Is shadow work ruining the job market?

A recent episode of the Every Little Thing podcast discusses the rise of self-checkout machines. It’s a fascinating tale, one that I would have never guessed started over 100 years ago with the opening of the Piggly Wiggly chain.

Self-checkout is a commonly used example of the impending threat of automation. I know I personally worry that robots in the form of advanced self-checkout machines are robbing my kids of the future first jobs they’ll be searching for in the next 5 or so years.

Well the episode ends with an interview with author Craig Lambert who has a totally unique take on the self-checkout process. He believes that the self-service economy is a system wherein we are performing unpaid work.

When we use a self-checkout, robots haven’t replaced a worker, we are replacing the workers ourselves. He’s completely correct! A self-checkout at the grocery store is effectively a complicated cash register, it doesn’t do much more than a regular cash register would do. As the self-checkers, we do all the work ourselves. We scan. We bag. We move the money.

It’s incredible, my mind has been blown!

I’ve embedded the episode here:

The show full show is here.

 

Reconsidering Net Neutrality

When Net Neutrality concerns started to rise up 5 – 10 years ago, it seemed like an open and shut case. Obviously we want the net to remain neutral, but at what cost?

The Internet is humanity’s most powerful instrument of free speech and commerce, legislation that has power over the content of internet traffic has the potential to impact our speech and pretty much everything we do.

It is extremely important that we are extremely sure we want governments to have legislative power over content. Maybe we should get down from our soap boxes to really make sure we’re getting behind the right cause here and we’re not pushing for something we’re going to regret.

In the beginning…

The original hysteria surrounding net neutrality in the mid-to-late-00s was a reaction to throttling and network management practices ISPs were implementing at the time. Bittorrent  and video streaming were gaining momentum, eating up larger and larger heaps of bandwidth and ISPs weren’t having it. They enacted network policies to throttle certain types of packets, limiting our ability access content.

Us nerds weren’t having it! We believed we should be able to access anything on the internet we damn well pleased. We cried chicken little.

If Comcast was throttling bittorrent, what was going to stop them from slowing down competing video content when they bought NBC? What would stop them from charging a new startup for the fastest access to their customers?

We demanded the government step in to regulate this impending problem! We demanded a neutral network! “All bits are equal!” we proclaimed.

For the sake of innovation and progress, the internet should be a level playing field for all. Reddit and the New York Time should get the same treatment over the network. Bittorrent and Bitcoin should both flow easily.

All of this is perfectly reasonable and I’m not about to argue against it. But I question whether net neutrality actually accomplishes the level playing field we desire.

Level Playing Field

The history of the internet has shown that reliable (fast, unencumbered) access to a popular service is not a key factor to their success. Every success app or service has gone through a growth period when servers constantly grind to a halt and access becomes difficult. We put up with fail whales for years! Years before Twitter, I distinctly recall when Livejournal was facing such growth pressure that they charged a small fee for access to premium servers guaranteed to be faster and more reliable. Even tonight HQ Trivia Live continues to have major server lag while hundreds of thousands of people compete for prizes. Hell, the horrendously throttled bittorent that we all complained about in 2010 is as popular as ever.

If history continues to repeat itself, then reliable, fast connections will continue to play only a minor role in the popularity of an internet service.

An unregulated network could lead to artificial and long term connectivity issues for young and/or competing services. But, corporations have a much simpler, old school tool at their disposal. A tool that is completely legal, completely out of scope of the net neutrality discussion. Marketing and cooperative agreements.

Here are just a few real wold examples of business practices that are currently happening:

These are just a few examples from Canada, where we have some semblance of Net Neutrality. Promotions like this have a huge impact on which players win and lose in the marketplace.

Stop The Presses

Imagine it’s the 19th century and you run a number of printing presses. Imagine you have discovered a magical supply of parchment, ink, and a mechanism that magically runs the presses automatically, pumping copies of any newspaper, handbill or pamphlet you feed in. It’s neutral.

You have the capacity to produce more paper every month than could be read by the world’s population. You’re presses are in high demand and you have contracts with your clients to provide them unlimited printing services.

Once your business has been running for a while, you start to inspect some of the documents your clients have been printing. You discover that some of them are advertising a service that competes with your brother-in-law, get rich schemes, pages full of one word “spam” (whatever that is) and other complete and utter garbage. You can’t print this stuff!

But you know that if you completely refuse to print your client’s publication, they will be quite upset, they might even leave for that other supplier. Instead, you decide to print their copies slightly slower and hope they don’t notice the bundle is a little smaller the next time the picks up a shipment.

When your clients eventually catch on, they are furious! Freedom of the Press has been a thing for quite some time now and they believe their rights are being violated.

Imagine your country is governed by a reasonable king, who rightly agrees, your clients freedom of the press is being violated. A new law is passed demanding that all presses print whatever papers they are handed, regardless of content, under penalty of death.

This is a good thing! Trolls and merchants alike rejoice in the streets!

A couple of years pass and the law has come up for review. In this time the king’s advisors have caught wind that these printing presses have been used print all manner of nonsense that the King would find displeasing: somehow has smuggled out his prized book collection and is making copies for anyone to read! A clever foreigner has devised a scheme whereby the presses themselves act as a sort of currency, nobody is able to explain exactly how it works, but it’s become quite valuable.

The King is very unhappy. At the stroke of midnight as the law is about to expire, a small little clause to the law “*Under the discretion of His Royal Highness.”

Is this still a good thing?

Slippery Slopes

The premise of Net Neutrality is based on a slippery slope that imagines a worst case scenario where ISPs:

  • provide preferential “fast-lanes” for favorable service and/or throttle
  • charge differing access fees for different sites
  • outright block competing services
  • all of the above
  • something even worse that I’ve totally missed.

I’m not so sure this slippery slope is plausible.

As I understand it – from the years 2005 – 2015 US ISPs operated within a framework where they had a lot of leeway to discriminate over packets. There are numerous examples of ISPs (ahem Comcast) attempting bandwidth throttling schemes during this period. Everytime they eventually caved to consumer pressure… despite very poor competition.

So, history leads me to believe that with a vigilent group of watchers and a small amount of competition, we can successfully keep this worst case scenario at bay.

In the future, I wonder if net neutrality becomes less and less of an issue as bandwidth capacity continues to increase year-over-year. An ISP has little incentive to throttle bandwidth when even the slowest of slow speeds are fast enough to serve content with minimal network impact. I think it might be happening already. For example, my ISP (kudos Shaw) which previously had soft bandwidth caps and various levels of throttling, now just have totally unlimited access. For no reason, they have no real competition, there was no market pressure.

Re-evaluating the equation

By definition, net neutrality legislation gives the government oversight over the content of bits traveling across the internet. A best case scenario, blanket law that said “All packets are to be treated equal, no blocking, no throttling. Peroid. No questions asked.” is a judgement call. It is a call in our favour, but it is also a framework whereby the government will discuss and attach future internet freedom related issues. It is a slippery slope into the danger zone of internet censorship.

The real debate should not be surrounding whether or not we want a neutral internet.  Of course we do.

The real debate should be about which slippery slope we consider more dangerous:

  • Cooperate interests shutting down the free and open internet in favour a closed toll-way of terror.

Or

  • Current and future governments using internet legislation as a stepping stone to hamper our freedoms.

In this bloggers opinion, history has shown us that voting with your wallet is much more effective than… actual voting.

Mr. Shodan

Mr. Robot season 3 is off to a great start. As per usual, the episode features tonnes of Easter eggs for hacker nerds.

But I have to admit I was a little surprised to see a shodan.io cameo. Shodan is a search engine for things connected to the web that isn’t a web server.  Web cams, network equipment, industrial controls and other hardware that relies heavily on security through obscurity.

Here’s a fun video from Defcon 20 demonstrating what fun can be had.


Bonus: The search Mr. Robot performs org:”Evil Corp” product:”Apache Tomcat”,  returns real results with show relevant data.


Bonus Part 2:

The domain in question has an open SNMP (file sharing port).

No guest account unfortunately. If only I could remember some of the logins from the show.

The rabbit whole goes deep this season! Hack the planet.

Google Wave, The Quirky Future of Email

With the constant forward motion of tech, little time is spent on the past. A brief few years in the mid-00s – after the dot-com bubble and before the big winners of social were sorted out – spawned tonnes of interesting products and services, aka “web 2.0.”

Google Wave is one of those products that keeping bubbling up in my conversations with other old nerds. I think it’s a prime example of Web 2.0.


At Google’s second ever I/O conference – in 2009 – the team behind Google Maps their newest project, “Google Wave” a revolutionary new communications product. Its stated mission was to reinvent email, for the world of connected information services and social networks. A Web 2.0 take on a 30 year old technology.

The 80 minute I/O presentation is still available on YouTube and highly recommend watching this if you’re a fan of corporate cringe. At one point, Stephanie Hannon enters her Twitter password in a plain-text username box, for all the audience to see. Yup.

Unfortunately, Google Wave was never given the chance to gain any traction with a mainstream audience. It was kept in limited developer preview until late 2009. Google’s perpetual beta programs were the butt of many jokes at the time. But Wave continued with a more limited beta program and effectively shut down after 3 months of public release in mid-2010.

Wave lacked focus – both in UI design and in its feature set. It also lacked purpose, I don’t think Wave presented a single solution for a single real-world problem and it was entirely unclear when you would use wave instead of email or IM. In spite of Wave’s disorganized spaghetti-at-the-wall approach, it implemented a lot of tech that has only become common place in the past few years.

Google Wave was HTML5, build with the brand new Google Web Toolkit. Meaning it had a (mostly) javascript front-end, driven by AJAX requests and no page refreshes. It was perfectly cross-browser compatible and worked reasonably well on Android and iPhone OS. Incredible feats in 2009. The app also managed maintained synchronous state across sessions, in different browser, different devices and between users over the network – another amazing accomplishment, considering the internet infrastructure of the time.

The “Wave”

Google Wave was focused around the concept of a “wave.” An unholy union of email, message boards, instant messaging, group chats and word documents:

  • Users could add people to a wave, similar to how you might CC someone on an email. Later users could remove themselves or add others to the wave as well. While it’s technically possible to accomplish similar behavior with email. The email paradigm discourages messing with the CC list.
  • Waves were threaded, like a message board. A user could also start a thread at any point in the main wave text. So instead of quoting a portion of text,  like you would in email. A user could start an entire thread about a paragraph, right underneath the paragraph text. On paper, this is a huge improvement over reply-all soup that mass emails often devolve in to. In practice, it wasn’t really that much better.
  • Since Google Wave was a super responsive, real-time app, you could actually use sub-threads as a sort of makeshift instant messenger. I believe there was also Google Chat integration that sort of encouraged this behaviour.
  • Last but not least, much like your grandparents Christmas newsletters printed from Word, you could embed all manner of craziness into a “wave.” Photo galleries, polls, twitter streams, games of chess, you name it. Hell, they created a “robots” API to enable developers to write their own embeddable crazysauce.

Inside the wave client you would have seen number of active waves, presented and managed in chronological order, like an email client. If this is sounding a little strange, it was.

Real-Time Typing

I/O demo showing real-time typing

Have you ever tried to have a conversation inside a Google Doc?

One of Wave’s quirkiest features was that text entry. As a user typed anywhere inside the wave, any other user presently watching the way would see these edits in real-time, character-by-character.

Google claimed that this allowed readers to recognize and respond to text in a more natural way. Similar to how you can start to know what someone is saying after only a few words, the thought was that you could know what someone was typing after only a few words.

In practice, this feature exposed the poor typing skills of your fellow wavers. I have never seen any other IM client attempt to replicate this feature, with good reason. “Your friend is typing” works really well.

On the cooler side, waves could be spell-checked (revolutionary at the time) and Google Translated (still cool) inline, in nearly real-time.

Playback

A wave being played back.

Google thought that the ability to add members to a wave at any point in its lifespan might be problematic. From the I/O presentation, I gather that they were afraid that people would get lost if they jumped in at the end of a long conversation thread.

To solve this problem they gave Wave a “playback” feature. It allowed users play back or step through the revision history of the wave, one change at a time.

I have a hard time understanding the utility of this feature. Period. I just don’t get it. It feels like more of a tech demo than anything else inside wave.

Federated and Client-less

I/O demo of a crazy cool wave CLI.

Google Wave was designed from the ground up to be a federated service.

Just like email, any corporation and individual could set up their own Wave server. Just like email, you could include users from any Wave server using the conventional [email protected] format. Unlike email, messages bounced between servers in real time! Even the quirky real-time typing worked  across server and across clients. The gif above shows someone typing in the CLI client and having it displayed in the web. I have never seen anything quite like this in the eight years since wave.

Google also designed it to be an open protocol from the beginning. The main I/O demo, with its horrendous UI, is really just Google’s version of a Wave client. Just like email, anyone could develop their own clients for Wave. CLI, native app, whatever.

These two featured have me absolutely convinced that Google Wave was a real, concerted effort to reinvent email. Not just a crazy tech demo. At the time, Google did a poor job communicating this part of their vision. The tech press and power-users alike, got totally wrapped up in the unsuable feature soup they built.

As a privacy mined individual, federated messaging/social networking is a problem that I’d love someone to crack. I wonder where we’d be if Wave had gained a following.

Where Is It Now

In 2012, Wave was effectively donated to the Apache Software Foundation. Technically the project is still “incubating”, but there aren’t really any signs of life, the project page hasn’t been updated since 2014.


If you liked this post and want to see more like it, recommend something you’d like to see me do a deeper dive on. Leave a comment or a tweet.

All your emo are belong to Russia

Remember Livejournal? All your angst posts about poignant Vagrant Records band lyrics? Selfies (before we called them that) of your pixie cut? Or crucial fades? Stupid surveys…  It’s safe to say that it played a major role in my social life as young adult years and I have most fond memories of that place.

I’d always known that Livejournal became super popular in Russia sometime after I stopped frequenting the site regularly. I sort of left it at that, assuming it was one of those quirky Russian internet things. Turns out it might be a lot more sinister.

The latest episode of – the excellent podcast – ReplyAll tells an interesting story of what happened with Livejournal and Russia.

Spoiler alert: nearly 10 years after its purchase by a Russian company, Livejournal’s servers finally relocated to Russian soil. It’s not much of a stretch to assume that the FSB and friends have direct access to any of your old content that might still be living there….