Revealing Errors

Groups that campaign for free technology, like the Free Software Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tend to be supported primarily by technologists. Both groups have struggled to communicate their messages to non-geeks. I have written an article and helped create a new weblog, both called Revealing Errors, that attempt to address a root cause of this issue in what I hope is both an insightful and entertainingly manner.

Geeks support groups like the FSF and EFF because, as people who understand technology, they understand just how powerful technology is. Geeks know that control of our communication technologies is control over what we can say, who we can say it to, and how and when we can say it. In an increasingly technologically mediated age, control over technology is not only the power to control our actions; it is the power to limit our possible actions. Our freedom to our technology is our freedom, full stop.

This message fails to resonate with non-geeks but it does not fail because non-geeks are happy to hand over their freedom. It fails to resonate simply because the vast majority of people do not understand that technology, and control over it, is powerful enough to impact their freedom. Most people fail to see the power because, quite simply, most people fail to see technology. While we all see the effects of technologies, the technologies themselves are frequently hidden. We see emails but not mail transport agents. We see text messages but not the mobile phone network. Before one can argue that such systems must be free, one must reveal their existence. Technologists are keenly aware of the existence of these systems. To everyone else, they are completely invisible.

Marc Weisner of Xerox PARC cited eyeglasses as an ideal technology because, with spectacles, "you look at the world, not the eyeglasses." When technology works smoothly, its nature and effects are invisible. But technologies do not always work smoothly. A tiny fracture or a smudge on a lens renders glasses quite visible to the wearer indeed. Similarly, people see their MTAs when messages bounce. They see Windows on their ATM or phone when the system crashes. Technological errors are moments when usually invisible technology becomes visible. They are, in this sense, also an educational opportunity.

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I have recently published an article in Media/Culture Journal from the University of Melbourne within a special issue called Error. If you are interested in learning more about what I’m trying to do or looking at some examples, please read the article.

With support and ontributions from Aaron Swartz, I have also created a new weblog, Revealing Errors, that reveals errors that reveal technology by posting descriptions of errors with commentary on what the error reveals. I’ve posted a few examples there already and I will be updating it regularly. The goal is to help explain the power and influence of technology in the service of broadening the base of people who can get excited about freedom to technology.

Eventually, I hope to be able to communicate this message to a less technical audience. With that said, I hope that even seasoned technologists will learn things about their technological environment through the analysis and interaction. I hope readers of this blog will subscribe to it and, if possible, comment on and contribute to the project as it moves forward.

2 thoughts on “Revealing Errors”

  1. A  picture of an MTA token machine revealing its true nature as a DOS box

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/16941582@N00/1364441537/in/set-72157602820672512/

    Ever since RMS tried to explain what ‘Free as in Free software’ was to
    everyday folks, Digital technologist (aka Geeks) have tried, and will
    continue to try to sound the alarm about the consequences of digital
    technological control. At some point in the 19 Century, people’s
    technology outpaced their understanding of it and now its just ‘magic’.
    Cars used to be able to be fixed by everyday folks, now they contain
    Digital technology to operate its engine, to invade our privacy, to
    control the car from a remote location, and to help the occupant contact
    emergency services. Thus they are no longer under out complete control.
    I look forwards to finding ways to bring ‘free as in freedom’ to
    non-technologists.

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