Week 12: Concluding Thoughts

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Today we discussed the Internet in developing countries as well as the Internet’s role in the 2016 election.

 

A particularly interesting thought that came out of today’s final session is how we think about news and news sources. It seems that each week, more and more “media” sources are becoming “news” sources, regardless if the news they proclaim is distorted or grounded in reality.

 

This comment took me back to my sociology class in the first week of the semester. During that first week, we discussed Marshall McLuhan’s statement that “the medium is the message.” It appears that solely the medium of the internet is increasingly becoming associated with a notion of “objectivity.” We seem to be moving in a direction where people believe that because the internet provides information then that information must be truthful.

 

We then may consider whether to curtail certain organizations because they are putting out “fake news.” (What, though, is the line between fake news or satire pieces? And who’s to decide what’s “fake”?) And by creating an exclusive group of news providers, are we then curtailing freedom of the press, even if the “news” may not be wholly truthful? The future of the internet’s relationship to our news and to media in general certainly seems murky.

 

On a final note, thank you to everyone for making this seminar so excellent – it was a real highlight of each week. I look forward to seeing you all soon!

Week 11: Cyber Identities

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Our seminar this week was particularly interesting – I especially liked the discussion related to online identity.

 

I’d like to explore Sherry Turkle’s TED talk a bit more, as it didn’t explicitly get talked about in class (also bringing in a bit of extra reading and info from my sociology class.) While I hadn’t seen this exact TED talk video before, I had read some of Turkle’s articles and portions of her book Alone Together. We could consider Turkle a cyber-dystopian, one who is skeptical or cautious about technology’s role in our lives. (Interestingly, she says in the beginning of her talk that she was previously a cyber-utopian, praising the possibilities for transforming one’s identity using the medium of the internet.)

 

She’s definitely onto something in her wariness of technology ­– in both the video and in some of her more recent articles she describes our inability to no longer have meaningful face-to-face conversations because we choose to be engrossed on our screens (phones/iPads/etc.) instead of in the person standing before us.

 

While I can think of a few instances where conversations have been interrupted by a friend’s quick peek at a phone, this issue doesn’t seem to be nearly as widespread as Turkle thinks. She seems to suggest that this is an epidemic taking over the country, based purely on interviews and some observations she has made (for instance, mothers walking down the street pushing their children in strollers are now looking at their phones instead of talking with their kids – Turkle argues that these mothers must have been talking with their children before phones and portable technology came along, but this conclusion doesn’t seem particularly well-grounded in data.)

 

In fact, other researchers (and former colleagues of Turkle) have concluded that technology use actually brings us together and further connects us, far more than it drives us apart. Keith Hampton, a professor from Rutgers, studied homes in the late 90’s that received high-speed Internet. His finding suggested that this new technology seemed to further connect the houses’ inhabitants rather than isolate them. In a more recent study, he also video-taped four major public spaces in the Northeast (the steps of the Met Museum and Bryant Park in New York, Downtown Crossing in Boston, and Chestnut Street in Philadelphia) to observe whether members of groups in public used their phones, instead of talking and interacting with others. When reviewing his footage, he noted that the percentage of people using their phones was quite low (only three to ten percent, far less prevalent than Turkle suggests in her research) and that the people using phones were usually alone. People in groups tended not to be using their phones while spending time with each other, and he concludes that mobile phone usage does not negatively contribute to our social interactions to the extent many suspect.

 

I think it’s interesting to explore the back-and-forth of opinions on whether phones and other communicative technologies help to bring us together or act to drive us apart. We should be mindful of technology’s role in our daily interactions but perhaps not as skeptical as Turkle suggests.

Week 10: Cyber War

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I thought our guest yesterday, Jonathan Zittrain, led an excellent discussion about cyber security and the intersections of the internet and law.

 

The opening paragraph of “The Meaning of the Cyber Revolution” offers a quote from “the chief of U.S. Cyber Command, Gen. Keith Alexander” who notes that “there is no consensus ‘on how to characterize the strategic instability’ of cyber interactions ‘or on what to do about it.’”

 

I wanted to bring up two points about this quote – first, I am curious about the structure of our “U.S. Cyber Command.” It seems that military officials run this operation, but is such an operation best suited to be run under the umbrella of the Department of Defense/Military? (The ARPANET itself started out under the DoD and essentially became privatized later on, so it would be interesting if this trajectory also happens when thinking about cyber defense.)

 

Second, and following from that initial question: are we allowed to treat cyber-warfare as analogous to actual combat warfare? The Tallinn Manual does set out some solid guidelines for us to think about. However, if not all countries and leaders are bound to abide by the Manual’s rules, how can a country be incentivized to work within these boundaries when thinking about how they will combat cyber warfare? Cyber war seems to be a relatively emerging field of warfare (compared with our more conventional notions of combat), so I’d be curious if creating a Manual of this type could be seen as perhaps premature, as the cyber warfare field seems to be constantly updating (perhaps at a far faster rate than we are creating new non-cyber weapons for soldiers/our armies.)

Week 9: The Right to be Forgotten

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An interesting point in our discussion this week was about the right to be forgotten ruling in some EU countries. The legislation lets you go to Google and ask that certain information no longer be connected to your name in search results, as it no longer pertains to the “you” of today. The ruling doesn’t require Google to take down the original source, however.

 

Reading a bit more about this on Wikipedia, it appears that a user submits a request to have a certain list of URL’s removed, and then Google employees (or other search engine employees) assesses the request. I’m curious how Google decides which of these cases to approve or which to deny, and if there are specific criteria or if it’s just done on a case-by-case basis by an individual reader/decider.

 

In addition, the right to be forgotten concept seems to connect, in some ways, to our desire to craft our images online (on social media, LinkedIn, or other sites.) The higher the degree of accessibility, the more we feel the need to curate and control what others see (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, from a privacy perspective.) At the same time, there’s a balance between overly curating and restricting accurate/relevant data from circulating.

Week 8: Three Degrees of Separation

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I thought our guest speaker today, David Eaves from the Kennedy School, was excellent.

 

A particularly thought provoking idea from the end of our session was whether Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have had the same success in his civil rights pursuits with the advanced surveillance capabilities of today’s FBI. Thinking about this in a more modern context, while it is indeed true that advanced surveillance capabilities (both online and otherwise) have allowed the government/FBI to track dissenters, the same advances in technology have also further facilitated dissent. During the Arab Spring, Twitter quickly mobilized large numbers of protestors, leading to far more efficient organization than phones or word of mouth conversations would have allowed in Dr. King’s time. We have also seen online hacking itself and release of hacked data as a form of dissent against various governments – a type of protestation not possible without the internet.

 

I also want to touch on Eaves’ idea that empathy is integral to success in the civic tech world, as empathy allows an implementer to better understand the needs of a user to ensure that the user experience is as excellent as possible. Empathy seems to be an important skill not just in this field but in many, so I’d be curious to hear more of Eaves’ thoughts on how we better teach empathy (and if it can even be taught in a classroom setting) as we train future policy makers.

 

One additional thought from the readings – one of the problems with Healthcare.gov was the management structure of the group that ran the project, which brings us back to the integral issue of management structures in technology teams. In my post in Week 1, I touched on this issue with how management style may have positively affected the products created by the original ARPANET team, so it’s especially interesting to see this idea re-emerge later in the semester.

Week 7: Online Campaign Fundraising and the Internet’s Role in Spreading Earned Media

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I wanted to touch on two uses of the internet in our elections that didn’t explicitly come up in conversation today.

 

Howard Dean, in his 2004 presidential campaign, was the first candidate for president to really utilize the internet, most notably as a fundraising tool. Just twelve years later in our 2016 cycle, almost all campaign fundraising plays out over the internet, but the Dean campaign was the first to utilize this tactic back in ’04. I love this anecdote from Dean about using the internet both to mobilize donors and also to fundraise by allowing grassroots supporters to easily contribute small dollar amounts:

 

“Dick Cheney was holding a $2,000-a-plate fundraising lunch, so we asked Americans all over the country to join me the same day for a lunch in front of their computers. It sparked a huge response, and, amazingly, the online contributions from that day matched what Cheney made from his fundraiser. It showed that our campaign, and that of other Democrats, could remain competitive thanks to a growing base of people donating small amounts. A lot of people talked about how our campaign revolutionized the use of the Internet to raise money. But the Internet isn’t magic, it’s just a tool that can be used to do things differently. We treated it as a community, and we grew the community into something that has lasted long after the campaign ended. The Internet let us build that community in real time, on a massive scale, and that lunch helped us do that. The turkey sandwich wasn’t bad either.” (source: https://www.wired.com/2005/08/2003/)

 

His campaign set up a video feed of Dean eating a sandwich and broadcast it over the internet, allowing his supporters to tune in and give money to this “fundraising lunch” using online donation tools – a clever, low-budget, internet-based response to Cheney’s fundraiser. I also like Dean’s comment on how the internet is a community. The internet can be used to connect voters from all across the country and to enhance a feeling of togetherness amongst supporters, and today our candidates’ Facebook pages act to bring together many supporters from all over.

 

Also, switching gears to think about paid vs. earned media and how the internet affects these forms of media. Paid media is when a campaign buys ads (TV/Print/Online etc.) to reach potential voters whereas earned media is when a candidate does something or says something that gets reported on (by the press or otherwise) and reaches potential voters. An interesting form of earned media from this election cycle in particular is the “political selfie,” featuring you posing with a candidate. If a person goes to a rally and takes a selfie with a candidate after the event, that selfie will probably get posted to social media – and will be seen by hundreds of that person’s friends/followers and may even be shared, further expanding its reach. If a candidate makes an unexpected stop at your local restaurant or in a retail store in your town, selfies are often a primary form of documentation. The internet helps to spread political-selfies to hundreds of possible supporters (and seeing a friend posing with a candidate may make people even more likely to consider voting for him/her.) Thinking also about more traditional earned media (a candidate makes a surprise stop at a nationally known fast-food chain, for example) – Twitter and the immediacy of other internet sites allow for not only the sharing of such media but also for interacting with this news. Hearing about this same surprise stop-by on a news show on TV may have a more passive effect, and paid media appears to perhaps be even more passive than watching earned media on TV or hearing about it on the radio.

Week 6: The Singularity – only 29 years to go?

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This week we discussed the Singularity, the tipping point in our future where machines will overtake humans as the most intelligent species on the planet.

 

Paul Allen argued that the Singularity will not happen in the year 2045 (or, for that matter, any other time in the near future) – and he provides us with a counter-argument to the idea that the computer is a living entity similar to the human brain. We’ve looked at Licklider’s man-machine symbiosis hypothesis and also explored the Internet of Things’ ability to create a “living network” amongst multiple devices. However, this seems to be one of the first times in our readings that we’ve encountered a view that attempts to identify why the brain and the computer are not quite comparable:

 

“The complexity of the brain is simply awesome. Every structure has been precisely shaped by millions of years of evolution to do a particular thing, whatever it might be. It is not like a computer, with billions of identical transistors in regular memory arrays that are controlled by a CPU with a few different elements. In the brain every individual structure and neural circuit has been individually refined by evolution and environmental factors. The closer we look at the brain, the greater the degree of neural variation we find. Understanding the neural structure of the human brain is getting harder as we learn more.”

 

He does go on to say that the complexity will eventually end, as the brain is made up of finite amount of neurons and a set number of neural connections – but for the foreseeable future, the deep interworkings of our brains will continue to mystify us. I found Allen’s comparison – of computers as somewhat rigid and repetitive in their composition vs. our brain as a distinctly refined organ that is unique to each individual – to be an interesting divergence from some of the thoughts we’ve read in previous weeks.

 

Assuming the Singularity does happen, when will we know that it has hit us? Will it be a hard-and-fast day in the year 2045 or a slow decline over a prolonged period? I would argue for the slow decline method. Humans have evolved gradually over millions of years. If we view computers as the successor to humans, then we will slowly be phased out as the computers take over the role of superior “species” (if we can even call computers a species.) If we take the Law of Accelerating Returns to be true, then the rate of evolution amongst machines is much greater than the human rate of evolution.

 

We’ll still be chugging along at our gradual evolutionary pace, but machines will create more and more rapid and noticeable change with each successive generation. Until, perhaps, the machines will be able to evolve not only from generation to generation, but within a generation itself (i.e., a machine that evolves during its own lifespan, if that would even be possible.) It’s fascinating to think about whether the human model of evolution and change would even be applicable to machines and computers, or if they will evolve in some way we can’t even predict (or comprehend).

Week 5: Sensors and the “Internet of Things”

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Today we had a great discussion about connectivity amongst devices – a concept known as “The Internet of Things.”

A quote of interest from the “Embedded, Everywhere” reading: “An EmNet that requires extensive user training will have failed in its fundamental promise—computing systems must adapt to users, not the other way around.” (emphasis added)

Is this (or has this always been) a hard and fast rule? I may be wrong, but there seems to be some irony here. As the ARPANET was being built just 50+ years ago, the onus was placed on scientists (the users) to create software that would adapt their own local machines to IMPs which would then connect to the overall network – in order to connect, they had to adapt. Now, according to this article, we expect our computerized consumer electronics (which house EmNets) to be easy to use and, ideally, intuitively adaptable to us.

Waski’s Wired article suggests that interconnected sensors are practically living, working together as a single “organism.” I found this comment related to Licklider’s original idea of the computer as an almost human entity.  Licklider died in 1990; it makes you wonder what he’d think if only he were around to see the changes over the past 26 years.

Finally, to take Burrus’ thought (about the Internet of Things being far larger than we realize) a step further: Smart Cities connect to other Smart Cities, States connect to States, and all of America is then connected and then…? How big could this possibly get? A central command hub in the White House that monitors all 50 states? The implications are pretty neat; for example, sensors could assess natural disaster damage across multiple states and decide where first to send responders based on which areas were most harmed. How would national responses to Hurricane Sandy or Katrina have differed had we had this type of technology in place? (At the same time, the national security implications of a central command hub are also pretty alarming.)

Week 4: The Internet and the Economy

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We spoke yesterday about digital advertisements that target user preferences on Facebook, Gmail, and other platforms. I’ve always found these targeted ads somewhat unsettling ­– they remind me of the difficulty of having full control over the extent of the information that internet sites “know” about me. In fact, it would be interesting to have some sort of objective internet inspection done on myself, to know how much information about me exists in the ether – both the hard and fast facts (birthdate, etc.) as well as my preferences that may change over time (friends, TV shows I like, political affiliations).

 

Today, the line between active and passive internet involvement seems to be fuzzier than ever before. Take the political affiliation example. If I give a donation to a political candidate, that politician’s monthly or quarterly FEC report will show that I gave them money; an outside observer could conclude that I support that politician. Liking a certain politician’s Facebook page or retweeting and sharing their online content could also be considered active support for a candidate. In both the donation case and the social-media-sharing case, I know that people online will publicly be able to see that information and conclude that I support the candidate.

 

However, what if I don’t donate or don’t think I’m actively engaging with this politician on social media, yet on Facebook, I click on news articles or web links that support my candidate and also click on content that brings up flaws in their opponent? I intend for only myself to know what articles I’m clicking on, yet Facebook (and whoever else could have access to their data) could start to conclude information about my preferences. Methods of engagement that we may think of (or want to think of) as passive can still be active. We as a user may not see our actions as active, but Facebook (and other sites) certainly does.

 

We also discussed how the internet facilitates more efficient online transactions, and many of the benefits of having an internet-age economy. But what if the goods we’re buying or selling are illegal? I’m interested in how goods sold over the dark internet/Tor network fit into our overall economy. The fascinating idea that “money is just a representation of a bit” was also brought up yesterday, which made me think of bitcoins and other the ways that illegal transactions are conducted. Not sure if we will learn about the technical background of bitcoins in this course, but that is something I’d definitely want to explore if there’s time.

 

Switching gears, it’s interesting to think about the benefits of Anderson’s Long Tail concept, but also those who oppose it. Funnily enough, the Long Tail showed up in my sociology lecture earlier today. We were talking about production of culture and how a “Blockbuster” strategy can lead to a far greater profit than capitalizing on the Long Tail, after reading sections from Anita Elberse’s Blockbuster. Many large movie studios today don’t focus on the Long Tail and instead use a Blockbuster method: funding three or four major projects (often sequels, remakes, or known crowd pleasers) and hoping that one of them is a box-office smash-hit. This leaves far less room for funding “art house” and other more unique artistic project. Eric Schmidt was a major supporter of the Long Tail when Anderson’s idea first emerged. Only a few years later, however, his views changed and he stated that a Blockbuster approach may be more effective going forward – evidence for how quickly developments can occur in our modern internet era (source: http://www.digitalmusicnews.com/2013/07/22/longtail/).

Week 3: Token Ring vs. Ethernet

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We discussed this afternoon the debate of the Token Ring vs. Ethernet form of connectivity. In broad terms, the Token Ring method allowed a set of computers to “talk” (use the network) only when it was “their turn” ­– similar to the idea that only those with the conch shell were allowed to speak in Lord of the Flies.

 

Ethernet was slightly more haphazard, with different computers all connected and “talking” at once; if more than one computer tried to “speak” at the same time, the signal would stop transmitting and one computer or the other would try again.

 

The Ethernet system – although less orderly, it was certainly more efficient – eventually won out over the Token Ring format. It’s interesting that a process in which more computers (or users) are able to connect at the same time happens on a system with less order and, in a sense, less decorum. People were no longer “waiting their turn.”

 

A piece of technology that connects us but that also seems to correspond with a breakdown in politeness sounds eerily similar to our use of our smart phones today, especially when in conversation with someone standing in front of you. Through our phones, we have the potential to be connected with so many outlets – people, information, etc. – and yet to do so is to discourteously disengage with the present moment. Perhaps there’s something to be said here about propriety’s role in our use of technology.

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