In 50 years or so, what are some of the technologies from our time that the first-year computer science students are going to giggle at? Some of their professors are probably going to be a bit annoyed because they could still remember updating relationship status on Facebook to “it’s complicated” was a cool thing back when they were teenagers. In the students’ defense (and my own), finding old technologies a bit funny doesn’t equate to disrespect and certainly won’t take away any bit of their importance as milestones in human’s scientific history. On the contrary, that could only mean that humanity has made progress in that regard and newer/better technologies naturally replace their predecessors. It would honestly be pretty sad if in 50 years people’d still be like — wow how did he do that? I look at art from old times that way (you can always find me agape at some fine things in the Renaissance wing of museums), but art is timeless and (mostly) isolated while technologies, by comparison, build on each other.
I have a few entertaining guesses and the good news is — I don’t have to wait 50 years for those giggles:
- QR code
Oh, come on, can tech people just understand aesthetics for once? Yes, it’s useful but also incredibly and unnecessarily ugly… Every time I see it on packaging it just baffles me. For the love of all things holy, why would any designer want to put a black square that could trigger trypophobia anywhere visible?
In my previous post, I basically called cookies, third-party cookies, in particular, the worst invention of the IT industry. Its shady practice could arguably amount to the biggest white-collar crime toward modern society in human history, only rivaling those subprime mortgage-backed CDOs. The worst part is that it is irreversible, unpreventable and permanent. You just can’t possibly know if there will be a bad day when the data someone else has over you is going to take a strike — because every adult learns the hard way that Murphy’s Law always wins. =)
To be fair, I don’t think the kids from 2072 are going to giggle at the underlying concept. Decentralization is going to be the standard by then. Instead, they will probably find it hard to understand why people would lose money over the obvious pyramid scheme, which right now is running at the center of this phenomenon and, even more importantly and outrageously, over bad art. Yes, it’s impressive that a da Vinci could effortlessly fetch over 400 million dollars at the auction, but, dear darling, it has nothing to do with the value of your jpeg file. Well, maybe in some way it does for it shows how absolutely worthless NFT art or any object solely priced by speculative bubbles is at the end of the day. It’s like speed driving on a Florida highway — you only get to enjoy the thrill if you are not the last car.
- Naming functions and variable
One of my wildest dreams is to invent a self-naming method and completely redo my codes with that. It’s ridiculous how much time computer programmers spend on thinking up new names for variables and functions that have no actual meaning or value at all… On a side note, I named all my python functions in the recent module using Nick Drake’s lyrics. Yes, it looks like this and yes my python scripts are sending very melancholy vibes right now:
- Platform-oriented internet structure:
I discussed the platform model repeatedly in my previous posts (see Identity and Dawn is beautiful). In those discussions, I lightly mentioned that I was hoping to build a human-centric system to host and facilitate transactions between the resource party and the consuming party at a secure interface level. In English, it means a user-first system for web-based events. As introduced before, the resource side infrastructure is my boy, Dawn, and his consumer-side counterpart is what I am going to talk about in this article today. Before getting into the details, I am still obligated to explain why this model is giggle-able to me. When we take a nice photo and want to share it on social media, has it ever occurred to you that it is rather absurd and also hysterical that we have to upload to twitter, Facebook, instagram and some other platforms separately like it’s some fun task (of course, assuming we want it to appear on all platforms for maximum exposure)? I consider it giggle material because it is clumsy and betrays one of the most basic principles of computer science — to reduce redundancy (user action-wise). I burst out laughing the other day when I was posting an image of Panta Rhei release repeatedly to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (you could link Instagram to Facebook but would miss out on Facebook’s own native features). Like I argued before, ultimately, it’s all about control. In this specific case, it is also intentionally designed so as such virtual (in some cases, proxy) ownership adds to the value of a platform. Meanwhile, also by design, we’re constantly made to ignore the fact that it’s our own creative content; we give it away to different platforms that will in turn use it to generate traffic and profits. To put things into perspective, in recent years, it has become a standard practice that our content is getting scraped and sold among data brokers/troll farms for reasons that I shudder to think of. See, that’s the fundamental problem of a platform-oriented model because users are considered data/traffic and the “general” well-being of the massive platforms always takes precedence. Given the fact that most, if not all, of the platforms are publicly traded, it will be delusional not to, at the very least, have some concern that such general well-being is compromised, if not dictated, by “shareholder interests” and balance sheets.
What’s wrong with being treated as data in a system in case anyone asks? It’s extremely dangerous on many fronts, but every one of them is rooted in the diminishment of an individual’s human values and their unique irreplaceable existence. Ironically, this is exactly how people see machines and, yet, we are building machines to rebuild human beings into machines for easier manipulation and exploitation. For one, I don’t see machines that way, but I am terribly underprepared for that conversation. One can always choose to stay off the grid as some apologists might argue, but being able to connect to each other and the world is a basic human right regardless of the channel (online, offline, in-between-line, no-such-line, etc.). One can surely opt out but never be denied that access.
Back to our platform discussion, it’s interesting that Elon Musk recently complained about Twitter and wanted to start his own social media platform to fully embrace freedom of speech. He is free to trust himself to be able to champion that cause, just as much as anyone is free to doubt him. (All right, today’s headline is that he just became the largest shareholder of Twitter…) The problem with Twitter, however, is never that the board starting to subscribe to woke podcasts or Russian troll farms all out at full force. It has always been the problem with the platform-centric structure itself. To be fair, Twitter is not to blame here as it goes way beyond the scope of technologies and is an inevitable problem facing all manmade structures that tend to host more than enough participants. Indeed, everybody is an individual being and it’s extremely difficult, if at all possible, to find a workable solution to accommodate all. Throughout the history, only a few managed to achieve something that remotely resembled that and they were all done by excessive force. If anything, Internet exists to liberate humankind, and, as I stated in Panta Rhei, I do believe that we are becoming more conscious of that. So, naturally, one might ask what if we give our material to our own platform instead and maybe have the big boys license content from us? Right there is the shift of mentality I have been talking about but have, expectedly, found no echoes. It probably does sound like a radical idea at the moment, but it’s only because we’ve been trained to think like that since our childhood. All the experiences with institutions and the authorities that they appear to project, from school to church to government, we become convinced that we have to attach ourselves to a larger established identity to be able to have an identity of our own, which we consider a prerequisite for value. We are hardwired to underappreciate our worthiness and believe that only through “real” work can we make ourselves valuable (e.g., graphic designers can sell art to Canva). When I said we shall each have our own platform and let major platforms source from us, one’s immediate reaction was very likely pure doubt. Why would they do that? Why would they need my tweet about overpaying for that sandwich this morning? Well, that’s another fallacious thing we have been “influenced” into believing thanks to the persuasive marketing power — that somehow our output production, a tweet, a photo or a short video, becomes meaningful only after it goes on a big platform, as if we should feel lucky that a platform lets us publish a picture of us for free. In reality, our production gets assigned its intrinsic value by itself and is meaningful upon inception, just like we are worthy at birth. It’s not an emotional statement but physics. Who is there to deny the incredible energy of our neurons firing at synapses or the sound of a beating heart?
It is indeed us, in a countable and not collective sense, that gives abstract concepts, a company or a platform, meanings and identities (and money and power to the people behind them), for human beings are the one and only natural unit of human society.
Every now and then, some people speak about it and they get called names from all ends of the spectrum. During my early 20s, I was really confused by my own proclivity as I found myself equally but, at the same time, not fully in the camps of both/either libertarianism and/or liberalism. Eventually, I grew out of my desperately-label-myself life stage, but what’s left inside of me and my psyche has only become more powerful as I grow older, one of such being the awareness of individual sovereignty, which apparently plays a significant role as I craft my own ideology of this, for the lack of a better name, human-centric technology concept. I have to mention here that I quite fittingly named my computing-based ethics program, The Mill, after J.S. Mill and Harriet Taylor-Mill, and it’s going to be discussed in my next post. Back to our subject here, you might wonder if we need to adopt a more human-centric Internet model that celebrates individual sovereignty, how do we make sure we get to enjoy the convenience, efficiency and connectivity the current centralized model provides? I’ve previously addressed it from the resource side in Dawn. And, in this article, we’ll get into the consumer side, i.e., Lova. One thing I do need to point out first is that I am pretty early into the actual development of Lova and there’s a major hold-up. This hold-up also happens to be the most fascinating part of MOFFAS and I look forward to working on it.
In the notes on Panta Rhei, I mentioned that I was not sure who to name this digital system for personal domain/individual sovereignty after. I wanted it to be a woman and was debating between a few outstanding ladies. Then a couple of weeks later, the war in Ukraine broke out. It was heartbreaking to see how a sovereign country was invaded and tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives because of another country’s nationalism and a mad man’s USSR fantasy. It also made me feel extremely powerless because no matter how angry I was I couldn’t do anything to make the situation better. What can a broke not-even-very-smart nerd do? Well, I ended up doing the only two things I could think of. I built an Aware program into the Lova system that we are getting into now. In simple terms, Aware makes consumer activism easier in a digital age. If you care for Ukraine and want to contribute a little, then online protesting and boycotting the global companies that haven’t left Russia would be an easy start. Does it work? I’d like to believe so. Boycotting global companies can be tricky because these companies tend to have many subsidiaries, some of which are more consumer-facing and thus “sensitive” to public outcry. Therefore, simply keeping a parent company’s name in mind or saving a graph might not be enough or effective sometimes. What Aware does is to notify you whenever you run into such a brand anywhere on the Internet and let you show your proper attitude. Because computer is much better with data processing, it can be precise and exhaustive. On the backend, it links activists together by signatures to build public momentum as it reflects the nature of activism.
The second thing I did was to name this personal domain system after Lyudmila Pavlichenko (née Belova). You might know her by her other name, Lady Death, who is the most successful female sniper in recorded history with 309 confirmed kills. Pavlichenko was Ukrainian and fought valiantly in the World War II. I could not even begin to imagine the difficulty and horror she had to face on the battlefields but, at the same time, I found this snippet about her:
The higher the number of Pavlichenko’s confirmed kills rose, the more dangerous her mission assignments became. This included counter sniping, or engaging in duels with enemy snipers. Pavlichenko won every duel she fought, including one duel that lasted three days. In the end, Pavlichenko stated the enemy made “one move too many,” and became one of the 36 enemy snipers she took down.
I could not find a better person to dedicate the system to. Lova, taken from her birth name, symbolizes everything I want for my system — strength, freedom, courage and defiance. I’d also like to dedicate it to the brave Ukrainian people who are right now fighting on the other side of the world for their life, their dignity, their homeland and their uncompromisable future.
In the Mindset series, I laid out the criteria for a human-centric model. It’s interesting to note that when I was writing that series I hadn’t formed the ideas of anything like Lova, the Mill or GEN (although you could find a few hints of them here and there). The past half year witnessed my own unprecedented personal growth as a human being and an unapologetic progressive nerdy humanist. That transformation is so intense that I have started to experience a huge difference in how I perceive the world (some days I feel like I must be going mad). With that being said, the fundamental principles of this human-centric system mentioned in the original post still remain. Being a pantheist, naturalist and part-time Taoist, I strive to design and build systems that are natural, intuitive and human-friendly (technologies are tools to make our life better and easier). Being decentralized is natural, so is being free. Self-interest is natural, but altruism is also just as natural and important for survival (please see Biological Altruism). Lova is no exception. Like I vehemently argued for earlier, Lova builds platforms around users and, as a result, every user can transact through their own platform. To be able to deliver at the user’s level is the optimal and likely the only way to meet user-specific demands, reflect user-specific values and protect user-specific interests. Please note that here transact does not mean financial payments. Transact is a term for any interaction with another party. When you go visit https://www.cnn.com in your browser, it’s your browser transacting with the server that hosts cnn.com over its content. Transactions like this (and some more complicated versions) make up the world of the Internet. So what’s so special about this human-centric model? Let’s use Aware as an example to better understand the differences.
Here, I am on the website of Koch Industries to tell them how I feel about them. I got a moment of joy and my signature was sent to the backend to join the other activists. My cynical friend, Maggie, was unimpressed though.
“It doesn’t even do anything to their website. Nobody else could see it unless they use your extension and nobody uses your extension.”
I think this sentiment will be shared by many, but it is exactly what a centralized Internet industry has brainwashed people into thinking. When we see a web page in our browser, it actually takes place within our own domain, categorically, which means that square your mouse is gliding across is indisputably yours, even if you are in a state prison this still applies. This is the essence of the Internet that we do not talk about enough — we take sole and absolute ownership over our experience. In J.S. Mill’s voice, it is sovereign. The craziest part is that it is actually how it works technically. When I type kochind.com in my Chrome address bar, Chrome downloads the content provided by the server of kochind.com locally. I cannot claim ownership, not that I want to, over any proprietary material, but I claim full ownership of my experience of that ugly website. I can add codes to it, remove pictures of Charles Koch from it, and absolutely bring in my personal attitude. Now I further add a layer to connect all the other attitudes — baby, we have made our own kochind.com experience and, as far as we are concerned, a home page full of beavers riding rainbows is the kochind.com. It’s worth mentioning that I built a suite of social networking features into the extension pretty early on, from leaving comments to sharing videos, on that very dimension. It’s like explaining Rothko to someone that sees one for the first time — it’s not about how difficult it was to make those colors or brush them on a canvas, it’s about how you could feel yourself reflected in this experience. The painting, you and everything in between makes a Rothko. The data you download from other resource points, you and everything in between is what the Internet is to you.
Admittedly, it isn’t a very innovative idea (like I said it’s natural), but so far there’s no existing system that works like that. In the industry of software, there’s always a reason for something not to exist. Practicality could be one, and profitability could be another; but for me it is the technicality. For my lady Lova to reliably deliver such capabilities on the user side, I’ll have to solve a few technical problems first. I call them my trinity problem, as they are three problems that are embedded in one another, and, to me, they are also essentially one problem. Separately, they are authentication, encryption and representation.
The Trinity problem is the hold-up I am really excited about and its value, if solved, would far exceed the value of the entire MOFFAS project (the value of software depreciates over time and reaches its peak the second before you release it). It is also going to be a continuous long-term self-evolving project, which means until an ultimate solution is reached, there might be “seasonal” solutions to address the challenges that arise in the development of Lova and MOFFAS. In the following sections, I am only going to briefly comment on the three problems since the work is still in its very early stage. My time has been entirely occupied by web-end development, which honestly is not among my favorite things to do. Now that the web development side of Panta Rhei upgrade is mostly done, I can finally start working on what I love. Although if I am allowed to be so frank, I still have no idea how actually I am going to make it work (hahaha).
I’d like to mention that the consumer activism feature of Aware is the only feature I set global visibility for by default. In any other types of social networking-powered events, a user’s connectivity would be limited by his or her own friend list. With the dangerous power of disinformation and how easy and profitable it is to operate a troll farm, “voices” on the Internet cannot be fully trusted. It’s like these days e-commerce site builders would likely ship with user reviews as an add-on service and a bunch of Chinese restaurants in NYC all of a sudden are all five stars on Seamless with over a thousand ratings. It’s almost a satire (almost because it lacks depth). While such shenanigans are often harmless, other than getting you to order a bad lunch special, they can be dangerous to society once they cross certain boundaries and our laws have not caught up with it yet. It all depends on the hidden agenda. Is it just dumb and dishonest marketing or it’s something else, say, trying to control your mind and your vote?
Authentication has always been a challenge for human society, thousands of years before computer science was invented. Today when we are feeling great about how much technology has advanced, let’s remind ourselves that our authentication method has not really changed that much since that day Ali Baba shouted “Open Sesame” in front of the den. Right, I forgot about this giggle. I would be very disappointed if those students in 2072 still sharing the pains of their grandparents every time they forget their 256-character passwords (yes, given how computing power develops we will soon need to start writing sonnets for passwords). Jokes aside, we’ve reached a point that a new type of authentication is urgently needed. Think about it, in the “offline” world, signatures are still the main authentication method. I saw this in the news the other day that Keanu Reaves had to do a movie he wasn’t interested in because a friend of his forged his signature on the contract.
“I never found the script interesting, but a friend of mine forged my signature on the agreement,” Reeves said. “I couldn’t prove he did and I didn’t want to get sued, so I had no other choice but to do the film.”
(When I was growing up, school always asked us to have our exam papers signed by our parents. I ended up mastering my mom’s signature fairly well. As for my dad, he would proudly sign anything with my name on it, even if I got a 0.)
The fairly recent emergence of authentication app is one such attempt. However, it is quite inconvenient and sometimes quite a nuisance to involve a third-party app, not to mention that it adds to dependencies. With Lova operating in a decentralized way, not only is authentication needed at the account level, it is also required in every transaction in a trustless environment. So what shall we do?
My angle would probably be slightly different than many others. I see authentication as a problem of unique representation. Most authentication methods are focused on methodology — how. Is it a passphrase as key (“Open Sesame”) or sending the key to a linked address (“I’ll send your passport to the home address we have on record”)? I want to approach it from the more fundamental dimension — what. Although key-based authentication has proved to be reliable, it still works circumstantially and is, again, not very natural. Are we letting people in our house because we know them or because they announce the correct scrambled birthday digits through intercom? Logically, it embodies the classic fallacy of affirming the consequent:
(P -> Q,Q) -> PThe owner of this file has the password.
A man has the password.
The man is the owner of this file.The owner of this house lives in this house.
A man lives in this house.
The man is the owner of this house.
Of course, here we are assuming that the access is supposed to be granted to the owner only, not whoever has the right key.
At the core of my unlikely but still potential solution lies two main components, encryption and representation, the other two siblings of the Trinity family.
Of the three problems, encryption is the simplest. It’s also the the fundamental layer that would later provide instrumental support for the other two. In recent years, end-to-end encryption (E2EE) is getting more and more popular and has become the poster child for privacy (in some conversations, even, liberty). I haven’t deployed E2EE for MOFFAS because the chat plugin, the only module E2EE seems to be needed for, is from the community framework (UNA) author and it’s never fun to change someone else’s codes (I already did tons of that to further prove it). I might do a test run on some minor parts of the extension but, in many ways, it would seem like an overkill. On a side note, while it is difficult to hack E2EE from outside, it does require the server or device (if keygen happens on the client side) that assigns the keys to be trustworthy first.
However, this is not the encryption problem that I am going to focus on, nor is AES. The encryption program I am trying to develop is going to be specifically used in Lova and its main purpose is to make sure that Lova can effectively exchange and transact with others while keeping the user data secure. For example, Lova right now saves user’s personal data locally (in browser) and does not transmit that over to the server. Our on-site Lova (represented by Robbie) is awkwardly not synced with the extension, if the user has one.
I’ll have to figure out how to properly encrypt before I can offer to move people’s data out of local storage. It’s challenging because I do not plan to use symmetric key encryption. User’s Lova data will be highly personal as I develop GEN further (will be discussed another time) and I do not want the system to have access to it. This encryption mechanism is critical, because, in the future, users can store their own encrypted data with compatible server providers of their choices, hopefully, on the local community level and they shall be able to trust these providers blindly. These providers, like offices for Lova, will be handling licensing, provenance and security issues for the user. I have previously mentioned the possible implementation of a community node structure, a modified hybrid of the blockchain structure that is environmentally friendly and stable. When user interacts with others over the Internet, be it another user or a web asset, what really happens is the user’s Lova carrying his or her request transacts at a secure interface/channel generated by his or her server. It might sound complicated but, in fact, it’s not any more so than the current method. The main issue, though, is going to be performance since, inevitably, more processing and computing will be needed, and that’s where representation comes in the picture.
To me, the Trinity problem is in fact one big ultimate problem of unique representation. Maybe because I am terrible at math or I am a part-time Taoist that likes everything natural and simple, I find it rather strange that algorithms keep getting larger and more complicated. Now if we have to secure something, we’ll have to add layers of encryption protocols on top of each other because if we do not it’s outdated and every programmer has OCD. The logic behind it is to use exhaustive algorithms exhaust exhaustive algorithms (by the attack side). I am a firm believer in science, but isn’t science supposed to explain and interpret nature, which is simple, elegant and chaotic? Aren’t we trying to build our machines to be like a supercharged human brain (though so far it always seems that we are doing the opposite), one of the two best designed systems in the entire universe? Shouldn’t we, say, instead of looking for the next big function to add to our algorithm, think about what exactly are we striving for? For me, the ultimate inspiration is, in fact, us, raw, unpolished, lazy Homo sapiens. Human beings are unique entities that, in most cases, do not need authentication to prove to ourselves who we are; our brain is the best encryption algorithm and, as of now, still no fMRI could tell what we want to eat for dinner. The key is to have this unique representation, i.e., I am I and you are you (I will circle back to this Cartesian discussion when I talk about GEN, on which I have actually made more progress). I am not sure how many years it will take before we see a complete human clone, but I can’t think of a more brutal way to challenge the core of humanity and our beliefs about our own identity. The only thing I know is that we are far from ready for that challenge.
There are two phases in this representation problem, based on difficulty, complexity and insanity. The first one is to represent digital information. For example, the first thing on the giggle list — QR code — belongs in this category. How do we represent a URL? It’s obviously more difficult than we previously thought because the smartest people still came up with the QR code solution. I am joking — it was a great invention, way ahead of its time, especially considering how it could get picked up by cameras. We just have to keep on innovating. The authentication and encryption problems will largely find their solutions during this stage as well since most things that I am doing with MOFFAS is digital (it’s mainly an e-commerce environment after all).
“The only way to rectify our reasonings is to make them as tangible as those of the Mathematicians, so that we can find our error at a glance, and when there are disputes among persons, we can simply say: Let us calculate calculemus, without further ado, to see who is right”
— Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in a letter to Philip Spener, The Art of Discovery 1685, Wiener 51
While I am irrational, illogical at times, and, to some extent, crazy, I am not delusional — it will be a miracle and I’ll be able to bring my dad back to life if I could crack it in the next 10 years.
In the end, this article that was supposed to be about Lova turned out to be a gloomy but honest assessment of what I haven’t been able to do. To end it on a high note and echo with the shining Ukrainian spirit from afar, here’s another story of Pavlichenko.
After getting injured again on the battlefield in 1942, the Soviet Army decided that she’s too important to lose and reassigned her to a new role — propaganda. In late 1942, she arrived in the United States on a mission to rally American support for a second front for the Soviets in Europe. She then went on a press tour at the invitation of the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to speak to the American public. Although facing really sexist and awful questions (e.g., “Hey Mila, in America women wear short skirts!”), she made sure her voice was heard, loud and clear. In a speech given in Chicago, she said the following:
“Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?”
Still relevant today, if not more than ever.