Ignoring the 5%

A thoughtful commenter objected in a procedural way to my open letter to Chris Dodd. He praised the letter and affirmed that I spoke for him in it, but said:

One significant concern I have is your claim, explicit and implicit, that you speak on behalf of all the many technologists and geeks who work to build and defend the Internet. You don’t. You no doubt speak for many, and as I said above, to a significant extent you speak for me, but I’m sure there will be many thoughtful dedicated contributors to Internet technology who disagree with at least some of what you write.

I’m well aware of this issue. But worrying too much about about the N% who are going to disagree with any given representation I make on behalf of our tribe would leave me unable to serve the (100-N)% who do agree. And somebody has to do that, especially when the issues are public and political. The alternative is that we aren’t heard in the public conversation at all.

N=0 is an impossible standard. The best any of our public faces can hope for is to represent us to 95% confidence and speak up knowing that some 5% are going to be disgruntled about it.

I know that our values push us towards so much respect for individual dissent that we tend to think unanimous consent is required before anyone can speak for the group. You’re expressing that very well when you report that you agree with me but feel a need to speak up for those who don’t. Trust me, I feel similar doubts about my standing to represent us every time I have to write something like that open letter.

The trouble with those thoughts is that they’re a counsel of paralysis. They’d be great if my objective were to feel virtuous and pure and I didn’t mind that making me ineffective. But that’s lousy practical politics – and practical politics is what we need to keep from having SOPA/PIPA/ACTA and worse rammed down our throats. I can only serve our actual, practical interests by making a deliberate decision to ignore the 5%.

You suggest language that works around the problem by being more explicit and contingent about who agrees. Again, this is a counsel of self-destructive virtue, and terrible practical politics. It’s great for an audience of individualistic intuitive-thinker personalities (people who think like hackers) but for general audiences it’s meaningless noise or worse. And by “worse” I mean they have a strong tendency to read such disclaimers as actually meaning “this ‘spokesman’ has no confidence in his own legitimacy, he’s a waste of our time, we should ignore him”.

I had to unlearn that mistake fifteen years ago. It’s simply one of the hazards of my position that in order to effectively address mainstream audiences I have to adopt a communications style that is inevitably going to put some people’s backs up within our tribe. I live with that because I understand very clearly that the alternatives – not speaking up, or using self-defeating language – would be worse.

35 thoughts on “Ignoring the 5%

  1. I liked your open letter to Mr. Dodd, but I remember when I first read it thinking that an open letter like this is one of the few places where it would make sense to disable comments; let the letter stand on it’s own as a clear message to its intended audience and have the discussion about it elsewhere (such as here).

  2. The number of people who come to skepticism about intellectual property law from a variety of different perspectives just continues to grow. One interesting treatment of this issue from an economic point of view is Stephan Kinsella’s monograph “Against Intellectual Property” (http://mises.org/document/3582). I’m also planning on reading Against Intellectual Monopoly based on the lengthy review in a chapter of Jeffrey Tucker’s book It’s a Jetsons World (http://mises.org/document/6528).

    Their arguments against copyright and patents are different. I think there is substantial room for compromise sort of outright elimination of either. In fact, I would be strongly in favor of reducing the duration of copyright and the scope of what is patentable.

  3. Disabling comments, I think, might be interpreted as a message against free speech, the very core of the letter itself. Many rights have implicit duties: free speech implies a duty on each who hears to filter what is heard; it also implies a duty to allow others to speak freely, even at the risk of messages that oppose or muddy the waters.
    An environment of free speech requires all participants to engage in all these aspects of free speech: listening with care; allowing speech without limits; participating; and at times, protecting.

  4. > Disabling comments, I think, might be interpreted as a message against free speech,

    Understood (which is why I mentioned opening another thread for the public discussion.)
    That being said an “Open Letter” addressed from one person to another may not be the best place for the rest of the word to hold a public debate.

  5. Agreed with Scott Wade – disabling comments wouldn’t be the best move on an article written about the evils of censorship. It’s good that comments were allowed, as they provide a means for people to criticize or expand upon the ideas presented. This post wouldn’t have been created without a comment to spark it, and I wouldn’t be aware of the ideas provided here. I can think of only a few cases where comments shouldn’t be allowed on content.

  6. Of course, the real question here is whether N is small. Are you sure that N does not approach or exceed 50%? (I don’t say this because I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that it’s true, but because I have a pessimistic streak that needs reassuring).

  7. I assumed it wasn’t really intended as a letter to Chris Dodd. It opens up with a gentle couched insult — that’s not a piece of work meant to convince anyone of anything, it’s a manifesto.

  8. >Are you sure that N does not approach or exceed 50%?

    Yes. The feedback I get on stuff like the open letter is overwhelmingly positive, both in email and on this blog and on places like G+. I have also had lots of face-to-face experience with hackers literally all over the planet that tells me they are pleased and proud to have me as a tribune. I regard this as a sacred trust, and the thought that I might fail it by accident or incompetence worries me very deeply – but dammit, somebody has to do the job and I can’t be paralyzed by my own fear of failure either.

  9. It was I who made the comment, and I appreciate the thoughtful response.

    esr wrote:

    > You suggest language that works around the problem by being more
    > explicit and contingent about who agrees. Again, this is a counsel of
    > self-destructive virtue, and terrible practical politics

    I can’t say I’m 100% convinced on the merits, but you may be right, and I’m glad to see that you at least made thoughtful compromise.

    In any case, I do think that most of what you write in your Open Letter is the position of many, many knowledgeable contributors to the core technologies of the Internet, and that’s something we agree on. Let’s hope your letter gets the attention it deserves.

    Thank you again.

  10. Having the discussion right there with the letter itself is important. What good is free speech that takes place out of sight of the object of discourse? Here, at least, the discussion is a good example on how free speech should work.

  11. Eric:

    I think the letter was well-written, concise and professional. I seriously doubt it will have any effect on Dodd and his minions, or if it will even come to the attention of anyone beyond a lowly staffer, but by stating your case, and the case of those of us who see things the same way, you have established a good rallying point for other people who want to defend the same position.

    In that regard, I think this letter will be effective, and have much more positive effect than it will one the people you are ostensibly addressing. It’s similar when I debate politics or religion (the traditional kind or the software kind) on places like /. I’m often not even debating for the benefit of the person I’m talking to, but to the participants, especially the lurkers who might not feel capable of stepping up to the plate, but who want to see their point of view defended. I’ve gotten enough sideband messages of thanks and encouragement over the years to feel like it’s worth the effort.

    I think this letter may fall into the same category. I’m definitely one of those people who doesn’t pirate media, comsumes a great deal of it, but who strongly resists the artificial, overly-constraining, and often unfair boundaries foisted upon me because someone can’t come up with a business model more advanced than we had 100 years ago.

  12. > I have also had lots of face-to-face experience with hackers literally all over the planet that tells me they are pleased and proud to have me as a tribune.

    You certainly represent hackers, and many like-minded people who haven’t earned that title, very well. But what I’m more worried about is what percentage of technologists are actually hackers, and what percentage are people who have good technical skills, but who are in it for the money more than anything else (or maybe aren’t in it for the money, but just have very different ethical standards and a different outlook than hackers). After all, the MAFIAA has to hire *somebody* to write its DRM, and the pessimist in me worries that that hiring pool may very large.

  13. >But what I’m more worried about is what percentage of technologists are actually hackers

    That’s a reasonable worry. I can only answer that the response to the open letter suggests strongly that the values of hackers have diffused outwards into neighboring populations of technologists. This is something I was already pretty sure was happening from other lines of evidence.

  14. There’s often a tension between rhetorical effectiveness and absolute precision.

    For instance, yesterday I responded to an attack on Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN). The writer labeled Lugar a de facto liberal Democrat. I said “Not true. In the last three years Lugar was among the least conservative Republican Senators, but was still more conservative than any Democrat” (per ratings compiled by National Journal). This is not quite true – in 2009, Lugar was tied with one Democrat.

    Should I have mentioned that? I didn’t see why I should bother. One’s point is vitiated by going all Captain Corcoran:

    (“What, never?”
    “No, never!”
    “What, never?
    “Well, hardly ever!”)

    and no one but nit-pickers like us cares or understands.

    Mind you, this is a dangerous practice, and should be limited to the most appropriate cases only. Denial of significant exceptions is fraud.

  15. How much does writing op-eds from a position of semi-fame actually help, though?

    Serious question. I would be more likely to try to change things in the world through the accomplish things -> get famous -> rhetoric direction if that actually seemed plausible. In my more cynical moments, I think that people are hardly ever swayed by other people’s reasoning. The times and places when we change our minds might be limited to youth, times of severe stress, and occasions when the issue is of purely intellectual interest and not personal. Chris Dodd is not young, probably not undergoing a stressful crisis of faith, and copyright is definitely not of purely intellectual interest to him.

  16. >How much does writing op-eds from a position of semi-fame actually help, though?

    I’ve accomplished quite a lot that way.

    See, you only have it half-right; people in general are not swayed by reasoning – but they are swayed by successful appeals to their self interest. Successful propaganda uses reason but gets its power from (diplomatically disguised) appeals to emotions like fear, greed, vanity, and tribal identity. People who find themselves unable to persuade by “reason” fail because, having hidden from themselves how human beings actually work, they cannot connect their agendas to the desires of the people they want to persuade.

    If, on the other hand, you can master this basic trick (connecting your agenda to peoples’ emotional desires), you can do things like blowing up industries and energizing social reform movements almost casually. I’ve occasionally done such things by accident. What the trick requires is an unsparingly realistic grasp of what actually motivates human beings – knowledge that most intellectuals evade because they cherish the delusion that most human action derives from thinking rather than half-instinctive gut rumbles.

  17. I wrote: “knowledge that most intellectuals evade because they cherish the delusion that most human action derives from thinking rather than half-instinctive gut rumbles.”

    I just thought of a really good way to sum this up. People don’t want because they think – they think because they want.

  18. > they cherish the delusion that most human action derives from thinking rather than half-instinctive gut rumbles.

    … or most results derive from human action rather than inaction. It may surprise many people how effective assassination, for instance, can be in forcing change in human society.

    In our case, the corrosive effects of the corruption of the rule of law in western societies is quite apparent in intellectual property just as in other aspects of our societies.

  19. Where do hackers generally congregate, and talk? It does not appear to be “Hacker” News (you have said so yourself), and it is *clearly* not slashdot but I haven’t seen you mention any general forum for non dummkopfen.

    btw, the slashdot crowd hated the open letter, why oh why did I go there again…..

  20. Well, I agree with the contents of the letter, but wonder if it will be appreciated outside the hacker bubble, which is out of tune with mainstream thinking in many places. Still, worth writing.

    And I wonder about figures like 5%, 10%, 7%, and so on. Has anyone tried to do surveys of hacker opinion, with a serious methodology to counteract selection bias?

  21. Pingback: You Can’t Stand For Much Without Implicitly Rejecting Something : The Other McCain

  22. esr: “I just thought of a really good way to sum this up. People don’t want because they think – they think because they want.”

    I think I’d say this as “Most people find reason is more useful for excusing behavior than guiding it.”

  23. >> Yes. The feedback I get on stuff like the open letter is
    >> overwhelmingly positive, both in email and on this blog
    >> and on places like G+.

    If you get 95% positive feedback it’s time to test how airtight the bubble is you put yourself in. I cannot imagine any subject you can get 95% of ‘hackers’ to agree on, unless your definition of ‘hacker’ is ‘people like me’.

  24. So, ESR, you mean you have to dumb your message down a bit, to reach the normals? Sadly, this is necessary if you want to have any influence in the world.

  25. Ah, yes, Eric! We are not, for the most part, rational critters, but rationalizing critters. That is, we tend to use our wits to excuse and explain whatever it was we were going to do, anyway.

  26. >If you get 95% positive feedback it’s time to test how airtight the bubble is you put yourself in. I cannot imagine any subject you can get 95% of ‘hackers’ to agree on, unless your definition of ‘hacker’ is ‘people like me’.

    No. But 95% agreement is easier than it used to be. Many trends have operated over the last 20 years to help attitudes among hackers converge – better communications, more shared history and cultural artifacts, and some changes that I myself social-engineered for what seemed like good reasons at the time.

    Still, your point is valid. Refusal to let myself live in a bubble is an important reason I’m so reluctant to suppress people who attack me on my own blog. I think I get quite enough criticism here, and elsewhere, to reassure me that I’m not living inside a self-created cocoon. And what’s telling is that whatever the medium and the venue I see the same pattern.

    That pattern is a tiny percentage of self-elected enemies – very loud, very angry, and rather maladjusted – and a huge percentage of people who are supportive and much quieter. I see this especially in face-to-face gigs – most hackers treat me with so much respect and trust that they terrify me more than the downshouters ever could. Because I can’t let them down. For my sins, I’ve become a role model *shudder*.

    I get a read on this stuff a lot of different ways. One is just by using ‘esr’ as my handle on IRC channels where I go for technical help. The resulting comedy has very predictable stages: “Wait. Is that ESR?” “Naaah, can’t be, he’s way too $DEITYlike to need help from *us*.” “No, wait. I think it might be him. It *sounds* like him.” “Dude, are you really ESR?” “I don’t believe you. How can you prove it?” Hilarity ensues.

    Meanwhile, I’m all, like, “The problem? Guys, remember the problem?”. To be fair I do usually get a useful answer but I often have to go through a certain amount of allowing the hem of my garment to be touched, as it were. Once I quietly showed up for a local Linux user group meeting, just gave my name as “Eric” and kept my mouth shut. Nobody made me until the dinner afterwards, at which point the scene became … just like an IRC channel. Well, except I had less trouble proving my identity.

    I don’t mean to sound martyred; who doesn’t like to be sincerely admired? Many people spend their lives struggling for this much fame and peer reputation. But I feel it as responsibility – to my fans, to the future – and it’s heavy sometimes.

  27. I echo sentiments that the wider world of technologists may not share the same values as the hacker tribe but at the same time I believe that even should a significant portion disagree, it is better to let those who agree but have their heads held low hear your voice and look up towards making a difference.

    >But I feel it as responsibility – to my fans, to the future – and it’s heavy sometimes.

    From my perspective as an outsider I would say that it is this trait which is why you continue to be held in high regard and can act as a speaker for the majority of hackers. The day your fame ceases to be a burden and is wielded solely as a weapon is the day you fall from your podium. I hope that day doesn’t come any time soon, there seem to be very few sane people willing and able to make themselves heard when it comes to technological issues of current times.
    All it takes for a million people sharing an opinion to do nothing is for nobody to make the first stand and speak the first words. Where voices sound, people go. When more voices rise, the people will rise. When the million becomes one, the people are ready…

    …on a less serious note, it sounds like you’ve got some troubles when it comes to being amongst your peers, albeit troubles of the amusing variety. Perhaps you should keep some logs of some such IRC conversations, archive them and possibly release some of the more entertaining responses?

  28. @Justthisguy

    So, ESR, you mean you have to dumb your message down a bit, to reach the normals? Sadly, this is necessary if you want to have any influence in the world.

    Remember that Feynman believed that if you can’t explain something in a freshman lecture you don’t really understand it.

  29. @esr
    > What the trick requires is an unsparingly realistic grasp of what actually motivates human beings – knowledge that most intellectuals evade

    I’m not entirely sure what “intellectuals” means, but certainly many people I consider enemies of my belief system understand this principle very well indeed, and many people I consider friends of my belief system don’t have a clue.

    For example, the liberal left in America bristles with organizations and people who directly appeal to the most base instincts in people. “Soak the rich” or “you are poor because of racism” being the most obvious. Similarly, at the core of most religious belief is the idea that we are better than the infidel for one reason or another (because we are redeemed, or because we are Muslim, or because we are children of the light.) Religious leaders are experts at this stuff — the successful ones at any rate.

    Yet my libertarian friends seem almost obsessed with back to first principles natural rights, and the construction of complex ideological frameworks when a better motif would be “the bastards in Washington are stealing your stuff.” So too, my atheist friends go on about teapots orbiting Mars, and complex epistemology when a better approach might be: “So you believe in the guy in the red suit, and angels and fairies and all that stuff, huh?” Or, as a friend of mine recently pointed out: “Why would be want to believe in the Bible’s god who is fundamentally anti sex, when you could believe in Zeus, Hera and all those Olympians who seemed to be in favor of fucking anything that moved?”

  30. I just wanted to say that I am about as non-hacker as they get – I was pointed to the original post from a good friend in Pittsburgh who can appreciate the greater in-group subtleties better than I’ll ever hope to – but I was impressed and inspired by the Open Letter. It is an entirely necessary shot across the bow. I couldn’t agree more that the tool that being used, or rather the catalyst being identified as that which somehow makes SOPA/PIPA/ACTA necessary, is misguided and disingenuous at best, outright criminal at worst. As with so many things, it’s about control, money and power. Or to sum it up in a single world: greed.
    My only reason for chiming in at all is to say that, as a true hardcore non-Hacker type, I sincerely hope there is no dumbing down of the message. I want to hear more intelligent, informed and yes, empowered voices speaking out about this. More please! And hey, thanks!

  31. > reminds me of this guy who “failed” the turing test on AIM.

    What this shows me is that the original spec for the Turing Test was missing a key qualification: the *judge* needs to be intelligent, otherwise the results are not reliable…

  32. I think it’s important for those of us in the (100-N)% to understand very well who the N% are, and why. *Somebody* is implementing DRM and DPI systems, which implies that they are either technologists themselves, or have access to them. Most DRM systems are mashups repurposing some existing security technology, but every now and then you see an exception that does something novel that someone clearly poured a lot of thought into. DPI systems require a bit more engineering, but there’s a lot of money in the surveillance market.

    What motivates technologists to implement such offensive systems? Malice or a misplaced sense of justice (do they genuinely believe they are fighting evil)? Ignorance (are they unaware of the issues or the consequences of their actions)? Mental illness (do they understand what they’re doing, but just don’t care)? Cultural blindness (do they believe censorship is OK because they’re accustomed to it)? Corruption (are they betting they can make more money this way)? It is counterproductive for us to act as if the N% are merely ignorant if they are in fact enjoying the challenge of hurting us–or vice versa. It is also likely that there’s a mix of these: I’ve encountered people who fall into at least three of those groups myself.

    It is clear that an extreme viewpoint on one side of the debate is preventing that side from being able to make mutually beneficial compromises; what I wonder is if there is also a blind spot on the opposite side of the debate as well.

    I’ve seen people ask for open-source media consuming applications to implement DRM to “enable” (i.e. define and implement a protocol for) lending digital material from libraries. At first I thought these were absurd, but these requests are coming from libraries and community groups because the alternative is that open-source users will not have authorized access to such materials at all (there is also some self-interest from the libraries because the vendors that sell them the content delivery systems seem to hate customers). Obviously the typical response from the open-source community to such requests is to ignore them, judging from the lack of open-source DRM so far; however, that response excludes many moderate media people from the open-source community (e.g. those who rely on some copyright enforcement for a living, but are firmly unwilling to support extreme measures like SOPA, the GPL, or the Pirate Bay). It’s not like there aren’t dozens of closed-source vendors willing to mash up and sell some simple software with an extra ‘if’ statement to check the date against a file’s license metadata, or withdraw the button for printing a document because the document contains a bit that says so. Media people see the lack of DRM protocols (even protocols with weak security) as a bug in open-source software, the same way open-source developers see a web browser that doesn’t have a “View Source” feature.

    When DRM vendors (not to be confused with DRM lobbyists, who are a somewhat different species) market their technology to copyright holders, they rarely promise total security–just enough to prevent accidental unlicensed use of works and maybe to prevent other companies from freeloading on (or worse, commercially exploiting) their expensive retail infrastructures. There’s no reason open-source software can’t implement those requirements just as poorly as closed-source software does.

    Suppose the default ebook reader in a Linux distro respected DRM by default (with open source code, so end-users could remove the restrictions if they were willing to sit through a recompile). Media people might see that as a huge leap forward compared to the status quo: the licensing choices implemented in open-source software tend to be “unlimited usage forever” and “nothing,” and given that limited set of choices the media people often insist on “nothing” and walk straight into the arms of open-source software’s most eager competitors. The fact that end-users can modify the code to remove the restrictions is a non-issue–end-users already routinely disable closed-source DRM, and there’s no evidence that organized resistance to DRM schemes is going away any time soon. Media people need more ways to sell things to a diverse set of honest users, not more sophisticated ways to sell things to an extreme set of dishonest users, and an open-source implementation of a machine-readable protocol for rentals as well as other kinds of reserved-rights license transactions is one way to do that.

    There are many customers for whom something in between the all-or-nothing extremes is a compromise that both parties in the transaction can benefit from. Unfortunately, it seems that people at both extremes are waiting for the others’ industries to starve to death, ignoring the fact that both extremes can still thrive without support from each other, and everyone in between is getting bad service or no service at all.

    It’s also possible that the day after an open-source DRM-enabled Linux distro comes out, someone will strip out all the DRM code, write “DRM-free” on the box, and promptly outsell the DRM-enabled distro, and utopia will not be achieved.

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