Allison's Reflections

Just another Weblogs at Harvard site

Blog #0100: Avoiding a “WALL-E” Situation

Filed under: Uncategorized — allee at 8:10 pm on Wednesday, September 28, 2016

When I read about the “Internet of Things”, I viscerally thought of the animated movie, “WALL-E”. For those of you who haven’t seen it (please do— I definitely recommend it), it’s about a robot named WALL-E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class) that is the last one on Earth. In this film, the human beings have all left Earth after polluting it to the point where it is no longer inhabitable and live in a spaceship instead. Everyone is overly reliant on technology and obese; many see this film largely as a satire on consumerism with a cautionary message.

Perhaps it was WALL-E’s influence on me, but I began considering what it means to be “overly reliant” on technology. Where do we draw the line between optimizing the world’s efficiency and allowing technology to do everything for us? Personally, when I was reading Wasik’s article, “In the Programmable World, All Our Objects Will Act As One”, I thought that some of the implementations were a little excessive. For example, is it really necessary to have a coffee pot that “talks” to the alarm clock? Anyone would agree that having a hot cup of coffee being served up to you automatically would be nice, but it just seems like such an insignificant task that you might as well just do it yourself.

Besides such features of the programmable world being potentially extravagant, I also think they could come with negative effects on the users. The world likes to make fun of us millennials for being married to our phones and disconnecting from reality, and the internet of things might exacerbate this. Wasik includes an image in his article from Wired by Michael Wolf that provides specific examples of how the programmable world might work. One of those is that if a baby is crying, the room will first try to soothe him and if that doesn’t work, it would text the parent at the next-door neighbor’s cocktail party. I found this example at once sort of funny and depressing. To me, it seems ridiculous that a parent would leave his or her young child to go to a cocktail party. But a programmable world would make that more of an accepted option, and I think that this is only a small example of the variety of irresponsibilities and loss of human connection that could stem from the internet of things.

Going back to WALL-E, another theme in the movie is environmental health. If we were to make the majority of our world programmable, that means that many everyday objects would have to be embedded with sensors. How would the production of this technology and the energy required to sustain it affect the Earth? If people were careless with the disposal of old possessions (would embedded objects qualify as e-waste now?), what would happen? Or could “smart” objects actually help the environment? There are several objects that could turn off (for example, lights and heating) when not in use, ultimately conserving energy when it’s not needed. These aren’t questions that I have enough information to answer, but I’d definitely like to discuss this particular facet of the internet of things in seminar next week! 🙂

Blog #0011: Assembly Line 2.0? My Thoughts on Crowd Work

Filed under: Uncategorized — allee at 10:30 pm on Thursday, September 22, 2016

What could one do if 627 minutes were added onto each day?

While I can’t speak for everyone, I know that I’d probably go on a run, practice oboe, and sleep (as well as procrastinate away more of that precious time than I’d like to admit). But even with all of those activities factored in, I’d still probably have multiple hours to spare. This was the number of minutes that Henry Ford’s implementation of the assembly line reduced the production time of his famous Model T by. When the new strategy was introduced, it revolutionized the industry and economy!

I personally see the same potential in paid, online crowd work, which was defined in one of our readings as “the performance of tasks online by distributed crowd workers who are financially compensated by requesters (individuals, groups, or organizations)” (Kittur 2). But as Kittur warns, there are many possible flaws with crowd work in practice. In this blog, I’d like to add to some of the specific points in Kittur’s argument both for and against crowd work. When doing so, I’d like to also compare and contrast some of the characteristics of crowd work to the kind of work I did at my internship at a .com company this past summer.


  • Flexible workforce and no shortage of experts in a certain geo: Because of the pool of available workers, crowd work would certainly have a very accommodating resource at its disposal. While Kittur does not explicitly state what this “flexibility” is in regards to, I interpreted his words to be referring to chronological, cultural, and linguistic constraints. These were obstacles that often detracted from efficiency at my workplace. The company’s website was run in over 50 different languages to appeal to a wide range of clients. However, this made it imperative for the company to hire employees to specialize in each language. The company had to expend money for recruiting; moreover, once hired, language specialists in the US would have to work undesirable hours to accommodate for clients in the country they specialized in. If crowd work were to be introduced, surely there would be  plenty of individuals within the pool of workers, so economic efficiencies and strains on workers’ lifestyles would be reduced.
  • Chances for income and social mobility in disadvantaged areas: This particular point had a lot of appeal to me. Especially in developing countries, perhaps crowd work would allow previously unemployed individuals to work. This could stimulate a lot of economic growth, given that these individuals wouldn’t be hugely displacing current workers (a con mentioned by Kittur).


  • Potential for super low pay: Attempts to implement crowd work on a major scale would certainly bring up issues with the current policies and regulations regarding employees’ rights. Who would be in charge of creating rules for crowd work employees and employers, and who could possibly enforce them? Would a minimum wage no longer be set? For individuals whose incomes come only from crowd work, should a set of benefits be promised? There are so many questions that would come with crowd work becoming mainstream, especially if people began working exclusively on crowd work projects.

Reading Kittur’s arguments also led me to think further about the idea of anonymity and accountability, two entities that intertwine very interestingly in the online realm. There is a certain sense of anonymity on the Internet, which I see as a potential con for crowd work. Perhaps crowd work employers would not be as careful with background checks, especially because a requirement to provide too much information might deter potential applicants. SSN’s aren’t something people just disclose on the Internet, and identity theft rates would surely increase if people began posing as employers and asking for personal information. There is an ongoing debate regarding ex-convicts’ employment rights, and crowd work might add another dimension to that. In addition, increased anonymity might lead to people feeling less accountable for their work. This could result in the inefficiencies some people associate with working from home such as an increase in careless mistakes or shirked responsibilities. I’d like to discuss this in seminar next week to learn about my peers’ perspectives on this. Until then! 🙂

Blog #0010: IPRs and Open Source

Filed under: Where Wizards Stay Up Late — allee at 1:46 pm on Thursday, September 15, 2016

For me, one of the most frequently mentioned topics in high school was intellectual property. Lexington High School’s Honor Code addressed the necessity to respect individuals’ intellectual property; my economics class discussed the implications of IPRs on a country’s economic productivity; my US history class would often have debates around IPR policy as part of our current events section. Thus, when IPRs made an appearance in Where Wizards Stay Up Late, I was intrigued.

BBN’s initial refusal to release the IMP code was a blatant attempt to control every part of the current network— essentially, monopolize control of a unique resource. While the source code for the IMPs is not exactly a product being sold on the market, I find that many economic ideas are still relevant. If I may be visual for a second, here is a graph of a perfectly competitive firm:


We can see that economic welfare (basically the benefits society reaps due to the sale of the product) is quite plentiful. On the graph, the total economic welfare is represented by the sum of consumer and producer surplus.

Now, here is the graph for a monopoly:


(Source for graphs: Essential Foundations of Economics by Robin Bade and Michael Parkin, 7th Edition)

Because a monopoly will choose to produce at a level below the demand for the commodity to raise prices, the total economic welfare is reduced. In our reading, BBN would be the monopolistic firm in question. The text mentioned “deadweight loss” (harm to society) such as the Network Measurement Center at UCLA being unable to function efficiently.

In this specific case, it was quite clear what the benefits and detriments of BBN keeping the source code private were. However, this caused me to wonder about the converse scenario— open sourcing. I remember hearing about Google choosing to open source TensorFlow and chose to read about it (here is the link, if anyone is interested). The basic idea of this particular article is that Jeff Dean believed that open-sourcing would make collaboration between Google’s researchers and other scientific communities easier and faster. In addition, individuals could improve the source code with few barriers.

Of course, as Satell includes as a caveat in his piece, total openness would harm a firm (hence Google keeping its search engine’s workings a secret). But generally, I see open source code as a great thing. Much like the RFCs had been at the beginning, I feel like they’re an invitation to join a larger community. They share a spirit with the ARPANET’s first users, who tinkered with the network on their own and contributed ideas freely. That’s how electronic mail came to be, and while I have a love-hate relationship with my inbox, it’s certainly connected the world in a new way. It’s evidence of how much this kind of innovative environment can cause great improvements in society.

However, I’m sure there are even more subtleties to IPRs and the choice between privacy and open-sourcing. I’d love to examine TensorFlow or another case study next week in our seminar. Until next time, then!

Blog #0001: On Pride and (a Bit on) Prejudice

Filed under: Where Wizards Stay Up Late — allee at 9:14 am on Thursday, September 8, 2016

“Ego”. In the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s defined as “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance”. It was a word that had an explicit and implicit presence in a large portion of this week’s assigned reading.

The text described computers as “extremely egocentric devices” (94). I found this to be an almost foreshadowing statement. Inventions tend to share characteristics with their inventors, much like how a child will inevitably pick up some of his or her mother’s idiosyncrasies or father’s philosophies. So even as Crocker’s RFCs did foster a sense of collaboration over ego, it did not surprise me that there were multiple incidences of self-involvedness uprooting communities.

In my experience, egos do not usually manifest themselves in a blatant, “screaming-from-the-rooftops” manner. Rather, they subtly embed themselves into small, unintentional actions; for example, the UC Santa Barbara incident mentioned in the text. The Santa Barbara students who began fiddling with their IMP were so focused on their research that they did not consider that what they did would have implications at other universities. Self-importance was inherent in their inconsideration. The same can be said regarding the “header wars” and the treatment of the Tenex and non-Tenex compatibility issues.

The unfolding of a more open networking culture with Adventure and room for personal opinions to be expressed most likely exacerbated this presence of ego. “Flaming” was a byproduct, and in my opinion, this is the worst exhibition of ego, pride, and bias that I encounter today. I play a variety of online games, one of which is infamous for its “toxic” players. The game assembles teams of five players, each who typically fill a role, and then puts teams with similar levels of players against each other. However, from the process of choosing characters and abilities at the very start of the game to mid-game when fighting the opposing team, it’s rare that the other players and I are really a team. Sometimes, I find that there’s more battling going on in the group chat than in the actual game. Language can become derogatory and abusive, resulting in hurtful verbal sparring rather than productive strategizing. “AFK-ing” (being away from the keyboard for extended amounts of time) is common when someone is overwhelmed by the other teammates.

So where does this leave us? I’d hate to see rampant flaming become an accepted part of Internet culture. But we don’t live in a time where it’s logistically possible to have a Stefferud-like moderator watch over every bit of user input. In the particular game I mentioned, the creators have put a filter that will censor out any particularly awful language, but it’s not nearly sufficient; people can always come up with misspellings of a swear or new ways of cursing. I read some articles on flaming in hopes of finding some potential solutions, but there seem to be flaws in every attempted fix so far (I did find some interesting perspectives on flaming such as what actually qualifies as flaming, though; they can be found here and here). In our upcoming seminar, I’d love if we could take some time to discuss flaming and what measures are plausible to be taken to mitigate it. I look forward to the seminar next week! 🙂

Blog #0000: Beginnings!

Filed under: Where Wizards Stay Up Late — allee at 10:16 am on Saturday, September 3, 2016

The space race was the last of all the things I thought could have launched the inception of the Internet (pun 100% intended). Nor did I expect that the US government was the entity that backed the original funding for this technological innovation to ultimately occur. For me, last week’s reading and discussion revealed assumptions and biases I never knew I had.

Perhaps the strongest and thus most insight-providing reaction I had to the material was surprise— shock, even— in response to the government’s involvement in ARPAnet’s creation. Previously, I subconsciously only saw the government as a restrictor of the Internet. I had at some point incorrectly gathered for myself that an independent scientist or mathematician had single-handedly created it, and that upon seeing its potential, the government began putting regulations on it. A lot of this bias stems from an experience I had in sophomore year, which I actually wrote about in my application for this seminar. While studying abroad in Hangzhou, China in the spring of 2014, I collided with the Great Wall— more specifically, the “Great Firewall” of internet censorship (though I did also have an unfortunate crash with the physical Great Wall as well on that trip, but that’s a story for another time). Websites I knew and loved such as Facebook were utterly inaccessible. When I investigated the matter further once I returned to Boston, I found articles about imprisoned “cyberdissidents” in China. From this point, perhaps I saw government as a hindrance to online communication and freedom of thought. Obviously, the issue isn’t as black-and-white as my naive sophomore year-self perceived. In this seminar, I’m hoping to further parse out this censorship controversy and the interplay of government and technology.

On a separate note, the reading and discussion have allowed me to view the internet from a more technical standpoint. I have a bit of programming experience in C++ and Java, but unless I’m coding (or telling people I am when I’m really just having a staring contest with a slew of red error messages on Eclipse), I rarely approach thinking about how technology actually works. So reading about technical troubleshooting— for example, how checksums detecting packet errors should be handled— forces me to consider beyond my normal scope.

Overall, I’m excited to have my misconceptions brought to the surface. It can feel a little intimidating, especially in discussions when others seem to talk about IMPs and packet-switching as if these topics are as easily comprehendible as the weather. But beginning to know what I don’t know seems like a good place to start, and I can’t wait for the upcoming seminars and readings!