Matthew Burton

Tag: technology and society

Should We Let Apple Decide What We Read?

The below essay appeared in The Guardian on January 26, 2010, in advance of Apple’s public announcement of the iPad.

On Wednesday, Apple is expected to unveil a product that will be, among other things, a competitor to Amazon’s Kindle. That will be a crucial test for Apple, and for society. If the company lives up to its reputation for revolutionizing media, this new product and its successors will one day replace physical books. The test for Apple is in whether they try to control what we read. The test for society is whether we let them.
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On the Weaponization of the Collaborative Web

Around this time yesterday, I, along with countless others, tried to bring down the Web sites of Iran’s information and justice ministries, and state-sponsored media outlets. The idea was to silence the pro-Ahmadenijad, anti-dissent messages coming from these outlets, and in so doing, strengthen the opposition protests in Tehran.

You didn’t have to be computer smart to take part: a developer in San Francisco had set up a push-button tool that would, upon your click, immediately start bombarding 10 Web sites with requests. I clicked Start, and in the 10 little boxes below, I could see the pages load and reload. About half of them were already down.

This was exhilarating. The goal was to promote democracy, and I could actually watch as it happened. Empowering.

But there’s more to it than that. I’m conflicted about the virtue of this idea. I’m still trying to sort out my thoughts about what happened, but I know that we will be talking about yesterday morning for years to come. We turned our collective power and outrage into a serious weapon that we could use at our will, without ever having to feel the consequences. Network warfare became available to the general public. That is frightening. Here is how my thinking evolved throughout the day:

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Upgrading Congress For the Future

Personal Democracy Forum and TechPresident recently sponsored an essay contest:

When the Framers met in Philadelphia in 1787, they bravely conjured a new form of self-government. But they couldn’t have imagined a mass society with instantaneous, many-to-many communications or many of the other innovations of modernity. So, replacing that quill pen with a mouse, imagine that you have to power to redesign American democracy for the Internet Age. What would you do?

Below is my blue sky response, which was selected for publication. You can order the whole book from Amazon.

NOTE: The first three paragraphs below were inserted post-publication and do not appear in the printed version.

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Richard Feyman—possibly the most brilliant physicist of his generation—once said that “nobody really understands quantum physics.”

We’ve had the Web for 16 years, and I think I can safely say that nobody really understands it, either. Sometimes we think we do, but then it surprises us with something new. We know a lot about what it’s done so far, but none of us know what lies ahead.

In spite of this, here we are, proposing Constitutional changes based on our elementary knowledge of the Web. Such changes would become obsolescent as quickly as the Web churns out new surprises. So let’s not get too eager to cure our net anxieties. Instead, let’s prepare our government to face all tech revolutions, not just the current one.

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