Nominet issues web-Luddite smackdown report

Paul Raven @ 05-07-2011

Against the continual traffic-noise drone of hand-wringing hacks and marginal psychiatric hucksters people banging on about how the intertubes are destroying [ literacy / civilisation / politeness / sanity / discourse / TheChildrenOhGodWon’tSomeoneThinkOfTheChildren ], here’s a counter in the form of a report from the Nominet Trust here in the UK [via New Scientist]. The main findings:

  • There is no neurological evidence that the internet is more effective at “rewiring” our brains than other environmental influences.
  • The internet is a “valuable learning resource and all forms of learning cause changes within the brain”.
  • Social networking sites, in themselves, are not a special source of risk to children, and are generally beneficial as they support existing friendships
  • Playing action video games can improve some visual processing and motor response skills
  • Computer-based activity provides mental stimulation and this can help slow rates of cognitive decline

As the NS piece points out, Nominet aren’t exactly unbiased on this issue, being an organisation that advocates and works toward increasing the availability of internet access to the less advantaged. But the onus is very much on the Rejectionistas to demonstrate proof of these terrible debilitating effects that technology is supposed to be having on us… and it’s telling that they’ve largely failed to find any thus far.

Of course technology changes us, changes the ways we think and work and play – it always has done, in fact, and that’s what’s shaped us as a species. What I take issue with is the notion that change is de facto a bad thing, and to be feared as such.


A Silk Road from a sow’s ear

Paul Raven @ 02-06-2011

Beyond the more ardent libertarians, anarchists and cryptography wonks, responses to the Bitcoin story were largely indifferent – it’s a currency for nerds, so what? But give that currency a demonstrable use, and all of a sudden the “human interest” angle leaps right out: OMFG ANONYMOUS DRUG TRADING ON THE INTERTUBES!

Silk Road, a digital black market that sits just below most internet users’ purview, does resemble something from a cyberpunk novel. [[ Right, of course – and what *doesn’t* resemble a cyberpunk novel these days, Wired? ]] Through a combination of anonymity technology and a sophisticated user-feedback system, Silk Road makes buying and selling illegal drugs as easy as buying used electronics — and seemingly as safe. It’s Amazon — if Amazon sold mind-altering chemicals.

In a nutshell: obscure (and probably regularly-changed) URLs, access only permitted by users running the TOR anonymiser, all transactions made using the untraceable Bitcoins. The ultimate anonymised storefront, in other words, complete with an eBay-esque reputation system. Cue tabloid moral panic in 5… 4… 3…

Most interesting of all is watching the schisms open up in the strata of geek libertarianism, though:

… not all Bitcoin enthusiasts embrace Silk Road. Some think the association with drugs will tarnish the young technology, or might draw the attention of federal authorities. “The real story with Silk Road is the quantity of people anxious to escape a centralized currency and trade,” a longtime bitcoin user named Maiya told us in a chat. “Some of us view Bitcoin as a real currency, not drug barter tokens.”

Maiya’s right about the “true story” there, but that last sentence is priceless – the cognitive dissonance of being in favour of a decentralised and anonymous currency but wanting to restrict what people can trade with it is really rather spectacular.

Wired‘s coverage there is pretty measured, all things considered; watching this story plough into the mainstream media is going to be a textbook demo of escalating hysteria. *fetches popcorn*


Bill C’s Ministry Of Truthiness

Paul Raven @ 18-05-2011

You must have seen this one already, but just in case: Bill Clinton raises the idea of independent “agency for truth” to counter all the misinformation on the intertubes [via everywhere, but I got it from TechDirt].

The agency, Clinton said, would “have to be totally transparent about where the money came from” and would have to be “independent” because “if it’s a government agency in a traditional sense, it would have no credibility whatever, particularly with a lot of the people who are most active on the internet.”

“Let’s say the U.S. did it, it would have to be an independent federal agency that no president could countermand or anything else because people wouldn’t think you were just censoring the news and giving a different falsehood out,” Clinton said.

“That is, it would be like, I don’t know, National Public Radio or BBC or something like that, except it would have to be really independent and they would not express opinions, and their mandate would be narrowly confined to identifying relevant factual errors” he said. “And also, they would also have to have citations so that they could be checked in case they made a mistake. Somebody needs to be doing it, and maybe it’s a worthy expenditure of taxpayer money.”

Hmmm. File under “nice idea, but naive and completely impractical given that the authoritarian approach to truth is antithetical to the way the internet works”. Heck, you could make it as transparent as spun diamond, and there’d still be conspiracy theorists claiming that the secret chains of funding and misinformation were just brilliantly concealed. It’s a tricky post-modern conundrum which I suspect will only ever be solved some sort of universal realisation that checking things out for yourself is the route to the truth.

Which is to say it’ll probably never be solved at all for most people. Selah.

That said, this totally merits the use of a classic macro:

Indeed.


Space colonisation logistics

Paul Raven @ 22-02-2011

Man, space really is back on the menu all of a sudden – an odd reaction, perhaps, considering that the Shuttle has now flown its last. But then again, the commercial space sector is making positive noises, and perhaps the general global sense of gloominess is pushing us to think beyond the confines of Mudball the First…

Psychology aside, if you’re planning to move up and out, you need a battleplan. Over at Lightspeed Magazine, Nicholas Wethington sets out a basic sequence: [Moon -> Mars -> Asteroids -> “Icies”]. Personally I’d have suggested [Orbitals -> Lagrange -> Moon / Asteroids -> Mars -> Outer System], though the Moon does have the advantage of all that radiation-absorbing regolith lying around.

Wethington wisely points out that water is one of your main essentials, wherever you want to go. Fortunately, it turns out that there’s a whole lot more water out there than we initially thought:

The numbers get to be striking, as Hauke Hussmann and colleagues show in a 2006 paper in Icarus. Start with Galileo, the mission to Jupiter that brought home how much we needed to modify our view of the giant planet’s moons. Galileo discovered secondary induced magnetic fields in the vicinity of Europa, Callisto and Ganymede, offering strong observational evidence for subsurface oceans on all three. The fields are thought to be generated by ions contained in the liquid water layer underneath the icy outer shells. Europa has, of course, become a prime target for future study re astrobiology thanks to the prospect of water combined with a possibly thin ice layer.

The Hussmann paper goes on to calculate interior structure models for medium-sized icy bodies in the outer Solar System, assuming thermal equilibrium between radiogenic heat produced by the core and the loss of heat through the ice shell. Now we really start expanding the picture: The paper shows that subsurface oceans are feasible not just on the now obvious case of Europa, but also on Rhea, Titania, Oberon, Triton and Pluto. A case can also be made for the Trans-Neptunian Objects 2003 UB313 , Sedna and 2004 DW.

Add that to the asteroids and comets, and there’s plenty of options… though none of them are exactly convenient to us at first.

Once we’re out there grabbing iceballs and digging resources out of odd-shaped rocks, we’ll need to stay in touch with one another – how else are we gonna broker the sale of our freshly-mined metals? Luckily Google’s Vint Cerf is on the case, ignoring the more mundane issue of address space on the terrestrial intertubes in favour of thinking about an interPlanetary internet [via SlashDot]:

We recognized as far back as 1998 that the traditional Internet design had implicit in it the assumption that there was good connectivity, and relatively low latency, whereas in a space environment, when you are talking at interplanetary distances, you have speed-of-light delays and those can be minutes to days. We need this new Bundle Protocol to overcome the latencies and all the disconnects that occur in space, from celestial motion [and from] orbiting satellites.

The Bundle Protocols are running onboard the International Space Station. They are running in a number of locations around the United States in the NASA labs and in academic environments. There’s a thing called the Bundle Bone, which is like the IPv6 backbone, that is linking a lot of these research activities to one another.

[…]

So during 2011, our initiative is to “space qualify” the interplanetary protocols in order to standardize them and make them available to all the space-faring countries. If they chose to adopt them, then potentially every spacecraft launched from that time on will be interwoven from a communications point of view. But perhaps more important, when the spacecraft have finished their primary missions, if they are still functionally operable — they have power, computer, communications — they can become nodes in an interplanetary backbone. So what can happen over time, is that we can literally grow an interplanetary network that can support both man and robotic exploration.

Obsolete sats as network nodes… an encouragingly frugal solution. And talking of frugal, if you’re planning to be in the first wave of outward migrations, you might want to snap up some cheap kit. Two used Soviet space-suits, one (presumably) careful owner each


Do you want to know a secret? Social steganography

Paul Raven @ 09-02-2011

Blah blah blah, the intertubes are eroding literacy, kids these days have poor communication skills, blah. Well, if we keep measuring those skills using old metrics, it’s bound to look that way… but kids (a definition that in this instance I’d consider expanding to “web natives”, a demographic that can extend into the younger end of Gen-X, if not further) are actually very sophisticated communicators, primarily because they’re adapting fast to the fact that a lot of their personal communication occurs in publicly-accessible spaces like Facebook. When your mum (or your boss) can be keeping an eye on your wall (or your Twitter stream), you sometimes have to code your updates so that they’re only comprehensible to their intended recipients. And what better an encryption key than your shared cultural references?

Posting lyrics to communicate your mood is one of the most common social steganographic tricks, because teens are fluent in pop culture in a way their parents aren’t. What teenagers are doing reminds me of Washington’s “dog whistle” politics, in which politicians deliver speeches that sound bland but are laden with meaning aimed at their base. For instance, Republican kingmaker Lee Atwater used to advise candidates to use phrases like “states’ rights” and “forced busing” to incite racial fears among white voters without actually using offensive language.

Obviously, one could regard the emergence of youth steganography as yet more depressing evidence of how dangerously overcomplex the web has made teens’ lives. But frankly, I’m kind of awed by the rhetorical sophistication of today’s teens. They are basically required to live in public (you try maintaining friendships without an online presence), but they crave some privacy, too. So they’ve taught themselves to hack language. They hack systems, as well: [Danah] Boyd has also found teenagers who “deactivate” their Facebook account when they log off so nobody can see their stuff or post comments. Then they “reactivate” it when they want to go back online and interact with friends. Presto: They create a virtual club where they control the operating hours. Color me impressed.

I’m tempted to see this as a reappropriation of a (virtual) social space by a generation that increasingly has little access to (physical) social space, though that’s doubtless either an oversimplification of the case or a fractional component of what’s actually happening.

But I think the important thing here is that young people will always find a way to do what young people have always done: distance themselves from the adult-mediated social sphere that they feel oppresses them (c’mon, every kid feels that way, even if it isn’t necessarily true), and create a new space to populate with their own argot, their own ideas and values. Of course, if you’ve always felt intimidated by kids and their weird ways, that’ll be cold comfort… but to me it’s a clear sign that we’re not losing anything essential about our human-ness to the web, we’re just finding new ways to enact it.


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