Tag: web (page 1 of 2)

Why the internet is less weird these days

I can remember sneakily accessing the web when I was about fifteen. It was a pretty crazy place, the likes of which you only really see these days in the far-flung corners of the regular internet or on the dark web.

Back then, there were conspiracy theories, there was porn, and there was all kinds of weirdness and wonderfulness that I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced growing up in a northern mining town. Some of it may have been inappropriate, but in the main it opened my eyes to the wider world.

In this Engadget article, Violet Blue points out that the demise of the open web means we’ve also lost meaningful free speech:

It’s critical… to understand that apps won, and the open internet lost. In 2013, most users accessing the internet went to mobile and stayed that way. People don’t actually browse the internet anymore, and we are in a free-speech nightmare.

Because of Steve Jobs, adult and sex apps are super-banned from Apple’s conservative walled garden. This, combined with Google’s censorious push to purge its Play Store of sex has quietly, insidiously formed a censored duopoly controlled by two companies that make Morality in Media very, very happy. Facebook, even though technically a darknet, rounded it out.

A very real problem for society at the moment is that we simultaneously want to encourage free-thinking and diversity while at the same time protecting people from distasteful content. I’m not sure what the answer is, but outsourcing the decision to tech companies probably isn’t the answer.

In 1997, Ann Powers wrote an essay called “In Defense of Nasty Art.” It took progressives to task for not defending rap music because it was “obscene” and sexually graphic. Powers puts it mildly when she states, “Their apprehension makes the fight to preserve freedom of expression seem hollow.” This is an old problem. So it’s no surprise that the same websites forbidding, banning, and blocking “sexually suggestive” art content also claim to care about free speech.

As a parent of a 12 year-old boy and eight year-old girl, I check the PEGI age ratings for the games they play. I also trust Common Sense Media to tell me about the content of films they want to watch, and I’m careful about what they can and can’t access on the web.

Violet Blue’s article is a short one, so focuses on the tech companies, but the real issue here is one level down. The problem is neoliberalism. As Byung-Chul Han comments in Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, which I’m reading at the moment:

Neoliberalism represents a highly efficient, indeed an intelligent, system for exploiting freedom. Everything that belongs to practices and expressive forms of liberty –emotion, play and communication –comes to be exploited.

Almost everything is free at the point of access these days, which means, in the oft-repeated phrase, that we are the product. This means that in order to extract maximum value, nobody can be offended. I’m not so sure that I want to live in an inoffensive future.

Source: Engadget (via Noticing)

Surfacing popular Google Sheets to create simple web apps

I was struck by the huge potential impact of this idea from Marcel van Remmerden:

Here is a simple but efficient way to spot Enterprise Software ideas — just look at what Excel sheets are being circulated over emails inside any organization. Every single Excel sheet is a billion-dollar enterprise software business waiting to happen.

I searched “google sheet” education and “google sheet” learning on Twitter just now and, within about 30 seconds found:

Google Sheet example 1

…and:

Google Sheet example 2

…and:

Google Sheet example 3

These are all examples of things that could (and perhaps should) be simple web apps.In the article, van Remmerden explains how he created a website based on someone else’s Google Sheet (with full attribution) and started generating revenue.

It’s a little-known fact outside the world of developers that Google Sheets can serve as a very simple database for web applications. So if you’ve got an awkward web-based spreadsheet that’s being used by lots of people in your organisation, maybe it’s time to productise it?

Source: Marcel van Remmerden

What did the web used to be like?

One of the things it’s easy to forget when you’ve been online for the last 20-plus years is that not everyone is in the same boat. Not only are there adults who never experienced the last millennium, but varying internet adoption rates mean that, for some people, centralised services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are synonymous with the web.

Stories are important. That’s why I appreciated this Hacker News thread with the perfect title and sub-title:

Ask HN: What was the Internet like before corporations got their hands on it? What was the Internet like in its purest form? Was it mainly information sharing, and if so, how reliable was the information?

There’s lots to unpack here: corporate takeover of online spaces, veracity of information provided, and what the ‘purest form’ of the internet actually is/was.

Inevitably, given the readership of Hacker News, the top-voted post is technical (and slightly boastful):

1990. Not very many people had even heard of it. Some of us who’d gotten tired of wardialing and Telenet/Tymnet might have had friends in local universities who clued us in with our first hacked accounts, usually accessed by first dialing into university DECServers or X.25 networks. Overseas links from NSFNet could be as slow as 128kbit and you were encouraged to curtail your anonymous FTP use accordingly. Yes you could chat and play MUDs, but you could also hack so many different things. And admins were often relatively cool as long as you didn’t use their machines as staging points to hack more things. If you got your hands on an outdial modem or x.25 gateway, you were sitting pretty sweet (until someone examined the bill and kicked you out). It really helped to be conversant in not just Unix, but also VMS, IBM VM/CMS, and maybe even Primenet. When Phrack came out, you immediately read it and removed it from your mail spool, not just because it was enormous, but because admins would see it and label you a troublemaker.

We knew what the future was, but it was largely a secret. We learned Unix from library books and honed skills on hacked accounts, without any ethical issue because we honestly felt we were preparing ourselves and others for a future where this kind of thing should be available to everyone.

We just didn’t foresee it being wirelessly available at McDonalds, for free. That part still surprises me.

I’ve already detailed my early computing history (up to 2009) for a project that asked for my input. I’ll not rehash it here, but the summary is that I got my first PC when I was 15 for Christmas 1995, and (because my parents wouldn’t let me) secretly started going online soon after.

My memory of this from an information-sharing point of view was that you had to be very careful about what you read. Because the web was smaller, and it was only the people who were really interested in getting their stuff out there who had websites, there was a lot of crazy conspiracy theories. I’m kind of glad that I went on as a reasonably-mature teenager rather than a tween.

Although I’ve very happy to be able to make my living primarily online, I suppose I feel a bit like this commenter:

This will probably come across as Get Of My Lawn type of comment.
What I remember most about internet pre Facebook in particular and maybe Pre-smart phones. It was mostly a place for geeks. Geeks wrote blogs or had personal websites. Non geek stuff was more limited. It felt like a place where the geeks that were semi socially outcast kind of ran the place.

Today the internet feels like the real world where the popular people in the real world are the most popular people online. Where all the things that I felt like I escaped from on the net before I can no longer avoid.

I’m not saying that’s bad. I think it’s awesome that my non tech friends and family can connect and or share their lives and thoughts easily where as before there was a barrier to entry. I’m only pointing out that, at least for me, it changed. It was a place I liked or felt connected to or something, maybe like I was “in the know” or I can’t put my finger on it. To now where I have no such feelings.

Maybe it’s the same feeling as liking something before it’s popular and it loses that feeling of specialness once everyone else is into it. (which is probably a bad feeling to begin with)

Another commenter pointed to a short blog post he wrote on the subject, where he talks about how things were better when everyone was anonymous:

When it was anonymous, your name wasn’t attached to everything you did online. Everyone went by a handle. This means you could start a Geocities site and carve out your own niche space online, people could befriend and follow you who normally wouldn’t, and even the strangest of us found a home. All sorts of whacky, impossible things were possible because we weren’t bound by societal norms that plague our daily existence.

I get that, but I think that things that make sense and are sustainable for the few, aren’t necessarily so for the many. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia and telling stories about how things used to be, but as someone who used to teach the American West, there is (for better or worse) a parallel there with the evolution of the web.

The closest place to how the web was that I currently experience is Mastodon. It’s fully of geeks, marginalised groups, and weird/wacky ideas. You’d love it.

Source: Hacker News


Old web screenshot compilation image via Vice

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)

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 Times, Vice, 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