Gold is Pretty

2

Before I begin, I lament an ending. In less poetic terms, I’m rather going to miss our seminar! Where else can I find homework I always enjoy? I suppose that’s one very good lesson to take from this class- take classes in which I look forward to doing the homework.

Anyway. Blockchain.

I have a friend, who shall remain unnamed, who believes very firmly in gold as a superior store of value as compared to government issued currency. After all, the central banks do have us ordinary citizens by a leash; if they decide, wether on a whim or on a firm belief in its efficacy, to increase the currency supply for some reason, those of us who have savings have just watched our bank accounts loose value. Gold, on the other hand, has a very tight supply chain. There is no quantitative easing for mining.

Of course, much like cash, gold has value simply because we believe it does. Compared to many other materials- silicon, uranium, oil- it is less directly useful. However, reviewing its history, it has maintained a place of high value in society with relatively few instances of major bubbling, especially when compared to most paper currencies. People have never truly ceased to demand gold.

Consider another store of value; the stock market. Volatile and untrustworthy is the name of the game, and stock bubbles have been a tragic fact of life since the creation of stocks. This, I would argue, is what bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies resemble. An application of blockchain used as a store of value, built on the expectations of people buying, used like stocks to make money. Though it does share the anti-central-government flavor of gold, it lacks the ownership security, and prices vary wildly with the whims of the market. One bug discovered can cut your wealth in half; one failed fork and you’re out a million dollars.

This, in my mind, makes cryptocurrency only limitedly superior to the stock market. Both are subject to the whims of their investors, even if one does provide more protection from the whims of government. And yet, cryptocurrencies are only the most public face of the technology called blockchain. Used privately or publicly, blockchain could provide banks and their auditors with a means to verify transactions are legitimate; health care providers with a secure record of patient use; patent seekers to verify their intellectual property; or individuals in questionable professions like lobbying to provide a record of their work. With some modifications, I believe that blockchain holds promise for all of these applications and more.

To specifically address concerns about healthcare; having a blockchain ledger of prescriptions, where additions to the blockchain are made with the patient in room, could provide doctors a means of verifying patient need. Additionally, a distributed blockchain shared among the hospitals of any one country could allow for the secure transfer of patient records, accessible only via certain keys. While there may be some security risks, the current system is not exactly secure, as the WannaCry attack on the British health system shows; blockchain could provide at least a marginal improvement. The other applications mentioned above are most useful for private parties or governments, and thus pose fewer questions as to efficacy.

I am worried that the public face of blockchain may ruin the reputation of its more useful siblings. Cryptocurrencies are massive targets for wrongdoing; a treacherous combo of stock markets and hackable banks, vulnerable to predatory initial coin offerings and especially to bubbles. Blockchain, on the other hand, is a fascinating technology with many possible applications. But humans are predictable; we follow the popular, follow the sensational, and follow the money.

 

P.S. I’ll miss my weekly blog!

Next Generation Technology

2

I don’t mean to sound like an old woman yelling ‘get off my lawn.’

But even as a young person, in the digital age, it doesn’t take much to feel outdated. In some ways, though, perhaps that is a good thing.

One of our most poignant topics of discussion in seminar today was the subject of internet usage and mental health; what does the internet do to our psychology as it becomes ever more integrated into our lives. This is something I find myself quite frequently entranced by. Even though I am extremely young, I am watching my juniors grow up in a digital world that I entered only as a teenager. Back when I was a kid, as they say, I didn’t have a smart phone until eighth grade.

There are many ways I consider today’s kids to be in a different situation than my own, and yet there are some ways in which I think fears for the safety of their young souls are overblown.

First, my worries.

I grew up without constant connectivity, and I like to think that I still carry the ability to be on my own. I am more than happy to  set my phone to ‘do not disturb’ and to be unbothered for several hours. And yet, I compulsively check my email for fear of missing an opportunity or event that I would want to go to. Does that undermine my belief in my ability to be alone? And what does it mean for the kids who grew up even more connected than I am?

Secondly, I fear for the future of self-esteem. When I was growing up, I had fairly little exposure to idealized standards of beauty and glossy magazine perfect lives. My television diet mainly consisted of cartoons with progressively more raunchy themes as I grew older, and if I saw a model, it was likely a limited exposure as I waited in line at the grocery store. As I grew older, broadened my television diet, and started to surf the internet, that changed. I started to see a great deal more of the idealized female form and idealized lifestyles in everything from advertisements to movies to my occasional visits to women’s magazines. But as I think about today’s kids, I know that my exposure to instagram-constant levels of curated lives and bodies didn’t begin until early high school. Even then, I think some of my drop in self esteem around that period was probably attributable to the new content exposure. What can we say for today’s pre-teens, who are bombarded by these messages beginning in early middle school?

And third, I worry for the future of privacy. It seems in our modern era that the younger you are, the less you fear for the safety of your data, and the more you are willing to share online. I am definitely more willing to put myself on the web than many older people, but I stop far short of much of the sharing that is done by many of my peers, and I’m even further from what younger internet users find acceptable to post. However, as we’ve seen with Facebook and Linkdin, once sharing at a certain level reaches some critical mass in society, sharing becomes almost obligatory, and those without Facebooks (like myself) can find certain tasks, like scheduling, more of a struggle. Will the privacy of the older internet users be eroded as the younger generations give it up willingly?

But some concerns, I think, are overblown. Namely concerns about parental monitoring and what children will ‘get up to’ online. Certainly kids have new ways to be secretive; deleted search histories and fake instagram accounts. But as long as parents inform their children about being physically safe online, I don’t believe that there is a great deal of difference between the the secrets I kept as a teen and the secrets kept by today’s kids. The only change is the move from a paper to digital diary- and there the problem lies not with the secrets that are kept, but that the secrets stay safe, and the risks of digital diaries to, as I mentioned before, privacy.

In sum, I’m intrigued and frightened to see what the future of the modern digital native looks like. As today’s teens outpace college students and generations become shorter and shorter, I worry that I myself will be obsoleted by the pace of technology change, and that those same changes will irrevocably damage our fragile human psyche. But there is hope, at least on the former front; smartphone adoption is rising among those 65 and older (1). Maybe there’s a future even for an old lady like myself.

 

1- http://www.pewinternet.org/2017/05/17/tech-adoption-climbs-among-older-adults/

Plague

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We are all afraid of two types of illness: illness of the body, and illness of the computer.

Which one is worse?

Just joking.

Following this week’s seminar, I found myself thinking about the variety of tools, bugs, and viruses that cyber criminals and cyber attackers employ to attack their adversaries. What makes them destructive? How do they attack their victims, and why?

A few high profile examples; ILOVEYOU, Conficker, and Reign.

ILOVEYOU; the ultimate in unwanted affection. Beginning in 2000, ILOVEYOU sent what appeared to be a text file via email to its victims, claiming to be a love letter. The virus, once opened, would send itself to the first fifty people in the contact list, spreading faster than any previous virus. It was not, in fact, a text file, and would then destroy user’s image files. By preying on human emotions, ILOVEYOU went global in just a few hours. (1)

Conficker; first detected in 2008, Conficker downloads itself onto a computer that has not been properly updated, and additionally attempts to spread through leaking into shared files and hitching rides on USB drives. The virus protects itself by disabling updates and security protection attempts (2), and became one of the largest computer viruses of all time, costing millions in damages. (3)

Reign; a tool of cyber attack, likely created by a nation state, capable of turning an infected computer inside out. Reign can collect screenshots, copy files, and watch what you type. (4) Some watchers believe that the virus passes directly from internet service providers to customers, without infecting the service provider itself. (5)

So we have a collection of strategies; self propagation, self protection, using human psychology, and targeted attacking.

Say we wanted to cause the most destruction possible. I would follow a strategy of self-propagation, in which the virus downloads itself, and then lies dormant while quietly disabling security services. The virus would simultaneously attempt to spread to any device which connects to the infected computer. At some point, when the infections had reached a desirable level, the creator would trigger the virus to wipe the files of every computer with the worm.

Say we had more nuanced motives; money. I would again self-propagate, and lie dormant until I had reached some sufficient spread. I would then trigger a key log capability to harvest user’s passwords when they visit the IP addresses of banks.

Say we were looking to run reconnaissance. I would create a worm which mimics an email sent to a device, deleting the original email and replacing the old file with the virus’s code. Once opened, the email would download a watcher, much like Reign. The purpose of email propagation is to lull the user into a false sense of security, oblivious to the presence of my watcher.

Like dreaming up chimeras, this activity is a fun one. But it also serves as a warning. Don’t open suspicious files; don’t forget to update; don’t use USB drives; don’t be a target of espionage.

Maybe that sounds like too much for one person to do, even a young digital native. But until there are legislative protections in place or true care from the companies that make our software, self defense is our best, and only, means of protection.

 

  1. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/top-ten-most-destructive-computer-viruses-159542266/?c=y&page=2
  2. https://www.pcc.edu/resources/tss/info-security/conficker.html
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/23/technology/internet/23worm.html
  4. https://usa.kaspersky.com/resource-center/threats/regin-platform-malware
  5. http://www.irelandwebsitedesign.com/blog/290-reign-spying-malware-virus.html

 

Think of the Children

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The internet is a magical place, where ideas flow like water from an infinite spring.

The internet is a road leading to many things, mostly invisible, terribly useful.

On the road of the internet, browsers are like cars, apps are like busses. A car can take you anywhere, providing that you know the address. A bus will take you many places, but you have to choose from a proscribed list.

Today in seminar, we briefly discussed the relative merits of the two vehicles, and who would prefer which. While I can confidently say I would not want to give up either apps or my dear browser, I also know that in the end I would choose my browser over any (or all) apps. The reasoning behind this is largely due to personal experience. In my early days as an internet user, I was also a nascent middle school philosopher. Needless to say, I didn’t know much about the world (and I still don’t!) The internet was where I went to try to learn more. Specifically, I followed several very obscure independent blogs with religious devotion. Each was published on a different platform, and each I had stumbled upon by sheer accident of words typed into a search engine. They were weird blogs, to be perfectly honest, including one that I hold very dear to my heart written by a woman who left a somewhat abusive religious and family situation to find her own path. They inspired me to think differently, to speak my mind, and to not fear the niche and unpopular.

One could argue that a search engine in and of itself can be an app; while that is true, any single search engine is still a bus, in a way. You can get off at hundreds of thousands of stops, but there will be some that are harder to access than they might be on another search engine. And regardless, as of 2015, most traffic has not been driven by even the most dominant search engine, Google; the plurality of website traffic, 40% as of 2017 (1), comes from Facebook. This is in many ways even more limiting than being funneled into one search engine; when traffic comes from Facebook, you can rest assured that the sites you are linked to are either those that you already visit, those that are in your opinion network, or those that are most popular.

And so I argue for browsers, for the sake of children, specifically teenagers, everywhere. Every young person is like a sponge for ideas and opinions around them, and they will soak up what they read online. For many people, that might just be Buzzfeed listicles and the occasional CNN brief or New York Times smash report. But for a few, there will be exploration and learning that takes place through the browser. I believe that we are worse off if we raise the next generation of digital natives inside the bubbles that social media creates for them. I hope that even as many of us stray toward apps, browsers will continue to maintain enough of a presence to give everyone, especially the teenage internet users, a place to be exposed to new ideas.

1 – http://www.businessinsider.com/google-fa…

Anecdotal Evidence on the Topic of Truth

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Last week, I attended one of the many events here at Harvard’s Institute of Politics; specifically, a study group with experienced congressional staffer Mark Strand. I’ve been to several of his study groups, and I truly enjoy hearing his perspectives, particularly because they are, in many ways, very different from my own.

That session focused on what Americans want from congress and why they feel dissatisfied with current American governance; the group featured two well known pollsters, who gave a presentation on the various issues facing ordinary citizens which combined to give rise to the Donald Trump phenomenon of 2016. The pollsters stressed the importance of supplementing raw data from polls with qualitative explanations drawn from focus groups. It is crucial, they explained, to understand not just the answer to a polling question but also the interpretation of that question that leads a person to give that answer.

To illustrate their point, they played us several clips from focus groups they had helped to coordinate in the course of their polling surrounding the 2016 election and its aftermath. One that caught my eye in particular was a conglomeration of clips about the media and its trustworthiness. The vast majority of Americans have ceased to place any trust in the media, and the focus groups bore this out. Many of us in liberal bubbles believe that the ‘Trump voter’ is a blindly indoctrinated follower of Fox News or a devotee of Rush Limbaugh. Many in the conservative bubbles see liberals as similarly indoctrinated followers of CNN and MSNBC. In reality, it seems, neither side trusts either bubble of media too deeply. Many of the focus group members reported watching both CNN and Fox, noticing the differences between the two, and not being sure whom to believe.

In light of this incredulity, I was struck by an apparent vicious cycle in American media, and a related chicken and egg problem. As news outlets proliferate, they seek specific audiences. As they seek specific audiences, they tailor their message to that audience. As they tailor their message, some of their consumers begin to notice discrepancies between stories told on one network versus another. This causes both networks to loose some credibility, and the consumer of news is more likely to search for a new news outlet, one that seems more independent, and more credible. This new news outlet may also be biased, perhaps heavily so, and depending upon the consumer of news, they may add it into their news diet, make it the centerpiece of their news consumption, or move on to a new source yet again. Regardless, we are back where we started; more news organizations, and more discrepancies.

Today we live under an epidemic of fake news and misleading, biased stories, coming from all sides of the media atmosphere. The question in solving the problem becomes finding the beginning. If proliferation of news networks is to blame, should we search for a way to return to the mythic days of the big three news outlets?

This is unlikely, if not impossible. Not only would it require either great social will or obscene government regulation, what news outlets would take up the mantle? There is no universally trusted news source; we are skeptical of even the most prestigious names and supposedly independent networks; there could be no consensus. Worse yet, while a single organization would have a great advantage in covering topics such as global affairs, local news would falter even more than it already has if we collectively choose to tune into one or a handful of national news sources.

Yet perhaps it is we who are to blame; perhaps it was our desire for tailored news that caused the boom in news outlets. In that case, the problem becomes even harder to fix; we need a wholesale cultural shift, a return to unbiased facts and agreements on at least the basic premises of the arguments we are having. Unfortunately, neither liberal, conservative nor independent is even arguing about the same thing any more.

So what do we do? One idea is based off the Wikipedia trustworthiness argument, the wisdom of the crowd. For any given news story, we might create a separate platform that allows us to simply vote on an article as seemingly credible or non-credible. Those articles that rise to the top are likely to include both liberal and conservative perspectives. Though this raises the risk of attracting bots, it seems we have to do something. After all, it does us no good in politics to have disagreements of fact when what we truly have are legitimate disagreements of opinion.

What Does Privacy Mean?

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Think about your Facebook profile.

Now think about your social security number.

Now, think about both at once; merging into one. What are they, really, but two different signals of your identity? Both provide some valuable information about you. Your social security number gives me access to a great deal of your government sanctioned identity; your Facebook profile, to your private identity. As one, they provide a reasonably complete picture of you as both a citizen and a consumer.

Of tonight’s wide ranging seminar discussion, this was to me one of the most intriguing concepts. Reimagining identity as a privately issued, privately monitored creation is a far cry from our current state, but at the same time, not totally implausible, given how much of ourselves we pour into the web.

I could visualize the transition to corporate-issued identity as a slippery slope from today to a very different, yet still very familiar, tomorrow. Perhaps it begins as Facebook offering secondary bank account verification, using facts about you that only you (and it) know, partnering with some of America’s largest banks. Credit card fraud becomes more difficult; consumers are happy. Speaking of credit cards, perhaps Facebook rolls out its own version of a credit score; you might post about your homeowner status, for example. For only a few dollars a month, Facebook will let your trustworthiness speak for itself. With a high Facebook score comes flowing credit.

The system could be applied to insurance; opt into Facebook’s safe living score, and get reduced rates for good habits- like being tagged in a photo wearing your seatbelt. Maybe, eventually, you can register a company in some states using your Facebook ID. Maybe you can get a driver’s licensee; file your taxes online; register for state or local services.

Eventually, Facebook is the medium through which you communicate with the infrastructure of the world. In the end, you won’t have told it that much more than what it already knew; it will have simply consolidated your data and put it to work. In this scenario, we all gain quite a bit of ease as our many logins for banks, credit reporting, and government services are consolidated. But what have we lost?

By our definition of privacy, quite a lot. Our identities will have become one of a swirling mass of numbers available to a private company for use, generally, as they wish. But in some ways, we’ve already lost the privacy of anonymity; at least, those of us who use the internet have. Why did I go through this scenario? Maybe because I am wondering what privacy is worth, and what convenience is worth, as well. The idea of Facebook as identity provider shows us how much control the owners of our data have or can have over our lives. When we consider the future of the internet and of identity, it seems that we are staring down something that looks increasingly more convenient and less private. Fifty years ago, privacy looked much different. It will certainly look much different a year from now. Is the new definition a better one? Is convenience worth privacy? I am coming to the conclusion that this is a decision each individual must make for themselves.

But in a world of corporate identity, it is Facebook that decides for us.

Keep Your Friends Close

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In seminar today, we talked a great deal about artificial intelligence; its past, present, and future, and, most abstractly, its relationship to humanity. Some were optimists, some pessimists, and some of us were somewhere in between. When AI surpasses us, will the result be dystopian culling, utopian leisure, or will humans be so insignificant to the AI that it ignores us all together, or treats us like pets?

As I walked out of the classroom, I did what is at this point reflex; I spun my phone in my hand, brushed my finger over the home button, and swept left to the suggested apps; then I opened my email. Naturally, my phone knew just what was on my mind.

This is the type of artificial intelligence that most of us come in contact with daily. Artificial intelligence that is by our sides, at our fingertips, part of our bodies. Even more dispersed intelligences like Google’s translate are most commonly accessed through our mobile devices. Is there any reason to think that, as AI improves, it won’t continue to travel alongside us?

Western culture prizes individual ownership. Corporations prize revenue, which they make off of their ability to reach individual people, wether through their physical devices or through their advertising. As AI improves, this will continue to be the case. I believe it is a distinct possibility that we will create AI to be a part of us, not apart from us.

What will this look like? Perhaps at first a personal digital assistant that we bear with us always- like our phones. Eventually we might begin to give it access to our biometrics; our heart rate, and such; perhaps through a watch-like device that can communicate with our phone.

All joking aside, of course, technology is growing closer and closer to us both socially and physically. There is little reason to believe that we won’t make the jump to imbedded technologies sometime in the near future; artificial intelligence implanted in our brain, giving us the memory of Google and fluency in every language on Earth, diagnosing us when we are sick, motivating us on a run. AI could become an extension of our bodies and beings, rather than something outside of us that operates on its own.

What does this do to our future scenarios? The optimistic view holds intact; humans can use their vastly magnified intelligences to solve every problem we biological beings face, and can spread technological augmentation across the globe. In the end, non-sentient machines will do base labor, and our augmented brains will be free to ponder intellectual questions. In this scenario, we are the AI; there is still a reason to think and to learn, because we are still the most sophisticated species on Earth.

Like the optimistic scenario, the pessimistic scenario holds as well, although with some changes. Instead of the AI itself deciding humanity is unnecessary, the augmented humans progress so fast that they decide the un-augmented are unnecessary. As the mere mortals continue to pollute and drain the Earth’s resources, there is no telling what a ‘higher race’ of man would do; perhaps this future would involve some sort of zoo-like relationship, or something akin to a Shepard herding sheep, or a removal of the un-augmented entirely.

Unfortunately, due to the way I have posited that these changes come about, scenario two seems much more likely. When AI is born of capitalism and augmentation takes payment, there is no reason to believe that it will be spread equitably among humanity. The poor will naturally fall behind, while the wealthy surge forward at ever greater speeds as they gain intelligence, wealth and power exponentially. In this scenario, we must depend on either logic or compassion to save us. Logic dictates that society will be better off if all members are hyper intelligent and skillful; compassion demands that we spread the gains of technology.

These are only a few possibilities for the future of AI. The unfortunate reality is that we will not know which one is true until we are living it.

Inevitable

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Originally, this was going to be a post about mental health.

In seminar, a brief mention by a classmate of using in-home sensors to alleviate some of the checking behavior associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder got me thinking about how much good the Internet of Things could do for a whole manner of mental health conditions, from monitoring panic attacks to dealing with severe stress, dementia, or even schizophrenia through behavior tracking, medication reminders, and alerts to health services.

While I was considering what a positive development that would be for society, another thought crept in to my mind; one’s mental health is very much in the realm of private information. Our mental health is information we might not necessarily want a company or government to know. Additionally, this is the rare sort of information that they are unlikely to have unless a person struggling with their mental health enters state management or exposes the information explicitly. This loss of privacy would be quite drastic; our most sensitive information now easily available online, in exchange for a more convenient treatment. In some cases it might be worth it. In others, perhaps not.

From here, I made one more thought leap; whether or not it is worth it doesn’t matter. The upsides of the internet of things, from convenience to productivity increases, are in most cases fairly immediate. We can see right away that our refrigerator has reordered mustard when we ran out, or increased crop yields from sensor optimized farming. The downsides, from lost privacy to Distributed Denial of Service attacks on infrastructure to the disappearance of our last modicums of independence, are either further in the future or unnoticeable on an everyday basis, or both. As humans, we tend toward instant gratification (source; the mere existence of Buzzfeed.) We will choose the convenience, even if we do so warily.

But here is the crux of my argument; the fact that the internet of things is inevitable is in some ways liberating. If we try to push back for the sake of privacy or any other myriad reason, less scrupulous innovators will run by us and give the consumers the convenience they so desire. A September 2017 study of consumers found that 48% would be willing to allow a device to order a product on their behalf. That’s a decent market share, and it will only continue to grow; the same study found younger generations far more comfortable with internet connected devices than their predecessors.

This inevitability makes the case for skeptics to stop pushing back against the IoT and instead jump in wholeheartedly with an eye toward creating a culture of security within the technology as it evolves. It is my personal opinion that it is far too late to stop the internet of things from spreading throughout societies around the globe; I do not, however, think that it is too late for us to incorporate more security into the technology as a whole. This could include government regulation or private innovation, and everything from firewalls to encryption to stricter policies around data use authorization. We might even try programs in school about internet ‘hygiene’ and how to keep one’s private data private.

If we can manage to improve our security culture, the internet of things could bring innovations and convenience to every sector of the economy and life. If we don’t manage to prioritize privacy, well, the internet of things will be here anyway. It will arrive dangerous and with great downsides, but it will arrive. I hope we will have the foresight to choose the former version of the future.

Faster and Faster

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In the beginning, we all made our own clothes.

Or, at least, someone we knew made it. Hand made each garment; whether our mother, our neighbor, or our tailor, we knew where each piece came from. We might have known the person who grew the cotton, spun the wool, or skinned the animal.

When the industrial revolution hit, we outsourced textile production to the factory, and our clothes drifted away from us, both physically and spiritually. We transitioned to garments that were ‘off the rack,’ tailored to one of the many people shaped vaguely like each of us. The up side; more choice. We could be fashionable and on trend without being wealthy, all thanks to economies of scale.

Fast fashion began in earnest with stores like H&M and Zara, turning around inventory in a mere month. But this was just a stepping stone. When the internet hit fashion, it did so with the force of a second revolution. We sped from fashion seasons that lasted a month to weekly inventory shifts. Companies like ASOS and a host of smaller start ups like BooHoo make a killing turning over inventory without pausing for breath. Our ability to see new styles online and purchase vast quantities at relatively low expense has forever changed the way fashion works; even as some retailers continue to find success in brick and mortar stores, online-first and online only stores can put out more new clothing with less overhead. They can exploit niche interests, use data to judge when a product is selling, and satisfy the customer faster than ever before.

The problem here is satisfaction. Once we get our cheap, trendy new garment, we want another. And another. And one for each new season, which, of course, begins next week. The environmental and human toll of fashion is immense, from the people potentially exploited to make a good to the destructive effects of the pesticides used to grow the cotton to the fossil fuels used in shipping and in manufacturing. We have only succeeded in speeding this up; with weekly turnaround comes a culture of disposability, which wastes the resources that we have poured into each thread. But we are lured in by low prices.

I for one am not immune. I genuinely try not to buy clothes often, perhaps once or twice a year; but when I do, I go to H&M like (most) everyone else. It’s hard to beat the price.

The question now becomes; what does the future hold? How can fast fashion get any faster?

My theory is localized manufacturing. Maybe we will have, in each city or town, a factory capable of downloading specifications from the internet and making garments to order, bought from an online catalog by local consumers. Perhaps we will even 3D print each garment. What does this do to fashion’s impact? It certainly lessens the human toll of sweat shop labor, but will former laborers simply be left destitute? And while it might be possible to construct our local factories with solar panels and use sustainable cloth, this will raise prices, something consumers never want to accept.

In the end, we won’t know whether the internet will further our fashionable self destruction or provide a path out. It could do either. Today we see more and more disposable clothing bought cheaply online. But we could also turn to more high end products, or products made to order, utilizing the internet’s ability to reach unique tastes and eliminate overhead costs to bring down prices. After all, the internet is only a tool. Our human desires will determine wether we embrace sustainability, or continue to use the internet and fashion to satisfy our taste for the novel.

Intangible Worth

2

As we come to the end of our studies of the history of the internet, I’ve been inspired to think about its more recent history; namely, the tremor that kicked off the internet age- the dot com bubble.

In the late 90s, as the internet turned from a thing accessible only to academics and the science literate to a public good of massive proportions, people began to funnel their money into the numerous tech startups popping up around the web. These websites had high valuations and low profits, but no one seemed to care. The internet was new, fast paced, the next big thing. It was here to revolutionize the world. And make people rich.

Except, of course, the bubble burst. Capital ran out and many of the new companies burned out. I was too young to remember any of the rise or the fall, but no one else seems to remember the dot com bubble either. After all, when I look around, I see tech companies operating at a loss quite frequently; Uber and Twitter come to mind first. At the same time, cryptocurrencies have been attracting billions in investments, and now look poised to finally come under international scrutiny. When they do, with such a volatile market, the damage to currency owners as the market gets skittish could be immense.

All this being said, none of these technologies are inherently bad. Internet companies make my life easier. I am a (proud?) consumer of both Amazon and Youtube. Twitter does create some funny jokes. And cryptocurrencies offer an enticing view of a world without hard cash. My question is this; when the link between all of these things, from stock prices to bitcoin valuations, is flimsy human confidence, what surety can we expect to have? Humans are fickle, often scared, easily angered. We look out for ourselves and our kin much of the time. We run at the first sign of danger. It seems to me that we have failed to learn from the dot com bubble not to put our faith in human psychology as a backer of our finances.

What good does a dollar invested in bitcoin do, other than give to the investor some wealth that is as tangible as fog in the sunlight? Should we promote a model, much like that of Amazon, of ensuring that our investments go into research and development, and not just into someone’s pockets? Or is research and development still too intangible a backing for a financial system? How do we balance safety and innovation?

These are the sort of questions that, I hope, will be put forth into the public eye in the coming months. I only hope that it won’t take another painfully bursting bubble to get them there.

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