Linking four texts

Cory Doctorow is one of those who gets (and puts) it so clearly:

The last 20 years of Internet policy have been dominated by the copyright war, but the war turns out only to have been a skirmish. The coming century will be dominated by war against the general purpose computer, and the stakes are the freedom, fortune and privacy of the entire human race.

The problem is twofold: first, there is no known general-purpose computer that can execute all the programs we can think of except the naughty ones; second, general-purpose computers have replaced every other device in our world. There are no airplanes, only computers that fly. There are no cars, only computers we sit in. There are no hearing aids, only computers we put in our ears. There are no 3D printers, only computers that drive peripherals. There are no radios, only computers with fast ADCs and DACs and phased-array antennas. Consequently anything you do to “secure” anything with a computer in it ends up undermining the capabilities and security of every other corner of modern human society.

And general purpose computers can cause harm — whether it’s printing out AR15 components, causing mid-air collisions, or snarling traffic. So the number of parties with legitimate grievances against computers are going to continue to multiply, as will the cries to regulate PCs.

The primary regulatory impulse is to use combinations of code-signing and other “trust” mechanisms to create computers that run programs that users can’t inspect or terminate, that run without users’ consent or knowledge, and that run even when users don’t want them to.

The upshot: a world of ubiquitous malware, where everything we do to make things better only makes it worse, where the tools of liberation become tools of oppression.

Our duty and challenge is to devise systems for mitigating the harm of general purpose computing without recourse to spyware, first to keep ourselves safe, and second to keep computers safe from the regulatory impulse.

(summary of his keynote at 28th Chaos Communication Congress)

The comments open various other cans, and are interesting to scan through to appreciate the great variety of geek perspectives.

Cory’s presentation shares time’n’space with some other recent reading, and it’s occurring to me that there are some potent interrelations, though they’re a bit on the latent side, and not immediately obvious.

I had occasion to try to read an article on GIS and postmodernism (Agnieszka Leszczynski’s “Poststructuralism and GIS: is there a ‘disconnect'”, in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 21:581-602 [2009]), which I found as impenetrable as most writing that references (privileges?) the Poststructural. As a part of my attempt to wrestle with its vocabulary, I converted the pdf to text, did some word counts, and produced a word cloud which does at least exemplify the problematic: words like ontic, epistemology and ontological make me squirm. Thus,

…theorists problematize the disembodiment of the conventional deployment of GIS… opposition to (empirical) ontological commitments is raised on the basis that the effects and objects of mapping and encoding practices ensconced within the technology are enabled by a contemptible epistemology systematically implicated in the networks of control that rationalize daily life…

gives me the jimjams. So I tried a Google Ngram for some of the most vexatious terms, and another for problematiz/se. These probably demonstrate little more than my age and remoteness from the academic fray.

A few days ago I was reconnected with a friend of 50+ years ago via a pointer to Matt Cartmill’s 1991 review of a book by Donna Haraway (see Miguel Centellas’ posting and Maggie Koerth-Baker’s too –Matt was a year ahead of me in high school, and one of those ‘smartest-person-I-ever-met’ people). I retrieved the whole review and read it gleefully, then sent it to a friend who read it not-gleefully, and so it goes…

So here I am, wondering if ‘ontic’ really ought to mean something to me, wondering if it’s even possible for me to grasp what the problem is that Leszczynski is writing about. So I somewhat idly try Google for ‘ontic’ and it’s bloody Wikipedia that gives me a way in:

“Ontic” describes what is there, as opposed to the nature or properties of that being.

…that is, as opposed to the linguistic acts that produce interpretations, readings, characterizations of “what is there”. OK, a good start.

Co-incidentally, I’ve been reading Adam Gopnik’s Winter: Five windows on the season, with on-and-off pleasure and this morning was brought up short by this passage, which seemed directly apposite to my wrangling with ‘ontic’:

I sometimes stop and wonder at the reality of the geological and biological world, that the things we see, though certainly existing, have none of the intense sequence, the personifications, the character we give them; without us they would just fall back into the world of nothing. I have a hard time expressing this, though it is one of the strongest emotions I know: this sense that somehow the entirety of the universe could have been made –was made– without purpose, that it is cold, spinning, unconscious, neither kind nor cruel, just following laws that are in the end not even laws, just regularities produced by the cycling of chances. A vast, empty room, with no one home…

I recall once when I got word that my best friend was dying and I happened to pass a paint store where all the shades of yellow were laid out and named, quite cleverly and precisely –lemon zest and buttercup and canary, each shade given a personality– and I thought, This is all a lie. The spectrum of light is as indifferent as the rest of the universe. “Buttercup” and “lemon zest” were not labels but just lies, hopeful names given to arbitrary swatches in a physical phenomenon of light, which is not only indifferent to our existence but without any kind of neat internal structure at all, with no more charm or colour than the indifferent hum of a radio on the wrong station. (pp.209-210)

And what is it that ties these disparate bits of text into a bouquet? I’m thinking that all of them operate in the realm of onomastics: they’re about the utterly (entirely, exclusively) human exercise of naming what surrounds us, so that the various things can be woven into the stories we tell. Good old Homo narrans, at it incessantly.

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