Tag Archives: internet

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The Eversion and the Emergence of the Digital Humanities

I don’t mean to give Steve Jones short shrift — across the board, I am a huge fan of his careful scholarship which compellingly combines media archaeology, literary study, history, and theory. Forgive this brief and belated response to his Introduction.

Using metaphors from preeminent science fiction author William Gibson, Steven Jones aligns a transition from the cyberspace conception of the internet popularized in Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer to Gibson’s new conception, eversion, with the shift from isolated computing to social networking. He also describes the disciplinary shifts within and from humanities computing and within the new movements of “the digital humanities.” Jones locates the primary transition in the years 2004-2008, when platforms such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and the rise of GPS and GIS, made the internet more social and more mobile.

I guess my provocations for the class are of disciplinarity and materiality.

  1. How do those in the social sciences respond to Jones’s literary version of DH? Does the impact of the metaphor shift pertain to questions outside of cultural imagination and in scientific inquiry?
  2. What is your mixed reality? Where do you personally find the materiality of the internet most palpable (in stashes of leftover cables from bygone electronics? in the feel of your phone? in the visible branding of restaurants or local businesses with facebook “like”s? in the new object sensitive scanners that don’t break bindings as they digitize?)j
  3. Are you convinced that the digital humanities is the humanities everted (turned inside out)?

Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25

Richard Wilkinson limited edition cover CC BY-SA 2.0

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (2008) bears relevance on our discussions in many ways. The protagonist, 17-year-old hackitivist Marcus Yallow, takes on nothing less than the Department of Homeland Security in a not-so-distant, post-terrorist-attack San Francisco.

Doctorow is a fascinating example of the intersections of literature and the internet. A major proponent of Open Access to all information, he initially published the novel with a Creative Commons Sharealike license and it remains available for free. Just as he makes no mystery of his belief in transparency and privacy, so he openly includes educational passages concerning his causes. The novel includes a number of descriptions that feel akin to documentation of a computer program (of a literary sort). He writes about the excluded parties in order to include his readers in his subversive movement.

Even the introduction to Doctorow’s published version on craphound.com includes a pedagogical instruction in the impetus of his movement. (Forgive the block quote, I’ve cut a bit, but I wanted to show the Internet history that Doctorow traces and how it aligns with the history of his activism):

“When my dad was a young university student in the 1960s, he was one of the few “counterculture” people who thought computers were a good thing. For most young people, computers represented the de­humanization of society. University students were reduced to numbers on a punchcard… Computers were seen as a means to increase the ability of the authorities to regiment people and bend them to their will.

When I was 17, the world seemed like it was just going to get more free. The Berlin Wall was about to come down. Computers ­­ which had been geeky and weird a few years before ­­ were everywhere, and the modem I’d used to connect to local bulletin board systems was now connecting me to the entire world through the Internet and commercial online services like GEnie. My lifelong fascination with activist causes went into overdrive as I saw how the main difficulty in activism ­­ organizing ­­ was getting easier by leaps and bounds …

But 17 years later, things are very different. The computers I love are being co­opted, used to spy on us, control us, snitch on us. The National Security Agency has illegally wiretapped the entire USA and gotten away with it. Car rental companies and mass transit and traffic authorities are watching where we go, sending us automated tickets, finking us out to busybodies, cops and bad guys who gain illicit access to their databases. The Transport Security Administration maintains a “no­fly” list of people who’d never been convicted of any crime, but who are nevertheless considered too dangerous to fly. The list’s contents are secret. The rule that makes it enforceable is secret. The criteria for being added to the list are secret. It has four­year­olds on it. And US senators. And decorated veterans ­­ actual war heroes.

The 17 year olds I know understand to a nicety just how dangerous a computer can be.

(Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is distributed under a CC A-NC-SA 3.0 license)

It is not surprising that Doctorow wrote the novel in the early part of 2007 and that the novel (which came out in 2008) ends with a political campaign. Yet he does write to an audience not yet eligible to vote, those who seek work-arounds and networks to feel less disenfranchised. Doctorow illustrates the transmissions of information and power that happen in internet interactions in a way that is engaging and persuasive.

Doctorow uses the narration to involve the reader in the workings of the internet. As Marcus describes setting up a new internet, his Xnet, he illuminates some of the darker workings of the system. It almost feels like a how-to manual. He gives you the sense that you, too, could do this. At the end of chapter 7, he offers a call to code. “If you’ve never programmed a computer, you should. There’s nothing like it in the whole world. When you program a computer, it does exactly what you tell it to do…It’s awesome in the truest sense: it can fill you with awe.” He gives inspiration and incentive. “Even if you only write code for one day, one afternoon, you have to do it. Computers can control you or they can lighten your work ­; if you want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write code.”

Doctorow’s mission is manifold and the book’s critical and popular reception speaks to his agility: he sheds light on the spirit of his movement and invites readers to get involved.

My primary provocation is one about age:

How do we take the novel’s activist mantra “Trust No One Over 25”? One concern with the revolution made possible by internet technologies is that they upset the balance of structures of  education. Doctorow seems to use his novel to instruct his readers on the historical imperatives they might otherwise ignore. But what does it do to the progress of ideas and education (that tried-and-true top-down hegemony) that younger and younger generations gain computer literacy that outpaces their forebears? How do power structures shift? And how does this impact structures of government?

I recommend finishing the book if you haven’t!

Interesting notes beyond the assigned chapters —

The two afterwords continue the mission to open and educate young people in the areas of Doctorow’s activism. The essay regarding security by Bruce Schneier almost seems like a sales pitch for a fun and exciting career in security, and Andrew “bunnie” Huang‘s essay about hacking the xbox while pursuing his PhD at MIT is an endorsement of creative destruction and reassembly. In the context of a Y.A. novel, a genre perhaps more steeped in the tradition of overt instruction, these articles bolster Doctorow’s mission to increase transparency and accessibility. He does not keep his tech philosophies secret, but makes them accessible in the most appealing ways possible. He appeals to the desire to abolish oppression that is often felt most keenly in teen years.

citation: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is distributed under a CC A-NC-SA 3.0 license

Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers or: How the Internet Came to Be

The history of Internet is sort of complex, to say the least. With various origins, conflicting historical aims, different accounts about its main contributors, and an eventual emergence that spans distinct, and sometimes opposing, social, cultural, and political contexts, one gets the sense that any discussion of the rise of the Internet as we know it today can only be considered broadly as a product of the proceeding decades. Even so, Rosenzweig (1998) manages to carefully document the variegated accounts of the creation of the Internet from multiple perspectives. One might expect nothing less, given that the Internet, as its name might suggest, grew from the integration of multiple computer networks, each of which had been developed to suit specific objectives its creators. In Rosenzweig’s meta-review, we first encounter ARPANET, which seems to be the primary forerunner of the modern-day Internet. He presents it as emerging during a time of conflict and contradictions. “The rise of the Net needs to be rooted in the 1960s,” writes Rosenzweig “in both the ‘closed world’ of the Cold War and the open and decentralized world of the antiwar movement and the counterculture.” (p. 1531).

These historical contradictions play out over multiple narratives. The accounts of writers such as Hafner and Lyons document of a simple computer problem, while authors Norberg and O’Neil reexamine the accomplishments and success of the enterprising individuals who supported the creation of the Internet by means of groundbreaking inventions. Hafner and Lyons document the origin of the Internet stemming from an initial contract between a computer consulting company and a government agency – the basis of which formed a marriage that resulted in 1966 to a solution to a relative simple problem. This particular problem involved connecting three computer terminals in order to share computer equipment. Further innovations in computing, such as “packet switching” and the use of distributed network, provided an efficient means of transmitting information, and led to greater interest and discoveries of more widespread applications of the technology for the purpose of communication and information sharing. According to Rosenzweig, this retelling of the origins of the Internet seemed peaceful and far removed from the later accounts of its rise. In contrast, Norberg and O’Neil unveil the crucial relationship between military objectives and operations and technological advancements in computer networks. While converging with Hafner and Lyons with respect the early origins of ARPANET, Norberg and O’Neil go further by describing how military operations sustained an interest and a need to develop a consolidated network system, the name from which our modern “Internet” eventually arouse. Whereas the authors of the first account document the universal and pragmatic interest that led to the creation of the first computer network system, the later authors document a parallel world, noting the secrecy and decontextualized nature of covert military objectives and operations that led the financial support of early research in computer networks.

Another account, by that of Edwards, contrasts in other ways from the two previous retellings. A student of Haraway, Edwards, as described by Rosenzweig, seems most conscious of the impact of rise of the Internet on society, and vice verse, and comments that computers led to a “technological construction of social worlds.” According to Edwards, computer systems were developed specifically to suit the political and military objectives of the Cold War, but in turn, also opened up discussion and discourse surrounding the era.

In further contrast to these views, Rosenzweig documents Hauben and Hauben’s populist account of the rise of computer systems. According to Hauben and Hauben, Usenet emerged as an alternative to ARPANET and had a distinct a purpose of disseminating communication amongst anyone competent enough to learn how to navigate the network. Within just a few years since its creation, the use of Usenet seemed to grow almost exponentially. Even before Usenet became widely accessible to many, efforts such as the Community Memory project attempted to decentralize the use of computers systems. These efforts represented the early countercultural movement to shift control of the Internet such that it, and the information that it bore, could become part of a democratic enterprise.

As innovations in computer systems developed at an increasingly fast rate, institutions of research and higher education also changed. Rosenzweig notes the rapid increases in the number of universities with computer science departments, many of which did not initially have access to ARPANET. To meet this increased demand, other networks such as CSNET were formed, to provide connections specifically for the sharing of scholarly resources. In later decades, particularly in the 1980s, Rosenzweig comments on the move towards privatization of the Internet, noting that “the liberationism of the many early computer and network enthusiasts had been transformed into libertarianism. ‘Technolibertarianism’ became one of the central ideologies of the Internet.” (p. 1550). He concludes noting that much of it was privately owned at the time the paper was authored, yet many web users share this “cyber space” with major corporations, and like much these corporations, prominently display aspects of themselves on web pages. A nonphysical space where corporate advertising and personal communication intersect, our relationship to the Internet seems to be as multifaceted and complex as the historical events that shaped it.

 

Provocation

  1. Consider how computer networks were viewed during each successive decade, from the 1960s until the 1990s, the millennial decade, and today. What are the major social, cultural and political contexts that define each era and how have these contributed to and been shaped by the rise of the Internet?
  2. Consider history as told from multiple perspectives. Which accounts of the various authors listed made the greatest impression on you? What aspects of the various historical accounts espoused the most intrigue, skepticism, frustration, etc. for you and why? What conclusions may be drawn from a synthesis across these different perspectives?
  3. Consider the context in which Rosenzweig writes. In this article, which was published in 1998, he writes “While free marketeers today celebrate the Internet as the home of ‘people’s capitalism,’ it also seems headed down the road to oligopoly.” (p. 1551). Is this perspective consistent with modern times? How has the notion of “people’s capital” on the Internet changed? Are we currently living within or headed towards an age when control of the Internet is in the hands of the few?
  4. Consider email. Rosenzweig, quoting Ian Hardy, takes note of “… the medium’s ‘disdain for false formality, its distrust of traditional hierarchy, its time-selfishness, speed, and certainly its ironic juxtaposition of impersonality and emotional directness’ represented a ‘new culture of interaction’ that might not have been so readily possible without […] the ‘informalization’ of culture that the 1960s brought.’” (p. 1552). Given that email, and other forms of instant communication, have likely been an integral yet universally accepted feature of our generation, what is your reaction to this quote? What new forms of communication have emerged over the past decade? How might these new forms of communication technologies both defined and been defined by the era?
  5. Consider the capitalization of the word. It now seems widely acceptable to refer to the “internet” as something that is not a proper noun and therefore does not need to be spelled “Internet.” Discuss the potential implications behind this apparent shift in the conventions of written language.

Citation

Rosenzweig, R. (1998). Wizards, bureaucrats, warriors, and hackers: Writing the history of the Internet. American Historical Review, 1530-1552.

As We May Think

Quick note:
The tech terminology at first confused me, and if you are like me the following list might help you. Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong:

  • Photocells are light sensors. Advanced versions of these are in your smartphone and digital cameras, behind the lens.
  • Thermionic tubes = vacuum tubes. Incandescent light bulbs are a type of these. Along with relays, these were among the essential components of an electric circuit until transistors became popular.
  • Cathode ray tubes = CRT (old fat screens)

The article was published in a time where the industrialization we discussed regarding last week’s readings is quite in its adult phase; “the humble typewriter, or the movie camera, or the automobile” are, rather than new innovations, things that “perform reliably.” In a war-winning United States, not without the help of mobilized scientists, Bush proposes a vision of using technology to deal with the problem of ever-increasing human knowledge that “extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.” He is anticipating computers to be used in the information age, Thomas P. Hughes (2005) describes (p. 97). His picture of the “memex”, which is essentially a microfilm browser with editing and sharing functions, seems a bit different from what computers actually became- but it was 1945, and digital computing was not really a thing. What is impressive is his insights on how information should be dealt with.

Using the example of Mendel’s work not reaching potentially significant contemporary readers, Bush defines the problem faced by humans as the inability for the actual use of (scientific) knowledge to keep pace with the speed that its records expand. According to him, three aspects could use some improvement and will do so regarding scientific records: creation of new ones, storage and retrieval.

Instead of trying to guess what the next new technology will be, Bush describes in detail how the current technology could develop and be used for the above goals. Storage will be faster, easier, cheaper and smaller. Note that he emphasizes that “[c]ompression is important … when it comes to costs.” With a little stretch, his idea that smaller size will lead to massive reproduction is in a way analogous to the shrinking space of railway times leading to the access to a much larger geographical space.

Creating new records could also become easier, through such developments as speech recognition and automated input. The automation of repetitive processes that are currently limited to arithmetic equations would extend to higher-level symbolic logics and advanced data analysis. And the access to specific data, which Bush calls selection, also could be much faster if we applied the selection process of, say, the telephone switching system and improved it using electronics. So the storage, input and retrieval of knowledge would all become faster and allow for a much larger quantity.

Then Bush pictures a device, “memex”, that embodies the above improvements along with an additional crucial idea, association. Unlike the current indexing systems, which are mostly alphabetical or numerical categorization, a new system would enable the direct connection of two or more different pieces of information; allowing for the association between thoughts which is how the human mind works, hence the title of the article. His example of the Turkish bow researcher describes knowledge pieces that are interconnectible via a code space separate from the content and allow long-term storage, commenting/editing/creating from the user’s part, browsing, copying and sharing. This idea is viewed as the initial concept of hypertext– one of the main structures of internet (Landow, 2006, p.11)

His “new forms of encyclopedias” filled with “a mesh of associative trails” incredibly seem to be referring to Wikipedia. He expresses the hope that humankind would be able to stand on the shoulder of giants and go beyond its application of control over the environment and war against each other, in order to “grow in the wisdom of race experience.”

The article portrays several ideas that we can associate with current things: the hypertext and links, of course, but also here and there we find mentions of potential Google Glass, Siri and big data analysis. Just before the end of the article, we can also peep at Bush’s version of cyborg future, where information could be transmitted to and from the brain directly using electric signals rather than being translated to sensory phenomena; this sounds like his sci-fi imagination, which he has been suppressing throughout the article, finally going off… But in a sense this also has been realized: not exactly (well, not yet) by connecting wires to the nervous system, but by the vast network of computers and the digitization of all information.

  • It is worth noting his limited use of female words, only associated with certain jobs: stenotypist, typist, “simple key board punches” operators, and (not specified but probably) file clerk. This seems almost like a repeat of something that happened in Marx’s era: as machines enter the labor space, so do women- but not on equal terms. A further interesting point is that as Wendy Chun (2004) points out, computers in early 20C referred to human operators of the machines, mostly young women; “they were also considered to be better, more conscientious computers, presumably because they were better at repetitious, clerical tasks” (p. 33).
  • Bush was administrator for the wartime U.S. military R&D, which I can’t imagine had no influence on his ideas regarding the inefficiently increasing knowledge. The initial version of internet was funded by the U.S. department of defense. The steam engine came out of an industrial need, like a lot of innovations happening in the tech industry today. Although this might be a rough statement, I feel not too much off target by arguing that a lot of initiative regarding technological change comes from either the military or the industry. What are the implications here? How relevant are the sources of technological changes?
  • Are we better off with the internet? I mean, I love the internet. But more globally, what would be the implications? While there are claims that the hypertext as a system that allows for easier participation in creative activities and dissolves the boundaries between author and reader, it “has the potential … to be a democratic or multicentered system” (Landow, 2006, p. 343), last class we also talked about how some corporations are exploiting that type of collaborative and/or voluntary work that the medium enables us to do. Is the capital intercepting the ‘revolutionary potential’ and use it for profit?
  • Are we any wiser? To be more specific, has our ability to process information caught up with the ever-increasing rate of knowledge production? Or are we being disoriented by the influx of information? In the case of the latter, is it a transitional thing, just as the coach travelers were disoriented by the speed of the railway?

Also, this video featuring Douglas Engelbart, who was inspired by Bush, might be interesting to watch alongside the article. It is perhaps most famous for the use of a computer mouse, but it also introduces important features of computers that now seem so natural, including the hypertext.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mother_of_All_Demos

Citations:

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