Education and the Future of the Internet

I just read Jennifer Granick’s Black Hat keynote.  I highly recommend it.  I want to focus on one thing that Granick unpacked.  In discussing the history of technology law, she mentioned numerous instances from the present and past where policymakers propose and make law and/or policy even when their understanding of the technology and its history is poor.

A particularly salient example is the renewed call for law enforcement encryption backdoors.  I  have yet to find any technical experts who even think such a thing will work, never mind be a good idea.  Unfortunately, many of the policymakers who will decide this issue are not known for their technical acumen.

Looking at the big picture, the question is something like this: “In a democratic society, how much do policymakers and the public at large need to know about technology in order for society to make informed decisions about the policies and laws that govern it?” Unless the answer is “almost nothing,” we aren’t doing what we need to do.

Consider computer survey courses for undergraduates.  They are almost always tightly focused on technology as tool.  How do you send an email or make a spreadsheet?  As I think about it, this makes quite a bit of sense.  One must understand at least what a piece of technology can do before one can have a very thoughtful discussion about what it ought to do and not do.  Unfortunately, that second discussion is rare.

For example, a discussion of remote device kill and wipe functionality points out their value if keeping sensitive data out of the hands of bad actors is more important than recovering a lost or stolen device. It does not, however, address the question of whether the device manufacturer, the wireless carrier the device uses, or the government should be capable (by design) and/or allowed (by law and policy) to trigger a kill or wipe without the device owner’s consent and/or knowledge.

A discussion of the history of the Internet leads Granick to the almost inevitable comparison of “hacker” culture, with its emphasis on tinkering and openness, and the expectations of safety and turnkey operation that more recent Internet arrivals expect.  As this year’s Beloit Mindset List points out, traditional college freshmen don’t remember a time before online shopping at Amazon. Accordingly, Internet culture for a large subset of the population is about viral videos and Facebook memes, not free software and innovation at the edge.

This conversation has been going on and off at least since Anil Dash’s The Web We Lost. (text) (video) Is the gentrification of the Internet inevitable — perhaps even desirable?  If not, how do we teach about historical online culture to encourage thoughtful discussions about what aspects of that culture are worth preserving and how we might preserve them?

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