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server rack

Yes, I know, it’s been a while since my last post but life has a way of getting in the way of steady, regular blogging. And of course there’s still the work on Project X on the horizon which will affect that happens to Weird Things, but more on that in due time. Today’s topic is one which I heavily debated with myself before addressing because it’s been a near constant drumbeat in the news and the coverage has been almost overwhelmingly tilted towards setting the outrage dial all the way to 11 and tearing the knob off. I’m talking about the family of NSA surveillance programs for monitoring the internet and intercepting immense amounts of traffic and metadata, of course. As the revelations have been dropped on a regular schedule, the outrage keeps getting louder. In the techie media the most prominent reaction is "how could they?" According to online activists, the internet exists for the free exchange of ideas and a way to speak truth to power when need be, so the NSA’s snooping is a violation of the principles on which the internet was built.

Unfortunately, that’s just a soothing fantasy we tell ourselves today. Originally, the internet was developed as a means to exchange information between military researchers and Tor, the go-to tool for at least partial online anonymity (unless you get a nasty virus) was being developed to hide the tell-tale signs of electronic eavesdropping via onion routing by the U.S. Navy until it was spun off by the EFF. And while the web was meant to share scientific data for CERN over a very user unfriendly network at the time, it was given its near-ubiquity by big companies which didn’t adopt the technology and wrote browsers out of the goodness of their heart and desire to make the world into one big, global family, but because they wanted to make money. The internet was built to make classified and complex research easier, tamed for profit, and is delivered via a vast infrastructure worth many billions operated by massive businesses firmly within the grasp of a big government agency. It’s never been meant for world peace, anonymity, and public debate.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we can give political dissidents voices and promote ideas for peace and cooperation across the world at nearly the speed of light. We should be doing as much of that as possible. But my point is that this is not the primary function of the system, even if this is what cyber-anarchists and idealistic start-up owners in the Bay Area tell you. It’s a side-effect. So when massive companies give data flying through the web to spy agencies on request and even accept payment for it, we’re seeing the entities that built the system using it to further their own goals and means, and to comply with orders of governments that have power to bring them down if they want. It’s not fair, but picking a fight with the NSA is kind of like declaring that you’re going to play chicken with a nuclear aircraft carrier while paddling a canoe. At best, they’ll be amused. At worst, they’ll sink you with nary an effort. Wikipedia can encrypt all of its traffic as a form of protest, but a) the NSA really doesn’t care about how many summaries of comic book character plot lines you read, and b) if it suddenly starts caring, it’ll find a way to spy on you. It’s basically the agency’s job, and we’ve known it’s been doing that since 2006.

For all the outrage about the NSA, we need to focus on the most important problems with what’s going on. We have an agency which snoops on everyone and everything, passively storing data to use if you catch their attention and it decides you merit a deep dive into their database that’s holding every significant electronic communication you’ve had for the last decade or so. This is great if you’re trying to catch spies or would-be terrorists (but come on people, more than likely spies based on the infrastructure being brought into focus), but it also runs against the rights to due process and protection from warrantless, suspicionless searches and seizures. Blaming the legal departments of Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo for complying with official orders is useless, and pretending that an information exchange network built to make money and maintained by a consortium of profit-minded groups is somehow a bastion of freedom being corrupted by the evil maws of the U.S. government just seems hopelessly naive. Americans don’t like to think of their country as a global hegemony just doing what global hegemons do and using its might to secure its interests. They like to think of it as having a higher calling. For them, reality bites.

But again the sad truth is that this is exactly what’s going on. While transparency activists loose their fury and anger in the media and on the web, realpolitik is relentlessly brutal, treating entire nations exactly like pawns on a chessboard. For all the whistleblowing of the past five years, not that much of the leaked information was really that shocking. It just confirmed our fears that the world is ran by big egos, cooperation is rare and far between, and that as one nation is aiming to become another global hegemon, the current one is preparing for a siege and quietly readying a vast array of resources to maintain its dominance, if not economic, then military and political. On top of that, rather than being elected or asked to rise into its current position, it chose to police much of the planet and now finds itself stuck where it doesn’t want to be. We know all this and a great deal of this is taught in history class nowadays. We just don’t really want to deal with it and the fits of rage towards corporations and government agencies somehow corrupting the system they built for power and profit seem to be our reaction to having to deal with these fast after the last whistle was blown. Sadly, we don’t get the world we want, we get the one we really build.

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surveillance camera array

On the one hand, I am somewhat surprised by recent revelations about exactly how much we’re being watched on the internet by the NSA. However, the big surprise for me is that they couldn’t get data form Twitter. Considering that it’s building an immense data center in Utah, and works with tech companies on a regular basis, is it really that astonishing that the agency is browsing through our communications metadata on a regular basis? We all suspected this was the case, so if anything the current furor is almost a required reaction of anger and hurt to have what we always thought was happening and didn’t really want to, actually is happening. The question is what to do now, in the PRISM-aware world. Citizens know they’re being caught up in the dragnet when they’re just going about their day, foreign companies are afraid of the NSA spying on them via the advanced cloud technology the United States sells across the globe, and China could sit back and laugh off American reports of its hacking and spying on the web as hypocrisy.

Another fun fact is that Americans are actually split on how they feel about the NSA’s snooping and a majority of 56% says that privacy is an acceptable casualty in trying to catch terrorists. It might also be telling that the split hasn’t changed much since 2006 and that it breaks down by a distinct partisan preference, with liberals and conservatives flip-flopping on the issue when the other party was in the White House. So while the press is incensed and investigative reporters are falling all over themselves to talk about PRISM, the American people are shrugging it off by party affiliation. I would expect everyone to carry on as normal because if Facebook and Google didn’t have a mass exodus of accounts, it’s very unlikely they will. Plus, the NSA isn’t reading all the e-mail in your inbox. It just has a record of you e-mailing someone at a given time and if you are in the United States, your phone number and e-mail should be crossed out in their system, until of course a secret court order grants the analysis access to request the whole e-mail.

Even the slowdown in purchases of American high tech gear is likely to be temporary because much of what we’re hearing from many other countries is an almost mandatory response to the revelations about PRISM. In reality, many of the countries buying these tech products have very extensive spy networks of their own and engage in cyber-espionage on a daily basis. It’s kettle calling the pot black, and it’s likely that the rumors of tech companies giving the NSA back door access into their servers are just not true. There’s a number of ways to supply data to the NSA and a number of ways the NSA could’ve gotten the data itself. I’m not going to speculate how in this post because a) I don’t know the agency’s exact capabilities, b) there are people from both defense contractors and military agencies reading this blog who I’d just annoy with speculating, and c) most of them are probably much worse than having the companies just play ball when a court order comes down and an incredibly powerful agency is knocking on their door.

Now, none of this means this isn’t a big deal. But what it does signal is that the country which is dominating the world in the tech field and serves as the key node in the global communications grid has been crying wolf about cyberwarfare and espionage while actively waging it. We were starting to be sure of this when Stuxnet was discovered, we suspected it even stronger when all of its ingenious siblings like Flame and Duqu floated into the spotlight, we had a good idea that the United State was publicly holding back when reports of its potential in cyberwarfare drills with allied nations started surfacing, and with PRISM, we now know it for a fact. On the one hand, it’s bad news because your privacy is now not only being compromised by bad security or very lax internal policies of web giants, but by the government as well. On the other, we know that we’re hardly defenseless in the cyber realm and will fight and spy right back. Make of these facts what you will. It’s not like we can put this genie back in its virtual bottle anyway…

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map of the web

Plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth has accompanied the mostly closed door ITU sessions in which the fate of the free web is supposedly being decided. The global communications group’s head is worried about stopping cyberwarfare and criminals using spyware to pull off heists. The world’s authoritarians and dictators are asking for less online anonymity and more control over what’s being said on the web. The bureaucrats are asking for more centralized oversight on the international level, believing that U.S.-based ICANN to be the internet’s self-appointed masters, despite the ICANN hosting a global advisory board representing over 100 nations. And none of the parties involved in trying to reshape the internet seem to know what they’re doing, almost as if they believe that the global communication networks is a series of tubes they can re-rout with executive orders served to some nerds with gravity-defying ties and black-rimmed glasses. The truth is that whatever they try to do to tame the internet is almost certainly doomed to fail.

First, as it’s been pointed out several times on this blog, filtering and inspecting data generated by web users is impractical, expensive, and won’t catch what those administering the mechanism are trying to catch. Want to try to deep packet inspect all the traffic coming into an IXP? Best of luck there tiger. You will be looking at oceans of data, much of it containing completely useless information, data about background processes, and encrypted transactions. To find a nebulous target in this torrent of bytes is like standing in front of a tsunami and insisting on extracting just an ounce of water from it, and not just any ounce of water but from droplets that started out as a bit of meltwater flowing into a river across the ocean from you. Other than throttling down much of the web to a screeching halt as you parse petabytes of data per day, you’re going to have to give up on this idea. There’s a reason why dictatorships architect their internet infrastructure to easily cut the cord rather than surgically cut down the troublemakers. They know that trying to root out rebels and activists via deep packet inspection alone simply won’t work.

Secondly, you can demand that people use their real names on the web all you want, but there are tools to get around these requirements. Credentials can be spoofed, stolen, or hijacked by someone who has even a modicum of skill, proxies around the world can obscure your origin on the web, and it takes a very dedicated and expensive effort (like the Great Firewall of China) to even make it challenging to hide who you are online if you really don’t want to be tracked. If I run the Tor browser, disable scripts, cookies, and history, and refresh my identity on a regular basis during a browsing session, whatever sites I’m visiting will think I’m from Poland, or Norway, or the Czech Republic. Likewise, they won’t be able to see where I go since they can’t save cookies on my machine or silently load an app in the background via a hidden iframe since Javascript won’t be enabled. Yes, surfing the web like this is rough, but it does make you a lot harder to identify and find unless you’re already on the authorities’ radar for one thing or another, usually political activism outspoken enough to encourage a malevolent regime’s thugs to pay you a visit.

Finally, ICAAN is indeed powerful, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of internet management. It has a vast international advisory board and it handles top level domains and domain name issues; it’s the concierge for the user- and business-friendly aspect of the web. But without ICAAN, you can still have servers running websites. You might need to enter 74.125.224.72 to get to Google in IPv4 or say, 2001:4a2b:6d4f:8f3f in IPv6 to get there, or set up your own DNS server to do your own DNS resolution rather than rely on a large group of professionals to do it for you, but it can be done. In fact there’s a small number of other DNS root providers who index niche domains or try to circumvent the ICAAN roots for ideological and security reasons, essentially creating what amounts to a competing mini-web. So it’s not as if ICAAN has any real monopoly on how much of the web is wired. Likewise, what would controlling ICAAN do for the world’s paper pushers? Their governments can easily register any top level domain they wish for what amounts to a laughable amount of money for them: $185,000 to start and $25,000 a year to renew.

And all that leaves us with the question of what the ITU is trying to accomplish. If they can’t deep packet inspect the web for safety, force people to use their real names, and force the wasteful and unnecessary experiment of creating a non-U.S. ICANN clone, what’s the point of all the big, dramatic meetings? Well, bureaucrats have meetings. It’s just what they do. Their job is to meet and talk about things, then talk about other times they met to talk about related things. Policy is made either at the blistering pace of a narcoleptic turtle on sodium pentothal or cobbled on the fly when an emergency strikes and new laws have to be enacted quickly to soothe the public or authorize a new course of action. But in the meantime, the bureaucrats meet and talk with little to nothing coming out of the meetings. If anything, this ITU summit looks like paper pushers with a more or less passing idea of what the web is — not the internet mind you, just the web — giving each other their wish lists for what they could do with it. And let’s remember what happens with a lot of wish lists. They get discarded when the wishes actually have to be turned into reality.

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digital cloud

Good stories need conflict, and if you’re going to have conflict, you need a villain. But you don’t always get the right villain in the process, as we can see with the NYT’s scathing article on waste in giant data centers which form the backbone of cloud computing. According to the article, data centers waste between 88% and 94% of all the electricity they consume for idle servers. When they’re going through enough electricity to power a medium sized town, that adds up to a lot of wasted energy, and diesel backups generate quite a bit of pollution on top of that. Much of this article focuses on portraying data centers as lumbering, risk averse giants who either refuse to innovate out of fear alone and have no incentive to reduce their wasteful habits. The real issue, the fact that their end users demand 99.999% uptime and will tear their heads off if their servers are down for any reason at any time, especially during a random traffic surge, is glossed over in just a few brief paragraphs despite being the key to why data centers are so overbuilt.

Here’s a practical example. This blog is hosted by MediaTemple and has recently been using a cloud service to improve performance. Over the last few years, it’s been down five or six times, primarily because database servers went offline or crashed. During those five or six times, this blog was unreachable by readers and its feed was present only in the cache of the syndication company, a cache that refreshes on a fairly frequent basis. This means fewer views because for all intents and purposes, the links leading to Weird Things are now dead. Fewer views means a smaller payout at the end of the month, and when this was a chunk of my income necessary for paying the bills, it was unpleasant to take the hit. Imagine what would’ve happened if right as my latest post got serious momentum on news aggregator sites (once I had a post make the front pages of both Reddit and StumbleUpon and got 25,000 views in two hours), the site went down due to another server error? A major and lucrative spike would’ve been dead in its tracks.

Now, keep in mind that Weird Things is a small site that’s doing between 40,000 to 60,000 or so views per month. What about a site that gets 3 million hits a month? Or 30 million? Or how about the massive news aggregators dealing with hundreds of millions of views in the same time frame and for which being down for an hour means tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue? Data centers are supposed to be Atlases holding up the world of on-demand internet in a broadband era and if they can’t handle the load, they’ll be dead in the water. So what if they wasted 90% of all the energy they consumed? The clients are happy and the income stream continues. They’ll win no awards for turning off a server and taking a minute or two to boot it back up and starting all the instances of the applications it needs to run. Of course each instance takes only a small amount of memory and processing capability even on a heavily used server, so there’s always a viable option of virtualizing servers on a single box to utilize more of the server’s hardware.

If you were to go by the NYT article, you’d think that data centers are avoiding this, but they’re actually trying to virtualize more and more servers. The problem is that virtualization on a scale like this isn’t an easy thing to implement and there’s a number of technical issues that any data center will need to address before going into it full tilt. Considering that each center uses what a professor of mine used to call "their secret sauce," it will need to make sure that any extensive virtualization schemes it wants to deploy won’t interfere with their secret sauce recipe. When we talk about changing how thousands of servers work, we have to accept that it takes a while for a major update like that to be tested and deployed. Is there an element of fear there? Yes. But do you really expect there not to be any when the standards to which these data centers are held are so high? That 99.999% uptime figure allows for 8 hours and 45 minutes of total downtime in an entire year, and a small glitch here or there can easily get the data center to fail the service contract requirements. So while they virtualize, they’re keeping their eye on the money.

But the silver lining here is that once virtualization in data centers becomes the norm, we will be set for a very long period of time in terms of data infrastructure. Very few, if any, additional major data centers will need to be built, and users can continue to send huge files across the web at will just as they do today. If you want to blame anyone for the energy waste in data centers, you have to point the finger squarely at consumers with extremely high demands. They’re the ones for whom these centers are built and they’re the ones who will bankrupt a data center should an outage major enough to affect their end of month metrics happen. This, by the way, includes us, the typical internet users as well. Our e-mails, documents, videos, IM transcripts, and backups in case our computers break or get stolen all have to be housed somewhere and all these wasteful data centers is where they end up. After all, the cloud really is just huge clusters of hard drives filled to the brim with stuff we may well have forgotten by now alongside the e-mails we read last night and the Facebook posts we made last week…

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wired cyborg girl

Unlike most skeptical podcasts, Skeptically Speaking isn’t new to tech skepticism and I’m glad to say that I played my small part in that, doing a segment on Kurzweilian Singularitarianism, and participating in a two-part debate on transhumanism thanks to hostess Desiree Schell’s interest in all things high tech. Last week, the show returned to the teach arena with tech writer Michael Chorost, whose work advocates the slow but seemingly inevitable emergence of a collective human hivemind connected over the web thanks to various computer implants and mind-reading devices. Unlike many tech writers who very casually talk about how the future will see cybernetic enhancements as commonplace, Chorost actually has some firsthand experience with this field. He has cochlear implants, and for his project, he interviewed experts who know a thing or two about how to put a chip into a human. As a result, his predictions when it comes to devices that may go into our brains or be worn on our bodies are uncannily plausible, if not already workable. However, the idea that we can integrate into a seamless collective consciousness is simply way too utopian to seriously consider. Why? Well, here’s a list…

Facebook would now require surgery. Certainly a device to tell your friends when you’re having lunch or post holographic pictures of yourself having a good time with just a simple thought sounds nifty. And sure, we could run some electrodes to your speech motor cortex and wire a few more to another cortex that would control when a picture gets taken, then send the request to your smartphone with the update’s contents. But are you really willing to undergo very invasive elective surgery? Not only that, but it will also be expensive, risky (it is your brain after all), and you can bet your retirement fund that insurers will do whatever they can not to cover this sort of medical procedure. Yes, this idea is far from new. Intel has been interested in hooking users up to all sorts of home electronics for years and computer scientist Kevin Warwick used himself as an experimental subject to prove the idea to be workable with a few simple implants. But devices designed to truly read your mind are relegated to Brain Gate which is intended for patients with severe brain or spinal cord damage for whom the risk of surgery is more than worth it. For them it’s a criticial quality of life issue that makes their existence more bearable. For a healthy social media power user? Probably not so much.

Who do you want in your hivemind? Humans may have evolved as social mammals whose psyche can suffer if they’re cut off from social interaction for a long period of time, but they also have strong opinions and ideas, and tend to separate into groups, cultures, and cliques. And to be really blunt about it, some people are really stupid and really damn obnoxious, which is why YouTube and Yahoo comment sections are widely considered places where rational discourse online goes to die a horrible death by a thousand partisan insults and racial slurs. So let’s say that somehow, there’s a way to inject you with nanobots that connect your mind to the internet via wi-fi. And you now have a few million YouTubers and the lowest rated Yahoo commenters screaming into your skull. Sounds about as fun as implosive diharrea, you say? Well, welcome to the hivemind. As a blogger, I already get the periodic UFO-obsessed lunatics hollering at me and if you excuse me, I wouldn’t necessarily like them to verbally vomit directly into my brain. Sure, I suppose we could create a way to block out those with whom you don’t want to interact but we’ll still have to start with them being able to dive into our minds first, otherwise, we’re sort of negating the entire point of having an open hivemind.

Say goodbye to the little white lies. While there are countless studies showing that humans lie to each other all the time, you probably don’t need to see all of them to know that’s true. And it’s not just the big lies like “the mortgage market is just fine!” or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!” or “I am not a crook.” No, a lot of the lies we tell are really subtle and intended not to hurt each others’ feelings. Remember when you told her that she looked great in the tight-fitting dress? Or assured him that he could still party like he was in college despite the extra 20 years and 30 pounds? Or told you boss that you like his wacky golfing tie? Yeah, say goodbye to all that because people will now be able to know exactly what you’re thinking. She’ll know that she fills out her dress like a stuffed sausage, he’s way past his party prime, and that you think your boss’ ties are annoying and tacky. After all, they have access to your mind and if you share too much, maybe without realizing to filter your thoughts a little better, any private discussion or even emotional reaction can be sensed and registered. Even with great caution and really good self-censorship you’re still vulnerable to being found out because your mind is online and someone can simply hack his or her way into it to figure out what you really think for personal reasons or to collect blackmail material. Which brings us to…

Expect horrific security breaches. Some of the most depressing people in the IT industry are security consultants. Want to feel like a virtual nudist surrounded by peeping toms who aim their high powered telescopes at you every minute of every day? Just chat with them for a minute or two. Among all sorts of scary things, you’ll find that internet security is basically a joke, usually because it’s there as an afterthought, a quick, easily hackable hash of a password or a cheap SSL cert. Bad design, bugs, lack of foresight, and out of date software opens vulnerabilities and there are a lot of people who’d like to exploit them for fun and profit. People already share way, way too much on social media sites, so much so that the security paradigm of asking personal questions is virtually useless, and they have to use keyboards and click buttons. Imagine how much over-sharing there will be if you’re interfacing with the web via thought! Mind-hackers could get your PIN, the combination to your safes, your banking and work passwords, any useful things you may know, and juicy blackmail fuel mentioned in the previous section. Have you read about “sextortionists” blackmailing victims into sending them nude pics and sexual videos? Now imagine them hacking into your augmented brain, tapping into your optic nerves and watching you have sex or masturbate in the shower while you think you’re alone. Feel free to shudder. I’m doing that right now. The shuddering, the shuddering. Perverts…

Now, all in all, someone actually hijacking your brain isn’t very likely because the implants would probably be embedded in motor cortexes and trying to create some feedback would cause a twitch or a headache rather than allow for actual mind control. But is that sole protection you’ll have from the internet trolls messing with your mind, people reading into your thoughts to find out what you really think, opening gateways to let strangers steal your secrets, and opening yourself up for all sorts of embarrassing and mentally damaging security breaches, worth it? Despite the tech luminaries of the world preaching the Gospel of the Coming Homo Interneticus, we’re just not there as a society and it’s very likely that we may never be. Yes, more of us are now communicating with each other via the web than ever and more and more implants are coming in the near future. But we need our security, our alone time, and most implants will be medical in nature and intended to swap out bad joints, failing organs, or give mobility to those paralyzed by strokes or injury. Making sure that you can think your way to a Twitter update is a very, very low priority for the vast majority of computer scientists and doctors. And when you consider the downsides of sharing your mind with the entire world, that’s probably a good thing.

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robotic death

The gospel of the web rotting our brains, as per Nicholas Carr, has really been making the rounds and the latest iteration of it is seen in IEEE Spectrum — the product of a tech VC’s regurgitation of every major trope on the topic. From the evils of multitasking to the compulsive checking of our inboxes and Facebook statues, William Davidow has been playing Pokemon with the old fogey squad’s clichés and managed to catch most of them. In fact, the only accusation I’m missing from my technophile bingo card is the appeal to our kids’ supposedly stunted attention spans due to an overdose on social media and entertainment sites even though the reason why they fidget in class and spend a lot of time on the computer is our insistence on boring them half to death rather that encouraging them to learn and experiment on their own to find what they really want to do with their lives. But the problems in applying 1950s pedagogy to the modern post-industrial world are a separate topic. Instead, let me tackle the idea that our electronics and their use are somehow dangerous.

Basically the claim from those who Davidow quotes is that a) prolonged use of electronics rewires our brains and compulsive use of the web triggers the same sort of physiological response as substance abuse, and b) electronics encourage us to multitask and we’re really bad at it so we work more, get less done, and feel more stressed and overwhelmed. We’ll get back to the first point in a moment because it’s quite debatable, but the second point really is a serious problem that does need a little attention and analysis. Overall, it’s true that humans are really bad at multitasking and we actually tend to get worse at it the more we practice it. And it’s also a fact that we’re asked to multitask more and more in life and at work and we’re overwhelmed with the results of making ourselves constantly available and stretching ourselves thin. Going even further, I’ll concede that computers and smartphones enable us to multitask more and more, and that we use them as enablers in our overload. But whereas Davidow is happy with leaving the web as the culprit in this problem, the real problem lies with us, the humans.

We don’t have to answer every phone call, check every text, update Twitter as often as we do, or spend as much time near our computers as we actually do. We choose to do it anyway and the companies that ask us to do ten things at once at work don’t realize how unproductive it makes their employees. How couldn’t they know in today’s data-driven, dashboard-infused business environment? Because they rarely if ever test what would happen if they focused on just one job at a time. Having worked in a company where the thought of turning off one’s Blackberry was considered blasphemy worthy of an inquisition by the management and spending time in others were being so busy you barely had time to breathe in was a badge of honor, I’m having a lot of trouble picturing a CEO saying that the company needs to cut down on e-mails, calls, and reshuffle employee workloads to cut down on multitasking because in today’s business orthodoxy this is the equivalent of saying that Earth is unlikely to be the only habitable world in the universe in the 1600s. The facts are on the contrarians’ side but no one wants to listen to them.

And this leads us back to the first broad point from Davidow and those in his camp. It’s not the fault of the technology for making our lives rotate around electronics and the web, but our own poor self-control. The only technical solution would be to build new phones and computers that act like nannies and tell you how much to work on at the same time, how many calls to take and when, and when you should respond to texts. I’m sure these hypothetical devices will also object to being lodged deep in the brains of the company executives who decide to force them on the public which will no doubt be furious that their electronics will now be their surrogate strict parents. A much more practical way to tackle this is to let people figure out that they’re not being more productive if they take on ten obligations at once, a concept that those busy warning us about the big dangers of technology use don’t even seem to consider. As someone who actually makes things for the technologies squarely in their sights, I trust my users to determine when enough is enough for them and I’m not going to lament the current state of affairs in the wired world as if people don’t have the willpower to put down the smartphone or step away from the computer when they’re feeling tired and overwhelmed.

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When you’re a professional "technologist," as poly sci majors like to call engineers and scientists, it’s awfully easy to develop a sort of messiah complex. Since you’re used to coming up with solutions to problems, every problem out there looks solvable and all you need is to have people do what you tell them to do so they could solve whatever problem they’re having under your sage guidance. We know that doesn’t work in the real world because a) humans are not always rational beings, b) those who are rational are often faced with a far more complex decision-making calculus than technocrats envision while making their grand designs, and c) new technology is not always a panacea and rather than solving the problems, be a half-measure or make things worse with the trade-offs its implementation will entail or mistakes in its design. But surely, when it comes to making software, most of these restrictions disappear, right? After all, code is just chunks of logic doing what you tell them to do, so couldn’t you go forth and implement your grand vision more or less as you wish?

Actually, no, not really, and a story of a dead teach company written back in the era when the web was still just a new cool thing rather than an ubiquitous necessity for daily life in the post-industrial world, the year 1995, is a perfect example of why a fanatical messianic vision is a terrible place to start a project. Much of the tale focuses on Ted Nelson, an eccentric technology evangelist who coined the idea of hypertext, the backbone of the modern web that gives you the ability to click on links and follow ideas as they spread across the world, in the 1960s. With no web on the horizon and the internet being a novelty in a DARPA-funded lab, he imagined a massively distributed application that would manage all of human knowledge and content he called Xanadu, writing thesis after thesis on how hypertext would change the world. And to be perfectly fair, it did. He saw the potential for electronic organization of content long before many others, and we could arguably credit him with spreading concepts for the rudimentary web, and trying to develop one of the first SOA architectures. But all of Nelson’s grand ideas had been implemented by others, usually with very little or no direct input from him, not because these ideas were stolen mind you, but because Nelson failed to make Xanadu work for 40 years.

Today we have large parts of what was meant to be Xanadu in social media, web-based apps that allow users to collaborate and revise their ideas while tracking every change, hyperlinks, and cloud services, all of which can now work in concert to preserve and index text, image, and video content for many years. The designs floating around depict things similar to Microsoft Office and Google Docs in their execution with an unstructured NoSQL database accessible by a RESTful service. It’s hardly innovative now, when such things are a dime a dozen, but ideas like this were certainly a radical novelty in 1970s and 80s, when Xanadu had its day in the sun. Maybe if it were shipped on time, it would’ve become the web we use today because it has the same functionality and the same features, but Nelson’s penchant for giant, rambling, passionate treatises on his visions of the future of technology and human society started Xanadu off with a major handicap. He saw a lot of potential for his product, which is of course a positive, but he went so overboard with it that he attracted a small sect of converts to his vision rather than a professional team that would build a product he could slowly but surely expand into the grand, sweeping Omni-App that he wanted Xanadu to be. Instead, they tried to turn the grand vision into a single, self-contained product they said would completely change the world.

Is it really surprising that a project advocated by an IT philosopher who wrote books that seem like renditions of metaphysical treatises found peppered throughout in The Illuminatus Trilogy, but composed earnestly and with Xanadu taking the role of the ancient secrets empowering human transcendence, were ignored by many would-be backers? It’s not that they "didn’t get it," it’s that they didn’t see a path from grand ideas to execution, especially for something so grand and so complex, or examples of practical use, just a lot of utopianism that so permeates the technology industry. And I should also point out that Xanadu was based on a concept that would’ve made it a nightmare; the notion of transclusion, a link to an original block of content in all future data which would keep this information from mutating and enable Xanadu to charge users fees for using the data that was included in their document. I can only imagine how many millions of dollars I would’ve had to spend on my blog were it composed using Xanadu’s transclusion system. Every hyperlink, every image, every quote would carry a fee because it would reference the One and Only True Copy of The Content, to nickel and dime those who use it to death. It’s like RIAA’s and every copyright and patent troll’s wet dream come true. One on a massive scale, it would strangle innovation with computer, not help promote exchanges of ideas.

If this is the utopian vision that Nelson and his fellow sectarians saw; an enormous database holding all the bits of human knowledge in electronic form, charging a fee for every attempt to build on previous work, or cite, or modification, or critique, or praise, thank the FSM’s noodly appendage for Wikipedia. Did they simply not grasp the lifecycle of information? Did they not understand that they created a recipe for the kind of educational disparity that would make Medieval Europe look democratic and fair by comparison? Perhaps it’s a good thing that the end of Xanadu was pretty much certain and it was only by the raw tenacity of a handful of individuals, literally, that this concept endured in one form or another for more than four decades, finally going out with a whimper by the end of 2007 or thereabouts, when it had nothing new to offer? One wonders if Nelson would defend the project with the same zeal as he denounced the story of his failure, but I’m thinking that he’s more into new manifestos than trying to do what would now be the equivalent of reinventing the wheel, still oblivious to why a perfectly good idea, or at least what he thought was a perfectly good idea, came undone.

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According to a piece in NYT, a company called Acxiom is giving the new NSA’s data mining effort a run for its money already; it’s just using its vast storehouses of data on your age, gender, surfing habits, and purchases online to serve you ads and sells this information to marketers in the form of vast databases. From what we’re told by articles like this, companies like Acxiom pose a major threat to your privacy and may be using data that isn’t actually representative of who you are without telling you what data they’re actually collecting, which gives you no chance to fix their mistakes. That would be terrible if Acxiom’s refined cold reading of you was used by government agencies or lenders, and played in important part in decisions like whether you can buy a house, or take a vacation. But it doesn’t, and all your corrections to Acxiom’s data would do is to help marketers target their ads more to your liking, which actually fits with the concept of permission marketing, and could benefit you in the short run. So should you really panic because marketers are watching you, as the NYT suggests?

Well, it’s certainly true that there are companies that aggressively track you online to serve ad after ad when you’re browsing the web. It’s how social media sites try to make money and they charge clients a premium for the promise of turning the typical, more or less scattershot approaches of plastering ads into a surgical strike that will dramatically boost a company’s odds of making a sale. But were you to ask a company other that isn’t a social media site developer that makes money from games or apps running on a particular platform exactly how many sales it gets from social media advertising, you’ll probably get a rather vague answer because it’s not sure. It could tell you who clicked through from their Facebook page or a particular tweet, as long as it was clicked in a browser rather than a client, and made a purchase. Measuring how many people learned about a particular company and later decided to purchase its offerings is a far more difficult affair. Likewise, unless a direct trace between a social media profile and an online shopping cart exists, the demographics of the buyer are usually a best guess based on their initial entry point into the site. And all this is assuming that the IP was not a gateway hundreds of miles away from the buyer and the social media profiles are absolutely honest.

When you really get down to it, companies like Acxiom are offering what amount to hunches about a very, very large pool of computer created educated guesses they hope is big enough to homogenize all the data points in their 70 tranches of typical consumers enough to present a passable target market profile. A lot of the data they have on you may come close to giving a marketer a decent idea of who you are and will ultimately end up in putting you on a list to get a coupon in the mail or an ad when you surf the web, a list curated by a computer and rarely inspected by a human. So again, what’s all the hubbub about the equivalent of watching you shop, writing down what you seem to be doing, trying to generalize it, and selling the data so you get more ads? An ad blocker for your browser would basically neutralize the Acxiom online business model and if you do what I do with junk mail, you’ll just toss the mailers into the nearest trash can and that’s that. Well, summer is rather slow for a lot of major news agencies because all the news makers are mid-training, mid-vacation, mid-deal, or mid-filming, so the news they can report aren’t being made as actively as they usually are. That means we get scandals and sensationalism as filler, according to the latest media studies, and these kinds of articles are just the sort of sensationalistic filler that brings in page views absent a major scandal.

You can tell that the threat isn’t exactly of the life-altering variety because the majority of the article laments the potential effects of not getting an offer because you’ve been misfiled into the "probable deadbeat" category, or as marketer say, slag. Or that some bigoted business owner could discriminate by abusing Acxiom’s data on the ethnic makeup of particular areas and you could be racially mislabeled in their system. Do you really think that a business would refuse your money if the card goes through or the check doesn’t bounce? Or that there would be no other way for a bigot to deny service to customers he hates because of their religion or skin color than by spending thousands of dollars on demographic databases? What’s the worst that comes from a very cursory survey of your surfing habits? Better ads, more accurate recommendations? People like those! Once you find a good way to deal with the idea of a computer following your clicks and start requiring that a service like this works on an opt-in basis rather than the current opt-out-if-you-don’t-like-it idea, you can really use it to your advantage. If companies like Acxiom are really the privacy-encroaching boogeymen that the NYT wants to present them, then these monsters are toothless, always a tad confused, and instead of kidnapping you, they would just try to offer you stuff that you might actually want to buy. So why be scared of them?

[ illustration from a Peugeot ad ]

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Professional futurist Ayesha Khanna is someone you’ve never seen called out by name on this blog, but she’s as devoted to the doctrine of techno-utopianism as any Kurzwelian and advocates the idea that not only would embracing new technology change our lives forever, but it would be almost inevitable for the better. She is very much from the other extreme I mentioned in my post about technophobes, prophesying a world in which all our experiences are both real and virtual, and we’ll find an almost spiritual connection with each other when we embrace a three-way merger between flesh, machine, and digital content. But while it may be fun to dream of harnessing the power of the web to live several simultaneous lives and retreat into a virtual world when we get overwhelmed with the physical one, the end users of the products designed to make this happen aren’t in a hurry to use them, considering the countless supposedly world-changing technologies that never managed to get traction. Why simulate the real world, they usually ask, when we can do something real instead?

Were you to browse some of the heady promises being made in the 1990s, you’d see promises of our world being completely digitized for our convenience. Groceries would be delivered right to our doors with a click of our mice, telecommuting would become the default way to work and we’d carry out our work days not in rows of gray cubicles ugly as sin, but the local coffee shop or on our couches, and brick and mortar malls would be a thing of the past, made obsolete by e-commerce. Even such basics as sex could be fulfilled with some very unique devices we could plug into a USB port, devices that Khanna describes in great detail as evidence that we’re on the verge of permanently plugging into the web for everything we need. In reality, we still go to a local market ourselves to buy food, telecommuting is not nearly as common as we’ve been told it would be since a company does need to have people in the office, shopping malls are still in business, and while online dating and hookup sites have become commonplace after having washed off their stigma of only being needed by a lonely bunch of nerds, we’re using these sites to make dating and sex easier, not as substitutes for them.

Despite the praise Khanna lavishes on all sorts of high tech sex toys, the fact of the matter is that they’re really just high tech sex toys and a surrogate for actual human interaction is a much more complicated question than what technologies are on the market today. Same thing with virtual lives. We’ve already discussed the problems of living in a virtual world, one of the main ones being our need to separate reality from fiction and dealing with the cognitive dissonances that result from these attempts. We haven’t really discussed how we’d ever be able to set up a totally immersive virtual world because the premise was purely hypothetical, but now, when we’re being told that this complete immersion is our goal, we should consider that living in a completely virtual world the way Khanna imagines will only happen with implantable computers and direct interfaces with the brain. How committed would you be to World Of Warcraft or any other immersive virtual environment if you have to undergo delicate and invasive surgery to interact with it? Until we have neurosurgery being done by an injection of self-assembling nanobots, I’m just not seeing a lot of volunteers for this degree of immersion.

Even more fundamentally, techno-utopians who breathlessly talk about how much time we spend online and how close we are to our smartphones are confusing our now habitual reliance on a communication tool with the urge to live in a completely virtual world, concepts that have little in common with each other. Instead of an all-consuming retreat into what’s happening on our computer screens, people are using social media to stay in touch with friends and organize outings, vacations, and meetups. They’re not, as many of those who simply don’t understand how this technology works or how it’s really used, substituting social media sites for all real world communication. They’re simply finding new ways to communicate and social media often presents the most convenient platform for communication. Why even bother sending e-mail when you have IM and much of what you get in your inbox nowadays are newsletters, messages from work, and whatever spam that wiggled past your filters? Why call and leave messages when you can text a short notification or ask a quick question, using your and your contacts’ time more efficiently? Granted, some people go overboard by texting and IM-ing what would better be communicated via phone or in person, but I think my point is still valid.

The bottom line is that we use the web when we find it convenient, when it helps us get things done faster, or when we want to entertain ourselves. It doesn’t follow that we’re somehow so enmeshed with our computers and social media sites or MMORPGs that we want to live in them and trade in our physical, biological lives in meat space for virtual or mechanical surrogates. Humans, by in large, don’t like to be hermits and even some of the most introverted people you’ll ever meet have real world friends with whom they like to spend time. Yes, they may not go out to a bar or a nightclub and spend quiet nights at home watching movies together, but this is still a far cry from outsourcing all contact with other humans, be it casual or sexual, to a computer. Socially, we found a way to organize our lives. Now, the goal is to digitally organize our professional lives. Beyond that, I’d posit that we’ll just be looking for more efficiency rather than wondering what it will take to permanently wire ourselves to our machines so we can live out our lives electronically, like proto-comic book supervillains who take to the virtual realm because their bodies are either unreliable or essentially obsolete…

[ illustration by Roger Dean ]

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What are the three big things in new media right now? The first is starting a web series. The second is crowd- funded media projects. And the third is serialized sci-fi. Why do I bring this up? As it just so happens, Damian Dydyn, a reader who’s been here for years and regularly contributed in the comments section, and his partner in writing and production, Brian Trent, are combining the aforementioned trends into a very interesting project called Selene Hollow. It’s a web miniseries about a journalist named Byron who moves to a small town in the middle of nowhere called, you guessed it, Selene Hollow, to write his first novel and finds that his new home doesn’t strictly exist in the current time period or maybe even this reality for this matter. There are some notes of H.P. Lovecraft in there, stylized and updated for modern times and featuring a cast of pretty crazy characters which, as I’m sure you know, means there’s a very high potential for some very entertaining moments.

So check out a little glimpse into the crazy world of Selene Hollow, check out the project site, or pitch in over at the series’ Kickstarter page. The pilot is currently in post-production and Damian and Brian hope to raise enough to fund another eight episodes, each with a runtime of 4 to 6 minutes. Having shot and edited my fair share of videos and short vignettes back in what feels like another life by now — with its share of crazy stories two of which involved a few members of the Church of Satan — I know that something as ambitious as a web series is going to take a lot of time and effort, but if you genuinely believe in your story and your characters, all that time and effort will be worth it, and wish the Selene Hollow crew the best of luck. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking towards seeing the pilot and encourage you to sign up for updates on the project, and keep an eye out for the first episode when it hits YouTube, which, from what I understand, should happen sooner than later…

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