Thesis 80

Thesis 80

The principles we've enunciated can be meaningfully asserted through voluntary compliance.

One of the obvious difficulties with any set of principles such as the ones we've been discussing concerns the matter of complianceor, looked at another way, enforcement.

Can developers working on everyware reasonably be expected to police themselves, to spend the extra time and effort necessary to ensure that the systems they produce do not harm or unduly embarrass us, waste our time, or otherwise infringe on our prerogatives?

Will such guidelines simply be bypassed, going unobserved for the usual gamut of reasons, from ignorance to incompetence to unscrupulousness? Or will any such self-policing approach be rendered irrelevant by governmental attempts to regulate everyware?

No response to the drawbacks of everyware will be anything close to perfect. Even if we could assume that all of the practical challenges posed by our embrace of ubiquitous systems were tractable, there will always be bad actors of one sort or another.

Given the almost unlimited potential of everyware to facilitate the collection of all sorts of information, the extreme subtlety with which ubiquitous systems can be deployed, and the notable propensity of certain partiescorporate, governmentalto indulge in overreaching information-gathering activities if once granted the technical wherewithal, I would be very surprised if we didn't see some highly abusive uses of this technology over the next few years. I don't think they can be stopped, any more than spammers, script kiddies, and Nigerian scam artists can be.

Without dismissing these perils in any way, I am actually less worried about them than about the degraded quality of life we are sure to experience if poorly designed everyware is foisted upon us. I believe that this latter set of challenges can be meaningfully addressed by collective, voluntary means, like the five principles offered in this book. If standards for the ethical and responsible development of everyware can be agreed upon by a visible cohort of developers, the onus will be on others to comply with them. Given an articulate and persuasive enough presentation of the reasoning behind the principles, those of us committed to upholding them might even find the momentum on our side.

If you think this scenario sounds unduly optimistic, recent technological history offers some support for it. Starting in 1998, a grassroots movement of independent developers demanding so-called "Web standards" forced the hand of industry giants like Microsoft and Netscape, and in not such a terribly long period of time, either.

Within a few years, any major browser you cared to download was compliant with the set of standards the activists had pushed for. The combination of structural and presentational techniques the so-called "standardistas" insisted on is now considered a benchmark of responsible Web development. By any measure, this is a very successful example of bottom-up pressure resulting in wholesale improvements to the shared technological environment.

The standardistas, it must be said, were on the right side of an emerging business calculus to begin with: by the time the movement came to prominence, it was already punitively expensive for developers to code six or seven different versions of a site simply to render properly in all the incompatible browsers then popular. They also enjoyed the advantage of urging their changes on a relatively concentrated decision nexus, at least where the browser-makers were concerned.

And before we get too enthusiastic about this precedent, and what it may or may not imply for us, we should remind ourselves that ensuring that a given ubiquitous system respects our prerogatives will be many orders of magnitude more difficult than ascertaining a Web site's compliance with the relevant standards. The latter, after all, can be verified by running a site's source code through an automated validator. By contrast, we've seen how much room for interpretation there is in defining "undue complications," let alone in determining what might constitute "harm" or "embarrassment." The grey areas are legion compared to the simple, binary truths of Web standards: Either a site is coded in well-formed XHTML, or it is not.

Nevertheless, at its core, the story of Web standards is both inspiring and relevant to our concerns: the coordinated action of independent professionals and highly motivated, self-educated amateurs did change the course of an industry not particularly known for its flexibility. As a direct result, the browsers that the overwhelming majority of us use today are more powerful, the experience of using compliant Web sites is vastly improved, and untold economies have been realized by the developers of both. Rarely has any circumstance in information technology been quite so "win/win/win."

We've seen the various complications that attend technical solutions to the problems of everyware. And we also have abundant reason to believe that governmental regulation of development, by itself, is unlikely to produce the most desirable outcomes. But in the saga of Web standards, we have an object lesson in the power of bottom-up self-regulation to achieve ends in technological development that are both complex and broadly beneficial.

So I see a real hope in the idea that a constituency of enlightened developers and empowered users will attend the rise of everyware, demanding responsible and compassionate design of ubiquitous technology. I further hope that the principles I've offered here are a meaningful contribution to the discussion, that they shed some light on what responsible and compassionate everyware might look like.

I have one final thought on the question of principles and self-guided development. It's clear that an approach such as the one I've outlined here will require articulate, knowledgeable, energetic, and above all visible advocacy if it has any chance of success. But it requires something else, as well: a simple, clear way for users and consumers to know when a system whose adoption they are contemplating complies with the standards they wish to support.

What I would like to see is something along the lines of the Snell certification for auto-racing and motorcycle helmetsor better yet, the projected ISO standards for environmental safety in nanotechnological engineering. This would be a finding of fitness verified by an independent, transparent, and international licensing body: a guarantee to all concerned that to the degree possible, the ubiquitous system in question had been found to observe all necessary protections of the human user. (Such certifications, of course, would do little to protect us from harmful emergent behavior of interacting systems, but neither would they be without value.)

A mechanism such as this means that we can feel safer in harnessing the power of the market to regulate the development of everyware, because the market will have been provided with accurate and appropriate information. A simple, high-visibility marker lets people make informed decisions: Either this system meets the guidelines as they existed at such-and-such a date, or it does not. The guidelines are of course there to peruse in detail should anyone wish to do so, but it's not necessary to have a comprehensive understanding of what they mean at the time of purchase, download, or installation. Everything a user needs to know is right there in the certification.

If sentiment in support of these ideas attains critical mass, we reach a point past which buy-in becomes lock-in. From that point forward, most of the everyware we encounter will have been designed and engineered with a deep consideration for our needs and prerogatives.

The aim, of course, is to build a world in which we get to enjoy as many of the benefits of everyware as possible while incurring the smallest achievable cost. I think this is doable, but to a greater extent than has usually been the case, it's not going to come easily. If we want all of these things, we'll have to:

  • educate ourselves as to the nature of the various technologies I have here grouped under the rubric of everyware;

  • decide which of them we will invite into our lives, and under what circumstances;

  • demand that the technologies we are offered respect our claims to privacy, self-determination, and the quality of life;

  • and (hardest of all) consistently act in accordance with our beliefsat work, at the cash register, and at the polls.

Everyware promises so much more than simply smoothing the hassles we experience in our interactions with computers. It aims to rebuild the relationship between computer and user from the ground up, extend the power of computational awareness to every corner of our lives, and offer us vastly more timely, accurate, and useful knowledge of our surroundings, our communities, and ourselves in so doing. It is, in fact, the best candidate yet to become that "sufficiently advanced" technology Arthur C. Clarke so famously described as being "indistinguishable from magic."

We can have it, if we want it badly enough. But the hour is later than we know, the challenges are many and daunting, and most of us barely have an inkling that there's anything to be concerned about in the advent of the next computing. We have our work cut out for us.