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Thoughts on Free Speech and Online Privacy

I’ve been struggling to make up my mind about a number of issues that are currently hot topics in the UK.

On the one hand I’m a fierce proponent of free speech, and have previously defended people’s right to say and write things many of us would find disagreeable, even deplorable.

I don’t think it’s healthy that people get locked up for making bad jokes on Twitter, or saying things that rub some politician the wrong way. Freedom of speech should include the freedom to offend.

But then, on the other hand, I think some elements of the British press have taken their free speech liberties too far and are now actively spreading lies and disinformation in the pursuit of cheap pageviews and circulation figures, without being held to account in any way. The result is a deeply misinformed public serving as the playthings of media moguls that set the tabloid agendas, and the politicians they sponsor.

On top of this, there have been many instances in recent times of this freedom being taken to extreme lengths by individuals as well. Specifically threats of rape and murder via social media sites such as Twitter.

The media’s abuse of free speech (and I truly think tabloids are abusing their right to free speech, instead of treating it with the care it deserves) is currently the purview of the Leveson inquiry and its proposed legislation.

The second type of free speech abuse is, to me, a vulgar breach of the sacred right to speak your mind. That sort of despicable behaviour should be stamped out wherever it occurs.

I welcome debate on controversial issues, and I think insults are an unavoidable part of online discourse (or any form of discourse, really). But when you start to threaten people you don’t agree with, you are simply a catastrophic loser severely lacking in intellectual acumen.

The thing I’m struggling with, though, is how we handle those sorts of threats.

Threatening to hurt another person is already illegal. The problem is that on Twitter and other sites these threats are made anonymously (making the perpetrators even more pathetic, lacking even the most basic courage).

Because they’re anonymous, the law can’t act against them. And so re-emerges the debate about making it less easy for people to be anonymous on the internet, and to allow for stricter tracking of what people do online.

And that, I believe, is not a good thing.

Transparency is not the solution. Transparency will merely succeed in shifting the balance of power to those who own the data. And we, as citizens, will not be the ones owning the data. It will be owned by corporations and governments, and I genuinely don’t trust those organisations to use it for the betterment of mankind.

If you think having your entire life laid bare to big data analysis is perfectly fine as you have nothing to hide, you haven’t been paying attention. (Also, you definitely won’t have read Orwell’s 1984.)

Yet, if we’re to effectively fight against those anonymous cowards who threaten and abuse people online, we will have to sacrifice some of our online privacy.

Is that a worthwhile trade?

Or was Benjamin Franklin right when he wrote that “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Is that sort of vile, deplorable hate speech simply the price we have to pay for our freedoms? Is it something we’ll have to accept and live with? Or should we embrace a more totalitarian state so we can stamp out these ‘unwanted elements’?

I think that, by writing this down, I’ve actually started making up my mind at last…

Silicon Valley’s Dangerous Religion

Continuing the technology-scepticism of previous posts, I came across an article about Google that’ll effectively serve to eradicate any remaining optimism you may have had about our internet-enabled utopia arriving any time soon.

In Has Google Gone Gaga, a scathing demolition of Google’s vision of the future, The Sunday Times’s Bryan Appleyard finds exactly the same pain point that Evgeny Morozov so effectively identified:

“The Singularity, Ayn Rand, the elitism, the moral pretensions and the dreams of island states are all sending the same message – that Silicon Valley is a small, highly intelligent, obsessive, hubristic and deluded community. Its values are not ours. We should, of course, embrace its ingenuity and the gadgets it showers upon us, but we should be wary of the ‘terms and conditions’ attached. These include not just the inane legalisms that come with the software, but also the ideology, the rhetoric, the world-dominating fantasies and, of course, the tax avoidance.”

This cult-like Silicon Valley mentality expresses itself in many different ways:

  • A form of techno-fetishism where [big data/mobile apps/the industrial internet/augmented reality/any other hip trend du jour] are presented as the key to a richer future for all, with slickly produced TED-talks as the preferred propaganda medium;
  • Big dotcom companies headquartered at insular corporate campuses with a dizzying array of extracurricular services (laundry, restaurants, gyms, libraries, etc) so no one ever need to leave work except to sleep, effectively becoming isolated little worlds where the harsh realities of daily life are kept at arms length;
  • Incestuous venture capitalist circles through which previous dotcom millionaires fund fledgling startups with valuations based on nothing but hyped up coverage on technology blogs;
  • The wholehearted embrace of frighteningly ignorant anti-government & anti-regulation libertarianism as the key to unlocking a technology-enabled nirvana for all mankind;
  • All this founded on an astounding level of intellectual hubris, emerging from the painfully mistaken assumption that the Silicon Valley elite is smarter than everyone else and should be given the freedom to experiment at will.

Fortunately the voices opposing this navel-gazing quasi religion are growing, with recent books from Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier serving as welcome antidotes to this Scientology-like cult behaviour.

This double review of Morozov’s and Lanier’s books in the Times Literary Supplement is a very worthwhile read, and highly recommended if the aforementioned Bryan Appleyard article got your curiosity peaked.

The Purpose of The Internet

If you want to understand why this world is as fucked up as it is, you need look no further than the internet.

Heralded as a great liberating technology, the internet is often seen as a leveller, an equaliser of playing fields where everyone has a voice and anyone can become successful.

But one look at the world wide web’s largest companies makes a lie out of that fantasy. Because these companies are not equalisers, they’re not promoters of meritocracy and opportunity.

The Googles and Facebooks and Yahoos of this world are all advertising platforms.

Advertising is what made Google what it is today. You, as a user of Google’s search engine and email service and video platform and everything else it offers you, are not Google’s customer. You are the product.

Advertisers are Google’s customers. Google sells your time and attention to advertisers. All those free services are the bait to keep you coming back to Google so it can show you more ads.

On Facebook you may think you’re socialising with friends and chatting about common interests and activities. But what you’re actually doing is giving Facebook more information that it can pass on to advertisers so they can target you more effectively.

Advertising is the engine that drives the internet economy.

Think about that for a moment. And think about what advertising actually is, in and of itself.

It’s corporations screaming messages at you to BUY MORE STUFF. Advertising does not teach us anything. Ads don’t enlighten us in any way nor enrich us in any way shape or form.

In fact, advertising makes us poorer – mentally and financially, in ways both direct and indirect.

The internet began as an intellectual endeavour to aid the sharing of knowledge for the betterment of all mankind. It didn’t take very long for it to become a gigantic corporate engine, designed to bombard people with advertising 24/7, which in turn is designed to make you shut up and buy stuff.

Welcome to the future.

Evgeny Morozov takes on Tim O’Reilly

Evgeny Morozov, the internet’s most renowned technology cynic, is not afraid to act as a polemical David to technology’s Goliaths. Not long after he thoroughly eviscerated the TED phenomenon he’s now set his sights on one of the internet’s biggest names: Tim O’Reilly.

In a lengthy article titled ‘The Meme Hustler’, Morozov takes O’Reilly to task for a range of buzzphrases and PR moves summarised as ‘meme-engineering‘. In doing so, he touches upon a number of highly intriguing ideas.

For example Morozov states that O’Reilly’s open source movement, having succeeded in supplanting Richard Stallman’s ‘free software’ concept as the de facto model for open software development, has paved the way for the current trend of closed source & closed platform appification of the internet:

“Now that apps might be displacing the browser, the openness once taken for granted is no more – a contingency that licenses and morals could have easily prevented. Openness as a happenstance of market conditions is a very different beast from openness as a guaranteed product of laws.”

He also exposes the Web 2.0 concept invented by O’Reilly for the hollow hypephrase that it is, pointing out that the technological trends that are viewed as a core aspect of Everything 2.0 predate the phrase – and the web itself – by some considerable margin:

“O’Reilly himself pioneered this 2.0-ification of public discourse, aggressively reinterpreting trends that had been happening for decades through the prism of Internet history – a move that presented all those trends as just a logical consequence of the Web 2.0 revolution. Take O’Reilly’s musings on “Enterprise 2.0.” What is it, exactly? Well, it’s the same old enterprise – for all we know, it might be making widgets – but now it has learned something from Google and Amazon and found a way to harness “collective intelligence.” For O’Reilly, Walmart is a quintessential Enterprise 2.0 company simply because it tracks what its customers are buying in real time.

That this is a rather standard practice—known under the boring title of “just-in-time delivery” — predating both Google and Amazon didn’t register with O’Reilly. In a Web 2.0 world, all those older concepts didn’t matter or even exist; everything was driven by the forces of open source and the Internet.”

I admit that after a brief period of skepticism I too was taken by the Web 2.0 hype, but like many I’ve also stopped using the phrase as I’ve become aware of its lack of substance.

Even social media, seen as the defining aspect of Web 2.0, is not a novel idea and has existed in primordial form since before the World Wide Web was a twinkle in Berners-Lee’s eyes.

Further on in his essay Morozov discusses the ideas of Neil Postman and Alfred Korzybski with regards to language; how words have different meanings depending on the context in which they are used:

“For Postman, one of the main tasks of language is to codify and preserve distinctions among different semantic environments. As he put it, “When language becomes undifferentiated, human situations disintegrate: Science becomes indistinguishable from religion, which becomes indistinguishable from commerce, which becomes indistinguishable from law, and so on. If each of them serves the same function, then none of them serves any function. When such a process is occurring, an appropriate word for it is pollution.” Some words—like “law”—are particularly susceptible to crazy talk, as they mean so many different things: from scientific “laws” to moral “laws” to “laws” of the market to administrative “laws,” the same word captures many different social relations. “Open,” “networks,” and “information” function much like “law” in our own Internet discourse today.”

I recommend you read Morozov’s 16,000 word piece – his no-punches-pulled criticisms are always worthwhile, even if you disagree – and if you feel thusly inclined you can continue with the abundant retorts being published online in defence of O’Reilly.

The man himself posted a brief, albeit polite, dismissal on his Google+ profile.

Technophilic Vacuity

I used to like TED. In fact I loved it so much I linked to it in this blog’s sidebar (where only truly loveable links dare tread), and recommended the site – and a number of specific TED talks – to people regularly.

But gradually I fell out of love with TED. It seemed to me that the substance I perceived in those early TED talks, the powerful meaning they conveyed and the strength of their messages, were all diminishing.

TED talks have become more about style, about delivering a story in as powerful a way as possible, regardless of the actual worth of that story. They became exercises in propaganda speeches.

In a recent article for The New Republic, professional cynic Evgeny Morozov reviews three e-books from TED’s publishing division, and his commentary on the whole TED movement is eloquently scathing:

“Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void.”

In the same article, when reviewing TED’s decision to publish short e-books instead of properly sized tomes, Morozov is equally dismissive:

“When they launched their publishing venture, the TED organizers dismissed any concern that their books’ slim size would be dumbing us down. “Actually, we suspect people reading TED Books will be trading up rather than down. They’ll be reading a short, compelling book instead of browsing a magazine or doing crossword puzzles. Our goal is to make ideas accessible in a way that matches modern attention spans.” But surely “modern attention spans” must be resisted, not celebrated. Brevity may be the soul of wit, or of lingerie, but it is not the soul of analysis. The TED ideal of thought is the ideal of the “takeaway”—the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.”

I find it hard not to agree with the man. When I saw my first few TED talks, I genuinely believed that this sort of thing could help change the world. Now, I fear, it’ll primarily help to dumb us down.

It’s not just TED where this trend of techno-global-fetishism is taking hold. I’m subscribed to the UK edition of Wired magazine, and recently I’ve become a little disenchanted with their ceaseless sycophantic reporting on internet start-ups and the incestuous Silicon Valley venture capitalist circles in which they move.

It’s not about actual worth any longer – it’s about hip stories on cool tech (ideally with some connection to Apple’s shiny devices) with substance an optional ingredient. Again, Morozov describes it perfectly:

“The recipe is simple. Find some peculiar global trend—the more arcane, the better. Draw a straight line connecting it to the world of apps, electric cars, and Bay Area venture capital. Mention robots, Japan, and cyberwar. Use shiny slides that contain incomprehensible but impressive maps and visualizations. Stir well. Serve on multiple platforms.”

This is not an encouraging trend. Especially when you look at related trends in the technology world, such as the over-valuation of Facebook and their $1bn Instagram deal, the signs are there: it’s a whole new bubble, filled with metric tonnes of effervescent hot air.

Instant Gratification

I’ve frequently blogged about the impact of the internet on how our brain functions, seemingly turning us in to instant-gratification button mashers with short attention spans.

This is not just the opinion of a bunch of online pundits. There is actual data out there that suggests we as a species are all about quick fixes. Even a fraction of a second’s delay can put us off an online consumption, as this infographic eloquently explains:

Click image for full size
Instant America
Created by: Online Graduate Programs

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  • Fair Search in Europe

    For a while the FairSearch organisation has been fighting in the USA against Google’s anti-competitive behaviours. Now finally FairSearch has crossed the Atlantic and has a European presence: fairsearcheurope.org.

    While many Google advocates dismiss it as a marketing tool for competitors like Microsoft, what FairSearch actually does is incredibly vital to our continued enjoyment of a free and unfiltered internet. In Europe this is an even more pressing concern than in the States, as here Google enjoys marketshares of well over 90% in most EU countries.

    So an organisation with some economic and political klout behind it, fighting for search neutrality and limitations on Google’s anti-competitive practices, is a good thing. See the slideshow below about why FairSearch matters:


    The Case for Fair Search

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    Adamus

     Adamus
    Adamus is the online identity of Barry Adams. A Dutchman living in Northern Ireland, Barry / Adamus is an internet fanatic, skeptic, technophile, gamer, and geek.

    On this personal blog he provides his unpolished view of the world and its insanities.

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