April 18, 2024

Election 2008: What Might Go Wrong

Tomorrow, as everyone knows, is Election Day in the U.S. With all the controversy over electronic voting, and the anticipated high turnout, what can we expect to see? What problems might be looming? Here are my predictions.

Long lines to vote: Polling places will be strained by the number of voters. In some places the wait will be long – especially where voting requires the use of machines. Many voters will be willing and able to wait, but some will have to leave without casting votes. Polls will be kept open late, and results will be reported later than expected, because of long lines.

Registration problems: Quite a few voters will arrive at the polling place to find that they are not on the voter rolls, because of official error, or problems with voter registration databases, or simply because the voter went to the wrong polling place. New voters will be especially likely to have such problems. Voters who think they should be on the rolls in a polling place can file provisional ballots there. Afterward, officials must judge whether each provisional voter was in fact eligible, a time-consuming process which, given the relative flood of provisional ballots, will strain official resources.

Voting machine problems: Electronic voting machines will fail somewhere. This is virtually inevitable, given the sheer number of machines and polling places, the variety of voting machines, and the often poor reliability and security engineering of the machines. If we’re lucky, the problems can be addressed using a paper trail or other records. If not, we’ll have a mess on our hands.

How serious the mess might be depends on how close the election is. If the margin of victory is large, as some polls suggest it may be, then it will be easy to write off problems as “minor” and move on to the next stage in our collective political life. If the election is close, we could see a big fight. The worse case is an ultra-close election like in 2000, with long lines, provisional ballots, or voting machine failures putting the outcome in doubt.

Regardless of what happens on Election Day, the next day — Wednesday, November 5 — will be a good time to get started on improving the next election. We have made some progress since 2004 and 2006. If we keep working, our future elections can be better and safer than this one.

The End of Theory? Not Likely

An essay in the new Wired, “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete,” argues that we won’t need scientific theories any more, now that we have so much stored information and such great tools for analyzing it. Wired has never been the best source for accurate technology information, but this has to be a new low point.

Here’s the core of the essay’s argument:

[…] The scientific method is built around testable hypotheses. These models, for the most part, are systems visualized in the minds of scientists. The models are then tested, and experiments confirm or falsify theoretical models of how the world works. This is the way science has worked for hundreds of years.

Scientists are trained to recognize that correlation is not causation, that no conclusions should be drawn simply on the basis of correlation between X and Y (it could just be a coincidence). Instead, you must understand the underlying mechanisms that connect the two. Once you have a model, you can connect the data sets with confidence. Data without a model is just noise.

But faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete. Consider physics: Newtonian models were crude approximations of the truth (wrong at the atomic level, but still useful). A hundred years ago, statistically based quantum mechanics offered a better picture — but quantum mechanics is yet another model, and as such it, too, is flawed, no doubt a caricature of a more complex underlying reality. The reason physics has drifted into theoretical speculation about n-dimensional grand unified models over the past few decades (the “beautiful story” phase of a discipline starved of data) is that we don’t know how to run the experiments that would falsify the hypotheses — the energies are too high, the accelerators too expensive, and so on.

There are several errors here, but the biggest one is about correlation and causation. It’s true that correlation does not imply causation. But the reason is not that the correlation might have arisen by chance – that possibility can be eliminated given enough data. The problem is that we need to know what kind of causation is operating.

To take a simple example, suppose we discover a correlation between eating spinach and having strong muscles. Does this mean that eating spinach will make you stronger? Not necessarily; this will only be true if spinach causes strength. But maybe people in poor health, who tend to have weaker muscles, have an aversion to spinach. Maybe this aversion is a good thing because spinach is actually harmful to people in poor health. If that is true, then telling everybody to eat more spinach would be harmful. Maybe some common syndrome causes both weak muscles and aversion to spinach. In that case, the next step would be to study that syndrome. I could go on, but the point should be clear. Correlations are interesting, but if we want a guide to action – even if all we want to know is what question to ask next – we need models and experimentation. We need the scientific method.

Indeed, in a world with more and more data, and better and better tools for finding correlations, we need the scientific method more than ever. This is confirmed by the essay’s physics story, in which physics theory (supposedly) went off the rails due to a lack of experimental data. Physics theory would be more useful if there were more data. And the same is true of scientific theory in general: theory and experiment advance in tandem, with advances in one creating opportunities for the other. In the coming age, theory will not wither away. Instead, it will be the greatest era ever for theory, and for experiment.

2008 Predictions

Here are the official Freedom to Tinker predictions for 2008, based on input by Alex Halderman, David Robinson, Dan Wallach, and me.

(1) DRM technology will still fail to prevent widespread infringement. In a related development, pigs will still fail to fly.

(2) Copyright issues will still be gridlocked in Congress.

(3) No patent reform bill will be passed. Baby steps toward a deal between the infotech and biotech industries won’t lead anywhere.

(4) DRM-free sales will become standard in the music business. The movie studios will flirt with the idea of DRM-free sales but won’t take the plunge, yet.

(5) The 2008 elections will not see an e-voting meltdown of Florida 2000 proportions, but a bevy of smaller problems will be reported, further fueling the trend toward reform.

(6) E-voting lawsuits will abound, with voters suing officials, officials suing other officials, and officials suing vendors (or vice versa).

(7) Second Life will jump the shark and the cool kids will start moving elsewhere; but virtual worlds generally will lumber on.

(8) MySpace will begin its long decline, losing customers for the first time.

(9) The trend toward open cellular data networks will continue, but not as quickly as optimists had hoped.

(10) If a Democrat wins the White House, we’ll hear talk about reinvigorated antitrust enforcement in the tech industries. (But of course it will all be talk, as the new administration won’t take office until 2009.)

(11) A Facebook application will cause a big privacy to-do.

(12) There will be calls for legislation to create a sort of Web 2.0 user’s bill of rights, giving users rights to access and extract information held by sites; but no action will be taken.

(13) An epidemic of news stories about teenage webcam exhibitionism will lead to calls for regulation.

(14) Somebody will get Skype or a similar VoIP client running on an Apple iPhone and it will, at least initially, operate over AT&T’s cellular phone network. AT&T and/or Apple will go out of their way to break this, either by filtering the network traffic or by locking down the iPhone.

Feel free to offer your own predictions in the comments.

2007 Predictions Scorecard

As usual, we’ll start the new year by reviewing the predictions we made for the previous year. Here now, our 2007 predictions, in italics, with hindsight in ordinary type.

(1) DRM technology will still fail to prevent widespread infringement. In a related development, pigs will still fail to fly.

We predict this every year, and it’s always right. This prediction is so obvious that it’s almost unfair to count it. Verdict: right.

(2) An easy tool for cloning MySpace pages will show up, and young users will educate each other loudly about the evils of plagiarism.

This didn’t happen. Anyway, MySpace seems less relevant now than it did a year ago. Verdict: wrong.

(3) Despite the ascent of Howard Berman (D-Hollywood) to the chair of the House IP subcommittee, copyright issues will remain stalemated in Congress.

As predicted, not much happened in Congress on the copyright front. As usual, some bad bills were proposed, but none came close to passage. Verdict: right.

(4) Like the Republicans before them, the Democrats’ tech policy will disappoint. <ionly a few incumbent companies will be happy.

Very little changed. For the most part, tech policy issues do not break down neatly along party lines. Verdict: right.

(5) Major record companies will sell a significant number of MP3s, promoting them as compatible with everything. Movie studios won’t be ready to follow suit, persisting in their unsuccessful DRM strategy.

Two of the four major record companies now sell MP3s, and a third announced it will soon start. I haven’t seen sales statistics, but given that Amazon’s store sells only MP3s, sales can’t be too low. As predicted, movie studies are still betting on DRM. Verdict: right.

(6) Somebody will figure out the right way to sell and place video ads online, and will get very rich in the process. (We don’t know how they’ll do it. If we did, we wouldn’t be spending our time writing this blog.)

This didn’t happen. Verdict: wrong.

(7) Some mainstream TV shows will be built to facilitate YouTubing, for example by structuring a show as a series of separable nine-minute segments.

I thought this was a clever prediction, but it didn’t happen. The biggest news in commercial TV this year was the writers’ strike. Verdict: wrong.

(8) AACS, the encryption system for next-gen DVDs, will melt down and become as ineffectual as the CSS system used on ordinary DVDs.

AACS was defeated and you can now buy commercial software that circumvents it. Verdict: right.

(9) Congress will pass a national law regarding data leaks. It will be a watered-down version of the California law, and will preempt state laws.

There was talk about doing this but no bill was passed. Verdict: wrong.

(10) A worm infection will spread on game consoles.

To my knowledge this didn’t happen. It’s a good thing, too, because the closed nature of many game consoles would make a successful worm infection particularly challenging to stamp out. Verdict: wrong.

(11) There will be less attention to e-voting as the 2008 election seems far away and the public assumes progress is being made. The Holt e-voting bill will pass, ratifying the now-solid public consensus in favor of paper trails.

Attention to e-voting was down a bit. Despite widespread public unhappiness with paperless voting, the Holt bill did not pass, mostly due to pushback from state and local officials. Rep. Holt is reportedly readying a more limited bill for introduction in January. Verdict: mostly wrong.

(12) Bogus airport security procedures will peak and start to decrease.

Bogus procedures may or may not have peaked, but I didn’t see any decrease. Verdict: unclear.

(13) On cellphones, software products will increasingly compete independent of hardware.

There was a modest growth of third-party software applications for cellphones, including some cross-platform applications. But there was less of this than we predicted. Verdict: mostly wrong.

Our overall score: five right, two mostly wrong, five wrong, one unclear. Next: our predictions for 2008.

Infinite Storage for Music

Last week I spoke on a panel called “The Paradise of Infinite Storage”, at the “Pop [Music] and Policy” conference at McGill University in Montreal. The panel’s title referred to an interesting fact: sometime in the next decade, we’ll see a $100 device that fits in your pocket and holds all of the music ever recorded by humanity.

This is a simple consequence of Moore’s Law which, in one of its variants, holds that the amount of data storage available at a fixed size and price roughly doubles every eighteen months. Extrapolate that trend and, depending on your precise assumptions, you’ll find the magic date falls somewhere between 2011 and 2019. From then on, storage capacity might as well be infinite, at least as far as music is concerned.

This has at least two important consequences. First, it strains even further the economics of the traditional music business. The gap between the number of songs you might want to listen to, and the number you’re willing and able to pay a dollar each to buy, is growing ever wider. In a world of infinite storage you’ll be able to keep around a huge amount of music that is potentially interesting but not worth a dollar (or even a dime) to you yet. So why not pay a flat fee to buy access to everything?

Second, infinite storage will enable new ways of building filesharing technologies, which will be much harder for copyright owners to fight. For example, today’s filesharing systems typically have users search for a desired song by contacting strangers who might have the song, or who might have information about where the song can be found. Copyright owners’ technical attacks against filesharing often target this search feature, trying to disrupt it or to exploit the fact that it involves communication with strangers.

But in a world of infinite storage, no searching is needed, and filesharers need only communicate with their friends. If a user has a new song, it will be passed on immediately to his friends, who will pass it on to their friends, and so on. Songs will “flood” through the population this way, reaching all of the P2P system’s participants within a few hours – with no search, and no communication with strangers. Copyright owners will be hard pressed to fight such a system.

Just as today, many people will refuse to use such technologies. But pressure on today’s copyright-based business models will continue to intensify. Will we see new legal structures? New business models? Or new public attitudes? Something has to change.