The internet is complicated.
It is the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudo-environment. To that pseudo-environment his behavior is a response. But because it is behavior, the consequences, if they are acts, operate not in the pseudo-environment where the behavior is stimulated, but in the real environment where action eventuates —
Walter Lippmann, Chapter 1, Public Opinion (1922)
Lippmann was one of the founders of The New Republic magazine and a central figure in the development of communication research - and media research by extension.
In the quote above, he makes the case for how mediated experiences interfere in how people understand the world. For Lippmann, this comes from a place of distrusting existing power structures (like other news organizations and political leaders) while also believing in an objective reality (this is before post-modernism) that should be reported and defended.
While I have some qualms with his claim above it’s still fascinating:
- The resonance of this line of thinking still permeates much of journalism and popular conceptions of how news and information should be shared.
- It establishes (or at least reinforces) the notion of an artificial mediated distance between people that continues to be argued about today. Even the term “pseudo-environment” consciously distances mediated information from ones that are “non-mediated.”
In actuality, a network neutrality principle makes a political stand by preserving the generative, perhaps radical democratic, aspects of the Internet. Participatory culture, social media, citizen journalism, and the creative commons depend on users being able to upload, broadcast, and share freely.
— Fenwick McKelvey, “Ends and Ways: The Algorthmic Politics of Network Neutrality,” Global Media Journal — Canadian Edition, 2010, Vol. 3.1.
It is kind of fascinating to me that we’ve now moved to a point in history where we have a large chunk of the audience who has never experienced life without computers and life without the Internet. Because of that there’s this sort of recognition that we now need to write television shows about technology as history. Like we need to go and show the creation of the world we live in now. Even though for us the early 1980s don’t seem that distant, in terms of how the world works i guess that they are. — Chuck Klosterman, Hollywood Prospectus: 6/2/14, Podcast
To pull the whole picture together with a slightly oversimplified example: when an edge provider such as YouTube transmits some sort of content—say, a video of a cat—to an end user, that content is broken down into packets of information, which are carried by the edge provider’s local access provider to the backbone network, which transmits these packets to the end user’s local access provider, which, in turn, transmits the information to the end user, who then views and hopefully enjoys the cat. —
Circuit Judge Tatel, U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, Verizon v. FCC 2014, p. 6
The simple fact is that the Internet is simply not the infinitely elastic phantasm that it is popularly imagined to be, but rather an actual physical entity that can be warped or broken. For while the network is designed to connect every user with every other on an equal footing, it has always depended on a finite number of physical connections, whether wired or spectral, and switches, operated by a finite number of firms upon whose good behavior the whole thing depends. — Tim Wu, The Master Switch, p. 612
The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly; thus everyone but the artist, the man of integral awareness, is alive in an earlier day. In the midst of the electronic age of software, of instant information movement, we still believe we’re living in the mechanical age of hardware. —
- Marshall McLuhan, 1969
This quote pairs well with this piece by Christopher Butler on Facebook’s advertising of its news app ‘Paper:’
"The world of Paper is an anachronism. It’s a screenless world created to sell you a thing made for the screen. It’s the past resurrected in order to convince you that something entirely common today is actually a portal to the future."
The World’s Most Powerful Computer Network Is Being Wasted on Bitcoin, via algopop
Because of the way Bitcoin self-regulates, the math problems Bitcoin mining rigs have to do to get more ‘coin get harder and harder as time goes on. Not to any particular end, but just to make sure the world doesn’t get flooded with Bitcoins. So all these computers aren’t really accomplishing anything other than solving super difficult and necessarily arbitrary puzzles for cyber money. It’s kind of like rounding up the world’s greatest minds and making them do Sudokus for nickels.
Projects like Folding@Home and SETI@Home use similarly networked power for the less-pointless practices of parsing information that could lead to more effective medicines or finding extra-terrestrial life, respectively, and either are hard-pressed to scrounge up even half of a percent of the power the Bitcoin network is rocking. And with specialized Bitcoin-mining hardware on the rise, there’s going to be an army of totally powerhouse PCs out there that are good for literally nothing but digging up cybercoins.
It’s incredible to think about the amount of power being directed at this one, singular purpose; power that’s essentially being “donated” by thousands of people across the globe just because they have skin in the game. It’s by far the most computational effort that has ever been devoted to a single purpose. And sure, Bitcoins are fine and all, but can you imagine what we could do if this energy was put behind other tough problems? We’ll you’re going to have to imagine, because so long as mining Bitcoins can earn you money and folding proteins can’t, it’s pretty clear which one is gonna get done.
I’m not sure if I buy Timothy Lee’s standards for dividing “media companies” from “tech companies” in this Washington Post piece about the Yahoo!-Tumblr merger:
Media companies build brands by associating themselves with hot cultural trends. Because these trends are fickle, media companies can’t do much more than observe which way the crowd is moving and race to get in front of it.
In contrast, technology firms build strong brands by creating technology that is objectively superior to other products on the market — for everyone. Google didn’t become the dominant search engine through strategic partnerships or savvy marketing. It did it by having better search results than its competitors. And while younger users switched to Google more quickly, Google has been gradually winning older users for its search engine as well.
The division here is problematic - Google owns YouTube (the web’s leading space for web video), Amazon’s retail empire continues to expand with both media content and technology like the Kindle, etc. More interesting is the intentional division by Lee to insist media companies are chasing trends while tech companies that create the best products will inherently rise to the top. This plays up the “up-by-their-bootstraps” narrative tech companies love, but doesn’t show the ongoing historical trends of technological development for traditional media or the importance of desirable content on new technological platforms.
Because privacy is a fundamentally social phenomenon, conflict over how much privacy one may have or how private or public something should be is rather inevitable. When discrepancies regarding privacy translate into active social conflict, the role of the relative distribution of power across individuals becomes readily apparent. In terms of social accessibility, the distribution of power plays a crucial role in the ways people understand and try to manage others’ demands for their attention. This balance of power largely accounts for whose agenda will prevail at any given time. —
- Christena Nippert-Eng, Islands of Privacy (2010)
With the semester over, I’ve been catching up on a lot of outside reading. The issues Nippert-Eng (a social psychologist) brings up, particularly in the Cell Phones and Email chapter of her book, are also useful for understanding the relationships between people, the Internet and privacy. It’s important to think about privacy, not as a state of being, but as a descriptor of relationships. If the giving or withholding of attention/information/action constitutes the boundaries of privacy, understanding the power relationships between people, objects and networks takes on new meaning.
This involves heavy use of what I have taken to calling the Wired ‘we’, a magical pronoun that captures the entire range of behaviours and attitudes towards electronic gadgets or digital media in order to allow a writer to make a universal point about these technologies. —
- Giovanni Tiso
Tiso’s point about the use of ‘we’ in tech writing is an important one. Even as Internet access improves, the casual ‘we’ universalizes something that is far from universal, not to mention it assumes everyone understands and uses media technology in the same way.
Google Reader, the company’s free RSS feed aggregator will be shuttered on July 1. Many voices across the Internet have been vocal in their disapproval of this move - while not the most popular Google tool, it has a small, intense following, primarily bloggers.
Others, like my friend Andy (who makes web things for a living) are more approving of Reader’s demise:
Another free Internet service bites the dust. Good riddance. We should be willing to pay for useful things to keep them alive.
We discussed several important points while we talked about this on Twitter last night:
2. As a customer instead of a user you have a clearer relationship between yourself and the service provider. If you don’t like what they’re doing you can stop using it or stop paying for it.
3. Running web services is expensive and problematic. Relying on a handful of companies to provide storage instead of on individual computers can also be risky.
4. With these things in mind, subscription services may be the most viable arrangement for both users and independent web service creators/providers.
But, as Bill points out, this issue is even more complex:
@kylewrather @alindeman I believe this is an economic issue, too. Middle class goods and services
I have a lingering Web 1.0 nostalgia for (or more likely utopian dream of) an online experience where everyone owns their own websites, the best services are open-source and these online interactions happen in shared and easily-integrated spaces but just this isn’t how things work.
Instead, we see growing app-ification of the online experience - where users are increasingly restrained within walled gardens (like Google and Facebook) within which use is limited to patterns dictated by the architecture of the sites themselves.
But Internet pessimism is often overstated. A nostalgic and utopian view of the Web fails to recognize the extreme digital divide which has actually been shrinking. These free online services offer lower barriers of entry for new online users. Their “freeness” is contingent upon your information being sold back to you in the form of advertising dollars. Here’s a graph of Internet users as percentage of population:
More people are online and this is particularly increasing globally. These services offer these users a free way to participate online. Not everyone can pay subscriptions to boutique online service providers, even if that relationship would be better for all parties involved. Not everyone can host their own blog, email and photos - services that Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Tumblr, etc. are happy to do as long as they’re profitable.
Speculation on Quora from a former Googleplex insider points to Google shuttering the service primarily because it doesn’t play well with Google+ and it doesn’t help generate advertising information/money.
This Google Reader kerfuffle is just that because it reveals to Google users what we already know - its not running a charity and its services are not directly aimed at creating a better, more open and idealistic Internet experience, but serving the company’s strategic goals.
This should not be surprising and outside of user backlash there are few repercussions for the elimination of these services.
25 Years of Storage
Where’s the Zip Drive disk?