Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Internet's future lies in our hands

Reading "The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It" was a little like reading the history of the Internet minus any comic genius or mentions to how Al Gore "supposedly" invented the Net. (I never believed he did, but have always found the story amusing.)

That said, the book provides some extremely valuable context for those of us who are new to Internet studies. The information is alarming yet Zittrain doesn't seem interested in sparking a hysterical frenzy. Instead, like any respectable lawyer, he presents a balanced and informed argument that is relevant to everyone.

The fact that Zittrain's main argument - that "restrictive tools and rash approaches to security challenges are endangering the health of the online ecosystem" - seems both a bit far-fetched yet terrifyingly accurate at the same time adds some intrigue to the book. (Nov. 28, 2007 CNET News article)

The book is obviously much more nuanced, but Zittrain's key argument can be summarized by a few lines published in the Nov. 2007 CNET News article.
"You can call Zittrain's theme the AOL-ization of technology. Instead of personal computers being able to run any program from any source without approval from a third party--which many of us were used to in the 1980s and 1990s--Zittrain fears we're entering a world where centralized approval becomes necessary.
Examples are numerous: Apple's lockdown of the iPhone. Some Google applications that say developers can't "disparage" the company.'s copyright policy for developers that says if the application permits file-sharing, they must "register an agent for notices of copyright infringements with the U.S. Copyright Office." Some terms of service agreements that require disclosure of source code."
Put another way, it is Zittrain's belief that the Internet has transformed from a "generative" one in which innovation was due to provided software of hardware... to a "tethered" one in which users use tethered appliances like iPhones and digital cameras which are "locked down" to develop new content, source code, programs, etc. He argues throughout the book that even PC's are in "lock down" mode, preventing users from making changes that may or may not improve their experience.

I should clarify that when Zittrain uses the term "generative," he is referring to technologies and networks like your standard PC that allow "tinkering and all sorts of creative uses." When he uses the term "tethered," however, he is referring to networks and technologies that discourage any sort of tinkering. "Basically, “take it or leave it” proprietary devices like Apple’s iPhone or the TiVo, or online walled gardens like the old AOL and current cell phone networks"(

The problem with "locked down" and/or tethered machines, he states, is that...:
"When endpoints are locked down, and producers are unable to deliver innovative products directly to users, openness in the middle of the network becomes meaningless. Open highways do not mean freedom when they are so dangerous that one never ventures from the house" (165).
Zittrain goes on to argue that the Internet's final stake really does make a difference and that the ongoing battles between flexibility/openness and security/reliability need to be addressed with creativity rather than reactionary mandates supporting either doctrine. He supports this theory by noting that IBM, AT&T and Microsoft were all forced to unbundle their products when the U.S. Government decided they were working afoul of anti-trust regulations. Google hasn't met this fate, but Zittrain believes it is only a matter of time before the watchdogs catch on and force Google to dissolve some of its market share.

Like most authors we've read this semester, Zittrain doesn't offer a definite solution to the questions he poses. He says that publicity may help if Internet users can be persuaded to consider the trade-offs involved in using the Net.

Another solution he offers is something called the Green-Red split system, which involves one computer system that's locked down and totally reliable (Green) and another that's open to innovation (Red.) Zittrain writes positively of the concept, but it seems a bit far-fetched to me. Getting your average citizen used to one system can be onerous enough. I can't imagine how many could navigate two systems, even if they're easily navigable.

To me, the most likely solution Zittrain offers is the concept of distributed control, the backbone of Wikipedia. He argues that the combination of limited regulation and a neighborhood watch-type environment is bound to be successful, as the combination can preserve the creative spirit which has spurred multiple innovations without getting embroiled in the worst of the security issues plaguing other options.

This is seen on page 147, when Zittrain writes:
"Wikipedia has since come to stand for the idea that involvement of people in the information they read - whether to fix a typographical error or to join a debate over its veracity or completeness - is an important end itself, one made possible by the recursive generativity of a network that welcomes new outposts without gatekeepers; of software that can be created and deployed at those outposts; and of an ethos that welcomes new ideas without gatekeepers, one that asks the people bearing those ideas to argue for and substantiate them to those who question."

Overall, Zittrain makes a very compelling argument for open-source code and the more general idea that users should have an active role in governing the Net. It'll be interesting to see how things continue to pan out and whether there's enough interest to generate more of a Wikipedia-like environment on the Web.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Where are the Cliff Notes when really needed?

I've got to be honest with you guys. I am completely clueless about what to say about Galloway and Thacker's The Exploit. Even Habermas seemed to make more sense than this. That doesn't mean that I necessarily understood Habermas, but this is practically undecipherable.

Network theory seemed like such an easy concept, until I started reading this. To me, network theory is the science behind how people, objects, diseases, graphs are all interrelated and connected to one another. It's useful for explaining the spread of diseases such as influenza and AIDS, but it also has applications in fields as diverse as particle physics, economics, operations research and sociology, as noted on the Wikipedia entry concerning the theory.

Network theory and networks, in general, are limited, however, by their inability to predict where something like H1N1- commonly referred to as swine flu - will strike next.

This is supported on page 95, when the authors write:
"While individuals, groups, or organizations may be responsible for 'causing' emerging infectious diseases, it is notoriously difficult to predict the exact consequences of such decisions or to foresee the results of such actions. This is because emerging infectious diseases are not weapons like missiles, planes, or bombs; they are networks, and it is as networks that they function and as networks that they are controlled."
Scientists can use past examples to hypothesize where something like H1N1 might strike next, but it's nothing more than a hypothesis, a guess based on data collected about previous incidences. This is part of the problem researchers are facing with the current pandemic strain of H1N1. They know how it is transmitted and which groups are most likely to be impacted based on the genetic make-up of the strain, but the network doesn't reveal precisely who or when it will strike. The network also doesn't explain why people who are otherwise perfectly healthy and have no underlying medical conditions have died from H1n1.

That said, networks are extremely powerful.

As stated on the back of the book:
"The network has become the core organizational structure for postmodern politics, culture, and life, replacing the modern era's hierarchical systems. From peer-to-peer file sharing and massive multiplayer online games to contagion vectors of digital or biological viruses and global affiliations of terrorist organizations, the network form has become so invasive that nearly every aspect of contemporary society can be located within it."
This is particularly apparent when you consider the hierarchy of mainstream media, which has changed dramatically with the advent of both the Internet and more recently, social media. Whereas mainstream media once remained largely one-directional with networks distributing content directly to the user with little to no feedback, current media entities are all but required to be in constant interaction with their users/clients/viewers. In a sense, they have given up some control in order to be relevant and remain connected to the larger network.

As stated on page 124:
"...the unidirectional media of the past were ignoring half the loop. At least television did not know if the home audience was watching or not. As mathematicians might say, television is a 'directed' or unidirectioal graph. Today's media have closed the loop; they are 'undirected' or bidirectional graphs. Today's media physically require the maintained, constant, continuous interaction of users. This is the political tragedy of interactivity...Television was a huge megaphone. The Internet is a high-bandwidth security camera."
Another and probably bigger point the authors emphasize throughout the text is the idea that there's a substantial division between networks and sovereignty. While sovereign powers involve an entity - generally one individual - having supreme, independent authority over a territory, there are no widely accepted leaders or codes of law for forming or governing networks. Companies like Google may exert a lot of influence but they are not sovereign powers in the sense that they do not officially 'control' the space. Their influence is not codified in or by law. Thus, to the authors, the very idea that networks, particularly the Internet, are either naturally or intentionally egalitarian is misleading.

As written on page 4:
"The network, it appears, has emerged as a dominant form describing the nature of control today, as well as resistance to it."
And then on page 5, when the authors write:
"Perhaps there is no greater lesson about networks than the lesson about control: networks, by their mere existence, are not liberating; they exercise novel forms of control that operate at a level that is anonymous and non-human, which is to say material."
Overall, I find this book extremely confusing. The authors supposedly challenge the "assumption that networks are inherently egalitarian" and "contend that there exist new modes of control entirley native to networks," yet they never move beyond mere speculation to offer their own theory about the actual effects of networks. It probably would have helped if I had made it through the whole book, but the authors seem to come up short when it comes to offering definitive solutions to the questions they raise.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Two degrees in London

I've always been intrigued by the theory that everyone in the world is somehow connected to everyone else. I'm not sure exactly where or when I started believing in the "Kevin Bacon" theory of connectivity, but it was long before the actor came out against not the idea, per se, but his name's attachment to it. You'd think that he would follow the ideology that "any PR is good PR," but evidently, this particular topic is not one of his favorites.

As I was reading Duncan Watts' Six Degrees - struggling to get through the mathematical mumbo jumbo, I might add- I kept thinking about my own example of the paradox. My story isn't as exciting as being less than 6 degrees away from say, the Dalai Lama or the late Princess Diana or the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines (of which, I really am only 2-3 connections away - we share a college professor who became a good friend/mentor to me), but it seems emblematic of the issue at hand.

My anecdote takes place in London, England, where I spent a too-short weekend while studying abroad during my junior year at SMU. As a lifelong Girl Scout, I have always wanted to visit as many of the World Centers as possible but particularly London's Pax Lodge. So when a girlfriend and I took the Tube across the English Channel we naturally made a special trip to visit the center of Girl Scouts/Girl Guides in England. How the trip relates to the reading is that while visiting the Center, we met a few volunteers and mentioned that we were SMU students from Texas who were studying abroad in Paris. One of the young ladies mentioned that a friend others from high school was currently attending SMU. Since SMU is a relatively small school of about 4,000 undergraduates and 6,000 graduates, we asked where she was from and for the name of her friend. To make a long story short, it turned out that her high school classmate was one of our best friends - and he happened to be studying in London while we were in Paris. The two hadn't seen each other since high school, so we took her name and number and promised to e-mail it to our friend. I'm not sure if the two ever met up with each other, but we did try to get the two in touch with each other.

Though I thought at the time that this was nothing more than an amazing coincidence and evidence that the world is actually very small, this chance meeting no longer surprises me as much. It actually seems to support Watt's idea that people of similar backgrounds who have never met are likely to run in the same circles and are therefore, likely to come into contact with each other or each other's friends. In this case, it was likely or at least possible that this young lady and I would have met at some point or another because the three of us were all involved in scouting, were studying/living abroad at the same time and came from similar backgrounds. Most importantly, however, the young lady and I also shared our mutual friend in common.

This does not mean that I think chance or pure dumb luck is irrelevant when it comes to small-world networks. It's entirely possible that the young lady and I never would have met if my girlfriend and I had opted to visit Pax Lodge at another time or simply passed her door/office when she was out to lunch or on a bathroom break. Thus, chance definitely plays some role - but as Watts argues and I believe, it can't be the only role.

This claim is supported when Watts references a talk he heard by sociologist Harrison White. The gist of the talk, as Watts explains, is that "people know each other because of the things they do, or more generally the contexts they inhibit... All the things we do, all the features that define us, and all the activities we pursue that lead us to meet and interact with each other are contexts. So, the contexts in which each of us participates is an extremely important determinant of the network structure that we subsequently create" (115).

The argument continues when Watts writes: "By belonging to certain groups and playing certain roles, individuals acquire characteristics that make them more or less likely to interact with one another. Social identity, in other words, drives the creation of social networks."

Returning to my personal anecdote, what Watts seems to be arguing is that our mutual involvement in scouting (whether boy or girl) made it that much more likely that the three of us would come into contact with each other. That the connection took place in London makes the story more intriguing, but it is not as relevant as the fact that Scouts tend to run in similar circles and pursue similar activities.

As Watts states on page 116: "The more contexts two people share, the closer they are, and the more likely they are to be connected."

Makes sense to me.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Shaping identity before birth

When I applied for admission to the ATEC/EMAC program a few years ago, one of my primary interests was in studying online social networking and how individuals use the Internet to shape their identity both on and offline. This continues to remain my focus today, so boyd's argument that it's not only what we post about ourselves - but also what others post about us - that shapes our identity falls exactly into my field of interest.

Like many people, I have personal experience with loved ones posting information that we may not feel is quite ready for prime time. In my case, it was my dear, sweet husband. In his defense, he was understandably thrilled to find out that we really were going to have a second child and that he was going to be a daddy for the third time. I was thrilled - and still am - thrilled, but at the time was not yet ready to declare it to the world through FB. So, when I saw his status update and consequently picked my jaw up off the floor, I scrambled to get in touch with any of our "joint" friends who might have seen the update. Luckily, many of my friends hadn't seen the post and those that had chose to remain discreet, offering little more than "Congratulations" when they went to my page and found that I hadn't posted the announcement -yet. Also luckily, my boss - whom I hadn't planned to tell for another 6-7 weeks - has extremely limited access to my profile thanks to the block feature and had no idea that my husband had outed my secret to a few hundred friends, relatives, colleagues, grade school acquaintances... (I am lucky to have a great relationship with my boss, but I do try to maintain some work/home divide.) Needless to say, I spent the better part of a day trying to head off any pandemonium about why I didn't tell someone first or in person by calling everyone I could get a hold of before they saw the news. This included my parents, grandparents and best friends, none of whom knew we might be expecting another child. And, when it was time to determine whether we wanted to find out the baby's sex, my husband asked whether it was ok if he posted the news on FB. We did find out the sex, but after a long discussion opted against posting it on FB in order to deliver the news personally to close family/friends who had expressed interest.

I mention this anecdote because it is a perfect reflection of how our off-line identities can and are influenced not only by what we post online about ourselves but what others post about ourselves. The funny thing is that this is an entirely new phenomenon.

As Boyd states, this is the first time in history that young people must publicly define themselves by writing themselves "into being as a precondition of social participation" (p.120). Pre-Internet, I wouldn't have had to worry whether my parents found out that they were going to have another grandchild by logging into their e-mail or FB accounts. Since this is not something that people generally plaster on billboards or mass-produced fliers, the only way they could have found out would have been if a friend or relative who had heard the news accidentally spilled the beans either in a letter or phone call. Since the chances are slim that I would have told anyone before my mother, it would have been virtually impossible for them to hear the news. Now, on the other hand, our baby's identity is being shaped before she even officially enters the world through my and others' use of online media to share news about her growth, antics inside the womb, etc. We haven't posted any sonogram pictures because of skepticism about how others' may use them, but many parents-to-be freely do so, shaping their child's identity even more. Personally, I would love to do a survey 15 to 20 years from now of children whose parents posted their sonogram pictures online - particularly those whose parents posted the "What sex is the baby?" images. Discovering images of what makes you male/female online - and the comments thereafter - has to have at least some impact on a person's ego.

It'll also be interesting to see what my children consider private as they come of age in this new world order where many young people use "'security through obscurity' to achieve privacy." As boyd states, "To exist in mediated contexts, people must engage in explicit acts to write themselves into being. On social network sites, this means creating a profile and fleshing out the fields as an act of self-presentation." So, will my children consider the information I post about them TMI? Or will they mock my privacy settings and openly post even more details about themselves and their own children? Only time will tell, but the fact remains that what someone chooses to reveal about themselves online is not always nearly as telling as what others reveal about them or what they choose to remain hidden from view.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Control is an illusion.

I usually try to start my blog entries with some pithy or cute anecdote of something I've either witnessed or read about in the media. Not today. I really need to just get this out before I'm completely overwhelmed by the task of situating Nakamura and Foucault in the same context.

One of the ideas put forth by Nakamura that I find intriguing is the concept that the Internet "functions as a tourism machine; it reproduces digital images of race as Other" (326). She spends much of the article discussing how the Internet allows this function and coins the term "identity tourism" to explain just how the Net enables users to adopt personae other than their own. What is damaging about this, she argues, is that while people claim to be enriching diversity the Internet by portraying diversity, they're really only fostering the continuation of racial stereotypes that exist off-line.

This can be seen in the following line: "I coined the term 'cybertype' to describe the distinctive ways that the Internet propagates, disseminates, and commodifies images of race and racism...cybertyping is the process by which computer/human interfaces, the dynamics and economics of access, and the means by which users are able to express themselves online interacts with the 'cultural layer' or ideologies regarding race that they bring with them into cyberspace" (318).

As well as this line: "Until we acquire some insight into racial cybertypes on the Internet, we are quite likely to be hoodwinked and bamboozled by the images of race we see on the net, images which bear no more relation to real people of color than minstrel shows do to dignified black people" (331).

This statement reinforces the concept that cybertyping is partly due to the fact that minorities - including women - have limited access to the Internet.

Though access is clearly improving among both minorities and women, the problem remains that most commercial sites tend to view these two groups, in particular, as nothing more than advertising and marketing opportunities. Rather than offering thoughtful discussions, many of these sites focus their attention on driving sales. They aim to convince women and minorities to empty their pocketbooks rather than engage their brains. Even the Oxygen network, a 24-hour cable-TV network geared to for women founded by (among others) Oprah Winfrey , falls victim to this methodology, says Nakamura.

While the network actively bills itself as someplace where women can "take a breath" from the exhausting task of being female (, the channel seems to be little more than a marketing outlet designed to convince women to keep shopping. (Full disclosure: I do not have cable and have never watched the Oxygen network. My observations are based on what I've read, seen and heard about the network through mainstream media organizations and the network's own Web site.) A cursory visit to the site uncovers ads about toothpaste and cell phones alongside video clips highlighting the Bad Girls Club, virtual makeovers and celebrity gossip.

Now, I am not in any way trying to slam the network. It clearly serves an audience and does it well. It wouldn't have remained in existence if it didn't meet those basic qualifications, even with Oprah's backing. My premise and I believe Nakamura's premise, is that the site doesn't do enough to counter the white maleness of the Web.

So, how does this idea that the Internet is controlled by rich, white males relate to Foucault? In more ways than I imagined when I first read the two articles, it turns out. The chief similarity, however, has to do with the concept - whether real or imaginary - of control.

Whereas Nakamura argues that the Internet is largely controlled by white males - Foucault takes a more historical approach to show how many of society's fundamental institutions - prisons, schools, businesses, and other entities that have historically been founded and led by white males - reflect this fascination with control.

He does this by first describing the Panopticon, a circular prison with a surveillance tower at its center. The Panopticon is designed to instill in the prisoners a feeling of constant surveillance. The inmates cannot see who’s watching them from the tower, but they constantly “feel” the presence of authority because of the omnipresent tower - much like I do today when passing through an airport or sitting in a classroom at UTD. I feel that someone is watching my every move, but I have no idea who's doing the watching, when they're watching, or even what they're looking for.

Foucault further explores this idea of an unseen authority when he argues that the Panopticon is designed to empower society. To him, Panopticon's role is not one of submission, but of amplification: "although it arranges power, although it is intended to make it more economic and more effective, it does so not for power itself, not for the immediate salvation of a threatened society; its aim is to strengthen the social forces - to increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality; to increase and multiply" (472).

I'm not sure the idea that "our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance" is empowering. It actually seems a bit creepy to me, very "Big Brotherish."

Going back to Nakamura, though, I think she's right in the sense that "the digital divide is both a result of and a contributor to the practice of racial cybertyping." Since emerging media is all about collaboration, though, I do wonder how this will play out in the next few years as technology becomes more widespread. Will women take the reigns from men? Will African-Americans? Hispanics? Will the groups work together? Will all their efforts ultimately fail because we're culturally programmed to view the Internet as the white man's domain? I, for one, will be watching with open eyes.