- One 40-year-old looks back on the Internet, c. 1971
- 1972: ELIZA, IANA and the search for (in)finite attention online
- 7 rules for rule-breakers
- Waiting for your life online
- How my custom URL shortener taught me the 10 principles of tech support
- Dittos remind us of the pleasures of obsolescence
- 10 ways you can help to build the Internet
- 10 ways spam taught us to focus our attention
- 6 questions to prepare you for a social media crisis
- Picturing the Internet in 1981
- 6 ways to beat time zones with technology
- 25 rules of social media netiquette
- Honoring the debt Canada’s connectivity owes to Chinese workers
- Cut the cord
- Core tenets of the social web
- Quiz: What level of online security is right for you?
- Online innovators turn foresight into insight
- Finding the soul of the web in HTML
- What you choose when you choose a network
- Blacksburg reminds us how to worry about our kids
- Are you using the Internet to monetize or to enlighten?
- Real innovators don’t hold grudges
- 10 bloggers share their tips on how to stay motivated
- 6 resources for learning about Internet history
- Looking back to predict the future of the Internet
- Creative disobedience online, from DeCSS to tweettheresults
- 6 web technologies that don’t suck anymore
- What we can learn from delicious and the tagging revolution
- 8 ways writers can make the most of online video
- The Lonely Princess: A Social Media Fairy Tale
- Why we need to remember life before the Internet
- The 9 secrets of a successful marriage (to a web application like Evernote)
- Bing helps us search for the meaning in our tech choices
- 8 browser extensions that will make you more productive
- 7 lessons about our online future from our online past
- Why do moms have to choose between usability and openness?
- Search party: 10 tips for better searching on Google and beyond
- Custom URL shorteners put the poetry back in domain names
- 40 tips on how to make the most of your life online
SERIES: One 40-year-old
The Internet in 1973
Month unknown: Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs start selling blue boxes in a Berkeley dorm (to make free long-distance calls).
May: Bob Metcalfe invents Ethernet. Let the CAT 5 cabling begin!
The first thing I ever stole online was the voice of Homer Simpson. No sooner had I heard a friend’s computer replace the system beep with a “D’oh!” then I knew I had to have Homer on my machine. Using the office intranet I snagged the sound file and installed in on my own computer’s sound manager. D’oh! I was now a thief.
If that seems like a trivial online transgression in the era of Bittorrent, then you can thank Steve Wozniak, who blazed a trail for me twenty years before I discovered Homer’s voice. In 1973, Wozniak and his business partner Steve Jobs had just started selling “blue boxes”: devices that Wozniak had developed two years earlier for the purpose of making long-distance telephone calls for free. (Note to The Kidz: Back in the day, you had to pay for a telephone call based on the distance between you and the person you were calling. I knew, them were some crazy times.)
Phreaking, which is the term for hacking on a telephone system, has a proud place in the history of Internet and technology subculture. But what interests me most about that moment in 1973 is not what it portended for the telephone industry (hola, Skype!) but what it portended for the culture of evasion. Not just the evasion of fee-for-service, though goodness knows, a lot of people use the Internet to get stuff for free that they’d otherwise have to pay for.
I’m talking about something more fundamental: the evasion of rules. “Pay for what you’re going to use” (read, listen to, watch) is one kind of rule that Internet users spend a lot of time getting around. But we also do a nice job of evading rules like age limitations (greetings, 11-year-olds on Facebook!), publication bans on court proceedings and even social norms (how many of the people who will tell someone to fuck themselves online would say the same thing face-to-face?) Sometimes it feels like the Internet’s slogan might as well be, “Oh yeah? Well c’mon over here and make me.”
As you can see from these examples, there are huge variations in the moral and social legitimacy of the rules we evade online. Most of us would probably feel OK about people using technical wizardry to evade China’s “Great Firewall” in order to provide or get access to uncensored information. Many of us seem to feel OK about using the Internet to get music and movies without paying for them. Most of us feel extremely uncomfortable if those movies include child pornography.
And yet all of those examples rest on the same technical and social underpinnings. Technically, they are supported by the Internet’s facility at routing around any kind of bottleneck (and what is censorship or a paywall, except a bottleneck?) as well as by the speed at which the Net disseminates advice on how to evade anything remotely evade-able. Socially, they rely on the normalization of evasion, tracing all the way back to Woz’s 1973 phreak show. The Internet was made by rule-breakers, and rule-breaking has emerged as one if its most widespread products.
The irony is that while the Internet hates rules, it loves standards. Pretty much every fundamental aspect of how the Internet works, from which characters you can type to the way an online calendar entry is structured, is determined by an agreed-upon set of standards. Standards are what make the Internet work.
And while Internet users may be notoriously uncompliant when it comes to following human rules, we’re docile little sheep when it comes to following a rule laid down by a machine: the W3C is king. The machine rules, and we obey. No wonder developers will sometimes say “that’s not technically possible” as shorthand for “that’s a really bad idea, and I don’t want to build it that way”. (Developers, I know you’re going to want to jump in here and point out the difference between rules we impose and rules that are required for interoperability, so I’ve made you a handy little hashtag that will aggregate in the text box on the right. Just tweet your objection as #stdsNOTrules.)
If you live online, you will find yourself making choices about when to obey and when to evade. Of course, you make choices like that offline too, but both our social training and our legal system conspire to make us relatively compliant in our offline lives. Online it’s a different story, particularly if you have the modest level of technical skill required to get up and running with something like Bittorrent or (more ambitiously) Hacktivismo. The more skilled you are, the more opportunities you have to choose evasion, and the more often you will find yourself making a conscious choice about whether to defy or comply.
What worries me is that all too often, it isn’t a conscious choice. We break rules online when it’s easy, when we know how, when our friends are doing it. We follow rules when we are scared about getting caught, when it feels like too much trouble to defy them, when we don’t know a way around them.
In an online world that makes evasion a frequent option, we need to have guidance on how to make evasion a conscious choice. We need…rules. Here are mine:
- Check your impact. Before you break a rule, ask whether anyone will be directly affected by you breaking it. If someone will be affected by you breaking this rule, you need to get their consent, or you need to have a reason for imposing this effect on them without their consent. It’s beyond the scope of this blog to outline a full moral code but there are lots of moral codes around if you want to look for one.
- Test for universality. Ask yourself what the social, political and/or economic impact would be if everyone broke the rule you were about to break. In some cases, you may really like the impact: maybe it would be a better world if everyone just created music based on passion and didn’t expect to earn money from it, or if artists toured more regularly. In other cases, you may have second-thoughts about your rule-breaking: how much would it suck if Heroes got cancelled because people downloaded it instead of watching it. Wait, it did get cancelled? Oh, crap.
- Know the rules you are (not) following. When you’re clicking the “accept” button on a Terms of Service agreement, you are agreeing to a set of rules. Unless you want to make it a full-time job, or (worse yet) sign up for only a very small number of web applications and social networks, you’re going to click “accept” many many times without actually reading the rules you are agreeing to. So make a point of reading through a couple of Terms of Service just so you know the kind of rules that web apps often impose. (For example, most web sites that accept user-contributed content require you to share only content that belongs to you; no posting other people’s writing!) And if you use a lot of social media services, include at least one major social media news site in your regular online news consumption (e.g. ReadWriteWeb, Mashable or TechCrunch) since you can count on them covering any major surprises in a major web app’s terms of service.
- Find out who made the rules. Most rules reflect the interests of the people who made them, whether consciously or unconsciously. The rule that you should pay for your movies is good for movie producers. The rule that you shouldn’t say “fuck” is good for parents, who don’t want to have to tell their four-year-old to stop saying it (hypothetically speaking, of course). The rule that you should follow back anyone who follows you on Twitter is good for social media consultants who want to convince you that they know the rules. Know who’s behind a given rule, and you have some important clues about what’s at stake in following or defying it. That’s crucial information if you are considering whether to evade or comply.
- Be wary of privilege. The fewer the people who have the power to break a rule, the more cautious you should be about breaking it. Hackers — people with serious tech chops — have the power to break a lot of rules the rest of us have to follow. Some might break the rule that says no reading about Tiananmen Square from within China; others might break the rule that says my web site should contain the content I put there. The relatively small number with the greatest level of tech skill have the power to break rules that could affect a lot of people — like the power to shut down PayPal to protest its decision to stop processing donations to WikiLeaks. The effectiveness and legitimacy of civil disobedience (a very particular form of rule-breaking) has historically depended on mass participation, so if you are going to use your rule-breaking powers to engage in a more concentrated form of civil disobedience, you need to think carefully about how your rule-breaking potential empowers or undermines the efficacy of other social and political actors.
- Teach informed rule-breaking. Encourage your kids to think carefully about the rules they break. Helping your kid download her favorite TV show so that she won’t be exposed to endless junk food ads is a great opportunity to talk about consumerism, advertising and/or eating habits. Helping your 10-year-old sign up for Facebook is a good opportunity to talk about what kind of data we share online, and what we keep private (or falsify) in order to protect our safety or anonymity.
- Break at least one rule each month. This is one of those rules you’re probably already following. Unless you actually did quit your day job so that you could dedicate yourself to reading Terms of Service, you have probably violated someone’s TOS at some time. (If you’re anything like me, you violate a couple before breakfast.) But just in case you’re shy of your rule violation quota, start breaking rules deliberately and on a regular basis. For one thing, the pressure to find a breakage-worthy rule will force you to scrutinize all the rules you follow more carefully. For another, breaking rules is a discipline that helps you become more innovative by challenging the constraints on any situation or decision. And finally — as Steve Wozniak could have told you 36 years ago — breaking rules is fun.
I have tunneled under the NYTimes paywall by using https://twitter.com/timeswiretap as a feed and also AdBlock Plus and No Script which allow full perusal of the site while on it.
But I have literally had published thousands of comments on the Times over the past few years, (they like me, they really like me), and I will not pay a cent to add to the discourse on their site.
I also feel that the readers around the world who in no way can afford $195 annually to read the NYTimes are the big losers in this.
Information and opinion should not be hidden behind walls.
Yikes, you have made me notice a pretty massive hole in this post that should have been obvious to someone who spent an entire semester reading Karl Marx (hey, it was the eighties). The legitimacy of a rule depends not only on who has the privilege to break it (point #2) but who has the privilege to follow it. It’s all very well and good for me to say Thou Shalt Not Tunnel Under the Paywall, but of course, there are children in this world who have never read a single Paul Krugman column.
On the other hand, the “if you can’t afford it, steal it” rule is a pretty slippery slope. There’s certainly no shortage of analysts and activists who argue that it’s perfectly fine for poor people to steal from megacorps if they can get away with it. I’m not so sure.
As an artist (who has to know the rules before breaking them) and as a parent (who is quite aware I need to know the rules before teaching my children how to follow/break them), these are great points to think about. I’ve always fallen back on a remix of the old real estate adage: “The three most important words in the early 21st century are: context, context, and context.” So I look for these contexts before breaking the rules and I try to teach my teenagers to look as well. I think it’s sunken into to their heads that there is a context for just about everything. Now they need to learn how to critically evaluate it.
Thank you so much for this one. You inspired me to teach the word “context” to @lilsweetie. Unfortunately my choice of illustrations (“Is it appropriate for you to sing Lady Gaga in our living room? Is it appropriate for you to get up on a table at a restaurant and sing Lady Gaga there?”) has now got her fixated on singing “Bad Romance” at her favorite burger joint.
As you know (and as I’ve written before), I have thought about rules and norms for the better part of a decade. I’m a neo-institutionalist. I delve into how humans construct their rules (AND) standards. Ironically, I haven’t written about rules and norms on the interwebz since 2009 (maybe time to revisit my thinking?)
My biggest concern with empowering the notion of breaking rules (and enabling folks to break the rules) is that there is nothing worse than an empowered rule-breaker. Sounds horrible to say, but that speaks exactly to the point you made in 1 and 6 – you will find (my empirical field research proves it) that the folks who break the rules the most break them DESPITE being informed and WITH plenty of knowledge about their impact (6 and 1, again).
I think that there is something Schumpeterian about breaking *some* rules and finding innovative ways of doing things because the rules were obsolete. But then again, to anyone planning to follow what you suggest, I want them to pass the test of Point 1 – do you REALLY know the impact that your breaking the rules will have? And then move to Point 6 and test again – are you REALLY informed about the rules you are about to break?
If the answer to either of those questions is NO, then they shouldn’t go ahead. Rules and norms exist to regulate the interactions between agents and their environment, and institutions are built through time based on those formal and informal rules and the continued routine of engagement in rule compliance. Uninformed, irresponsible rule-breaking scares the hell out of me.
Good post, which will undoubtedly lead me to write and think about rules and norms on the interwebz more. Thanks for this Alex!
Thanks so much for this incredibly thoughtful response, Raul. I think where you land on encouraging rule-breaking depends on which population you look at.
I began this post by thinking about a whole bunch of injunctions against rule-breaking. As a web geek, and after watching all the Anonymous/Wikileaks hacktivism, I had been feeling much as you do: that people need to be MUCH more cautious about their rule-breaking. I really worry about a hack-ocracy, and worry that regular folks don’t realize the extent to which we’re living according to the rule of law because (most) hackers haven’t chosen to disrupt it. Let’s be honest: if folks got serious about f*ing with the system, they could do a lot more than shutting down PayPal for a day. And I worry about the implications for democracy when selected groups can opt out of selected rules whenever the feel like it.
But then I started thinking about the bigger picture historical stakes, not to mention the day-to-day business and life stakes. The obvious and almost trite example is the complicity with the Nazi regime, along with other totalitarian regimes: it is absolutely crucial for people to think critically about rules so that they have a framework for challenging truly heinous ones. I don’t think that people who are schooled in obedience do a great job of challenging unjust laws when they come along. This was the key point of Daniel Goldhagen’s book, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”.
That kbrings me to the second, day-to-day scenario. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, though it wasn’t front-of-mind when I wrote this post (guess it leaked it). As a parent, I’m frequently struck by how much of our education and childcare system is focused on rules and obedience. And yet it’s hard to think of an aspect of adult life in which obedience serves us especially well. When I look at the people I know, or people I’ve read or heard about, the really brilliant ones aren’t especially obedient. They are people who break rules (often informal ones, like don’t go over your boss’ head, but rules nonetheless) and as a result, are able to drive innovation in their organizations.
Whether you emphasize thinking twice about following rules, or thinking twice about breaking them, depends on whether you’re speaking to people who err in one direction or the other. I do think that web culture (and especially hacker culture) errs on the side of non-compliance. That’s why I encourage people to interrogate their rule-breaking very carefully, and included point #2 with hackers particularly in mind.
But when I look at the big picture I suspect more people err on the side of over-compliance. We are given so many rules to follow, from what we “must” read (a concept taken more literally in China than on Twitter) to what we must not say or wear or love or eat, that we lose the ability to think critically.
A possible addition: 8. Enforce/remind others of a rule once a week.
There is a rule against littering. It’s a good rule. Applies offline and online, e.g. don’t drop your trash on the ground; don’t send a “Thank you” email if that’s all you’ve got to say; don’t toss your soda can into the regular garbage bin. We can learn a lot about how others by: ‘noticing’ that they dropped something; asking them to ‘save your thank yous for a rainy day’; and pointing out the recycling bin.
Well, my 7-year-old is definitely in agreement with you on this one, and I gather from my friends that “mummy’s little narc” is a favored persona among the 6-to-8-yr-old set. But as I’ve already seen in watching her with classmates, nobody really likes being reminded of rules. Maybe this is what signage is for? Or maybe it’s a matter of pointed modeling?
Yes, pointed modeling is definitely the most diplomatic approach. [This raises the question: what persona aspires to/enjoys being an officer of the law?] I was suggesting this additional rule (to be invoked just once per week) to force the rule-breaker to view the rules debate from the other side of the proverbial coin, i.e. get in touch with rule #1. Spelling is a standard, actually a rule back in grammar school. So, I am often compelled to point out people’s egregious typos (recognizing that different standards apply in different contexts).