Was the development of the Internet a wrong turn?


[I posted this on Facebook, seems it struck a nerve based on the likes and responses. Reposting here, perhaps time for a blog revival.]

I argued in the early 90s that the Internet would connect creatives on the fringes and fringe communities would form and have more impact on social and political cultures. What I didn’t see was that communities or armies of ignorant, racist, fascist, paramilitarist, arguably insane, rabid right, false Christian gremlins would form and seize control of an existing political party, that they would undermine their own interest and dismantle the middle class, that they would endeavor to promote dark-age philosophies over advances in reason and science, and that they would not be opposed, but cultivated by politicians and wealthy business and media interests who would see them as a source of potential power, missing dangerous signals from the emergent mob and their unholy alliance with it. These people may be a vocal minority, but they seem to have growing force. I’m not so sure the Internet has proved to be a Good Thing. It may be the catalyst for the rapid unraveling of civilization.

I added a link to Jennifer Granick’s post, “The Dream of Internet Freedom Doesn’t Have to Die.” And Hoder’s just posted “The Web We Have to Save” on Medium. He says “the web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.”

Trends 2015

Monkeys in Space

Here’s a list of trends I see going into 2015, created for this year’s “State of the World” conversation.

Privatization of outer space: A number of companies are developing spaceware, and there’s one nonprofit that’s formed to colonize Mars by 2023 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_One). Is the investment entirely speculative, or do we have clear business models driving a potential new space age?

Currency revolution: a number of alternative currencies have appeared, most notably the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. There are also technologies for digitally mediated barter. How will these be integrated into existing economic systems? Are we really looking at a (more? or less?) radical transformation of global economies?

AI/robotics: we’re beginning to see practical, usable applications of robotics, and there’s much talk of evolving artificial intelligence and possible singularity.

Alan Turing, via Benedict Cumberbatch, is getting some attention. When asked in “The Imitation Game” whether machines will ever think like humans, he scoffs – that’s the wrong question. Machines may think, but not “like humans.” Much of the singularity talk doesn’t get this point, but is rooted in anthropomorphism, which makes about as much sense as a golem emerging from a carefully-shaped clay effigy.

We like to think there’s no intelligence that ain’t human, but that’s a shadow of anthropocentric hubris. As we get into robotics and AI in a bigger, industrial-strength, way, what will they teach us about intelligence, human and other?

Practical backlash against 1% and hyper-neoliberalism: the political pendulum swings persistently, and it doesn’t make human sense to roll backwards to some sort of feudal society. Also propaganda only works so far before practical intelligence engenders some degree of critical thinking. Okay, I’m being hopeful here, but I believe the extreme factions in the civil cold war du jour will be overcome by those who are more balanced, reasonable, and practical. 2015 could be the turning point; waiting to hear the alarm ring.

Internet of things: There’s buzz around the IoT now, probably not altogether practical, but driving investment that could fund innovation. We ask the wrong questions about it, i.e. “why do I want my toaster to talk to my refrigerator?” We should be considering what “things” are most practical to network, and the pro and con implications. Are there security implications? Are we depending too much on networks, creating too great a vulnerability to network failure?

Cyberwars, hacktivism, crypto activism: Networked information systems have inherent vulnerabilities, increasingly exploited by various actors for various reasons. To the extent that we live our lives online and invest in our online identities, we’re subject to these vulnerabilities. This is increasingly obvious, and the question for any one of us is, how vulnerable have I become, and how to I mitigate risk? This is a question for individuals, corporations, and governments. Mitigation can create obstructions and limit the value of networks, so we have to think hard about the risks we’re willing to take the measures we’re willing to adopt to limit those risks. It’s also clear that governments (and non-governmental movements) will engage in cyberwar – to what extent will some of us suffer collateral damage from those engagements?

Network fatigue: Expect to see more strategic cord-cutting: limiting online activity generally and persistently, or perhaps periodically (“no Facebook for 30 days”). Response to information overwhelm is inevitable.

“New democrats”: Liberal entities like the Democratic party in the U.S. have proved ineffective as alternatives to well-organized corporate conservatives. The health of societies depends on a balance of the two approaches characterized simplistically as “left vs right.” Correction of the current imbalance is inevitable, but will likely involve entities that are nascent or don’t exist yet, vs the established entities of the left, which seem irrelevant and obsolete, partly because they have sought to compete by identifying with their opponents, rather than by emphasizing alternatives.

One possible trend could emerge from a middling trend, i.e. a rejection of polarization and an emphasis on a practical middle path between “left wing” and “right wing.”

Demilitarization of police: Militarization of police after 9/11 may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but none of us wanted to create a police state, which is a potential effect. Going forward, we’ll be reconsidering the roll of police departments in communities and considering how to undo the downside of the militarization efforts. We’ll be rethinking the role of police departments in communities, and how to respond effectively to potential terrorist acts within borders without confusing police objectives with military objectives.

Crowdsourcing medical solutions: smart patients will have more of a role in evolving therapies, and have more input into our understanding of human systems and response to disease. Participatory medicine will become more established. Medical research will consider patient feedback to get a better sense of complex contextual factors affecting health. More people will do granular “quantified self” tracking, and there will be systems to aggregate and analyze this information, impacting our understanding of prevention as well as disease.

Civil asset forfeiture, yikes!

In 2013, The New Yorker published a revealing, troubling piece called “Taken,” an in-depth investigation into the practice of civil asset forfeiture, where American citizens can have their property (cash, cars, homes) confiscated by police, even though they haven’t been charged with a crime.

Now John Oliver on HBO takes on civil forfeiture:

The Institute for Justice is tackling civil forfeiture: website here: http://endforfeiture.com/


Saw this at bOING bOING (via Cory Doctorow) and ported it over here:

In comments on the video at Youtube, someone posted this Bukowski quote:
“I think my writing is really pretty fucking powerful stuff but I think after I’m dead and safe, they’re going to trot me out, I’m going to really be discovered you know.”

Here’s another quote from Bukowski:
“For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command nor faith a dictum. I am my own god. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”

He lived 74 years, which is longer than you might expect if you knew something of his habits. He drank heavily, perhaps he was pickled? He also wrote a lot, and his writing had power.


air and light and time and space
by Charles Bukowski

“–you know, I’ve either had a family, a job, something
has always been in the
but now
I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
place, a large studio, you should see the space and
the light.
for the first time in my life I’m going to have a place and
the time to
no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on
you’re going to create with part of your mind and your
body blown
you’re going to create blind
you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
back while
the whole city trembles in earthquakes, bombardment,
flood and fire.
baby, air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses

Hottest June Ever!


“June was the 352nd consecutive month in a row with temperatures that were above the global average,” per Climate Central.


“The lengthy stretch of hot months is being driven primarily by the rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Human activities are responsible for much of that rise and with recent carbon dioxide milestones passed, emissions show no sign of slowing.”

State of the World 2014

Bruce Sterling and I are into our annual “state of the world” mischief. [Link]

Google was going wild in early 2013, they were like android demigods.
Now Google is, all of a sudden, presto, Russia. Google is a
surveillance secret-police empire with spy binoculars on their faces.
Sergey Brin’s pet Moonshots are just a lame prestige show.

It’s sad, really. Larry and Sergei used to be the Not-Evil Guys, they
empowered the users and won their instinctive trust. Now, if Snowden
entered the boardroom of Google, Larry and Sergei would shriek in
falsetto like the Wicked Witches of the West and melt into two puddles
of black wax.

That doesn’t make Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Amazon any better
than Google — Facebook in particular, oh my God — but it’s the first
time that these new titans of American industry have really looked
genuinely ugly. Just, nasty. Because they’re rich and powerful, but
they’re also narcs. They’re creeps and snoops. They’re police

They were kinda tricked into it — but everybody knows it, and their
unwillingness to face up the stark embarrassment is an act of tacit
consent. The Brazilians, Germans, French, Italians, Russians, the
Chinese ten times over, everybody, they all know. It takes a while for
that kind of damage to the reputation to sink in, but it will.

2013 Top Ten (Social/Political/Technical) Culture Blasts

These are things I thought were important in 2013.

NSA Leaks and surveillance society

I always figured the NSA was watching, but it was still a shock to find how extensive surveillance had become – and it was disturbing to see clearly how surveillance of this kind was somebody’s job, something they would inscribe in how-to PowerPoint presentations. This realization via Snowden leaks brought the panopticon home in a big way: as we move so much of our lives into massive databases, we’re increasingly trackable, increasingly exposed to those who know how to capture and analyze the data, and especially vulnerable to government scrutiny. But NSA and government is only part of the story. We’re seeing widespread surveillance by both public and private entities – marketing analytics engines could be or become as robust as NSA tools, meanwhile none of us has ownership of, or control over, our personal data.

In 2013 our level of trust was low and declining. We especially don’t trust governments and corporations with our data because we’re so increasingly aware of the potential for, if not the fact of, abuse. To some extent concerns are legitimate, and to some extent they emerge from a culture of paranoia that has evolved in the wake of mass media and network technology, which have had several relevant effects: greater awareness of abuses when they happen, feeding into myriad fictional surveillance and pursuit fantasies, and more recently the emergence of a social media panopticon. But the Snowden revelations make paranoia feel pretty rational.

Andrew Leonard has a good Salon piece about surveillance/sousveillance: http://www.salon.com/2013/12/27/how_to_defeat_big_brother/

Death of the Internet /DIY/free culture etc.

As the Internet has become the pervasive platform for media and commerce, it has ceased to be the “network of networks” of the 90s. As so many of us predicted, the Internet has been transformed into something more like the cable networks. Content and technology are increasingly locked down behind paywalls and other barriers. Even social media have become more professional, less DIY. Anyone can still participate, but few will capture attention or persistent mindshare as the Internet version of mass media has emerged, more conversational and less top-down than the 20th century version, but nothing like the transitional blogosphere. As small publishers moved from desktop publishing to the web, 2013 saw bloggers moving onto managed platforms like Facebook and Tumblr. We now have a media environment that includes a relatively small number of high-profile content sources, and smaller clusters of online conversation and sharing. Shirkification proceeds (referring to Clay Shirky’s predictions that just such a thing would happen). Question is, how will cream rise to the top? How will new voices emerge and capture attention? Or they be excluded by stricter gateways and media dominance by a limited few. The promise of the Internet was that it could bring a vibrant mix of new perspectives and a cheerfully unmanageable confluence of cultures, but we lose that, if network culture is dominated by a top-down mass media paradigm.

Boston Marathon bombing

The Marathon bombing was similar to the 9/11/2001 attack on the World Trade Center, though smaller scale and evidently involving only two Chechen Muslim perpetrators who didn’t seem to be acting as part of a larger conspiracy or movement like Al Qaeda. This seemed to be more the case of “another nut with a gun” (and some bombs. However I find it just as troubling, maybe more so, to see the bombing as part of an epidemic of random acts of senseless violence. Note also that there were 359 mass shootings in the USA in 2013. (http://www.reddit.com/r/GunsAreCool/wiki/2013massshootings)

The Tea Party gets elected

Through a combination of hard work, effective propaganda, big money, and possibly a heavy thumb on the voting scales, a number of Tea Party politicians have been elected to public office, have been empowered by their supposed popularity, and have managed to freeze Congress from producing any effective legislative solutions. 2013 has been the year of peak Tea Party ascendance, much to the dismay of Democrats and pragmatic Republicans whose business-as-usual has been derailed. The debate about the role and extent of government may ultimately be healthy, if it doesn’t kill us first.

Pope Francis

As religious figures go, this is a breath of fresh air. Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, and the first pope from the Americas, is known for his humility and openness, and the simplicity of his demeanor. These are welcome traits in the leader of the world’s largest, and arguably most influential, Christian religious organization. He hasn’t sold all the Catholic gold, but he’s wearing less of it.

Economy, what?

We keep hearing that the economy will tank any day now, and for anyone who’s on the exasperating downside, that doesn’t seem so speculative. Tech is booming (but it could be a bubble), and there are signs of life in the world of manufacturing. Innovation is everywhere. However the American middle class is on the ropes, and much of the world’s money is socked away in Swiss bank accounts, i.e. out of play. And while there are many experts in the infosphere, nobody seems to have a definitive clue. There’s a lot of “next economy” talk, and we may very well see a collapse of traditional means of exchange and the ascendance of new forms – worker cooperatives, alternative currencies and barter systems, resilient communities, etc. These are gathering steam (and may have to be steam-driven, as fossil fuels burn away).


Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) depends on the commitment of citizens and corporations to make it work. However opponents who see in the potential for broad mandated insurance a kind of socialism, where the strong support the weak, have undermined that commitment. Those that are healthy/wealthy don’t want the sick and the poor in their insurance pools, just as they don’t want their tax dollars spent on benefits or “entitlements” for the lower and middle classes. The actual launch of Obamacare was the best they could’ve hoped for: the web technology to support ACA exchanges and enrollments was poorly planned and executed, and this seemed to validate the opponents’ arguments that the ACA would be a disaster. But the botched website development doesn’t say anything about the viability of the ACA system itself. While the law’s not ideal, it’s a step toward universal healthcare and improvement of the whacky dysfunctional American healthcare system. As of this writing, the website’s working better, so we may be past that particular glitch. Meanwhile ideological wrangling over the complex (ergo not well understood) legislation sucked much of the political energy out of 2013.

Chelyabinsk meteor

What happens when an asteroid strikes the earth? We’ve often wondered, and the answer depends on the size of the particular rock. Many think the Tunguska event in Russia was an asteroid or comet strike. The Chelyabinsk meteor, also in Russia, was also thought to have been an asteroid, and the first case where a meteor blast caused documented widespread injuries. I’ve used the word “strike” here, but in the case of both Tunguska and Chelyabinsk, there wasn’t a direct hit. Both exploded above the earth; most of the damage was caused by shock waves.

How can we prevent larger asteroids from striking the earth? NASA’s currently planning an asteroid-tow-and-study mission that would be a step in the right direction: http://www.space.com/22764-nasa-asteroid-capture-mission-candidates.html

Miley Cyrus twerking

Miley’s unconventional, racy MTV Video Music Awards appearance shocked the Twitterverse and escalated her prominence as a pop culture icon, not so much because of the performance itself (which I saw as a clever, entertaining parody of pop culture excess) as her smart handling of the supposed controversy. Can’t say that there was any shift in mainstream commercial pop culture as a result of the furor, but hey, it was just a bit of fun.

Google Glass

I guiltily admit that I haven’t taken any opportunity, and there’ve been some, to give Google Glass a try. I’m skeptical whether I’ll be able to see much of the overlay, but it might be cool to shoot photos and videos on the fly, though a GoPro would be better for that. To me, the real significance is not so much of the specific product or platform but the boost for the wearable computing meme, which we’ve been talking about since the early 90s. However my pocket device is useful enough, I don’t have to “wear” it (though I’m jonesing for a wearable health data tracker like FitBit.)

The point of “wearable” is that computers are increasingly embedded in the fabric of everyday life, via devices like Glass, Nest, FitBit et al, and concepts like the Internet of Things. 2013, two decades after the Internet’s mainstreaming began in 1993, these next generation technologies have arrived. Soon enough, they’ll be commonplace and boring.

What the Internet Is

This works as a manifesto. I didn’t write it — it’s by the brilliant technologist David P. Reed.

Occasionally, people ask my perspective on the Internet, since I often object to confusing it with things like the telephone or Cable TV. Recently I composed a response that captures my perspective, as one of the participants in its genesis, and as an advocate for sustaining its fundamental initial design principles. I hope these words clarify what I believe many of those who continue to create the Internet continue to do, even though most of them are not aware of it. I also hope many will see their interest in keeping the core principles of the Internet alive.

The Internet must be fit to be the best medium of discourse and intercourse [not just one of many media, and not just limited to democratic discourse among humans]. It must be fit to be the best medium for commercial intercourse as well, though that might be subsumed as a proper subset of discourse and intercourse.

Which implies interoperability and non-balkanization of the medium, of course. But it also implies flexibility and evolvability – which *must* be permissionless and as capable as possible of adapting to as-yet-unforeseen uses and incorporating as-yet-unforeseen technologies.

I’ve used the notion of a major language of inter-cultural interaction, like English, Chinese, or Arabic, as an explicit predecessor and model for the Internet’s elements – it’s protocols and subject matter, it’s mechanism of self-extension, and it’s role as a “universal solvent”.

We create English or Chinese or Arabic merely by using it well. We build laws in those frameworks, protocols of all sorts in those frameworks, etc.

But those frameworks are inadequate to include all subjects and practices of discourse and intercourse in our modern digital world. So we invented the Internet – a set of protocols that are extraordinarily simple and extraordinarily independent of medium, while extensible and infinitely complex. THey are mature, but they have run into a limit: they cannot be a framework for all forms of (digital information). One cannot encode a photograph for transmission in English, yet one can in the framework we have built beginning with the Internet’s IP datagrams, addressing scheme, and agreed-upon mechanics.

The Internet and its protocols are sufficient to support an evolving and ultimately ramifying set of protocols and intercourse forms – one’s that have *real* impact beyond jurisdiction or “standards body”.

The key is that the Internet is created by its users, because its users are free to create it. There is no “governor” who has the power to say “no” – you cannot technically communicate that way or about that.

And the other key is that we (the ones who began it, and the ones who now add to it every day, making it better) have proven that we don’t need a system that draws boundaries, says no, and proscribes evolution in order to have a system that flourishes.

It just works.

This is a shock to those who seem to think that one needs to hand all the keys to a powerful company like the old AT&T or to a powerful central “coordinating body” like the ITU, in order for it not to fall apart.

The Internet has proven that the “Tower of Babel” is not inevitable (and it never was), because communications is an increasing returns system – you can’t opt out and hope to improve your lot. Also because “assembly” (that is, group-forming) is an increasing returns system. Whether economically or culturally, the joint creation of systems of discourse and intercourse *by the users* of those systems creates coherence while also supporting innovation.

The problem (if we have any) is those who are either blind to that, or willfully reject what has been shown now for at least 30 years – that the Internet works.

Also there is too much (mis)use of the Fallacy of Composition that has allowed the Internet to be represented as merely what happens when you have packets rather than circuits, or merely what happens when you choose to adopt certain formats and bit layouts. That’s what the “OSI model” is often taken to mean: a specific design document that sits sterile on a shelf, ignoring the dynamic and actual phenomenon of the Internet. A thing is not what it is, at the moment, made of. A river is not the water molecules that currently sit in the river. This is why the neither owners of the fibers and switches nor the IETF can make the Internet safe or secure – that idea is just another Fallacy of Composition. [footnote: many instances of the “end-to-end argument” are arguments based on a Fallacy of Composition].

The Internet is not the wires. It’s not the wires and the fibers. It’s never been the same thing as “Broadband”, though there has been an active effort to confuse the two. It’s not the packets. It’s not the W3C standards document or the IETF’s meetings. It’s NONE of these things – because those things are merely epiphenomena that enable the Internet itself.

The Internet is an abstract noun, not a physical thing. It is not a frequency band or a “service” that should be regulated by one of the service-specific offices of the FCC. It is not a “product” that is “provided” by a provider.

But the Internet is itself, and it includes and is defined by those who have used it, those who are using it and those who will use it.

Yochai Benkler runs it down: the NSA, our rights, America in decline

Yochai Benkler shines a summary light on NSA revelations. I personally don’t think the problem is the NSA but the context in which the NSA is operating – a context in which American values are in transition – I would say decline – as a concept of governance founded on democratic and scientific traditions is replaced by a concept of governance based on traditions of elite power, superstition and fear. Note my boldface below…

We have learned that in pursuit of its bureaucratic mission to obtain signals intelligence in a pervasively networked world, the NSA has mounted a systematic campaign against the foundations of American power: constitutional checks and balances, technological leadership, and market entrepreneurship. The NSA scandal is no longer about privacy, or a particular violation of constitutional or legislative obligations. The American body politic is suffering a severe case of auto-immune disease: our defense system is attacking other critical systems of our body.

Further on:

Serious people with grave expressions will argue that if we do not ruthlessly expand our intelligence capabilities, we will suffer terrorism and defeat…. The “serious people” are appealing to our faith that national security is critical, in order to demand that we accept the particular organization of the Intelligence Church. Demand for blind faith adherence is unacceptable.

You think Yochai Benkler is angry? Shouldn’t you be?

New method for harvesting energy from light

“Harvesting energy from light” has an exotic sci-fi vibe – it’s about better methods for extracting solar energy to generate electricity, and improved fiber optic technology for communications – applications we’re familiar with — this isn’t the Bellero Shield.

The new work centers on plasmonic nanostructures, specifically, materials fabricated from gold particles and light-sensitive molecules of porphyin, of precise sizes and arranged in specific patterns. Plasmons, or a collective oscillation of electrons, can be excited in these systems by optical radiation and induce an electrical current that can move in a pattern determined by the size and layout of the gold particles, as well as the electrical properties of the surrounding environment. Because these materials can enhance the scattering of light, they have the potential to be used to advantage in a range of technological applications, such as increasing absorption in solar cells.

Link to University of Pennsylvania press release.

Lessig Blog, v2: On the emptiness in the concept of “neutrality”

Lessig Blog, v2: On the emptiness in the concept of “neutrality”