I don’t get a great deal of spam, and Gmail does protect me from the most obvious—from a machine’s point of view. Gmail has dropped the ball, however, on detecting spam that is clearly spam to a human but cleverly disguised as legitimate. Here’s a message I received on Wednesday:
Dear owner of Tachyondecay.net,
I’m sure you have been contacted in this matter many times before but our value proposition is much different. We show the client results before we ask for any further commitment.
As a business owner you might be interested to gain profit by placing your website among top in search engines.
Your website needs immediate improvement for some major issues with your website.
-Low online presence for many competitive keyword phrases
-Unorganized social media accounts
-Not compatible with all mobile devices
-Many bad back links to your website
I have selected your website Tachyondecay.net and prepared a FREE website audit report. This is for you, completely free at no charge.
If my proposal sound’s interesting for your business goal, feel free to email me, or can provide me with your phone number and the best time to call you. I am also available for an online meeting to present you this website audit report.
I look forward to hearing from you - thanks!
PS: I am not spamming. I have studied your website, prepared an audit report and believe I can help with your business promotion. If you still want us to not contact you, you can ignore this email or ask to remove and I will not contact again.
A free audit report? Of this website? To help me “gain profit”? Where do I sign up??
I doubt Jerry is a real person. I suspect this is message was generated by a bot that spiders the Web, probably looking for sites like mine that have harvestable email addresses on their home pages. If Jerry were a real person, in any sense of the word, he would have noticed that this site does no business, that I make no profit from anything I do here, and that his “free” audit report wouldn’t interest me in the slightest.
But it was Wednesday morning. I was bored. And curious. So I fired off a reply—but not any reply. See, having read Jerry’s email, I was concerned that his writing style wasn’t conducive to attracting customers:
Dear marketing consultant,
I’m sure you don’t receive many replies to your unsolicited proposals that are not spam. Your humble offer to help business owners gain profit by placing their websites top in search engines is attractive. But hear my value proposition first.
As a marketing consultant you might be interested to gain tips on grammatical fluency in your proposals.
Your email needs immediate improvement for some major issues with your email.
- Redundant usage of keyword and buzzword phrases
- Improper deployment of English vocabulary, including words that do not exist
- Not compatible with most fluent English speakers
- Many bad sentence structures
I have selected your email and prepared a FREE email audit report. This is for you, completely free at no charge.
If my counter-proposal sounds interesting for your marketing consultant goal, feel free to email me. I am also available for an online meeting to present you this email audit report.
I look forward to hearing from you - thanks!
English Grammar & Composition Consultant
PS: I am not spamming. I have studied your email, prepared an audit report and believe I can help with your marketing consultant promotion. If you want me not to contact you, you can ignore this email, or, better yet, stop sending me spam and claiming it’s not spam. At least have the decency to use proper grammar if you want to pass yourself off as legitimate.
As of writing this post, I have yet to receive a response. I wasn’t expecting one. I don’t know how these types of spamming operations work—something, human or bot, must monitor the email address for replies, right? Otherwise, what’s the point in sending out these messages in the first place?
On the off chance I do get a reply, however, I will totally help Jerry out with his spam business—for a fee. An underemployed English/math teacher has to make a living somehow, right?
Hear that, Jerry? Email me!
And if you are a spammer, or even just looking to break into the lucrative world of spamming, then please consider me when looking for people to proofread your emails. I’m cheap, reliable, and will help you gain profit today.
Really glad I don’t have comments enabled on this post.
Universal fat jokes, Doctor Who will be everywhere, and apparently the Internet is no longer for porn
I’m comfortably ensconced (this is the correct word) in the well-worn couch in my grandparents’ basement. In a few hours I’ll be on an Air Canada flight to Thunder Bay, where I shall while away my summer in whatever manner pleases me (think coconut milkshakes, ninja dance parties, and suffocating under a massive pile of library books). Until then, though, things happen on the Internet.
- We should be getting a Doctor Who 50th anniversary special trailer any time soon, because they screened it at Comic-Con. But apparently, according to the comments section, that isn’t going to happen. However, I am somewhat assuaged because the special will be simulcast around the world, which means I don’t have to worry about spoiling it for my dad (or Twitter spoiling it for anyone else).
- Watch this “in memoriam” video for the myriad characters who have died during the first three seasons of Game of Thrones. Spoilers, obviously.
- In an interesting spot of science news, evolution might be more predictable than we thought. It’s hard to get testable hypotheses out of macro-evolutionary theory, thanks to the time scales involved, but scientists are always finding ways around that.
- Also, on the cosmological side of evolution, it’s possible that what we have taken for expansion of the universe is actually just mass gain. I love new theories of cosmology!
- We’ve also discovered that some of the heavier elements in the universe are not so much the product of supernovae as they are neutron stars colliding. How awesome is that?
- I’m not a big fan of Fact or Faked, but I recognize what it’s trying to do. I’m intrigued by a new show coming to SyFy, Joe Rogan Questions Everything, which promises to be more critical about conspiracy theories.
- We might be six degrees away from Kevin Bacon but only three degrees away from a terrorist.
- The UK government has approved self-driving cars for road tests. This is very exciting. I can’t wait to let a computer do my driving for me; it will be much better at it than I am.
- Unfortunately, the government also wants to block online pornography by default. This is being done in the name of “protecting the children”, which always sounds good in a sound bite—except that the same blocking tools will also block other content (including “web forums”, oooh, so scary), in a censorship move strangely reminiscent of China. I thought we were supposed to condemn other countries’ disrespect of free speech, not emulate them? And even if you can stomach the moral issues around such censorship (not to mention the absurdly hypocritical nature of the basic proposal itself), there are so many practical problems with this idea.
- And finally, if you read nothing else, you should check out Jon Negroni’s syncretic theory of Pixar, in which he attempts to place all of Pixar’s movies into a single, coherent universe. The scary thing is: it works.
That’s all I’ve got for you today. I must finish re-packing the explosion that is my suitcase and marshal some arguments for a future blog post about how awesome Continuum has become, with probable counterpoint from my less-impressed dad.
I sat in the backyard this morning, and much of this afternoon, and read. The weather was very nice last weekend, and it was nice again on Friday and today as well. Spring has finally crept up on us, and summer is around the corner. I’ve enjoyed a week off of school, taken the time to rest and recharge and read.
It feels so weird that as I sat in the garden, basking in the calm Sunday morning, protesters continued to occupy streets in Turkey. What began as a simple, peaceful demonstration in opposition to government plans for developing a park (into a mall) has erupted into a full-scale riot. Apparently, the Turkish government and police are rather surprised that spraying tear gas on peaceful protesters and running them over with cars isn’t quelling the riot.
I can’t quite wrap my head around that kind of massive moment. I’m thankful for the Web, particularly Twitter, for being able to provide me with moment-to-moment commentary and especially photos of what’s happening. It doesn’t make me feel connected—I don’t think I have the right to make such a claim when I have no stake in what’s happening—but it makes me feel more aware of how vast this world is.
My Twitter feed has been very interesting this week. I following a small but diverse selection of people: some of them I know, some I only admire from afar. I follow actors, writers, and random Internet acquaintances. So my feed is usually somewhat scattered in the topics that scroll down the page. The Turkey situation has appeared more and more frequently since the riots began. And last night, more than a few of the people I follow suddenly started talking about Matt Smith’s departure from Doctor Who. (For the record, I am sad to see Matt Smith go, because I liked him as the Doctor. He inspired, along with Bill Nye and my personal dislike of ties, my current bow-tie fashion.)
I’ve spent my weekend doing things somewhat less politically sensitive than marching on the Parliament. On Monday, my roommate, her daughter, and I went to Risby Barn. It features two barns filled with antiques and collectibles, from buttons, pins, and teacups to paintings and furniture. I salivated over several old books, and I even purchased a few volumes. I found an 1878 edition collecting some of George Eliot’s works, including Silas Marner, and an early twentieth-century edition of The Mill on the Floss—I now own three copies, two here in England. It was a good day for Dickens, too: an undated twentieth-century softcover of The Pickwick Papers, and a really neat edition of Nicholas Nickleby with a grammar school’s seal on the cover and a bookplate, dated 1937, awarding the book to a student. Wow!
Tuesday morning, I hopped on the bus and went into work for the morning. Some of our Year 11 students made the right choice and came in to do some revision on persuasive techniques and article writing. Their exam re-sit is this Tuesday—it’s their last English exam. I hope they do well.
On Thursday, we went to the West Stow Anglo Saxon Village. It wasn’t a very nice day, so the atmosphere was subdued. I enjoyed the opportunity to enter the huts in which the Saxons would have lived hundreds of years ago. By far, however, the best part of the experience was the chance to try a little archery. An instructor had an area set up, where one at a time we were allowed to try several different bows, ranging from the modern compound ones to older types. All three of us gave it a go; I was particularly interested in trying the traditional longbow. I did archery back in Grade 9 gym but never since, and I enjoyed my brief opportunity to try it again!
I visited some friends in Ely and played board games. I seized upon the opportunity to watch Primer through their Netflix account, and the movie was every bit as rewardingly complex as it was made out to be. When I returned on Friday, I went bowling with some other friends. Then, exhausted, I made my way back home in some unexpected sun, and collapsed. This week has been far too social for my liking, and I have enjoyed my quiet weekend.
By any standards, I’d say this was a successful break. I’m getting better at taking the days of books and tea, sun or storm, and enjoying the serenity instead of wasting time by worrying about what might come the day after. Books and tea—that’s all I need. And maybe a longbow. For the zombies.
It’s weird how my blog works. I should post another “update type” entry focusing on my half-term shenanigans (warning: shenanigans in the mirror may sound cooler than they later appear). And I will. But I have to get this out of my head first.
I walk into town for the market every Saturday, and almost every week I spend that walk listening to The Vinyl Cafe, with Stuart McLean. I love this show. I love how Stuart can enthuse about a little detail of Canadian history, particular to whatever venue the show is visiting that week. I love being exposed to new and wonderful Canadian musicians. And, I love the story exchange and the Dave and Morley stories. I loved all this before I moved to England, but The Vinyl Cafe has become even more important to me now that I’m living on my own in another country. It’s a connection to Canada, a very concentrated reminder of where I’m from, and it alleviates a little of the habitual homesickness I occasionally feel.
Anyway, this week Stuart was talking about movies. He recounted his own experience with movies as a child in Montreal, including his anticipation of the news reels that would show prior to each film. He reminded us that, before television became a common staple in most homes, movies were one way people would experience the news of far-flung events, saying that this was a time when people watched and experienced the news together, rather than alone with our televisions. Obviously, this is a generalization—people would listen, and continue to listen, to the news together, either through radio or television. But it got me thinking about how we consume content today, and how so much of that content is targeted to mobile devices. I started wondering what it means to share an experience in the digital space.
With a few exceptions, watching a video, reading a blog post, or listening to a podcast on a mobile device is a solitary experience. Sure, it’s possible to share in this experience with a few friends who don’t mind sitting a little closer to you than normal. But that’s far from the norm, and I suspect that very few people indeed gather around a single tablet to watch the latest video from a YouTube channel together. Instead, standard operating procedure is to watch the video separately—usually alone—and then discuss it online.
(On a somewhat tangential note, the result is that consuming video has become more reading a book than watching a movie or TV show, in the sense that few people sit around reading the same book together. You all read the book separately, then you get together to discuss it. This means that the act of reading itself is an intimate, immensely personal experience.)
Therein lies the paradox. Not only do content creators constantly push content towards us for mobile consumption; we are persistently encouraged and reminded to share the content we like. “Like us on Facebook!,” “Tweet us,” “Pin us,” etc., have all become common requests at the bottom of a blog post or the end of a video. So, despite the fact that we are more often consuming the content alone, we are still expected to share that content with others. This has led to a subtle transformation of what it means to “share” an experience.
There is something about watching a video—for example—with another person that fundamentally differs from watching it alone. Alone, no one can interrupt you to make a joke, point out a flaw, or merely be goofy—thereby adding value to the experience, annoying you, or, through some combination of the two, breaking your concentration and thus altering your experience of the video itself. When you watch a video with someone else—when you share the experience in this way—you aren’t actually watching a video any more. You’re watching a work derived from that video, an interactive performance in which you and your friend are participants and players.
Now consider what it means to share a video online. You watch it; your friends watch it. Some of you share it to Facebook, or tweet about it, and it gets discussion going—others, who wouldn’t have watched it otherwise, watch the video. Depending on the video and the circle of friends, the discussion could be quite intense and sophisticated. None of this, however, changes the fact that your initial exposure to the video was while you were alone, uninterrupted and unmediated by another consciousness’ involvement in the experience. You might go back and rewatch the video, your thoughts tempered by points that someone has made online. But all discussion is after the fact.
In this distinction between the two types of sharing, note that this is not a matter of online versus offline content. It’s just as easy to watch a TV show alone, and then share one’s enjoyment of the latest episode online and talk about it there (or in person with people at a coffee shop). Similarly, it’s possible to watch content together with people online—almost every week, my dad and I watch Castle together, simultaneously, while we chat over Skype. There is just no substitute for the experience of the two of us watching it and commenting on the episode as things happen.
So online media is not responsible for this distinction; indeed, the two types of sharing have probably always co-existed. However, the proliferation of mobile devices and the increased encouragement to view content on mobile platforms is responsible for sharpening and deepening this distinction.
I’m not really going anywhere with this. I’m not complaining about this trend. In my view, it’s not a question of improvement or decline; it’s just change. But it’s interesting to think about how our changing habits of media consumption are changing how and when we discuss that media, and how those discussions might, in turn, alter our experience of that media.
Recently I talked about the threat to Canada’s public domain. The following is a letter I have sent in response to the government consultation on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). As with all my blog posts, it is published under a Creative Commons Attribution license. I encourage you to speak up by February 14 and write your own letter declaiming the desecration of the public domain! Email email@example.com.
I am writing as a concerned Canadian citizen, as well as a student and future educator, with regards to the effects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on Canadian copyright law and the public domain. I am aware of the potential benefits of the TPP for Canada’s trade and economy. However, analysis of the proposed agreement reveals that accepting the TPP would commit Canada to extending its copyright term from life of the author plus 50 years to life of the author plus 70 years. This would effectively leave the public domain in Canada stagnant for 20 years. Beyond that, the increase in copyright terms will mean an additional delay—in some cases, more than a century—between the publication of a work and its entry into the public domain. Many Canadians, including myself, feel that such a commitment is too high a price to pay, regardless of the other benefits the TPP may bring. The public domain is an important, essential cultural resource and a part of Canada’s heritage. Limiting it by extending the term of copyright protection will be counterproductive and deleterious to creators and consumers alike.
Copyright was originally created as a way of giving a creator a limited monopoly on his or her intellectual productions. By providing the creator of a work with this economic advantage, it created the incentive for creators to continue producing new works. Copyright is a valuable and important part of intellectual property law and the economy. However, like any law, it must be balanced in the extent to which it curtails the rights of one group in order to protect the interests of another. Hence, copyright does not last indefinitely. It ends a significant period after the original creator of the work can no longer stand to benefit from it. I have yet to see a convincing argument that extending the term of copyright an additional 20 years has a positive economic impact. If the author is already dead, who stands to benefit from the work remaining in copyright? The publishers or distributors, maybe. Perhaps the author’s heirs—if there are any. But the distributors have had at least 50 years to continue making a profit off this work; the same goes for the heirs, who should in time have found their own ways to earn a living. At any rate, the fact that the work remains copyrighted does nothing to further the original goal of copyright, which is as an incentive to the creator to produce new works. There is no economic benefit to extending the term of copyright.
Perhaps this move to extend copyright comes from trepidation over the nature of the public domain, particularly now that the Internet and the World Wide Web have revolutionized how we communicate and distribute information. Yet the public domain is the single largest body of intellectual property on the planet—and it belongs to the people, as it should. When a work enters the public domain, the creator does not lose money—indeed, the creator will be dead. Rather, the Canadian people gain a valuable piece of culture that can be reproduced, translated, adapted, and derived from at will. Speaking personally, as a student currently training to become a secondary school teacher, the public domain is an essential resource to public education. It is a vector for the potential within every student, every child, everyone who desires to express his or her creativity. Individual artists and creators benefit from a healthy public domain, for additions to the public domain act as inspiration and source material. The same holds true for the larger corporations whose vast collections of copyrighted works often put them in the position of advocating for stricter copyright. Those corporations benefit from the public domain—would Disney have been so quick to make Cinderella if it were still in copyright? The lack of licensing fees makes public domain works particularly attractive for individuals and corporations alike.
The public domain is as much an economic and cultural resource as the natural, technological, and human resources that have made our country great. To limit the public domain in the name of protecting intellectual property is a shortsighted and ultimately ineffective endeavour. If the Canadian government signs the TPP as it stands and extends the term of copyright to life of the author plus 70 years, they will be sending an unequivocal signal that they do not think the public domain is of value. Worse, they will be consigning the Canadian public domain to stagnation, endangering the cultural heritage of all Canadians in the process. An entire generation of Canadians will grow up thinking that this gross distortion and abuse of copyright is legitimate. If the TPP is truly in the best interest of Canada and its people, then by all means, continue pursuing negotiations—but please consider doing so with an eye toward intellectual property provisions that are thoughtful, balanced, and just.
My New Year’s Eve was pretty good. As I am not much of a party-goer I did not plan on doing anything special. My two friends Cassie and Carly had extended a casual invitation to perhaps do something. Eventually they decided to watch the hockey game, and having no interest in hockey, I did not go over to their house. But I asked them to “alert me in the event of an impromptu snowball fight”. Sure enough, around quarter after eleven, I received a pushy text message explaining that they were coming over to my house! This was followed by one that advised me to have my coat on—at that point, I knew the game was afoot, and I prepared to ambush their ambush. A snowball fight ensued, followed by the more constructive act of creating a snowman. Later we went inside and played a card game, Dominion, that their other friend had brought. It was intense and interesting, and it was a good evening.
New Year’s Day is always better than New Year’s Eve. Always. Because New Year’s Day is Public Domain Day. Every year, children and adults alike gather round to give thanks and feast, to celebrate the creations of authors who died 51 (or 71, if you live in Europe or the US) calendar years ago. We drink to the remembrance of these luminaries, whose legacies leave us with a lasting, inviolable cultural heritage.
Or at least we should.
Here is a short list of authors whose published works are now in the public domain in Canada. This includes Ernest Hemingway, and for those of you who like physics, Erwin Schrödinger. In Canada, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 50 calendar years after their death (hence New Year’s Day as Public Domain Day, when the work ticks over into the public domain). This is the “standard” term of copyright agreed upon internationally, but certain jurisdictions have chosen to extend that copyright term to the life of the author plus 70 calendar years (or “life+70”). Europe and the United States are among these countries. They are welcoming Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Frederick Banting, among others, into the public domain.
The public domain is amazing and vital to our society and our cultural heritage. Meera Nair has a succinct explanation of why this is over at her blog, Fair Duty, including the perspective of Project Gutenberg Canada founder Mark Akrigg. (That’s right, we have a Project Gutenberg Canada, because there are some works in the public domain in Canada that aren’t available in places like the United States.) Essentially, what the argument reduces to is one of cultural versus economic incentives. Copyright began as a limited monopoly on intellectual property to encourage creators to keep on creating by ensuring they would receive compensation for what the government deemed an appropriate amount of time. This appropriate amount—the copyright term—has continually been revised and extended over the past century. That’s not good.
Imagine if Shakespeare were not in the public domain today, but instead you had to pay someone’s estate for the right to adapt one of his plays? It might sound like an extreme example, owing to the Bard’s death 400 years ago, but hopefully this puts the public domain into perspective: it is a cultural treasury that keeps culture alive. It provides creators and consumers alike with a repository of material of cultural worth, and it offers a starting point for new, valuable works. Copyright is a good thing. The public domain is a good thing too.
The public domain in Canada is under attack. Go to the Project Gutenberg Canada website right now, if you did not click the link above already. At the time of this post they have the following statement on their homepage, in massive print:
It seems that Europe wants copyrights in Canada to last longer, and they want to take away 20 YEARS of OUR (not their) public domain! They call that “free trade”? We call it European colonialism! In Canada, we don’t let foreign governments write our laws!
Hyperbole? Perhaps a little bit, but the point stands: firstly, by signing this agreement our government unilaterally makes a significant commitment to change Canada’s intellectual property laws; secondly, the implications for those changes are, in my opinion, undesirable. The statement links to a blog post by Michael Geist, in which Geist elaborates on the implications of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement for copyright. This agreement would require its signatories to extend their copyright terms to life+70. Geist has a follow-up post that lists some notable Canadian authors whose works would be delayed from entering the public domain because of this extension. What I found most chilling, however, is this statement:
The extension in the term of copyright would mean no new works would enter the public domain in those countries until at least 2033 (assuming an agreement takes effect in 2013).
For twenty years, not one single work by any dead person would enter the public domain in Canada. That’s an entire generation of children growing up without being able to celebrate Public Domain Day.
If the Canadian government signs the TPP as it stands and extends the term of copyright to life+70 years, they will be sending an unequivocal signal that they do not think the public domain is of value. Worse, they will be dooming the Canadian public domain to stagnation, and endangering the cultural heritage of all Canadians. An entire generation of Canadians will grow up thinking that this gross distortion and abuse of copyright is legitimate.
But there is a thin, tiny sliver of hope. It’s not much. It’s not like copyright consultations ever got us anywhere in the past. But we have to act on it. You can write the department responsible for this and voice your opinion. Please do it. You have until February 14, 2012—that’s an entire month to compose one short and sweet email to firstname.lastname@example.org. See Professor Geist’s post for the snail-mail equivalents if you want them.
The public domain is a treasure. Don’t let the government shut it away in the closet for twenty years for the sake of international trade.
For perhaps the first and last time ever, “Oxford English Dictionary” was trending on Twitter last Friday. Why? Well, aside from an overdue recognition of this authority’s awesomeness, the OED was trending because its latest update adds entries for online initialisms such as OMG, LOL, and FYI. As if that were not enough to send language purists into apoplexy, but the OED now recognizes “heart” as a verb meaning “to love; to be fond of,” in the sense of “I heart pyjamas.” That’s right: Internet diction has taken over our most beloved of English language institutions. We must draw the line in the sand and say, “Enough! This far and no farther!”
Or not. Rather than looking at this as a compromise of the OED’s purity, we could take it as evidence of how our usage of the Internet has shaped language. I admit to uttering “OMG” aloud, telling people I “heart” things, and while I tend not to say “LOL,” because I‘m not sure how to pronounce it in a way that doesn’t sound stupid, I do love me some “for the win” (FTW, for those of you playing initialism bingo at home).
As the school year draws to a close, my Philosophy & the Internet course has started looking at the Internet in terms of posthumanism. For my fourth and final critical response, I’m looking at the first seven pages of the Prologue to My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts, by N. Katherine Hayles. The excerpt is accessible through Google Books. We first read an earlier piece by Hayles, in which she discusses the tension between the Enlightenment-influenced attitudes of liberal humanism and posthumanism. Now she has shifted toward an examination of various posthumanist visions, with a particular emphasis on embodiment.
I’ve always been fascinated by the posthuman as depicted in science fiction. If our species survives the coming decades, I think it is the only natural consequence of the increasing complexity in our technology. For the most part, I welcome our posthumanist future, but I have always found the idea of “mind uploading” a little disconcerting. I can’t get past the fact that uploading my mind to a computer would result in having a copy of the original rather than the real “me.” Not much in the way of a rational explanation seems forthcoming for this discomfort. I don’t believe I have a soul, so it’s not as if there is something unique that I miss during the duplication process. I think it just all comes down to what Hayles is talking about with the concept of embodiment.
Whereas in her previous books, How We Became Posthuman, Hayles argued against the disembodied version of posthumanism, she notes now that:
As new and more sophisticated versions of the posthuman have evolved, this stark contrast between embodiment and disembodiment has fractured into more complex and varied formations. As a result, a binary view that juxtaposes disembodied information with an embodied human lifeworld is no longer sufficient to account for these complexities. (3)
Nevertheless, she goes on to say that she has not abandoned embodiment as an important attribute of her posthumanist philosophy. Rather, she is suggesting that the increase in complexity requires a more nuanced understanding of the role of embodiment in posthumanism. This seems sensible enough to me. After all, the technologies that are making us posthuman are as much attempts to increase the abilities and soundness of our bodies as they are a way of expanding our mentalities. I wear glasses, which are a prosthesis that improve my physical condition. How much longer will it be before it’s possible to use nanotechnology not just to correct one’s eyesight but actually enhance it behind the human norm? Returning to reality for just a moment, we already have the ability to create protheses that exceed the ability of human limbs in certain tasks. So we are becoming “more than human,” but in a very embodied way.
Hayles thus wants to examine how our relationship with increasingly pervasive technology, which is both external and now internal to our bodies, influences our understanding of reality. She brings up the example of the Computational Universe model, refering to Stephen Wolfram’s book A New Kind of Science. I find the idea that we are living inside a universe generated by computation processes fascinating, and also a little mind-blowing. (As always, xkcd has a relevant comic.) I also admit it is kind of attractive—though I’m not sure how, from a physics perspective, it might be testable. However, Hayles is neither endorsing nor refuting the Computational Universe model. Instead, she wants to prod it with a pointy stick:
I offer my own commentary on the Computational Universe, including a critical interrogation of current research claims. My primary interest, however, is not in separating the Computational Universe as the means by which reality is generated from its function as a metaphor for understanding natural and cultural processes. Rather, I am interested in the complex dynamics through which the Computational Universe works simultaneously as means and metaphor…. (4)
Ah-hah! This provides the segue into what Hayles calls “a fundamental question. What resources do we have to understand the world around us?” (5). She lists three broad categories: mathematical equations, simulations, and “discursive explanations.”
As a mathematician, I feel obligated to comment upon her critique of mathematics as a method of understanding the world. She has “little to say” except to point to others, including Wolfram, who claim that mathematics is of “limited usefulness … in describing complex behaviors” because these “typically cannot be described by equations having explicit solutions” (5). This is correct in the sense that, even if we develop the mathematics to model such behaviours, the lack of an explicit solution means we have moved from precise mathematical statements to approximations and models—i.e., we are now in the realm of the second category, simluations. Moreover, while mathematics is very good at describing underlying, fundamental systems, it’s also very arcane. That is, it produces accurate descriptions, but there is a significant investment required to understand those descriptions. Mathematics, as a tool for understanding complex systems, is limited by its own complexity.
Thus, what I think the other two categories share is a reductive capability. Both simulations and discursive explanations allow us to simplify, and we can measure the quality of these explanations by how accurate they remain, in terms of corresponding to observations, despite their simplifications. It’s easy to observe this in science classrooms the world over. We still teach kids about Newton’s laws of motion, even though Newton’s laws are wrong in the sense that they have been superseded by and are incompatible with Einstein’s relativity. You can’t derive Newtonian motion, which is absolute, from Einstein’s theories. Yet, it turns out that for very basic, simple purposes, Newton’s laws are so close an approximation that it doesn’t much matter. Hence, we still teach Newton’s laws because they have made the transition from mathematical equations that describe reality to discursive explanations of reality.
Hayles also highlights similarities and differences between these latter two categories. She cites Friedrich Kittler’s interpretation of reading as a type of hallucinatory experience:
Kittler’s proposition that reading novels is like a hallucination highlights one of literature’s main fascinations: its ability to create vividly imagined worlds in which readers can “hallucinate” scenes, actions, and characters so fully that they seem to leap off the page and inhabit the same psychic space as the readers themselves. In this respect, literature functions more like simulations than do other discursive forms, because like computer simulations … literary texts create imaginary worlds populated by creatures that we can (mis)take for beings like ourselves. (6)
This reminds me of a Neil Gaiman quotation I love:
Books make great gifts because they have whole worlds inside of them. And it’s much cheaper to buy somebody a book than it is to buy them the whole world!
And this interpretation of literature as encompassing imaginary worlds is also reminiscient of how, in some science-fiction literature, alien beings (including artificial intelligences) often have difficulty grasping the “human” concept of fiction. They do not understand that humans have developed an entire mode of discourse predicated on untruth that nevertheless refers to and can faciliate an understanding of truth. That’s us: good old, paradoxical humanity!
But Ben, you’re asking, what does all this mean in relation to the Internet? I think the Internet as an artifact might be something we can point to when we say we are already posthuman. Also, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that, in the not-so-distant future, we will be able to connect our minds directly to the Internet. This would not lead to mind uploading per se, but rather an expanded mentality in which we remain embodied but aware of more than just what we perceive through our bodies.
Most importantly, however, I think the Internet is going to influence our norms of interaction, the way we perform our identities, and the way we view the identities of others. That is why I mentioned the OED’s inclusion of OMG, LOL, and “to heart” at the beginning of this post—the Internet is changing us, though we might not always be able to understand in what ways. Just as the mainstream adoption of telephones changed how we interact, now that people are using the telephone less and instead emailing, texting, and Facebook messaging, how we interact with others changes as our modes of interaction change. We even break up differently because of social media.
Don’t get too excited though. Recall that the majority of the world isn’t so tech-savvy or Internet-enabled. It is easy for us to get excited about the Internet and start examining how using it is going to change our definition of being human. What about all those humans who aren’t “network citizens?” If the Internet does become a keystone of our transition to the posthuman, does this mean that people without access to the Internet will be excluded? Will we see a “posthuman digital divide,” where part of our species becomes increasingly embedded within these technological systems and other part remains isolated? Or is it happening already?
I had a difficult time coming up with a further resource. So I hit up TED and looked for a relevant talk, and I found “Kevin Kelly on how technology evolves”. It seems applicable to the ideas we’ve been discussing for several weeks now, discussing what technology “wants” and how it develops and self-organizes its complexity. One line toward the end really strikes me:
Our humanity is actually defined by technology. All the things that we think that we really like about humanity is being driven by technology. This is the infinite game. That’s what we’re talking about. You see, technology is a way to evolve the evolution. It’s a way to explore possibilities and opportunities and create more. And it’s actually a way of playing the game, of playing all the games. That’s what technology wants.
If philosophers like Hayles are correct that we are on the verge of, if not already in, a posthuman future, then this question of “what technology wants” will be paramount.
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I’m fascinated by depictions of posthumanism in science fiction. If you have the time, I highly recommend you pull down some books from authors who hit on posthuman motifs: Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, Peter F. Hamilton, Neal Stephenson, and of course, the inestimable Nancy Kress. What these authors do is important not because their futures are likely or even possible, but in imagining what it will be like to be posthuman, they set the stage for discussions of what we are becoming.
Let’s talk about porn.
Er, I mean, I didn’t just wake up today and say, “Hmm, I think I’ll write a blog post about porn.” Though that would be totally OK.
No, for those of you keeping score at home, this is my third critical response to a reading from my Philosophy & the Internet course. Last week we read “Pornography in Small Places and Other Spaces,” by Katrien Jacobs, first published in Cultural Studies, Vol. 18. A PDF version is available on her website. It’s an interesting article; go read it.
Back? Good. So, we‘re talking porn. Specifically, online pornography analyzed through the lens of Foucault’s heterotopias. Jacobs approaches pornographic sites as spaces online. She differentiates between place and space by drawing from Michel de Certeau’s distinction:
Whereas places are distinct locations and imply an indication of stability, spaces are constituted through movements and operations of bodies and minds.… De Certeau’s “spacing” allows us to conceptualize complex attachments and reflect on networked agency.
In this sense, we might be able to consider websites “places,” because they have distinct locations in the sense that, when one directs one’s browser to a static URL, one expects to visit the same page every time. This seems tenuous to me, however, and is belied by the complexities of the Web. It’s true that certain pages, like the one to which I linked above containing Foucault’s treatise on other spaces, are static. Most of the websites we visit in the course of our day, including porn sites, are dynamic. Pages are generated anew each time a visitor requests them; they include information about the visitor’s login status, the time of the day, recent activity by other users. All of these things are precisely the results of “movements and operations of bodies and minds,” and thus websites, distinct though they may be, are more properly thought of as spaces.
Jacobs contends that pornographic sites as online spaces have changed the power dynamics of the porn industry. Prior to online distribution, pornography was distributed and controlled much like any other entertainment venture: mostly by large companies that make deals with television networks, hotel chains, etc. The models of production and power were top-down, hierarchical, and dominated by white men in suits. The Internet provides a flatter model of production. Individual porn actors can create their own websites. This gives them direct control over revenue and allows them to interact directly with their audience, or as Jacobs says:
A number of women pornographers have equally started to build independent websites to have control over the exchange with their clients and create community-friendly commodity environment.
Also, this freedom in the production of pornography further encourages the “shift towards decentralization and heterogeneity” that Jacobs says characterizes the recent decades of pornography. Whereas porn distributed through more traditional channels tends to cater to “mainstream” sexual proclivities, the Internet provides a space where porn producers can target any number of fantasies and fetishes—and as a result, we have Rule 34. But we also get performances of pornography that are quite different from the traditional forms. Jacobs uses Francesca da Rimini’s characters and erotic tales that draw both from da Rimini’s experiences and Japanese folklore as an example.
Unlike offline porn, porn sites are spaces. Many of these sites are actually communities, where members can interact with the actors and with each other. For the consumer of porn, this creates an altogether different experience. Of course, this doesn’t mean the Internet is a panacea. The same capitalist agents present prior to online distribution are still present and still involved. This can result in tension when larger corporations begin absorbing the more “independent” and heterogeneous ventures, amalgamating them into a monolithic, more homogeneous entity (as in the case of PopcornQ merging with Gay.com merging with PlanetOut). The result is a potential for the Internet to “become a homogeneous environment that reproduces unequal conditions for access and participation.”
Indeed, the Internet for porn is not all fun and games. Jacobs talks a lot about censorship and the relationship between pornography, governments, and community organizations. Her observations remind me a lot of David Lyons’ “The World Wide Web of Surveillance” article (which was the subject of my first critical response). This is crucial to understanding porn sites as heterotopic. Tolerance for viewing pornography is conditional: generally, one must be an adult; nude photographs must be of adults, not children; and the time and place where one views pornography matters (no porn at work!). The conditions might vary across cultures, but their existence is what allows pornography to meet Foucault’s first principle (though whether porn sites are heterotopias of crisis or heterotopias of deviation is an interesting question).
With regards to censorship, Jacobs focuses on attempts to censor online pornography out of concern for the welfare of children. It is apparently too easy for children to stumble upon porn while surfing the Web. We can debate the propriety of exposing children to pornography, of course. (Personally, I find the campaign to maintain children’s ignorance under the guise of “innocence” abhorrent and disrespectful towards our children’s development. Our society is geared toward sex, and it’s not as if you magically notice that when you turn 18. We might as well admit it while they‘re young and teach them how to deal with it.) Regardless of one’s position in that debate, the debate’s existence belies the classification of online porn as heterotopic by definition. There is plenty of free porn available online, and depending on how well the search engine filters perform, it can be easy to stumble upon porn unintentionally. So online porn in general cannot satisfy Foucault’s fifth principle.
But that was never the claim. Rather, the Internet offers a way to distribute porn through different types of porn communities, whether they are portals managed by large companies or smaller sites run by a single porn actor, that function as distinct spaces within our society. These spaces are heterotopic. Let’s run down the list of Foucault’s principles:
- It’s possible to view porn sites both as crisis heterotopias and as heterotopias of deviation. One visits porn sites when one is in a mood to do so. Porn sites provide a convenient space to relieve one’s sexual desires, an act for which we designate private or intimate spaces. On the other hand, there is a porn site to satisfy any type of deviant or non-normative sexual desire one might have.
- They have a specific function, which has changed over time and will continue to change as our relationship with the Internet changes.
- Much like theatre, porn sites bring several elements of “real” places together, often in surprising combinations, in the pursuit of erotic journeys and fantasies.
- The heterochrony of a porn site is a kind of idealized slice of time in which the actors are in their prime, at the peak of their health, performance, and prowess. (This does not necessarily mean everyone is young, per se, but everyone, regardless of age, exudes youthfulness and vitality.)
- Unlike random pornography just circulating online, porn sites are usually behind paywalls, so there is an economic barrier. Only adults are legally allowed to access those porn sites, and theoretically the economic requirement of possessing a credit card is supposed to enforce this. Finally, there are many social conventions about when it is appropriate to browse porn. For example, workplace policies prohibit surfing for porn at work. Couples will have varying protocols about the appropriateness of accessing porn alone or together.
- Ultimately, of course, porn sites are a space of illusion. They complement our reality by reifying our fantasies. We seek out enactments of fetishes that cannot (should not) ever be realized in real life.
I found one phrase in Jacobs‘ discussion of censorship particularly striking in the context of our discussion of heterotopias:
The debate … is still going on today and questions if community standards of decency can be transferred from place to place.
I find this question fascinating. It recalls our discussions of the Internet’s relationship with geography and Manuel Castells’ interpretation of the network society. It seems to me that the answer to this question is probably “no,” although that answer itself probably requires qualification, and as noted above, it’s still open to debate.
Now what if we replace “place to place” with “space to space” and look at the Internet’s relationship with spaces? I think it would be very easy to read only as far as “heterotopias of deviation” in Foucault’s writing and respond to the revised question in the negative. Yet it’s a little more complex, isn’t it, because in his third principle Foucault describes heterotopias as “juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.” This suggests, to me, that a heterotopia should be able to juxtapose multiple standards of decency. Indeed, two consumers on a porn site might have differing standards of decency and only consume those aspects of the site that meet those standards.
So the original question attempted to use geographical place as a context for debating Internet censorship. The ACLU objected that a blanket federal law would require us to censor according to a conservative common denominator, if you will, while proponents of censorship maintained that community standards about porn might vary across cultures but not when it comes to exposing children to it. All of these arguments engage with porn sites and the Internet as places, and as we‘ve seen in previous weeks in this class, the Internet’s relationship with physical geography is complex and not necessarily straightforward.
If we instead consider the debate in the context of spaces, which seem a more apt model for the online environment, then does the phrase “community standards” even have meaning any more? After all, what “community” are we talking about? I‘m struggling a little here to convey the question I’m grappling with, but I suppose one way to express would be: how does our interpretation of porn sites as heterotopias affect this question of censorship? I‘m not sure if that’s exactly the issue I‘m trying to raise when comparing these two different ways of viewing the Internet and porn sites.
I don’t see it mentioned on the course Moodle site, so I’ll recommend a look at Katrien Jacobs’ blog in general. There are links to other articles she’s written and excerpts from a forthcoming book.
When I think about porn and the Internet, Peter Nowak comes to mind. He’s the author of Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Porn and Fast Food Created Technology As We Know It (and wow, my Oxford comma hindbrain is twitching right now). I have not yet read his book (it’s somewhere on my hideously detailed and lengthy book), but I’ve been reading his blog for a while now, and he was interviewed for Spark as well. Nowak discusses the role that the porn industry plays in technological innovation. Of course, the Internet is one of the major innovations of our era, so if his thesis is correct, the porn industry has a significant effect on it as well. Although what I‘ve seen of his writing so far doesn’t draw explicitly on the notion of heterotopia, Nowak’s ruminations on porn are very holistic in the way he considers our relationship with porn spaces. For example, he has linked the US Library of Congress decision to allow iPhone jailbreaking to the return of porn to the iPhone and offered his opinion on what this means in the context of mobile phone spaces. Forget the computer, we can have porn on our phones now! And with phones increasingly becoming smart, they are no longer just devices but spaces in their own right (or at least, interfaces allowing us to engage in other spaces). As a society we are exploring how best to negotiate these spaces—whether we prefer more “closed” environments like Apple’s app store or “open” environments like those of another platform. If Nowak is correct, our attitudes toward porn and the porn industry will have an impact on how we engage with these spaces.
Rather than include a single pithy image at the beginning of this post, as seems to be trendy in the blogosphere these days, I’ve interspersed a couple xkcd comics abour porn, courtesy of their CC-BY-NC license. I leave you now with one more, which is relevant both to last week’s discussion and our previous week’s discussion about performance and the queer:
(By the way, Porn for Women is a real book. From what I glean from the Amazon page and their website this is a satirical endeavour that likewise tackles issues of gender stereotypes. Nevertheless, I still think the comic is relevant and entertaining.)
Each time I try to compose a post for my philosophy class, I resolve not to discuss Facebook or Google this time. I keep mentioning them, using them as examples, to the point where one might think I spend all my time using one or both of those services. Not so. Not even close.
Wait, sorry, need to check Gmail on my Android phone….
Well, I will succeed in not mentioning Facebook and Google eventually. Not today. No, because for my second critical response, I am discussing “Friend Me if You Facebook: Generation Y and Performative Surveillance,” by E.J. Westlake. This article is in volume 52 of TDR: The Drama Review, available through Project MUSE (couldn’t find an openly-available copy, sorry). We will be discussing this during week eight of class.
This is an article that is exactly what it says on the tin (or title, as the case may be). Westlake discusses how Generation Y uses Facebook, arguing that members of older generations tend to be dismissive of Generation Y’s proactive use of Facebook, focusing on it only as a tool that promotes exhibitionism and apathy. At the same time, she examines how one’s activities on Facebook is a performance of the self, bringing us in some Erving Goffman for the theory side, which brings back memories of the first-year sociology course I took. Finally, Westlake also explores how this performance of self is mediated by Facebook’s enforcement of a panoptic sense of surveillance and self-policing, or what she terms performative surveillance.
Westlake begins with an anecdote about how she discovered the introduction of Facebook’s News Feed. I was aware that Facebook had not always had the News Feed, but having joined after its introduction, I’ve never been able to imagine Facebook without it, despite my dislike of its user interface design. Considering the outcry raised over Facebook’s privacy issues in the past few years, it was fascinating to read about how users objected to the News Feed (22). Can you imagine anyone doing that now? (My objections are purely from an interface perspective.) This alone is a useful reminder that time changes the perspective on everything, and that which we find unsettling or invasive at first may soon become the status quo.
Westlake singles out Facebook for analysis because of its insistence upon the convergence of online and offline geography. Although other services, such as MySpace, allow for the creation of subjectivities and a performance of self, Facebook’s ideology and structure encourages people to interact with other people in their real-world location (25). Westlake sees this as a way of fundamentally altering how we relate to each other, and she rejects the “prevailing attitudes of Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers that Generation Y is somehow socially and politically disengaged because of technology” (23). Why the difference in perspective? Westlake attributes this to the performance of self.
When we interact online, just as when we interact in person, we present a facet of ourselves based on our audience. We perform. Facebook is special because the dynamic, ongoing nature of our updates to our profiles means the performance itself is ongoing, so the selves we present are ever-changing. Moreover, “the predominantly Generation Y Facebook community uses Facebook to define the boundaries of normative behavior through unique performances of an online self” (23), so Facebook is a medium through which Generation Y is changing the standards of social interaction. As a result, instead of deviating from social norms by posting drunk photos, Facebook users “establish and reinforce social norms, but also resist being fixed as rigid, unchanging subjects” (23).
Consider this for a moment: every user’s Facebook profile is like a constantly-changing, continually-updated autobiography. Unlike a school yearbook or a memoir, written once and then fixed in text and left to moulder on a bookshelf, Facebook profiles are an ongoing presentation of ourselves in the moment. To a Facebook user, the idea that one’s profile would ever be frozen or left in stasis would be silly: change is constant and expected.
Users can also police Facebook deviants by reporting inappropriate photographs, fake profiles, and vulgar Wall posts. Facebook has an elaborate Code of Conduct and encourages users to click on “Report Abuse” links on every page.… While users can conceivably create fake profiles based on anyone, fake profiles are rigorously policed on Facebook.… It takes only one user reporting a fake profile for the profile to be removed. (34)
As with Winokur’s critique of the Internet as a panopticon, there is not a bijective correspondence between this notion and Facebook, simply because of the differences in architecture. Nevertheless, it is clear that surveillance and self-surveillance is present. There is a certain amount of self-censorship at work. Most of us don’t post drunk photos:
While researchers in a recent University of Dayton study expressed concern over the fact that 8 percent of Facebook users surveyed reported exaggerating the amount of drinking or drug use in their profiles, what they don’t mention is the reverse: that an overwhelming majority of users do not exaggerate or highlight so-called deviant behavior. (32)
We are aware that others are going to view our profiles and judge us, so for the most part we curtail our activities—moderate our performance of self. I am very much aware of this in my own activities, not only when I post to Facebook, but when I tweet or write a blog post. The latter activity in particular is always interesting, since my father and my paternal grandparents read my blog, so there is always a part of me aware of that. Additionally, when I post something online, it is there forever. It might not go away, not even if I try to delete it. As I grow and mature, what I have written in the past might come back to haunt me, even if I don’t consider it “deviant” behaviour at the time I write. For example, while rummaging through my blog archives, I’ve discovered I once claimed to enjoy The Da Vinci Code, which is far from my current opinion (I guess this my equivalent of “Big Hair”). How we choose to deal with these snapshots of our past selves is an individual matter, although some, including Google’s former CEO Eric Schmidt, have suggested that some youth will change their names to escape the records of their online past. That is rather extreme in my case.
Facebook users also participate in the policing of others, as noted above in the case of fake profiles. In fact, Facebook relies on its users to self-police. No matter how many people it hires to process reports, it cannot possibly have enough people to scour all the posts and profiles created each day. Perhaps most importantly, Westlake notes that despite the community’s own role in policing such profiles, “users continue to create fake profiles, showing a willingness on the part of the Facebook community to play with the rules established by Facebook administrators” (35). However, she also notes that users will receive criticism for having too few or too many friends (36). Thus, although those foreign to Facebook often see it as something outside, something Other, which promotes deviance and exhibitionism, it is clear that there are norms within Facebook, maintained by the self-policing user base, and not following those norms is what earns censure: “Facebook is a forum for the policing and establishing of normative behavior, more than the imagined forum of deviant exhibitionism” (35).
Westlake is very persuasive. Maybe it’s because I am a member of Generation Y, and even if I don’t use Facebook with some of the passion or intensity that my peers do, I like it as a communication tool. Nevertheless, I appreciate that she has taken the time to view the service as a sign of the new present rather than a deviation from the old past. That Facebook is changing our interactions seems undeniable. However, unlike what some claim, I agree with Westlake that “Facebook is not a substitute for social interaction,” and
Generation Y … will take what older generations view as a social disadvantage and create new norms for performances of self, and these norms are likely to be established online as they are in face-to-face interaction. (31)
This seems to be a quieter form of revolution than the type we generally like to ascribe to the Internet. “I’m creating new norms for performances of self” just doesn’t have the same ring as, “Man, I’m rebelling against the Man, man. Down with the establishment!” does. But the Internet doesn’t have to be revolutionary all the time, or consistently loud in its revolutionary quality. Westlake has done what some journalists and scholars seem reluctant to do, which is treat Facebook and other network-related phenomena as something more than a passing fad or an unpleasant deviation from the norms of their society.
In her rejection of this perspective, Westlake is placing herself opposite journalists like Robert J. Samuelson, who calls the Internet “ExhibitioNet” which “has unleashed the greatest outburst of mass exhibitionism in human history” (31). This is reminiscent of our readings of Guy Debord’s ruminations on the spectacle. Do you think that our performances of self are a form of spectacle? If so, what does this say about the way we enforce and police performances according to emergent norms?
For some additional reading, I—well, I don’t have any reading. I do have two podcasts, a video, and an infographic though.
- Episode 67 of Spark has an interview with Paul Taylor, founder of Arcalife, a service that wants to preserve family history including social networking. Would you want family members to keep your Facebook profile around for posterity?
- Westlake also mentions that, “Unlike older people, Generation Y-ers may not understand the purpose of public protest and are not likely to march in the streets to voice their views,” but they do join Facebook groups in force (38). Spark interviewed an internet psychologist who created a fake petition group to see if people were just doing this for the sake of, well, joining petition groups.
- Joel Jacob posted this in one of our weekly discussion forums, but I shall share it again for those classmates who missed it and for my wider audience: “You need to get off Facebook” is a short video that seems to deliver a message opposite to Westlake’s thesis. It’s interesting to note that, unlike most of the opposition Westlake cites, this video is from a member of Generation Y.
- Lastly, Matt McKeon has an interactive infographic that visualizes the history of Facebook’s default privacy settings. Click on the chart to advance through the last five years and see how more and more of your personal data is available by default. If Facebook profiles are truly a performance of the self, it’s worth knowing who the audience is, no?
But wait, I have a bonus question! We often refer to the Internet as liberating or freedom-enhancing, especially for minorities or the oppressed. But is this the case? If Facebook establishes a new standard of normative behaviour through the performative surveillance of its users, does it also create exclusionary practices similar to those created by offline norms? How does this affect non-normative groups?
This is a critical response to David Lyon’s “The World Wide Web of Surveillance: The Internet and off-world power-flows,” published in the Spring 1998 issue of Information, Communication & Society. Those of you lucky enough to have a university account that has access to such things can find it there; those of you following along at home can read the earlier version presented at a Canadian Association for Information Science meeting in 1997.
That was the single most difficult aspect when considering my response to this reading: it was written in 1997. True, that’s only 13 years ago—but the World Wide Web itself is only 20 years old. That is pre-Google, the entity that has, perhaps more than any other Internet-based company, single-handedly changed the way we use the Web—not to mention introduced a suite of privacy and surveillance concerns that weren’t around in 1997. So as a technophile upstart who came to the Web in 2004 and writes in HTML5, I had to keep my reservations regarding the article’s age in check. After all, despite the changes since Lyon wrote this, most of the article is still valid. There are parts that read as outdated, and I’ll point those out when we get there. For now, let’s talk about surveillance.
Like everything else online, online surveillance emerges from a tradition of offline surveillance going back to ancient times. Not all surveillance is necessarily sinister or malign: Lyon uses censuses and population statistics (like birth rate) as examples of surveillance we generally consider acceptable (though if the recent debate around the long-form census shows anything, it’s that “acceptable” is always a matter of subjective degree). In more recent times, against the backdrop of democracy, surveillance is the turf of an eternal tug-of-war between politicians and law enforcement officers and the freedoms of the citizens of the democracy. Too much surveillance infringes on those freedoms, whereas too little surveillance hinders law enforcement and aids criminals. As always, it is a matter of balance.
Lyon looks at some of the initial fears regarding surveillance back when the Internet really was young, citing concerns that we would have an “Orwellian police states and Kafkaesque faceless bureaucratic machines” (93). He notes that time has not borne those fears out exactly (though sometimes I look askance at the photos of signs I see on UK metro stops). Instead, he says that there are “two major debates … concerning surveillance,” the first being the extent to which online surveillance differs qualitatively from offline (paper and bureaucracy) surveillance, the second being the extent to which Foucauldian theories are applicable to online surveillance (94).
If the differences were not as obvious in 1997, I think they are fairly obvious today: the network provides speed and data collation abilities far beyond what analog surveillance could ever achieve. However, it is also decentralized. So instead of having a single entity, like the government or a corporation, spying on the users of the Net, anyone with a computer might be able to spy on anyone else. So do we really have a “panopticon” in Foucault’s sense? For a really detailled look at that question, you might be interested in Mark Winokur’s article, which we read previously this week. In Lyon’s case, the answer is that the panopticon might be part of it, but there is more to the Internet and surveillance as well. Moving beyond the realm of surveillance as a form of discipline, he raises another Foucaldian idea, that of biopower, and proposes that it might fill some of the gaps left by the panoptic consideration of online surveillance.
Citing William Bogard, Lyon delineates a difference between the classical panopticon and what he terms “hyperpanoptics.” The former is “an architecture” that deals “with real time and physical space,” whereas in the digital world, “time is asynchronous and speed of flows is crucial, and … distance and proximity are blurred….” In the classical panopticon, prisoners couldn’t know if they were being watched at all times, but the model was such that they weren’t—that is, there would be one guard in the tower watching some prisoner. Online, however, this model strictly ported would break, because it is possible to watch everyone at once, provided your guard is a sophisticated signals intelligence network like Echelon (not to be confused with the fictional artificial intelligence, the Eschaton). Lyon calls this electronic solution to the limitations of surveillance the “mythical goal” of surveillance (101).
He doesn’t explicitly go on to connect biopower to this, but it seems like Lyon means for biopower to elevate the theories of online surveillance beyond the notion of surveillance-as-discipline. That is, we aren’t just being actively watched or monitored; long-term surveillance collects our data, our patterns and behaviours and habits, and uses that data to build profiles of people and populations. The purpose of such data mining can range from law enforcement to marketing, but it all relates back to biopower, to the focus on human particulars. Facebook, which I’m sure Lyon would have mentioned were it around in 1997, is probably the paradigm case here. We share so much personal information with Facebook, and so it has this massive database of human relationships at its fingertips. It knows who talks to whom, who went to school with whom, who works with whom, etc. Caladan was ruled with sea power, and on Arrakis it was desert power; with the Internet, he or she who has biopower wins the day.
For me, however, the most interesting part of Lyon’s article is how he carefully differentiates between surveillance and privacy. The two terms are not synonymous, and privacy is but one concern related to surveillance. Lyon is careful to point out that surveillance can also cause social division and inequality on a scale beyond individual invasions of privacy. He obviously considers these coextensive, for he laments, “some theorists seem so concerned with the one that they ignore or minimize the significance of the other” (99). I myself must confess that often I focus on invasions of privacy to the exclusion of social inequality, probably because as a white middle-class male, I tend not to experience that inequality directly; I mistakenly view my privileged status as the normative experience across society. So it is good to be reminded of such things.
And once reminded, how can you really forget? Look no farther than the Great Firewall of China. This is a country with more people online than the United States (let alone Canada) has in its entirety. Yet owing to the regime’s control of access to the larger Web, the population receives an experience online that is fundamentally different from what we see in our countries. It is a little mind-boggling.
When it comes to privacy, Facebook offers us plenty of examples, notably Facebook Beacon. Our own privacy commissioner of Canada has reviewed Facebook’s policies and found it wanting. It is important to note that this is not necessarily a sign that Facebook is “being evil,” as privacy issues are complex, and Facebook is as much a newcomer to these waters as we are. Nevertheless, it is clear that corporations stand to gain enormous benefits from the data to which they have access.
I should hope that we all have at least a basic understanding of the privacy implications of surfing the Web, more so than the average user might have had in 1997. Lyon’s article is understandably a product of its time; the Clipper Chip project he mentions was dead on arrival. Historically, the governments‘ attempts to mix secrecy with control over encryption have failed miserably (keeping your cryptography standard classified so it can’t be peer reviewed is just asking for trouble). Keep in mind that this article also predates the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. While the US has not established a One World Encryption, those attacks led to the passing of the USA PATRIOT Act, and our own Anti-terrorism Act here in Canada. In fact, Lakehead University’s Faculty Association actually objected to the university’s use of Gmail as the basis for our new email system, on the grounds that Google would be subject to US privacy laws. So online surveillance has only become more complicated since 1998, not less.
- Of course, I’m going to link you to Spark, because it is seriously one of my favourite programs.
- Interview with Evgeny Morozov on Internet and repression
- Google Street View has been a fairly non-controversial subject here (aside from some naughty WiFi data sniffing), so it might interest you to learn about how Google did Street View in Germany.
- Though not necessarily surveillance per se, Episode 101 talks about workplace Internet filtering, which is related to Lyon’s brief discussion of how workplaces will monitor one’s Internet usage.
- For more on Facebook privacy concerns, I refer you to Rocketboom for May 17, 2010.
- The above video mentions Diaspora, a self-labelled “open alternative to Facebook” that is currently in alpha stage. Is it truly going to resolve the issues around Facebook and online surveillance? (Something about Diaspora that has nothing to do with online surveillance but is really cool is that its “gender” field is a text input. This is slightly controversial owing to issues of data integrity, and I’ll be interested in exploring this when we get to the part of the course that deals with gender and sex online.)
In his conclusion, Lyon says that
until the inequality-reinforcing and personhood-threatening aspects of contemporary surveillance are seen together, and until these dimensions are understood in relation to the virtualizing of surveillance, the real issues of contemporary surveillance will continue to elude us. (103)
This seems like a great starting point for discussion. I happen to agree with Lyon that these two issues (social inequality and invasion of privacy) are related, not disjoint, aspects of online surveillance (feel free to let me know if you think otherwise). If this is the case, how can we see these as a unified issue, and do existing theories (e.g., Foucauldian) allow for this, or do we need something else? Have we made much progress in this since 1997?
Originally I was just going to tweet a link to this CBC news article and leave it at that. The more I thought about it, however, the more outraged I became. I‘m not sure why. Maybe it’s out of some need to feel vicariously oppressed, on account of the fact that I am a tall white male and thus systemically unoppressed. Maybe it’s because, although I am not a professional web designer, I am familiar enough with the field to weep over the attitude displayed here by the government. It is 2011. Last December, the Web turned twenty years old. And we still can’t support blind users? Seriously?
That is what the federal government says. Apparently, rather than spend taxpayer money to pay web designers to update its websites, it would rather spend that money paying lawyers to appeal this court decision. Rather than offer equal services to blind users, it would rather go to court and spend our tax dollars to ensure it can continue discriminating. The government is making us accomplices to discrimination. And here I thought I lived in Canada, not the United States.
I am taking a Philosophy of the Internet course this term, online of course. I’m so excited for it, because the Internet excites me in general. I look around and see all the change that the Internet makes possible; we are living through exciting times, and the world is never going to be the same thanks to the Internet. Not all of this change will be for the better, but when is it ever?
So it pains me that, twenty years after the inception of the Web, there is still a deeply-entrenched attitude among corporations and governments that somehow the Web is not essential and that not everyone need have access to the Web. Increasingly, however, we are seeing more services move to an online platform. If the Web is not essential now, it soon will be. But you know what? According to the government, if you can’t see, then tough luck:
Government lawyers had argued there was no discrimination because those same services are provided in other formats, such as on the phone, in person or by mail.
That’s right: the Web is for sighted people only. That seems to be the stance implicit in this argument, that “other formats” will be available for those people who happen to be visually-impaired. No, no, don’t bother asking the government to make its websites accessible. People with disabilities don’t matter.
There is a word for this behaviour: disgusting.
As an amateur web developer, I pride myself in being aware of Web standards and striving to implement them as faithfully as possible. Fortunately, because I do not get paid by corporate clients to build them websites to which millions of users will flock, because I do not provide any great service to the public, if I happen to make a mistake and render my website inaccessible to blind people, it isn’t a big deal. (And if you are blind and trying to read this and your screen reader is rebelling against you, please let me know so I can try to fix it.)
I don’t think we should let the government just shrug like I can and say, “No big deal, go use the telephone.” Making websites accessible to the blind is not, for the most part, difficult. It requires effort, and depending on what type of data you want to communicate, some creativity. Somehow, I think the ultimate cost of adding that accessibility to its websites would be less than the court costs involved in appealing Justice Kelen’s ruling. More importantly, the government has an obligation to serve its citizens—all of its citizens—and I reject on moral grounds its argument that alternative formats are an excuse for having inaccessible websites.
This is just another incident that underscores our government’s inability to keep pace with the development of life in a digital age. Canadians still have woefully inadequate broadband penetration, something the Conservatives have done little to rectify—and while the Liberals promise more, I don’t believe they would do a much better job. All of our parties are mired in pre-digital perspectives. They are too afraid or too corrupt to take on the telecommunications companies that dominate our Internet and mobile services and squeeze out competition at the price of innovation so that they can make more profit.
In the end, it isn’t just blind people who lose. It isn’t just web designers. It’s everyone. The rest of the world moves forward, and Canada will be left behind in the digital dust. Because our government doesn’t care.
As much as I am in love with the technological achievement that is the Amazon Kindle, I have to chastise Amazon and the producers of other eBook readers for what I see as a step backward.
You may have heard last week about Amazon deleting books off Kindles. This is worrisome because—as Jonathan Zittrain explains—it emphasizes how much you don’t own what you “buy” from Amazon or any other company that digs its claws into you by selling you tethered goods. We sacrifice our freedom to keep what we purchase in return for a little convenience in the purchasing.
That’s not all though. Barnes and Noble, bookstore rival to Amazon, plans on launching its own eReader from Plastic Logic. Now, I’m all for competing eReader devices and competing eBook stores. Competition breeds innovation. But what I don’t like is this:
At this point, B&N’s plan becomes clear—the books will be tied to the B&N e-reader, and not downloadable by Kindle or Sony Reader owners. Essentially B&N is trying to set up a closed ecosystem that’s a direct rival to Amazon’s, and that’s based from its bricks and mortar stores and a website, versus Amazon’s 100% cloud-based solution.
A synonym for “closed ecosystem” would be “proprietary network.” This harkens back to the early days of the World Wide Web, when the Web consisted of disparate service providers like CompuServe and Prodigy. Rather than buying the eReader right for me and then buying books from various online sources, I’m going to be locked into a single provider for my content—and apparently they have the right to veto my access to that content, even if I‘ve paid for it.
(To the credit of Barnes and Noble, their eBooks will not be restricted just to their Plastic Logic eReader. According to the Fast Company article to which I linked above, they will also have software available for the BlackBerry, PC, and of course, the notoriously proprietary iPhone. This is one step up from Amazon’s strategy with Kindle eBooks, I suppose.)
I understand why stores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are doing this. They’re just trying to make a profit. And part of me wants to say, “OK, try it your way, and see if this works.” Yet I worry that such an attitude will do more harm than good, especially for authors and publishers. I sincerely doubt publishers will ever make much money on eBooks. The role of eBooks is in publicity, in attracting new fans and moving physical versions of the book—because rest assured, physical books aren’t going to disappear as eBooks gain popularity. Give the digital copy away for free, then charge for the hard copy.
Critics contend that this model is unrealistic: after all, then everyone with an Internet connection will just download the free copy and the publishers and authors would lose money! I somehow doubt that. Firstly, I much prefer reading books in hard copy, and most readers share this sentiment. Even improvements to eReaders to make reading more comfortable (such as the e-ink screen on this generation of eReaders) will never equal the feel of a bound paper volume in my hands. Secondly—and I‘m sure you’ve noticed this yourself—having easy access doesn’t automatically mean I’ll take advantage of it. I currently have easy access to 30,000 free books from Project Gutenberg. Guess what I‘m doing right now? That’s right, I‘m not reading a single one. Because I’m lazy. On the other hand, if I‘ve got a physical copy of a book on my shelf, I have an impetus to read it.
But hey, maybe I’m just a dreamer. It’s not my job to come up with new revenue models, just to shoot down existing ones!
Incidentally, if you’re looking for more information on this subject, check out Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It, available for free download under a Creative Commons license. And if you like the book, buy the hard copy version.
I quite enjoyed on Easter weekend watching the instantaneous outrage across the Internet, particularly #amazonfail on Twitter, as it became apparent that Amazon had removed sales rankings from books with “adult” content. The outrage stems more from the fact that the application of the “adult” label seems skewed toward books with homosexual content; the heterosexual books are safe. In the ensuing light-speed confusion: Mark R. Probst shared his limited interaction with an Amazon rep, in which the rep revealed the “adult content” policy; the LA Times book blog covers it, then covers it again when sources claim that Amazon has blamed a “glitch”; and some posited it was the result of gaming the system.
Take the time to read the above articles before reading on.
What Definitely Happened
In lieu of any definitive statement from Amazon regarding this debacle, it would be irresponsible to say, “This is what happened.” At best, we have theories. But all theories start with facts. Here are the facts, what we know did happen, even if we don’t know why it happened.
Amazon Has a Safe-Search Policy
As evidenced by Mark Probst’s post, a representative for Amazon has confirmed that there are policies in place to differentiate between “adult” and “non-adult” content and restrict the former content from appearing in some search listing. Apparently, this policy necessarily requires that adult materials have their sales ranks removed, since search listings depend, to some extent, on the sales ranking system.
Now, a search for “gay sex” quickly reveals many books, coincidentally about gay sex. So apparently that search listing isn’t affected. Visiting a listing for one of the books in that result reveals the conspicuous absence of a sales rank. Thus, while I can’t quite see how this is affecting search results, the removal of a sales rank from a book is definitely a penalty when it comes to Amazon listings.
Not All Books are Equally Adult
Craig Seymour points out that this policy isn’t new, and in fact, some adult materials have a sales rank. So at first glance, Amazon’s policy appears to be quite unfair. But having a policy isn’t the same as implementing it, and maybe Amazon’s laziness is to blame instead of its morality.
Nigerian Princes Have Taken Over Amazon
At first, the assumption across the Internet, fuelled by the likes of Probst and Seymour, was that this was all an intentional move by Amazon. Now, this is a natural reaction. Probst and Seymour’s responses from Amazon are pretty damning testimony. But it inevitably isn’t the whole story, and soon cooler heads suggested that this is the result of an exploit by spammers.
For its part, someone else at Amazon reported that this is a “glitch” they are in the process of fixing. This would seem to support those who theorize that one or more spammers have abused Amazon’s reporting system. Thus, Amazon’s adult content policy itself isn’t to blame, but rather the way they’ve implemented it: poorly.
In a previous tweet of mine, I joked that the glitch explanation implies Amazon has a “homophobe mode”, but when presented as an exploit by spammers instead of an internal problem, it makes more sense. I am more than willing to eat my words (mmm, yummy words!).
Still, the existence of this glitch raises several questions about Amazon’s responsibility to its consumers. Firstly, is the existence of an adult content policy in any way fair? If such a policy should exist, is a user-reporting mechanism really the best way to mark books as “adult”? Why doesn’t Amazon have someone manually reviewing user reports? And even if they get too many reports and have to automatically process them, shouldn’t the system be protected from common exploits?
Apparently I Need a Big Brother to Buy Books
I was very surprised to learn about Amazon’s “adult content policy,” of which I was ignorant until #amazonfail occurred. It’s not a new policy, apparently. In our haste to discuss the fallout of #amazonfail itself, it’s imperative we don’t ignore the very existence of this adult content policy and its implications for both authors and consumers.
Google has long had a “safe search” option that screens out adult content. There are two important distinctions between Google’s safe search and Amazon’s safe search. Firstly, I don’t buy stuff (directly) from Google. Secondly, I can turn off Google’s safe search.
The fact that Google’s safe search is opt-out instead of opt-in is debatable on its own, but this article is not a place for that debate. For now, since I’m using Google to find information and not to sell or buy a product, I’m of the opinion that an opt-out safe search is acceptable. If I want to expose myself to both “safe” and “unsafe” content, I can turn it off—which, for the record, I have. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t seem offer me the same flexibility. Not only do I fail to see an option in my account settings to disable this “safe search” of theirs, I see no mention of it. In other words, Amazon’s adult content policy isn’t a secret, but they aren’t practising full disclosure either.
This is unfair to authors who sell on Amazon, people like Craig Seymour who only find out after they contact Amazon looking for an explanation. If one wants to sell through a distributor, one expects the distributor to be up front about anything that may hinder sales, such as a restrictive adult content policy. Regardless of the cause of #amazonfail, Amazon’s adult content policy is just a bad business practice. It would be great if they would be more open about disclosing the policy’s existence and provided a feature to turn it off. It would be ideal if they scrapped the policy altogether.
We are the Patients; Amazon is Our Asylum
The speculation regarding Amazon’s “glitch” revolves around the fact that users can mark a book as featuring adult content. I can’t actually find that functionality on a listing page, but I may be incompetent or Amazon may have removed that feature as a reaction to #amazonfail. An alternative is that the system is transparent and only invoked when someone actually sends Amazon a complaint instead of clicking a button. Nevertheless, it appears that Amazon doesn’t actually base its content rating on an objective standard. Rather, it trusts its users.
Insert laughter here.
User reporting works well for small communities, or for large communities that double check the math. It is irresponsible of Amazon to rely solely on user-reported mechanisms for rating content. Even if Amazon does use such mechanisms, they should at least periodically verify that these reports are valid. It’s all too easy for a human to instruct other humans or robots to game the system. Remember how Colbert won the vote for NASA’s new module on the International Space Station? He gamed the system by getting his audience to write-in his name as a suggestion. But don’t forget that some of the other write-in suggestions were “XENU” (Scientology has its robot adherents as well) and “MYYEARBOOK” (obviously a spammer). Any automated system that allows user feedback is vulnerable to exploitation. Shame on Amazon for letting this happen, if this was in fact a glitch.
When the dust clears and Amazon releases a statement about #amazonfail, we need to walk away from this with one thing clearly in mind: while it’s unfortunate that #amazonfail happened, it’s a stark reminder of any company’s vulnerability to the masses who populate the Internet. I’m not just talking about Twitter—Twitter made #amazonfail a faster, and probably a larger, discussion, but that discussion would have happened nonetheless. And whether #amazonfail was caused by a glitch or a policy run wild or the alignment of Venus with Mars and Sedna, the fact remains that Amazon should rethink its sales ranking system. Censorship is a problem no matter what the source, and we can’t expect the spammers to spontaneously drop their weapons and surrender any time soon. So it remains Amazon’s responsibility to defend against external exploits and to craft internal policy that makes sense. As the heated reactions this Easter weekend demonstrate, that means being vigilant.
Update: Amazon has provided what is likely as good an explanation as we’ll get. I agree with Cheryl Morgan’s analysis of the entire episode.
Last updated Tuesday, April 14, 2009 at 10:33 PM
According to Robert Thomson, Google is an “internet parasite”. In Thomson’s view, Google’s aggregation of content promotes a “‘mistaken perception’ that content should be free” and decreases traditional brand loyalty.
The nature of content, content creation, and how much this information is worth are at the heart of every major debate regarding the economics of the Internet. These issues are responsible for our DRM woes with regards to software and digital music, and they drive the collapse of so-called “traditional media”, such as newspapers, which aren’t adapting quickly enough to the new playing field.
This is the most amusing quotation:
Google encourages promiscuity — and shamelessly so — and therefore a significant proportion of their users don’t necessarily associate that content with the creator.
Oh no! Google’s promoting competition among content providers! How dare they?! I mean, it’s not as if the so-called “free market” is based on competition. Shame on Google for corrupting those free market values!
I would go so far as to argue that the whole point of the Internet is aggregation of content. This is why the Internet revolution is so profoundly different from any previous information revolution, including that of the printing press. The Internet removes any cost associated with distributing content—there’s only the initial cost of production, then it can be distributed an infinite number of times. And this is scary for businesses that rely on the scarcity of their commodity relative to its demand. Now that content can be ubiquitous and easily accessible, these businesses are struggling to adapt their revenue model.
Thomson’s reaction, unfortunately, is indicative of the larger trend among traditional media providers: they don’t get it. They don’t get that it doesn’t matter if content should be free—content is free now. We live in a society of moochers. Pointing at Google, which has recognized the role of the Internet in content creation and is now profiting from it, and claiming that Google’s tactics “aren’t fair” is just an economist form of whining. In order for newspapers to survive, it won’t be about the content they produce but their ability to specialize, embrace new technology—rather than resist it or co-opt it—and their willingness to share content at first in order to build that brand loyalty that Thomson insists Google is ruthlessly eradicating.
Meantime Thomson said it was “amusing” to read media blogs and comment sites, all of which traded on other people’s information.
“They are basically editorial echo chambers rather than centres of creation, and the cynicism they have about so-called traditional media is only matched by their opportunism in exploiting the quality of traditional media,” he said.
It’s true that many sites, especially those that aggregate content, aren’t necessarily original. However, Thomson fails to acknowledge that freely-available content allows for new “centres of creation.” That’s why we have concepts like “public domain” and Creative Commons.
To be fair, Thomson does a good job of summarizing the challenges of traditional media: “Thomson also said it was incumbent on content creators to make their own websites compelling for readers.” The article ends with a somewhat syntactically ambiguous quotation, but I think Thomson was adding a caveat emptor for those who prefer to reinvent the wheel rather than fix the broken one. He raises questions that newspapers must answer before finding their place in the new world order.
I for one welcome newspapers to the Internet, provided the stop whining and adapt (or die). The Internet isn’t killing newspapers; the market that the Internet facilitates is killing newspapers. And so far, newspapers‘ bids to kill off the market haven’t worked, so it’s time to face the music: change or die. Because unless newspapers do start doing something useful with their online presence, aren’t they just parasites preying on those who have been socialized—wrongly I believe—that knowledge must be hoarded?
Two months ago I read The Numerati, in which Stephen Baker discusses how technology—particularly the Internet—is affecting marketing techniques and how businesses and individuals manage their data. Now that we have the tools and understanding to mathematically model more behaviour than ever before, there’s a new group of people—the eponymous Numerati—at the forefront of this information revolution.
One of the concerns Baker briefly addresses is privacy. On the Internet, this has always been an issue, but the surge in popularity of social networking this year makes it even more relevant. MySpace and Facebook have made headlines with the Lori Drew case and the launch of identity management Facebook Connect.1 What was once a matter of “privacy” is now a question of the most appropriate mechanism for managing the convergence of one’s offline and online personae.
And I can’t help but feel that some people are missing the point.
What is Privacy?
Like “Web 2.0”, we tend to throw the term “privacy” around quite a bit without much thought to what we actually want when we demand it. Does this merely mean we want our bank account details safe? Or do we actually want a guarantee of anonymity (if we choose it)? Is our personal data only private if we keep it secret, or is it still private if we share it with other people (such as friends or corporations) as long as it isn’t available to the general public?
Let’s face it though: in the evanescent medium of the Internet, any strict definitions regularly become obsolete. So instead, let’s define privacy as a mode of operation rather than a state of being. Online, privacy is more an ability of a user to control how his or her personal data is distributed. Privacy settings on web sites are an excellent example of this mode of operation: the web site gives the user the choice of what to reveal.
But We Just Wanna Have Fun
Then apparently you haven’t heard the news: the Internets are serious businesses. This is hard for many people to accept—it’s so easy to go online, create a fake identity, and begin fooling around. Yet at its core, the Internet is not a fictitious world or some sort of MMORPG. While you can often assume the cloak of anonymity,2 increasingly services expect you to dole out personal details and geographical information.
I can understand why this has privacy advocates concerned. It won’t be long, they argue, before everyone is chipped with evil, insecure RFID devices that allow the Google Overlords to track our every movement and even read our minds, right? After all, as soon as we tell a service on the Internet not only who we are, but where we live, it’s only a matter of time before an axe murderer shows up at our door, right?
It’s good to be wary and vigilant of flagrant violations of one’s privacy. However, these sort of overreactions are indicative, in my opinion, of a misunderstanding of the Internet as a communication medium. In that sense, the Internet really is something new. We’ve never had a communication medium quite like it. The Internet’s effect on society is tantamount to that of the printing press on fifteenth century European society—but it is also so much more. The Internet is both a library and a conference centre. When people pull out their mobile phones and say, “This is my office,” they aren’t necessarily joking.
The true potential of the Internet will never be realized unless we accept that geostamping is as much of a necessity as timestamping. Since the inception of the Internet, content creators regularly date the work they publish online—yet only recently have we begun tagging that work with geographical information. Now websites like Flickr can automatically geostamp your photos using the information embedded into the uploaded photograph. While watchdogs call that a privacy violation, I call that awesome. (And you can turn it off if you don’t like it.)
Knowledge Is Slavery
The counterargument to handing all our data over to the Google Overlords is to trot out George Orwell’s 1984 and staple the adjective “Orwellian” to everything. Now, I admit I often worry about that. Giving Google my personal information is one of my favourite pastimes, but is it a dangerous pastime? Is Google going to start editing the Internet to retcon reality?
The short answer is: no. The explanation to the short answer is: you won’t let them—at least, I hope.
See, the thing about 1984 is that Orwell wasn’t cautioning us against “Big Brother” type dystopian societies—most of us were already against those at the time. He was cautioning us that those sort of societies spring up because we don’t do anything about it. That message is kind of hitting home after recent events in Canada … but anyway, I digress.
My point is that there’s still plenty of room on the Internet for individuals and countercultures to survive. That’s the beauty of the Internet: as long as you have the technology, you can rebuild it, recreate it, and make it better than it was before. You only run into problems when you have a government, like China, that begins dictating what you can or can’t do when you browse the Internet and enforce it technologically. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, however, but that was not an isolated incident in China—that sort of government restriction was present in every part of the lives of Chinese citizens. Similarly, if we see the inception of an “Orwellian Internet”, it will happpen because we the people have sold out.
In short, Orwellian society begets Orwellian Internet, not the other way around. Orwellian. Orwellian. Orwellian.
Wait, You‘re Still Reading This?
I would recommend The Numerati to everyone, not just people with an interest in this field. The book is very short and doesn’t go into the mathematical specifics behind this statistical analysis—Baker’s a business writer, not a math geek like me—so it’s quite understandable to laypeople. In his conclusion, Baker says:
So we’re going to have to reevaluate our ideas about privacy and secrets … until recently, our secrets were scattered…. Most of them, if we played it right, didn’t mingle much. Unless a detective was on the case, the bits of information didn’t find each other. Now they can and they will.
This can be scary. No doubt it will tempt a few of us to turn away from the data-spewing world altogether. Some will tiptoe around the Internet, if they venture there at all….
But with a bit of knowledge, we can turn these tools to our advantage. You may not have noticed, but as we make our way in these pages from the snooping workplace to the laboratories of love, we gradually evolve from data serfs into data masters…. We’re appealing to the science of the Numerati to protect us from falls and alert us before strokes and heart attacks…. The point is, these statistical tools are going to be quietly assuming more and more power in our lives. We might as well learn how to grab the controls and use them for [our] own interests. (204-5)
Before that, Baker makes another statement that pretty much sums up my entire view toward privacy: “The personal data can be shared but not the identity” (204). How many of you have done anonymous surveys, or checked off a box that says, “Yes, you can share my data as long as you don’t associate with my identity”? For those of you that haven’t—are you sure? How many of you honestly read through those tiresome EULAs that accompany any of the software you install—many of those include clauses that permit the software to anonymously report data about how you use the software.
As Baker explains, this sort of data is neither good nor bad. What matters is who uses it and how they use it. Unless you become a hermit3, achieving total privacy is impractical. So rather than run from the Google overlords, these Numerati, learn about them. Learn what they do with your data, and be vigilant in how you manage your online identity.
There are risks associated with any venture, and the Internet is no different in this case. Every time you connect your computer to it, you take the risk that you’ll inadvertently download a virus or be deluged with spam. But like many risky ventures, I think the Internet is worth that risk.
The debate over privacy should not be about how to keep your secrets—well, secret. That is a lost cause. Instead, the debate should be over how best to manage those secrets, and how to make sure our personal data is used to benefit us rather than exploit us.
The polls are closed, and the votes are mostly tallied. Last month, Stephen Harper called an election; this month, he was re-elected with yet anohter minority government—a stronger minority, but still a minority. In the ensuing chaotic coverage, some interesting trends have emerged. The new hot issues are Liberal leadership, government functionality, voting reform, and voter turnout.
The Liberals lost eighteen seats (at the time of this writing), which is a blow for them. Still the official opposition, yet weakened. Additionally, Dion declared in his concession speech that he would be willing to work with the Conservatives on the economic “crisis” that we’re facing. While I commend Dion for extending the olive branch, two questions come to mind: does this mean the Conservatives will have a de facto majority? And will this matter at all in a week or two when the Liberals get a new leader? For indeed, if there was anything the majority of pundits agreed that Dion is done. My opinion of Dion improved during this campaign; however, that still doesn’t mean he’s a strong leader.
The next question is: will this government be functional? Harper’s cited reason for calling the last election was that government no longer worked properly. The Conservatives have made some gains and the Liberals some losses. With a potential new Liberal leadership, will the government work together better? I’m going to be optimistic here. I predict that the government will indeed work well for at least a year, hopefully two (as the CBC panel’s predicting). There’s several reasons for this: firstly, none of the party leaders are eager for another election. I‘m ready for another one, but I don’t think it’s in Canada’s best interest right now. Secondly, although Harper has made gains, his experience with the last government will hopefully temper his attitude when it comes to cooperating. I‘m hoping he’ll play nicer with the Liberals when it comes to the economic issues on which he needs their support.
A lot of the talk on Twitter concerned reforming the electoral system. People were disgruntled with the low voter turnout. Complaints abounded regarding the new ID rules, which some people thought were the primary reason so many didn’t vote. While I don’t know about that, I can understand why the ID rules are a concern. Many are advocating reforms to the system, things like proportional representation, to mitigate the influence of parties like the Bloc Québecois, who have forty-eight seats (at the time of this writing) but only ten per cent of the vote.
As I mentioned above, I spent most of the night glued to Twitter’s search engine following some Canadian election hashtags, and I tweeted quite a bit myself. The Twitter coverage was actually much better than the coverage on television! Real reactions from real people across the entire spectrum. CBC’s TV coverage was unhelpful. Their graphics lacked relevant statistics and were uninformative. Their opinions weren’t very insightful. The CBC website was much more helpful, with an interactive map showing the current disposition of the ridings, plus very detailed statistics for each riding—I commend the CBC’s web team.
I was very disappointed with Susan Ormiston’s Ormiston online coverage of the online reaction. Ormiston displayed a remarkable lack of competence using the technology she had in the nerve centre tonight. In her defence, some of that incompetence may be due to the technology itself. From the looks of things, she wasn’t very well equipped to cull and display particular tweets or emails very nicely. It looked like some sort of hastily-created mashup in a notebook program with a couple special effects.
In addition to the poor presentation, whatever happened to actually covering the Internet reactions? At the beginning of the special coverage, they went to Ormiston, who explained how throughout the night they would refer to her for the reaction of people on Twitter, on blogs, through emails, etc. I think they referred to her a total of about three times. So much for listening to public reaction. Although the Internet is helping people have their voice heard, I don’t think that we‘re quite at the point where social media is becoming the new paradigm for politics. Not yet. Maybe in the next decade, but first we need a generation of newscasters adept at manipulating and participating in the paradigm.
Well, I have class in seven hours, so I should go to bed. To all of those who voted, no matter for whom you voted, I thank you for participating in our democratic system. To those of you who didn’t vote, I’m disappointed.
I shall close by quoting Kevin McCann tweet, which may be the best comment of the night:
U.S. friends, Canadian election is over after just 6 weeks. 60% voted left-of-centre; right-of-centre government gets in.
Act three of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is up. You can watch all three acts until midnight July 20. Go do it. Right now.
I‘ve got mixed feelings about act three. As I write this, it’s only been up for about an hour and a half, so fan reaction is still formulating. A lot of people are angry. I can see how act three seems like a let down after the first two acts. Now, this may just be major denial on my part, but I think Joss planned it that way.
A supervillain musical isn’t something you see every day. Instead of casting Dr. Horrible as the straight antagonist and villain, he has made him a villainous protagonist. We actually root for him; we want him to get the girl. But having him succeed in his evil plans and getting the girl would blow our suspension of disbelief out of the water—Penny’s character doesn’t allow that. So the ending is the only natural way for the plot to conclude (if it is a conclusion).
The saddest scene for me, however, was not the one at the climax after the explosion of the death ray causes you-know-what (if you don’t know what, I won’t spoil it for you—go watch!). Instead, it was when Penny was sitting in the laundromat, with two frozen yogurts … alone. It just said so much. She missed Billy too. She had come to enjoy his companionship. Later, we get the sense she’s becoming disillusioned with Captain Hammer’s act. Billy (not Dr. Horrible) was a real guy, with weaknesses and charming traits. He liked frozen yogurt.
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is an amazing technical accomplishment. Produced independently, funded privately by Whedon himself, and through the efforts of very dedicated people, we’ve got a great quality production. It won’t appeal to everyone,1 but what does?2 Plus, Joss has a legion of sleeper fans out there, ready to eagerly partake in his latest creations. He’s like some sort of television chef, preparing succulent dishes. Each one is unique, but they all carry a certain flavour that is Joss’ trademark style.3
Joss Whedon’s next big project will be Dollhouse on Fox (hopefully they won’t cancel this one after 12 episodes…), including Buffy and Angel actors Eliza Dushku and Amy Acker. I‘m excited. It’ll be a new premise, with new stories and stakes, but the writing style will be Joss’, which means lots of humour and lots of action-packed fun.
For those of you who haven’t watched Buffy, Angel, or Firefly, (I hear you exist, apparently) let me give you a quick rundown on who Joss Whedon is. Those familiar with his oeuvre, please skip to the third paragraph.
Joss Whedon is an amazing writer. He is the creator of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel, along with a western science-fiction (yes, it’s that cool) series called Firefly. Once upon a time, a big bad network cancelled Firefly after airing 12 of the 14 episodes (out of order), much to the consternation of the fans the show had already acquired. It seemed like there was no hope for resurrecting the series, and an Age of Terrible Darkness ensued. Then, a glimmer of hope: thanks, in part, to fan demands, Universal Studios bought the movie rights to the series, and Joss Whedon made a feature film called Serenity, which may very well be one of the best science fiction films of our time.
With me? Good. During the Writers’ Strike, Joss Whedon decided to get together with some family and friends to write a fun musical. Specifically, a supervillain musical. This week he is releasing the three episodes online, where they will be available until July 20, after which you’ll need to buy them from iTunes or when they come out on DVD. The show stars Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion. It is made of win.
Why are you still reading? What more do you need to know? Go watch it now.
It all started with The Little Book of Calm…
I was putting together the semblance of a costume to wear tomorrow to school, since it’s Halloween—aka an excuse to wear a housecoat to school. Anyway, I wanted to make a fake Little Book of Calm. It’s an actual book, but in this case I’m referencing a British comedy series called Black Books. For some reason I looked it up on Chapters’ website … one thing led to another … eventually it disappeared from my shopping bag but I found myself staring at other purchases.
I think that after seeing The Little Book of Calm I decided I should go ahead and buy American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. Then it occurred to me that Chapters now sells DVDs, so I could search for Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune (the Sci-Fi miniseries). I’ve wanted that for so long but couldn’t find it in stores. Just my luck—it was there! Then it occurred to me to search for the soundtrack to Love Actually. Into the shopping bag it goes.
After this was all over, I looked at the shopping bag page and stared at it for a good long while. I made tea and got ready for bed. Online shopping can be dangerously addictive—it is all too easy to get caught up in the moment; it’s hard to decide what you want and what you just think is a cool purchase, even with books (okay, so I’m actually only getting one book…). Fortunately, this is all birthday money that I’m spending. My friends know I like books, and so as usual I received tons of Chapters gift cards, which I can conveniently use online!
Anyway … I am looking forward to this order’s impending arrival before next Thursday! Oh, and I got free shipping.
To make a long story short, my Internet connection at home went kaploof! on Saturday afternoon. A service technician should be by on Monday, so hopefully everything will be fixed by Monday night/Tuesday.
I‘m sitting at Seattle Coffeehouse right now, extremely thankful for cafés with wireless hotspots. And that I have a wireless laptop.
You see, we’re painting the room where our desktop computer, modem, router, etc. live. My brother unplugged the modem and router and such, and for the life of me I cannot manage to get everything running again, which is vexing. The router and our LAN work fine; the modem just can’t seem to establish a WAN connection. So maybe the modem got damaged when we were moving it, or maybe the cable running to the phone line was damaged, or maybe it’s something else entirely.
I ache, eh. I live online.
On the up side, the computer room’s looking nice. I’ll put up photos when I’m less lazy. And when I have Internet.