My interview for Israel’s Haaretz, in English

Published: Wed 07 May 2014

Context

I was invited to Tel Aviv to give a workshop and public lecture, as part of the Print Screen festival. While there I was interviewed by Ido Kenan, a prominent technology and culture journalist, for Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper.

The interview was conducted in English but translated and published in Hebrew. It was presented in a broader article on Critical Engineering and work within that frame.

The original Haaretz article is here (Hebrew, paywalled) and here (Hebrew, open).

I’ve tidied up my responses a little (they were written on the run) and published them on this blog, for your interest (and my records).

Interview


People traditionally viewed technology in two opposing ways: A great threat and a great opportunity. It seems to me that in recent years, the pendulum is swinging violently towards the threat. What do you think?

I’d agree. An endemic feeling in the developed world today is that we’ve lost control of technology.

This anxiety isn’t new in itself, however. The Luddites were 19C opponents to the introduction of ‘labour saving’ machinery in the textile industry during the Industrial Revolution, anticipating the impact it would have on their field and quality of life. Today however these fears are much more general, fuelled by the complexity of the numerous and overlapping technical elements of our increasingly engineered environment; engineering we depend upon, work with and express ourselves through.

To explain what I mean here let’s first consider a Gramophone, the ‘MP3 player’ of its day.

Merely by looking at it we find clues as to how it works as all its inner functionality is expressed outwardly. We see a crank on one side and note that if we turn it, providing kinetic energy into the system, the platter supporting the record begins to turn. The record itself sits under a needle that bobs up and down as it moves over tiny grooves, tracing a long spiral toward the center. This is our storage medium. All the while we hear sound coming from the horn and can guess that by the horn’s widening, conical shape it is an amplifier, literally making the sound ‘bigger’ by way of its form.

Now consider an iPod nano. On opening that object up (no doubt breaching its warranty) we are immediately met with complexity and abstraction. Almost no-one you or I know would be able to tell you precisely what all of those tiny components do. Many would not even recognise the battery (the energy source) lest of all where the music resides… For most the device is a black box, opaque and magical, whose complex inner functions sit behind an impervious skin of interface metaphors.

With this in mind we can consider the gramophone a extroverted and transparent work of technology whereas the iPod is secretive, opaque and masked.

It is the (increasingly) technical complex, closed and abstract nature of modern technology leaves many feeling dis-empowered, even as that same technology is sold on the basis of the opposite. More so, tech industries want us that way, recognising that consumer ignorance has a significant market value; it’s better for their bottom line that we just just shut up, use their devices as intended and don’t ask questions.

This itself manifests as a lack of control and is actively implemented by those that make much of the techology we buy and use. Not only do the majority of devices we use ship without schematics or technical manuals (opportunities to learn) but we’re increasingly punished for opening them up for study; whether that means breaching a warranty or perhaps even heavily fined for unlocking or jail-breaking a device.

When we talk about loss of control in this scope we’re also talking about a loss of ownership because the right to own is the right open, re-purpose, appropriate, study, repair and also ruin. These are rights that come with a bicycle or record player but less and less with ‘high-tech’ objects.

Couple these tensions with a seemingly endless supply of scandals surrounding broad and all penetrating state surveillance of citizens, often directly exploiting ignorance of intrinsic risks, and a deep, disquieting chill sets in: are we being played?

What is your approach to technology, information security, data and privacy?

As recent events have shown, the same basic rights most of us defend in in public space - the right to privacy (when desired), freedom of association and anonymity - have and are being actively undermined on the Internet by state and corporate interests.

I’ve suspected this to be the case for quite some time, like many that closely follow the information security world or work with computer networks. And so in the early 2000s I started running my own servers, decentralising network services I depend upon away from companies, especially those whose jurisdictions I don’t live within. Servers with high-load are expensive to have at home and so over the years I’ve invested in local businesses I choose to trust to host the machines for me, here redistributing network emphasis closer to where I live.

Today, they provide me with my own encrypted email, Virtual Private Networks, encrypted ‘cloud’ (I call it a ‘fog’), web-server, VoIP/chat/file-sharing etc. All of these services I provide to friends and family, our own little village on the Internet with a campfire around which we chat. When we communicate we do with the risk to privacy of a chat in the forest. It’s feels very good indeed.

Further, rather than trusting a company’s word as to the security of their proprietary software, I only run open-source software on my machines, software that by design encourages code inspection and security auditing by myself (as a user) and others.

Of course this is all very well for someone actually interested in the world of computer networking, but it would foolish to assume that most have the time, skills (or inclination) to learn how to decentralise network infrastructure in their favour. To that end I (along with my colleague Daniil Vasiliev) teach practical skills to those with motivation but no prior knowledge. This, beginning with a shift from ‘user’ to ‘creator’ of computer networks, prepares them for building their own private and ‘networked villages’, offering access to those that they work with and/or care about.

What does it mean to you to be what you call a critical engineer?

A Critical Engineer is any technically agile person who, through their work, seeks to expose and critically engage the influence of engineering on our environment and ourselves.

S/he understands that the more we depend upon a given work of engineering the more we are engineered by it and as such Engineering must be disenfranchised from a sole service to industry, it must be critically engaged as a creative and volatile material for practice and discussion.

Engineering, in other words, is too important to be left solely in service to utility.

Can one be a critical engineer with practical engineering only, without entering the artistic field? How?

Most certainly! I have rarely met an engineer that hasn’t expressed an idea to use their technology in an impractical but creative and/or critical fashion.

Engineers are, contrary to the stereotype, as full of good ideas and strong opinions as the rest of us. Some Engineers seem completely unaware, however, that they come across as frustrated artists and activists, trapped in the closet of practicality. It’s the addiction to Utility among the Engineering disciplines that’s the problem here, an identity dependence forged and asserted by markets and industries rationalised within pressures of time and cost.

Engineers can change the world. They do already, but not with reflexivity or (public) discourse. This, I believe, has deep societal, cultural and environmental impacts.

It seems like you perceive technology as a weapon, and call upon the public to use that weapon against governments and corporations. Do you believe this militaristic approach is the right one? Do you feel it’s effective?

I don’t perceive technology as a weapon, no, although it can be shaped as such. Technology, after all, is just about anything we create to use. Because we couldn’t catch and kill animals with our own hands we had to invent weapons to help us kill them, ones that later helped us kill each other. Because raw meat typically made us sick we needed to master fire before we could eat it, and so on.

I wouldn’t suggest a general approach of directly attacking governments and corporations is at all wise, either. Rather, I do believe that when such entities are found to be actively exploiting our ignorance, trust (or both) - pushing new and closed technology onto us all the while - then we are fools not to do something about it.

There is no conspiracy here. If you let someone take from you and don’t do anything about it you are letting them know they ought to try to take more next time. Just as we do in the corporeal domain we need to learn to look after ourselves when living through and with technology, especially when on private property - which is where we are when we’re using almost any service on the Internet today.

To these ends education is the first transformative step; skilling up and teaching others. The second is decentralisation. The third is encryption, encryption, encryption.

What can people who are not engineers do to support the causes of the critical engineers?

That’s a difficult question, strangely enough! I ought to have a ready response to any offer of help but on a practical level I suppose that might comprise inviting us to teach a workshop at your organisation, buying or commissioning a project and best of all, funding some research.

Great questions. Many thanks,

Julian Oliver


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