Being Mentally Prepared for a Switch

10 August, 2020
10 min read

The battle between what is good and what is not had been going on for centuries now, and will do so up to eternity. The debate, however, takes on interesting twists when technology is brought into the picture to weigh on either side of good or evil.

In fact, this debate had been going on and is reminiscent of how for so long the establishment had sought to associate what it is uncomfortable with as satanic or devilish (See @pagels96).

We would like to think of how the printing press revolutionised the way information was spread:

  • Though it was a boon for religious people that much literature could now be produced within a short time, yet it proved to be a curse when what had been sacred was profaned by being accessed by many;
  • This in turn spread not only the holy writ, but even that which challenged it.

(See @eis80 for a detailed history of how the printing press changed the thought processes.)

How morals are created

Morals are considered as a stabilising force in the society. We all come to agree on their content as a result of what as a society we deem acceptable based on some tradition (@brophy14).

When it comes to use of technology, and computers in particular, this takes a number of dimensions other than those of tradition. These include:

  • How software was developed in the first place;
  • How it is used;
  • The harm or benefit it is causing to the society.

Thus, the offline mode of value creation is extended to the internet through one way or the other.

The problem is that as the internet reflects diverse communities and societies, clashes are bound to happen. Even within one community of users, it is difficult to agree on a standard of morality.

This is because the Internet was never meant to be a platform of one set of values in the first place. The Internet arose because of the need to deal with communication threats (@mukh14).

However, as it always happens, any new form of communication presents new opportunities for evangelists, terrorists and politicians: all saw a new channel to reach other peoples in a faster way than ever.

In this way, for some, internet represents freedom, while others see it as a conduit to extend their control of others.

What are bad technologies?

There is no disagreement (as far as I know) about good products:

  • Word-processing applications;
  • Browsers;
  • Music players;
  • email clients.

We all see these as representing the correct usage of a computer, so no controversies arise here.

This is even true with VPN—while some other governments may see them as threats to their dominance, yet there is no debate as to their acceptability. VPN is there to encrypt end-to-end transport of data.

But there are some technologies that have come to symbolise waywardness and roguish behaviour. The reason why I see it that way is of a recent conversation I happened to come across on a mailing list.

Someone wanted to find out how he could convert his ebooks from one format to the other. One user seemed to disapprove of this as he saw this as promoting piracy.

Thus, even sharing of knowledge about technologies for doing so was tantamount to aiding a criminal activity. 1

Hmm. I just thought, here we have a problem. But anyway, this is the world as it always was and shall be: evil remains a concept that eludes universal standardisation.

The program that was causing such uneasiness is Calibre. Calibre is known as a Swiss army knife of document handling: it can convert from and to many formats. You can learn more about Calibre here.

Calibre is not the only one in this league though: there is Pandoc which is popular with many programmers. In fact, Pandoc is easy to use and setup, but few find it problematic. Why? Because it has no facility to strip digital rights from an ebook. Pandoc is only good at helping ebook producers to come up with new books and not try to convert already existing books distributed on other platforms.

Besides Calibre, the following are some of the programs that I had found people being uncomfortable with:

Torrent Clients

These are programs used to download torrents from the Internet. Torrents are popular with people who share pirated software and are a distributed form of downloads. Because of that, they are often seen as bad technology.

With torrents, both torrents as a form of downloads and torrent clients have a bad reputation. Ever since the development of the torrent protocol, it had been used as a way to evade censorship. This has resulted in a number of jurisdictions blocking access to torrent sites such as The Pirate Bay.

However, Torrents are just that: a form of distribution. The fact that one group finds them appealing is because of its simplicity and failure to be controlled by one organisation.

There are a number of legitimate uses of torrents today such as the distribution of large files by companies. This helps reduce server loads as many people try to download a popular file at the same time. Thus, many Linux distros for instance use torrents for distribution .

Website Downloaders

These are programs that are used to “scrap” data from other websites. There is lot of useful material on the internet which may not be readily available in downloadable form such as a PDF or zipped HTML pages.

Now enter website downloaders: these allow anyone to just enter a URL and they download the material from the provided website. These are also considered as evil technologies as they violate the rights of the author.

Website downloaders tend to also consume a lot of bandwith as some of them use more than one threads to get as much data from a site as possible within a shortest time span. This technique is used by denial of service attacks.

However, on the other hand, downloading a website is as good as accessing the page online: while you are reading this page you may be doing so in your browser, yet the page is downloaded first to your computer and then you read it. Downloading a website is done as a way to help the user access the page even if he/she may be offline.

IN fact, many educational sites find mirroring pages beneficial. As long as the downloaded website is not further distributed and is only used for private purposes, I think there is no harm done.

Ad Blockers

If ever there had been a heated debate in recent years about acceptability or unacceptability of something, this is it: that of ad blockers. These are browser extensions2 for blocking popup ads and advertisements.

Many web developers find these objectionable as ad blockers deprive content creators of revenue. Many content creators such as bloggers may post advertisements and generate income through clicks to third-party sites.

However, the problem with this is that a browser on a user’s computer is under their control: they are free to customise it in whatever way they want. One of such ways is to configure what type of content they wish to get or block. While ads are great, and may even be informative, some users may find them annoying and unacceptable.

Also, some other ads and popup windows may be key to spreading malware. So while your site may be clean, other sites may not be that clean: so a user who may not know which sites are clean and not will do himself or herself a favour by having an ad blocker.

However, there is an argument that as the content is free, there is no justification to block ads. It is only fair that he who is benefiting from such content allows the displaying of the ads in return for the information they will be getting for free. This helps defray hosting expenses and research done by the person who created the content.

Yet as the Internet is a treasure trove of information: small content creator s will be competing with big institutions and research centres to deliver quality info. So you as a content creator, when you want people to find you, you provide them with quality information.

You have to bear in mind that some people will only get, and not pay anything in return. Thus, this is one side effect of the internet, namely that of the free rider problem (@pett19).

A paywall system may be a better implementation in that respect.

Ebook Converters

Ebooks are electronic representation of the books we have grown to love and read over the past centuries. Books are great as they are a depository of knowledge. With the advent of technology, a new industry had been spawned: that of ebook publishing and distribution.

To be profitable, most of the ebook distributors such as Apple and Amazon will lock ebooks to devices. This has an advantage that the end user will not be able to further reproduce and distribute the book: a practice that will prejudice not only the distributor, but the author of the ebook itself.

Nevertheless, there are a number of general document converters which help users to convert from one format to the other. For instance, using a document converter, one is able to convert a Word document to plain text, a PDF document to Word or vice versa.

Along with document conversion, these can also deal with ebooks: and some can even go further to help the user remove the DRM protection on those ebooks. The justification will be that as the person has already bought the book, they should be free to use it in whatever way they want and not be restricted by the ebook publisher. Thus, after buying an ebook, I should be able to open it not only on a Kindle, but even on a desktop computer or on a mobile phone. I cannot do that unless I convert it to a compatible format that the target device can handle.

The notoriety of document converters is the same as of audio and video converters, CD and DVD rippers, Youtube downloaders etc. all these are considered to be questionable technologies that harm the interest of the industry.

Some Sample applications

Finally, the table below shows some sample applications of these questionable technologies. You can check them out for yourself and see whether they are good or bad. However, I maintain that as long as you as the user do not have malicious intent with any product or towards your society, there is no harm done. What you can do with your computer is mostly determined by what you want to achieve in life.

Type of ApplicationWhat it doesExample
Torrent ClientDownloads Torrents from the InternetUTorrent
Website DownloaderDownloads sitesHTTrack
Ad BlockerBlocks ads and popup windows in a browserAdblockerPlus
Ebook converterConverts from one ebook format to the otherCalibre

Conclusion

The danger with labelling technologies as good or bad has to do with how this defeats the goal of innovation in the first place. Knowledge is generated and promoted when people are free to be creative.

While there is always a raging debate as to what is acceptable and what it isn’t, I think there should be other ways to regulate use of existing technologies rather than ban the technology itself. While encryption programs are good for privacy, there is no denial that this had been taken advantage of by criminals and terrorists to communicate safely to achieve their nefarious schemes. Yet encryption still remains and promoted; this should equally apply to some of these technologies. As is evident in most cases, what may be unpopular with the business world may be popular with the academia.


  1. By the way, this conversation was taking place on Groups.io platform where one of the terms and conditions is to never promote piracy. So I think the user might have been trying to comply with the terms of the group as hosted by Groups.io. ↩︎

  2. In some cases, there may be full standalone programs for doing that. ↩︎