Thursday, 22 August 2013

Chelsea Manning: on pressing the button

Private Manning's announcement today that she is a trans woman came as no surprise to those of us who'd read the chat logs.  Admittedly, the name she's picked: Chelsea, was a bit of a turn-up: in the logs she'd previously identified as Breanna.  Anyhow, on seeing this news I did what any self-respecting Wikipedian would do, and had a look to see if anyone had updated the Wikipedia article yet.

This had come up before, but it was thought that the transcripts and a few sources reporting on the implications of them were not enough.  Some trans activists had been championing visibility on this issue, but I had felt uncomfortable with both sides.  Sure, Manning, by her own words, which I had no reason to doubt, was probably trans.  But those chat logs had hardly been released with her full agreement and she hadn't socially transitioned (that is, actually asked people to start calling her a different name, or use female pronouns).  But, also, it was not clear that'd she'd be able to ask that, as her contact with the outside world was very limited.  Wikipedia took the side of caution and didn't mention it except peripherally, and it certainly didn't move any articles.  Meanwhile, I, in conversations, carefully avoided referring to Manning by anything other than surname.

We'd had a similar issue with the article on the Wachowkis - where there had been rumours floating around about Lana for years, but they all traced back to a single, rather salacious, source (we try to be careful about that, in Wikipedia, believe it or not - although what's worse is when some article is using us as a source without citing us and we get into a horrible citation loop).  Eventually Lana did let it be known - the Wachowskis are quite private so what really clenched it was her official listings on a union site and IMDB.  Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of Against Me, was another interesting case because she initially announced that she was going to transition, so we kept referring to her with her old name and gender for a bit.

What do I mean by "transition", anyway?  Well, as I use it here, that's the process of actually changing your name and asking people to start calling you by it; and also to use new pronouns.  People who aren't trans ("cis people", if you follow the Latin pun) often seem to obsess about genital surgery, and claim that "she" is really "he" until that happens, but, disregarding the unhealthy fixation on other people's genitals, this ignores the legal and practical reality of the situation: being socially transitioned for a good length of time is generally a requirement for surgery.  You might as well claim that having passed a driving test is a prerequisite for learning to drive.

Manning's statement was pretty clear that she was transitioning immediately, such as it was possible (and I don't even really want to think about doing that inside the US military justice system, but that's another issue).  I got agreement from a few other interested parties on the talk page, and moved the page, and started copyediting it.  But to what exactly?  There are two schools of thought here (well, there are three schools of thought: the third is that transition is sick and wrong and against nature and biologically impossible and so on, and therefore the prose shouldn't acknowledge it at all other than as a delusion; but I'll discount that one).

The first is that you should use "old" pronouns and names for pre-transition events, back when Manning was living as male; and the new ones for ongoing statements of fact and events afterwards.  The second is that the new pronouns and names be applied for the entire biography.  The first is often justified based on an appeal to the unalterability of the past, and the avoidance of awkward wording, but it can lead to plenty of difficulties in phrasing in its own right.  How would we phrase "[X] is imprisoned at Quantico, after [X] was convicted for multiple charges of espionage"?  One of these things is in the present; the other in the past.  We can't be switching pronouns within a sentence, that's what I call real nonsense.

Fortunately, the Wikipedia Manual of Style is completely clear on this point, favouring the second:

"Any person whose gender might be questioned should be referred to by the gendered nouns (for example "man/woman", "waiter/waitress", "chairman/chairwoman"), pronouns, and possessive adjectives that reflect that person's latest expressed gender self-identification. This applies in references to any phase of that person's life. Direct quotations may need to be handled as exceptions. Nevertheless, avoid confusing or seemingly logically impossible text that could result from pronoun usage (for example: instead of He gave birth to his first child, write He became a parent for the first time)." (my emphasis)

It has been like this for a long time, and reflected long-established usage well before that.  So, our manual of style backs me, I've got the citation I needed, I got consensus on the talk page.  I pressed the button and watched.

It was not as uncontroversial as it should have been.  There is currently a raging argument on the talk page, in which all sorts of mud has been flung (I've been accused of misusing my admin rights, even though any user could do what I did!)  A lot of this has been supportive of my decision.  But a depressing amount of it full of people repeating the same canards as if they are being original, and I'm not even allowed to block them because technically they haven't done anything wrong (well, apart from the ones who have tried to move it back in a technically incompetent way.)  Instead, we're supposed to argue individually with each tendentious passer-by, each of them saying things like "ooh, but it's just a matter of the facts" like we hadn't considered facts before or something.  I kept it up for a while, but it's draining.  Instead, I'll address them en masse here:

Other sites have in fact changing things throughout the day.  It's not like we were breaking news or anything at any point.

Chelsea Manning's genitals are none of your business.  Or mine.

No, we are not a laughing stock of the world.  I have been watching twitter.  Twitter thinks what we did was awesome.  I've been watching "Manning" and "Wikipedia" all afternoon and it's been well 95% positive.

How is it you are so sure of Chelsea's chromosomes?  Did you have her karyotype done?

Can you not read or something?  The Manual of Style clearly is meant for cases like this.  No, you can't point out that it only applies in cases where there is a "question" and then claim there is no question.

Look, you seem to be denying the the validity of transsexuality in general and then using that as a basis for keeping the article at "Bradley" and the pronouns as "he".  I don't expect to persuade you that you're wrong, not on a Wikipedia talk page, but can you see that failure to even pay lip service to the idea that the entire medical-scientific-social consensus in the West might be right about trans people is not be an entirely sensible basis for a discussion of policy?  What are you going to do next, edit Oscar Wilde so it calls him a sodomite?

Maybe putting these answers here will work. Because nobody seems to be listening on the talk page.
It's easy to forget, dealing with these sort of nonsense, that Wikipedia's openness has advantages as well.  It's precisely because anyone can edit that I'm able to do so, and that the article was moved at all.  Right now, people are voting about whether it should be moved back.  Or rather, they are participating in this bizarre consensus-reaching procedure which is way more than a simple headcount.   And ultimately, I probably don't need to be countering every spurious invocation of the same nonsense on the talk page, because the closing admin (the person who takes it upon themselves to be responsible for looking at what we've thrown at the wall and somehow discerning the consensus of the discussion) will look at the facts and the policy and the arguments, weigh them up carefully, and decide that it's not going anywhere.

Abigail Brady is a software engineer and writer, and has been a Wikipedian since 2003.   This piece is under CC-BY-ND.  If you want to run it in an edited form, please drop me a line.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Not Magic Boxes

Clarke's Third Law, it's called.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It would be far from the most original idea to submit that technology is pretty advanced these days. I have here in my pocket a smartphone (three years old - practically ancient) with a touchscreen of the sort that would have astonished 1993 me. It looks like it came out of Star Trek, for Christ's sake. You can even talk to it and it answers back!

But on Star Trek the ship computer can answer complex questions that require all sorts of interpretation, guesswork and knowledge. It displays a true intelligence. All Siri can do is the same old fuzzy database matching that wouldn't have impressed 1993 me a bit. It's quite cleverly done, but it's a trick. Same as everything else. Our entire IT infrastructure has has been painstakingly constructed, piece by piece, in expensive research efforts. Not useless, by any means, but certainly not magic.

But to politicians it's all the same. They really do see a magic box which does stuff, and us - programmers and IT professionals and other such people - as wizards. They're especially concerned that we seem to be indoctrinating their children into our world without them really understanding it. All they've done is make perfectly reasonable requests like for the magic boxes for displaying information from anywhere in the world be restricted to certain types of information. If we were in a fantasy world that might sense. The magicians have cast their spells to enchant the boxes! Surely they can tweak the spells a bit, so the magic boxes have parental consent controls.

But it's hard. Filters can work two ways. Automatically, or a blacklist. Automatically is rubbish. To get them working properly you need full AI, which ranks alongside nuclear fusion in technologies that we shouldn't rely on ever existing. Blacklists are also rubbish. And, anyway, neither work for an Internet where you can encrypt information just as trivially as registering a new website.

To Cameron we're a bunch of stubborn people who could perfectly well do what he wanted. He thinks the "no", or the "we're doing the best we can" from Google and the ISPs is a negotiating position, rather than a technical reality. He has, after all, never had a job where's he's had to deal with physics and resource constraints rather than just manipulating people. He initially tried sweet-talking the internet industry, but they've not changed their line. So he's resorting to the threat of the law, because that's the next step if you're trying to get your way and you're the government.

Except, he's not alone. The Internet porn nonsense has triggered this particular rant, but we've seen more or less the same problem with copyright (they've blocked Pirate Pay how many times now?), and more recently with libel (hello Lord MacAlpine) and breach of various court orders (Trafigura, Baby P, Jon Venables). And it's not the first time a government has misunderstood the Internet but felt it ought to write a law altering the way it worked (cookies, anyone? oh, and the snooper's charter.) And this is only going to get worse. We saw a few months ago the shocked reaction to a 3D printed gun. Yes, it's not exactly viable as a murder weapon today. But ten, twenty years down the line, what then? It will be as impossible to make a 3D printer suitable for general use yet incapable of making a lethal weapon, as it is to make a phone cable unable to transmit pornography. New Scientist ran a piece about using 3D printers to synthesize drugs, where the research team naïvely thought they could make sure nobody could hack the machines to print bad drugs.

All our laws around publishing and information are stuck in a pre-Internet age, and are fundamentally incompatible with a world where you can't stop the signal. In some areas - because of their manifest absurdity - they have lost popular consent and are effectively unenforceable. Where they have been altered they have had to resort to increasingly draconian measures in the hope of having any sort of effect. An entire sector of law has become obsolete in a generation, due to massive technology shifts. We need to have a serious discussion about what to do about that. And, if kiddies really were being scarred for life by porn (hah), we'd need to come up with an appropriate reaction to that: a mass public information campaign to parents about the services and software and hardware that is already available to restrict their children's use of the Internet might be a good place to start.

David Cameron is not capable of participating in that discussion. Very few politicians are. It's not just that he's not an expert in the subject matter, but that he lacks the humility to take advice from experts (see: Khat). Only a handful of what Charles Stross calls the "ruling party" have ever lived in the real world, where you can't stop a tide by parking your throne on the beach. Computers are not magic boxes, and we can't be heading further into the 21st century with our policymakers acting like they are.