Category Archives: Uncategorized

Skipping Poem

Every day, rope in hand, I

Open the door.

First thing, the soft smell of flowers

And new greening.

Second thing, the birds

Cooing, calling, tussling,

Floating, blasting like torpedoes

Over treetops, above the flats.

Third thing, breathe in

Cool in the morning, and no sound

But swish of rope and slap of feet.

Step step step

Stop.

At eight thirty

The man from Number Seven comes

Newspaper under his arm and

Fog of cigarette smoke over

Sloping shoulders

In an ancient oiled jacket

Every day:

“Good morning”

“Getting fit?”

“Trying!”

“Good morning, y’all right?”

“As well as can be”

“Good morning”

“You’re making progress, girl”

“Good morning”

“Well – we have to stop meeting this way”

Every day, I hold out hope that

I’ll see him tomorrow walking

Share thirty seconds of Cockney greetings,

Keep him alive.

Egg Poem

 “No eggs, you can get them at Lidl but only two”

Says the butcher, handing over bags of chops and mince.

He wonders why I’m not buying more.

No eggs in the supermarket

Someone heard there were eggs at M&S

At Blackfriars, someone’s mum in Lincolnshire had eggs.

We always have eggs.

Eggs in a Tupperware, blanketed in paper towel

Set on the wall on the patio.
Eggs in a box with a decoration drawn by a young friend

Pushed over the road in a doll’s carriage.

“There were no eggs”, my friend says, then

“Eggs from my mum

Eggs offered when I walked down the street”

Eggs at the wholesalers: we can buy them as a group.

Egg discussions in mobile chat groups

Along with stories of coping in a tiny flat

Being worried about health, work, pay, the future.

Laughing.

Standing in the backyard with applause bouncing off the tower block, watching Venus hanging in the air, clapping and yelling for people who can’t hear because they are inside tending the sick, sheltering the dying.

There are no eggs, they say.

We always have eggs.

Quarantine Poem

 
 
“Your meeting attendees are waiting!”
Maybe, everyone has been waiting
for my time and toil to be delivered
on time and seamlessly through video chat.
No need to heat the office or water the plants I brought back
stuffed into a bag on the side of my bicycle.
 
The letter from the school is printed in Comic Sans
which easier to read if you have a disability:
“A large amount of the learning will need to be carried out online so will therefore obviously need to be supervised by an adult at all times.”
 
And then,“Your meeting attendees are waiting!”
“Call for papers”
“Call for research grants on issues related to the current crisis”
“URGENT”
“Join our live stream”
“Remote event!”
 
I am not a brain on a stick;
I am a body in a house.
The bodyhouse for a child who is here, hot in the sun
Wanting something, wanting nothing
Wanting to leave, wanting to be held tighter.
Tighter, against the fear, the knowledge
that a sunny day was never going to promise a day of adventure
that a trip outside the house was illicit
that your friends couldn’t be trusted, only images on the screen.
 
Fall into my arms.
Hold me.
Will it ever end?

In the Time of Corona 3: Silence

The foxes are yelling. The neighbours let out the bath water at the same time as me. But no cars. No planes. The lockdown is coming; the schools are closed now (but my daughter decided this morning that she couldn’t go to school. I could not have forced her, not with the safety of everyone else at school in mind) and soon we will be required by law to stay at home.

The silence has come. Eastenders has stopped filming. There is no Eurovision song contest. No plays performed, no orchestras filling halls with people rustling their sweet wrappers in the moment before the downbeat. This withdrawing is painful, and the silence in central London is both thrilling and terrifying. What fills that silence? Opportunistic crime? Internal mourning?

The silence is also the premonition of death. The very fact that London will soon be under lockdown is because the deaths have outpaced the models. The hospitals are full, and the doctors are struggling. I read the Imperial paper too, and I can see myself, my neighbourhood, on that curve.

Southwark has the most (recorded) cases in the country, and it looks from the numbers (as I understand) that the doubling of the case rate is happening within 48 hours. Mathematically speaking that is f**ing terrifying. I hope my math skills are poor and the reality is not that the healthcare system is already dangerously overloaded and about to collapse.

The silence is an oddity in this busy place. It seems almost shocking. I want to write that it bodes ill, because it does. Because being locked down without people, without song, without solidarity is dangerous. However, the silence is also a space for something else to grow. We stay away, stay in, stay quiet as a huge effort to spare those we love. Our neighours, our friends, our people.

And we hope. We hope that out of the silence will emerge a quieter life, an easier life. This is my hope, although so far I feel far from being able to achieve it.

In the Time of Corona 2: Sustaining

Today was the first day of teaching online, and between the many online meetings with students and those with research team members here, there, and everywhere I spent the entire day at my desk, facing my small screen!

Into my day, and my house, passed a number of people: a delivery person dropping off a package. The BT engineer who was tasked with fixing my jittery broadband, who alternated between crawling around under my desk and pulling out wires from the cabinet at the corner of the block. My friend, who is a builder and was finishing the tiling and carpentry in my kitchen. Into my house they come, still working (because still needing to be paid, and because the jobs were still on their docket). The engineer asked me at the door, before he came in, whether anyone in the house had the corona virus. No, I said. Well, as far as I know. That I didn’t say. He washed his hands before he left.

My friend finished his work swiftly, drank a cup of tea while I sputtered on Skype and then vanished with a wave. His wife is home, but his work can’t be done remotely. In usual times, he renovates fancy kitchens for clients in Kensington and Chelsea. This week, he’s mostly sorting out the jobs for friends that he usually fits in on evenings and weekends.

Picking up my daughter at school the head teacher is nervous. He is not a nervous man. There has been no information he said, on when they are to close. The school is half empty, with many staff at home, already unable to come to work because of failing immune systems or sick relatives. He’s worried about keeping them safe, about continued access to the right equipment and supplies to keep the school clean.

As my work shifts to being undertaken in different areas of an 11-inch optical screen, these men sustain the physical, digital and social infrastructure of my life. And in the current moment they put themselves at risk to do so. We think of caring work as women’s work, but sustaining infrastructure, caring for the physical environment and the strategic level of the social environment is also care. And right now those carers are at risk.

On the other side of the world, my brother is taking unpaid days off from work, to avoid being on building sites and in busy buildings in his immune-compromised state. Is he too a care worker? In his case, the risk seems too high, for this virus could kill.

Care, risk, sustaining. These acts, these jobs, these responsibilities and relationships seemed so easy to take for granted. Before.

In the Time of Corona 1

The sun in the early afternoon is very warm. BBC 3 is playing lieder music and dimly I can hear the toddlers who live next door fussing before their afternoon nap. Outside I see birds and some brazen field mice foraging on the bits I dropped in the garden. It is as if everything were normal. Abnormally normal.

And yet. A stillness hangs in the air. An airplane has just passed by, an ordinary thing here in Central London. And yet. Reading the news has informed me that airlines are massively cutting back their flights, so perhaps this ordinary tearing of the air will become more extraordinary.

The UK’s official government policy has not yet enforced the closures of schools nor workplaces. It is however informing individuals to self-isolate, and this, bit by bit, takes apart the fragile infrastructure of society. As privileged folks like me, with jobs done at a laptop start working at home, stop travelling, the numbers of people circulating around this busy city start to drop.

It would be tempting to think of this time of waiting, this gathering stillness as the defining experience of this time of viral spread.

And yet.

What is happening now is not the story of this crisis. This is not a narrative of this time, but of several other times. In one sense, what is happening now is the preparation for future viral times. Mutual Assistance groups are forming, loosely, gathering together the well-intentioned. The one I’m following seems largely to generate influence in the here and now by informing the well-intentioned about how much work their neighbours are already doing running food banks, community organizations and support networks – as well as linking up individuals who have been isolated and need someone to run to the pharmacy.

In truth though, these mutual aid networks are not for now. They are building capacity for the time when the real narrative of the pandemic begins: the time when many people are infected, and so many are sick that seeing doctors is impossible. When the privilege of being healthy also embeds the responsibility to care for others – and not by adding to a spreadsheet or getting a prescription but by feeding the hungry, washing the feverish, cleaning the floor. Add to this the terrifying realization that many people who are immuno-compromised may not be with us when we emerge on the other side.

The other time of the virus is far longer, encompassing both the recent past and the longer future. This time of the virus includes its origins in animals whose habitats were encroached upon and who became (like people too) enmeshed in a persistent logic of capitalism that has destroyed the regenerative capacities of the earth’s ecosystem, and perhaps the regenerative capacities of people too. I talked a little bit about this in an interview here – but in my hopeful moments I like to entertain the thought that the practice of a quieter, slower pace of work may begin to set the groundwork for the changes of practice that have been necessary for so long – to assuage the climate crisis and to create the capacity for a society capable of regeneration and survival.

There are darker ends to the narrative of course. A country destroyed. A country in mourning for people it failed to save. Individual sadness, anxiety and grief brought on by social separation. Further distress for the people least capable of sustaining it: people living in refugee camps, recent arrivals who don’t feel at home, people struggling to feed their children or who are experiencing violence at home.

And yet.

As the sun slants away and the animals flit in and out of view, I feel the change of times.

Ethics in Practice: Bravery and Creativity

This is a repost from https://www.adalovelaceinstitute.org/beginning-just-ai-bravery-and-creativity-for-ethics-in-practice/

I’m very excited, and a little nervous, to be starting a network focused on understanding and reframing justice and flourishing in the age of AI. Here, I build on the work that we did at VIRT-EU developing ideas about virtue, capability and care to focusing on the idea of flourishing in relation to sustainability (both in terms of accessibility and repairability of technologies and systems) and justice (encompassing both the capabilities of technology developers and an ethical orientation towards care in terms of its consequences). My aim in this network is to begin by understanding the current positions researchers have taken towards ethics, and by focusing on some specific tricky problem areas, to develop new capabilities to work differently, across disciplines. As I wrote below, this is daunting, hence my call for bravery and creativity.

The UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Ada Lovelace Institute are partnering to establish a network of researchers and practitioners to join up the study of AI and data-driven technologies with understandings of social and ethical values, impacts and interests. The JUST AI (Joining Up Society and Technology in AI) network will build upon research into AI ethics, orienting it around practical issues of social justice, distribution, governance and design. Using a collaborative approach, it will investigate and create research capacity around ‘just AI’ – AI that is ethical and works for the common good and is effectively governed and regulated. The network’s name also points to the need for work on the social and ethical facets of AI to cut through the ‘hype’ or techno-solutionism that often accompanies AI research.

Instigating the JUST AI network

I’ve recently agreed to instigate the formation of the network to convene people working across disciplines and find new ways of linking research and artistic communities together.

In my work, I have been interested in how it’s possible to shift organisational structures and patterns of work (especially in technology development) towards modes focused on collective benefit, regeneration and mutual support. The acronym Joining Up Society and Technology in AI resonates with my longstanding interest in how people create technologies in relation to the values they hold, and how we all respond to their influences. Using AI in the title gestures to the influence of discussions about AI, data and automated systems, and as a general term gives us lots of space to work across the span of techno-social systems in these areas.

Ethics in practice

Looking across tech cultures, doing the right thing or doing good is often evoked as a core value. The network presents an amazing opportunity to develop research into how ethics is practised, as well as to shift the ways that research, policy and practice on ethics are performed.

We are bound up in an ideology of progress through technological development – and want to use our power to shift this progress in a particular direction. But there are important questions to answer about whether aiming for virtuous self-improvement can influence technology within a broader setting of powerful companies, venture capital expectations and continuing injustice often worsened by the adoption of data-based technology.

In this context, we need to begin thinking more of ethics as a practice, and consider how practices intersect with power, and how both may be changed. The end goal of any of these changes, challenges and directions of travel is to enhance the capacity for what philosophers call eudaimonia – human flourishing.

Lots of areas of flourishing are impacted by new data/AI systems, such as health, care, transport and the physical environments of our cities. Of course, in the climate emergency, flourishing isn’t only a human concern; environmental justice and the actions needed to bring forward regenerative culture are important for ensuring long-term flourishing for all living beings.

We need to understand how to enable people to engage with the opportunities and constraints that their life situation presents, and to not only develop themselves but to support others in creating new conditions. Philosophically, taking care and creating capability are also part of the conversation.

The JUST AI network seeks to move work on ethics away from discussions of consequence and towards consideration of practices in relation to long-term flourishing, care and development of capability.

Bravery, creativity and change

In my work I gather empirical evidence that shows the challenges presented by data/AI technologies; for our systems of care, for the places we work and live, and for the living environment of which we are a part. Addressing these challenges requires bravery and creativity, a commitment to connecting and respecting different expertise and ways of working, and open-mindedness about possibilities. I have been accused of being an optimist – and exploring ‘just AI’ with researchers and practitioners will, I hope, provide some new ways forward. I’m so excited to start.

Understanding and Ethics

Some helpful folks have pointed out that my last post concerned my birthday. It also concerned some of my theoretical and conceptual interests, which are oriented around the capacity to shift organizational structures and patterns of work (especially in technlogy development) towards modes focused on collective benefit, regeneration and mutual support. This post reflects on the last year of my work and outlines where my thinking has come, while also acknowledging the AMAZING projects I’ve been working on.

Understanding and Explanation: Understanding Automated Decisions

In Januaury, I completed the Understanding Automated Decisions project, (FINAL REPORT HERE) linking a research team at LSE with designers at technology studio Projects by IF to show possible ways of explaining how automated systems, including AI systems, make decisions. The delight in this project was in connecting MSc student researchers Nandra Anissa, Paul-Marie Carfantan, Annalisa Eichholtzer and Arnav Joshi with Georgeina Bourke and her team from IF. We all debated, gesticulated, scribbled, schemed, plotted and blogged our way to an interdisciplinary discussion of explanation and its potential value, culminating in a large and very orange gallery show at LSE.

Some of this work has been focused around specific start-up and small company projects. For the first phase of this project we built prototype interfaces to show how on-demand insurance rates are calculated based on risk factors associated with specific data, based in the academic research on . This kind of ‘explanatory interface’ works well when data streams are straightforward. In even the simple form of machine learning, where data from previous behavior would be processed to generate risk calculations, the interfaces that seem easiest to design are unlikely to fully explain the process of machine learning.

Things become even more complex in the case of federated learning, as we discovered at the end of the project through exchanges with Google’s UX team (here’s IF’s blog on this project). The balance between security, privacy, and explanation of the processes through which information is shared between personal devices and centralized network services that can run global updates is very difficult. We proposed that perhaps individual users should be able to trust third parties to manage how closely a model fits with a set of parameters that are important for individuals. Here’s how IF’s designers envision this:

Ethics and Technology development: “doing the right thing”

As I worked on Understanding Automated Decisions I was struck by how important my collaborators, not only at IF but within small organizations, saw the idea of ‘doing the right thing’. This was also something that we saw in the dozens of startups that we engaged with in the Virt-EU Project. Many small companies argued that while ethics was important, it was too slow or difficult (or perhaps would be best done by people outside of organizations). Others, though, oriented their business towards doing  ethics, especially within ‘tech for good’ companies. “Doing” vs “postponing” ethics provides a way of thinking of ethics as a practice rather than as something that needs to be complied with.

To put it another way, making interfaces to explain was a way of doing ethics – where we wanted to be doing the right thing.

Across tech cultures, doing the right thing or doing good is often evoked. We are bound up in an ideology of progress through technological development, and want to use our power to shift this progress in a particular direction. Now that various scandals have revealed how the current models for technology development and the tech industry create harm, new perspectives are needed.

Beyond Consequentialism

The consequentialist ethical tradition, where the ‘goodness’ of decisions is assessed in relation to their measurable arguments, is often applied to reflections by technologists on the responsibility for creating new technologies like AI or connected systems.  The Moral Machine experiment, for example, approached concerns about the ethics of connected vehicle systems by accumulating a list of moral conundrums that these systems are likely to encounter.

As I have experienced over decades, the hope of technologists that they can do the right thing actually also suggest that virtue ethics is a key part of cultures of technology production. A reading of Shannon Vallor’s book Technology and the Virtues suggests that many different philosophical traditions suggest ways of looking at good actions related to technology. Virtuousness is often evoked in projects that evoke a ‘hacker ethic’, which has been described as following liberal individualistic principles and in conflating means and ends. Analysing hacker ethics as forms of virtue ethics repositions the virtue ethics critique of technology development. ‘doing the right thing’ – or ‘not being evil’ can motivate opposition to regulatory action focused on responsibility or resistitution in cases of harm.

Philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe argues that that the main focus of virtue ethics should be on how an ethical person would behave when faced with a particular ethical dilemma. Such a positioning holds a commitment to concepts such as excellence and virtue, instead of implications, utility or greatest good for the greatest number as in the case of consequentialist or utilitarian ethics.

Flourishing, Capabilities, Care

However, the foundation of virtue ethics is not only oriented towards goodness. It’s also fundamentally focused on human flourishing – eudaimonia. Personally, I believe that flourishing should include the flourishing of ecosystems, living environments and the capacity for continued life on earth. Therefore, a strict virtue ethics perspective that focuses only on human flourishing in relation to a set of individual virtues defined primarily by Western enlightenment values fails to account for the need for others to flourish in relation with us: an ecological, systems-based ethics that underpins Donna Haraway’s work on interspecies kinship and the many traditions of thought that consider a cosmopolitics – from Zoe Todd’s description of Inuit philosophy of the climate to Isabelle Stengers’ cosmopolitics of Gaia.

In the next months, I’ll be working with colleagues from Virt-EU to identify how two other aspects of ethics  might be helpful to consider in more detail. These are the capabilities of not only individuals but organizations to act, and the care that is required to sustain functions of systems, at practical scale.

The capabilities of start-ups, for example, are influenced by the political-economic context they operate within, the ways of generating financing, attention, and the skills for product development.

From a care perspective we could think about users of technologies as participants and producers of knowledge, not only of value. Quantified Self and wearable technologies are important to think about here, since previous research identifies that data streams from intimate connected devices are often important aspects of relationships of care between people: Laura Forlano writes vividly of the logic of care behind sharing data needed to maintain life with a disability.

There is much more to say here, but briefly, it has become clear to me as I reorganize my way of doing scholarship, that focusing on flourishing, capabilities and care transform the way we can think of knowledge being made, as well as providing points of practical intervention in technology development that can address the reductive nature of focusing on consequence or narrow individual virtue.

Where Next

After a year of reflection and regeneration, my next work will be focusing on identifying and understanding the hybridizing knowledges that emerge across contexts of difference (human/non-human, socio/technical, indigenous/migrant). This identification positions openness to and respect for many forms of knowledge as core values. By focusing on hybridizing of contexts and knowledges, across space and time, new ways of knowing and being may emerge, as they are urgently needed.

On 40

In the morning, tomorrow morning, I will be forty. It seems a time of reckoning, of all the things I expected and all the other ones that happened instead.

When I turned thirty I threw a great big party at a country house and invited all my friends. We swam in a pond and drank too much wine and made a big potluck dinner on the terrace. I wore a princess crown for the whole day. Earlier that week I’d handed in my PhD thesis and started a party that lasted for days and days, ending in that potluck. The previous month I’d proposed to my boyfriend and he’d accepted. I had a job waiting for me in Oxford. Here’s me submitting the PhD with my brother – I’m relieved, but also anxious about everything to come.

During that 30th birthday week I listed in my mind a few things that I was *sure* I’d do before I was 40. Write a book. Have a baby. Get a ‘proper job’. Get married and live happily ever after. But what I didn’t have any sense of at that time, was not WHAT I wanted to do, but HOW I wanted to do it – how I wanted to live. In the intervening decade, I did many things. I moved across the world. I learned to row. I planted gardens in three different houses and once dug a pond. I worked very hard at being a ‘good academic’ – publishing, going to conferences, meeting people and impressing them, devising and writing grants that got rejected over and over (and sometimes not), pushing through the internal politics that shape a department, a university, a neoliberal concept of education. I did have the baby, who is six years old and indomitable. I did get married, although now I am in the process of getting divorced. I still haven’t finished writing a book.

Not What but How

This time around, I have no plans for what I want to do, but I have many thoughts about how I want to be. In the past several months, as my marriage has dissolved and I find myself in the miasma of emotions accompanying divorce (jealousy, shame, fear, anger, hurt, incredulity, and sometimes even hope), I have been struck by the feeling that I’m finally forced to think about how I want my life to feel.Here’s me on a plane. I took this myself, and I love how you can see so many emotions, but also something fresh and exciting in my eyes.

 

This week, I made a jellyfish costume for my daughter and we went to her friend’s birthday party. I met some local women for a drink one evening, and sat in the pub on another evening with the mothers of kids in my daughter’s class. I spent Sunday afternoon with the people who are part of one of my research teams. We drank pisco sours and ate ceviche and I watched birds while we talked about Pokemon and ethics. Later in the week we all met again to sort out our fieldwork on Internet of Things developers and their ethics-in-practice, and write a bit of one of the papers we are drafting together. I also had a meeting with the design consultancy who work with me on the Understanding Automated Decisions project, with some amazing LSE research staff. We dug into some complicated questions about how to explain automated decisions to different groups, in different contexts. We heard that our proposal to exhibit work explaining how algorithms and machine learning make decisions will be shown at the LSE Atrium Gallery in October. I finished writing a chapter on how the economics of data change the way our everyday life is mediated, and an article on the moral justifications that technology developers use to make ‘what works’ into ‘what is good.’ I also got so sick with a cold that I had to spend a day in bed.

It’s a full life, in other words. But what surprises me about it – and what allows me to think about the next decade with hope – is that its richness comes from the encounters with others, whether at the pub or around a meeting table. In the last ten years I often felt lonely, as I railed against the devastating and seemingly intractable problems of climate change, unethical technology, decayed democracy and violence against migrants. Of course, alone these are intractable. And anyway my ideas about them are as bad as anyone’s. But when I start to listen to others, and to make space for those ideas, something else begins to emerge. And making that space, and making these connections, is part of how I am hoping I’ll live in the next ten years. Here’s me and the lovely Funda Ustek-Spilda, one of the many talented people I get to work with.

Making Space for Love

The reading I’m doing now that most sustains me comes from Hannah Arendt and Erich Fromm. Both of these thinkers lived through the rise of Nazi Germany, the ensuing world war, and the subsequent conservative turn in American politics. Both have important lessons for how we might want to live now. Arendt urges us to make space for political life, to develop our capacities to act and not to find ourselves hindered by thinking of politics in too narrow a way. Fromm, in his work on love, argues that the capacity to love requires a capacity to be with oneself, and to resist the notion that connections with others are undertaken on the basis of ‘fair’ (or capitalist) exchange. He argues that our experiences of the world are shaped by the economic and political conditions that we live under, and in order to change these we need to find our own internal capacity to generate and give love – not merely romantically but as parents, friends, and members of a community.

 

Sometime in the next twelve months I’ll have to move to a new home, submit my book manuscript, and go up for promotion at work. As “whats” they loom, and I am tempted to prepare to master them, to scale peaks and to check off items on a list. As “hows”, though, I think about what opportunities these challenging things provide for me to make space for others, for me to learn, and for all of us to develop the capacity to act.

I think this decade is going to be amazing. And I have no idea what it will bring.

Information Politics and the Internet of Things

The connected world is a complex one but that does not mean our information rights have disappeared

This post summarizes some of the points made in a plenary talk at the Restart Project’s FixFest Repair Conference, held in London on Oct 6, with themes related to what we are working on in the Virt-EU project. Here’s the video.

The internet, so we are told, is now around us and potentially embedded everywhere. But this vision of the ‘internet of things’ masks a fractured landscape of devices that only work on certain systems, of black-boxes that mask the protocols and rules through which things like personal assistants, connected appliances or even autonomous cars collect and share data. This black-boxing of connected systems makes it difficult for the vision of a fully-connected ‘internet of things’ to come to pass: instead, rival companies compete to have their ecosystem be the one that links up your personal assistant, calendar, online shopping, connected appliance and transit app. The connected world therefore has ample opportunity for surveillance and for new forms of marketing.

It also has important implications for how we think about information politics. The right to know about what’s going on around us is often cited as a reason to support a diverse media, to oppose ‘fake news’ and to rally around facts. But a right to know can also extend into a right to repair – as I explored at the Restart Project’s FixFest conference. In discussion with repair advocate Kyle Wiens, I outlined how ‘rights to repair’ now depend on being able to gain access to information about how devices work. Kyle has been advocating for years that people should be able to get access to manuals describing how electronics are put together. But now, changes in technology and its intellectual property rights are confounding the right to repair.

Manuals can provide illustrations of how things work, but this doesn’t work as well when hardware collapses into software. Software firmware is notoriously difficult to completely understand – you can reverse engineer it to see how it works, but this takes a long time and if you only have the ‘compiled code’ – functional software – rather than the firmware itself, it could be difficult to figure out why a device is working the way that it is.

Ownership models are changing too: the ‘right to repair’ is threatened by the move from an ‘ownership’ to a ‘service’ paradigm. This might not seem a big deal, but as North American farmers with John Deere tractors discovered, moving from owning your tractor to paying a service contract on the software that runs it are very different. Kyle and other repair advocates have been working with farmers to push back against these service contracts and allow access by individual farmers.

Service contracts underpin many of the ‘connected objects’ we encounter, and in some cases we violate them as soon as we attempt to examine or repair the device. But some legislation is now coming forward that secures some rights to repair – for example, consumer rights to access manuals and spare parks through European legislation on longer product lifetimes.  Other connected systems demonstrate the complexities of expanding advocacy related to the right to repair.

For example, manufacturers of connected objects such as connected cars may have security concerns about opening up systems.This is partly due to some high profile hacks of connected car systems, for example. Networks of connected objects make other objects vulnerable. So if you leave some open (even to repair) you might have opened up vulnerabilities: hearing aids, pacemakers, etc. These are always cast as being exploitable, and the price for resisting exploitation is often the right to understand how something works.

The security monitoring company PenTest Partners write, “Autonomous vehicles require significant investment to develop, and the output is considered a trade secret. The real-time nature of self-driving vehicles means that this sensitive code must be inside the vehicle, potentially allowing an attacker to access it. How do you allow users to update the firmware without leaking all the details to competitors?”

Some features of Android phones, where individual phones can be modified, and updates made to the firmware held on a central server and then negotiated at the point of the software update, have been proposed as a solution. Again, the objections to this are related to the risks of having networks of connected systems – but also a lack of trust that people won’t use unlocked phones in ways that make them susceptible to malware. The deeper problem is of course that understanding these risks and whether the mitigation works requires the ability to look into and understand them.

That’s why I’m proposing that rights to repair might also now be accompanied by rights to scrutinize systems – the latter secures the access to knowledge and the former the ability to take action using that knowledge in a way that’s meaningful for the communication world we find ourselves in. These rights link with the necessity to be able to examine features of automated or otherwise opaque systems. Yes – the connected world is a complex one, but no, that does not mean our information rights have disappeared.