Tag: web

xkcd on conversational dynamics

xkcd cartoon

Source: xkcd

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

Every easy thing is hard again

Although he isn’t aware, it was Frank Chimero who came up with the name Thought Shrapnel in a throwaway comment he made on his blog a while back. I immediately registered the domain name.

In this article, a write-up of a talk he’s been giving recently, Chimero talks about getting back into web design after a few years away founding a company.

This past summer, I gave a lecture at a web conference and afterward got into a fascinating conversation with a young digital design student. It was fun to compare where we were in our careers. I had fifteen years of experience designing for web clients, she had one year, and yet some how, we were in the same situation: we enjoyed the work, but were utterly confused and overwhelmed by the rapidly increasing complexity of it all. What the hell happened? (That’s a rhetorical question, of course.)

Look at the image at the top of this post, one that Chimero uses in his talk. He explains:

There are similar examples of the cycle in other parts of how websites get designed and made. Nothing stays settled, so of course a person with one year of experience and one with fifteen years of experience can both be confused. Things are so often only understood by those who are well-positioned in the middle of the current wave of thought. If you’re before the sweet spot in the wave, your inexperience means you know nothing. If you are after, you will know lots of things that aren’t applicable to that particular way of doing things. I don’t bring this up to imply that the young are dumb or that the inexperienced are inept—of course they’re not. But remember: if you stick around in the industry long enough, you’ll get to feel all three situations.

The current way of working, he suggests, may be powerful, but it’s overly-complex for most of his work

It was easy to back away from most of this new stuff when I realized I have alternate ways of managing complexity. Instead of changing my tools or workflow, I change my design. It’s like designing a house so it’s easy to build, instead of setting up cranes typically used for skyscrapers.

Chimero makes an important point about the ‘legibility’ of web projects, a word I’ve also been using recently about my own work. I want to make it as understandable as possible:

Illegibility comes from complexity without clarity. I believe that the legibility of the source is one of the most important properties of the web. It’s the main thing that keeps the door open to independent, unmediated contributions to the network. If you can write markup, you don’t need Medium or Twitter or Instagram (though they’re nice to have). And the best way to help someone write markup is to make sure they can read markup.

He includes a great video showing a real life race between a tortoise and a hare. He points out that the tortoise wins because the hare becomes distracted:

He finishes with some powerful words:

As someone who has decades of experience on the web, I hate to compare myself to the tortoise, but hey, if it fits, it fits. Let’s be more like that tortoise: diligent, direct, and purposeful. The web needs pockets of slowness and thoughtfulness as its reach and power continues to increase. What we depend upon must be properly built and intelligently formed. We need to create space for complexity’s important sibling: nuance. Spaces without nuance tend to gravitate towards stupidity. And as an American, I can tell you, there are no limits to the amount of damage that can be inflicted by that dangerous cocktail of fast-moving-stupid.

Source: Frank Chimero

Decentralisation is the only way to wean people off capitalist social media

Everyone wants ‘decentralisation’ these days, whether it’s the way we make payments, or… well, pretty much anything that can be put on a blockchain.

But what does that actually mean in practice? What, as William James would say, is the ‘cash value’ of decentralisation? This article explores some of that:

Decentralization is a pretty vague buzzword. Vitalik considered its meaning a year ago. In my estimation, it can mean a couple of things:

  1. Abstract principle when analyzing general power structures of any kind: “Political decentralization” means spreading political power among differing entities. “Market decentralization” refers to outcomes being produced without being coordinated by a central authority. It’s a philosophical idea that can be interpreted broadly in a lot of different contexts.
  2. Bitcoin, mostly. Lots of credit for the buzzword’s current popularity traces back to cryptocurrencies and blockchains, and I think the term “decentralization” without context is rightfully claimed by the yescoiners and defer to Vitalik’s interpretation for its meaning. I call this “financial decentralization” in contexts where my definition is dominant.
  3. A second, specific implementation of (1) that I want to talk about.

The author goes on to discuss a specific problem around social networking that decentralisation can solve:

Fundamentally, the problem with the web ecosyste

m is that consumer choice is limited. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other tech giants “own” a large part of the social graph that both powers the core digital connection goodness and sustains the momentum that they will keep owning it, due to something called Metcalfe’s law. If you want to connect to people on the internet, you have to play by their rules.

So what can we do?

A “web decentralized” system looks like thus. You start with bare-bones replicas of social networking, publishing, microblogging, and chatting. You build a small social graph of your friends. This time, the data structures powering these applications live on your computer and are in a format you can easily grok and extend (Sorry, normies, it will be engineers-only for the next year or two).

[…]

The solution is technological standardization. Individuals, mostly engineers, need to expend a lot more effort contributing to the protocols and processes that drive inter-application communication. Your core Facebook identity — your username, your connections, your chat history — should be a universally standardized protocol with a Democracy-scale process for updating and extending it. Crucially, that process needs to be directed outside the direct control of tech companies, who are capitalistically bound to monopolize and direct control back to their domains.

It’s worth quoting the last paragraph:

Ultimately, decentralization is about shaping the the balance of power in digital domains. I for one would not like to wait around while the Tech overlords and Crusty regulators decide what happens with our digital lives. There’s no reason for us to keep listening to either of them. A handful of dedicated engineers, designers, a organizers could implement the alternative today. And that’s what web decentralization is all about.

Source: Clutch of the Dead Hand

Web Trends Map 2018 (or ‘why we can’t have nice things’)

My son, who’s now 11 years old, used to have iA’s Web Trends Map v4 on his wall. It was produced in 2009, when he was two:

iA Web Trends Map 4 (2009)

I used it to explain the web to him, as the subway map was a metaphor he could grasp. I’d wondered why iA hadn’t produced more in subsequent years.

Well, the answer is clear in a recent post:

Don’t get too excited. We don’t have it. We tried. We really tried. Many times. The most important ingredient for a Web Trend Map is missing: The Web. Time to bring some of it back.

Basically, the web has been taken over by capitalist interests:

The Web has lost its spirit. The Web is no longer a distributed Web. It is, ironically, a couple of big tubes that belong to a handful of companies. Mainly Google (search), Facebook (social) and Amazon (e-commerce). There is an impressive Chinese line and there are some local players in Russia, Japan, here and there. Overall it has become monotonous and dull. What can we do?

It’s difficult. Although I support the aims, objectives, and ideals of the IndieWeb, I can’t help but think it’s looking backwards instead of forwards. I’m hoping that newer approaches such as federated social networks, distributed ledgers and databases, and regulation such as GDPR have some impact.

Source: iA

DuckDuckGo moves beyond search

This is excellent news:

Today we’re taking a major step to simplify online privacy with the launch of fully revamped versions of our browser extension and mobile app, now with built-in tracker network blocking, smarter encryption, and, of course, private search – all designed to operate seamlessly together while you search and browse the web. Our updated app and extension are now available across all major platforms – Firefox, Safari, Chrome, iOS, and Android – so that you can easily get all the privacy essentials you need on any device with just one download.

I have a multitude of blockers installed, which makes it difficult to recommend just one to people. Hopefully this will simplify things:

For the last decade, DuckDuckGo has been giving you the ability to search privately, but that privacy was only limited to our search box. Now, when you also use the DuckDuckGo browser extension or mobile app, we will provide you with seamless privacy protection on the websites you visit. Our goal is to expand this privacy protection over time by adding even more privacy features into this single package. While not all privacy protection can be as seamless, the essentials available today and those that we will be adding will go a long way to protecting your privacy online, without compromising your Internet experience.

It looks like the code is all open source, too! 👏 👏 👏

Source: DuckDuckGo blog

The internet needs distributed DNS

This article talks about hyperlinks, because that’s what mainstream audiences understand, but the issue is the internet’s Domain Name System (DNS):

Domain Name System (DNS) servers power every hyperlink. They rapidly translate the text of a dotcom address into numbers that can then pinpoint the root server and map the precise locations of every every web page, every image, video, file — no matter where it is worldwide.

Good DNS services speed up web sites, balance traffic loads and protect against a wide spectrum of cyber threats. Bad DNS makes sites slow and unstable and makes it easy for criminals to change the address of links on a web page to their malware.

Source: ZDNet