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?
Last week, I had a chance to see Holy Motors, a 2012 French film by Leos Carex, which can be read as a send-up to cinema itself, dovetailed interestingly with the concepts of public and private spaces brought up by Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Briefly, Habermas outlines human interactions as occurring in private, smaller or internal exchanges or in larger public and conversational exchanges in which decisions could be made by the participating public.
The film follows a mysterious character Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) who is transported throughout Paris as he participates in a series of situations/events/scenes as an actor playing a participant in each of the events. In an exchange with his employer, Oscar emphasizes his love of performance while lamenting the shrinking size of the cameras. For me, this can be read two ways: that the stage for his performances are shrinking or that the stage has become ubiquitous. Therefore, Oscar’s weariness may be due to the lack of opportunities for real acting.
But there’s a second option, and this is where Habermas comes in - his weariness is from a perpetual state of performance - that the division between private (non-acting) and public (acting) spaces has eroded to a point where Oscar is always acting. This plays with the audiences suspencion of disbelief by winkingly acknowledging it is a movie about an actor (Oscar) portraying people in “real life” is portrayed by an actor (Lavant) as you watch the film in real “real life.”
The notion of an actor literally acting as exciting, bizarre and often mundane everyday people forces you to acknowledge that existence is a participation in the public sphere and that the portrayal of even private moments in a public manner (such as seeing them in a movie) makes those exchanges public also.
Susan Crawford, former Obama Administration technology advisory, ICANN board member, and network neutrality advocate, has an interesting op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times offering steps she suggests are needed to increase broadband Internet access - specifically high-capacity fiber networks - for people living in the United States. She argues a relatively ineffective Federal Communications Commission along with political pressure from and oligopoly of network-owning corporations (Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner and Verizon control almost all broadband Internet access in the U.S.) have obstructed innovation and expansion of faster Web access for Americans.
Here are her three primary suggestions:
First, [the Federal government] must remove barriers to investment in local fiber networks … in nearly 20 states, laws sponsored by incumbent network operators have raised barriers for cities wanting to foster competitive networks.
Second, the F.C.C. must make reasonably priced high-speed access available to everyone. In the 20th century, we made a commitment to provide universal telephone service to every American and to subsidize that utility service for our poor and rural neighbors. […] We need to make sure that subsidies are available for competitive companies willing to extend world-class service to more Americans.
Finally, the F.C.C. must foster more competition by changing the rules that keep the status quo in place. There is a raft of regulations and processes at the F.C.C. that incumbents wield to maintain their market power, including rules about access to programming and to telephone poles that favor existing providers.
While many of these recommendations are also spelled out in FCC’s National Broadband Plan, I have my doubts about these changes happening, particularly about the possibilities of Crawford’s second and third points.
Today’s discussions of broadband expansion can be best illustrated by understanding how FCC’s relatively hands-off approach has led to a two-sided debate. On one side you have network providers whose incentive is to maximize profits by providing adequate access and speed while making minimal expensive infrastructure investments (network/fiber upgrades.) The other is largely composed of web content and technology companies (Google, Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft, etc.) whose popularity and success depends on fast, reliable and affordable access to the Internet.
So for Crawford’s suggestions to even occur, we will need to see either A.) a newly empowered and enthusiastic FCC willing impose regulations or access requirements on current network providers or B.) intervention of web/tech companies to disrupt the currently uncompetitive Internet market and encourage existing providers to get better and cheaper or for users to have more options. As Crawford notes in her article, we’re beginning to see some movement with Google’s building of a fiber network for Kansas City, Mo. Unfortunately, until we see movement on either of these fronts, U.S. broadband speeds will remain slow.
(Above, World Broadband Speed map via BBC)
Curiosity builds on itself — each new thing you learn about has all sorts of different parts and connections, which you then want to learn more about. Pretty soon you’re interested in more and more and more, until almost everything seems interesting. And when that’s the case, learning becomes really easy — you want to learn about almost everything, since it all seems really interesting. I’m convinced that the people we call smart are just people who somehow got a head start on this process. I fell like the only thing I’ve really done is followed my curiosity wherever it led, even if that meant crazy things like leaving school or not taking a “real” job. — Aaron Swartz to Ronaldo Lemos
Last night I finished reading Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction classic Dune. Below are some of my thoughts on the book:
In many ways, Dune is a book about resistance. Resistance against economic cartels, political coups, arranged relationships, cultural and religious traditions and planetary occupation - Paul-Muad’Dib, Lady Jessica, Stilgar and many others continually meet and push-back against these obstacles. I’m still on the fence about whether the influence of Paul and Kynes as outsiders to Fremen life operate as adopters of the desert culture who help the people with their long-sought goal of making Arrakis livable or whether their influence is a form of cultural and interplanetary imperialism. For the moment, I think I side with the former based on the results of these interactions - at the conclusion ofDune (I haven’t read the sequals) their actions further the explicit goals of the Fremen - to give control of Arrakis (and the invaluable spice it produces) to the people that live there.
Reading Dune today must be different than in 1965. Reading the book in 2012, its themes of insurgency, resistance and control of geographic resources strongly echo recent political and economic events in the Middle East. It’s impossible not to read the spice Melange as petroleum oil - a limited resource essential to the economic stability and power of larger, powerful and influential groups. The Fremen jihad against imperial (literally) outsiders evokes a cultural and historical cache including the mujaheddin resistance to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, as well as the more recent insurgencies U.S. troops continue to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Herbert had no way of knowing the political and economic future, but his book continues to offer an useful comment them through Paul’s conflicted views on the tenuous balance between emancipatory resistance and the uncontrolled mob.
Why do so many sci-fi stories involved interplanetary interactions where each planet has it’s own government? In many cases (Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.) planets are governed by one planetary group or body and participate in one or many larger interstellar government structures (think the Federation, Old Republic, Empire.) In many ways Herbert exposes this trope with his portrayal of the Fremen resistance, but its hard to imagine any planet with a large population being effectively governed on the planetary level in a way that doesn’t reduce to harsh authoritarianism.
This isn’t some standard polemic about “those stupid walled-garden networks are bad!” I know that Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and LinkedIn and the rest are great sites, and they give their users a lot of value. They’re amazing achievements, from a pure software perspective. But they’re based on a few assumptions that aren’t necessarily correct. The primary fallacy that underpins many of their mistakes is that user flexibility and control necessarily lead to a user experience complexity that hurts growth. And the second, more grave fallacy, is the thinking that exerting extreme control over users is the best way to maximize the profitability and sustainability of their networks. — Anil Dash from "The Web we Lost"
The three-legged chow that walks on my street every day doesn’t know the number three or have any sense that anything is wrong with her at all (and as I write, the dog is sixteen and still fit). It’s not that a dog accepts the cards it’s been dealt; it’s not aware that there are cards. James Thurber called the desire for this condition ‘the Dog Wish,’ the ‘strange and involved compulsion to be as happy and carefree as a dog.’ This is a dog’s blessing, a dim-wittedness one can envy. — John Homans, from What’s a Dog For? - as excerpted by Maria Popova