Ethics and Law in New Media/Ubiquitous Computing

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Note that this week's two topics are, in a way, two aspects of the same phenomenon.

A quite good and simple explanation of the term is provided by [L] Wikipedia: "Ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) integrates computation into the environment, rather than having computers which are distinct objects. Other terms for ubiquitous computing include pervasive computing, calm technology, things that think, everyware, and more recently, pervasive Internet. Promoters of this idea hope that embedding computation into the environment and everyday objects would enable people to interact with information-processing devices more naturally and casually than they currently do, and in ways that suit whatever location or context they find themselves in."

So the ubicomp (to use the shorter term) is the transparent layer of information technology that will increasingly surround us in the future. The problem is - is the ubicomp alone sufficient?

Social hackerism[edit]

Pekka Himanen in his 2001 Hacker Ethic and subsequent The Information Society and the Welfare State (with Manuel Castells) has proposed the 'hacker model' as a base for network societies of the future. The old, fixed models may have worked well in the industrial societies of old, but the network society which has heavy emphasis on innovation will be better served by a model which combines intrinsic drive towards new things with free, informal processes as well as overall inclusiveness (the model which is well seen at free software development, allowing informal, network-based hacker communities successfully compete with large, established companies). Ubiquitous computing can be viewed as a crucial ingredient in social hackerism. For comparison: the vision of Estonia 2010

Around 1995, a development programme called "Estonia 2010" was initiated in Estonia to predict and analyse future trends.The four possible scenarios proposed were

  • "Militaristic information oasis" - "little angry country" (like the one in Middle East) with good technological progress but little openness and overall freedom. "Military Estonia".
  • "South Finland" - soft-spoken, well integrated into Europe (and decisively distanced from Russia), but with low innovation capacity. "Subcontractor Estonia" - perhaps the closest to current reality.
  • "The Ferryman" - well-developed, but fully transit-based economy. Innovation and ICT are only to serve the main goal and thus of inferior importance. "Merchant Estonia", which is quite alike to the 'Singapore' scenario of Himanen seen in a previous lecture.
  • "Grand Slam" - the best realisation of both geographical location (transit) and innovative and educational potential. "Innovation/ICT Estonia".

While the last scenario (the Grand Slam) was definitely seen as the most desirable, it did generally lack a central feature of Castell & Himanen's "hacker society", namely caring or social cohesiveness that characterises Himanen's Finnish ideal. Estonian Grand Slam was to be a society of brilliant and innovative businessmen rather than hackers (to look for a parallel from IT world: Skype rather than Linux). Therefore, even the best of the scenarios would probably have been insufficient in achieving network society - due to lacking the social dimension.

What does the ubicomp need?[edit]

The Finnish HIIT 2006 report lists the following points:

  • Communication infrastructure: a gigabit for everyone. The basic physical medium which is powerful enough to carry a wide variety of services (Internet, TV, radio, phone, security, health care for elderly people etc).
  • Information security infrastructure: safety and reliability for everyone. Includes clear hierarchy of different networks as well as public encryption services and other privacy measures.
  • Information infrastructure: mobilization of information as raw material for services. Includes good information management and avoidance of various artificial obstacles in the way of information flow.
  • Service infrastructure: open service architectures and interfaces. Again, artificial obstacles like proprietary standards and interfaces should be avoided.
  • From idea to service: promotion of innovation. Includes suitable methods and facilities for supporting innovation (various foundations etc).
  • Legal regulation: defining the basic rules of the ubiquitous network society. Especially important is to find a balanced approach to the former "intellectual property rights" which recently have proved to be ineffective.
  • From research to services: study of the ubiquitous network society. Covers the sustenance measures of the network society itself.
  • From ubi-Finland to ubi-Europe: the European dimension of the network society. To create an isolated ubicomp island in a relatively less developed wider region does not fulfil its purpose.

Have a cake and eat it too?[edit]

One of the central questions asked by various thinkers in recent years is: is an information society incompatible with the welfare state, or can those two exist side by side? While Estonian visionaries tend to stress competitive economy of information age, there are other views as well.

Pekka Himanen describes the four possible scenarios for Finland in his Challenges of the Global Information Society of 2004. As reviewed in previous lecture, the Silicon Valley, Singapore and Old Europe scenarios each have their shortcomings. As a result, Himanen proposes the fourth way, based on the ten values which can bring along the network society while retaining the central traits of the earlier welfare state.

  1. Caring - equality and justice, fairness and universal inclusion as well as equal opportunities: the key ideas of the welfare state. Stressing caring would help prevent the negative consequences of overcompetitive scenarios.
  2. Confidence - Confidence is partly based on caring, being also a basis of the welfare state. Confidence gives safety, makes fruitful communality possible and prevents an atmosphere of fear.
  3. Communality - yet another foundation of the welfare state, meaning being part of a larger community, living with others and doing things together.
  4. Encouragement - the main idea is "I do not want to take anything away from others; instead, I work to make it possible for everyone to have more."; includes positive spurring and stimulation. Another aspect here is the 'post-scarcity' notion also made by Yochai Benkler: resources are not scarce - there is plenty for everyone. The antithesis of communality and encouragement would be an overall atmosphere of envy.
  5. Freedom - in essence "Whatever adults do of their own free will is all right, provided that they do not hurt other people"; includes the rights of individuality: the freedom of expression, the protection of privacy and tolerance for differences.
  6. Creativity - this includes creative passion, need for self-fulfilment and personal growth (also the main points behind the hacker ethic in general). Excessive control in society would in turn reduce both freedom and creativity.
  7. Courage - required to realise the other values. One has to be courageous to attempt new, unknown things and sometimes to resist overwhelming negative circumstances.
  8. Visionariness - refers to the courage to dream, the willingness to make this world a better place; is effectively a combination of courage and insight.
  9. Balance - refers to the balance between the other values, sustainability and moderation.
  10. Meaningfulness - the meaningfulness of development depends on the extent to which development promotes intrinsic values, such as the classical values of wisdom, goodness and beauty. Meaningfulness can be crystallised in the following question: "Will this make my life more meaningful?" Ultimately it boils down to the fact that economic success alone is insufficient to create a sustainable society.

In these ten values, Himanen has quite ingeniously mixed together the European values from three historical contexts:

  • the Classical values - justice, courage, temperance (moderation) and wisdom
  • the Christian values - faith, hope and love
  • the Enlightenment values - liberty, equality and fraternity

While definitely idealistic, Himanen's approach to network society is thought-provoking indeed.


To Do[edit]

Write a blogged opinion:

  • For Estonians: compare the current situation in Estonia to the four scenarios of "Estonia 2010". Which one is the closest to the reality? For others: if your country had outlined similar scenarios, what could they have been?
  • How important do you deem the social cohesiveness (or caring) in reaching ubicomp?