feels like our innate tendency to corral people has finally been realized in an abstract realm that we’ve arbitrarily come to need.

Yet, in other respects, it’s not so arbitrary; the original goals of the internet are arguably its most human. The direct communication, the sharing of information, the “web 1.0” stuff, as it’s been termed–not only has that been realized for decades, but it’s arguably the most healthy and noble uses of what we’ve built. They also happen to be the least complicated.

And regardless of how you view social media, modern technology, one thing is clear–it’s growing increasingly complicated.

Early last month, Tom Scott released a video called “This Video Has X Views”. The title is both a neat parlor trick and the point of the video; in Tom Scott fashion, the man wrote a script to replace the X with its current view count to make the point that systems both obvious to our eye and less so are subject to eventual destruction. It’s not a doomy video. Even when the script stops working, the video will still be there with its message clear: what you build now can affect people well into the future.

To illustrate his point, Tom uses the example of APIs, bits of exposed backend that sites could use to plug into other sites. In the late 2000s, APIs were big business. A million and one tinkerers lived for doing increasingly ridiculous things with the APIs of big websites. It wasn’t meant to last, unfortunately. Nowadays, toy sites like Twitter have become big, serious business, requiring nothing less than a full background check to let you in.

I took something else from his video though. It’s a reminder of mortality that we should be prepared for, and I don’t necessarily mean in the human sense. I’m a big believer in Occam’s razor: the simplest solution is usually the correct solution. We have no reason to convolute things unless we do. Throwing random technology at a problem rarely solves it, and the more complicated a system is, the less you can rely on it without highly-trained technicians.

We always talk about the internet being “forever”, and while it’s true in the sense that anything you send over it can and will be saved by someone else, it doesn’t ring true in the literal. It’s not hard to imagine a group of well-prepared people or a box of papers surviving the depths of Siberia, but a computer? Less so. Extreme conditions, human tampering, faulty code, component age, lots of moving parts–these are the kinds of systems ripe to break down. That’s not to say they aren’t useful, but that they require proper care. Technology should augment what we already naturally do and open up our world, not replace our old way of being.

Our world is increasingly run by these towers of duct tape, making our decisions and manipulating our reality, while humans continue to be the same fallible beings we’ve always been. As we should be, really; human nature is the baseline for our behavior and brings the highest good this world has ever seen. Problem is, we pretend the machines are any less fallible because they can calculate in floating point, and it bites us every day. Every errant system glitch and lost file is proof that we need to safeguard ourselves from our own technology.

If you need any more proof of the fallibility of computers, try reading through the code of the recently published Imperial College coronavirus epidemic model. This is the same model that proclaimed the death of millions of Americans and half-a-million Brits, the same one governments used to lock the world down. Yet, not only is the code genuinely badly written and thick with elseifs that rival Yandere Simulator‘s, but the model produces different results depending on the machine it’s running on, among other variables.

Why didn’t they notice? Because their code is so deeply riddled with similar bugs and they struggled so much to fix them that they got into the habit of simply averaging the results of multiple runs to cover it up… and eventually this behaviour became normalised within the team.

Yes, the team behind it said “fuck it” and simply ran the simulation multiple times, averaging the results and assuming there was a line of best fit somewhere. Consider now that the economy’s looking to crater over data we can’t even replicate in the first place and tell me we’re not building on quicksand.

My point isn’t about coronavirus, nor to pretend that computers are useless things. My point is simple: computers are tools and toys. You have digital backups of your things (I…hope), but why not analog backups? Printouts and hard copy of your work? Some kind of offline media in keeping your data safe? What about for communicating? Can you reach your friends another way? Your family? Or have you centralized it all in one fragile location that can be wiped out with a bad lightning storm?

In our real life and in our policy decisions, nothing is sure and things are likely to break. Having as few failure points as possible is the key, and where you can’t, safeguard. Backup. Plan ahead. For decisions that affect us all, use the principle of least privilege: the smallest body that can accomplish the task should accomplish it. Be as self-sufficient as possible.

I know for me, when I can get a certain Welsh girl over to the US, I’m going as offline as I possibly can. Not to say I’ll be gone, not to say mariteaux disappears off the visible internet…but being able to disappear if I want to, to be able to log out and not focus on it all if I want to? I think it’s a right we don’t afford ourselves often enough.

So if your ultimate reaction to all this navelgazing is to say “go outside”? Yes, I agree.

Tags: technology,


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