EMAC6300: Code 2.0

I enjoyed reading Code 2.0, mostly because (and I never thought I’d ever hear myself saying this) it was refreshing to hear the consitutional lawyer’s opinions and perspective over a bunch of over-stimulated technologists/academics.  Yes, friends, Hell has just frozen over.

What I really enjoyed the most was his allegation that in our new reality – specifically in cyberspace – we can simply ‘recode’ the situation if we don’t like the laws of the universe we’re operating in.  Especially since Web 2.0 is a highly interdependent and contributory medium (one in which everybody not only brings their own content but also can bring their own programmatic coding which may or may not rely on multiple websites and APIs for functionality), you can literally reprogram the virtual space you are in to obey the laws you want.

I felt like, in the section on translation, he was indicting constitutional “originalists” quite fiercely.

This kind of translation speaks as if it was just carrying over something that has already been said.  It hides the creativity in its act; it feigns a certain polite or respectful deference.  This way of reading the Constitution insists that the important political decision have already been made and all that is required is a kind of technical adjustment.

Constitutional Originalism, popularized in recent years by Justice Scalia and now coopted (at least in part) by conservative political factions, presupposes that one can actually guess what the founder’s original intent was; and lawyers (above all others) should understand the difficulty in proving intent even for the living (no less, the intent people who lived over 200 years ago).

Perhaps I’m revealing my own biases here, but I do believe that laws have to be made given the present reality, and I believe that Lessig makes a nice case as to the perils of too-simply translating old beliefs into the new, virtual world.  As Lessig points out, in the late 18th century, while the founders saw the need to protect citizens from government trespass into their personal property space, they put no such limit on the public space.  And now, the debate continues to rage over whether the Internet is an inherently public or private space, who owns the data that is put thereon, and what means of legal recourse governments and individuals can expect in this new reality.

In the chapter on copyrights, Lessig opines that the pendulum is certainly swinging in favor of copyright holders and the public space perception; that cyberspace is a place to be policed.  I do believe it is, but it is also a place that needs to be policed through the front door.  We need statesmen who will courageously define the virtues and vices of governance in this space, rather than politicians who are bought and sold by corporations and copyright interests – whose primary motivation is control.

As Lessig points out, though, we have seen a change of the “code” since the DMCA was put into place.  The implementation of the law, in some ways, backfired on the corporations and government that ended up implementing it.  We now see that most music providers who used the draconian DRM measures have now backed off and simply watermark purchased files with the licensee’s information.  They have responded to consumer demand for open formats over the control that was promised and delivered through DRM.  I count this up as a win for consumers.

Video is next in this space.  What mp3s were in the late 90’s, videos are today.  Netflix is certainly the first to effectively and massively commoditize this space (sorry Apple), but they are hawking a subscription model rather than a content ownership model.  While this can be a good deal for consumers, it leaves ultimate control in the hands of the corporation, who simply can’t be trusted to make all the right choices that all the consumers will agree with in the long run.  Since consumers aren’t owning the content one has to wonder – how long can they hold a market lead?  Until the network speeds up a bit more (it’s underway) will this finish playing out.

EMAC6300: “Here Comes Everybody”

While reading the Shirky book, I couldn’t help but think back to an episode in my life, about 3 or 4 years ago, when I decided I wanted to get Lasik surgery.  I visited a local doctor’s office (you know, the one who had the overly aggressive advertisements that he had done the most Lasik surgeries of anyone in the world) for their free screening.

To make a long story short, the “free” screening ended up costing me $150 even though I walked out of the office having decided against this particular doctor and the surgery in general given my eyesight and medical history.  When I discovered they had cashed my “deposit” check, I was furious.  My first reaction, other than to complain to my mother (who happened to work for a doctor who did these surgeries), was to register the domain name “butcherbooth.com” and post all about my horrific experience in his “free” screening.  I started working out elaborate plans in my head of how I would rally the Internet to my cause and singlehandedly put this terrible doctor out of business.

My rage calmed, and I actually opted for the more structured, organizationally centered response; documenting the experience and getting my money back through my bank.

Of course, the documentation was riddled with empty threats of reporting them to the Better Business Bureau, the American Medical Association, etc etc etc.

My recollection of this experience came as I read the opening of the book in which someone successfully (maybe too successfully) gets my intended reaction over a misplaced cell phone.  One would think, in that particular situation, that ‘finders keepers’ would be a sensible solution to consoling your feeling of losing a $300 phone.  However, the loser’s friend decided to amp up that feeling to a whole ‘nother level…

Considering the power of the group, and the ability the group had to terrorize the poor girl who ended up with the lost cell phone, Shirkey’s analysis later on struck a chord:

Networked organizations are more resilient as a result of better communication tools and more flexible social structures, but this is as true of terrorist networks or criminal gangs as of Wikipedians or student protestors. (Shirky, 210)

The issues of cyber-bullying quickly come into focus.  Even though it would feel good to disproportionately strike back at the injustice I felt over my lost $150, is it right to destroy a man’s whole practice over it just because I have the technical capability to do so?  Considering these situations and others suggested in the book, it becomes clear that the web’s version of justice is clearly not the same as the “blind justice” ideal our society has tried to achieve with her blindfold and scale.  Justice on the web is never balanced, fairly applied, or monitored in any way.  In fact, you can rarely even see the full picture since factions tend to be navel gazers, infinitely linking to other individuals and opinions that only align with theirs.  Indeed, “fair and balanced” is a pipe dream both in traditional media and new media.

Looking back, I still wonder what the result of my efforts would have been.  The blog was a well-established technology, so it clearly passed the Shirky’s initial test:

Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until tehy get technologically boring.  … It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen (Shirky, 105)

Still, though, I lacked the built-in social ties to bring it completely to fruition.  I suspect it would have taken some pretty active recruitment, as I had trouble even among all my friends of getting equally negative sentiment built up as I had felt.  Most of them had the surgery from him or another doctor with similar results.

Perhaps my expectations were just too high to begin with?

Shirky gets a little problematic to me in a few places where, perhaps due to the copyright date of the text, he neglects to acknowledge the “nowness” of the new social media tools.  Facebook, Twitter, and even Blogs (which he covers in great detail) don’t only follow the “publish, then filter” model, but they also highly favor what is going on now vs what might have happened in the recent past.  The quality of the publication is not longer a question as the “now” tools of the status update tend to favor short burst of real time thought or multimedia presentation (video or photo) of the event itself.  Editorializing is now done in 140 characters or less, lending itself less and less to prose and more and more to poetry.

All in all, though, I like the Shirky book and think it has great coverage of the implications of the changing media landscape.

EMAC 6300: “The Exploit”

“The Exploit” was an interesting extension to last week’s read and discussion on “Connected” reading.

One of the key items that I thought the authors surfaced in discussing ‘nodes’ was that one of the failings of mathematical network theory is that it fails to capture the fact that the network has life!

As the authors state:

Thus, not only do existing network theories exclude the element that makes a network a network (it’s dynamic quality), but they also require that networks exist in relation to fixed, abstract configurations or patterns (either centralized or decentralized, either technical or political), and to specific anthropomorphic actors.

In other words, these networks only really exist in snapshots – moments frozen in time – where the network can be examined in a frozen state.

The nature of the network is that it’s fluid, dynamic, and ever-changing.  This applies to both computer networks and human networks, especially with the proliferation of network-enabled devices and the ubiquity of WiFi and open networks.  My device can ‘attach’ to the network anywhere at any time and thus alter the topology of the network.

At my work, we are creating a product that, as one of its core features, captures a network’s topology.  In using this product, though, I’ve observed what the authors talk about here.  When I view my home network topology, I don’t just get the active view of the network, I also see artifacts of devices that were once part of my network.  Since this product is a network monitor, this is considered a feature of the device – it tracks devices’ entrance and exit from your network.  But, this includes things like friend’s iPods and iPhones and test systems I work with.  It becomes a chore to keep my network topology in a ‘clean’ state, because it’s always being polluted by devices whose presence on the network is intermittent and fleeting.

Expanding this problem out further, imagine how something like this would look to a mobile phone carrier, for example.  Thousands of devices cleanly register or deregister at any time on their mobile networks., and millions are in an active, useful state — but auto switch from physical tower to tower, and may even go completely off the grid at times only to pop up later.  It would be impossible for an at&t or Verizon to map all of its users in any kind of visualized topology, because the rate of change to that topology certainly exceeds any supercomputer’s capability to re-render the topology in any human-understandable format.

Considering this phenomenon reminds me of an atomic law that I remember studying in my undergraduate – one that I can’t recall the name of – but which states that you can never truly know where in the ‘electron cloud’ an electron is at a particular time because you can never slow down the orbit enough to get a glimpse of it without changing the orbit itself (or changing the atom itself).

It also goes back to a more general scientific theory that it is impossible to study something without impacting or influencing the environment the thing you are studying is in.

In other words, there is no real way to freeze time and nature to really capture any of the living ecosystems or networks that surround us, whether they be social or technical.

One other thing that stuck in my craw as I read this book was a brief but mind-bending allegation the authors made on page 22 that some “antiweb” might one day come into existence that could eradicate or reorganize the networks as we currently understand them.  They sounded like they would get to this point later, but I seemed to have missed their point.

Last thing I want to point out is that I think their discussion on protocols is fascinating.  Being a student of the TCP/IP protocol, I think it is an incredibly fascinating protocol in that packet switched networks rarely take the most efficient path through the network.  TCP/IP is not known for efficiency, but it IS known for resiliency.  A TCP packet is rarely truly ‘lost’ in the network because the protocol is a very resilient protocol.  If the packet fails to reach its destination, it will scale back along its path to find a new route to the destination.  I don’t really have a lot to say about it, or what the authors pointed out, except to say it’s always fascinated me!

EMAC 6300: “Connected”

“Connected” is a great overview of network theory through today’s various social networking ‘configurations’.  The authors really do a great job of taking the reader along, referring to studies and statistics, but not getting over-analytical or mired in the details of those studies and statistics.  The information seemed reliable, but still fun to read.  This is a great quality for any book to achieve!

The chapter that stood out to me was about relationships, “Love the One Your With.”  I’ve been building a hypothesis (this goes several years back into my single days) that one of the reasons why young adults are delaying marriage longer than in the past is because the percieved ‘marketplace’ of dating and marital opportunity is becoming more and more limitless.  Because there are more and more vehicles (or as the authors put it, configurations) through which you can expand or alter your social network, you are led to feel dissatisfied and leave your current relationship or network of prospective relationships based on the possibility of reaching your ideal relationship partner through the now limitless opportunity of the World Wide Web.  No longer is someone limited to their reachable geographical configuration; their city, county or state.  Now with online presence, instant communication, and rich media (video and photos), it is possible for someone anywhere in the world to make a connection.

I came to my hypothesis by comparing my parent’s dating environment to my own.  What did they have that I didn’t, and what do I have that they didn’t?  Both my parents and my in-laws met in a small community of people.  My in-laws went to High School together, and my parents were introduced through my father’s sister who lived down the street from my Mom.  These stories seem to fit lock step with the examples in the book.  I met my wife through a friend who invited her to a party at my house (though she maintains that we first met at a church dance a couple of months before).  Either way, it was through a small community.

The authors of this book put a much-needed reality check on my theory.  I still feel it has merits, but they pretty firmly allege that even if I were to radically alter my social network of friends, I would still likely meet my future partner 1 to 2 degrees away from my current closest friends.  They seem to be rooting the present idea of an online connection in the tradition sense of a true person-to-person connection.  The two have no logical difference, and behave the same in their estimation.

So after reading the chapter, I felt like a bit of cold water had been thrown on my theory.  It doesn’t completely disprove my theory, because my theory centers on the person’s perception of what a change in their social network can give them.  I guess I could say that the author’s findings extend my theory to say that even if you change your social network, you would have to go through several iterations of change and extension before you could truly access someone who was more than 2-3 degrees away from you in your original social network.  There continues to be some truth to the theory based on my anecdotal observation of people’s continued dissatisfaction with relationships which, from the outside, look perfectly fine.

So, just for fun, and because I really dig social graphs, I decided to take a look at my updated social graph from Facebook.  I think it’s very interesting how it clusters my friends by interest or background (I clearly can see the ‘phases’ of my life and the different groups of people I’ve been involved with throughout).  I also like exploring who the “bridges” are between various groups, or where various groups have overlap or cross connection.

Week 5: The Work of X in the Age of Y

Honestly, I found the two readings this week to be a bit opaque.  I could clearly see that Nichols’ article was a revisionist approach to the Benjamin article, but I found neither reading very compelling or interesting.  Perhaps I missed a key point of comparison or differentiation between them… I suppose I will find out on Monday.

One thing that did draw my attention, though, was toward the end of the Nichols article where he begins to talk about copyright and then (purposefully or not) ends the paper on genetic engineering.

The sequence of these topics took me back to the documentary film “Food Inc.” which lays a pretty strong case (considered by some to be propaganda that even the Facists would be proud of) for how genetically engineered food could be controlled by vast multinational corporations.  In their particular allegation, Monsanto Inc had developed a “Round-up ready” soybean by genetic alteration.  This gave the plant much better resistance to harsher pesticides.  Great idea, huh? — except the seed is copyrighted.  Farmers must pay Monsanto for every seed they plant with this chemical resistent property.

This doesn’t seem so bad – except when the forces of nature decide that this new, stronger seed can still cross-pollenate with regular soybeans.  Farmers soon saw their natural soybeans being taken over by the Monsanto seed, forcing them to become part of the Monsanto monopoly on Soybean crop.  Rather than producing their own seed, they now must destroy their seed crop and purchase new Monsanto seed each year.

The film is clearly asking the viewer into an awkward position; forcing them to consider their capitalist sympathies (hey, if I were Monsanto, I’d want my money too!) against this ambiguous moral question of whether it’s right to force farmers, seeders, and others into paying a corportation for a naturally occurring phenomenon.  They are taking this naturally occurring phenomenon, the growth and promulgation of a plant, and attempting to monetize and control the process of its dissemination.

For future advancements, in medicine particularly, is it right for corporations to control the “intellectual property” of an advancement or genetic modification, even if it naturally promulgates through a species?

As someone who has struggled with terrible eyesight my entire life, I would be ALL over a proven genetic therapy that could ensure proper development of our retinas, corneas, and lenses – ensuring 20/20 vision.  Surely I would want my children or grandchildren to enjoy the benefits of this type of genetic therapy.  But can a corporation essentially own every descendent of mine because some of their intellectual property will exist in every one of them?  It’s a silppery slope.

Nichols seems to have discovered the peculiarity of various court decisions that have, over time, set and reversed legal positions on these issues of intellectual property and ownership.  He points out a frightening possibility for the future:

Gametes, embryos, and foetuses become, like other forms of engineered intelligence that have gained legal status, babies-to-be, subject now to the rules and procedures of commodity exchange.  Human life, like Baby M herself, becomes in every sense a commodity to be contracted for, subject to to the proprietary control of those who rent the uterus, or the test tube, where such entities undergo gestation.  (Nichols, 43)

Week 4: Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe

For me, the focus of Eisenstein’s book focused on the cultural significance the printing press had on early European culture.  Specifically, one of the things I found most fascinating was her attempt to put the reader into the culture of the day, attempting to recreate or decode some of the attributes of that society and their reactions to the creation of this new invention and the movement from script to print.

As I read part one, the cultural references constantly drew my mind to a comparison with the technology industry of today.  I got pretty excited about writing this blog about the comparisons between this period in Europe and the past 20-40 years here in North America.  Then, by the time I got to the afterword, I was pretty disappointed that I wasn’t the only one with this comparative thought:

The cluster of printing houses in Venice is reminiscent of what happened to “Silicon Valley” — not least because so many “startups” (like recent “dot-coms”) rapidly went bankrupt and closed down.

I guess I’m not the only one to have drawn this distinction, but I did pull out a few interesting references to support my claim.

First, there is some parallel lines in the technology itself.  Just as printing increased the ability to retain data in a society through replication and sheer quantity (as opposed to using a higher quality or longer lasting data recording technique), the information age also relies heavily on data replication to ensure archival.  Technologies like RAID have made fallible, fragile electronic media (hard disks) less of an issue in solving the local archival issue.  More recently, data storage in the cloud (which sounds nebulous, but quickly becomes very concrete when we consider that people with a hosted (gmail, yahoo, etc) email account stores all of their email communication ‘in the cloud’) has increased our footprint and the potential longevity of our digital communication.

This naturally extends to txts, tweets, status updates, blogs, etc.  The Internet features many complex caching systems, and the open web is notoriously copied, recopied, and saved all over itself.  Sites like WayBackMachine show us how even websites have been routinely captured, though this is becoming harder and harder to do as the browser experience turns more toward interactivity and rich media experience rather than static information presentation.

But, going back to culture, Eisenstein painted a very interesting picture of the landscape of the 15th century, in discussing the implications of having this new printing industry cropping up all over Europe, and the people who saw the potential of it.  As I read page 28, I couldn’t help but think of the comparisons with today’s Internet entrepreneurs, many of whose operations reflect this description:

… the master printer himself bridged many worlds.  He was responsible for obtaining money, supplies, and labor, while developing complex production schedules, coping with strikes, trying to estimate book markets, and lining up learned assistants.  … In those places where his enterprise prospered and he achieved a position of influence with fellow townsmen, his workshop became a veritble cultural center attracting local literati and celebrated figures.

The printers became a driving force as they attempted to crack the new, untested market for book production and sales.  As Eisenstein pointed out in the afterward, these printers probably rose and fell as quickly as many of the small ‘dot-com’ companies of the early 2000’s.  The successful, however, ascended to celebrity status (page 33), just as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergei Brin, Mark Zuckerberg and others.

Eisenstein also mentions:

as edicts become more visible, they also become more irrevocable. (page 93)

The printing press created the notion that now something is declared, it would hold government to that declaration.  We see that happening even today as every initiative coming from the White House seems to come with a new .gov website promising full disclosure of the progress of the program.  While the key feature of this initiative is more transparency, it also becomes a declaration of success of failure that is quickly consumed and replicated across digital media.

One final issue I wanted to touch on was of distortion.  Eisenstein brought to my attention something that makes perfect sense, but which I had not thought of before.  Bible texts are believed to have undergone transformation and change through the scribal period.  Whether these were purposeful changes or simply human error, Bible scholars often place the blame of any loss in biblical fidelity on the scribes who copied and compiled it throughout the years.  Eisenstein points out, however, that the early printing press had just as much (if not more) to do with distortion, as it magnified the mistakes made by the still-new technology as it passed from copyist to copyist.  This is most interesting to me because we tend to look at the printing press as the technological salvation of inaccuracy, when actually it holds the power of promulgating, more quickly and more widely, inaccuracies.  Because remember — if it’s in print, it must be true.

Week 1: Plato, Ong, and Stone Readings

What most interested me in this week’s readings was Ong’s firm assertion that “oral literature” was a term that should be abolished from our lexicon, and that there really can be no such thing as “oral literature”.

His assertion that written language is really just a technological instrument to capture oral expression got me thinking more about the technological instruments we use today.  He points out that, when the printing press was invented, people thought that having books would make people more stupid, just as people fear today that calculators, smartphones, and social networks are making people more stupid and less engaged.  Yet, books have become so ingrained into our society (and rightly embraced for centuries by academia, the thought-leaders of society) that no one questions their usefulness, mortality, or place in our society.

Continue reading Week 1: Plato, Ong, and Stone Readings