Iago Ramos: How a professor of Philosophy in Zamora collaborated in the development of Signal, the alternative to WhatsApp | Technology

In February, EL PAÍS contacted the Signal messaging application to interview its founder, Moxie Marlinspike. Signal had grown a lot in downloads after the mess over WhatsApp’s privacy policy in January. Being a Spanish newspaper, from California the company put the newspaper on the trail of a pioneering use of its application that was made precisely in Spain. “There is an amazing teacher there who does all of his classes with Signal,” they said. At Signal, they didn’t know anyone who taught with his tool except him. Finally, he turned out to be a professor of Philosophy at the University of Salamanca who taught with Signal at the Zamora School of Education.

Iago Ramos is a special philosopher. From a young age, he has been programming and using computers like any computer scientist. “There are legacies of mine in various Linux communities, I was in the first Dropbox forums, in Infogami, every time I tested an application I became a tester.” But when he decided to go to university and then get a doctorate, he opted for the philosophy: “In Spain, being a computer scientist was to end up doing analyst jobs or picacode, very office. My brother was a computer scientist and he also had friends who told me their stories and I didn’t see him ”, he tells EL PAÍS by phone and Signal during several conversations. “I liked more to read, to browse. Computer science was not as fun as it is now, it was more for geeks, “he adds. In the end he chose to do a doctorate on the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

But he never gave up his interest in technology. And in a Digital Citizenship course for 70 university students at the Zamora School of Education, he has sophisticated his experimentation with Signal as an educational method.

Before the pandemic, Ramos used Signal to prolong class discussion and comment on activities. But during the health crisis, he moved his classes only to Signal: he set up a government project with his Ministries, which different groups of students managed through the application. But the objective of using Signal went further, it was to make the technology visible, to show the difficulty of creating an encrypted messaging tool.

It’s not magic, it’s engineering

Ramos finds it difficult to understand why if there is already a technology that allows the same privacy as face-to-face conversation but through two screens, people do not use it: “It allows us to speak from a distance in private and it’s great: pure engineering, pure math, pure user experience, ”he says.

“When we started using Signal beta [en pruebas], all the problems were initially received as ‘it’s worse than WhatsApp,’ ”he says, but it wasn’t really a problem. “It was interesting because I was able to explain the difficulties of end-to-end encryption, the engineering efforts involved, and that we realized that it is not magic,” he says. Ramos remembers a pre-pandemic session where he led them to talk about who pays for the technology.

The result of these beta testing of Signal groups was that Ramos’ class helped his application developers improve their updates. Ramos had several conversations with company engineers and they sent a series of emails with errors in use when adding users to a group or with notifications: “Some Signal update was made almost thanks to us,” he says. Ramos even helped with the Spanish translation.

Collaboration with Signal was part of the education for the students, always with the idea that technology is not invisible, but a code that communicates over a network between devices: “My students knew that we were helping with that because it seemed interesting to me. let them know, ”he explains.

Signal became one of the three most downloaded apps in Spain in the days after Facebook’s policy changes were announced in January. Since then, it has disappeared again from the top 100 rankings. apps most downloaded in Spain, according to the AppAnnie measurement tool. In Germany, on the other hand, it has been in the top ten for months.

Students see Signal as an advantage mainly because “it is different from WhatsApp.” “This is how they distinguish what is from the university from their WhatsApp. They love that, ”says Ramos. “I would like them to realize that it is something else and it gives me the feeling that it is like doing bad publicity,” he adds. But the seed is sown.

Nor is it less that the young people are from the province of Zamora. Many live in villages: “Often the connection is bad and a videoconference at 70 does not work,” says Ramos. Chat, with its asynchronous relationship, is a perfect alternative.

Ramos was inspired by a News about Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, where WhatsApp had become a way of teaching: “If they can do it in Beirut, in Zamora too. That article launched me on an adventure, ”he says.

Life is in the chats

Ramos downloaded Signal in 2016. “When I started using it, I never thought it would get to where it is now. When they created the foundation, it caught me by surprise and expectation, ”he says.

In 2018, a $ 50 million investment from Brian Acton led Signal to create a foundation and raise its expectations. Acton had founded WhatsApp in 2009, which Facebook bought in 2014 for $ 19 billion, an exorbitant amount (just two years earlier Facebook had paid $ 1 billion for Instagram). This week WhatsApp will force its users to approve a new privacy policy if they want to continue using it. Ramos, for the moment, will not accept.

“My main argument is that we have alternatives and that we are not going to use tools that do not respect our privacy,” he says. It is considered a “privileged” because it may not accept, unlike many millions of users who already depend on the tool because it is an almost unique mode of communication.

However, in fact, it came to the need to use Signal thanks to WhatsApp. His great argument is that group chat has become the center of life for millions of Spaniards. Also from his students: “When I got to the university, I saw that the virtual classrooms and the mail were not working. To organize the class, I did it by mail, but nobody found out either, “he says.

This is how it happened to WhatsApp. “Through the chat they do respond and a small conversation is generated. When there is news, they themselves challenge me in the group, ”he says. But immediately doubts arose with WhatsApp and privacy.

Technology is not free

Ramos’ effort extends to the entire University. For example, he tried the educational service Google Clasroom. “They give us free tools because we are students and not a company, but it raises doubts,” he says. “When I was beta I helped them start the business. I do not like it. There is a moral issue: that you are clear with me with your intentions, that you do not try to deceive me. You can’t trust anyone in Silicon Valley, ”he says. “In the teaching project I ask for 100 euros to donate to Signal and they don’t give it to me. I imagine that if it were a commercial application, I could argue that I need that money ”, he adds.

“I don’t want to have my data on other’s servers. I want a private messaging system not because nobody can see what is on their servers but because my messages end up on my phone and I delete them ”, he explains. And it all comes back to Signal: “One thing that interested me a lot about Signal was being able to talk in class about fleeting messages and the fear of losing them. Facebook or Google keep a lot of data for your business, ”he says. His argument for the disappearance of the past is also philosophical. “A conversation has to be repeated: if a student asks how to do an exercise, you tell him to go look at the log of old messages. But if you explain it again instead, you enrich the explanation, your knowledge and better understand how to do this activity, ”he says.

Ramos also reflects on digital literacy linked to his use of Signal in class. “When you introduce something like Signal, sometimes they say, ‘It doesn’t work for me when I do it.’ And no, you do it wrong. Asking it cannot be a taboo ”, he says. You do not learn to use technology and taboos are generated to explain it when most people know how to use only three functions of Word. That can happen with 18-year-olds ”, he adds.

His technological knowledge within a philosophy career gives Ramos a peculiar profile at the Spanish university. In 2020 he traveled to Stanford University to work with a professor of History of Science, but it is clear that the choice of destination was linked to his relationship with Silicon Valley: “In Spain, we do not have a technological culture. We do not value it at all. We have never respected technology, we see it as a game “, he says, and links it to deeper currents:” It is part of our anti-intellectualism. Ramón y Cajal has already said: in Spain there are plenty of artists and there is a lack of scientists and engineers. Glory is achieved in both ways. It is a culture that we do not have in Spain ”, he laments.

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