Search This Blog

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Faceless rule-makers

Yesterday’s post about Facebook’s abysmal security algorithm prompts thoughts about the power of faceless rule-makers and how they deploy that power.  Lest we forget, computer applications are designed by humans, who are as prone as the next person to commit errors.

Whether it’s a computer, an in-car system or a game on a tablet, it cannot have been tested in every conceivable scenario. I recall some years back seeing the standard message on computers, along these lines – ‘You have committed an illegal action.’ Which definitely alarmed law-abiding new users, who worried about what they’d done… This is typical of some programmers – too lazy to program and test for all eventualities, they let the conditional options drop through a number of possible messages and then throw in a catch-all – ‘illegal alert!’ – to capture any other unforeseen route a user might go down.

It’s the English language being misused: illegal in my dictionary says it’s something that’s contrary to or for bidden by law. The last time I looked, computer programmers didn’t make law – they make rules. The same goes for android and robots used with regard to tablets and apps. Android is an automaton resembling a human being; robot was invented by Karel Capek in his story ‘R.U.R – Rossum’s Universal Robots’ and derives from the Polish, Ukrainian robota, forced labour, and Russian, robota, work. Early twentieth century definition now accepts that it can be a machine that carries out a variety of tasks automatically or with a minimum of external impulse (such as factory robots); that’s still a big leap from software applications.

Are the individuals who label these applications so devoid of imagination that they must steal an existing term for their jargon? Ask any sci-fi writer and he or she would probably come up with something appropriate. I realise that it’s academic my discussing this, when you consider that for the Windows operating system you have to click on ‘Start’ to log off (which was removed, sensibly, but the clamour from old users has demanded its return, a yearning for the familiar).

I digress. Consider two new ideas being bandied about of late – driverless cars and driverless lorry convoys!

We’re slowly blindly going down that path that was trodden decades before the Terminator movies were thought of, be assured.

If users become dependent on all these applications, then when they go wrong, as they do and will continue to do so, the resultant responses will be anger without management, frustration, and a tendency to rebel – whether as a hacker, a troll or in a more personal manner. It’s the stuff of science fiction. Harlan Ellison’s ‘ “Repent, Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman’ was about nonconformity being a felony, as well as being a moral tale. Sci-fi authors extrapolate current trends to see where it might lead. Jim England’s story ‘The Globe’ (published in Auguries #6, 1987 is about, among other things, litter louts being zapped by a surveillance stun-gun. And the late Bob Jenkins published a short story ‘No Fire Without Smoke’ (published in Adlib, 1985, reprinted Portsmouth Post, 2007) that casts cigarette smokers as public enemies, liable to be incarcerated or even shot…
'The Globe', 1987
The point – faceless rule-makers, if allowed, can take us down a road of unintended and even unperceived consequences.

Back to normal tomorrow…



Anonymous said...

Thanks for today's Blog, Nik. I felt it a must to Share! :)

Nik said...

And, Anon, thanks for sharing it!