Archives for August 2009

Revolution round-up: week seven (Video)

Another week of ideas and debate, with some hugely helpful information exchanges on the blog from users with keen tech and web knowledge. Once again, I'll attempt to round up some of the points and arguments made this week, as appropriate to their programme or topic.

Programme Two; breaking the web:

The discussion of the web's vulnerability to attacks of various kinds continued with interesting insights into the resilience of the web to the majority of these ongoing battles online. DS Wall suggesting that one real way of damaging the web was to damage its credibility, rather than damage its infrastructure.

@cyberissues cites Turkey as an example of a nation state which rather than using a blanket firewall, applies legal pressure to ISPs to block 'offending' sites. And points out that the UK has similar controls over sites and their content via the IWF that are currently a voluntary opt-in.

@EnglishFolkFan brought up the idea of 'net neutrality' (as championed by Vint Cerf) but this appears to be an issue, indeed term, closer to US hearts and minds. Does the UK have a similar champion? Sir Tim Berners-Lee perhaps, in his assertion that the web should be like a blank piece of paper upon which no rules are imposed by that paper - that you may write (or draw) upon it what you will.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

There was a general consensus that the internet and web, whilst disruptible were unlikely to be destructible. Users @jayfurneaux and @earthgecko pointed to the more likely point of failure - power supply!

And while language on the web (English-based code and western message) as soft-imperialism has been roundly argued against previously on the blog @TaiwanChallenges noted a potential political point being made by the languages offered by an open source translation program. Perhaps the medium can indeed be the message?

As part of the series we will be using a graphics company to visualise various processes to explain the workings of the net. Two such processes were being taken to the graphics company this week and programme two director, Frank Hanly, asked blog users to check the tech we were asking the graphics team to illustrate: packet switching and filtering/blocking. The replies were a much appreciated sanity check.

When those graphics are developed further we'll get them up onto the blog to show how your input helped.

Programme three - the cost of free

Aleks Krotoski provided a starter for ten on the issues of privacy and the information economy this week, invoking her fondness for Orwell's 1984. Aleks argues that rather than Big Brother's gaze having been imposed upon us by a dictatorship, we have in fact opened the door and invited into our lives the gaze of... any number of eyes.

These musings inspired the inner dystopian in a number of us on the blog: concerns of unique online identity, and the creation of a unique and consistent lie for yourself online.

While @cyberissues echoed DS Wall's point of trust and engagement being a fine balance for the web and its applications alike: 'Now there presents a problem - too much suspicion in these social services and they become unusable; too little and disaster may ensue.'

While @TaiwanChallenges saw Aleks' Orwell and raised her a Huxley:

'The survival of democracy depends on the ability of large numbers of people to make realistic choices in the light of adequate information. A dictatorship, on the other hand, maintains itself by censoring or dis­torting the facts, and by appealing, not to reason, not to enlightened self-interest, but to passion and prej­udice, to the powerful "hidden forces," as Hitler called them, present in the unconscious depths of every hu­man mind.'

Experiments - testing the web

Multiplatform Content Producer Dan Gluckman joined the blog party to preview Digital Revolution's intentions to test the web in various ways. Interestingly there were a number of responses on other posts which make for interesting reading there: particularly @EnglishFolkFan's pointing out an experiment into multitasking abilities.

@GaryGSCC suggested planting a fib/lie into the web and tracing its course and spread through the web. This, they suggest, should be planted via a variety of sources, reliable, respected to the more scurrilous, to see whether the inception point would affect the spread of the (mis)information.

@SheffTim sets a challenge to find out as much about a person as possible via their digital presence and footprint. Following that, to what extent could you track a person via the net (and beyond)?

On Twitter @vo0ds suggested testing 'the (random number)% of the internet is porn myth

Programme four - is the web changing us?

More information around the themes of programme four - the web is changing us - are coming in the next week, but almost in a prelude to the impending discussions @TaiwanChallenges took to task one of the main questions of the series: the effect of the web on the human brain. This is an excellent and considered look at the differences between the Asian and Western approaches to language and communication (though not exclusively Far East/West divisions): 'there is the possibility that using the web - the western web as it is today - will make 'us' become more like Asians in the respect that we learn to process information more contextually, more holistically'

Next week, expect blog posts from Jon Webster on artists' surviving in a world that increasingly expects to consume their content for free, more info on programmes three and four and Tim Berners-Lee's views on privacy online.

Let's experiment

Post categories:

Dan Gluckman - Product Lead | 15:00 UK time, Thursday, 27 August 2009

The 'Digital Revolution' project involves a lot of talk about the web. But can we do something more practical? Can we use the web to run experiments that test some of the big themes of the series? How the web is impacting on the nation state, for example, or our own privacy?

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
  • censorship
  • the value of our clickstreams
A few weeks ago, I was at a fascinating brainstorming session at the School of Electronics and Computer Science at Southampton University. (Professor Nigel Shadbolt and Dame Wendy Hall at Southampton, along with Tim Berners-Lee, have called for a new 'Web Science' that brings together people from a wide range of academic disciplines to fully understand the web and its impact). Topics ranged from the decline of old media, to the dynamics of power on the web.

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?"

Post categories:

Professor David Wall | 11:45 UK time, Wednesday, 26 August 2009

(David Wall is Professor of Criminal Justice and Information Society at the University of Leeds, where he also conducts research and teaches in the fields of criminal justice and information technology, policing and cyberlaw. The following post is published with kind permission and represents David's views; this does not necessarily reflect the views of the BBC or the Digital Revolution production.)

"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.

Please check our tech!

Post categories:

Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 16:47 UK time, Tuesday, 25 August 2009

As you might expect, the final documentaries of Digital Revolution will involve segments where we have to explain elements of the web, internet and processes that make things work.

This could be tough work to get across, and even tougher work for an audience to consume. So, we're going to use graphics and animation to work though some of the more abstract concepts of the technology.

We need to explain this to our graphics company in simple. clear and accurate terms for them to depict the message simply, clearly and accurately. Simple we can do. Clearly and accurately... Well, we think we've got that sorted too, but we'd like to check that we've not strayed too far from the bounds of sense and fact. 

Below are two examples of our briefs to the graphics team. We would greatly appreciate it if you could let us know if they're all right.

Packet switching:

1) Packet switching works by taking a piece of information, say a file, a picture or an email and breaking it up into small digital pieces.

2) These are then sent over a network, often not in the right order or over the same line. 

3) At the receiver's end the packets are recombined in the right order and the information is made whole again.

4) Packet switching is the perfect tool for computers to talk to each other because allows for a huge number of files to be transmitted over the net simultaneously.

Point 4 is the main point we're trying to get at in explaining how mass information transference is enabled. Is that a fair description?

Web filtering and blocking:

1) All internet communication works by one computer connecting to another computer, splitting the data into packets and sending them on their way to the intended destination.

2) Specialised computers known as routers are responsible for directing the packets on their way.

3) Data as it passes through routers can be blocked or filtered using software so that particular websites or e-mails can be prevented from being viewed.

4) The common methods of filtering / blocking the web are:
  • IP Blocking
  • DNS Tampering
  • HTTP Proxy Filtering
  • Server Takedown
  • DOS attack
Ok. Be gentle. Does it a) make sense? And b) look right?

Chris Anderson on privacy online (Video)

Post categories:

Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 12:54 UK time, Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Wired's Chris Anderson joined the Digital Revolution production at the Web at 20 launch event to share his views upon a topic central to programme three: the issues of privacy and safety that arise from our constant and seemingly open interactions with the web.

Chris Anderson on privacy and the value of trust:

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

So, where do you set your privacy dial when you go online?

Transcript of Chris' speech on privacy:
In the exchange of information both explicit and implicit, everything we do on line leaves a trail, that could trail. When you shop, when you search, when you comment, when you tweet, when you blog - all that we're doing for our own reasons. And yet it's creating something of potential value to others. Not only that but it's creating something of potential misuse. 

What this requires is that we need to understand what the implications are, what the consequences are of what we do. And we're training... We have a generation - the facebook generation - whose instinct is towards openness, whose instinct is towards transparency, not out of any sort of philosophical belief that transparency is good, they're doing it for their own reasons. They're doing it to establish social ties to their friends, they're doing it to establish who they are, they're doing it as a form of identity, and on some level a form of self-promotion, to establish their rank in the social order. The consequence of that is they're also leaving a record out there which can be potentially turned into money by companies who market to them, and could potentially be used against them by those who want to do so.

Laws unfortunately are too coarse-grained to be able to prevent this. You know you can have a privacy law but the problem is that each one of us turns our own privacy dial to a different level. I choose to live in public, my wife chooses to live in private. You can google me and find out everything about me. You can't google my wife. We set that dial ourselves, and I think what we're going to have to do is train and teach a generation as to the consequences of what they do, rather than assume that governments are going to be able to protect us from that. Likewise, we won't be able to stop governments, you know, some government somewhere, hopefully not our own, from misusing this, and it'll be hard to stop companies from doing this as well. All we have is the power of our actions to rail against it; to avoid it; to leave companies that misuse our trust; to require companies and governments to be open and transparent and honest about what they're doing, so that we can weigh the consequences of what we will do.

We bought the e-ticket, we're taking the ride

Post categories:

Aleks Krotoski | 11:47 UK time, Monday, 24 August 2009

Over the past few weeks, we've been rather po-facedly debating the contemporary Nation-State: one union under the World Wide Web, facilitated by the Internet, threatening the sovereignty of modern political structures. Now, we're going to turn the tables and look at what the Web is doing to us. No, not along the lines that Internet- sceptics like Baronness Susan Greenfield propose (we'll be getting into that in our final programme), but at what we are giving up of ourselves to the people behind the websites every time we go online.

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.

revolution round-up: week five and six

What with diatribes from Andrew Keen painting us as children peddling nonsense, eBay denying the eNation status granted it by Aleks, and organising a crowdsourced filming of footage at Wikimania 09 in Buenos Aires next week, it's been a busy week.

Add to that interest and analysis and comment on blogs such as Wired UK and Silicon Valley Watcher  and it's a tall order to synopsise activities with any justice.

Programme one - power on the web:

Director Philip Smith's request for Wikipedians with video cameras going to Buenos Aires has yielded a number of people offering to capture footage of the Wikimania 2009 event and share the video with us. 

If you are going to Wikimania but haven't contacted us, it's never too late to take part. Philip's wish list for shots at the conference are:

Useful shots:

  • 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)

Not so useful:

  • 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.)
Many thanks - Philip

Programme two - the fate of nations

A request from the production team:

The G20 summit takes place in Pittsburgh, USA on the 24th and 25th of September. As part of programme two's look at the relationship between the internet and the nation state, we'd like to show how the web has become a vital tool for gathering people together in the name of protest.

Are you part of a group who plan to protest at the summit? Will you be relying on social networking sites to gather your members and get your message across in the run up the the event? Will the likes of Twitter form an integral part of your protest during the event itself? If so, the programme two team would love to hear from you.


In response to the notion of emerging eNations @epastore introduced us to the Metagovernment project - working towards 'a world where every person, without exception, is able to substantively participate in any governance structure in which they have an interest.'

@EnglishFolkFan suggested internet P2P technology could create and altruistic world without boundaries of nations

@TaiwanChallenges asked When borders mean nothing, and identity is a matter of preference rather than geography and birth, how does a government define it's remit? Only a part of a comment full of interesting ideas and links, including that, while the news has been filled with the £40M gem thievesonline worlds too face their own bank robberies!

Another question raised by the production and users alike is whether the web a pervasive western influence upon the world? Is it a form of soft imperialism?

Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee emphatically rejects this and @TaiwanChallenges makes a point that, in chasing this idea, we're 'asking questions about the whole thing, focusing on averages, instead of the different cultures and 'ecosystems' existing within the whole. What's wrong with accepting the net as an essentially infinite new playground in which there is room for everyone to do their own thing and find/found communities that meet their own needs.'

And later reiterates from their experiences in Taiwan: 'The internet as a western entity? People forced to use English in code? It's only westerners who believe that the internet is a western entity. In Asia it's part of the fabric of many people's lives, and anyone who's familiar with the Japanese mobile model would laugh at the idea that the west is leading or being culturally dominant.'

This said, a couple of comments have noted that if you are of one nationality based in the geography of another nation, some major services, such as search, have a tendency to assume they know you by your location rather than your presence. And that while a western web service may offer to break down the boundaries of language and nation's borders, it may still feel the influence of a nation's government.

@GaryGCCC wonders whether language barriers are eroding as people all make effort to communicate from across cultures (often in English) will eventually lead to an emergent international weblanguage - websperanto.

The potential fragility of the web and the underlying internet was discussed, as Aleks asked the Digital Revolution community for examples of the web being broken or hacked. Obviously there was the most recent DDoS attack which most notably toppled Twitter and hampered Facebook, but @wisepacket reminded us of the inadvertent Yahoo take-down by Pakistan in 2008 and the Storm botnet's potential destructive power.

Although, @Nevali's response to this suggests that the internet would be considerably harder to destroy than would be worthwhile making an attempt at: 'Destroying the Internet less so; it'd require dismantling, piece by piece, and doing it more quickly than dissenters put it back together again. Good luck with that.'

And @greenyblahblah offered this picture as evidence of having found said all-powerful server:


The search for the 14th server goes on...

Elsewhere on the web:

The global rise of legislation and litigation against bloggers suggests the 'great levelling' of the web flattens both ways (from @EnglishFolkFan)

Patrick Hadfield blogged encouraging words for the Digital Revolution project, but suggests the BBC Blogs' comments system is flawed in its requiring sign up to contribute. I replied on his blog, but if there are people enjoying the Digital Revolution open production but feel the comments system is inhibiting for whatever reason, please do take Patrick's approach and make comment on the platform of your choice - let us know via twitter @BBCDigRev or the contact us form and we will (providing it's appropriate) link to you and reply there.

Aleks Krotoski blogs the programme's themes, Chris Anderson on 'free' and 'freemium', Luis Von Ahn on the secret benefits of a click online...

Tim Berners-Lee on the web and the developing world (Video)

Post categories:

Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 11:28 UK time, Thursday, 20 August 2009

Recent blog posts by Aleks Krotoski and guest blogger Andrew Keen around the subjects of the web and nations have sparked a great deal of discussion and comments around the matter of the wider world in the World Wide Web - how its reach may be received and adapted by developing countries and non-western cultures.

We have even mused on the possibility of the web as a form of soft imperialism - a spreading of Western message via a pervasive western platform. And this idea has in turn has been challenged by users on the blog.

Indeed, the web's inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee disagrees with this idea. His is a different vision of the as yet unconnected 80 per cent of the world receiving the web. Over to Sir Tim (from his speech at the Web at 20 event)

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

It's the connection, the sharing, the two-way communication that seem to fuel Sir Tim's views there. Sir Tim sees Africa not just as influenced by the web but also as influencer. But is he right?

Where can we actually see non-western cultures' influence in evidence on the web of the West? We know from your comments and input that the web is different for other cultures, but aren't these isolated differences, peculiar to that cultures' adoption/adaptation of the web?

Can you point us to an example of western web culture having been directly affected by the influence of Chinese, Indian, Korean, or African web cultures?


Transcript of the video:

'In developing countries of course people have phones where they don't have computers. And to a certain extent there are certain level of people who have phones with their browsers but don't have computers.

...where the web at the moment is only used by 20 per cent of the planet, it's possible that we'll get very much more of the planet actually with access as they get phones, and those phones have simple web browsers.

So one of the things we have to make sure is that it works for them, that we don't just target everything in HD, in three dimensions, whatever the next new thing is - at, you know the early adopter, we also have to make sure that we target things in low resolution, low bandwidth, to people out there.

But also we have to realise that one of the things which, when you talk to anybody, for example, about going to Africa, about how people use technology, is they all say it is incredible how whatever the technology is they are really really creative with it. Well guess what? They're human beings and human beings are creative. So one of the things we've got to realise as well is as people, more people get connected, it is their creativity...

...the important thing is we must enable them to create a web that they need and that they want, and they will. If they're enabled, if they're given an open internet platform, a neutral internet platform, they will do that. So we must not think that we will be feeding them our culture, we must realise that their culture is going to be coming back very strongly and that is going to be very exciting for the world.'

Two ways to destroy the web: hack it or cut it

Post categories:

Aleks Krotoski | 10:24 UK time, Tuesday, 18 August 2009

In 1995, in the summer before I moved to the UK, I was living just outside the Washington D.C. Beltway, not far away from the world headquarters of America Online. In those days, AOL ruled the roost; in the States at least, they dominated the commercial world wide web home market, and had a pretty solid stake in the business ISP world too.

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.

Internet freedom and Digital Revolution? Grow up.

Post categories:

Andrew Keen | 10:13 UK time, Monday, 17 August 2009

(Andrew Keen is an acclaimed author, commentator and speaker. Previously a pioneering internet entrepreneur, he is reknowned for his challenging critiques of Web 2.0, social media and modern internet culture. The following post is published with kind permission and represents Andrew's views; this does not necessarily reflect the views of the BBC or the Digital Revolution production.)

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.

Can we find the all-powerful 14th Server?

Post categories:

Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 10:10 UK time, Friday, 14 August 2009

There are 13 root servers that control a major element the internet. But is there a secret 14th server that controls them all?

Our production research into nations, the web, censorship and control have uncovered a theory posited by internet governance scholar Professor Ang Peng Hwa that 

'...there is a "hidden server" that reportedly controls the other 13 servers from a secret location in the U.S. He suggests U.S. manipulations of the master server caused the Iraqi .iq domain name to disappear during the 2003 U.S. invasion, thus crashing the entire Iraqi internet.'

Watch the video of Ang Peng Hwa's speech here (be warned this is on an older platform and may take a long time to load), wherein, after some considerable exposition, he declares that essentially there is one root server controlled by the US Government from which all other servers take their lead, that could be used to disconnect an entire nation from the web.

But, here's our thing - we can't find any further mention of this suggested 14th Server. It's hard to even call it a conspiracy theory with so little information beyond that supplied by Ang Peng Hwa.

Professor Ang Peng Hwa himself jokingly references the X Files when describing the 14th Server. So we're left wondering whether the truth is out there... Is this apocryphal nonsense we should forget about immediately? Or have we stumbled upon the internet's own Area 51?

If you have any knowledge, links, stories around the notion of an all-powerful 14th Server - we'd love to hear from you.

As long as we don't end up in War Games territory...

To clarify and assure that we haven't tumbled completely down the rabbit hole, we're not saying that there are only 13 physical servers that stand between us and total manipulation / destruction of the internet. However, there have been attacks on the 13 servers, and physical root servers have been moved in response to such attacks and security threats.

ICANN, the US organisation who controls the 13 servers, clearly states in their blog post 'There are not 13 Root Servers' that:

'There are not 13 root servers.
What there are is there are many hundreds of root servers at over 130 physical locations in many different countries. There are twelve organisations responsible for the overall coordination of the management of these servers.
So where does the 13 number come from?'

'Due to its fundamental design assumption of a singly rooted hierarchical namespace, the domain name system (DNS) comprises one of the few (logical) single points of failure within the Internet. More specifically, the root of the Internet namespace is held in 13 geographically distributed root name servers operated by nine independent organizations. In a worst case scenario, loss of all 13 of the root name servers would result in significant disruption to Internet operation as name to address translation (and vice versa) would no longer function.'

This was posted as response to the fears surrounding the turn of the Millennium and the Y2K bug, and is obviously older information than the later blog about 13 servers and the greater distribution.

So the nature and semantics of the 13 Servers are themselves an area of popular concern - a common touchstone for doubts as to the internet's enduring resilience and permanence. There's plenty to read about around that subject - and our research continues as to the indestructibility of the internet.

A response to Aleks Krotoski's 'The Rise of the eNation'

Post categories:

Richard Brewer-Hay | 09:03 UK time, Thursday, 13 August 2009

(Richard Brewer-Hay is Senior Manager of Social Media and Chief Blogger of eBay Ink. The following post is published with kind permission and represents Richard's views; this does not necessarily reflect the views of the BBC or the Digital Revolution production.)

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. 

Wikimania 2009 - are you going? Want to take a camera? (Video)

Post categories:

Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 15:22 UK time, Wednesday, 12 August 2009

I caught up with director Philip Smith and series producer Russell Barnes on Friday to find out more about the state of play of programme one's production and what the production is still looking for from the web and our community. It turns out, we want people to go to Buenos Aires.

Well, not exactly...

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

As Philip says in the video above, we'd love to have been able to film Wikimania 2009 to include in our programme. Unfortunately we can't get out to Buenos Aires where Wikimania is being held this year, so we are hoping to crowdsource some footage for the programme (and the web).

So - if you, or anyone you know, is attending Wikimania 2009 and would like to film some of the event for us, we would love to hear from you asap. Please get in touch with a comment or contact us via the web form.

We're currently working out the best way that we could help you share that content with us online on a creative commons platform, so that the content would remain open and in the spirit of Wikipedia. When I have the final details I'll post them as a comment to this piece.

revolution round-up: week four

Post categories:

Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 11:00 UK time, Tuesday, 11 August 2009

This week Aleks Krotoski launched into the themes and current theses that make up programme two of the BBC Two series, nation states and the web.

'Can eBay be considered a nation state?' Asked Aleks Krotoski at the top of the week.

'No. It can't,' came the reply.

Well, the replies were more detailed and considered than that! @PeteHindle made clear his views on the unlikelihood of a business rooted in capitalism achieving nationhood, and offered an alternative web community to consider in its place: Freecycle. @Jayfurneaux concurred that Freecycle better fitted our theories, though with caveats regarding the community's moderators.

@cyberissues pointed out that the aspects of eBay that represented indications of an emerging independent nation were perhaps assuming an autonomy in the communications of Skype and financial infrastructure of PayPal that don't exist; both companies are registered in Luxembourg and bound to its legal framework, as well as many of the laws of the countries in which they operate.

Elsewhere, @SheffTim engaged with Bill Thompson's assertion that the web is making the world a better place. A detailed comment well worth reading, there was a tinge of resignation which echoed Aleks' earlier ideas that the web is, in fact, too good for us to make the best of. @shefftim observes: 'Neither literacy nor any technological innovation, no matter how great, changes human nature.'

The director of programme two, Frank Hanly, has just started on the production this week, so your input from the comments will be considered by him in the drafting of scripts as soon as he's bedded in. Expect to hear from him soon.

Programme one (power and the web)

Some superb responses have come in via comments to last week's requests for information on Wikipedia - deletionists and the hierarchies of the crowdsourced online encyclopedia. @seaephae offered an incredible (dare I say Wikipedic...?) list of links in response to director Philip Smith's request for further info. Philip's been buried in drafting the first script of the programme, but has emerged and is busy visiting these links and trying to contact a UK deletionist via the Wikipedia links provided.

@WereSpielChequers also offered a substantive list of considerations, qualifying that there was less of a binary <i>deletionist / inclusionist</i> battle within Wikipedia's editors, rather there was a much greater degree of debated nuance. It would seem that, if there are indeed elites within Wikipedia, they are not entirely undemocratic as can be seen through the discussion pages supplied by @WereSpielChequers.

Programme three (economics and privacy)

Conversations with @SheffTim led to a discussion of pornography and the web. Issues relevant to programme 3 of economics and captcha cheating by spambots arose. Though @SheffTim's points ran more into the themes of programme four (of which more later).

@EnglishFolkFan highlighted another facet of the web as a tool to improve the world, highlighting World Community Grid - an application of peer-to-peer technology that betters the world. This links not only with programme two as an issue of the crumbling boundaries of nation states as any number of computers' processor power from any number of (online) countries can be linked, united in a larger cause. It appears the same technology loathed by some industries may be harnessed for noble causes also (as seen in BBC's own Climate Change Experiment).

Programme four (how the web is changing us)

The aforementioned discussion of porn included consideration of online pornography's effects on the web users. @SheffTim described both the problems of online porn providing a plethora of links to stories well worth considering in the course of the programme's production.

I said in a reply that I thought porn wasn't being tackled as a subject for the series; this wasn't quite correct. Programme two will include the issue of pornography online, presumably in the context of censorship, nations blocking porn sites, challenging online content etc. I will have to defer to Frank Hanley for a clearer idea of this.

This said, I think Molly Milton, the director of programme four, will be interested to read that info shared in those comments and may well consider the role that debate may need to play in the shaping of that final programme.


Once again, we've had a week of outstanding contributions from you - the web. Please do keep the thoughts, the challenges, the debates coming. 

Coming next: eBay responds to Aleks' theories of its nationhood. And just how much of the World gets to make up the World Wide Web?

The rise of the eNation

Post categories:

Aleks Krotoski | 08:50 UK time, Thursday, 6 August 2009

The nation-state ... is a state that both claims and exercises the monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a demarcated territory. [It] is a state that seeks to unite the people subjected to its rule by means of homogenisation, creating a common culture, symbols, values, reviving traditions and myths of origin, and sometimes inventing them. - Open University

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.

Governments block the web because they know it can make the world a better place (Video)

Post categories:

Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 13:30 UK time, Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Aleks Krotoski's blog post about nation states and the web outlined the difficulties the web presents to governments and nation states; be that in the issues of free flow of data that may challenge or undermine the state from within and without, or as a source of unchecked and unwelcome in-flowing ideologies.

Bill Thompson presented his views on the web in the context of the nation state at the Web at 20 event:

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

So, does this ring true? Is the web a revolutionary tool that allows us to watch the watchmen?  Or are governments able to thwart Bill's vision of the open and critical eyes on their actions?

The programme team are looking for examples of the web being blocked and undermined: specific instances; links to stories; personal experiences of being censored or suspended by the powers that be - and how that affected you.

Transcript of Bill's presentation:

The web, I think, counts as one of the most important things we've managed to do as a species. And whilst at the moment it's only really available to the twenty per cent of the world that Tim [Berners-Lee] referred to, many of us in the privileged Western world, who have easy access to these technologies, we can still see that it has a long way to go, but it is changing things. So it's no wonder therefore that many people around the world and many governments around the world want to control it, because they see it as being a threat.

They see it as being a threat. We see the governments of China, of Saudi Arabia, of Iran and Burma and Guatemala, and of course those great democracies, the United States and the United Kingdom, working as hard as they possibly can to manage and control and corral the web and indeed the wider internet, to try to put it under their control so they can stop it challenging their boundaries, because when Tim built the web he built http not to respect national boundaries but to work over the internet, which is, thanks to TCP/IP, a profoundly international and global network.

They want to put blocks in place, they want to spend money with companies like Cisco to buy firewalls and routers that will monitor traffic and filter it off to their police and to their secret services, and they want to do everything they possibly can to take this enormously creative medium, this enormously creative technology, and block it and limit its potential, because they know that it can make the world a better place.

I remember interviewing Tim for the Guardian, it must have been about 1996, 1997, and he said to me then that one of the reasons that he valued what he'd done, that he thought it was worth building the web in the first place, was it would allow people to find out more about their neighbours, that if, he said, we knew more about the people next door, the people in the next country, we might want to kill them less often. Sadly, and I really am sad about this, that does not seem to have happened. We still do want to kill our neighbours far too often. And we need to find something, a way to do something about that. But thanks to the web it's much harder to get away with killing your neighbours, and that makes the world a better place. It is harder to suppress information.

The web provides ways for data to get out, to tunnel through. The people who created it, the technologists, the programmers, the developers, find ways to get through those barriers. And as long as that happens, as long as the spirit of the web is about that, is about openness, then I think it will continue to grow and thrive and help us all.

Programme two overview: nation states and the web

Post categories:

Aleks Krotoski | 10:48 UK time, Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Over the past few weeks, we've been debating the issues we've earmarked for the first programme in the series: how has our social world been changed by the Web. The next theme we're tackling in Digital Revolution is another hefty one: it's about how - and indeed whether - the Internet is undermining governance and the nation-state. This post is a bullet point manifesto of sorts, an overview of my current thinking about the larger issues that fall into this bucket.

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.

Why do people still need to celebrate the web?

Post categories:

Lee Siegel | 12:30 UK time, Monday, 3 August 2009

(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 India to find elevated positions that they would never have acquired at home. Let's have a little Orwell, shall we?

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.