Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Suburbs of Philadelphia, 1995:

After completing a fresh install of Windows 95 from 27 floppy disks, my friend and I are ready to boot his brand new, assembled-by-some-random-guy PC clone. Turbo button engaged - and we're off (at arguably the same speed as if the turbo button were not engaged). What's the first piece of software we install once we're looking at a pristine desktop? Prince of Persia? Nope. Leisure Suit Larry? Wrong. We reach into what would become a stack of the ubiquitous AOL free trial disks, the scourge of mailboxes everywhere, and select disk that offers the most free minutes - this was before the amount of free minutes in the first month exceeded the amount of minutes in a month. 5000 free minutes - sounds good. A little while later, and with the help of a parent and her credit card, we are logged into our first chat room, the inane (and sometimes crass) musings of spectral users ascending the y-axis. It was amazing; it was horrible; it was enthralling. It was the precursor to chatroulette.com.

Suburbs of Philadelphia, 2010:

I throw my Macbook Pro down on the bed and flip it upon with a fluid, subconscious gesture, a move I can and have done in my sleep. It wakes instantly and I proceed to read tech news in the same jaded, unimpressed manner that comes part and parcel with immersion in a perpetual stream of amazing technological advances. One technology, posted by a student of mine, catches my eye: chatroulette.com. Apparently, this is a web site that allows visitors to video chat with a stranger selected at random. Strangely enough, this prospect feels terrifying - the concept of exposing myself, however anonymously, to a virtual Pandora's box of video streams. It seems so terrifying that I have to do it.

I navigate to the site and, against my better judgment, click "allow" to permit my web browser to enable my Mac's webcam. The preview window opens, and there I am. I briefly admire my digital reflection (I'm a vain jerk; whatever) and click "Play." The 10 seconds that the site spends looking for my random chat partner feels like an hour. All of a sudden, in the video window thoughtfully labeled "Stranger" (doesn't "stranger" conjure thoughts of abduction, like "don't talk to strangers?"), the granulated, pixelized image of what can only be described as a scarecrow appears. I see what appears to be a torso shot of a human shape, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. The head is not visible. It is not moving. I don't think it's breathing; I don't think it's real. Silence. In the adjacent chat window, the message "that's 3 for 3" appears. I don't know what this means - and I exited before I could find out.

OK, let's try this one more time. I click "next," the button designated for respinning the metaphorical roulette wheel, and I get connected to someone else. He or she cancels the chat before the "stranger" cam even has a chance to render a single frame. Whatever. It occurs to me that literally anyone or any part of anyone could appear on my screen when my next random chat partner is chosen. So, after clicking "next" for a new partner, I position my mouse over the "x" to close my browser tab, just in case I have to make a hasty retreat to prevent any vile images from being inscribed on my retinas. My partner is chosen; the image renders; it's three college-aged guys sitting on a couch. They attempt to convince me (somewhat successfully [you win this round, strangers!]) that they are the creators of chatroulette. After a semi-pointless discussion, they admit to not being the creators, we end our conversation on a friendly note -- and my life is essentially unaltered from having talked to them.

After I closed the chat, I stared blankly at the screen for a while considering what had just happened. The realization hit me: this was the same visceral thrill that came from our first foray into the now-primitive AOL chat room, the thrill of not knowing what experiences you will encounter. These thrills are at a premium these days, as I have seen many new technologies and get further desensitized by the day. As such, I'm glad that I tried chatroulette. As with Russian Roulette, probability dictates that, eventually, given enough attempts, you will lose (though, in this case, loss encompasses being subjected to grotesque images). Knowing this, I will probably not press my luck again...

Friday, February 12, 2010

Introspection on Competing Assumptions

Disclaimer*: the purpose of this piece is to clarify my thoughts on the issue of the possible conflict between the underlying assumptions of libertarian ideals and those of privacy advocacy. As such, it may - and probably will - end up being an equivocating and undeveloped ramble.

Libertarianism, while favoring limited government oversight, is not synonymous with anarchism. Humans can certainly exhibit behavior that should be suppressed by societal controls. However, these controls need not always be legal; social norms and the development of the highest level of conscience, not partaking in a transgression because one feels that it is morally/ethically wrong, can serve as well, if not better, than law.

I often apply this theorem to the debate over how to stop the sharing of copyrighted material --movies, music, etc. In my opinion, this is stealing, but I disagree with the current methods of enforcement. I suggest that the best way to encourage people not to steal music is to get them to internalize that this is wrong - the same reason that we do not steal from brick-and-mortar stores.

When I present this idea (usually in relation to other libertarian ideals) to someone of an opposing view, a person of a more authoritarian stance, our debate usually funnels philosophically to our underlying assumptions: optimism that humans are inherently good and will make the right decision given enough time (mine) vs. humans are avaricious creatures that require a high degree of oversight (authoritarian view). Obviously, this is an oversimplification of a complex, multifaceted argument into a one-dimensional spectrum, but I think that the dichotomy here is fairly accurate.

In stark contrast, while I generally preach my less-government ethos, I feel that privacy laws are an important way that government protects us from our own worst instincts. Bodies of law such as HIPAA (protection of medical data) and FERPA (protection of academic records) serve an important purpose. I feel that new, similar protections should be enacted and enforced to stop the sale and aggregation of personal data, without a customer's explicit consent, for advertisement purposes. (I will expound on this sometime if anyone is interested or if the mood strikes, whichever comes first.) The underlying assumption here is that business and government will be irresponsible with their use of personal information, and that they need to be regulated.

So, then, do we have two underlying assumptions in seeming conflict: optimism of the strength of the human conscience vs. pessimism of our ability to do the right thing without oversight. How can one be both a libertarian and a privacy advocate? Is this a false dichotomy or just the inherent conflict in non-partisan thinking -- i.e. being a moderate?

*I may have been influenced to write a moderately self-deprecating intro to this after reading Borges' introduction(s) to his A Universal History of Iniquity.