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grumpy cat

Some days I read stories about machine learning being deployed to fight crime, exoskeletons to help the paralyzed walk again, or supercomputers modeling new spacecraft, and feel very lucky to be in my current profession. Computers changed the world, and the discipline behind making these computers work is based around the egalitarian concept of tinkering. You need electricity and a little bit of money to get started, true, but the path from wanting to build something useful to doing it has never been more straightforward or shorter. Anyone with enough dedication can make something from scratch, even without formal training, though it’s highly recommended for those who want to become professionals. And then, other days I read about things like Peeple, the app that lets you review other humans, currently valued at $7.6 million, and groan that what people like me do is both helping the world while slowly ruining it by letting awful ideas like this spawn into existence with little effort. Because there’s no way this can possibly end well…

Just consider that out of a hundred people who read something online, just one might respond, or somehow interact with the content. People are not going to go through the effort of creating usernames, passwords, and e-mail or social media verification unless they are really motivated to do so. And when are people most motivated? When they’re upset or are expecting a reward in return for their trouble. Consider that when a business is in the news for an ugly misdeed, its pretty much a given that the first thing to happen to them will be angry torrents of one-star Yelp reviews which the admins of the have to clean up. It’s not going to be any different with people, and whereas businesses are just legal entities that can be re-branded or ran by someone new which would give them the benefit of the doubt, a person is a person, and reviews about him or her will be around for years, no matter whether this person turned a new leaf, or the reviews for past bad behavior are actually legitimate complaints, a misunderstanding, or just malicious, and it’s likely that negativity will quickly trump whatever positive feedback the apps encourage.

As an example, take last year’s flash in the smartphone app pan Lulu, which allowed women to rate men as sexual partners. Negative reviews vastly outnumbered the positive ones, and while the app’s goal may have been helping women to avoid selfish partners and bad dates, it turned into a place for women to complain about men they didn’t like. I’m sure that the same exact app made for men to rate women would have the same results. For Peeple to really be any different would require human beings to fundamentally change how they interact with each other. And to add to the unpleasantness of dealing with judgmental, demanding, and hypersensitive people in the real world, all their unfiltered, nasty remarks now have a megaphone and are searchable by future romantic partners, landlords, and employers who have only these strangers’ opinions as their introduction to you. Have the creators of Peeple or Lulu thought whether it would be better for all of us if someone could type in a name and in an instant see our sexual history, a laundry list of opinions and complaints about us by friends and strangers alike on top of everything that already was made public about our lives through social media, or the potential for abuse?

We live at a time when revenge porn and social media turned leaked sex tapes and nudes into quaint mishaps and you have to develop a strategy to deal with your most intimate details in an enormous data dumpof millions of others’ most intimated details and fantasies. Isn’t that a sign that we’ve taken this social media thing far enough? When banks are mulling the idea of giving you loans based on your friends’ social media profiles, and employers are poking around your tweets and Instagram pictures, do you need to give malicious hackers or exploitative friends an additional way to take advantage of you? Even worse, just think about the fact that a third of all reviews on the web are likely to be fake and imagine a future where you have to buy a positive review bundle to offset nastiness said about you on Peeple, or make up a small horde of really, really satisfied and vocal sexual partners on a Lulu follow-up, which would be inevitable when a people rating app catches on. The bottom line is that apps that let you rate people like products are a textbook example of why being able to do something doesn’t mean you should, without a second thought about the potential consequences of what you’re unleashing on the world.

running from monster

Much like the dudebro after getting turned down by a woman at a party immediately strides to a new target until he finally finds someone willing to entertain him, and should he strike out every time, he’ll start blaming women’s studies classes for his failures, the online ad industry has tried railing against ad blockers which have taken click-through rates to abysmal new lows. But there is a good reason why they’ve become so popular. For one, much like a prototypical ladies’ man playing the numbers game, online advertisers have over-saturated sites so much so, that many web surfers find sites loading much slower and harder to navigate. Stuffing ads into every pixel, modal, and lined up for accidental clicks have made the web a worse place and actually trained web surfers to immediately avoid them. But online ads have become an annoying waste of not just time and bandwidth, they’ve mutated into a way for hackers to infest your computers.

An in-depth story from the UK tech tabloid explains something that security experts have seen a lot in recent years, using interactive ads to load malware onto computers. The idea is usually to load an object that can run a program into your browser’s sandbox, then use an exploit to break out into the system itself, establish a connection to a command and control server, and load the malicious files. And because so many interactive ads are so poorly programmed and bloated in the first place, and the industry is desperate for volume to make up for the microscopic margins, there are no security or quality audits of what gets displayed to you when you visit a page. With no such audit system in sight, your best bet to avoid being infected is to download and enable a decent ad blocker. Which just goes to show that online advertising has taken abject failures to a whole new level when its services aren’t simply ignored, but have to be actively avoided…

[ illustration by Vitaly Alexius ]

reddit aliens

Gawker really has it out for reddit and has for years. Blithely ignoring the many millions of users who’ll browse everything from makeup tips and funny pictures of animals, to relationship advice and startup ideas, engaging in perfectly civil exchanges of stories and perspectives, every post they publish goes after a small, seedy underbelly of the enormous site and pretends that every single subreddit is full of nothing but racists, bigots, misogynists, and trolls. From the very same site which slut-shamed a punchline of a politician it didn’t like, published celebrity revenge porn, and in general behaves like the TMZ of social media, recently came a high and mighty treatise of a man whose poor soul can’t bear to enjoy a million programmers trading tips on a site which can’t shut down recurring white supremacist forums with thousands of subscribers. Right. As all of us who spent any time on the internet know, deleting stuff on the web once means it forever vanished, never to return. It’s not like the white supremacists of reddit just set up new subs and new alts every time they get banned or their subreddits get shut down. Oh wait, they do.

Really, not only does Gawker seem to be willfully unable to understand how large websites for sharing user-generated content work, which is suspicious enough, but it also used this sudden moral epiphany as a prelude to their conspiracy theory about Pao’s outster as CEO. As usual, I wouldn’t trust Nick Denton to report that two plus two still equals four without fact-checking it on my own, so my very strong recommendation would be to take this reddit bashing as simply one more hypocritical salvo at a site he uses as a punching bag and a repository of scandals when his existing well runs dry. Directing users to the very worst of an enormous set of forums just to pretend that the entire community is like that, or prime readers to go into the site looking for an evil bigoted misogynist to fight only sets them up for a terrible experience. Jezebel will tell you a swarm of MRAs trawl the site looking for any excuse to post something awful about women and yes, you’ll find a few every once in a while. What it conveniently omits is that they will quickly get voted down into oblivion, their offending comments requiring action on your part to view.

This pattern applies to homophobes, racists, and every other kind of bigot. Among hundreds of millions of voices, the statistical probability of running into some user with regressive or hateful opinions he or she is proud to voice is high enough to be a certainty. There are simply way too many people surfing the site to avoid it. However, they’re either a punchline or a subject of very vocal derision among the biggest, most trafficked, and most visible subreddits, which is why the average reddit MRA, or white supremacist, or homophobe, has to stick to small communities in which he could preach to his choir. He’ll be run out of any other one. Could reddit delete these evil subreddits then? If they’re aware of what they’re currently being called, yes. But think about it from the following perspective: why should they? They’ll just come back. Hate is like a zombie, its only urge is to perpetuate itself through assaults on the rest of us. Deleting a subreddit that’s dedicated to insulting women like r/redpill is not going to make the misogynists within suddenly have an epiphany and recant their tracts on why women should be abused and manipulated. It will just give them another annoyance in life to blame on women. Same idea with racists.

Sure, we can employ armies of moderators in the Philippines who are getting PTSD from trying to fight humanity’s darkest impulses on the web, and keep hitting the delete button. Then, we’d pat ourselves on the back for creating “safe spaces” with the mentally scarring work of a digital day labor sweatshop that will have to continue in perpetuity to keep them that way, and pretend that after sanitizing a few big sites we now live in a post-racial, gender-equal, sex-positive world where the sun is always shining and the clouds are a fluffy virgin white. This is what Europe has done with its criminal statutes against racist and bigoted speech. It still has just as many racists and bigots as ever, and its policies still encourage subtle but constant segregation between the natives and immigrants advocated by very popular right wing parties. Censoring hate speech is not doing them any favors and neither will it for reddit, or even Americans at large. When we let those with regressive, archaic, and downright repugnant viewpoints speak their minds, they will never be able to claim the mantle of free speech martyrs speaking truth to power. 

They will just self-identify as people with whom we don’t want to associate and let the hate filling their minds speak for itself. It won’t be “safe” or “respectful,” but it will let us know exactly where we stand as a society in regards to race, gender, and sexual attitudes. We can police the most egregious, threatening, and out of control hatred because we do need a mechanism to prevent hate form turning into real world violence, and either censor our way to deluding ourselves into thinking that we’ve done away with bigotry and hate, or choose to face the harsh truth. We can choose to be mad at reddit for not playing whack-a-mole with its worst members, or we can be happy that among the tens of millions of members, these tens of thousands are pariahs whose fanatical hatred is mocked, downvoted, and chased from subreddits they try to infest, limited to the very fringes where they’re constantly ostracized from the outside. And we can even use the hateful content they generate as a perfect counterpoint to the raving ex-girlfriend’s best friend’s cousin’s uncle on Facebook preaching that there’s no such thing as racism anymore with a few links showing racists he claims don’t exist celebrating behaviors he claims are no more…

not simba

You would think that with the advent of ubiquitous internet access across much of the world, we should have done away with many popular urban legends, misconceptions, and outright lies for fun and profit that appeared long ago and were summarily debunked. But sadly, since we gave everyone with internet access the ability to post something to it, many of these misconceptions, myths, and fabrications are still around and going strong, things like the myth that Einstein had once flunked math made up by Ripley’s (he was actually always a math whiz), or that spinach is full of iron made possible by someone not knowing how decimal places work (it’s actually about as good of a source of iron as watermelon), and many others I’m sure you can recall after this little prompt. In this spirit, David McCandless of Information Is Beautiful, who inspired a popular post on exactly how many nukes it will take to end civilization as we know it, created a brief and handy infographic of 52 of the world’s most popular misconceptions and why they’re wrong.

While it’s an interesting exercise in just how much common knowledge is so mistaken, it doesn’t answer the question of why these myths still persist. And there really isn’t one common answer, especially when it comes to religious beliefs and pop history. Sometimes people just won’t look for themselves because they place too much trust in someone’s retelling of a story. Sometimes they’re just too lazy to check the facts. But sometimes they just desperately want to believe the myth they do and will rationalize away any explanation for why it may be wrong. For any skeptic that last reason for the propagation of myths and legends is the hardest to fight because they’re dealing with people who are putting up an active resistance to the facts, so much so that they’ll believe the very opposite of what’s actually happening to avoid having to change their beliefs in the way the world must work. And as skeptics, we have an obligation to object when such willful obstinacy turns into harmful agendas affecting people’s health and legal rights…

[ ullustration by Tsao ]

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.

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…

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 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.

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…

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.

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.