I installed delta.chat on my phone, to play with, nudged by Frank’s posting. It’s a E2E encrypted chat application with a twist: it uses e-mail as infrastructure. You set it up like an e-mail client, giving it access to one of your e-mail accounts. It will then use your e-mail account to send PGP encrypted messages.

So it’s actually a tool that brings you encrypted mail without the usual hassle of PGP set-up. Because it uses mail, you can find your messages in your regular mail archive (but encrypted), and you can contact anyone from the app if you have an e-mail address. The first message you send will be unencrypted (because you nor the app knows if the receiver has delta.chat installed), afterwards it will be encrypted as the app will have exchanged public encryption keys. Using e-mail means it’s robust, it doesn’t suffer from ‘there’s noone on here’ and there’s no silo lock-in. It also doesn’t need your phone number. It does ask for access to your contacts, which I denied as it is not at all a given that people will run delta.chat with the e-mail addresses they normally use.

I’ve tied it to my gmail address for now (ton dot zijlstra at gmail, ping me on delta.chat if you use it), because I wanted to have an easy interface to check what is going on in my inbox, and I have gmail on my phone anyway (even if I don’t use it for anything). I may switch over to a dedicated e-mail address later.

Some screenshots to illustrate:

Screenshot_20210218-090559_Delta Chat
How my initial exchange with Frank looked in Delta.chat


How my message to Frank looked in my mail. As it’s the first message it was unencrypted.


How I received Frank’s reply, which has an encrypted attachment.


The encrypted attachment when opened in a text editor shows it’s PGP.

I haven’t explored whether I can export my keys from Delta.chat. If you can’t, without Delta.chat I have no way of opening them. It’s a local tool only, so I suspect I might be able to get access to the keys outside of the app.

It seems to me e-readers don’t fully exploit the affordances digital publishing provides. Specifically when it comes to non-linear reading of non-fiction.
My Nova2 at least allow me to see both the table of contents alongside my current page, as well as my notes. This makes flipping back and forth easier. Kindle doesn’t.

But other things that would be possible are missing. With a paper book you have an immediate sense of both the size of the document and your current point within it. My e-reader can show me I am at 12% or position 123 of 456, but not a visual cue that doesn’t require interpretation.

More importantly my e-readers don’t manipulate a book like they should be able to given it is digital. Why can’t I collapse a document in various ways? E.g. show me the first and last paragraph of each chapter. Now add in all subheadings. Now add in all first and last sentences of a sub header and show all images. Etc. More advanced things would be e.g. highlighting referenced books also in my library and being able to jump between them. Or am I overlooking functionalities in my e-readers?

Also welcome: more publishers that sell a combination of a the physical and digital book.

How do you read non-linearly in e-books? What are your practices?

Today it is Global Ethics Day. My colleague Emily wanted to mark it given our increasing involvement in information ethics, and organised an informal online get together, a Global Ethics Day party, with a focus on data ethics. We showed the participants our work on an ethical reference for using geodata, and the thesis work our newest colleague Pauline finished this spring on ethical leadership within municipal governments. I was asked to kick the event off with some remarks to spark discussion.

I took the opportunity to define and launch a new moniker, Ethics as a Practice (EaaP).(1)
The impulse for me to do that comes out of two things that I have a certain dislike for, in how I see organisations deal with the ethics of working with data and using data to directly inform decisions.

The first concerns treating the philosophy of technology, information and data ethics in general as a purely philosophical and scientific debate. It, due to abstraction, then has no immediate bearing on the things organisations, I and others do in practice. Worse, regularly it approaches actual problems purely starting from that abstraction, ending up with posing ethical questions I think are irrelevant to reality on the ground. An example would be MIT’s notion that classical trolly problems have bearing on how to create autonomous vehicles. It seems to me because they don’t appreciate that saying autonomous vehicle, does not mean the vehicle is an indepenent actor to which blame etc can be applied, and that ‘autonomous’ merely means that a vehicle is independent from its previous driver, but otherwise fully embedded in a wide variety of other dependencies. Not autonomous at all, no ghost in the machine.


The campus of University of Twente, where they do some great ethics work w.r.t. to technology. But in itself it’s not sufficient. (image by me, CC BY SA)

The second concerns seeing ‘Ethics by design’ as a sufficient fix. I dislike that because it carries 2 assumptions that are usually not acknowledged. Ethics by design in practice seems to be perceived as ethics being only a concern in the design phase of a new technology, process, approach or method. Whereas at least 95% of what organisations and professionals deal with isn’t new but existing, so as a result remains out of scope of ethical considerations. It’s an assumption that everything that exists has been thoroughly ethically evaluated, which isn’t true, not at all even when it comes to existing data collection. Ethics has no role at all in existing data governance for instance, and data governance usually doesn’t cover data collection choices or its deletion/archiving.
The other assumption conveyed by the term ‘ethics by design’ is that once the design phase is completed, ethics has been sufficiently dealt with. The result is, with 95% of our environment remaining the same, that ethics by design is forward looking but not backwards compatible. Ethics by design is seen as doing enough, but it isn’t enough at all.


Ethics by design in itself does not provide absolution (image by Jordanhill School D&T Dept, license CC BY)

Our everyday actions and choices in our work are the expression of our individual and organisational values. The ‘ethics by design’ label sidesteps that everyday reality.

Both taken together, ethics as academic endeavour and ethics by design, result in ethics basically being outsourced to someone specific outside or in the organisation, or at best to a specific person in your team, and starts getting perceived as something external being delivered to your work reality. Ethics as a Service (EaaS) one might say, a service that takes care of the ethical aspects. That perception means you yourself can stop thinking about ethics, it’s been allocated, and you can just take its results and run with it. The privacy officer does privacy, the QA officer does quality assurance, the CISO does information security, and the ethics officer covers everything ethical…..meaning I can carry on as usual. (e.g. Enron had a Code of Ethics, but it had no bearing on the practical work or decisions taken.)

That perception of EaaS, ethics as an externally provided service to your work has real detrimental consequences. It easily becomes an outside irritant to the execution of your work. Someone telling you ‘no’ when you really want to do something. A bureaucratic template to fill in to be able to claim compliance (similarly as how privacy, quality, regulations are often treated). Ticking the boxes on a checklist without actual checks. That way it becomes something overly reductionist, which denies and ignores the complexity of everyday knowledge work.


Externally applied ethics become an irritant (image by Iain Watson, license CC BY)

Ethical questions and answers are actually an integral part of the complexity of your work. Your work is the place where clear boundaries can be set (by the organisation, by general ethics, law), ánd the place where you can notice as well as introduce behavioural patterns and choices. Complexity can only be addressed from within that complexity, not as an outside intervention. Ethics therefore needs to be dealt with from within the complexity of actual work and as one of the ingredients of it.

Placing ethics considerations in the midst of the complexity of our work, means that the spot where ethics are expressed in real work choices overlaps where such aspects are considered. It makes EaaS as a stand alone thing impossible, and instead brings those considerations into your everyday work not as an external thing but as an ingredient.

That is what I mean by Ethics as a Practice. Where you use academic and organisational output, where ethics is considered in the design stage, but never to absolve you from your professional responsibilities.
It still means setting principles and hard boundaries from the organisational perspective, but also an ongoing active reflection on them and on the heuristics that guide your choices, and it actively seeks out good practice. It never assumes a yes or no to an ethical question by default, later to be qualified or rationalised, but also does not approach those questions as neutral (as existing principles and boundaries are applied).(2) That way (data) ethical considerations become an ethics of your agency as a professional, informing your ability to act. It embraces the actual complexity of issues, acknowledges that daily reality is messy, engages all relevant stakeholders, and deliberately seeks out a community of peers to spot good practices.

Ethics is part and parcel of your daily messy work, it’s your practice to hone. (image by Neil Cummings, license CC BY SA)

Ethics as a Practice (EaaP) is a call to see yourself as an ethics practitioner, and a member of a community of practice of such practitioners, not as someone ethics ‘is done to’. Ethics is part and parcel of your daily messy work, it’s your practice to hone. Our meet-up today was a step to have such an exchange between peers.

I ended my remarks with a bit of a joke, saying, EaaP is so you can always do the next right thing, a quote from a Disney movie my 4 year old watches, and add a photo of a handwritten numbered list headed ‘things to do’ that I visibly altered so it became a ‘right things to do’ list.

(1) the ‘..as a Practice’ notion I took from Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s Ness Labs posting that mentioned ‘playfulness as a practice’.
(2) not starting from yes or no, nor from a neutral position, taken from the mediation theory by University of Twente’s prof Peter Paul Verbeek

Nicholas Carr wrote a blog post well worth a read last January, positing the impact of social media is content collapse, not context collapse. Indeed when we all started out on social software the phrase context collapse was on our lips.

Since 2016 Carr sees context restoration however, a movement away from public FB posts to private accounts, chat groups, and places where content self-destructs after a while. In its place he sees a different collapse, that of content.

Context collapse remains an important conceptual lens, but what’s becoming clear now is that a very different kind of collapse — content collapse — will be the more consequential legacy of social media. Content collapse, as I define it, is the tendency of social media to blur traditional distinctions among once distinct types of information — distinctions of form, register, sense, and importance. As social media becomes the main conduit for information of all sorts — personal correspondence, news and opinion, entertainment, art, instruction, and on and on — it homogenizes that information as well as our responses to it.

Content collapse, because all those different types of information reach us in the exact same templated way, the endlessly scrolling timeline on our phone’s screen.
Carr posits our general unease with social media stems from this content collapse even, and names four aspects of it:

First, by leveling everything, social media also trivializes everything….

Second, as all information consolidates on social media, we respond to it using the same small set of tools the platforms provide for us. Our responses become homogenized, too….

Third, content collapse puts all types of information into direct competition….

Finally, content collapse consolidates power over information, and conversation, into the hands of the small number of companies that own the platforms and write the algorithms….

My first instinct is that it is that last aspect that causes the most unease. The first and third are ultimately the same thing, I feel. The second trivialises not the content but us. It severely limits people’s response range, leaving no room for nuance or complexity (which makes unease and lack of power more tangible to users, such that I suspect it significantly amps the outrage feedback loop in people’s attempts to break the homogeneity, to be seen, to be heard) It is what removes us as an independent entity, a political actor, a locus of agency, an active node in the network that is society.

So here’s to variety and messiness, the open web, the animated gifs of yesteryear, and refusing the endlessly scrolling algorithmic timelines.

Of course it’s in direct conflict with FB’s business model but

social networks should reintroduce friction into their sharing mechanisms. Think of it as the digital equivalent of social distancing.

makes a lot of sense otherwise. There’s no viable path of doing only content moderation or filtering. Another option is breaking monopolistic silos up by requiring open API’s for them to be seen as true platforms. That too will reduce amplification, as it puts the selection into the hands of a wider variety of clients built on top of such a true platform. Of course that too is anathema to their business model.

First in Peter’s favourites from his feedreader, then from Matt Webb’s feed directly, which both showed up right beneath eachother when I opened my feedreader this morning, I read Personal Software vs Factory Produced Software.

In that posting Matt points to Rev Dan Catt’s recent week notes, in which he describes the types of tools he makes for himself. Like Matt I love this kind of stuff. I have some small tools for myself like that, and it is the primary reason I have been running a local webserver on my laptop: it allows me to do anything I could do online right on my laptop, as home cooking. Transposing code snippets into safe HTML output for instance. Or converting bank statements into something I can import in my accounting spreadsheet. Those are however somewhat of a mechanical nature. They’re by me, but not about me. And that is the qualitative difference specifically of the letter/cards tracking tool described in Rev Dan Catt’s post.

That is more akin to what I am trying to slowly build for myself since forever. Something that closely follows my own routines and process, and guides me along. Not just as a reference, like my notes or wiki, or as a guide like my todo-lists and weekly overviews. But something that welcomes me in the morning by starting me on my morning routine “Shall I read some feeds first, or shall I start with a brief review of today’s agenda.” and nudges me kindly “it’s been 15mins, shall I continue with …?”, or “shall I review …, before it becomes urgent next week?”. A coach and PA rolled into one, that is bascially me, scripted, I suppose. I’ve always been an avid note taker and lists keeper, even way before I started using computers in 1983. Those lists weren’t always very kind I realised in 2016, it became more a musts/shoulds thing than mights/coulds. Too harsh on myself, which reduces its effectiveness (not just to 0 at times, but an active hindrance causing ineffectiveness). I wanted a kinder thing, a personal operating system of sorts. Rev Dan Scott’s correspondence tool feels like that. I reminds me of what Rick Klau described earlier about his contacts ‘management’, although that stays closer to the mechanical, the less personal I feel, and skirts closer to the point where it feels inpersonal (or rather it challenges the assumption ‘if you don’t know it yourself and keep a list it’s not authentic’ more).

Building personalised tools, that are synchronised with the personality and routines of the person using it, not as an add-on (you can add your own filter rules to our e-mail client!), but as its core design, is mostly unexplored terrain I think. Because from a business perspective it doesn’t obviously “scale”, so no unicorn potential. That sort of generic scaling is unneeded anyway I think, and there is a very much available other path for scaling. Through the invisible hand of networks, where solutions and examples are replicated and tweaked across contexts, people and groups. That way lie the tools that are smaller than us, and therefore really provide agency.

It’s also why I think the title of Matt’s post Personal Software versus Factory Produced Software is a false dilemma. It’s not just a choice between personal and mass, between n=1 and statistics. There is a level in between, which is also where the complexity lives that makes us search for new tools in the first place: the level of you and your immediate context of relationships and things relevant to them. It’s the place where the thinking behind IndieWeb extends to all technology and methods. It’s where federation of tools live, and why I think you should run personal instances of tools that federate, not join someone else’s server, unless it is a pre-existing group launching a server and adopting it as their collective hang-out. Running personal or group tools, that can talk to others if you want it to and are potentially more valuable when connected to others, that have the network effect built in as an option.