Maybe Not Bitcoin…

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Most of our conversation today centered around the uncertainty of Bitcoin. We talked about the issues related to having a currency system that relies on consensus and how that can lead to forking which can complicate or nullify transactions. We also discussed the hacking of DAO that resulted in tens of millions of dollars of ether, another cryptocurrency, being stolen. It didn’t seem like there were many positive takeaways from our discussion related to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

And yet, Bitcoin’s value is soaring close to $10,000 while cryptocurrencies everywhere continue to pop up. How do we explain this?

The biggest problem with Bitcoin is that it may be traded like a currency, but in reality it is as volatile as a commodity. However, this “problem” is also the source of Bitcoin’s popularity and success. Bitcoin miners and buyers alike are gambling on the price of an incredibly volatile asset, betting that the price will continue to rise.

This volatility is the opposite of traditional centralized currencies issued by governments. These currencies are based around being relatively stable. There are fluctuations of the value of currencies, but you would never expect the U.S. dollar to experience a 100% increase in value, let alone the 10,000%+ increases seen in the value of Bitcoin.

I cannot see future governments adopting cryptocurrency because of its decentralized nature. It would make absolutely no sense for a government to cede control over its currency to the citizens. Governments don’t usually like to give away power.

I do, however, see a future with cryptocurrencies which are more currency than commodity. It probably wont be Bitcoin, but there is a need and market for a stable cryptocurrency which can be used for anonymous online transactions. On the timeline of money systems, I view Bitcoin as the gold coin, while a future cryptocurrency will move beyond this to the fiat currency analog (don’t ask me how).

Perhaps this wont happen. Perhaps cryptocurrencies are destined for commodification. But, I am optimistic about the future of cryptocurrency.

As this is my last blog post, I’d like to thank Professor Smith and Professor Waldo for running such an enriching course. Feel free to use the content of my blog for your book (whose future is uncertain).

The Necessity of Self-Awareness: Taking a Step Back

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One of my biggest take aways from our discussion with Latanya Sweeney, former CTO of the FTC, was that we humans tend to get caught up in things. There is a basic human tendency that exists to take a myopic view of situations. In prehistoric times, this was vital for survival—we needed to forage and hunt for food, find shelter, etc.

Fast forward to 2017 and this tendency still exists, but it is magnified. Instead of worrying about finding food or other basic human needs, we focus on technology. More specifically, we get caught up in the minutia of social media, sucked in by the endorphin rush of a notification.

As social media platforms and our digital personas have grown with the advent and expansion of new platforms—Facebook, Instagram (“rinstas” and “finstas”), Snapchat, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Reddit, etc.—our emotional investment in these platforms has grown as well. A perfect example of this was brought up in class with Snapchat streaks. When you send and receive a Snapchat from a friend for multiple days in a row, a number appears next to their name, indicating that you have a streak. Yet, this has translated into superficial conversations—if you can even call a selfie with a dog filter a conversation—with the sole purpose of keeping these streaks alive. Often, you will see a Snapchat user who maintains more than a dozen streaks. These connections are empty.

But if these connections are meaningless, why do we keep these streaks alive? What is the point? It is because we have become too invested in maintaining our digital personas and superficial digital connections. It’s a building avalanche of sunk cost.

I am not saying that I am not guilty of this. At times, I, too, find myself caught up in social media.

However, the key is to step back and reflect on our behaviors on the Internet. I think that reflection, like the discussion that we had today, is essential to remaining grounded in this digital age. We need to recognize that sometimes we need to turn the screens off and allow ourselves to be bored, or uncomfortable, or lonely. These feelings are essential elements of the human condition and essential elements of our sanity.

Through reflection, we can realize that one tweet, or post, or picture is not the most important thing in the world. Maybe this can make us all happier, too.

Cyber Conflict and the Perils of Technological Illiteracy

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One of the points that was touched on by our guest speaker, Michale Sulmeyer, was in regard to current politicians’ lack of understanding of cyber conflict. I don’t think that this issue can be understated. Right now, we have a president who barely knows how to use Twitter, let alone address the intricacies of cyberspace.

Beyond the White House, Congress and other policy-forming institutions are filled with representatives and officials who fundamentally lack an understanding of cyberspace. This is understandable — many representatives are older and may lack technological literacy — but it is unacceptable. Representatives must gain education on these issues so that policy is not based on Cold War tactics which don’t necessarily apply in cyberspace.

Obviously, there are some very smart people in the Pentagon working on issues relating to cybersecurity and cyber warfare, but I think that beyond the covert, there needs to be more of a public effort to educate our representatives. At the very least, representatives need to understand the importance of cyber issues and allow experts on the subject to advise policy decisions.

One of the big problems comes down to the idea of abstraction. I feel that the ambiguity relating to issues of cybersecurity can be drawn back to the term “cyber.” Each representative most likely has a very different view on what cyberspace is, and this is problematic. To make informed decisions regarding the Internet and cybersecurity, we need a technologically literate government. When representatives attempt to form policy without basic understanding, inevitably the wrong decisions are made.

If the United States is going to survive and thrive in the age of cyber, the government must evolve.

The Internet of Governance or the Internet of Google?

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When John Perry Barlow wrote A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace more than twenty years ago, I don’t think that he could have imagined the Internet as it exists today—the constant connection and never-ending stream of information. In his declaration, Barlow outlined the idea that the government has no power in the sphere of the Internet. It can try to govern the Internet, but it will ultimately be unsuccessful.

I think he makes the accurate point that on the Internet, people will always find a way around government regulation. This is not to say that all users will be capable of getting past firewalls or other restrictions, only that it is especially difficult to completely govern behavior on the open forum that is the Internet. This is due in part to the original design of the Internet, which did not have profits in mind, resulting in a distributed, “collective hallucination,” which our guest speaker Jonathan Zittrain discussed.

I’m not so worried about governments controlling the Internet. I’m more worried about the Internet leviathans—Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter—governing the Internet through stringent regulation to increase their profits.

If you were to take away Google and Facebook, many would be lost puppies on the Internet. According to Business Insider, Google and Facebook account for 87% of the total referral traffic on the web. In other words, 87% of the links that people click to bring them to an article or other page come from either Facebook or Google. That is a lot of power.

These companies may be benevolent for now, but I fear a future where Google and Facebook decide what belongs on the Internet and what does not. We are already seeing the beginnings of this content censorship with “fake news” and ISIL postings being taken down, but will it stop here? Are anti-Google and anti-Facebook postings next? What about content involving competing products? It seems that we need to regulate these Internet giants.

The real (and unanswered) question is who decides these regulations. The United States? The United Nations? Jon Postel’s ghost? Can we really regulate the Internet?

I think that the only true way to regulate the Internet is through competition. We need more companies offering competing products and platforms so that users have a sense of choice. The forums with positive regulations will be selected by users. This seems less and less likely, however, in the age of Google, but one can hope.

Hot Dogs and Politics

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In Upton Sinclair’s Jungle, a book that exposed the horrid conditions of meat processing, Sinclair writes:

The meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage.

After Sinclair and other muckrakers revealed that our hot dogs contain some undesirable ingredients, Americans called for regulation. And they got it—the FDA was formed and the government mandated nutrition labels which listed all ingredients and other nutritional information.

Today, our hot dogs may be 100% beef (with some added nitrates), but our advertisements are not as clearly labeled. In particular, political advertisements in the 2016 election cycle often made use of native advertising techniques on platforms like Facebook and Reddit. In some cases, paid actors would pose as real members of these platforms and promote candidates without disclosing that they were paid.

We need to start labeling our advertisements. We need the government to mandate this labeling. We need platforms to buy in and better inform users about the sources of their content.

What I’m imagining is something like a nutrition label for advertisements, showing who has financed the advertisement and clearly labeling ads. I think that people would be shocked to discover how much of the content that they perceive to be organic is actually sponsored.

In class we discussed the possibility of labeling fake news, but I don’t think that this is necessary or feasible. There is inherent bias involved with parsing the “real” from the “fake,” which can lead dangerously down the path of corporate and government censorship. The issue of fake, unsponsored news is different from that of fake, sponsored content, which I believe is the larger issue and represents a larger portion of politically driven content.

We must start with labeling political ads and take steps from there—nobody likes rat-flavored hot dogs.

Government in the Information Age

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One of the most poignant points that David Eaves, our guest speaker for the day, made was in regard to the metaphor that he drew between the Internet and the printing press. To poorly paraphrase, he described that in the first hundred years of the printing press, individual power was massively increased in terms of disseminating information. However, drawing on the example of Napoleon raising a one million man army, he argued that in the next hundred years, the power of the printing press shifted dramatically from the individual level to the state level. In other words, being able to standardize the distribution of information lead initially to individual power and eventually to state power. According to David, we are approaching the equivalent of the latter hundred years of the printing press with the Internet, where state actors will begin to more effectively use the power of the Internet and wield it in a manner that supersedes individual power.

Some might argue that this is already the case, and it certainly is in countries like China, where government control over the Internet effectively means government control over information that citizens can access. Yet, is there a way that open government can prevent this change?

I think that e-government is inevitable. We live in a technological world and when there is a more efficient solution to a problem, despite how long it may take to be implemented, the technological solution will eventually win out. When countries who invest in e-government begin cashing in, similar to the way that Estonia has drawn business through its e-government, other countries will follow suit. It is a simple matter of economics. Thus, the only question that remains is will these e-governments be open or closed?

Complete government transparency is almost impossible, yet taking steps toward open data sets allows for citizen and NGO oversight of government activity that is certainly a step in the right direction. Open government paired with e-government sounds like a reasonable check and balance, though providing the government with even more information about myself never seems like the greatest option.

On the other hand, closed e-governments could lead to nightmare scenarios. Systems like India’s Aadhaar, a citizen tracking system/unique citizen identification code, lead to more government power by providing governments with even more information about their citizens. This information can be used for good or it can be used to control citizens. This is what open government tries to prevent.

Ultimately, as David described, the civil war between open and closed governments must be won by the open side if we are to ensure our safety in the e-government future.

The Machine Brain

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What makes you, you? How do we define consciousness? Are we just biological computers? What is intelligence? — These aren’t questions you would expect to be answering in an internet seminar, yet much of our conversation revolved around these philosophical dilemmas (at times heading off the cliff of radical skepticism).

As humans, we think we are special. For thousands of years, we believed that we were the center of the universe. Still, many believe that we are created in God’s image, models of the divine. How could a computer or some artificial intelligence ever achieve human levels of intelligence, emotion, and complexity?

Just because the brain is neurochemical, as opposed to digital, does not make it special. If you look inside the human brain, there is no consciousness section. All you will find is neurons and neural connections processing stimuli in parallel to create massive computing power. If you managed to simulate the brain with transistors in the place of neurons, connected in parallel, I don’t think that you would be able to distinguish between the neurochemical brain and the digital brain. I don’t think the brains would be able to tell if they were digital or neurochemical, either.

Yet, this is just postulation. I have no idea if there is something else to consciousness besides neural connections, though we have yet to discover anything else.

I think that the more interesting thing to think about is the potential of the runaway artificial intelligence singularity. All of the current applications of artificial intelligence are narrow. This includes Google Translate and other A.I. initiatives. Gradually, I think we will see more and more narrow applications of A.I., followed by the merging of these applications, and finally a general A.I. software that will lead to an asymptotic development of computing power and intelligence (are they one in the same?). The importance is in setting parameters early and often.

I don’t foresee a malevolent artificial intelligence, but I may be underestimating the capacity of humans to do evil. Regardless, it seems like we’re just along for the ride.

A youtube channel that I follow, exurb1a, posted an timely video, which goes into the possible future utopias and dystopias that come along with the exponential growth of technology. I found it interesting.

Refrigerator Broken? Try Restarting the Router

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If you asked people twenty years ago if they believed that we would have refrigerators and salt shakers with internet connections, or always-listening devices like the Amazon Echo that can control these devices, they would have thought you were talking about science fiction. They would also probably be terrified if you told them that everything they do, every website that they visit, every location they visit, is tracked and recorded. They would be affixing their tinfoil hats if they found out that their refrigerator may be sending data about their food preferences to advertisers to create tailored advertisements.

This is quickly becoming a reality. The “Internet of Things,” the connection of previously unconnected devices to the Internet such that they can communicate with each other and central hubs, is an advertiser’s and data collector’s dream. We already have tailored advertisements that track our searches and cookies to feed us ads that include products we may be interested in based on this data. With the growth of the Internet of Things, the data available to advertisers will continue to increase exponentially.

An advertiser who wants to target a very specific demographic, for example, males age 18-35 who are lactose intolerant and have an interest in hip hop, could potentially find users matching this description through the treasure trove of data available among the Internet of Things. They could see that an individual had bought lactase pills or almond milk, and also made use of their Spotify data to find their music preferences if they really wanted to market their milk-free, hip hop related product.

If we reach a point where almost all of the things that we interact with are connected to the Internet, there would be almost nothing stopping data aggregators and advertisers from knowing everything about us. The privacy implications of the Internet of Things are the scariest thing for me. It seems that we are like boiling frogs, unaware of the gradual rise of our privacy being eroded until it’s too late.

At the individual level it seems impossible to stop the trend of privacy invasion. As the Internet of Things progresses, I think it’s up to governments to regulate the ways in which the data generated can be used.

Musicians, Opera, and The Internet

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One of the most interesting implications of the long tail model for me comes in the form of the effects that it has had on the music industry. Both of my parents are musicians—my mom is a violinist in the Metropolitan Opera and my dad used to be a trumpet player in the MET Opera as well and is now a professor of music. It has been interesting growing up hearing their side of the story and what their perspective is on the revolution that has occurred in the music industry.

As I mentioned in class, occasionally my dad gets royalty checks from music streaming services for a few cents or maybe a dollar or two. Many of his friends, who are also musicians, have similar experiences when it comes to these music streaming services. Though the long tail model allows access to a broader variety of music, it is not profitable for the producers of that music that are getting a couple plays at the end of the long tail. At the same time, the Internet allows certain artists to be discovered and shoot up in popularity and make a great deal of money.

That being said, my parents are not opposed to music streaming, and both use music streaming services. What my dad tells his music students is that there are essentially no jobs in music (especially classical music)—you have to create your own job or hustle to get by. In the past, a musician could get an orchestra job, but now the industry has changed such that you have to do something more niche to be profitable. For example, one of my mom’s former colleagues now produces jingles for companies. The music industry has evolved such that there are more niche markets for music and musicians, yet some jobs are being completely eliminated.

Another interesting phenomenon is that the Internet has forced the opera to evolve as well. Now, a select number of the productions at the MET Opera are live streamed to movie theaters, allowing for broader access. People apparently get dressed up to go to the movie theater and watch the opera, just as they would if they were going to the actual opera.

This evolution of art and the economy of art was not necessarily natural, but forced out of the competition brought on by the Internet. There will always be purists and luddites who will oppose this evolution of the art form, but I think that any time art and music can be exposed to a broader group of people, it is a positive.

A Network By The People, For The people

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In the history of the networks, change happens rapidly. From the ARPAnet, to the proliferation of international networks, to the network of networks—the Internet—growth, as well as the expansion of the user base, has been exponential. With this growth comes the issue of scaling that we discussed in class.

What I found particularly interesting was the truly democratic basis of Internet standards, especially TCP/IP, that formed the basis of scaling the interconnected networks. Despite the push by governments and some companies to switch to the more complex, bureaucratically developed OSI standard, it was ultimately the users that decided which standard was to be used. The government had birthed the ARPAnet and networking, but they no longer controlled it. A computer scientist who supported the TCP/IP standard stated, “Standards should be discovered, not decreed.” Lowly graduate students had created the Internet, geeks had used email mailing lists to discuss science fiction, and now these Internet warriors decided its fate.

If one looks at the issue of Net Neutrality, the idea that all data/bits must be charged at the same rate and treated equally, it is also a central component of our democratic Internet. If Net Neutrality were to be breached, beyond even the idea of the exploitation of the consumer with overcharging, it would take away the element of the Internet being a space for everyone to enjoy equally. It seems like it is again an attempt to put the Internet in the hands of companies or the government, when the Internet, at its heart, has always been the people’s.

There is also a beauty to the simplicity of the network described by the End-to-End Argument, and currently in place with the Internet. The very fact that the network is dumb and unreliable is what makes it so adaptable and easy to expand. It is a true case of function over form. The network is a big, expansive idiot, but it’s our idiot.

 

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