A (Very Incomplete) Conceptual Toolkit for Designing Rebellious Software

Although Snopes corrected my belief that Bill Gates said in an address to high school students, “Be nice to nerds. You may end up working for them. We all could,” the idea rings true. For what it’s worth, that quote comes from Charles M. Sykes, author of the 1996 book Dumbing Down Our Kids. But it sounds better when it’s attributed to Mr. Gates, the archetype of nerd-turned-businessperson success stories. The truth is, people like Gates – computer scientists, hardware tinkerers, entrepreneurs, product designers, and marketers who help explain the benefits of new technology to the general population – they really do run the world now, because they’re the ones who build, command and control the computers that mediate so much of our lives today.

Software developers and designers are endowed with a particular kind of power. As glaziers of the digital world, they make and frame the windows through which we ingest and interact with information. An emergent phenomenon of this power to define the rules of interaction and consumption is that aspects of their creations have taken on a degree of social significance. In short, there is a politics of application features.

Oftentimes, software developers and designers build in features that reject (or at least push against) norms established by the structure of law and protocol. Here, we will briefly explore a small set of concepts employed in many contemporary software products and platforms, and we’ll give a short analysis of how these concepts are brought together and remixed in three particular software products: FireChat, Hush and Symphony. Continue reading “A (Very Incomplete) Conceptual Toolkit for Designing Rebellious Software”

Cloaking The Swarm

Analyzing the role encryption and meshnet communication platforms play in post-Arab Spring protest movements: case analyses of Hong Kong & Ferguson, MO in 2014.

Note: This piece was first submitted as a paper for an academic project. I plan to expand parts of it into a much longer article. It was originally published online on my Medium blog.

There is little doubt that the advent of mobile communication platforms has radically affected how protests form and manage themselves. The speed and scale at which protesters can communicate their message, galvanize a base of support and report government infringement of their free speech rights is unprecedented. Governments, citizens and traditional media outlets treat “social media” as a monolithic entity, despite the fact that different communication and publishing platforms have diverging patterns of use, different sharing mechanics, and different levels of privacy protection. In this paper, we will examine the role a particular “genre” of communication platform plays in protecting citizens’ free speech rights in protest situations. By examining two cases from the recent past — the Hong Kong and Ferguson, Missouri protests of 2014 — we seek to demonstrate that decentralized and/or end-to-end encrypted mobile messaging platforms provide a first line of defense against government crackdown on free speech. To do so we will first explain the different facets of the “social media” landscape in two dimensions: the default scope of content sharing on a given network, and the degree of privacy protection afforded to users. Then we will describe the many similarities between the Hong Kong and Ferguson cases, and explain the role of decentralized and end-to-end encrypted messaging applications at the point where the cases diverged. Continue reading “Cloaking The Swarm”