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net.wars: Wimsey's whimsy

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 27 September 2008


One of the things about living in a foreign country is this: every so often the actual England I live in collides unexpectedly with the fictional England I grew up with. Fictional England had small, friendly villages with murders in them. It had lowering, thick fogs and grim, fantastical crimes solvable by observation and thought. It had mathematical puzzles before breakfast in a chess game. The England I live in has Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's vehement support for spiritualism, traffic jams, overcrowding, and four million people who read The Sun.

Wendy M Grossman

This week, at the GikIII Workshop, in a break between Internet futures, I wandered out onto a quadrangle of grass so brilliantly and perfectly green that it could have been an animated background in a virtual world. Overlooking it were beautiful, stolid, very old buildings. It had a sign: Balliol College. I was standing on the quad where, "One never failed to find Wimsey of Balliol planted in the center of the quad and laying down the law with exquisite insolence to somebody."

I know now that many real people came out of Balliol (three kings, three British prime ministers, Aldous Huxley, Robertson Davies, Richard Dawkins, and Graham Greene) and that those old buildings date to 1263. Impressive. But much more startling to be standing in a place I first read about at 12 in a Dorothy Sayers novel. It's as if I spent my teenaged years fighting alongside Angel avatars and then met David Boreanaz.

Organised jointly by Ian Brown at the Oxford Internet Institute and the University of Edinburgh's Script-ed folks, GikIII (prounounced "geeky") is a small, quirky gathering that studies serious issues by approaching them with a screw loose. For example:

  • could we control intelligent agents with the legal structure the Ancient Romans used for slaves (Andrew Katz)?
  • How sentient is a robot sex toy? Should it be legal to marry one? And
  • if my sexbot rapes someone, are we talking lawsuit, deactivation, or prison sentence (Fernando Barrio)?
  • Are RoadRunner cartoons all patent applications for devices thought up by Wile E. Coyote (Caroline Wilson)?
  • Why is The Hound of the Baskervilles a metaphor for cloud computing (Miranda Mowbray)?
  • It's one of the characteristics of modern life that although questions like these sound as practically irrelevant as "how many angels, infinitely large, can fit on the head of a pin, infinitely small?", which may (or may not) have been debated here seven and a half centuries ago, they matter. Understanding the issues they raise matters in trying to prepare for the net.wars of the future.

    In fact, Sherlock Holmes's pursuit of the beast is metaphorical; Mowbray was pointing out the miasma of legal issues for cloud computing.

    So far, two very different legal directions seem likely as models: the increasingly restrictive EULAs common to the software industry, and the service-level agreements common to network outsourcing. What happens if the cloud computing company you buy from doesn't pay its subcontractors and your data gets locked up in a legal battle between them?

    The terms and conditions in effect for Salesforce.com warn that the service has 30 days to hand back your data if you terminate, a long time in business. Mowbray suggests that the most likely outcome is EULAs for the masses and SLAs at greater expense for those willing to pay for them.

    On social networks, of course, there are only EULAs, and the question is whether interoperability is a good thing or not.

    If the data people put on social networks ("shouldn't there be a separate disability category for stupid people?" someone asked) can be easily transferred from service to service, won't that make malicious gossip even more global and permanent? A lot of the issues Judith Rauhofer raised in discussing the impact of global gossip are not new to Facebook: we have a generation of 35-year-olds coping with the globally searchable history of their youthful indiscretions on Usenet. (And WELL users saw the newly appointed CEO of a large tech company delete every posting he made in his younger, more drug-addled 1980s.)

    The most likely solution to that particular problem is time. People arrested as protesters and marijuana smokers in the 1960s can be bank presidents now; in a few years the work force will be full of people with Facebook/MySpace/Bebo misdeeds and no one will care except as something laugh at drunkenly late out in the pub.

    But what Lilian Edwards wants to know is this: if we have or can gradually create the technology to make "every ad a wanted ad" - well, why not? Should we stop it? Online marketing is at £2.5 billion a year according to Ofcom, and a quarter of the UK's children spend 22 hours a week playing computer games, where there is no regulation of industry ads and where Web 2.0 is funded entirely by advertising.

    When TV and the Internet roll together, when in-game is in-TV and your social network merges with megamedia, and MTV is fully immersive, every detail can be personalized product placement. If I grew up five years from now, my fictional Balliol might feature Angel driving across the quad in a Nissan Prairie past a billboard advertising airline tickets.


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    Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).