Loose Wire: The State We

Loose Wire: The State We Could Be in

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 28 March 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Voting in your underwear? Sounds an appealing proposition: the chance to exercise your constitutionally protected right without actually having to leave your home. You could be watching Frasier while working out which candidate you want to mess things up for you for the next three/four/25 years, based on criteria such as which one most closely resembles a Teletubby/Frasier’s brother Niles/your Aunt Maudlin.

Yes, the lure of Internet voting is coming around again. In May, soccer enthusiasts will be able to vote for their favourite players in the World Cup via a joint South Korean and Japanese project (mvp.worldcup2002.or.kr; the site is not fully functioning yet). This is just an on-line poll, of course, and doesn’t add much to the mix except to try to introduce a new social group (soccer fans) to the concept of on-line voting. Elsewhere, however, on-line voting is already kicking in: Some towns in Britain are undertaking pilot projects allowing voters to choose their local councillors via the Internet, or even via SMS, in borough elections in May.

I don’t want to be a killjoy, but this kind of thing gives me the heebie-jeebies. The arguments in favour of on-line voting make sense — faster counting, less human error, attracting younger, hipper voters with handphones and Internet connections in their hatbands, higher turnouts, you can vote in your underpants, etc., etc. — until you actually think about it. Computers, we’ve learned since we plugged one PC into another, are notoriously insecure. Viruses are now so sophisticated and prevalent that many security consultants advise their clients to update their anti-virus software every day. What are the chances of a voting system not being a juicy target for people writing these nasty little vermin programs?

Another argument wheeled out in favour of Internet voting is this: The Web is now managing billions of dollars of transactions successfully, so why can’t it handle voting? There’s a simple answer to this, as security consultant Bruce Schneier of Counterpane Internet Security (www.counterpane.com) explains: The whole point of voting is that it’s supposed to be anonymous, whereas any financial transaction has attached to it details of payee, recipient and other important data. This makes it much, much harder to protect any voting system from fraud, much harder to detect any fraud and much harder to identify the guy conducting the fraud. What’s more, if there was evidence of fraud, what exactly do you do in an on-line vote? Revote? Reconduct part of the vote? Chances are that faith in the overall ballot has been seriously, if not fatally, undermined.

Some of these problems could be done away with via ATM-style machines that print out a record of the vote. That could then be used in any recount. But it’s still not enough: As on-line voting expert Rebecca Mercuri points out, there is no fully electronic system that can allow the voter to verify that the ballot cast exactly matches the vote he just made. Some nasty person could write code that makes the vote on the screen of a computer or ATM-machine printout different from that recorded. This may all sound slightly wacky to people living in fully functioning democracies. But (political point coming up, cover your eyes if you prefer) democracies can be bent to politicians’ wills, and one country’s voting system may be more robust than another’s.

Scary stuff. Florida may seem a long way away now, but the lesson from that particular episode must be that any kind of voting system that isn’t simple and confidence-inspiring gives everyone stomach ulcers. The charming notion that the more automation you allow into a system, the more error-free and tamper-proof it becomes, is deeply misguided. The more electronics and automation you allow into the system, the less of a role election monitors can play.

Internet voting, or something like it, may well be the future. I’d like to see it wheeled out for less mission-critical issues, like polling for whether to introduce traffic-calming measures in the town centre, or compulsory kneecapping for spitters, say. But so long as computers remain fragile, untamed beasts that we don’t quite understand, I’d counsel against subjecting democracy to their whim. Even if I am in my underpants.

Loose Wire — I Seek

Loose Wire — I Seek Mum, Nick and Sally

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 14 March 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Communication is a funny thing. Living in Southeast Asia in the 1980s I’d type out letters in the enveloping heat, making carbon copies — confident the original would never arrive — and fight my way to the post office past beggars, pickpockets and expat financial-services salesmen, just to stay in touch. Now I have a handphone, e-mail and fax and I can barely talk my thumbs into tapping out a text message home once in a while. It may just be me, but I suspect the harder it is to stay in touch, the better we are at it.

One phenomenon that has bucked this trend is Internet messaging. ICQ was revolutionary when it first popped up in 1996 via an Israeli company called Mirabilis. The first time I used it to send a message to my friend Jim across the South China Sea was mind-blowing.

Now ICQ has been snapped up by AOL and boasts some 127 million users — a sign that people seem to want to stay in touch. For those of us with friends and family in different time zones, such programs are a good way to exchange casual greetings when our on-line sessions happen to coincide.

That said, there’s a downside and it must be fixed before messaging really catches on. While ICQ is by far the most popular chat program or messaging client, Microsoft also has its own, as do AOL and Yahoo. The problem is whether or not to allow users on one service to interact with users on another. So far things haven’t worked out; AOL has blocked most attempts at hooking up to their users, arguing they don’t want any Tom, Dick or Harry hacking into their computers.

Fair point, but in reality the issue is money: These programs spread like wildfire because they were free, and so far no one’s making any money. ICQ has started discreetly adding small adverts but it’s not going to make a dent in the cost of hosting tens of millions of chatty messaging folk. Until chat becomes like your mobile-phone service — where you can be assured of reaching someone, whatever network they’re on — it’s going to be a gimmick. Loading a different program for each service gets messy.

But this is where it gets interesting. Some enterprising dudes have started offering software that handles more than one service, meaning that if you have friends with Yahoo, Microsoft and ICQ accounts, for example, you can chat with them via one program. The best of these is Trillian (www.trillian.cc), written by Kevin Kurtz and Scott Werndorfer and already boasting 2 million copies.

As you can imagine, the giants aren’t happy about two whippersnappers piggybacking on all their hard work. The logos of Microsoft’s MSN, AOL and Yahoo are reduced to acne-like splodges inside Trillian’s window and are, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant to users, who are just happy to be able to connect with their chums on other services.

AOL has already made its feelings known by attempting to shut out Trillian, who have spent much of the past few weeks trying to get back in.

Trillian may be small fry, but they’ve opened the door. AT&T launched a new version of their IM Anywhere program in February that connects to all the other services except ICQ. Fending off two guys in a bedsit may be one thing for AOL, but AT&T may be a tougher proposition.

Where is this going to take us? I’d like to see basic text messages to all services offered as a standard, with users deciding which program they use to pull all their contacts together. PalTalk, a small start-up that also connects to AOL, has found there’s money in extra services like voice, video and professional chat groups.

For most, text chat is just a great way of staying in touch with people across the street or planet. Most don’t care which program does it, and aren’t crazy about all the extra hoopla companies try to cram in to lure folk aboard.

So just give us simple Internet messaging for free, and charge for premium services like security, messaging between handphones and Internet, or on-line collaboration for professional use. Who knows? I might even persuade my mum to sign up: It beats picking up a phone.

Loose Wire: Excuse Me, My

Loose Wire: Excuse Me, My Ego’s Ringing

[ this appeared in FEER, 01/31/2002]

Few of us stop to think just how revolutionary the mobile phone is. It enables us to be always on call and always in touch with those important to us, it frees us from the confines of office and home, but perhaps most importantly it gives us something to fiddle with during awkward moments at meetings, parties, funerals, etc. And the revolution is only just beginning.

Mobile phones have redefined the concept of personal space, of what is meant by communication, as well as allowing us to send messages to each other — mostly consisting of such vital data as smiley icons, jokes and “you owe me rent.”

Mobile phones, in short, have altered the way we behave. The phone has become an extension of our bodies, and we feel lost without it. It’s the first thing we park on the table at restaurants, bars, desks, pulpits, etc. As cultural observer Sadie Plant, in her entertaining treatise On The Mobile, has observed, whether we have one, how we use it, how many names we have stored in its memory, all define what kind of person we are, indeed, whether we are anybody at all.

As mobile phones change us, so in turn we feel compelled to ensure they say as many good things about us as possible, short of hanging a placard around one’s neck saying “really nice guy, cool but not aloof, interesting job but even more interesting hobbies involving water, rocks and rugged footwear.” We buy the latest model and parade it until another model comes along, after which we sheepishly stuff it in our pocket. I was mortified when my Nokia Communicator, a bulky but state-of-the-art number incorporating keyboard, big screen, tumble-dryer, etc., was mistaken for one of those brick-sized monstrosities of yore.

Smaller phones don’t necessarily mean less intrusive: In fact the fancier the phone is, the smaller it is, which means the more prominent it should be. To assist visibility, buy a snap-on cover sporting designs from Snoopy-esque to racing cars. The next stage, of course, will be for the phones to actually be shaped like a Disney character or a packet of cigarettes, which might well mark the end of civilization as we know it. In the meantime, Nokia this month unveiled a subsidiary called Vertu to produce handphones encrusted in precious gems and sporting luxurious metal finishes. Sadly, tackiness and handphones seem a good fit.

As if that wasn’t enough, ring tones show no sign of getting tasteful. A new generation of palm-sized devices which double as phones will use ordinary sound files as ring tones. In the future, expect to hear more melodious stuff or, more ominously, recorded voices of Hollywood characters uttering personalized messages along the lines of: “Sebastian, you have a call from your mother.”

Of course, handphones have wrought broader change. The overthrow of Philippine President Joseph Estrada is an oft-cited example of the broadcasting power of short messaging, or SMS, but protests have been coordinated by mobile phone for much longer. Many middle-class students involved in the anti-military uprising in Thailand in 1992 had the bulky units of the day stuffed into their jeans, which must have been painful when their soldier captors forced them to crouch or crawl.

But more importantly, it’s no longer a revolution confined to the elite. In poverty-stricken Indonesia, for example, mobile phones will out-number land lines this year. Transvestite prostitutes wandering the streets near where I live all seem to be sporting the latest silver-plated Nokia, and when the shoeless busker who accosts your car at a junction pauses in his rendering of “Ole Ole Ole” to answer his Siemens you know the mobile phone has broken out of its traditional socioeconomic limits. This is no bad thing. The more of us have these dang things, the quicker we can agree on how they are used and, most importantly, what to do to people who use overly glitzy phones with annoying ring tones. Make them eat the precious gems, I say.

(Copyright (c) 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)