Finding Myself

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In seminar today, we discussed the concept of the program ‘FINGER’ in the early ARPA net. This was a program that would let you locate any user of the network, and subsequently would determine for you their last log on date. At the time, it was seen by some as an invasion of privacy; and so, the author of the program modified it to allow the person being searched to protect their information.

It seems like an interesting experiment to compare that personal invasion, the equivalent of a ‘read’ receipt, to today’s publicly available information.

So I googled myself. For the first time ever. (No, really!)

I started with my name and my state- Michigan- and I found my voting record, which tells me my hometown and my birthday. From my name and my home town, I find out that my Mom is on the school board; my grandparents own a cherry farm; my parents met at U of M, moved to St. Louis, then moved back to my hometown. I enjoy reading, and I own a bike which I call Sheila. I know what I look like, what clubs I’m in, some of my test scores and that I once made a presentation on Mao’s cultural revolution in Prezi.

I’m not sure how much of this I chose to share; it would all certainly have been more of an opt out than an opt in. I’m not embarrassed by the me I found online, just a little surprised. Of course, I shouldn’t be. I, like most other people of my age, know the power and persistence of the web.

After my senior party, I was addressing thank you notes to my guests. As I got to the bottom of the pile, I found a card from my friend Sophie. I had met her in my European History course that year, and I had never learned her address! In order to get her thank you to her, I had to know where she lived; and to know where she lived, I had to know how to spell her last name. Which, naturally, like her address, was a mystery to me. So I googled her, using all of the details I could think of, and found an old picture of her family. I used the article attached to the picture to get the name, and from there, the address. She received a prompt thank you.

The internet is a pretty marvelous tool. Neither I nor Sophie have Facebook accounts, but for all intents and purposes, we might as well. Our information shows up on the web almost as if we had put it there ourselves, offering windows into our lives, even if it can never provide the full picture of the people we are. Much like the early internet community in the face of FINGER, I find myself questioning wether this openness is good. Have I been harmed by the presence I have on the web? Probably not. But could I be, or are others being harmed by their own digital footprint? Certainly.

I don’t think about internet privacy too often in my own life. It fades in and out of my consciousness with each new credit card company hacked. Maybe I would do well to be a little more judicious about the information that spills from my life onto the net.

We Must Have (Some) Standards

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First blog post! Hello world, and welcome to what I think. This time, why I believe there may be benefits to changing the way we deal with standardization in technology.

The internet was conceived with many hopes in the minds of its creators. Some hoped to cut the extensive costs of owning and using a computer in the mid-sixties. Others hoped for a resilient communication network in the time of Cold War. Still others placed in the internet the hope that resources could be shared quickly among far-flung academic havens on both sides of the United States. For any of these aims to be achieved, there was one basic problem to solve; getting computers to talk to each other.

As the first network was developed under the guidance of the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1960’s, the project ran into various problems; how to physically connect the computers, how to avoid overburdening the networked computers with the mammoth task of simply communicating, and, of course, how to translate among the many computer languages. It was this last problem that gave us the first instance of standardization; all four networked computers in the first ‘internet’ communicated with Interface Message Processors, or IMPs, which in turn communicated with each other, all via standardized “headers” on the information, or ‘packet,’ being sent, which told each IMP the destination and origin of the packet. Soon, the hosts themselves would be called upon to learn to work together and create something of a common language in order to communicate.

In the subsequent years, as the internet as we know it was built, as it grew, fluctuated, and changed, one theme remained relatively present; standardization. Since 1865, the International Telecommunications Union (since 1949 recognized by the United Nations), has been producing communications standards for the globe. It was the ITU which brought together the many disparate computer companies under a common global umbrella after the creation of the World Wide Web, a vast magnification of the original standardized headers and cooperative host computers (Overview of ITU’s History). Not only did the ITU create standards, many of the countries of the world created their own bodies to enforce them within their borders; today, the International Organization for Standardization boasts more than 162 countries as members who cooperate to implement these standards (About ISO).

Well.

So what?

It seems clear that standard web is a boon for many; creating connections, allowing for international communication, and preventing any one company from winning a monopoly over a specific consumer by forcing them to use only their technology. What could be the problem?

The problem in my perspective is that we don’t know any other way. From the beginnings of the internet to today, standards have been present, both out of necessity and out of a desire for interconnectedness. As a result we innovate within a set of parameters, parameters which allow us to communicate- think the use of IP dresses for interconnected devices. These standards are constantly under review, to be sure, but the lumbering body of the ITU cannot change fast enough to keep up with the pace of technology. What if there is a better way to share data than through packets? Or a better way to build the internet than the somewhat haphazard infrastructure which has grown up around a loose set of building codes?

In the end, I certainly don’t think that standardization is not overwhelmingly good for the internet. Indeed, the standards themselves are the foundation on which all internet infrastructure runs. But I suppose I am skeptical of what we might be missing out of respect for standards. I believe it would be a worthwhile experiment for some entity, government, academic, or corporate, or some combination thereof, to experiment outside of our network, to develop new means of connection and communication. At the same time, it would be worthwhile to consider a replica of the United Nations’ security council, a small body which governs the use of UN troops and moves much faster than the full assembly, for the creation of internet standards within the ITU, in order to better respond to changing technology. We’ll never know what the internet could be until we try.

Hannah

 

Works Cited
“About ISO.” ISO – International Organization for Standardization. International Organization for Standardization, n.d. Web.
“Overview of ITU’s History.” ITU. International Telecommunications Union, n.d. Web.
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