Blog Post 11: In conclusion…

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Well, readers, here it is: my last blog post of the semester…

Today was our final seminar meeting, and as assigned by Professor Waldo and Dean Smith, we chose the topics of conversation and readings for our discussion. We chose to talk about the impact of the internet on this past election, and the internet in developing countries. On the whole, I thought we did a pretty good job and that we had more than enough to talk about for the two hours. Hopefully we’ll all get a pass for the semester…

Anyway: the internet and the election. I thought the question of whether or not Donald Trump is a twitter genius was a really interesting one. My take is that no he is not…and that’s exactly what made him a twitter genius in this election cycle. The fact of the matter is that people were not looking for someone who is a genius in any field whatsoever so much as they were looking for someone who was original, unapologetic, and seemingly successful. Donald Trump’s twitter might have been the epitome of his identity as exactly that. While he may not have made use of systematic targeting on social media like the Obama campaign, Trump was startlingly original and unapologetic on his twitter account. He was by no means trying to be a genius or to manipulate people ingeniously, and this strategy was itself quite ingenious because it allowed him to maintain an identity as a genuine candidate (in contrast to the rigid and seemingly manipulative Hilary Clinton). Twitter was also the perfect channel for Trump because it was a non-alternative channel for a presidential candidate to communicate serious opinions to the general public, and Trump was a seriously non-traditional candidate. Twitter allowed him to cement his status as non-washington, non elite. Finally, Trump made convenient use of twitter because many of his opinions and policy suggestions were based on “twitter facts” – a one sided fact that could be fit in under 140 characters and likely has no substantiation or evidence. He was able to paint a picture of a country being suffocated by liberal policy with broad, short attacks and jibes. Indeed, even much of his debate performance was twitter-esque; he rarely responded with lengthy, detailed, multifaceted answers, and he often said the same thing over and over again.

 

As for the internet in developing countries, it was quite interesting just how different government policy on the internet and technology is in other places. The US could learn a lot from developing countries about utilizing the internet for everyday events and emergencies, and about integrating internet apps into government. Specifically, the use of WhatsApp for government services was interesting and surprising to me.

Well, that’s it folks. The final Blog post is complete. Maybe I’ll be back. Maybe not. We’ll see. For now….Wishing I had come up with a signing off phrase that I could use dramatically for a final time…see you later.

Blog Post 10: Cyber Crime and Cyber War

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Yesterday we heard from Jonathan Zitrain, a Harvard Law professor and an expert in internet crime. I had the eerie experience of recognizing our guest but not being able to place him until I hear his name. It turned out that I recognized him from the internet. In my expos class, our preceptor sometimes shows videos from the Harvard Writing Center website in which faculty members from different disciplines weigh in on the fundamentals of writing essays. I had seen Professor Zitrain in one of the videos, and it was very interesting to hear from him live yesterday too.

In particular, the hypothetical of a Google email “scan” to catch terrorists was very interesting. While such a scan might not raise the same degree of privacy concerns as a full on reading and storing of people’s emails, I personally still found it troubling in some ways (especially because everyone else was ok with it). If you’ve seen my blog before, you’ll know that that’s kindof my style, but nevertheless I feel justified in my reservations in this particular case too.

Professor Zitrain’s hypothetical involved a Google algorithm that could locate the email address of a terrorist by matching a document in his email to a document possessed by the government/Google without actually having to look at the document or see any other emails in the inbox. Only once the document was found would humans examine the contents of the mailbox, thereby theoretically protecting people’s privacy.

Although such a scan might not involve the explicit searching of everyone’s mailbox, it still does raise privacy concerns and issues of consent. Consider the example of the police obtaining grounds for a search warrant  of a house suspected of growing Marijuana by driving by the house using heat detectors to determine if there are heat lamps inside. Such a scan does not require that the authorities enter the house. For an even greater parallel with the Google scan, imagine that the heat sensors are driven by a self driving car so that no humans are involved, just like the Google scan involves only an algorithm that does not have access to the email inbox. In this situation, it is true that the house and the inbox are not breached, but the fact that there is a scan taking place, that there is scrutiny of any kind is concerning nevertheless. For one, I (and I would assume most people) do not welcome increased government scrutiny in their personal lives. Moreover, even in the case of such a minimally invasive scan, it is impossible to tell if the government is only scanning for and collecting information on heat, or if they are searching for something more: The Google scan could only be searching for a particular terrorist document, or it could be searching for documents containing unpopular political views, or contact information for immigration lawyers, or some other kind of personal information that is frowned upon by the state, or even for information that might benefit Google’s own interests. There is truly no way to know.

There is also the question of consent in this situation. Does google need a user’s consent or a search warrant to scan someone’s email without actually accessing it? According to the doctrine described by Professor Zitrain in which it is only legal to obtain evidence that could be discovered by a civilizan, I think that they would. Although Google might be able to gather information on people’s emails without actually looking inside them, the average person simply can’t access metadata on people’s emails. Obtaining such information requires resources that an average person would never be able to use. It is very possible to imagine such a scan taking place without consent, however.

On the whole, even though the scan is not as invasive as a full on search, it is still important to consider the implications of such action and the privacy and consent concerns they raise.

Blog Post 9: Internet Governance

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Our discussion yesterday about net neutrality and the regulation of internet service providers to ensure that access to the internet remains open and relatively evenly distributed certainly shed light on some worrying potential possibilities. If net neutrality were to somehow become subject to deregulatory sentiment in the eyes of ill informed politicians, the power of internet service providers would be frightening. As we mentioned, the toll of ISP dominance on internet surfers would be quite high in that we would only be able to access certain websites and we would need to pay high fees to access more. What we didn’t discuss so much was the toll of ISP dominance on small companies, businesses, and individuals seeking to have websites of their own. While big companies would be able to afford to be included in ISP website bundles, smaller internet entities would unable to maintain their online presence for lack of visitors. Without the internet to level the playing field, giant companies would dominate their smaller counterparts. Moreover, much of the discussion and diversity of opinion available on the internet would cease to exist. This blog and others like it, for example, perhaps might not be able to exist in a world where ISP’s were completely unregulated and able to determine which sites are available to average users. The regulation of internet service providers to ensure net neutrality is certainly a pressing issue going forward. We can only hope that as of tomorrow morning, the future with regards to this issue will be bright…

Blog Post 8: Digital Citizenship

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Our guest today, David Eaves, shared some interesting and expert opinions on how the government is using (or trying to use) technology to work more efficiently and successfully. In particular, I thought his emphasis on the importance of non-technological skills like practicing empathy, understanding how the government works, and negotiating was surprising and intriguing. The fact that someone so deeply involved in the implementation of technology in government didn’t come from a technological background and wasn’t a coder was eye opening in the sense that it shifted the emphasis of the conversation from a technological perspective to a more political one.

Another interesting takeaway from the conversation was the relative degree to which government use of technology is all over the place. Government, after all, appears to be a large and powerful actor with control over the population. Having grown up in the age of the internet, it’s surprising to me that the government is so behind in implementing the kind of technology that is used with such ease in the private sector, and that there are no universal technologies that state and local governments make use of across the board. Moreover, government seems to have not only a control over, but also an awareness of who the population is, where they live, and bits of personal information about them. After all, the amount of times we write down our name and address on a government form is quite high. Nevertheless, the government doesn’t actually have a universal database where all these things can be found. Instead, each department and local government has to keep track of all the information. I guess that this shouldn’t be so shocking, but it comes as a surprise and leaves me with a perception of our government as heavily fragmented (and inefficient).

This perception of government inefficiency was reinforced for me a little bit after class. I had to go to the post office to mail in a request for an absentee ballot to vote in New York. It seems very inefficient and more difficult that every single person requesting an absentee ballot needs to go to the post office to send in a handwritten request, and that those requests then need to be individually read, processed, and responded by real people. The ease of submitting a request by computer and then receiving a ballot digitally is just so much greater. Even if that ballot would then need to be printed out and mailed in order to preserve the security of my vote, the process would still be down to one letter being sent from three. On the whole, it is a little bizarre how far the government has to go before technology is implemented to a stronger degree in governance, and there seems to be a lot of opportunity in the field of technological integration in government.

Blog Post 7: Voting and the Internet

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This week, we talked about the implications of the internet on voting patterns and the potential future effects of the internet on how we actually vote and what that might mean. I thought this discussion was pretty interesting because it related directly to my introductory political sociology class. In sociology, we’ve been thinking a lot about how societal forces shape the way people vote and also about what causes people to participate in politics at all. Essentially, with a sociological perspective in mind, the internet is largely affected by the way people vote, but it also has the potential to affect the way way people vote and to change elections.

The aspect of the internet that I am most interested in here is the interaction between individuals and websites, social media platforms, and internet political platforms that feed them information. When I see a political story on the internet, am I seeing it because : A) the internet has analyzed my behaviors and political interests and targeted me for this political story because there is a strong likelihood that I will be interested and click on it -or- B) the internet (or more accurately the people in charge of platforms and other entities with power on the internet) are attempting to shape my preferences by sneakily showing me only certain political stories. My suspicion is that A is mostly correct, but B is probably true to a limited extent as well.

The reason that I am more of an A guy is because our conception of democracy as a system where informed voters make informed decisions about government is largely untrue. In reality, nearly all people know extremely little about the policymaking process, the history of certain policies, the effects of policies on life, or what the majority of government policy even is. When people vote for a candidate, they choose him or her because they identify with him or her best, and/or because he or she is the candidate of the voter’s party. This is not to say that only educated or well informed people are clued in about politics and can make informed choices. In fact, the people who are most politically informed are actually generally least open to rational lines of argument because their political involvement is strongly entrenched in party positions. The educated, moreover, are no more likely to be making informed choices than any other people; it’s not like doctors and lawyers and teachers are spending their free time pouring over thousands of pages of policy briefs and proposals and considering which ones are right for the country and which ones are supported by which candidate. We all just vote based on how we feel, who we identify with, and how our parties tell us.

The result of this is that voting patterns are, for the most part, quite stable. People vote for their party’s candidate nearly every single time (that’s why even Donald Trump will likely get at least 40% of the vote). Elections, as a result, are very close and depend on swing voters, who are generally even less informed and politically involved than the general public, and on trends such as incumbency (advantageous for the president after 1 term, but not for his party after 2) and extremely recent economic conditions. When I see a political news story on the internet, it is quite likely that the internet and the powers that be have placed it there based on an understanding that my identifiers-who I am, where I live, my race, age, and education, what I am interested in-shape my political interests in a pretty stable way. The result is that I am more likely to click on certain kinds of stories, so in order to make money off my internet use and to keep me using the internet more, the internet shows me stories I am likely to click on.

That said, however, although voting preferences and political identities are largely stable for the majority of the population, there are a select few swing voters for whom preferences are quite changeable and who typically decide elections. The possibility of B-that the internet attempts to manipulate voter preferences by showing certain headlines-is certainly real for these select few. If companies are able to figure out who has truly malleable preferences and is vulnerable to propaganda and targeting, then the internet represents a new arena for election changing ground game. The internet may not have the potential to shape how most of us lean politicall, but it does have the potential to decide elections by affecting how a limited few of us vote.

Blog Post 6: The Singularity

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This week, we spoke about the coming of the Singularity-a time in the future when artificial intelligence will become stronger than human intelligence, allowing machines to improve the power of technology at exponentially increasing rates and thereby leaving human intelligence obsolete. The Singularity requires machines to become more and more like humans, and such mechanical behavior is hard to fathom. But of even greater interest to me (at least for now) is considering what it is about human nature/intelligence that is different from artificial intelligence and behavior, and if machines will be able to imitate and enjoy the things that make us human.

Personally, I think that machines will forever be a different kind of entity, unable to enjoy the meaning or experience of life in the same way that humans do. Humans, at the end of the day, are animals with an inner wildness that is never fully tamed, but must be sacrificed in part in order to enjoy the benefits of living in society. As Adam Gropnik writes in his essay about the children’s book Babar (connection to my expos class), “the pleasures of civilization come with discontent at its constraints…there is allure in escaping from the constraints that button you up and hold you; there is also allure in the constraints and the buttons.” This simultaneity-the allure of wildness and autonomy coupled with the allure of civilization which is fueled by the power of loving relationships and happiness-is something artificial intelligence simply cannot understand. Indeed, AI is geared completely towards order and efficiency; it has no urge for wildness, no fascination with escaping from the order it both encounters and creates. Without such a wildness, the sacrifice of living in society, in the midst of order, is meaningless. Nothing is truly sacrificed by the machine to exist in civilization, and having lost nothing, it cannot appreciate the meaning of the things that hold civilization together: loving relationships and happiness.

Moreover, artificial intelligence also lacks another essential human experience that is central to experiencing meaning in the world: struggle. Bruno Bettelheim writes: “Only by struggling courageously against what seem like overwhelming odds can man succeed in wringing meaning out of his existence.” It is through, struggle, not success that humans are able to experience meaning in life. Computers, on the other hand, are completely focused on results. Artificial intelligence is interested only in outcomes.Can you imagine a computer finding delight in the struggle to complete a task? Of course not, computers simply load…and load…and load. The beauty of a machine is its ability to concentrate on a task and to achieve a success that a human could not. (Think of Allan Turing’s computer in the Imitation Game) We might take pleasure in the machine’s process or in our own struggle to design and correct the machine, but the machine itself is interested in merely the result, a phenomena that humans have found time and again is quite useless as a source of meaning in life.

The Singularity, with all this in mind, might be frightening in an unexpected sense. We think of the Singularity as having arrived when the machines become like us; in reality, the Singularity may be signaled by a change in humanity, by a time when we become like the machines. Of course, we won’t ever achieve the power of computers once their intelligence has surpassed ours. But we may become robotic as our concerns grow ever closer to the concerns of machines, as we forget about the beauty of the process and of struggle when everything we might need is available at the press (or non-press) of a button.

Blog Post 5: The Internet of Things

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Today we talked about the Internet of Things and the future of interconnected accessories designed to make our lives easier and more convenient. Of course, there is a lot to be gained by such a network: more free time, fewer mundane household tasks, and increased convenience, security, safety, and efficiency across the board. If the Internet of Things can really be worked out to perfection, we won’t have to do anything at all…and that’s kindof a problem. Although the possibilities of leisure and ease that The Internet of Things promises are incredibly tantalizing, it’s very sad to consider what we might lose in exchange for all this change: if this new internet is a success, we will no longer have to interact with our things. It might sound bizarre, but-painful as they might be sometimes-there is actually something to be said for mundane activities like cooking, cleaning, driving, shopping, and making coffee. We maintain our contact with the world through these little activities. We inject little bits of ourselves-our style and flare-into everything we do, and part of who we are is formed by our ability to find enjoyment and fulfillment in the little things in life.

It might be said that the Internet of Things will free us from many frustrating and unnecessary tasks to do more of the things we love. I would say that it will actually eliminate the little activities we need in our lives in order to do nothing at all. With the constantly increasing role of technology in our lives, it feels like there is an ever increasing divide between work and leisure: work is difficult, painful, and boring, while leisure is easy, simple and fun. In our ever bussier lives, we look forward, more and more, to our opportunities to do nothing at all, to post up on the couch and watch a little netflix, kill time on youtube, play videogames, or for many people, to use (and abuse) substances as a means of escape. When we are not working, we feel, we shouldn’t be facing challenges or pushing ourselves. I would venture to say that such a divide between work and leisure is unhealthy, and an Internet of Things will only make it wider. Work and free time should be more connected, they should have more “flow”  https://www.amazon.com/Flow-Psychology-E… I haven’t read this but I’ve heard its good).

Backtracking a little bit to our discussion: Another thing that interested me today was professor Waldo’s point that Plato once argued against teaching people to read because they would lose their ability to memorize. It sounds insane today considering the history of literature and the written word, but considering the merit of Plato’s point actually does inspire an imagining of an old skill that we as people lost during the development of society. Imagine for a second that you cannot read, and that your education is based entirely in memorization. You would memorize entire books, formulas, scientific facts and much more, and you had better internalize it all quite well otherwise you won’t have any access to what you forget. It would be a total pain and you wouldn’t be able to memorize nearly as much as you could one day read, but imagine how well you would know a text, how deeply you would understand a formula. Your education would be the pinnacle of the liberal arts in the sense that you yourself would be truly changed and educated, a better thinker dependent on nothing. It’s hard to fathom what that would even look like, but it’s worth a thought. It also inspires an imagining for all the skills that people have stopped bothering to master as technology has progressed over the centuries- from memorization to cursive handwriting-as well as all the skills that will become esoteric within our lifetimes as technology continues to improve. Who knows, maybe in ten years children won’t even need to learn how to write by hand anymore.

Blog Post 4: Internet, Economy, and the News

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We talked yesterday about the impact of the internet and expansions in technology on business and the economy, and more specifically on the media. The internet has made it easier for businesses to operate, but also for new businesses to emerge without having to jump over the traditional hurdles that used to prevent potential businesses from cropping up. Whereas businesses used to need to be able to produce their products, distribute them and market them all on their own, the internet now makes it possible to contract production and distribution and to advertise for free on platforms like youtube.

The barriers for new potential news sources are even lower; what used to require a printing press, a subscriber base, and a distribution network as well as an office and an army of reporters can now be done by anybody with a computer who has interesting things to say. This blog post, for example, could potentially attract just as many viewers as an article on a major publication. (It won’t because people aren’t quite as interested in what I have to say. But it could…) Moreover, newspapers and other sources of news are now competing on a national and international level with all of the other stuff on the internet, and not on a regional level like they used to.  The point is that big time news sources, along with their credibility and the trust that we place in them, are under threat from a large number of smaller news publications online.

The emergence of these new news sources impacts the way that we consume news. Print and televised media used to be consumed at certain times of day in more constant settings: the evening news on the couch in the living room; the morning paper at the kitchen table with breakfast or on the subway to work. With online media, there is no stable timetable for news, only an insatiable desire for news to come faster and in real time. Articles and videos are consumed at all times of the day in many different places in small increments on smart phones and computers rather than at specific times in specific places. Last night, for example, I missed the debate and wanted to know what happened. Instead of waiting to read the morning paper or watch the news the next day, I just went on my phone when I got home from Lamont that night and was able to watch a debate recap that had already been put together.

The result is that news can not only be reported by anybody on various platforms, but also that news needs to be reported fast and in real time. Although the benefits to this trend allow us to consume news at our convenience and to learn whats happening as it happens, we also miss out on the thoroughness and reliability that used to be nearly taken for granted with any piece of news that we saw on a trusted platform. Today, even major news publications need to publish quickly in order to keep up, and the result is often hasty and incomplete news coverage. I remember watching the news a few years ago when a bunch of government documents were released, and the broadcasters were literally reporting on thousands of documents that had only been released about ten minutes prior. They were reporting news instantly, but nobody had even been able to read the documents in their entirety yet, let alone read them closely, speak to other sources, or come up with significant analysis. The result was a total mess, and an uninformative one at that. Good news needs time, and in the age of the internet I’m afraid that the reliable and thorough news that we need in order to stay properly informed will die out or diminish in favor of instant, real time scoops.

Post 3: Where Wizards Stay Up Late Chapter 8 and Epilogue

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This week we finished our discussions of Where Wizards Stay Up Late and talked about the end to end argument which greatly influenced the way that networks were designed over the past few decades. In the same way that most things happen on the Internet these days, the evolution of the Internet grew faster and faster as more and more people got involved. What began as a small experiment involving only a few computer scientists with an esoteric dream quickly became a widely used phenomena with endless possibilities for all. Interestingly enough, despite beginning as a government initiative that would be expected to be very regimented and controlled in its growth, the Internet ultimately drew its greatest strength from its identity as a patchwork of multiple ideas and experiments, the best of which won out and were adopted by majorities of users in an intellectual free market of sorts. It was an excellent space of innovation.

I enjoyed reading Where Wizards Stay Up Late, and one of the reasons that it was a good read for me was because it wasn’t just the story and history of the Internet, but also of the people who created it. In the process of creating something that forever altered human intimacy and interaction, the founders of the Internet created for themselves a strong community full of camaraderie, challenge and friendship that is certainly deserving of admiration. The epilogue to the book served as the culmination of this thread of community, and there was something pleasing about reading it, almost like the end of a children’s story: with a future of boundless possibilities ahead, the suddenly aging protagonists gathered to recall the glory days that started it all, their excitement, their discoveries, and their youth.

Indeed, Where Wizards Stay Up Late, sparks a nostalgia for the early days of networking when machines were new, exciting, and far more primitive than the overwhelming supply of computers we have today. The possibilities were limitless and unknown, the times were simpler, and there was a fresh excitement in the air. It was the frontier of the digital age, and the men who dared adventure into the unknown were pioneers, dreamers and heroes. Indeed, they were wizards. They performed the impossible. They paid no regard to their limitations.  They stayed up late into the the night, reminding us of our youth, our excitement, our passions.

When these wizards came together for their final hoorah, for their reunion, for the anniversary of their creation, the birthday of their now fully grown child, they came full circle to unite with us in our nostalgia, our wonder at their achievements, and our excitement for what is to come. They passed on the torch-or more accurately the wand-to all of the people they had inspired. Their dreams had become real, and new dreams were quickly coming to life.

Post 2: Where Wizards Stay Up Late Chapter 5-7

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Blog post 2 coming in a little late here, but better late than never, right.

This weeks discussion was about the second reading from Where Wizards Stay Up Late, which dealt mostly with the software that was designed for the internet. I thought that the most interesting part of the entire process was the community that was developed over the ARPANET throughout the course of its own refinement. Even though it was the first online community, a lot of the trends that have continued into the world of social media were already getting under way. It was nice to see friendships built over the internet. One passage identifies several friendships that were cemented through online discussions and continued for years before the friends actually met in real life. On the other hand, many of the negative elements of internet communication started to develop in the ARPANET community as well. The concept of flaming, which would never actually happen in real life, was born on the ARPANET, and many of the users spoke to each other in ways that would be considered extremely rude in real life. There is something about speaking through a screen that lacks the same kind of respect and connection necessitated by face to face conversation. The users of the ARPANET were the first to discover this unfortunate truth.

Another part of the readings that I found interesting but that did not come up in class was how the people at BBN dealt with the failures of Honeywell to produce proper computers for the IMP’s. When Honeywell produced the first several subpar machines despite repeated instructions from BBN, the IMP team simply accepted the machines and fixed them up themselves with seemingly no complaint. This kind of behavior was ironically very pre-internet of them. Today when a product arrives that is unsatisfactory, we generally ship it back and order a new one, especially from online services like amazon prime. The internet gives us variety and options, and makes it easy for us to browse and find exactly what we are looking for. Our specifications and demands are therefore very particular, and we have little tolerance for any mistakes. The BBN team’s persistance was very admirable though. When Honeywell gave them lemons, they put their heads down and got to work making lemonade. When Severo Ornstein finally did reject the poorly made Honeywell computer, I was a little relieved though. It was frustrating to see such hard workers continually supplied with products that were assembled with laziness and sloppy work. It was definitely the right decision to reject the delivery, and Honeywell reacted by stepping up its product.

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