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The Blown to Bits Interview: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion

Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, Harry Lewis discuss how technology is shattering centuries-old assumptions about privacy, identity, free expression, and personal control as more and more details of our lives are captured as digital data.
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Editor's Note: This is a transcript of an audio interview available as a three-part podcast also on InformIT:

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Jacob Hale Russell: Hello and welcome. I'm Jacob Hale Russell, a journalist and former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and I am here with Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen and Harry Lewis. Together, the three of them have written a new book called Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty and Happiness after the Digital Explosion. Hal, Ken and Harry, thanks for joining us. Maybe you could each say a brief word of introduction about who you are.

Hal Abelson: Hi, I'm Hal Ableson. I teach Computer Science at M.I.T.

Ken Ledeen: I am Ken Ledeen. I am President of a software company called Nevo Technologies.

Harry Lewis: And I'm Harry Lewis. I teach Computer Science at Harvard.

JHR: Great, welcome. I wanted to ask why you decided to write this book.

KL: We wrote because the transformations that come about from the fact that everything can be represented in bits in digital form snuck up upon us, bringing about changes that affect every aspect of our lives. A lot of these were unanticipated. Many of our assumptions that came from the physical world — keeping more information on paper required bigger and bigger file cabinets — don't seem to apply here. We can remember everything. We can bring links together that form pictures that we didn't ever have before. They've changed our notions of privacy. What we can do and how we go about doing it. We felt that everybody needed to learn about this and they needed to learn about it in a way that was accessible to just about every reader through stories and anecdotes and examples.

HL: Yeah, we really try to tie the technology changes to things that are happening in your daily life. I mean things like the fact that we don't think of ourselves as walking around with devices with which we can be tracked, our movements can be tracked — but anybody who is carrying a cell phone is doing exactly that. There are lots of examples where people are surprised by the consequences of pieces of technology that in one sense they find completely natural and normal and are completely used to. But, the by-products of the constant use of the technology (recording technologies, sensor technologies like cameras, database technologies) are sometimes quite astonishing even to those of us in the technical world.

HA: Part of what happens is that we don't really understand, none of us understand, the implications of all of this. It leads to enormous changes that are happening right now in the way we think about what's acceptable and what's not acceptable. So, for example, right now many people will say that it's really, really important to preserve privacy of medical records. That's a thing we're all used to saying and there are a lot of laws and regulations — HIPAA and things to do about that. Yet, at the same time, we're all being invited to put our medical records on Google and Amazon. We just don't know how to think about that.

JHR: If you look back over the course of history, it's constantly full on new inventions and things that people say are revolutionizing the world. Is there something unique or different about, you've titled your book "Bits," is there something special about bits that makes "now" different from other moments in past history?

KL: One of the things that makes bits completely different from all of the moments, even the great ones like the invention of the printing press, is that for the very first time information can be processed, analyzed, combined by machines. Before information was in the form of bits, if a human created it, only a human could understand it and do something with it. Now, that's not the case. Computers, these machines, can sift through enormous amounts of information and draw conclusions and find connections. That is a radical, radical change in what can be done, not just how it gets done.

HL: Yeah and I think another, I'd say a couple of things, one is that one our themes is that quantitative changes — increases in how big something is, how fast something is — sometimes result in quantitative changes. When things get big enough or fast enough, then suddenly the world kind of latches into a new state. The world is different. For example, this is just one kind of example, it has always been possible to write down things people say. There is the Congressional Record. It's been around forever recording every word, not forever, but for hundreds of years, recording every word that's said in Congress. But, now it's quite feasible, very, very inexpensively to record every word that any human being in the entire Earth says. If we decided tomorrow — if society decided, the governments of the world, decided, if every individual in the world somehow decided — that it was important to record every utterance that every human being, from their fist babble that they do as a baby until they die, to record all of that for posterity forever and record it in a form that could be searched, analyzed and understood, the technology no longer stands in the way. We may have social reasons for not wanting to do that. But, that's now a choice society has to make. You can't avoid the question by saying, "Well, it's impossible, so we don't need to worry about it." So, the technological changes: the increase in communication speed and storage speed as well as the one Ken was mostly referring to in computing speed, these things have changed the world in ways that we could have imagined perhaps, but now we actually to confront.

JHR: One of the themes of the book seems to be how quickly things are changing. Your book is full of some great stories. I was wondering if you could tell us a few examples of things that the digital revolution has enabled that even a few years ago we wouldn't have thought of or couldn't have happened?

HA: Well, one of the things that just happened yesterday is a story in the Associated Press about a research article that is about to come out in a couple of days where a researcher somehow got permission to look at the location data for 100,000 people without their knowledge, and has made large scale analyses of where people go. What they found out is that most people only stay within a couple of miles of their home. But, the point is now you have aggregate location tracking on entire populations. Eventually individual people could be identified, although they haven't done that yet. There is just massive analysis that you could do. Where you knew where really everybody was, all the time. We can't do that yet, but they will in a couple of years.

KL: What's interesting, Hal, in that case is that the location data that this person acquired was simply from the fact that those people had cell phones in their pockets.

HA: Right. Not even necessarily on, right?

KL: Right. They just had these, and so the location data didn't come by strapping little GPS things on their ankles or anything like that. This is obtained from their phone company.

HL: So, here's another example, which is one of my favorites. There has been face recognition research, being able to identify people from their photographs, for a long time in computer science. But, it's now cheap and it's now universal. When we think of face recognition, we kind of think of surveillance cameras in the stadiums or something like that, looking for criminals or people walking into the Super Bowl that are on the wanted lists. But now that it's a consumer item and now that everybody has put their family albums and their vacation snapshots up on websites like Flickr that are open for public view, you can now say "Here is a picture of Hal Abelson. Please find all the photos anywhere that anyone has put up on Flickr that have Hal Abelson in them." If Hal happens to be sitting at the next table in a restaurant where some tourist takes a photograph and catches his face in the background, that photo will now turn up. If that photo is time stamped and location stamped, which is also quite common now digitally and will become even more common, all of a sudden this random person discovers that Hal Abelson was in San Juan on June 6 or whatever when his wife thought he was actually on the West Coast. So, again, these things, they are kind of spy movie kinds of scenarios, but they are now well within the range of ordinary American consumers to exploit. We didn't think about them in advance, and we don't know how to think about them now.

HA: Yeah, and that's an important point that Harry says. It's not that government is doing massive surveillance. It's that this capacity grows out of just the distributed capabilities that we all have.

JHR: What's your hope that sort of a casual computer user who maybe doesn't think of their life as being dominated by bits, what do you hope that they'll take out of the book? What should the take home message be for someone who sort of doesn't tend to care that much about technology?

HA: I think the take home message is that this stuff is really happening. It's really practical. I don't know whether people should be scared or just delighted that these capabilities are there now. The take home message is that the world has changed.

HL: Yeah. We want people to understand it. We want people to understand and think a little bit. It's not just the casual computer users, because we are all computer users if we've got cell phones and cars. Cars are full of computers. Computers are imbedded in all kinds of places that you don't think about, and they are producing bits too; not just the one that has a keyboard and a screen on it.

KL: One of my hopes is, for starters, that readers of this book have a whole series of "ah-ha" moments where they say, "Wow, this book was just a blast to read." And they enjoy the whole process and are able to have just a whole succession of times where they say, "Ah ha, I just didn't know that. That really is a fascinating thing to learn."

JHR: One of the major themes of Blown to Bits is how this convenience of data has transformed privacy, and that's what we're going to be talking about right now. So, can you give us some examples of how privacy has sort of come under challenge in the digital age and what's causing that loss to privacy?

HA: I think parts of the messages are our entire notion of what we think of as privacy is changing. I think all of us probably remember, gosh, only probably five or six years ago, when it seemed striking and a little bit uncomfortable that someone could locate your house on a map, or you could link into a satellite picture that showed exactly where your house is, or even you could easily find your phone number and the phone numbers of your neighbors and put them all together. Today, this is now part of our world. We take it for granted that that can happen. The changes that happened around maps are happening around other kinds of technology right now. Even a year ago, there was tremendous concern that, say, the government could track your location by using your cell phone. Today there is a company called Looped where you can pay money to give your friends your constant cell phone tracking location. For many people this is now becoming part of their lives. What's happening is that there is a massive... you might call privacy/convenience trade-off that we are all faced with making, and it is rapidly heading toward saying, "Well, much more of our lives are in public. Much more of our lives are exposed to everybody. And gee, we like it that way."

HL: There is another factor too, which is that information that always was public is now extremely public. The whole notion of what public means is entirely different. I mean, for those people who knew my address and used to send me letters and certainly knew that, they didn't know whether I had a swimming pool in my back yard or not, but now they just type in my address to the Google satellite view of my house and they can determine that. That's a huge change. Or, another good example, since we're in the campaign season, it's now extremely easy to find campaign contributions. You want to know who your next door neighbor is giving contributions to or who in your neighborhood has contributed to John McCain's campaign or Hillary Clinton's campaign or Barack Obama's campaign? There are various websites you can go to do this; with just a few flicks of your finger just kind of while you're having your morning coffee or something, you can check out all of your neighbors. Campaign contribution data has been public for years, but it was very difficult to actually get to and sort through. It's changed the notion of privacy, as Hal says, and we don't know quite whether we like it. A lot of things that we at first don't like, we get used to, and as Hal says, we eventually sort of enjoy.


KL: I actually did that yesterday to one of the people that I happened to see. There is a website — just to offer up one of these in case our listeners haven't heard them — that I found particularly interesting. fundrace.huffingtonpost.com combines the federal elections commission data with Google maps so you can see what your neighborhood is like, see contributions. The dots are different sizes. It's one of these examples of quantitative changes having qualitative impacts. When you combine that with larger and larger numbers of people giving small donations, our political preferences and priorities are now widely available. This has happened in so many different ways. One of the things though, that is very, very interesting, is the fact that information is now widely accessible, widely available and public, that so much about us can be found so readily tends to be, or at least in our opinion, seems to be a real generation gap. This is a place where older people say, "Oh my god," and younger people say, "What the heck?" We see major differences in attitude.

JHR: Aren't we getting a lot of convenience in exchange for the privacy loss? Why should someone who is not, you know, I can see where if you were engaging in illegal activity, this might not be a very good time in which to do it, but if we're not criminals, aren't we getting all sorts of discounts and information that we wouldn't have been able to get before as a result of this? Why should the average person care?

HA: Well, there is tremendous convenience, but also things we don't think about. For example, there was a service that allowed you to expose your shopping lists to everyone and see what you bought. Of course there is nothing wrong with that, and it's completely innocent. But there was some college undergraduate who, his girlfriend found out in advance what he was getting her, and that was a little embarrassing for him. Some of these are not major kinds of what we would call privacy breeches, but they are unexpected consequences of getting this information out.

JHR: Aren't there laws that protect privacy, and is there anything wrong with the way they are currently written that doesn't take into account the digital age?

HL: Well, there are laws, and the laws are trying to adjust and the legislatures are trying to adjust, both the state legislatures and the national legislatures in this country and elsewhere. But, the efforts of society to try to adjust to the technology changes constantly either over shoot the mark or they kind of miss their goal and create problems; the laws themselves create problems. I mean, we actually open with an example of this in the privacy area. One of the first stories we tell in the book is of a woman who went off a highway and crashed, couldn't be found for a week, and was eventually located, still alive, barely, thank goodness, because of the cell phone location data. Through the pings from her cell phone, they knew which cell phone tower her cell phone was near, and when the police searched that area they found her. But, it took them a week to initiate the search because the privacy laws protected even the police from being able to go after that cell phone data until they had some reason to believe that she hadn't just taken off. The police can't legally go find you just because your husband walks in and says my wife is missing. She might have, you know, been running away from him. The privacy laws were written in such a way that they protected her right to privacy so much that even the fact that she was in a ditch off the side of a highway on the road between her home and her workplace was kept secret from the police. So, these laws are not easy to get right. By the time they do get right, the technology very often has moved on and there is some new problem that needs to be addressed.

JHR: One of the key themes of Blown to Bits seems to be that we have certainly more data at our fingertips than we ever have had before. But there is also this counterintuitive notion that having more data doesn't always make us better informed. Can you tell us a little bit about that idea?

HL: Well, it actually makes us simultaneously better and worse informed. Or simultaneously better informed and deceived about how well informed we actually are. So, my favorite example in this area is search engines such as Google and Yahoo. Google obviously is the dominate force now, which is an extraordinary, extraordinary piece of technology. It works, and it is simple. It's got so much index that's on the World Wide Web that you can now get at your fingertips. It's free. You can sit there and just play with it and discover all kinds of interesting things and follow links from place to place. Even for those of us in the technology world who understand it, how it works completely, the fact that it works at the scale that it works was really a remarkable thing for us to experience. But it doesn't have everything. It doesn't even have everything that's on the World Wide Web. If you can't find something using Google and you go use Yahoo instead you may find it just because of the way Google rank orders the results that it shows you versus the other. It also has some peculiar biases built into its algorithms about what it shows you. They are not peculiar really. Google is supported by the fact that people use it. That's why advertisers pay to have their ads shown on the screen. To make it useable, they show people the results that are most likely the results that people want to see, which is not the same as an academically dispassionate, purely even-handed view of the world. So one of our side bars — the book is full of side bars; you can just sort of flip through the book and read the side bars and get a pretty good gist of what the book is about — one of our favorite side bars is a search that Ken did and then we wrote up and put in the book. If you say "spears" to Google, because I don't know, you want to buy some spears to put in your kids dramatic productions or something like that, [in] the first ten pages of search results, there are only three results that are not for Britney Spears or her little sister. Those three are for a comedian, a company that makes piping, and a professor of Computer Science at the University of Wyoming. The reason why what Google shows you when you ask for spears is "Britney Spears" is because that's what most people are looking for, whether or not it happens to be the thing you were looking for. So, you get a sort of a distorted lens though which you view the world if you just assume that when you use your search engine you are seeing reality as it really is.

HA: I think what's important is that there is a lot of the Google algorithm that's actually kept secret and proprietary. That's their secret sauce that actually gives them such a tremendous advantage. So, they try to keep that secret. But inherently what's happening is that we have managed to combine, gosh, an enormous part of the information universe in one place. Then we try to provide general tools that let people look at this enormous, enormous complexity and you have to radically simplify it. So, despite the fact for example, to stay with Google, that you might find however many tens of thousands of references to spears or whatever, it is the case that most people who look at Google don't look past the first page. Something like only 5% of the people who do a Google search ever look past the first page. That's an enormous, enormous source of power in crafting the lens through which people look at the information world. A, we tend not to realize that and B, there are no ideas for what you might want to do about it. It might be that somehow the fact that all this information is accessible is creating a fundamental problem with the amount of data that is out there versus the amount of brain power with which individual people can look at it.

KL: Two thoughts occurred to me as I listened to Hal speak. One was that if you search for something using Google and then do exactly the same search using Yahoo or any one of [other search engines such as] ask.com or some of the others, quite remarkably to most observers you will get very different results. So, the presumption that so many users have that the search returns what there is, is thrown out the window when you do just the same search in more than one of these search engines. The second thought that occurred was that many users of these tools presume that there's some measure of credibility of value or worth or significance associated with the order in which these results appear on the screen. If somebody is up near the top of the list, they must have the best widget or the best answer or the best something, and that's not the case at all.

HL: Let me just come back on this question one more time. I think we want to also stress is that this really is a hugely empowering technology. Not Google, I mean, but just the combination of the fact that there is so much information on the web and it's so easy for people to get to. You have these wonderful examples like Wikipedia, which is, gosh, it's hard to imagine how traditional encyclopedias are going to stay in business any more because it's really extremely high quality because of the way it's been put together and worked over. It's as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica is, according to at least one study that I remember reading, and it has a lot more coverage. I use it for looking up mathematical theorems that people who write the math theorems know what they're talking about. I have to find some pretty obscure books in order to track all of those things down. I can just do it from my vacation home because it's all there on Wikipedia. So there is a rosy side to the enormous dissemination of knowledge. But, it's unregulated which is as it should be in a free society. That is to say, it is unregulated in a free society. The other down side of all of this, is that the same technologies are extremely effective information control mechanisms. So, if you go to China and use Google, for example, the picture of the world that you see is distorted not by Google's ranking algorithms, but by the fact that the government tells Google that if they want to do business there, there are certain results that they are not allowed to show. The same technologies that facilitate the flow of information into the minds of people in free societies, whatever degree of distortion is introduced by commercial interests, can be and is used in more oppressive regimes to control what the citizenry knows about the world.

JHR: On that subject of regulation and freedom, most people, at least within the United States, would tend to think of the internet as being a place where free speech and access to data is essentially unlimited, but you have a chapter talking about some of the limits there are even in a country like the U.S. on un-free speech and the free flow of information. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

HA: Well, the obvious one is copyright. Look at what's happening with music being distributed around the internet. You can argue with it that it's free flow of information or not, but certainly people are using the internet to distribute things that other people don't want them to, and that's been a massive issue for the recording industry over the last decade.

KL: We're also engaged in a struggle over protecting children from pornography and other harassment and enticement and other evils of the world, and the fact that the internet and the World Wide Web are used by both children and adults. This is an area where, in the United States, the legislatures are having a hard time getting it right. The U.S. Congress has had a difficult time with regulating free speech on the internet. They tend to try to pass anti-pornography laws designed to protect children, but wind up catching legal adult speech in the same net. We go on at some length about that. It's a serious problem. I mean, there was a law proposed, for example, that would have required libraries that receive federal support to monitor children's use of the internet to make sure that they weren't being harassed in MySpace and other such social networking websites. But, unfortunately, the definition of what a social networking website is would have caught Wikipedia in the same net and made it impossible for those kinds of sites to be used unless they were monitored as well. So, with everything changing so quickly: the terminology, the definitions and in general, the response time of legislative bodies to these technology changes and the political nature of legislation that gets proposed, have really created some conundrums that cut against the basic constitutional principles. Both copyright on the one hand, which has now been extended at the behest of the recording and movie industries to be far more protectionist for the authors and artists, as the Constitution refers to them, than the statutes were originally intended to be under the constitutional provision for copyright, and also in this other area of First Amendment rights to free speech.

JHR: We have mainly been talking about the internet, but does your book have lessons for those who might listen to the radio or watch television as well?

HL: Well, that's all bits too now. The radio and television broadcasts... very few of them are coming over the air in the way that they did in the 1950s. Most people now get their televisions broadcasts either by satellite transmissions or through cables, and that's all digital. Analog television sets are going to be a thing of the past within the year. That creates some very important changes to the regulatory apparatus because the whole authority of the federal communications system to regulate the broadcast industries was based on the premise that the spectrum was a scarce national resource. There was only so much radio spectrum in which television broadcasts and radio broadcasts could take place and that all the stations had to be squeezed in. The government got to allocate the space, and it could allocate the space in the spectrum just on the radio dial that is or the television channels to what it thought was acting in the public interest. With that, you can have many more digital broadcasts than you could analog broadcasts, and so the scarcity argument has kind of gone away. We can see the beginnings of that. This is why Howard Stern jumped to satellite radio — because the FCC couldn't regulate him there. It's not clear in the coming world that there's any more justification for FCC regulation of the content of digital broadcast than it has on an XM Radio broadcast.

JHR: All right, thanks very much. We've been talking with Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen and Harry Lewis. Together they have written the new book, Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty and Happiness after the Digital Explosion.

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