The true tragedy of the commons

This month is the 25th anniversary of when I walked into the little Duane Physics computer lab and asked for an email account. And with that, I joined the internet.

I discovered the Usenet, MUDs, and coeds at Sweet Briar who would always want to chat with CU students at random times of the night. I met a girlfriend through the Usenet; my future wife knew me from a news group.

I played with Mosaic and built websites, tho it would be a few more years before I built sites professionally. My career, from web design to UX design, is wholly built on what I learned playing with the web in the waning days of my CU career.

And one of the underlying principles of the internet of those days was what I came to call the “libertarian internet.” All traffic was equal, all ideas were equal, and the internet would be the great leveler. It could lay low the powerful and raise up the powerless. It could give voice to the voiceless, and voice to ideas who couldn’t be heard before.

It was an optimistic view, one built on this idea that we had a communications system that could truly disrupt the economic and political powers of this world.

Now, on this side of some devastating elections driven by fake news and deep mistrust of power, it looks too optimistic. We missed something: That all traffic wasn’t equal, that all ideas were not equal. Privilege. Power. Hatred. Cognitive dissonance. Combine those together, add in the network effects the net produces, and of course we ended up with this hate-spewing machine we call the Internet of 2017.

And that’s the tragedy of the commons we’re now facing — not that the world is trampling our parks because it’s free, but that they’re burning the park down because they can and we will let them.

I wish we’d known back then. Simple ban lists weren’t enough. “You own your own words” wasn’t a strong enough statement. We failed to let people own the consequences of the things they made and the horrible ways they could be used.

I find the situation intolerable, but I’m not sure what the route out is. It’s like my feelings on guns. I am not a staunch “melt all the guns” person. What I want is responsibility and safety in gun ownership, one where the power of a gun is respected in the same way we respect the power of an automobile.

With guns and cars, though, responsibility and safety have clear paths. I believe in training, in safety, in carrying insurance, and above all, the clear understanding that irresponsible use has severe consequences in the eyes of the law.

With the internet, though, what are these analogues of responsibility and safety, and how would we even enforce them? I believe in free speech. I also believe that doxxing, swatting, stalking, and hateful trolling are things we should treat in the same way as we treat people behaving recklessly with guns and cars. And this is a contradiction I find hard to reconcile.

And it’s led me to a horrible thought: If the coming end of net neutrality means that those shaping internet traffic can be held responsible for what they pass through their traffic, could net neutrality be… well, not the worst idea ever? I hate that idea. Without neutrality, the web becomes a sanitized and tiered cable service that Verizon and Comcast can make even more money off of. It would mean repression of minority voices.

I don’t want any of that. But if it means I can sue Comcast for getting doxxed… might it be worth it? I shudder thinking about it.

For the first time in my 25 years of internet existence, I don’t feel optimistic about this web thing I helped build. I want us to be better. And I’ll keep fighting for that, speaking truth to power, demanding the best of the web. But for the first time, I know it’s not a given. It’s something we have to fight for.

A little (more) levity

Well, aren’t we all glad that’s over? Goodbye 2016, hello 2017, let’s start with something a little on the light side huh?

Remember a long time ago back in September when I moved 11 tons of bricks? Remember how one of the primary goals was to keep the terriers from climbing things?

A four foot tall pile of bricks to keep my dog from climbing the wood pile, with my dog standing on top of it.
Yeah, that worked out.

Next up, some form failures:

There are so many things wrong here…

Cuisinart blade recall form. It says "Does your model begin with FP? End in Y? Is model DLC-6?" and then provides 3 options: "yes", "no" and "do you live in canada?"
From now on when someone asks me a yes/no question and the answer is “maybe” I’m answering “Do you live in Canada?”


There are some good ways to pick a state for an address, and many bad ones, and then there’s using an autocomplete search…

This state picker for a shipping address uses an autocomplete form field so when one enters P for Pennsylvania the first choice is Mississippi because that state has a P in it first.
My state starts with P, of course I meant Mississippi!


There are no data forms so good that a data entry person with a text entry field can’t mess them up.

A line in a listing of medical lab locations. The "Days" column lists Monday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m, but the "hours" column list Monday through Friday 7:00 am through 6:00 pm and 7:00 am through 12:00 pm. I give up.
This is how you invite your users to call for your hours.

How about some marketing content?

Sometimes we words out if we shop wine.

A-frame sign at a Wegman's supermarket that reads" New! Enjoy the convenience of shopping wine at our store".
I hope this means we’re “shopping with wine” not “shopping for wine”, because that’s my kind of convenience.


We live in a miraculous time.

 A four GB router on Amazon's site is listed as claiming it is a "socially-conscious skin cleanser serum that cleans without disturbing the skin's natural barrier." Now that's a firewall!
Technology’s come a long way if my router can cure acne.


That’s Mister Hydra to you.

A plastic hydra at a toy store. The product is listed as "MR HYDRA" on the tag. Mister Hydra?
Unfortunately, Mrs Hydra did not appear to be available.


Tasty chips here! No really!

Kellogg Special K Sea Salt Cracker Chips are labeled "Now tastier than ever!" which, honestly, makes me suspicious.
Because someone shot down “No longer tastes like the bag!”

Finally, some false parallels.

Because you can never have too many of those.

The Keureg coffeemaker wants to know whether you want "english", "french", or "hot water".
Where do they speak “Hot water” exactly?

May your new year be happy, healthy, and full of reasons to laugh.