When those graphics are developed further we'll get them up onto the blog to show how your input helped.
Archives for August 2009
When those graphics are developed further we'll get them up onto the blog to show how your input helped.
By experiments, I mean anything that tests how the web works. Following the twitchhiker's journey around the world gave insights into the real-life impact of the social web. Wired have an experiment on the go at the moment, to see how easy it is to vanish in the digital age.
Professor David Nicholas and the CIBER group at University College, London recently published a paper on the 'Google Generation', which analysed online searches to assess the critical and analytical skills of the 'researcher of the future'. We're planning an experiment with Professor Nicholas and his team at the moment to build on this, and find out more about the impact of the web on the way we think.
We'd also like to run some experiments to cover some of the other themes in the series:
- privacy on the web
- the impact of the web on the nation state
- the value of our clickstreams
So we're thinking of ways and means of testing the web and its effects on us, and we're open to suggestions. If you had a chance to conduct an experiment on the web and its users, what would you test?
"Why can't we just switch it off?" asked a senior security official at a security conference Q&A a couple of years back. It was a reasonable question, but one my grandmother (c. 1892) might have asked! Perhaps more significant was the pitched battle that ensued between those whose virtual cup is always half empty, who seem to thrive on scaring the pants off us with horror stories that create fear, uncertainty and doubt, and those whose half full cup brims over with an optimistic moralistic froth. It's a pattern that has become more or less the norm at web conferences and in security blogs. There are no winners or losers in such battles because they are fought over opinions rather than facts.
Yet, one fact borne out by our experience of the web over the past two decades is just how resilient it can be. It can certainly be interrupted by DDOS attacks etc. and cable breaks, but it can't be permanently broken because of the internet's inherent re-routing capabilities which are supported by an army of techies who maintain the massive bunch of wires / fibreoptics that join computers using TCP/IP protocol.
But perhaps more important is the fact that the Web is a triumph of co-creation, peer production and mass participation. It is the collective imagination of its users which generates the will to keep it going. It is precisely because of these special physical and human qualities, why those individuals, corporations and governments who have historically tried to impose their will over it have failed in their task. This tells me that the imposition of traditional control mechanisms over the web are doomed to failure and that we need to broaden security debates from the old law and order binaries (good guys/ bad guys) to reflect the way that the internet actually works.
In the field of cybercrime, my main area of interest, for example, this new thinking tells us that the very technologies that create opportunities for cybercrimes can also be used to prevent and police them - though frameworks of accountability are required to make such actions legal. Another observation is that internet crime is by nature largely individualistic and, despite what many commentators say, resists the clutches of traditional organised crime as much as it does the state (police). Instead, we experience new forms of organised crime that is networked rather than socially embedded. Furthermore, most traditional forms of crime control fail conceptually when applied online because they frequently become interpreted as censorship and end up aggravating the general populace of honest web-users.
Until there is a broader realisation that the web is driven by a series of consensual norms that are now defining, amongst other things, citizenship, what is criminal or not, the many types of intellectual property that now exist, or even ideas about security and its solutions - norms that can come into conflict with those of 'the powerful' (Corporations, Government etc.) - then the advances that the web offers us will not progress.
The one fact that remains certain is that the internet's path will continue to be 'lit by the dark carnivorous glow of its own genius' (to paraphrase Lester Bangs from his 1970s description of Iggy Pop, who now lectures us about risk aversion in TV insurance adverts).
No, you can't switch it off, but you can perceivably switch people off, so let us strive not to do that.
- IP Blocking
- DNS Tampering
- HTTP Proxy Filtering
- Server Takedown
- DOS attack
Programme number three is tentatively titled, "The Cost of Free". It's all about the little bits of us that we trade to use the Web.
I'm a dystopian from way back. I distinctly remember the first time I landed on 1984, one of those books on my shelf that is so well thumbed, I've practically rubbed out the writing. When I discovered it in high school, it turned my world upside down: it was a challenge, a call to arms, a layer of consciousness peeled back, magical sunglasses put on, an awareness of the hidden machinations that keep us ticking over like drugged, pliant masses. Really. Very exciting.
Among the many things that have stuck in my mind from Orwell's powerful story was the box in the corner of every room that watched the citizenry of Oceania. Big Brother (sadly caricatured by a light entertainment, self-promotional vehicle) kept tabs on Winston Smith and his compatriots through the telescreen, or the two-way TV that proved an unavoidable window into private and public life.
Over the years, it has occurred to me that the Web is an adaptation of this object. In addition to the content that we willingly give to it through our profiles, our feeds and our clickstreams, there are many terrifying hacks that we don't realise are giving other people access into our lives. Take this list of unsecured webcams as an example: you and I are free to look into the rooms of anyone who chooses to leave their network loops open, and those people who didn't know the difference. Kinda freaks me out.
But there is one critical difference between the modern world and the world created by Orwell: this pseudo-surveillance has not been imposed by any State. We are complicit in bringing the machine into our lives.
The success of this innovation has been brought about because we've listened to our friends and we've listened to our wallets. The benefits significantly outweigh the costs. As Boldwing commented on our very first blog post: we are able to connect, collect, contribute and create online in ways that were heretofore impossible. And we do all this for free. Pretty flipping amazing.
So what are the costs? And more importantly, who is watching us? Well, that's what we're going to look at over the next few weeks. We are going to examine how we are vulnerable, but how our vulnerability is making the world a better place.
I love the ideas in all four of the Digital Revolution programmes, but I think this is my favourite at the moment, because it taps into something so wonderfully dark, so disturbingly dystopian, that I'm sure what we uncover will be far, far stranger than fiction. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
- people working on Wikipedia at the conference - informal editing of pages etc
- sense of social life around the conference - Wikipedians having fun together
- Jimmy Wales / other senior Wikimedia figures
- anything that gives a sense of the organisation functioning as a whole - how it self regualtes etc.
- establishing shots of building where conference held and Buenos Aires etc.
- occasional sound idents on the above explaining where we are and what happening could be useful (may or may not be featured)
- Long talks and speeches at the conference. (Brief extracts of Jimmy Wales or other key figures would be ok, but we won't be featuring long speeches/conferences etc.)
It was a pretty formative time in the mainstream use of the Web, an exciting time to surf: content was being uploaded onto proto-websites at an impossible rate. But impressively, less than a decade after the hypertext prototcol was knocked together, it was becoming an indispensable part of our lives.
And then one day it broke.
I remember it perfectly; people were freaking out, businesses were panicking, pulling out their old fax machines and trying to remember how they worked. Commerce slowed down and communication chugged. It had only been a short while that AOL had worked its way into the fabric of our lives, but its absence was utterly devastating.
Oh how exciting.
I realised that day how vulnerable we had already become. What if the plug was pulled? What if the Web disappeared? What on earth would happen?
That was almost 15 years ago, and since that time, we have become even more invested in Web technology. It has become part of our lives in the most incredible ways. It is our commerce, our security, our health service, our politics. And that makes us - and the systems that keep social order - even more vulnerable.
There have been very few instances of nation-on-nation cyber attacks, but those that have occurred have hinted at the new possibilities for real disruption. There appear to be two pathways: the soft and hard attacks.
Here's an example of a nation-level soft attack: on 27 April 2007, Estonia's communication was disabled by cyber-attack that was alleged to be actuated by Russia. Angry at the removal of a Soviet war monument, Estonia's websites were bombarded with so many false requests from a botnet that they were offline for a fortnight.
I haven't heard about any hard attacks yet. By these, I mean attacks that do something physical to the systems. I do remember hearing several years ago about a carbon-based explosive that detonated above ground and rained carbon filaments onto circuit boards, jamming their connections and rendering the systems helpless. And then there was the rather embarrassing situation in the Middle East, when a ship's anchor accidentally cut the offshore cables that connected the Middle East, Egypt and India to the Internet: that could foreshadow a method that someone might take to disable a part of the Web.
I'm interested in the safety features put in place: networks have work-arounds, of course, to cope with over-loads. But, like the four apocryphal locations in London that, if attacked, would disable the capital and bring down the UK, I wonder if there are any places the Web may be most susceptible.
After all, we rely so much on it, it would be a shame to lose it.
Let us know anything you've heard about potential weaknesses in the system. For example, are the Google Maps of root servers a potential security breach? What about the Cloud, that memory system in the sky, that has proven vulnerable in the past? Are there security guards patrolling the beaches where the Web comes onshore, or are we relying on the faith that we'd see any potential attackers if they got that close?
Let us know your theories (based on facts, of course) and we'll see if we can work them into the show.
Developed by childish grown-ups for grown-up children, the Internet has encouraged a lot of child-like nonsense from the BBC Digital Revolution team about the withering away of power and of the state. That eternal adolescent, Bill Thompson, is so excited about the Internet's potential to revolutionize our political species-being, he says, supposedly seriously, that it "counts as one of the most important things we've managed to do as a species." While the irony is actually on an equally straightfaced Aleks Krotoski when she incorrectly argues that 'it's ironic that Internet technology was devised and developed to protect the state, but is now being used to dismantle it.'
What childish nonsense from the kids manning the ideological barricades of the digital revolution. Firstly, as Fred Turner shows so brilliantly in his seminal From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Internet technology was "devised" and 'developed' in the Sixties by a curious alliance of the American Cold War military-industrial 'state' and by libertarian west coast hippies represented by counter-cultural merry pranksters like 'Whole Earth Catalog' founder Stewart Brand. Think of the Internet like an ideological map of California - impossibly incorporating both the Reaganite south and its apparent antithesis, the left-liberal north.
So, like a supposedly innocent child, the Internet is actually more complicated that it first appears. It is simultaneously authoritarian and anti-authoritarian, both a representative of traditional state power and resistance to that power, both a representative of the dominant establishment and a revolutionary challenge to it, simultaneously elitist and anti-elitist. What Turner reveals is the origins of the same post-industrial cultural phenomenon identified by critics like Daniel Bell in the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism and by Robert Frank in The Conquest of Cool.
In a media saturated culture which increasingly fetishizes the nonconformity and innocence of the child, power is resistance, authority is questioning authority, the state is against the state, the new brand is the anti brand, political activism (to quote the Open Society Institute's Evgeny Morozov) is the 'slactivism' of the social network. The Internet has, therefore, become both a medium for strengthening this new ideology of capitalism and commercial platform for selling its products and ideas. The weaker the formal state becomes, the more we question the authority of the police, the judiciary, the traditional political parties and ideological configurations, the more we build up the Internet as an anti-authoritarian source of authority.
And thus, in the West, the state is slowly but surely being replaced by the Internet, an abstractly distributed version of our old certainties about power and authority.
And now, too, in America, the Internet generation, those merry pranksters led by a BlackBerry addicted President brought to power on the back of the distributed crowd who claims to be 'beyond' ideology, have actually come to 'power'. Therein lies the ideologically seductive nature of the Internet in a West which simultaneously wants to celebrate and undermine itself (the celebration perhaps becoming the undermining). It supposed absence of confirms what we think we already know - that power lies in the dismantlement, that the revolution (finally) has arrived. And it's us, the great dismantlers.
Meanwhile, of course, nothing has actually changed. In America, financial, political and military power still resides in the same elites. They've simply learnt the new populist language of dismantlement. Take Obama, for example, whose brand epitomizes how power itself in the west has become a slick marketing concept. He came to power on the back of the distributed crowd, that supposedly wise thing created by the Internet to smash the incompetent old elites. But what does he do when he finally inherits power from the old regime? He appoints those very elites, the Ivy League educated meritocracy, that he was supposed to replace.
Outside the West, of course, the story is quite the opposite. Here the childishly libertarian argument about the Internet weakening the state is beyond irony - it's hideously wrong and BBC digital revolutionaries should be ashamed of themselves for perpetrating such self-evident rubbish. In China, Russia and Iran, the Internet has become a disturbingly effective set of technological tools for maintaining the power of the old elites. In Russia, for example, Putin's cronies just financed an online witch hunt against a single Georgian activist which was so effective that it brought down not only Twitter, but also Facebook. In Iran, the increasingly powerful regime now sponsors religious workshops in the holy city of Qom which offer courses for seminarians in how to blog about the Iranian revolution. In China, the regime pays 'distributed citizens' to 'engage in conversation' with dissidents on the Internet. Crowd-sourcing, hacking, blogging then, are all turned on their heads. Now they are chillingly effective tools to destroy political democracy, intellectual dissent and individual freedom.
Out of that unholy marriage of the American military industrial complex and its supposed antithesis, the hippy counterculture, we in the West have freely (an alternate definition of Chris Anderson's fetishization of FREE) given authoritarian regimes a series of technology tools (ie: the Internet) to maintain themselves in power. The only thing that the web has really dismantled is the childish dream of the end of history. The Internet is too serious a thing to left to revolutionary kids like Bill Thompson and Aleks Krotoski.
Aleks raises some very interesting points by positioning eBay as an autonomous nation. At first glance, I would go so far as to say that the individual proof points do warrant more than their fair share of merit. From the social feedback system to the economic structure through PayPal, one can see how easy it is to make the leap. As one can also see however, from the resulting comments provided by @petehindle, @cyberissues and @TimFootman, upon further scrutiny the analogies end almost as quickly as they begin.
It is Aleks' reference to eBay's "development of smaller sub-communities" that I'd like to delve a little deeper into. At its core, eBay is one of the first (if not the first if you exclude email) social networks; connecting people with similar interests and applying online commerce to that direct connection. Ironically, in a world that has seen us move away from knowing our milkman, butcher, or postman and turned us into a self-serving society of faceless convenience, eBay - or rather the eBay community - has succeeded due in large part to the continued fact that people do want that individual connection.
This leads me to an interesting opportunity (or challenge depending on your viewpoint) currently being faced by eBay as we embrace the Digital Revolution.
The advent of the social web has built upon that original eBay ideal - connecting people online - creating virtual villages that introduce individuals with similar likes and views to one another, regardless of geography. The ubiquitous aspects of the new social web, although perfectly positioned for the personality of the eBay community, actually currently goes directly against the existing makeup of the eBay Marketplace infrastructure (currently no external links or social media widgets are permitted on individual listings).
To that end, eBay has taken an open and earnest approach to third-party development on its site through its Selling Manager Applications (SM Apps) program. I believe the company acknowledges that the eBay Marketplace must become more than a sequence of proprietary sites and embrace total ubiquity in order to fully realize its continued vision of connecting buyers and sellers online.
Rather than stand as an eNation, therefore, I would propose it's more important for eBay to continue its evolution into a confederation of virtual villages allowing its community to use whatever tools necessary to buy and sell what they want, where they want, when they want to.
The nation-state, argued Bill Thompson at the Web@20 event that launched the Digital Revolution project, is an outdated phenomenon. The World Wide Web is engendering trans-national identities based on communities of practice not tied to traditional forms of governance, he claimed. This revolution is powerful and is changing our politics at such an unprecedented speed that it will topple traditional social structures.
I agree with Bill, at least in part: we are seeing new governance arise that cuts across political borders, constitutions and dogmas by using the websites and web communities that we increasingly interact in. However, I don't think the nation-state is in decline; rather, it's evolving, and it is wont to suffer the same shortfalls of its physical counterparts.
World wide governments are struggling to keep up with the changes that the Internet communication technologies have brought to long-held concepts of ownership, control, propaganda, conflict and civil liberties. Meanwhile, new virtual world orders are developing with transparently political agendas. Take, for example, the e-Nation known as eBay.
Stick with me here. The auction marketplace has worked hard to become an autonomous nation. First, it is independent of any one system of regulation. Second, using the template of a philanthropic Guatemalan village project, eBay daddy Pierre Omidyar and his colleagues have created a loyal citizenry by fostering and nurturing a community using an internal social feedback system that has encouraged the development of trust between its members (whuffie, for Doctorow fans). It continues to reward its most committed participants in return for their loyalties, and, benevolently, has allowed for the development of smaller sub-communities.
Third, as well as its social capital, eBay also has its own economic capital: PayPal. Gosh, that was a clever purchase; by creating its own currency, it distanced itself from international trade regulations and raised itself above any law. Well, at least for a short while. Clearly, its transnationalism has come under scrutiny from international tax collectors because it is, essentially, a way for people to sell things without customs or duty taxes.
Fourth, eBay has its own communications system in Skype. Although that relationship is set to end, for the time being it remains an un-regulated layer of autonomy. Finally, the nation of eBay has a justice system that serves the needs of its citizenry, supporting their right to swift and independent action.
So, in sum, eBay has fostered the sense of dedication amongst its community members: a common identity that transcends national borders. Its centralised government, based in eBay HQ in San Jose, California, works on behalf of the populace, ensuring that the health of the system is maintained and that its citizens are happy. It has unified itself under a currency, it provides telecommunications, it offers a justice system. Sounds like a nation-state to me.
OK, OK, I admit it: eBay is a stretch. But there are many other virtual nation states that map more closely onto our offline social systems. Online games like World of Warcraft are ruled by game gods who provide for the populace, regardless of whether they are Horde or Alliance; similarly, virtual worlds like Second Life have celebrated economies, criminal courts and their own telecommunications.
But the one thing that is common amongst all of these new nations under the Internet is that, despite many of their revolutionary ideas of horizontal governance, they are ruled by benevolent dictators who have the ultimate power to flip the switch.
So tread lightly, fellow revolutionaries. For our rulers may be benevolent now, but may eventually succumb to the corruption that often dogs the powerful, and we desperately don't want them to pull the plug.
To start, it's ironic that Internet technology was devised and developed to protect the state, but is now being used to dismantle it. There are countless examples of this, from formal protests organised via Facebook, informal actions collected on Flickr, to international calls for action as a result of Twitter communication. The bottom line is that, although apathy remains high in more formal democratic activities (with the occasional surprise consequence), we are more plugged in and engaged in politics than we have been since Robert Putnam documented the decline in social capital in 1995.
Yet this is a different kind of politic: this is a global movement brought on by the deregulation of information and the technologies used to share it. We can now circumvent national propagandas, find out the stories from the mouths of the people who are experiencing them. Take, for example, the Baghdad Blogger, who gave a phenomenal first-hand account of living in a war zone in 2003; it opened our eyes to the real issues of the men and women on the streets, not just what we heard from the spokespeople, translated into palatable bureau-speak.
Although over the last few weeks we debated the new powers that have emerged that have re-asserted control structures on our access to knowledge, what is key is that it is now out of the hands of the governments, who struggle to grok it and to participate in it in an inclusive, effective and, well, non-cheesy way. Vint Cerf argues that the genie is out of the bottle: because 99% of the content that's on the Web is privately owned, the government can only own the pipeline that transmits it, not what flows.
Of course, there are many high profile, top-down attempts at regulation that government has tried to impose on the 'tubes: the contested three-strikes and you're out law in France that cuts off Web access to users accused of downloading copyrighted content, the rather embarrassing and Puritanical attempts by the UK government to protect us from the 'sick filth' on Wikipedia, the blanket ban of any virtual pornographic content in India, the selective information allowed in and out of China, the recent crackdown of information about the protests in Iran during and after their recent election. But in all of these examples, people have used the tools supplied by the Web to access content, to communicate with the outside world, to stage little and large protests. For our Western liberal democracies, this is what we're all about: what a win.
But let's play Devil's Advocate for a second. One of the fears that surrounds the emergence of a world government and the dissolution of the nation-states is the loss of individual and national autonomy. As we become a more globalised society, augmented by changes in communication technologies in particular, it becomes increasingly difficult to see our unique national differences. The global love-in that we've been projecting into our connected future that is based on virtual communities bound by common interests rather than geography celebrates the commonalities we have with people around the world, yes, but this is arguably a Western, individualist dogma. Is there a danger that this is a form of ideological imperialism being rolled out through a technology that, in large part, has come from a relatively small number of people in one physical space? Perhaps these governments are trying to act in what they feel are the interests of their populations by preserving their cultures from the onslaught of outsiders.
Perhaps cyberwarfare is another, more dramatic response.
This programme will try to deconstruct these issues. Over the next few weeks, we'll be looking at the websites that cut across national boundaries and have implemented their own unregulated communication, economic and governance systems. We'll be exploring whether the Internet needs to be regulated, and, if it does, the systems that need to be put into place to make sure the regulators don't step out of line. We'll traverse the multicultural Web, identifying the role non-Western countries have had in shaping how we communicate and what we consume, and we'll be detailing government's e-vulnerabilities.
These are the issues that will shape of the programme, and we're looking to you to help inform how they should be presented.
(Lee Siegel is an author and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Daily Beast. The following post is published with kind permission and represents Lee's views; this does not necessarily reflect the views of the BBC or the Digital Revolution production.)
What I find most striking about the web today is the fact that people still seem to need to celebrate the web. Striking is the wrong word: I find it downright bizarre. I can't think of a single book that sang the praises of television at the time of that medium's advent, let alone 20 years after it had appeared. The same goes for the telephone and for film. Why is it that two decades after the internet established itself as a permanent fixture of our social, cultural and personal lives, do books still roll off the presses extolling the virtues of blogging, for example, or of online 'connected' culture? Even as newspapers have their profits leached away by online sites that plunder the former's content for free, the newspapers themselves publish encomia to the web. Even as authors lose royalty money that is rightfully theirs to online violations of copyright, they take to the pages of a magazine (see Nicholson Baker's mind-numbing hymn to the Kindle in the current issue of the New Yorker) to gurgle happily about intellectual piracy's new technology.
And why, in our modern media culture that thrives on contrarianism, is there not substantial scepticism about the web - not the slightest suggestion that life under the internet is not fundamentally better (and even in some cases more than marginally worse) than life BC (Before Connectivity). When such scepticism does cautiously raise its head, it is expressed so timorously that you could be forgiven for construing it as an endorsement. Recently, a review in the New York Times Book Review of a book lamenting the online violation of copyright, spent most of its space attacking the book's style, only to hurriedly conclude that the book's argument - the laws of copyright must be preserved against 'digital barbarism' (the book's title) - was essentially correct!
All this boosterism and herd-like affirmation is bizarre because the internet is a new mode of convenience, nothing more, nothing less. It has not made society more egalitarian, it has not made modern democratic politics more 'transparent', it has not made us happier. Rather, it has made our appetites more impatient to be satisfied, devised new, speedier ways of satisfying them, and created more sophisticated methods of monitoring and controlling our private lives.
Have the blogs broken the big stories that the supposedly corrupt big media have not? Well, let's see. During the past eight years, we had a criminal regime that tore the fabric of society to pieces. We had a financial crisis based on dishonesty and greed that is unlike anything ever seen in American history, and a 'solution' to the crisis that is, actually, a more advanced phase of the dishonesty and greed that caused it. For all the vaunted claims of internet-created 'transparency', we are more in the dark about the financial meltdown's causes than we have been about the origins of any socioeconomic event. And while the stock market soars, and the banks flourish, and the realtors and mortgage brokers find a new game to play, unemployment rises, foreclosures increase, and the media produced by the cable revolution, and fuelled by their legions of internet-connected 'citizen journalists', move bravely forward into ever more innovative ways to cover, and investigate, and make 'transparent' the circumstances around.... Michael Jackson's death.
It is at this point that I should, like a Soviet-era prisoner making a forced confession, enumerate the internet's virtues, castigate myself for being an intemperate and bitter dinosaur wedded to his telegraph and Victrola, and end by adding my voice to the collective Hosannas being showered on the web. But, to quote Melville's Bartleby, "I prefer not to."
Rather, I would like a serious discussion, first of all, of the way a novel idea becomes a mental tic--of the way a liberal idea of technology becomes a mindless, reflexive affirmation of technology's illiberal effects. For liberalism's nightmare used to consist of a many-tentacled regime using the appearance of transparency to construct a thicker opacity (remember that newspaper called 'Pravda'?); and creating the mirage of countless 'friends' (i.e. the Party) to normalize a culture of secret revelations and shame that actually sundered the bonds of friendship; and employing a culture of superficial information to disable true knowledge of the causes of events. I would like someone to present the Other Point of View without being called cowardly, future-phobic, or intemperate (he criticizes the reckless bloggers, but he's even nastier than they are!).
Why all the near-hysterical
hymns to an ultimately pedestrian technology that has been around for two
decades? The pie is getting smaller, that's all, and people are feeling left
out. Orwell was very good on all the slackers, layabouts and mediocrities that
rushed off to colonial