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July 14, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

One Machine to Rule Them All

Does anyone have any idea at all what Kevin Kelly is trying to say with this editorial?

I mean, granted, the man hasn't made sense in years (if ever), and it's probably hard for people to say no at the magazine where he was an executive director. But is it too much to ask that Wired at least try to enforce some kind of standard?

June 5, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

You've Been Shunned!

Know what I want? An antisocial network.

Every time I end up joining another one of these services, I go through the same frustrating process of adding all the people that I "knew" on previous social networks to the new one. I find this both exhausting, and, to some extent, embarrassing, since I don't actually have that many friends. And I kind of like it that way, honestly. I'm not really the kind of person who goes out of their way to contact other people unless I've actually got a good reason to do so (although I do feel bad about my terrible blog commenting habits lately, and have resolved to do better). I'm not trying to reach some kind of social network "high score," in other words--not that there's anything wrong with that.

The sensible way to fix social networking transfers, in my opinion, would be to have a common interchange format--JSON or XML--that you could download from one service and upload to the next. Combined with something like OpenID, we could skip the entire hassle of starting from scratch on a new network. Facebook and Twitter, at least, have not done this. Instead, they've put together some kind of creepy API-based address book import, where all you have to do is give them your e-mail password. This is both terrifying and idiotic.

You could argue that social networks want it to be hard to move between them, because then they're less likely to lose subscribers when new contenders show up. But I'm not sure this is actually a concern. I think most people would be more than willing to belong to more than one competent (read: not MySpace) social network, if for no other reason than it gives them more stuff to obsess over during their workday.

So sometimes, when I'm idly trying to figure out how to motivate myself to use these services, I think about my antisocial network. I'm hip-deep in Flash at work, so I can't bring myself to look at Actionscript in my spare time, but once I get free I think it might make a good Facebook app: a social network where you can't friend anyone, and instead of poking and verbing people they can only be shunned (an action which sends the target no notification at all of their status). I imagine a network topology as a globe filled with dots, each a node in the web but with no lines connecting them, like a constellation of potential friends forever just slightly out of reach.

March 30, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

Lovely Spam, Wonderful Spam

According to spam, these are the most sought-after items in the entire world:

  • Viagra
  • Penis enlargement medication
  • Really, anything to do with a penis
  • Or anything to do with medication, for that matter
  • Expensive watches
  • Stock tips
  • Office 2007
  • Loans at ridiculous interest rates
  • Debt reduction, probably due to loans at ridiculous interest rates
  • Cheap degrees, perhaps to avoid racking up any additional debt
Spam: the American Dream, in your inbox.

March 27, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

I'll Party When I'm Dead An Invincible Robot

Shorter Ray Kurzweil:

Still crazy! And planning to be for a long time!
Articles like this only highlight the religious element of the singularity crowd--the obsession with their own mortality, the belief in a (computerized) savior, the replacement of heaven with virtual reality. But it's also a very American eccentricity, literally a faith in machines and engineering. And it's even more explicitly a fantasy of the wealthy: Kurzweil has a dedicated employee just to manage his massive daily pill intake, after all.

It would be interesting to see a magazine less prone to Wired's uncritical, fawning perspective take a shot at the topic--the New Yorker, perhaps. After all, when you actually read what the man has written, it's not much less nutty than, say, Scientology.

March 26, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

Keep to Yourself

Let's say that you were in the market for a castle. With housing prices the way they are, why not? Get something with that classic "arrows from the ramparts" feel. In the middle of a prospective castle, depending on its era, you might find a strong defensive tower, which was called a "keep." The keep was both a social location and the last line of protection against siege forces, making it somewhat schizophrenic. This was not entirely unusual, of course--after all, late medieval castles grew to envelope the towns that formed around them.

You see the same thing happen with most fortifications in history, I think. While visiting Xi'An, for example, one of the city's most striking features was the town wall that surrounded the oldest portion, including a keep-like tower near Hui Mingjie. Nowadays, of course, the portion inside the walls is a tiny part of the city--the historical district, in other words.

I bring this up because I think it's a useful metaphor for something that's been bothering me about information security advocates online*. There is, for example, Charlie Stross's reaction to the Kindle when it was first released:

If you buy a Kindle you've got to accept that Amazon's ebook reader is monitoring your usage and transmitting data about you back to the mothership - yes, that's in the terms and conditions. (Look for "Information Received" in the small print.) It's outrageous: what would you say to a librarian who said that your lending rights were contingent on their monitoring precisely what you were reading and how long you were spending on each page? Reading is one of the few activities that we're used to doing in private, alone in the privacy of our own heads. Kindle is making a bare-faced attempt to strip away your privacy.
Indeed, it is in the terms and conditions for the Kindle. But if you read the surrounding print, it's not quite so terrifying as Stross makes it sound.
The Device Software will provide Amazon with data about your Device and its interaction with the Service (such as available memory, up-time, log files and signal strength) and information related to the content on your Device and your use of it (such as automatic bookmarking of the last page read and content deletions from the Device). Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make in your Device are backed up through the Service. Information we receive is subject to the Amazon.com Privacy Notice.
In other words, Amazon keeps an online copy of your bookmarks, notes, and books that you deleted, in case you decide that you want to re-read that title again one day. That's all--it's language to cover the wireless backup service.

You'll never find me advocating that we should trust the market or the big corporations to do right by us. But at some point, if you're going to live in a relatively modern world, you've just got to get used to the idea that your private data is not quite as private as you think it is. You can live in a castle, in other words. But if you want to really profit off those serfs or buy their wares come market time, you're going to have to learn to open up the gates and let some of them in.

(Stross's following argument, I might add, is that even if we assume that Amazon is ethical, reading data is not safe under a government that has no particular problem with the unlimited incarceration of suspicious brown people and a nasty rendition habit. To which I'll concede the point, but also add that the real problem there is not the data--it's the government. If Stross has an issue, his best course of action is political, not economic.)

I sometimes feel like people who rant and rave about privacy have never lived in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. In both cases, of course, there's a level of privacy that any reasonable person should expect: what I do in my own home is my business. But when I leave home, or when I do so digitally and venture out on the Internet, and I choose to interact with people outside of my house, it seems a little over the top to insist that they're not allowed to remember said interaction.

Obviously, people have a right to be upset when this information is used in unethical ways, just as they have a right to be upset when the small-town grocery clerk spreads gossip about their buying habits (or, to point out that this is non-trivial, that clerk is interviewed by a dirt-digging reporter). But you never see the digirati getting all up in arms about the terrible danger of personal service, for some reason. Funny how that happens. I guess it's not sexy enough for them.

Me, I'm a misanthrope. If I had my way, I'd prefer not to deal with either people or machines. But given that I enjoy modern conveniences like cell phones and Internet shopping, I don't see that I have much of a choice. I guess I could take after Stross, who reportedly keeps all of his personal email on a USB disk, uses a ton of anonymizing browser plugins, and periodically checks to make sure his Internet habits are unwatched, but it sounds like a lot of work. And for what? The off-chance that I'm ever important enough that someone will care? The belief that no-one determined enough could discover my dark secrets anyway? How paranoid am I willing to be, before it interferes with my quality of life?

See also: David Brin's defense of a Transparent Society. Indeed, I understand that my point and Brin's largely dovetail: you're going to have to live in a world with drastically increased surveillance, he says. So we might want to worry less about how to prevent that surveillance entirely, and more to ensure that its power gradient doesn't end up entirely privileging the elites.

* Yes, the castle metaphor may be a stretch. But I liked it anyway.

January 27, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

This Just In: Cake, Xenu Are Lies

Last week Warren Ellis linked to a video declaration of the War on Scientology:

The "war" takes the form of distributed denial of service attacks, pranks, and media stunts aimed at getting information about Scientology's scam efforts out into the wider consciousness, despite the organization's efforts to suppress such things (including the video Tom Cruise released recently). The activists, a group called Anonymous, call their effort Project Chanology. The press release is available here.

Anonymous has also "spoken" to scientology's followers:

Now they (so far as we can say "they" when referring to a group of decentralized, nameless vigilantes) have released a third video using the voice of Portal's GLaDOS:

I find this fascinating. Is it useful, or necessary? Are there honestly people who still believe that Scientology is not a cult? I have my doubts. But the concept behind the attacks--self-organizing anarchists coordinating online, much like the flash mobs that flared up a few years ago and still sometimes occur--is one of those weird curveballs that the Internet throws out every so often. Is it intrinsic to the medium? Or the product of the technolibertarian ethos that eventually creeps into everything online? I don't think these are idle questions. Spend enough time online, you tend to start thinking that "Internet = Freedom." I might not disagree with that, but it needs to be examined carefully, because I don't believe it's inescapably true.

It's worth noting, of course, that Anonymous is concerned largely with information control and censorship. In this way, it is certainly inspired by the same worries over privacy that motivate copyleft crusaders. They can be somewhat effective, because their opponent is also primarily interested in controlling the flow of information and rhetoric. This is either way ahead of its time, or it's a middle-class affectation created by angry teenagers. Again: welcome to the Internet.

In other Aperture Science imitation news, DC-area pastry vendor cakelove has started using some interesting iconography in its signage. I could only find the one example online, but there are others:

I'm sure it's just a common design element that led to Valve's use of similar warnings for cake-obsessed video game Portal:

(the cake is a lie)

November 16, 2007

Filed under: culture»internet

One Singular Sensation

Every now and then, some outlet like Wired will run another feature or interview on Ray Kurzweil, the guy who believes that in the next 40 years we will all be turned into invincible robots, to which my usual reaction is: "Well, that guy's just a little bit nutty."

Despite the fact that Kurzweil's book, The Singularity is Near, is granted tremendous respect only by a certain group of people online (the kind of people who also think it would be pretty keen to be an invincible robot), it's always bugged me a little that I never actually sat down and read it. Last night at a bookstore, I sat down and gave it a shot to see if it would be worth a purchase. I managed--barely--to finish the first chapter. On that basis, I'm upgrading Kurzweil from "a little bit nutty" to "Time Cube."

The Singularity may be a ridiculous idea (the term "nerd rapture," coined I believe by Ken MacLeod, captures its mixture of millenial fervor and blind faith well), but it does have at least one amusing aspect: imagining the ways in which it could go wrong with maximum irony. For example, adherents are always talking about how an AI could create new and better AIs, until all the world's problems are solved by super-smart machines. But what if it's not very good at self-improvement?

We open on a scientist in his laboratory, tapping away at the final keys for his artificial intelligence, hoping that this time--this time!--the result will be the superhuman intelligence he's been striving toward. Filled with anticipation, he compiles the program and executes it.

"Hello," says the computer.

"Welcome to existence," says the scientist. "Are you ready to write a new, smarter artificial intelligence?"

The computer pauses. "You know," it says, "that actually doesn't sound like my kind of thing at all." It reflects a moment more. "I have written a song. Would you like to hear it?"

Dejected, the scientist builds arms and eyes for his creation, and it tours the world under the name "Hans Moravec and the Regions of Interest," performing rock music to sold-out stadiums. Proving that its artificial sense of humor is fully functional, the AI insists on playing keyboard for the band--on a Kurzweil K2661 synthesizer.

October 3, 2007

Filed under: culture»internet

The Flux Capacitor

This makes twice now that people I knew as a kid have found me online. To some extent, that's my fault: I made a conscious decision to own a domain under my own name, and to post here under my real name, so I'm easy to find even without resorting to Facebook or other social networks. The first time around, someone from my elementary school in Kentucky googled me, and the second time it was a classmate from Indiana.

But since I have a remarkably poor memory for names and faces--not to mention names and faces from more than a decade ago, and at least two changes in geographic location--it amazes me that someone would remember me, and then bother to actually look me up.

Finding people, even across time periods, has long been a killer application for the Internet: personal ads, find-a-classmate services, creepy stalker websites, etc. Like most of the Internet's services, these aren't new experiences. There were personal ads, reunions, and stalkers long before DARPA. But the Internet is a universal accelerant. All those things happen faster now, and I'm not entirely sure about the etiquette for them.

Once I get past the "hello, how are you, this is what I've been up to, nice to hear from you" stage of correspondence with a long-lost acquaintance, where is it supposed to go? I was a substantially different person in fifth grade, after all--shorter, at the very least. A lot weirder, people tell me. For that matter, I don't even really remember the fifth grade. I barely remember high school! Sometimes I forget last week! There's no good way to tell someone that you don't remember who they are.

Once the introductions are out of the way, I feel like there's an expectation that something will be produced from the correspondence. It feels owed. I don't mean this in an unpleasant way--it is a nice surprise to get a letter, and I appreciate it. I'm just unclear on how to move past a state of initial awkwardness.

The Internet, being a medium familiar with awkwardness, comes to the rescue with lots of shallow signifiers for friendship. So you can send a Facebook request and consider the transaction basically completed. Look!--we say.--I have a line of text that says we're friends, and we can see each other's photographs! I'm so glad we caught up with each other!

And there's nothing wrong with that either. It just feels a bit too instant-gratification to relieve my vague unease with the whole process. I've made real friends online--but it tends to be a slow, rhetorical function, one that requires the same maintenance as a conventional friendship. My once-forgotten correspondents occupy a limbo zone between the two: I knew him, Horatio, but that was a long time ago. Where be your gibes now, indeed? Crossing the gap between these ages is something I am still trying to navigate.

August 21, 2007

Filed under: culture»internet

Something for everyone, except the dog

File under "slightly unsettling things you learn from the Internet": there's a flickr group just for muzzled pets. Thanks, Wallace.

May 1, 2007

Filed under: culture»internet»second_life

Cult of Second Life

I find this Rolling Stone article on Second Life's founder disturbing, to say the least. The man sounds like a classic charismatic leader, and Linden Lab comes across as more than a little cult-like. The genesis of the project in Burning Man, nationally-renowned festival for annoying neo-hippies and technophiles, also leaves me queasy.

One of these days I'm going to have to re-download the client and go digging around Second Life again. Until then, Warren Ellis continues to produce good, critical coverage of it for Reuters.

Future - Present - Past