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The Metaverse and the Future of the Internet

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 03/03/2022 - 6:27am in

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Broadly defined, the metaverse is the realm of computer-generated, networked extended-reality spaces (XR, which includes VR, AR and/or MR) in which interactions take place among humans and automated entities, some in gaming or fantasy worlds and some in “mirror worlds” that duplicate real-life environments.

Extended-reality gaming and social spaces have been in existence for decades, and recent technological advances have pushed the development of the metaverse to the forefront. This has inspired tens of billions of dollars in investments and predictions that this is “the future of the internet.”

On one hand, this could create opportunities for advanced, immersive, 3D, online spaces that could benefit all aspects of society. There are also concerns about the health, safety, security, privacy and economic implications of these new spaces. The ramifications will impact education, healthcare, gaming, entertainment, the arts, as well as most of our social and civic lives.

As part of the new conversations about what the maturing of the metaverse will look like and what that means for society, the Pew Research Center released a recent survey of experts in the field to better understand the possibilities and consequences as the metaverse evolves from now until 2040. They asked by 2040, WILL or WILL NOT the metaverse be a much-more-refined and truly fully-immersive, well-functioning aspect of daily life for a half-billion or more people globally.

My full response is shared below.

I think the term “metaverse” is currently a catch-all term for anything that will change with the Internet as it evolves over the next decade. We see the same thing happening in the use of terms like Web3 and changes to the current ecosystem.

What is exciting about these changes and the maturation of digital spaces is that it appears that a general decentralization of places, practices, and policies is underway. That is to suggest that the first iteration of the web (Web 1.0) was mostly read-only and included many more content consumers than content producers. Web 2.0, or the next evolution of digital spaces provided opportunities for more user-generated content, usability, and interoperability. Web 2.0 was far more social and participative. The challenge with Web 2.0 is that networks began to provide spaces for users to connect, communicate, and collaborate. The challenge is that this gave all power and control of data over to these companies and corporations.

Web 3.0 indicates an arbitrary evolution of digital spaces in which connections between users can take multiple paths. This includes a future that is hopefully more focused on data that is portable and personal. As evidenced and influenced by the blockchain, digital spaces will be more distributed and hopefully, users will have more control over their data, information, and identity. As an example, If I share and use Instagram, I’m giving them my content, data, and information. They can use this information as they see fit, and if I have a problem with that arrangement I have little recourse. If they sell the company or data, I may never know, and once again I have little that I can do about this. With a distributed system, I can relatively easily join other federated systems and identify how, when, and where my data and information is used.

Once again, I think when we discuss the “metaverse” it is just an indication that “everything is going to change.” Because the Internet is the common space for most individuals globally, this will impact the tools we use to build future digital environments, the places we’ll frequent, and what we’ll value and share in these spaces.

Up to this point, it seems like all of this is a relatively good idea…and it is.

The problem I have with the metaverse, and “everything changing” is a concern about trust and third parties in a distributed system. Up to this point, it seems like most of the solutions we’re seeing in terms of blockchain, distributed ledges, the metaverse, NFTS, and crypto are trying to solve current problems using newer solutions. For now, I don’t see the solution to the problem and the introduction of blockchain and “what comes next” as being better than the current solution.

What is exciting is decentralizing power and decision-making as we think about the possibilities. Add a dash of transparency in the model…and count me in.

Photo by and machines on Unsplash

The post The Metaverse and the Future of the Internet first appeared on Dr. Ian O'Byrne.

Cartoon: The vast conspiracy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 08/02/2022 - 12:00am in

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Let’s Back Up A Sec And Ask Why Free Speech Actually Matters

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 01/02/2022 - 1:49am in

Listen to a reading of this article:

https://medium.com/media/699ddcf37eeb20f6d920d874a7f0ed99/href

The Joe Rogan/Spotify controversy is still going on and has only gotten more vitriolic and intense. Claims that Spotify must walk away from its $200 million contract with the world’s most popular podcaster for promoting vaccine misinformation have sparked a lot of debates about freedom of speech, online censorship, what exactly those terms mean, and whether they can be correctly applied to the practice of Silicon Valley deplatforming.

When confronted with accusations of quashing free speech and promoting censorship, those who support online deplatforming in this or that situation will often respond with lines like “It’s not censorship, it’s just a private company enforcing its terms of service,” or “Nobody is obligated to give you a platform,” or “Freedom of speech isn’t freedom of reach,” or by posting the famous XKCD comic which says “If you’re yelled at, boycotted, have your show cancelled, or get banned from an internet community, your free speech rights aren’t being violated. It’s just that the people listening think you’re an asshole, and they’re showing you the door.”

And of course it’s true that nobody is legally guaranteed the right to speak on an independent online platform. But even if we ignore the fact that this censorship behavior is not being driven solely by the wishes of independent corporations and is in fact happening in increasingly close coordination with the US government whose officials openly threaten Silicon Valley platforms with repercussions if they don’t regulate speech, the fact that it is technically legal for those companies to silence voices they don’t like is not a sound argument. It doesn’t prove that censorship isn’t happening or that the deplatforming is okay, it just proves that it is technically legal for those giant monopolistic platforms to do those things. A casual glance at history shows that plenty of terrible things have been done which were perfectly legal at the time.

To really answer the question of whether the increasingly widespread practice of Silicon Valley censorship via algorithm and deplatforming is a major problem and whether an increase in speech restriction is desirable, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves why free speech even matters in the first place. Why is it something that’s written into constitutions and upheld as sacrosanct in so many nations? Why is it a value we’re told has supreme importance all our lives?

Any debate over online censorship will necessarily remain superficial until you can address this question at a fundamental level, because otherwise you’re just bleating noises at each other about “free speech” without being clear about what exactly you’re talking about and why it matters. This is why those debates tend to stagnate.

The American Civil Liberties Union takes a solid stab at answering this question by offering “Three Reasons Why Freedom Of Expression Is Essential To A Free Society”. Firstly, that “The right to express one’s thoughts and to communicate freely with others affirms the dignity and worth of each and every member of society, and allows each individual to realize his or her full human potential.” Secondly, that free expression is “vital to the attainment and advancement of knowledge, and the search for the truth.” Third, that it is “necessary to our system of self-government and gives the American people a ‘checking function’ against government excess and corruption.”

Virtually all debate about online censorship revolves solely around the first reason listed, which is essentially that people should have free speech because freedom is nice to have. This is unfortunate, because it’s easily the least compelling of the three. If your entire argument boils down to “I should be free to say whatever I want on this online platform because muh freedom,” it’s basically just you laying out a narrative about what you think you should get to do which holds no more inherent weight than anyone else’s narrative about what you should get to do. “You can’t shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” gets stretched into “Your freedom to say whatever you want about vaccines on this social media platform is less important than the need to convince everyone to get vaccinated,” and the conversation stalls out there.

That changes when we consider the ACLU’s second and third reasons why free expression is important. Suddenly we’re no longer talking about how Johnny Facebook would prefer to be allowed to post QAnon conspiracy theories because it makes him feel nice inside, we’re talking about the good of society as a whole. If the case is strong enough, then it really doesn’t matter if an app isn’t technically part of the government because it’s still a part of society, and arguments about the needs of the collective trumping the rights of the individual crumble because this is all about protecting the needs of the collective.

So how strong is that case? Well, let’s take it apart and have a look.

The argument is essentially the same in both the second and third reasons for free expression put forward by the ACLU: that allowing people to freely share ideas and information leads to positive change. In the case of the second it’s talking about positive change in society, and in the case of the third it’s about positive change in government. But in both the idea is essentially the same: the free flow of speech lets the collective sort out truth from falsehood and conduct itself accordingly.

In short, free speech matters because it’s how the status quo gets changed. It’s how society collectively figures out that racism is undesirable, that women are equal to men, that science is superior to superstition, and that the world perhaps does not work the way we once thought it did. It’s also how society figures out that a government has become inundated with “excess and corruption,” that status quo systems aren’t working, and that new systems are required.

Now here’s the kicker: if free speech matters because it’s what allows the collective to change the status quo, then it is exactly those voices who oppose the status quo whose speech must be adamantly protected. The speech of those who support the mainstream orthodoxies of the political/media class is vastly less important than those who dissent from those orthodoxies, because only the latter is pushing for change.

What we have now is just the opposite: if you adhere to the mainstream orthodoxies of America’s Dempublican uniparty there is an approximately zero percent chance that you will ever be subjected to online censorship, but if you oppose any of those orthodoxies you will see yourself algorithmically de-boosted, suspended, and shoved further and further away from any position of possible influence.

This is on top of the fact that all traditional media are already 100 percent locked down in support of the status quo. You will never see serious opponents of imperialism, militarism, capitalism and oligarchy elevated to positions of influence in the mainstream news media or in Hollywood; every single one of those positions are consistently occupied by people who have proven themselves to be at least politically mute if not virulently supportive of status quo politics.

For this reason we can accurately say that free speech is already missing from our society in every way that counts, regardless of what our nation’s laws might say.

Free speech matters because dissent from the status quo is how the status quo gets changed. If voices which oppose the status quo are consistently denied access to mainstream platforms and are aggressively suppressed online, they’re unable to change the status quo. They don’t have free speech in any meaningful sense, because they’re actively obstructed from using free speech to do what free speech is supposed to do: challenge existing consensus, norms, systems, and power structures.

If the only way to get your voice into a position of influence is to support the status quo, then with regard to the actual reasons free speech matters it’s functionally the same as having no speech at all. It’s like saying “You have free speech; you can say anything you want into this hole in the ground!”

It doesn’t matter what you’re free to say if nobody hears you say it. If those who support the status quo are loudly amplified on all media while those who oppose it are denied access to mainstream audiences and algorithmically censored, dissenting views have no effect. They might as well not exist. An environment where everyone has “free speech” but only those who support the status quo get heard is functionally indistinguishable from an environment where no one has free speech and only authorized state propaganda gets heard.

Which is of course the idea. A tremendous amount of effort goes into keeping the public from awakening to and freeing themselves from the injustices of status quo systems while still giving them the illusion of freedom. Whoever controls the narrative controls the world.

And some might argue “Sure, okay, allowing dissident voices to be heard is important, but that doesn’t need to include anti-vaxxers and QAnoners!” Or “doesn’t need to include Russian propagandists!” Or “doesn’t need to include CCP shills!” Or whatever your personal bias happens to be.

But how would that work, exactly? How would it be decided who counts as a worthy dissident voice and who doesn’t? Who do we imagine would be making that call? Would we be leaving the question of who qualifies as a legitimate critic of the status quo to institutions who have a vested interest in that status quo, like billionaire megacorporations? Or plutocrat-owned mainstream media “fact-checkers”? Or the government? Or do you imagine that Silicon Valley executives will be shooting you a DM to get your personal okay on whether or not to censor someone?

If you really think about this it quickly becomes apparent that there exists no institution that can be entrusted with the power to determine who is qualified to criticize the status quo, because they’re all inseparably intertwined with it. Even if you had an independent board of rank-and-file citizenry deciding when online censorship is appropriate, its members would all be subjected to the same status quo propaganda systems as everyone else in our society and thus still wildly biased toward the preferences of ruling power structures.

Another problem is that nobody is qualified to serve as an official arbiter of absolute reality. What’s true today may be untrue tomorrow, as we’ve seen time and time again with the official lines about Covid-19 since the outbreak. It could turn out in the future that there are in fact problems with mRNA technology and that some of the concerns being voiced today were entirely well-founded. We simply do not know for certain, because we are not the omniscient demigods that our egos are often tempted to pretend we are.

Protecting our ability to collectively course-correct is more important than preventing people from saying things that aren’t currently considered true. So important that it outweighs even the worst consequences of some people potentially making poor health decisions as a result.

So it becomes clear that the only thing to do is let everyone speak, on the platforms that people have come to rely on for sharing ideas and information with the largest possible number of people. A great many of them will be wrong, and a great many of them will be stupid. But the alternative is shutting down the possibility of healthy change ever occurring in a status quo that is killing our ecosystem, pushing us toward confrontations between nuclear-armed nations, and becoming increasingly despotic.

____________________

My work is entirely reader-supported, so if you enjoyed this piece please consider sharing it around, following me on Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud or YouTube, or throwing some money into my tip jar on Ko-fi, Patreon or Paypal. If you want to read more you can buy my books. The best way to make sure you see the stuff I publish is to subscribe to the mailing list for at my website or on Substack, which will get you an email notification for everything I publish. Everyone, racist platforms excluded, has my permission to republish, use or translate any part of this work (or anything else I’ve written) in any way they like free of charge. For more info on who I am, where I stand, and what I’m trying to do with this platform, click here.

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Don’t Underestimate How Badly The Powerful Need Control Of Online Speech

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 15/01/2022 - 12:35pm in

Seems like almost every day now the mass media are blaring about the need for speech on the internet to be controlled or restricted in some way. Today they’re running stories about Joe Rogan and Covid misinformation; tomorrow it will be something else.

The reasons for the need to control online speech change from day to day, but the demand for that control remains a constant. Some days it’s a need to protect the citizenry from online disinformation campaigns by foreign governments. Sometimes it’s the need to guarantee election security. Sometimes it’s the need to eliminate domestic extremism and conspiracy theories. Sometimes it’s Covid misinformation. The problems change, but the solution is always the same: increased regulation of speech by monopolistic online platforms in steadily increasing coordination with the US government.

It’s actually pretty comical at this point, once you notice it. It’s like if you had an expensive Prada bag that your friend really coveted and she was always making up excuses to try and take it home with her. “Gosh I’m carrying all these small objects and I have nothing to carry them in!” “You’re going on vacation? I’ll look after your Prada bag for you!” “Oh no you slipped and now you’re clinging to a cliff’s edge! Quick! Throw me your Prada bag!” Once you know what they’re actually after, their attempts to obtain it look clownish and silly.

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Whenever I talk about how the immense power structure which the mass media serves and protects has a desperate need to control online speech, I’ll always get a few people objecting that the powerful don’t care about what ideas and information the ordinary riff raff share with each other on internet forums. They just do what they want regardless of public opinion, like Greek gods on Mount Olympus.

And really nothing could be further from the truth. Controlling the thoughts we think about our nation and our world are of paramount importance to our rulers, because it’s only by controlling what we think that they can control how we vote, how we act, and whether or not we get fed up with being exploited and oppressed by a loose alliance of unelected plutocrats and government operatives. There is nothing, literally nothing, that these people would not do to maintain this control. Their very survival depends on it.

Michael Parenti summed this up perfectly in his 2015 book “Profit Pathology and Other Indecencies” with this passage that was recently shared by Louis Allday:

“But they don’t care about what we think. They turn a deaf ear to us,” some people complain. That is not true. They care very much about what you think. In fact, that is the only thing about you that holds their attention and concern. They don’t care if you go hungry, unemployed, sick, or homeless. But they do care when you are beginning to entertain resistant democratic thoughts. They get nervous when you discard your liberal complaints and adopt a radical analysis. They do care that you are catching on as to what the motives and functions of the national security state and the US global empire are all about at home and in so many corners of the world. They get furiously concerned when you and millions like you are rejecting the pap that is served up by corporate media and establishment leaders.

By controlling our perceptions, they control our society; they control public opinion and public discourse. And they limit the range and impact of our political consciousness. The plutocrats know that their power comes from their ability to control our empowering responses. They know they can live at the apex of the social pyramid only as long as they can keep us in line at the pyramid’s base. Who pays for all their wars? We do. Who fights these wars? We do or our low-income loved ones do. If we refuse to be led around on a super-patriotic, fear-ridden leash and if we come to our own decisions and act upon them more and more as our ranks grow, then the ruling profiteers’ power shrinks and can even unwind and crash — as has happened with dynasties and monarchies of previous epochs.

We need to strive in every way possible for the revolutionary unraveling, a revolution of organized consciousness striking at the empire’s heart with full force when democracy is in the streets and mobilized for the kind of irresistible upsurge that seems to come from nowhere yet is sometimes able to carry everything before it.

There is nothing sacred about the existing system. All economic and political institutions are contrivances that should serve the interests of the people. When they fail to do so, they should be replaced by something more responsive, more just, and more democratic.

Preventing their replacement with a system that is more responsive, just and democratic is precisely why our rulers are so keen on controlling the way we think, act and vote. They exert this control with their total domination of the mass media and mainstream education systems, with Silicon Valley algorithm manipulation, and with the rapidly increasing normalization of internet censorship.

The dawn of the internet sparked great hope for those who knew that the ruling power structures of our day retain supremacy by controlling and manipulating people’s access to and understanding of information; the possibility of billions of human minds freely spreading awareness of what’s going on in our world and sharing revolutionary ideas to address our problems spelled beautiful things for our future to anyone with a lucid understanding of the obstacles we face.

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Unfortunately, our rulers understood the significance of that moment too. They’ve been working tirelessly to ensure that the internet serves as a net positive for themselves and a net negative for the rest of us, manipulating the large-scale movements of information so that dissident voices are increasingly marginalized and inconsequential while giving themselves the ability to funnel propaganda into public minds far more rapidly and efficiently than ever before. If they succeed in their objectives, ordinary people will wind up no better at sharing unauthorized ideas and information than they were before the internet, while our rulers will be far more effective in controlling the way we think at mass scale.

That they will succeed is by no means guaranteed. We are living in an entirely unprecedented moment in human history with many large-scale systems on the precipice of failure while technological advancement creates many other unpredictable factors; gaps could open up at any time to let light shine through in the massive movements that humanity is poised for. There is no way to accurately predict the future in a situation the likes of which we’ve never seen before, where patterns are crumbling and narrative is hitting white noise saturation point.

Anything can happen. Win or lose, this is a hell of a time to be alive.

________________________

My work is entirely reader-supported, so if you enjoyed this piece please consider sharing it around, following me on Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud or YouTube, or throwing some money into my tip jar on Ko-fi, Patreon or Paypal. If you want to read more you can buy my books. The best way to make sure you see the stuff I publish is to subscribe to the mailing list for at my website or on Substack, which will get you an email notification for everything I publish. Everyone, racist platforms excluded, has my permission to republish, use or translate any part of this work (or anything else I’ve written) in any way they like free of charge. For more info on who I am, where I stand, and what I’m trying to do with this platform, click here.

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Where the “Right to Rest” is Guaranteed

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/12/2021 - 7:00pm in

Working as a creative in Portugal’s video and animation industry, Vanessa Oliveira quickly became used to last-minute demands from clients. 

“There were always crazy deadlines,” says the 30 year old, who is based in the northern city of Porto. “I would get calls at 8 p.m., when I was at home already, saying: ‘There’s this project and you have to deliver it tomorrow morning.’”

One time, when working for a large creative studio, Oliveira made an exception and refused to pull an all-nighter. “The next day at the office, they told me: ‘Because you went home, all your colleagues had to work an extra hour,’” she says. “Sadly, these conditions are very common in the creative area. Employees are afraid to say no.”

lisbon“People really have to know when to disconnect now. If the law changes that mindset it could be really important for so many people.” Credit: Shutterstock

But an amendment to Portugal’s Labor Code, passed into law in November, could put an end to these practices and protect the work-life balance of citizens by introducing a so-called “right to rest.” 

Under Portugal’s new laws, proposed by the ruling Socialist Party, workers will have the right to at least 11 consecutive hours of “night rest,” during which they can’t be contacted by their employers unless there is an emergency. Employers with more than 10 employees now face criminal sanctions if they message, phone or email their workers outside of working hours. However, Portugal’s parliament stopped short of voting for employees to be able to turn off all work devices when off the clock.

Responding to the rise of remote working, under the new law companies will also need to contribute to staff’s work-from-home expenses, such as internet and electricity. Bosses will also be expected to meet with staff in person at least every two months, to prevent those working outside of the office from becoming isolated. And the right of parents to work from home, previously reserved for those with children under four, will be expanded to include those with children up to eight years old.

The growing digitalization of the workplace and, more recently, the pandemic-induced spike in remote working, has put a huge strain on workers like Oliveira. According to the EU agency Eurofound, the proportion of people in the EU working remotely rose from five percent in 2019 to 48 percent in July 2020. That rise appears to be part of a long-term trend. Research by Gartner has estimated by the end of 2021, 32 percent of the global workforce will be remote workers.

portugal

“For me, it was really difficult in the beginning to disconnect,” says Oliveira, who is now freelance. “When the pandemic started, since we were at home we were working more. At one point, I felt like I was only working and sleeping.”

Catarina Tavares, international secretary at the trade union UGT-Portugal, says that the pandemic has made updating workers’ protections for the digital age a priority.

“This pandemic has not been helpful for working conditions,” she says. “It’s been a heavy duty on these workers. So I think the law is likely to make a difference.”

Portugal’s law, one of the boldest moves to modernize workers’ rights to date, is part of a wider movement in Europe. France, Spain, Germany and Italy have enacted similar protections, and in January the European parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution to propose a pan-European “right to disconnect” law.

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While data on the impact of these measures remains limited, research by Eurofound suggests that they are influencing corporate cultures. German chemicals company Evonik, which in 2013 independently introduced right to disconnect rules for its 32,000 staff, found that between 2013 and 2020 the percentage of emails sent after 8 p.m. decreased from 13 percent to six percent and those sent over the weekend from two percent to one percent. In addition, interview respondents said the policy “has contributed to improvements in work-life balance,” thanks to a greater awareness of flexible working and the risks of constant connection. 

UGT-Portugal’s Tavares says work from home protections could also mean greater gender equality, since women are more likely to take on the burden of childcare. However, she does have some concerns about Portugal’s law. It will take months or years for companies to properly adapt to the new regulations, she says, and adherence will be difficult to monitor and enforce.

“There are always challenges,” she says. “You can’t go into people’s homes and check if they have good working conditions. But in terms of compensation for working from home and the need to have consensus, I think it is a really important law.”

David Carvalho Martins, an expert in Portuguese labor and employment law and founding partner of the labor law firm DCM Littler, is more sanguine about the impact that the law could have. “This is not a massive change to the current system,” he says. “In most cases it’s just a rebranding of what we have already.”

For instance, the ban on contacting employees during an 11-hour “rest period” is not the same as preventing them from working during those hours, according to Martins. And in professions that already have “working time exemptions” or those that require employees to be on call, such as finance, tech and emergency healthcare, little will change. “They can still be contacted, but this must be justified by the employer,” he says.

Oliveira has similar concerns about those emergency exceptions. “It is sad that you have the right to disconnect, except if something urgent happens,” she says. “The concept of urgency to the company could be up to them to decide.”

Yet there is consensus over the symbolic impact of the “right to rest” law, and how it could mark a societal shift. “Now it’s a worldwide topic,” says Martins. “It could be the first step to change mentalities. It opens up the discussion.”

Oliveira agrees. “People really have to know when to disconnect now,” she says. “Even now, if I receive an email at 9 p.m., it’s still difficult for me not to look. If the law changes that mindset it could be really important for so many people.”

The post Where the “Right to Rest” is Guaranteed appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

High-speed internet cable

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 04/12/2021 - 9:47am in

High-speed internet cable switching box. Paintwork by Edith Richards, Minyma Tjuta (Women’s Story). Erskineville.

Cartoon: The screen

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 06/07/2021 - 9:50pm in

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Knowledge Exchange Showcase - Understanding Visitor Engagement of Free Heritage Sites Using Social Media

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 15/07/2019 - 9:13pm in

Kathryn Eccles (Oxford Internet Institute), gives a talk on her Knowledge Exchange research project on using social media data to understand visitor engagement at heritage sites. Kathryn Eccles, Oxford Internet Institute

Dr Kathryn Eccles has been a Research Fellow in Digital Humanities at the Oxford Internet Institute since 2008. Kathryn is currently the PI of the Cabinet project, which has developed an interactive, mobile-optimised digital platform to support and encourage object-based learning.

Kathryn’s research interests lie primarily in the Digital Humanities, ranging from the re-organisation of cultural heritage and higher education in the digital world and the impact of new technologies on Humanities scholarship and scholarly communication, to broader debates surrounding the human and social aspects of innovation and technological change. In 2014, Kathryn was appointed as the University of Oxford’s first Digital Humanities Champion, in which capacity she played a leading role in developing the cross-University Digital Humanities strategy, advocating for Digital Humanities within the University and externally. Building on the University’s strengths in Digital Humanities, Kathryn continues to develop and contribute to training provision for all career stages and facilitates the embedding of digital practices and methodologies into Humanities teaching and research.

Never Mind the Privacy: The Great Web 2.0 Swindle

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 1:43pm in

The sermon today comes from this six minute video from comedian Adam Conover: The Terrifying Cost of "Free” Websites

I don't go along with the implication here that the only conceivable reason to run a website is to directly make money by doing so, and that therefore it is our expectation of zero cost web services that is the fundamental problem. But from a technical point of view the sketch's analogy holds up pretty well. Data-mining commercially useful information about users is the business model of Software as a Service (SaaS) — or Service as a Software Substitute (SaaSS) as it's alternately known.

You as the user of these services — for example social networking services such as Facebook or Twitter, content delivery services such as YouTube or Flickr, and so on — provide the "content", and the service provider provides data storage and processing functionality. There are two problems with this arrangement:

  1. You are effectively doing your computing using a computer and software you don't control, and whose workings are completely opaque to you.
  2. As is anybody who wants to access anything you make available using those services.

Even people who don't have user accounts with these services can be tracked, because they can be identified via browser fingerprinting, and you can be tracked as you browse beyond the tracking organisation's website. Third party JavaScript "widgets" embedded in many, if not most, websites silently deliver executable code to users' browsers, allowing them to be tracked as they go from site to site. Common examples of such widgets include syndicated advertising, like buttons, social login services (eg. Facebook login), and comment hosting services. Less transparent are third-party services marketed to the site owner, such as Web analytics. These provide data on a site's users in the form of graphs and charts so beloved by middle management, with the service provider of course hanging on to a copy of all the data for their own purposes. My university invites no less than three organisations to surveil its students in this way (New Relic, Crazy Egg, and of course Google Analytics). Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know that government intelligence agencies are secondary beneficiaries of this data collection in the case of companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. For companies not named in these leaks, all we can say is we do not — because as users we cannot — know if they are passing on information about us as well. To understand how things might be different, one must look at the original vision for the Internet and the World Wide Web.

The Web was a victim of its own early success. The Internet was designed to be "peer-to-peer", with every connected computer considered equal, and the network which connected them completely oblivious to the nature of the data it was handling. You requested data from somebody else on the network, and your computer then manipulated and transformed that data in useful ways. It was a "World of Ends"; the network was dumb, and the machines at each end of a data transfer were smart. Unfortunately the Web took off when easy to use Web browsers were available, but before easy to use Web servers were available. Moreover, Web browsers were initially intended to be tools to both read and write Web documents, but the second goal soon fell away. You could easily consume data from elsewhere, but not easily produce and make it available yourself.

The Web soon succumbed to the client-server model, familiar from corporate computer networks — the bread and butter of tech firms like IBM and Microsoft. Servers occupy a privileged position in this model. The value is assumed to be at the centre of the network, while at the ends are mere consumers. This translates into social and economic privilege for the operators of servers, and a role for users shaped by the requirements of service providers. This was, breathless media commentary aside, the substance of the "Web 2.0" transformation.

Consider how the ideal Facebook user engages with their Facebook friends. They share an amusing video clip. They upload photos of themselves and others, while in the process providing the machine learning algorithm of Facebook's facial recognition surveillance system with useful feedback. They talk about where they've been and what they've bought. They like and they LOL. What do you do with a news story that provokes outrage, say the construction of a new concentration camp for refugees from the endless war on terror? Do you click the like button? The system is optimised, on the users' side, for face-work, and de-optimised for intellectual or political substance. On the provider's side it is optimised for exposing social relationships and consumer preferences; anything else is noise to be minimised.

In 2014 there was a minor scandal when it was revealed that Facebook allowed a team of researchers to tamper with Facebook's news feed algorithm in order to measure the effects of different kinds of news stories on users' subsequent posts. The scandal missed the big story: Facebook has a news feed algorithm.  Friending somebody on Facebook doesn't mean you will see everything they post in your news feed, only those posts that Facebook's algorithm selects for you, along with posts that you never asked to see. Facebook, in its regular day-to-day operation, is one vast, ongoing, uncontrolled experiment in behaviour modification. Did Facebook swing the 2016 US election for Trump? Possibly, but that wasn't their intention. The fracturing of Facebook's user base into insular cantons of groupthink, increasingly divorced from reality, is a predictable side-effect of a system which regulates user interactions based on tribal affiliations and shared consumer tastes, while marginalising information which might threaten users' ontological security.

Resistance to centralised, unaccountable, proprietary, user-subjugating systems can be fought on two fronts: minimising current harms; and migrating back to an environment where the intelligence of the network is at the ends, under the user's control. You can opt out of pervasive surveillance with browser add-ons like the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Privacy Badger. You can run your own instances of software which provide federated, decentralised services equivalent to the problematic ones, such as:

  • GNU Social is a social networking service similar to Twitter (but with more features). I run my own instance and use it every day to keep in touch with people who also run their own, or have accounts on an instance run by people they trust.
  • Diaspora is another distributed social networking platform more similar to Facebook.
  • OpenID is a standard for distributed authentication, replacing social login services from Facebook, Google, et al.
  • Piwik is a replacement for systems like Google Analytics. You can use it to gather statistics on the use of your own website(s), but it grants nobody the privacy-infringing capability to follow users as they browse around a large number of sites.

The fatal flaw in such software is that few people have the technical ability to set up a web server and install it. That problem is the motivation behind the FreedomBox project. Here's a two and a half minute news story on the launch of the project: Eben Moglen discusses the freedom box on CBS news

I also recommend this half-hour interview, pre-dating the Snowden leaks by a year, which covers much of the above with more conviction and panache than I can manage: Eben Moglen on Facebook, Google and Government Surveillance

Arguably the stakes are currently as high in many countries in the West as they were in the Arab Spring. Snowden has shown that for governments of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance there's no longer a requirement for painstaking spying and infiltration of activist groups in order to identify your key political opponents; it's just a database query. One can without too much difficulty imagine a Western despot taking to Twitter to blurt something like the following:

"Protesters love me. Some, unfortunately, are causing problems. Huge problems. Bad. :("

"Some leaders have used tough measures in the past. To keep our country safe, I'm willing to do much worse."

"We have some beautiful people looking into it. We're looking into a lot of things."

"Our country will be so safe, you won't believe it. ;)"

Bilingualism and the Internet

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 23/02/2017 - 3:22am in

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Scott Hale (Senior Data Scientist) delivers a talk as part of the Creative Multilingualism and TORCH Bitesize Talks at Linguamania, Ashmolean Museum. Scott Hale (Senior Data Scientist) delivers a talk as part of the Creative Multilingualism and TORCH Bitesize Talks at Linguamania, Ashmolean Museum.