Five Years Ago
There was plenty of ridiculousness from Hollywood this week in 2010. For one thing, movie studies were decidedly not following through on their "promises" to offer lots of new content if they could only break your TV with selectable output control, while the MPAA was also bizarrely focused on getting soldiers to stop buying bootleg DVDs, and Hurt Locker producer Nicholas Chartier was angrily defending his crusade against downloaders. Of course, given Hollywood's remake culture, it was no surprise that the studios were starting to run into copyright problems of their own (and given its anti-piracy culture, it was no surprise to see different anti-piracy solutions suing each other over patents). Not to mention the irony of Time Warner Cable standing up against automated copyright filings, or actor Peter Serafinowicz explaining why he even pirates movies he's in.
The UK was still grappling with the realities of the Digital Economy Act. We wondered if it would interfere with London's ambition to offer free wi-fi, while one regulator said the act only applies to big wireline ISPs and several politicians started trying to repeal it altogether. Copyright shenanigans were all around on the music side of things too: ASCAP bullied another local coffee shop into no longer playing local bands while a massive performance royalty rate hike in Australia drove gyms to start ditching pop music, and it became increasingly clear just how much the RIAA had clogged up the court system with its lawsuits.
Ten Years Ago
Five years before all that, the US Copyright Office was busy showing off just how much it misunderstood copyright law. Spain's recording industry pressured a university lecturer into resigning after he explained how file-sharing could be legal and positive. People were shocked at a Star Wars leak, but ignored the fact that it probably wasn't a big deal at all. And the UK's Premier League was moaning about illegal streams but not acknowledging that it was creating the market for them by failing to offer anything in competition.
The BSA conducted its annual ritual of releasing bogus piracy numbers, followed by the inevitable backlash. One copy-protection firm was playing both sides of the piracy game by patenting a P2P system and the technology to stop it. The NY Times tried its ill-fated experiment to charge for opinion pieces, one university library was going all digital, and megaplex movie theaters were straining to recapture their former glory.
Fifteen Years Ago
Last week, we saw Volkswagen become the first auto manufacturer to start selling cars directly online. This week, Ford joined them (in Canada) followed closely by GM, and lo the floodgates were opened. Meanwhile, online retail giant Amazon was experimenting with dynamic pricing, and some were predicting that the next great digital frontier would be family businesses — but we were all hoping that the then-dominant trend of cartoon mascots on every website would die out, quickly.
Michael Eisner, on the other hand, was convinced that email was a great existential threat to companies and the country (perhaps he heard that Singapore arrested a man for "cyber rage" after he sent thousands of them) while most people stopped shorter, at "email marketing is getting annoying". Congress was, for some reason, worried about genealogy websites, and Napster was struggling to figure out its future (with 60% of college students saying they'd supposedly pay for it).
Oh, and, you know those topic icons over to the left of every post? This week in 2000 is when we debuted them.
Four-Hundred and Six Years Ago
Shakespeare's Sonnets: they are among the foundational texts of English culture, and on May 20th, 1609 they were first officially listed in the Stationer's Register (an early precursor to copyright — for publishers, not authors), and printed shortly thereafter. Nobody has been able to determine whether the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, had authorization from Shakespeare or was working from an illicit copy.
Freehand input is hardly a new idea. It was a fixture of the early Palms, a feature of the famous Newton, and of course our primary means of "input" before computers came along. With the ascendance of touchscreens today, the capability is everywhere — and yet it still hasn't really caught on. Why? The three big reasons seem to be that screen real-estate is a premium and freehand input requires a lot of it, many devices simply aren't responsive enough to make it feel natural, and it isn't actually that useful in most situations. For this week's awesome stuff, we're looking at a device that aims to solve at least two of those problems: Phree, a laser-based digital pen.
Let's look at those three key issues again. The screen real-estate problem is what Phree aims to solve by its very nature, moving all that freehand work off your device's screen itself and onto any nearby surface. That alone would likely just exacerbate the second issue — responsiveness — but this is where the team's technological innovation is focused. In the video, they claim to have built the world's smallest 3D laser interferometer with new algorithms to achieve this high degree of accuracy in the compact device, and though I can't speak to the truth of this, the video does indeed show a very-responsive-looking system in action. If the finished product really works that well on such a wide array of surfaces, it'll have cleared the two key viability hurdles for the technology.
The big question for anyone who has looked into this kind of device before is: can it compete with Livescribe, the current household name in smart pens? There are, of course, some big differences: Livescribe pens are real, functioning pens that also record what you write digitally, while the Phree is just an input device. The Livescribe can work as a standalone unit to record notes during the day then retrieve them digitally later, which it appears the Phree cannot. And, despite these missing capabilities, the Phree costs a bit more than a Livescribe 3.
That sounds pretty grim, but there are some factors running in the opposite direction: Livescribe pens only good for storing notes, not active live input of handwriting, and require you to actually be writing on paper at the same time; they operate through the cloud rather than being directly linked to your device by BlueTooth; and they have considerably fewer compatibility options, leaning heavily on a partnership with Evernote. The Phree is a far more versatile device.
In a way it's an unfair comparison, since the two are trying to accomplish different things, but I suspect it's the first comparison many people will make — and it's not entirely clear that Phree comes out on top.
We've established that the Phree aims to solve two of the three big issues with handwriting input, but what about the third? Freehand input has been possible for a long time — even longer than the multi-touch input we all use every day — but it's never really caught on. Part of this might be because the technology wasn't good enough, but there's a big question as to just how useful and desirable such input really is. Speaking for myself, I rarely find myself wishing for freehand when typing on my phone; on the occasions when I do want to jot and sketch more freely, I grab an actual pen and paper; and on the occasions when something I jot turns out to be important, I snap a photo of it. Obviously this process leaves a lot to be desired but, critically, it doesn't come up all that often.
On the other hand, I imagine there are many people with a different story to tell, who would love the ability to quickly and easily switch back and forth between typing and handwriting. The Phree could provide this with unprecedented responsiveness, and much more convenient workflow integration than existing smart pens — and that could definitely be a winner.
Lawfare -- a blog primarily devoted defending the practices of spy agencies -- has released a paper authored by Benjamin Wittes and Jodie Liu that theorizes that the public's concern over privacy encroachments are -- if not overblown -- then failing to properly factor in the privacy "gains" they've obtained over the past several years.
The theory is solid, but the paper fails to differentiate between what sort of privacy losses people find acceptable and which ones they don't -- mainly by leaving privacy invasions by government entities almost completely undiscussed. It opens by quoting a scene from an old Woody Allen film in which the protagonist attempts to "hide" his purchase of porn at a magazine stand by purchasing several unrelated (and presumably uninteresting) magazines at the same time. This leads to the conclusion that people's ability to enjoy porn in private has risen with the advent of the internet, while simultaneously opening them up to data harvesters and internet companies less interested in personal privacy than selling users to advertisers.
True enough, but there's a big difference between exposing that information to the Googles of the world, rather than the surveillance agencies of the world. On one hand, Google and its competitors provide something in exchange for the privacy loss -- tailored ads, relevant search results, email, document creation platforms, etc. And there are still those -- a steadily-growing minority -- that realize Google's privacy invasions are often inseparable from the government's privacy invasions (via court orders, subpoenas and NSLs) and work hard to keep their personal information away from both. What the government offers in exchange for access to much of the same info is intangible: "security." While one might recognize the value of the first exchange, it's harder to sell the latter tradeoff, especially since intelligence agencies are much, much better at scooping up information than they are at disseminating it.
A huge amount of technological development follows this basic pattern. Google and Microsoft and Yahoo! enable you to search for information privately—with data collection by the companies and possible retrieval by other actors as a consequence. Amazon lets you buy all sorts of products with nobody the wiser—but with your purchase history stored and mined for patterns.The paper does make the solid argument that technology has resulted in greater individual privacy -- provided it's measured on the scale the paper's authors present. In one example, the authors point to a teen's desire to discuss a sexual or health issue as being more "private" because of access to medical websites and forums where information can be obtained with relative anonymity -- something a doctor's office can't completely provide.
Your smartphone lets you put all this capability in your pocket and take it with you— and thus also lets you use it more and record your location along the way. That information too is then subject to retrieval. Facebook allows you to identify discrete groups of people with whom you want to share material—yet it stores your actions for processing and retrieval as you go. In our mental tabulation of gain and loss, we tend to count only one side of the ledger, pocketing what we have won as though it were of no privacy value while bemoaning what we have given up.
Even more mischievously, when we do acknowledge the gains, we tend to redefine them as gains in something other than privacy. We define them, most commonly, as mere convenience or efficiency gains—a dismissive description that implies we have won something inconsequential or time-saving while giving up something profound. But the construction leaves us with a distorted and altogether-too-bleak outlook on technology’s impact on our lives. Yes, technology involves gains in convenience and efficiency, but those are not the only gains.
To reiterate, we do not argue here that technology is necessarily privacy-enhancing in the aggregate, or that technology does not erode privacy. Rather, our general point is that the interaction between technology and privacy is less clear-cut than the debate commonly acknowledges, that we don’t keep score well, and that the actual privacy scorecard is a murky one.