Tag: internet (page 1 of 2)

Cory Doctorow on Big Tech, monopolies, and decentralisation

I’m not one to watch a 30-minute video, as usually it’s faster and more interesting to read the transcription. I’ll always make an exception, however, for Cory Doctorow who not only speaks almost as fast as I can read, but is so enthusiastic and passionate about his work that it’s a lot more satisfying to see him speak.

You have to watch his keynote at the Decentralized Web Summit last month. It’s not only a history lesson and a warning, but he puts in ways that really make you see what the problem is. Inspiring stuff.

Source: Boing Boing

Internalising the logic of social media

A few days ago, Twitter posted a photo of an early sketch that founder Jack Dorsey made for the initial user interface. It included settings to inform a user’s followers that they might not respond immediately because they were in the part or busy reading.

A day later, an article in The New Yorker about social media used a stark caption for its header image:

Social-media platforms know what you’re seeing, and they know how you acted in the immediate aftermath of seeing it, and they can decide what you will see next.

There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re like slow-boiled frogs when it comes to creeping dystopia. It’s not happening through the totalitarian lens of the 20th century, but instead in a much more problematic way.

One of the more insidious aspects of [social media’s business] model is the extent to which we, as social-media users, replicate its logic at the level of our own activity: we perform market analysis of our own utterances, calculating the reaction a particular post will generate and adjusting our output accordingly. Negative emotions like outrage and contempt and anxiety tend to drive significantly more engagement than positive ones.

No wonder Twitter’s such an angry place these days.

The article quotes James Bridle’s book New Dark Age, a book which is sitting waiting for me on my shelf when I get back home from this work trip.

We find ourselves today connected to vast repositories of knowledge and yet we have not learned to think. In fact, the opposite is true: that which was intended to enlighten the world in practice darkens it. The abundance of information and the plurality of worldviews now accessible to us through the internet are not producing a coherent consensus reality, but one riven by fundamentalist insistence on simplistic narratives, conspiracy theories, and post-factual politics. It is on this contradiction that the idea of a new dark age turns: an age in which the value we have placed upon knowledge is destroyed by the abundance of that profitable commodity, and in which we look about ourselves in search of new ways to understand the world.

This resonates with a quotation I posted to Thought Shrapnel this week from Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed about how we’re actually creating a more conservative environment, despite thinking we’re all ‘non-conformist’.

To be alive and online in our time is to feel at once incensed and stultified by the onrush of information, helpless against the rising tide of bad news and worse opinions. Nobody understands anything: not the global economy governed by the unknowable whims of algorithms, not our increasingly volatile and fragile political systems, not the implications of the impending climate catastrophe that forms the backdrop of it all. We have created a world that defies our capacity to understand it—though not, of course, the capacity of a small number of people to profit from it. Deleting your social-media accounts might be a means of making it more bearable, and even of maintaining your sanity. But one way or another, the world being what it is, we are going to have to learn to live in it.

Last week, at the ALT conference, those in the audience were asked by the speaker to ‘stand up’ if they felt imposter syndrome. I didn’t get to my feet, but it wasn’t an act of arrogance or hubris. I may have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m pretty sure no-one else does either.

Source: The New Yorker

A portal into a decentralised universe

You may recognise Cloudflare’s name from their provision of of ‘snapshots’ of websites that are currently experiencing problems. They do this through what’s called ‘distributed DNS’ which some of the issues around centralisation of the web. I use their 1.1.1.1 DNS service via Blokada on my smartphone to improve speed and privacy.

The ultimate goal, as we seek to move away from proprietary silos run by big tech companies (what I tend to call ‘SaaS with shareholders’), is to re-decentralise the web. I’ve already experimented with this, after speaking at a conference in Barcelona on the subject last October, and experimenting with my own ‘uncensorable’ blog using ZeroNet.

Up to now, however, it hasn’t been easy to jump from the regular ‘ol web (the one you’re used to browsing using https) and the distributed web (DWeb). You need a gateway to use a regular web browser with the DWeb. I set up one of these last year and quickly had to take it down as it was expensive to run!

I’m delighted, therefore, to see that Cloudflare have launched an IPFS gateway. IPFS stands for ‘InterPlanetary File System’ and is a “peer-to-peer hypermedia protocol
to make the web faster, safer, and more open”. It does lots of cool stuff around redundancy and resilience that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say, it’s the future.

Today we’re excited to introduce Cloudflare’s IPFS Gateway, an easy way to access content from the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) that doesn’t require installing and running any special software on your computer. We hope that our gateway, hosted at cloudflare-ipfs.com, will serve as the platform for many new highly-reliable and security-enhanced web applications. The IPFS Gateway is the first product to be released as part of our Distributed Web Gateway project, which will eventually encompass all of our efforts to support new distributed web technologies.

As I mentioned above, one of the issues with having a decentralised blog or website is that people can’t access it on the regular web. This changes that, and hopefully in a way where we don’t just end up with a new type of centralisation:

IPFS gateways are third-party nodes that fetch content from the IPFS network and serve it to you over HTTPS. To use a gateway, you don’t need to download any software or type any code. You simply open up a browser and type in the gateway’s name and the hash of the content you’re looking for, and the gateway will serve the content in your browser.

We’re thinking about how IPFS could be used with the MoodleNet project I’m leading. If we’re building a decentralised resource-centric social network it makes sense for those resources to be accessed in a decentralised way! Developments such as this make that much more likely to happen sometime soon.

Source: Cloudflare blog

(Related: The Guardian on the DWeb, and Fred Wilson’s take on Cloudflare’s IPFS gateway)

Where memes come from

In my TEDx talk six years ago, I explained how the understanding and remixing of memes was a great way to develop digital literacies. At that time, they were beginning to be used in advertisements. Now, as we saw with Brexit and the most recent US Presidential election, they’ve become weaponised.

This article in the MIT Technology Review references one of my favourite websites, knowyourmeme.com, which tracks the origin and influence of various memes across the web. Researchers have taken 700,000 images from this site and used an algorithm to track their spread and development. In addition, they gathered 100 million images from other sources.

Spotting visually similar images is relatively straightforward with a technique known as perceptual hashing, or pHashing. This uses an algorithm to convert an image into a set of vectors that describe it in numbers. Visually similar images have similar sets of vectors or pHashes.

The team let their algorithm loose on a database of over 100 million images gathered from communities known to generate memes, such as Reddit and its subgroup The_Donald, Twitter, 4chan’s politically incorrect forum known as /pol/, and a relatively new social network called Gab that was set up to accommodate users who had been banned from other communities.

Whereas some things ‘go viral’ by accident and catch the original author(s) off-guard, some communities are very good at making memes that spread quickly.

Two relatively small communities stand out as being particularly effective at spreading memes. “We find that /pol/ substantially influences the meme ecosystem by posting a large number of memes, while The Donald is the most efficient community in pushing memes to both fringe and mainstream Web communities,” say Stringhini and co.

They also point out that “/pol/ and Gab share hateful and racist memes at a higher rate than mainstream communities,” including large numbers of anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi memes.

Seemingly neutral memes can also be “weaponized” by mixing them with other messages. For example, the “Pepe the Frog” meme has been used in this way to create politically active, racist, and anti-Semitic messages.

It turns out that, just like in evolutionary biology, creating a large number of variants is likely to lead to an optimal solution for a given environment.

The researchers, who have made their technique available to others to promote further analysis, are even able to throw light on the question of why some memes spread widely while others quickly die away. “One of the key components to ensuring they are disseminated is ensuring that new ‘offspring’ are continuously produced,” they say.

That immediately suggests a strategy for anybody wanting to become more influential: set up a meme factory that produces large numbers of variants of other memes. Every now and again, this process is bound to produce a hit.

For any evolutionary biologist, that may sound familiar. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a process that treats pHashes like genomes and allows them to evolve through mutation, reproduction, and selection.

As the article states, right now it’s humans creating these memes. However, it won’t be long until we have machines doing this automatically. After all, it’s been five years since the controversy about the algorithmically-created “Keep Calm and…” t-shirts for sale on Amazon.

It’s an interesting space to watch, particularly for those interested in digital literacies (and democracy).

Source: MIT Technology Review

The only privacy policy that matters is your own

Dave Pell writes NextDraft, a daily newsletter that’s one of the most popular on the web. I used to subscribe, and it’s undeniably brilliant, but a little US-centric for my liking.

My newsletter, Thought Shrapnel, doesn’t track you. In fact, I have to keep battling MailChimp (the platform I use to send it out) as it thinks I’ve made a mistake. Tracking is so pervasive but I have no need to know exactly how many people clicked on a particular link. It’s an inexact science, anyway.

Pell has written a great post about online privacy:

The story of Cambridge Analytica accessing your personal data on Facebook, supposedly creating a spot-on psychographic profile, and then weaponizing your own personality against you with a series of well-worded messages is now sweeping the media. And it will get louder. And it will pass. And then, I promise, there will be another story about your data being stolen, borrowed, hacked, misused, shared, bought, sold and on and on.

He points out the disconnect between rich people such as Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, going to “great lengths” to protect his privacy, whilst simultaneously depriving Facebook users of theirs.

They are right to want privacy. They are right to want to keep their personal lives walled off from anyone from nosy neighbors to potential thieves to, well, Matt Richtel. They should lock their doors and lock down their information. They are right not to want you to know where they live, with whom they live, or how much they spend. They’re right to want to plug a cork in the social media champagne bottle we’ve shaken up in our blind celebration of glass houses.

They are right not to want to toss the floor planks that represent their last hint of personal privacy into the social media wood chipper. They are right in their unwillingness to give in to the seeming inevitability of the internet sharing machine. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that most of the buttons you press on the web are labeled with the word submit?

A Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) is something that’s been in the news recently as Donald Trump has taken his shady business practices to the whitehouse. Pell notes that the principle behind NDAs is nevertheless sound: you don’t get to divulge my personal details without my permission.

So you should follow their lead. Don’t do what they say. Do what they do. Better yet, do what they NDA.

[…]

There’s a pretty simple rule: never share anything on any site anywhere on the internet regardless of any privacy settings unless you are willing to accept that the data might one day be public.

The only privacy policy that matters is your own.

Source: Dave Pell

The security guide as literary genre

I stumbled across this conference presentation from back in January by Jeffrey Monro, “a doctoral student in English at the University of Maryland, College Park, where [he studies] the textual and material histories of media technologies”.

It’s a short, but very interesting one, taking a step back from the current state of play to ask what we’re actually doing as a society.

Over the past year, in an unsurprising response to a host of new geopolitical realities, we’ve seen a cottage industry of security recommendations pop up in venues as varied as The New York TimesVice, and even Teen Vogue. Together, these recommendations form a standard suite of answers to some of the most messy questions of our digital lives. “How do I stop advertisers from surveilling me?” “How do I protect my internet history from the highest bidder?” And “how do I protect my privacy in the face of an invasive or authoritarian government?”

It’s all very well having a plethora of guides to secure ourselves against digital adversaries, but this isn’t something that we need to really think about in a physical setting within the developed world. When I pop down to the shops, I don’t think about the route I take in case someone robs me at gunpoint.

So Monro is thinking about these security guides as a kind of ‘literary genre’:

I’m less interested in whether or not these tools are effective as such. Rather, I want to ask how these tools in particular orient us toward digital space, engage imaginaries of privacy and security, and structure relationships between users, hackers, governments, infrastructures, or machines themselves? In short: what are we asking for when we construe security as a browser plugin?

There’s a wider issue here about the pace of digital interactions, security theatre, and most of us getting news from an industry hyper-focused on online advertising. A recent article in the New York Times was thought-provoking in that sense, comparing what it’s like going back to (or in some cases, getting for the first time) all of your news from print media.

We live in a digital world where everyone’s seemingly agitated and angry, all of the time:

The increasing popularity of these guides evinces a watchful anxiety permeating even the most benign of online interactions, a paranoia that emerges from an epistemological collapse of the categories of “private” and “public.” These guides offer a way through the wilderness, techniques by which users can harden that private/public boundary.

The problem with this ‘genre’ of security guide, says Monro, is that even the good ones from groups like EFF (of which I’m a member) make you feel like locking down everything. The problem with that, of course, is that it’s very limiting.

Communication, by its very nature, demands some dimension of insecurity, some material vector for possible attack. Communication is always already a vulnerable act. The perfectly secure machine, as Chun notes, would be unusable: it would cease to be a computer at all. We can then only ever approach security asymptotically, always leaving avenues for attack, for it is precisely through those avenues that communication occurs.

I’m a great believer in serendipity, but the problem with that from a technical point of view is that it increases my attack surface. It’s a source of tension that I actually feel most days.

There is no room, or at least less room, in a world of locked-down browsers, encrypted messaging apps, and verified communication for qualities like serendipity or chance encounters. Certainly in a world chock-full with bad actors, I am not arguing for less security, particularly for those of us most vulnerable to attack online… But I have to wonder how our intensive speculative energies, so far directed toward all possibility for attack, might be put to use in imagining a digital world that sees vulnerability as a value.

At the end of the day, this kind of article serves to show just how different our online, digital environment is from our physical reality. It’s a fascinating sideways look, looking at the security guide as a ‘genre’. A recommended read in its entirety — and I really like the look of his blog!

Source: Jeffrey Moro

To lose old styles of reading is to lose a part of ourselves

Sometimes I think we’re living in the end times:

Out for dinner with another writer, I said, “I think I’ve forgotten how to read.”

“Yes!” he replied, pointing his knife. “Everybody has.”

“No, really,” I said. “I mean I actually can’t do it any more.”

He nodded: “Nobody can read like they used to. But nobody wants to talk about it.”

I wrote my doctoral thesis on digital literacies. There was a real sense in the 1990s that reading on screen was very different to reading on paper. We’ve kind of lost that sense of difference, and I think perhaps we need to regain it:

For most of modern life, printed matter was, as the media critic Neil Postman put it, “the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse.” The resonance of printed books – their lineal structure, the demands they make on our attention – touches every corner of the world we’ve inherited. But online life makes me into a different kind of reader – a cynical one. I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link. My attention – and thus my experience – fractures. Online reading is about clicks, and comments, and points. When I take that mindset and try to apply it to a beaten-up paperback, my mind bucks.

We don’t really talk about ‘hypertext’ any more, as it’s almost the default type of text that we read. As such, reading on paper doesn’t really prepare us for it:

For a long time, I convinced myself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate me somehow from our new media climate – that I could keep on reading and writing in the old way because my mind was formed in pre-internet days. But the mind is plastic – and I have changed. I’m not the reader I was.

Me too. I train myself to read longer articles through mechanisms such as writing Thought Shrapnel posts and newsletters each week. But I don’t read like I used to; I read for utility rather than pleasure and just for the sake of it.

The suggestion that, in a few generations, our experience of media will be reinvented shouldn’t surprise us. We should, instead, marvel at the fact we ever read books at all. Great researchers such as Maryanne Wolf and Alison Gopnik remind us that the human brain was never designed to read. Rather, elements of the visual cortex – which evolved for other purposes – were hijacked in order to pull off the trick. The deep reading that a novel demands doesn’t come easy and it was never “natural.” Our default state is, if anything, one of distractedness. The gaze shifts, the attention flits; we scour the environment for clues. (Otherwise, that predator in the shadows might eat us.) How primed are we for distraction? One famous study found humans would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 10 minutes. We disobey those instincts every time we get lost in a book.

It’s funny. We’ve such a connection with books, but for most of human history we’ve done without them:

Literacy has only been common (outside the elite) since the 19th century. And it’s hardly been crystallized since then. Our habits of reading could easily become antiquated. The writer Clay Shirky even suggests that we’ve lately been “emptily praising” Tolstoy and Proust. Those old, solitary experiences with literature were “just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access.” In our online world, we can move on. And our brains – only temporarily hijacked by books – will now be hijacked by whatever comes next.

There’s several theses in all of this around fake news, the role of reading in a democracy, and how information spreads. For now, I continue to be amazed at the power of the web on the fabric of societies.

Source: The Globe and Mail

Why do some things go viral?

I love internet memes and included a few in my TEDx talk a few years ago. The term ‘meme’ comes from Richard Dawkins who coined the term in the 1970s:

But trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist who coined the word “meme” in his classic 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a “hijacking” of the original term. The peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics folded in 2005. “The term has moved away from its theoretical beginnings, and a lot of people don’t know or care about its theoretical use,” philosopher and meme theorist Daniel Dennett told me. What has happened to the idea of the meme, and what does that evolution reveal about its usefulness as a concept?

Memes aren’t things that you necessarily want to find engaging or persuasive. They’re kind of parasitic on the human mind:

Dawkins’ memes include everything from ideas, songs, and religious ideals to pottery fads. Like genes, memes mutate and evolve, competing for a limited resource—namely, our attention. Memes are, in Dawkins’ view, viruses of the mind—infectious. The successful ones grow exponentially, like a super flu. While memes are sometimes malignant (hellfire and faith, for atheist Dawkins), sometimes benign (catchy songs), and sometimes terrible for our genes (abstinence), memes do not have conscious motives. But still, he claims, memes parasitize us and drive us.

Dawkins doesn’t like the use of the word ‘meme’ to refer to what we see on the internet:

According to Dawkins, what sets Internet memes apart is how they are created. “Instead of mutating by random chance before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, Internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity,” he explained in a recent video released by the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. He seems to think that the fact that Internet memes are engineered to go viral, rather than evolving by way of natural selection, is a salient difference that distinguishes from other memes—which is arguable, since what catches fire on the Internet can be as much a product of luck as any unexpected mutation.

So… why should we care?

While entertaining bored office workers seems harmless enough, there is something troubling about a multi-million dollar company using our minds as petri dishes in which to grow its ideas. I began to wonder if Dawkins was right—if the term meme is really being hijacked, rather than mindlessly evolving like bacteria. The idea of memes “forces you to recognize that we humans are not entirely the center of the universe where information is concerned—we’re vehicles and not necessarily in charge,” said James Gleick, author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, when I spoke to him on the phone. “It’s a humbling thing.”

It is indeed a humbling thing, but one that a the study of Philosphy prepares you for, particularly Stoicism. Your mind is the one thing you can control, so be careful out there on the internet, reader.

Source: Nautilus

Privacy-based browser extensions

I visit Product Hunt on a regular basis. While there’s plenty of examples of hyped apps and services that don’t last six months, there’s also some gems in there, especially in the Open Source section!

There’s a Q&A part of the site where this week I unearthed a great thread about privacy-based browser extensions. The top ones were:

The comments and shared experiences are particularly useful. Remember, the argument that you don’t need privacy because you’ve got nothing to hide is like saying you don’t need free speech because you’ve got nothing to say…

Source: Product Hunt

It’s not advertising, it’s statistical behaviour-modification

The rest of this month’s WIRED magazine is full of its usual hubris, but the section on ‘fixing the internet’ is actually pretty good. I particularly like Jaron Lanier’s framing of the problem we’ve got with advertising supporting the online economy:

Something has gone very wrong: it’s the business model. And specifically, it’s what is called advertising. We call it advertising, but that name in itself is misleading. It is really statistical behaviour-modification of the population in a stealthy way. Unlike [traditional] advertising, which works via persuasion, this business model depends on manipulating people’s attention and their perceptions of choice. Every single penny Facebook makes is from doing that and 90 per cent of what Google makes is from doing that. (Only a small minority of the money that Apple, Microsoft and Amazon makes is from doing that, so this should not be taken as a complete indictment of big tech.)

Source: WIRED