DIGITAL AMERICA

Monthly Archives: September 2014

Experience 2: (Insert Surprised iPhone Emoji Here)

// Posted by Elizabeth on 09/22/2014 (1:45 PM)

When our “Top Secret” group decided to develop a simulation for the class experience we were to lead last Wednesday, I was excited that we would be assigning characters to each individual student, and thrilled that we would be making… Read more

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When our “Top Secret” group decided to develop a simulation for the class experience we were to lead last Wednesday, I was excited that we would be assigning characters to each individual student, and thrilled that we would be making our experience into a kind of game for everyone in class to play.

We sat in the group meeting and I continued to internally brainstorm how we would have rounds for the experience, how we could potentially eliminate players and how we could have chosen a “winner” to be made out of one of the many players in our game of cyber security versus cyber freedom.

Obviously the initial ideas I had did not come to fruition; this was for various reasons and I don’t intent to suggest that there was conflict in our group. It just worked out that our experience remained more of a simulation within the framework of the eternal debate between cyber security and cyber freedom. Students still adopted the role of their character and were able to represent that character’s individual interests in the simulation, but it was more of a discussion focused on critical thinking and decision making than a lighthearted game between some very real players in the world of cyber security.

Of course, when the experience was over, I was very pleased with the results of our group’s idea and planning. I was particularly comforted because I entered the experience very nervous for how it might go, and concerned that this wasn’t something I could entirely predict. When you’re counting on others to come and be prepared for something you’ve planned, you’re relying a lot on their preparation for a successful execution, and that made me nervous. Fortunately, as I said, I left the classroom thinking that things went well and was happy that we designed the experience the way we did.

Then I ran into a fellow Digital America classmate, and everything changed. I joked lightheartedly, asking her how she thought the experience went and congratulating her on having done a good job and having a great costume. She said that she thought it went great and she was thankful I was there to add some “personality and charisma” to the experience.

I was pretty shocked when she said this. It wasn’t necessarily a negative or defensive reaction, but it did surprise me that this is how she described my role in the discussion. (No offense Emily!) Then I realized that she was right—I laughed a lot, and especially when I was speaking in character as Silicon Valley, I adopted a tone of silliness and exaggerated my voice. I used the example of an executive’s obsession with his BMW, which is probably a fairly accurate stereotype, but is more mocking of my character than it truly represents Silicon Valley executives’ priorities and business decisions.

Afterword, I was thankful that I had this encounter with my peer and had the opportunity to reflect further on my role in the experience. Again, I had never considered myself as having played the role she was describing, and yet at the same time I could see myself doing it. Was it in the name of avoiding awkwardness or conflict? Was I just trying to keep it light and fun? Was this a reflection of my initial idea to make the experience into a game? Truth be told, I’m not sure why I adopted a sort of “class clown” role, or why I felt the need to laugh at Damian (In the nicest and friendliest way possible, of course!) when he went on rants about the political interests of his character, the government of Hong Kong, and tried to sound entirely diplomatic in “negotiating” with whistleblowers like Snowden and other countries like the U.S. and Russia.

More questions remained in my head: What if it had been more serious, and we as a group (myself especially) had tried to make the tone more realistic? Would it have been even less awkward that way? How would it have worked if the experience was set up as more of a game? Would my jokes and lighthearted tone have been more or less appropriate?

Of course, I still can’t answer my nagging questions, and yet overall I’m happy with how the experience turned out and how the class was able to engage our discussion. I think one of the biggest takeaways from this that I have as one of the organizers, as I wrote in my evaluation email to Dr. Rosatelli, was that it’s difficult to control the outcome of an experience like this. And even though I wish I had spent less time stressing about the success of the project before it happened, it’s true that as the leader it’s hard to anticipate how the plan is going to play out. In this case, I failed to predict or control how seriously people (even myself!) were going to take the simulation. But truth be told, I see that as part of the beauty of the creative process and of dynamic class assignments like these experiences: it can seem that they’re very meticulously planned and detailed, but the actual results and situations can still surprise you.

http://33.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_membnvYmqK1qb66x7o1_r1_500.jpg


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#2 Greenwald in the Discussion of Cyber Freedom and Security

// Posted by Brendan on 09/22/2014 (10:31 AM)

For our second classroom experience, each member of our class took on a dominant figure in the narrative of cyber security and cyber freedom. This bit of role-playing served as part of a larger game that had each persona make… Read more

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For our second classroom experience, each member of our class took on a dominant figure in the narrative of cyber security and cyber freedom. This bit of role-playing served as part of a larger game that had each persona make critical decisions in response to a set of hypothetical situations proposed by the simulation.

For my part, I assumed the role of journalist Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald is known for his work in investigating matters of cyber freedom and as seen in his reporting of The abuses of power taken by the National Security Agency in their mass surveilance of American citizens. Greenwald was hand selected by Edward Snowden, to leak the first documents that Snowden had taken from the NSA. His work covering the situation involving Snowden and the NSA has brought Greenwald to the forefront of discussion on Cyber freedom and also earned him the 2014 Pullitzer Prize for Public Service.

The other personas used in the experience included Russia, Hong Kong, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Wikileaks Silicon Valley and the NSA/US government. My classmates had assumed the personas of some of the most important whistleblowers in recent history, the governments involved in the discussion and private organizations/companies that were heavily tied to the debate.

Assuming the role of the reporter in the room, My initial reaction was to document the experience by recording the conversation and taking consistent notes throughout. Whereas my classmates were making the critical decisions in policies that would dictate the cyber safety and freedom of the future, I elected to sit back, analyze and ask the important questions. I found it quite difficult to adapt the persona of Greenwald. The experience required me to consider the relationships that Greenwald held with other parties, no matter how close they were connected. Yes, the relationship between Greenwald and Snowden is predominately clear to see, but when I was asked wether I would jeopardize my relationship with Snowden to work with a free Chelsea Manning living in Russia. The question was one that I was and still am not sure how to answer. As a journalist, I feel Greenwald has the civic duty to remain as objective as possible and do as much as he can to report anything relating to the discussion of cyber freedom. That coupled with factors like Greenwald being a staunch supporter of LGBT rights leads me to believe he would want to work with Manning. On the other hand, Greenwald clearly has an existing relationship with Snowden that has paid him dividends in his career and still has much to offer. Working with Manning poses a risk to Greenwald’s relationship with Snowden who could very easily sever ties between them.

The question highlighted what I think was the most important observation I made during the experience: that the discussion of cyber freedom and cyber security is highlighted by the relationships held between multiple parties and how the decisions of one can drastically impact the situations of the other parties. It was enlightening to consider the interactions between figures like Greenwald and Russia, who although are not directly related, indirectly have huge connections to each other regarding cyber security and freedom.  The immersive experience allowed me to look deeper into the decision-making and thought processes that dominate the discussion of cyber freedom and security in ways that reading a book could not.


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Cyber Secrets

// Posted by Joe on 09/22/2014 (2:21 AM)

The first experience we participated in, using the reconstructed LA live chatroom that was prevalent in the 90s to simply talk about the 90s brought me way back to my childhood. This second experience that I and three other of… Read more

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The first experience we participated in, using the reconstructed LA live chatroom that was prevalent in the 90s to simply talk about the 90s brought me way back to my childhood. This second experience that I and three other of my classmates constructed and conducted, ironically, brought me back to high school. Not because of the topic, but because of the simulation format that was the catalyst of our experience. In the beginning stages of the production of our experience, I felt the direction it was going down was along the lines of Model UN, which I did in high school. Model UN would allow high school students with no real capability of impact or decisions on the massive realm that is international politics, to assume a role in which what their decisions really did have an impact on the “world.” This interactable aspect was most prevalent in the third section of the experience, in which we were presented with hypothetical situations and make real decisions about hugely important events within the world of cyber security and surveillance. In this way, we are let in on a realm that we normally can not even conceive affecting. The topic of cyber security is particularly applicable as the topic is not well understood by the masses and thus only a small number of entities interact in the world of cyber freedom. As each of us were given the task of assuming the identity of these few and limited characters involved in this world, we were forced to make decisions and arguments according to each of their positions. This forum brought out in clear display the vast number of different and interdependent agendas that each of the players have. Each decision would undoubtedly have an effect on at least two other parties in the forum, showing how the world of cybernetics is one complex and adjusting system that contains many interconnections.


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Big Brother is watching you

// Posted by Nicola on 09/21/2014 (10:34 PM)

Mass surveillance. Hacking. Whistle-blowers. The interconnected world of technology and national and international governments is complex, fraught with illegal activity and dubious justifications. At times is hard to believe that these occurrences aren’t merely a storyline of a Hollywood… Read more

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Mass surveillance. Hacking. Whistle-blowers. The interconnected world of technology and national and international governments is complex, fraught with illegal activity and dubious justifications. At times is hard to believe that these occurrences aren’t merely a storyline of a Hollywood film, but our reality. Nevertheless, given the task of conducting an immersive experience drawing upon the core components of this largely hidden world, I along with three of my classmates began deliberating what we would do.

At first, we were somewhat perplexed. How would we draw upon our studies of this topic area given that it is so entrenched in technological practices that are not only difficult at times to understand, but also virtually impossible to recreate? Even Fred Turner states that it is a language very few can understand! One suggestion was to infiltrate the University of Richmond’s security room, and somehow incorporate this means of mass surveillance into a game of hide and go seek, monitoring our classmates every move. However, we soon realised the inherent difficulties of this lofty ambition given the various codes of conducts put in place by the University to protect student’s privacy (If only this were the case outside of UR!). After a few more somewhat unrealistic suggestions that required skills beyond our reach (hacking our classmates Facebook profiles), we finally arrived upon an idea. Taking inspiration from our quiz, I had begun thinking of a sort of role-playing game in which each classmate would assume the identity of one of the prominent figures we have been studying (Edward Snowden, Wikileaks, the NSA, etc.) That is, a simulation on a micro level of what has and is taking place in the digital world. By doing so, we would each essentially be walking in their shoes, trying to understand these events from their perspective. While initially we imagined the experience taking place outside, whereby everyone would stand up and move around to discuss tactics to other characters (in a way emulating the ability of such worms as the STUXNET in manipulating physical things), the logistics of doing so proved tricky. Thus, we agreed to remain in the classroom (in a model UN fashion) and utilise a PowerPoint that would act as a visual aid, guiding participants though our experience.

Let the games begin…

Having drawn out characters in the previous class, it was wonderful to see that everyone really jumped on board with our role-playing concept. The props/costumes were great and I felt that they added both an element of playfulness and enhanced the notion of getting into the mindset of one’s character. For instance, as Russia, I decided to draw upon the nation’s relationship with Edward Snowden to inform my visual cues (see image below).

Snowden’s Russian passport (with an additional sign reading ‘+3 years’ in reference to the recent extension of his immunity), a welcome sign and a typed sheet of notes on Russia for the experience.

After debating “Which is more valuable, cyber freedom or cyber security?” (Part 1) in the guise of each character, the experience shifted into part 2: Simulation. Again, we wanted everyone to remain in character to reinforce the notion of thinking and seeing these situations from their point of view. However, given the structure and layout of the questions there were two possibilities offered each time. There would always be a more logical response of the two (see example below). However, in order to avoid a simple yes or no answer, we added a guideline that required a justification of one’s decision.

Simulation question

This segment of the experience revealed the vastly different mindsets of the players. As Glenn Greenwald noted, Snowden sees his role as a whistle-blower as a matter of principle, one that isn’t informed by a motivating factor such as money. Thus, during the experience it was interesting to note the contrast between this highly moral mentality and that of Silicon Valley. For instance, when posed with a choice between giving the government its customer’s information and having to pay an incredible fine (a simulation of the 2007-08 Yahoo case), Silicon Valley ultimately sold out in order to ensure the continued success of their business.  (Click the link below to hear audio)

Digital America Experience – Sound recording

Having successfully journeyed through the simulation, we arrived at our conclusion: the hypothetical simulation (part 3). Essentially an extension of part 2, here the aim was to encourage more creativity and freedom in responses to the hypothetical questions we created (i.e. “Snowden is tracked down and captured by the NSA…. What do you do?”). There would be no right or wrong answers. Although questions were still directed at a particular player, we hoped that they would only initiate the response with others contributing as well.

While for the most part the experience ran smoothly, there were at times lags in the conversation. This required a bit more prompting from myself and my other team members in order to enhance and develop the topic at hand. Also, given that some characters were more prominent in the events, this meant that certain class members were provided with a greater opportunity to become immersed in the experience. Nonetheless, we managed to sustain our experience for the hour – a task that is much harder to achieve than one would expect! The experience also revealed just how difficult it truly is to navigate this murky area of technology and mass surveillance, affirming Mark Poster’s assertion in Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines of how traditional forms of power are becoming more complicated and less reliable. I found that it was often hard not only to justify my decisions as Russia but also to ensure that those decisions would ultimately further my own objectives. Moreover, I’m sure many felt victimised during the experience, particularly the NSA who constantly had to defend their actions to multiple parties. It was not difficult to understand how sovereignty could be ‘opened up’ to new and intense forms of critical public scrutiny (‘Leaky Geopolitics: The Ruptures and Transgressions of Wikileaks’).

In regards to the documentation process, we decided to try and emulate the covert techniques favoured by such government agencies as the NSA. Thus during the experience I, along with other group members, recorded the whole conversation using the voice memo app on my iPhone. By doing so, we hoped to emulate the invasive technology employed as a means of mass surveillance by the American government and their affiliated bodies (listen here for another snippet of the experience recorded -> Digital America Experience -Sound recording). Moreover, the audio proved useful in triggering my memory of how the experience played out. I also took profile shots of each participant before the experience commenced as a means of enabling the reader to see how everyone approached their prop assignment (pictures can often be more telling than text alone -see end of post for images). Of course, the additional effect of black and white helps to recreate the air of mystery and tension that has always surrounded the world of espionage. Yet, in using my iPhone I was reminded of the opposing forces between freedom and transparency in our digital age. Although my phone provided a sense of freedom in recording the experience in a multitude of ways, I too was essentially using it as a means of surveillance.

Class members as their assigned ‘character’

Ultimately, despite ebbs and flows in the conversation, the underlying ideas coupled with the enthusiastic participation of all involved brought our experience to life. While Edward Snowden argued his position stating that, ‘You can’t wait around for someone else to act’, perhaps only those with his level of intellect and know how can indeed act within this dangerous environment. After all, as our experience revealed, at the end of the day the NSA/US government will stop at nothing in the name of “protection”.

 


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Experience #2

// Posted by Aisling on 09/21/2014 (9:21 PM)

It’s 6:45 on a Sunday evening, and you are putting off your homework by spending some quality time on Facebook. Scrolling down your newsfeed, you see a post from that kid you sat next to once or twice in econ… Read more

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It’s 6:45 on a Sunday evening, and you are putting off your homework by spending some quality time on Facebook. Scrolling down your newsfeed, you see a post from that kid you sat next to once or twice in econ sophomore year. You’re really interested in wasting some time so you go ahead and click on his page. Just by scrolling through his profile you learn that he now goes to college in the Midwest, belongs to a boy band, and adopted a puppy last year on a whim. Clicking through his pictures you get to “meet” his girlfriend, and by clicking on her profile its easy enough for you get to know her on a pretty basic level. Where she’s from, where she works, where she went to high school, what type of music she listens to, what sorority she belongs to, and her favourite quotes from The Notebook. You have no real connection to either of these people, and yet they have made so much of their personal information public to you- willingly.

As of July 2014, Facebook has over 1.3 billion active users. These 1.3 billion people have, and continue to, voluntarily share pieces of themselves with the world, via Facebook.

For Experience #2, I was assigned the role of the NSA/ USA Government. In class we were told to familiarize ourselves with our character, and to bring something to class that represented our character. I was a little bit nervous to be playing the NSA/USA, as the character played such a central role in the second unit of Digital America.

This was one of the things I brought to class as a representation of the NSA… The seal has been altered from the brave, American bald eagle, to a more sinister looking bird that is listening in on Americans as opposed to protecting them.

Although I had been somewhat expecting a lot of the experience to relate back to my character, I was still surprised and even taken aback when the discussion repeatedly turned towards the NSA. It often felt like the majority (if not all) of the characters at the table at least somewhat disproved of the NSA/USA government and their actions.

Despite the fact that we were all in “character,” this element of the discussion was an interesting surprise for me, as I was the only one at the table in the position to legitimize the NSA and back up its activities. I found this a little bit difficult, as I felt that a lot of the assigned readings had been relatively biased against the NSA/ USA government. For example, an article from The Guardian quotes Edward Snowden as describing the NSA as “the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world…” Later in the article, Snowden then goes on to refer to the government as doing “far more harm than good.” Although these statements are very clearly Snowden’s personal views on the organizations, it was hard not to agree with them and reshape them as my own, as I knew relatively nothing about the NSA before taking this class.

Just like Santa Claus, the NSA is always watching…

That being said, I often wanted to agree with the claims of my classmates instead of fight back on behalf of the NSA/ USA government. My classmates raised issues of privacy and liberty, especially in concern to the “everyday American citizens” who are now subjected to NSA surveillance. “Why does the NSA care about the private details of these peoples’ lives? Do you understand what an invasion of privacy this is?”

Although I initially wanted to agree with my classmates, it was questions like these that really got me thinking. It got me thinking about my Facebook page or my Instagram account, and the sub-cultures that exist throughout both of them. People are constantly making details of their lives quite public, from the pancakes they made for breakfast to the way they voted in the last election. Thinking back to the kid from econ’s girlfriend, it is all too easy to discover things about people, and often without trying.  And the girlfriend would have no way of knowing that you’d been snooping on her, building a person and a personality out of the information on her Facebook page. This idea of creating a personality from different intangible points reminded me of the “personal data trails” (Bamford) discussed by Bamford in his article for Wired. Bamford claims that the NSA is collecting items such as “parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases” (Bamford), in order to construct a person and potentially identify any suspicious habits. Although the NSA goes about creating a person much differently than you do as you look into the girlfriend, the end goals are interestingly similar.

This realization was something I found to be quite interesting, as it made me think about how easily we give ourselves away but yet how horrified we feel when the NSA begins to look for similar information. If you went to Waffle House for breakfast and Instagramed a picture of your waffles, that is perfectly okay, and people will know where and what you ate for breakfast. However, when the NSA puts it on your “paper trail,” you get a feeling that your liberty has been violated. It creates an interesting dichotomy.

Although I understand that the NSA/ USA government’s actions run much deeper than collecting paper trails, and I still cannot say I agree 100% with their surveillance programs, it is not hard for me to admit that experience 2 helped me to view the NSA in a new light, and to begin to try and understand it from different points of view.

Cartoon “weighing the options” between security and liberty.

 


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Cyber-Freedom and the “Post-Postcolonial Age”

// Posted by Damian on 09/21/2014 (8:49 PM)

As one of the members of group “Top Secret,” I found myself saddled with the difficult task of creating a cumulative “experience” from what was essentially a blank canvas. I speak for the other members of my group when… Read more

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As one of the members of group “Top Secret,” I found myself saddled with the difficult task of creating a cumulative “experience” from what was essentially a blank canvas. I speak for the other members of my group when I say that we started without a clue as to what we wanted to do or where we wanted to take the idea we would ultimately develop.

After much deliberation and some fortuitous inspiration, we decided on a three-section structure for an activity built around role-play. Our experience would begin with a debate between students (and Dr. Rosatelli), each of whom would choose a role to play at random, from Edward Snowden and Wikileaks to the NSA and Hong Kong. The second section would entail a simulation of events which have already occurred heretofore, but rather than simply having students memorize events, we wanted them to step inside the shoes of that person whom they were impersonating. This would allow them to expound with detailed reasoning to accurately represent the ideologies, convictions, and interests of their selected person, organization, or country. We planned for the final section to be a forward-leaning path into the hypothetical whose myriad possibilities, however, unlikely, would create a fascinating set of considerations.

These three stages of the experience would allow students to think critically about the complex challenges facing the global community as we attempt to straddle the line between cyber-freedom and cybersecurity, which constituted the initial question on which the debate was focused.

The link below will take you to a YouTube video I made for the project. It is a simple visual representation of my recording of the debate. I chose to document in this way not only to be more creative, but also because it was cleverly appropriate considering the topic at hand. I did not inform anyone that I would be recording (nor did Nicola), and no one noticed. Perhaps the message is that we are exponentially more susceptible to surveillance than we would like to believe, or perhaps it is just that I was trying too hard to come up with something that reflected the unit. Nonetheless, as I went back and listened to the audio and analyzed the debate, it informed much of what I wanted to discuss, so it is the portion I chose to provide along with my written response.

Throughout much of the eleven minutes during which the class debated, the NSA/US Federal Government served to a large extent as a metaphorical punching bag for everyone else. They were the easy target, and for good reason. Justifying the actions of a government whose surreptitious methods for “ensuring national security” violate the terms of its own citizens’ constitutional liberties is a difficult task. However, one would be wise to consider those entities choosing to lambaste the United States and the many contradictions embodied thereby.

Hong Kong (which was represented by yours truly) criticized the NSA for its overreach and abusive surveillance, both in the debate and in actuality. Doing so, however, is absurdly, falsely sanctimonious, as the Hong Kong government in 2006 passed a sweeping surveillance program remarkably similar in nature to the PATRIOT Act. President Vladimir Putin of Russia has called the United States’ surveillance  policies “utter hypocrisy.” While accurate in his assessment, Putin is being utterly hypocritical, as Russia has engaged in the same actions and surveillance as the NSA and Hong Kong, regardless of his hollow denials.

Adding yet another layer of complexity to the debate is the fact that governments are not alone. Silicon Valley, which was also represented in the debate, partakes in surveillance of its own. Google and other companies, for instance, may have been mandated to hand over user information to the Federal Government under the PRISM Program, but they have for years collected that information for their own corporate use, which raises more than a few ethical questions in and of itself.

Indeed, the role of Silicon Valley (and “big business” in general) in this age of global cybersurveillance is an increasingly precarious one. These corporations have a substantial financial stake in the debate and should logically support further cybersecurity as a means of protecting their information from being stolen. In other words, the less information mined from JPMorgan by Russian hackers, in other words, the better. Despite all this, the government’s increased surveillance under the aforementioned PRISM Program leaves consumers questioning the integrity of institutions like Yahoo, which are left with little choice but to fall in line or face daily fines amounting to $250,000. Yahoo may have wanted to protect the information of its users but the NSA has forced its hand. In many cases the resultant scrutiny engenders a consumer backlash, even though the company’s intentions may not be quite so nefarious as they appear.

So where do corporations stand? Do they go along with the government’s regulations for the sake of ensuring greater online security at the risk of alienating clients, or do they refuse, leaving themselves more susceptible to hackers and perhaps left to face the legal and economic ramifications of such a rebellious decision?

In all of this discussion, the United States becomes—justifiably—an easy target. Nevertheless, the Federal Government is in the very same convoluted quagmire as all the other parties mentioned to this point. To expect the NSA to simply cease with its surveillance operations would be incredibly naïve and realistically impossible—or at least not without compromising the safety of American citizens. The true efficacy of operations occurring in clandestine locations like the NSA’s new center in Bluffdale, Utah is in question, and the necessity of the surveillance of American citizens is also in question, but the import of our response to the hacking of other countries is not.

Whether we like it or not (and I stand in the “not” category), moves taken by the United States in response to September 11th have precipitated the proliferation of such strategies on a global level. Ultimately, these measures have led us to a point from which there seems currently no return. The NSA does not have to create malware like Stuxnet to sabotage Iranian nuclear reactors; nor does it need to wiretap German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but practically speaking, it has a job to do with regards to the handling of foreign hacking which may feasibly threaten to compromise stability, be it with regards to our economic well-being or otherwise. In other words, perhaps most simply put, the NSA’s job should be to take a defensive (rather than offensive) approach. No one, in or out of the United States, should be the target of digital espionage. Further, the espionage of any other nation should be efficiently deterred by a National Security Administration more cognizant of citizens’ privacy rights.

Clearly, the debate in which our class engaged served effectively as a microcosm of the more expansive and confusing debate taking place internationally, and it raised many of the important questions thereof. It also pointed towards crucial answers. Dr. Rosatelli, standing in for Wikileaks, accused the United States and the “West” of attempting to “[maintain] colonial power and control,” begging the question: Is the central premise of her assertion—stated on behalf of Julian Assange’s organization—fundamentally accurate, and if so, what are its implications?

Barney Warf in “Leaky Geopolitics: The Ruptures and Transgressions of Wikileaks,” sees the digital realm (and more specifically, cyberactivism therein) as an instrument to “foster alternative geographic imaginaries in which identity is defined relationally through feelings of mutual responsibility rather than simple proximity” (702). Warf’s intimation suggests that the digital age has brought with it the potential to break down the barriers of statehood, in a sense, ensuring a loyalty to fellow man as opposed to country.

The late Mark Poster in Information Please takes this concept further. “The assemblage of networked digital information and humans,” Poster writes, “may serve as a base for developing auspicious, decentralized, multicultural global networks” (48). This, Poster argues, is the “post-postcolonial world,” into which we are being led by the globalizing potential of ever-expanding digital technologies and the myriad capabilities of the Internet to enable international networking and subsequent dissemination of cultural objects on an unprecedented scale.

If the assertion of Wikileaks is correct, that “Western” governments like that of the United States are attempting with their extensive digital surveillance programs to maintain colonial power, is it because of a fear of the Internet’s capabilities to globalize in a way that leads us into the post-postcolonial world? Are these governments working to keep the barriers of statehood standing? Such would indeed seem to be the case, for if the government can effectively control the actions of its citizenry online—an increasingly trying task—it will most certainly take increasingly efficient technology and increasingly intrusive strategies. In effect, Wikileaks seems to be correct. Bureaucracies around the world, recognizing the democratizing potential of the cyber realm, have attempted—perhaps in vain—to maintain some vestiges of control.

During the course of our debate, it became abundantly clear why so many Americans feel powerless in this global discourse. When such powerful entities as billion-dollar corporations and the NSA are attempting to take actions which promote their interests and perhaps even their control of cyberspace, how can a mere citizen make a difference? Google may spend inordinate amounts of money to influence decisions made by the government, but the so-called “average citizen” cannot afford to do so. The NSA is working to build quantum computers that break encryption keys, and the “average citizen” cannot do anything to stop that. Even by exercising voting privileges, our impact on the government has in years prior proven to be substantially less than ideal. Voting for a Republican in 2000 and 2004 led to the Bush Administration’s enhanced surveillance techniques. Voting for a Democrat in 2008 and 2012 led to the Obama Administration’s even further enhanced surveillance techniques.

To have any hope for the future with regards to the Internet, and reclaiming not only privacy rights but, more centrally,  a more globalized and democratic autonomy, one must, to some extent, ascribe to the idealistic notions that pervaded the philosophies of earlier thinkers like Norbert Wiener and still pervade the thoughts of men like Stewart Brand, the late Poster, and even Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Digital utopianism as a general concept remains a central force in this geopolitical struggle, in the hope that the multitudinous capabilities presented by the digital age may be harnessed so as to tear down the walls of traditional bureaucracies as seen heretofore, effecting a change so revolutionary that it irrevocably alters the very definition of culture.

To have such a hope, that globalization may be made a reality thanks to the democratic nature of a free and open Internet, is to have faith that such a momentous change could be produced without causing irreparable damage or instability to the international community. It is safe to assume that for those who are accustomed to the prescripts of a postmodern world, such a shift in direction may not be welcomed with open arms. Even speaking from personal opinion, while I oppose the actions taken by the NSA, I do not wish for a future in which humankind is wholly democratized by the digital realm, as I am fearful of the anarchic volatility of a true democracy. On the contrary, my hope is simply for the NSA—and more broadly for the Federal Government—to minimize its intrusive and unconstitutional surveillance before we find ourselves heading down that proverbial “slippery slope.” The question is, can the United States government and those of other countries around the world minimize their operations, however, without opening the door to the post-postcolonial age of which Poster writes?

My intention was not to write so extensively, but I hope that what has been made most abundantly clear is the extent to which our deceptively simple in-class debate has raised countless questions about cyber-freedom going forward and the future not only of the Internet, but of our very existence and our perceptions of culture. In all of this discussion, I see very little hope to produce change with votes, but recognize the potential of the Internet if the notions of men like Assange, Snowden, Poster, and Brand prove to be more practical and less naïve than they may now seem to be.

Lamentably, I have no clear answer with regards to actions that can be taken by citizens to make a difference, and though it may seem thoroughly inadequate to suggest placing faith in the capacity of the Internet to effect the change we wish to see, perhaps the most practical way forward lies in the seemingly naïve idealism of digital utopianism. Such, however, cannot be a fully viable option until the bureaucratic regulations by which cyberspace is burdened are lessened and users across the globe are empowered to network and exchange cultural objects on a completely free and open Internet. If citizens are to push for any change, it should be in the form of comprehensive cyber-freedom. If they are to organize, it should be with the tools presented by the Internet. In effect, a practical path forward is presented to those concerned citizens who choose to act. Such citizens must be mindful of the ideals upon which the actions of so-called “traitors” like Snowden are based, and though leading such a movement—or even partaking in one—may seem a cumbersome effort, it does not take much to sow the seeds of that movement. It can begin with something as simple as, for instance, an in-class debate.

In effect, group “Top Secret” has done what it can to plant the seeds of a movement, as others around the world have in varying ways. Now, it is contingent upon those involved to make a choice: whether or not to take a stand and to organize in the borderless dimensions of cyberspace. With everything from privacy rights to the very fundaments of democracy itself at stake, inaction would be nothing short of a mistake.

Documentation:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyABIqrN9DM


Categories: Uncategorized
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Welcome to Diaspora*

// Posted by Emily on 09/21/2014 (5:50 PM)

Diaspora*? What?

In keeping with a social media response theme, for this week’s experience I joined Diaspora*. Established in 2010, Diaspora* is a social media site that allows users to join or create their own servers (called “pods”) to share… Read more

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Diaspora*? What?

In keeping with a social media response theme, for this week’s experience I joined Diaspora*. Established in 2010, Diaspora* is a social media site that allows users to join or create their own servers (called “pods”) to share content ranging from text, articles, photos, and videos. There are pods all over the world; some larger than others. Users have the option to create their own pod to post their content to, or join one based on their size and location preferences. Unlike other centralized forms of social media like Facebook or MySpace, users own everything they post on Diaspora*, which means they have control over how it is shared and distributed.

 

For our experience, I was assigned the character of Edward Snowden, the infamous former NSA employee who stole and subsequently leaked classified documents to the press. Guided by the belief that the government was infringing on the privacy, internet freedom, and basic liberties of its citizens with a monumental surveillance machine, Snowden methodically searched through close to two million documents, selecting those that would best expose the absence of federal transparency (Greenwald, MacAskill, & Pointras). Trying to keep in character, I googled “social media sites” and pulled up a Wikipedia article that had compiled a master list of social media websites, including a description of their focus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_social_networking_websites).  I wanted to join a site that shares Snowden’s values of privacy and freedom, and Diaspora* fit the bill. Committed to decentralization, freedom, and privacy, in many ways it is a direct reflection of Snowden’s opinions on the ideal relationship between technology and society.

Using the site

Signing up to use Diaspora*, I was prompted for my email, a username, and password. I was never asked for my real name, age, location, or gender. Once I signed up, I was directed to a page that asked me “What Are You Into?,” giving me a space to type in searchable hashtags that other participants had used in their posts. I typed in #snowden-nsa, #edwardsnowden, #glengreenwald, #transparency, #nsa, #chelseamanning, #wikileak, #julianassange, and #surveillance. After hitting “enter,” a Facebook newsfeed-style page appeared with posts that contained those hashtags. Originally, I had planned on sharing something or commenting on a post. I realized that these hashtags relate to matters of national security, and in a panic I had a vision that my words would land me on a government watch list. Perhaps my new friend Edward Snowden is to blame for the paranoia?

Below are screen shots of some posts that appeared on my page. If anything, the conversations captured below should do something to assuage Snowden’s worry that the public has become numb to NSA disclosures. People are talking, and they want to be heard:

 

 

What does Diaspora* have to do with our experience?

In Information Please, Poster endeavors to examine the ways we spark confrontations between culture and media. He argues that culture can no longer be understood independent from technology, and that the relationship between culture and technology has made the national global by facilitating new types of interactions across the world. Both Diaspora* and our experience on Wednesday reflect this global interconnectedness. Because of technology, Edward Snowden, Wikileaks, Glen Greenwald, Hong Kong, Russia, Chelsea Manning, and the NSA are intertwined in ways they never would have been in its absence. During the experience, we were able to see how the actions of individuals impact entire nations and organizations. Users on Diaspora* are able to weigh in on these matters in a way that doesn’t stand to threaten their beliefs in decentralization, privacy, and freedom. Is this the direction social media is heading in? I don’t know. What I do know is that as our experience and this site clearly demonstrate, opinions, actions, and their consequences will never again be confined to the borders of a single nation.


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Experience #1–The AIM days are over

// Posted by Elizabeth on 09/08/2014 (1:00 PM)

When I rushed home from work on Wednesday evening to join the LA Live Chat and participate in our first Digital America class experience, I immediately typed in my old AOL Instant Messenger username as my username for the chat… Read more

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When I rushed home from work on Wednesday evening to join the LA Live Chat and participate in our first Digital America class experience, I immediately typed in my old AOL Instant Messenger username as my username for the chat room, fully aware that I would be interacting with my classmates and would have to see these people again on Monday afternoon. I used my silly “iscream4icecream” username because it was 9:28 and I didn’t have time to think of anything witty and modern, but I also did it because it was comfortable, and because that was the identity I’d always had in my past experiences with the semi-anonymous instant messaging I did in middle school. Needless to say, when I joined the chat and saw other folks’ clever, cool and fresh usernames like “Off the Record” and “Lux,” I was embarrassed. Truthfully, I hadn’t put much thought into what my username would be at all, but suddenly I felt like it was a big deal and was really happy that the chat room was anonymous.

Of course, I got over my embarrassment very quickly, and I realized it would actually make a slightly funny and very thought-provoking story: why did I automatically think back to the days of AIM and my preteen identity when I was about to enter the LA Live Chat, and why did I react with confusion and concern when this chat room was different than what I expected?

I make this confession about my initial feelings during this experience because the chat room surprised me. Technology is something that most people in today’s society are very accustomed to. I was comfortable with the idea of online chatting because it was something that I thought I had done before, and I had no idea that such a primitive website could throw me off like it did. In reflecting on this experience, I realized that I rarely find myself in a digital environment that I’ve never been exposed to before—apart from downloading a new app on my iPhone, which I rarely do. I suppose I’ve never been very innovative in the way I use existing technology, and I certainly don’t see myself as someone who seeks out new ones—I still had a sliding, not-so-smart phone until about a year ago. The LA Live Chat was something outside of my previous experience with online communication, and it immediately startled me.

So not only do I have a greater appreciation for those early inventors and users of the WELL and other beginning online communities, but I also think I have a greater understanding of the “transcendence” these folks might have felt in their first online interactions. I can’t imagine joining the WELL with no clue how it really worked and no concept of social norms on the site—the idea alone takes the above phrase “outside of my previous experience” to a whole new level. I can certainly see how this would feel psychedelic and “out-of-body” to someone who had never used online communication technology before.

Fortunately, I got over my embarrassment and ended up very much enjoying the conversation. I found comfort in our topic of 90s culture and memories, which was actually another surprise about the chat experience. When the theme was suggested in class I was only reminded of countless online Buzzfeed articles listing “The 25 Things You Miss Most About the 90s,” which promise to invoke happy memories and nostalgia but usually consist of cheesy captions and some strange, low-quality images. The chat room experience was different in that even though the technology was older and more frustrating to deal with—reloading the conversation every few seconds certainly seemed like a huge burden at first—the discussion and the connection I felt with the other chatters was real, and it was great to be able to anonymously joke and bond with my peers without the pressure to say something intelligent that I sometimes feel in the classroom. Again, this allowed me to put myself in the place of early WELL users in that those people were joining the community to talk about things they cared about and to connect with like-minded people. Deadheads certainly joined with the ability to discuss a music genre and a culture that they were truly passionate about, and women in the workforce logged on to find other women struggling through similar issues of gender and identity. I can imagine that these contexts and conversation topics instantly established a compatibility between WELL users, and that they would have brought people some sense of level-headedness even in a new and astounding experience—just as talking about the 90s did for me.

Overall, I’m thankful for this first experience in that it really did get me thinking differently about early technology, and while I know that’s the right conclusion to draw because it was the whole point of the experience, I also know it’s true because of the way I felt when I joined the chat. The situation surprised and almost challenged me, and I’m certain that if I ever find myself participating in an LA Live Chat again, I won’t choose to call myself iscream4icecream.


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Experience #1 – 90s chat room and nostalgia

// Posted by Nicola on 09/08/2014 (12:20 PM)

Logging on to LALive, I was immediately taken back to my childhood. The format of the site, with its minimal text and now primitive graphics, reminded me of my early experiences with the Internet and computers in the late 90s… Read more

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Logging on to LALive, I was immediately taken back to my childhood. The format of the site, with its minimal text and now primitive graphics, reminded me of my early experiences with the Internet and computers in the late 90s and early 2000s. Having grown up with the Internet and thus easy access to an abundance of differing social networking sites, I assumed that this experience would largely be the same. However, it didn’t take long for me to realise that the multitude of differences, no matter how small, had a significant impact on the way I interacted online and my perception of online communication itself.

The first thing that took me by surprise was just how swiftly the conversation moved. While we almost exclusively kept within the realm of the predetermined theme of 90s and early 2000s nostalgia, the format of the site made it incredibly difficult to keep up with the particular point at hand. Having constantly to hit ‘reload’ ensured that I was always frantically scrolling back down to see the previous responses, only to find after reloading again, that the conversation had taken a completely new direction. Iscream4icecream perhaps most succinctly noted this frustrating limitation of the site when they responded, “I said that earlier!! no one appreciated it” (see end of post) upon the new focus of the conversation on Tamagotchis, a toy they had mentioned in an earlier post. Moreover, anytime I switched tabs to Google something that another user had mentioned, by the time I returned I found myself about five topics behind, so that my newly sourced information was no longer relevant. By doing so, I was also alerted to the ease at which I was able to switch back and forth from the chat room to other sites, a feature of contemporary computers that would have been largely non-existent in the 90s. The experience would have thus been far more immersive than instant messaging today, where one always has their eye on multiple pages and conversations. Given this restriction of early online forums, it isn’t difficult to see why the WELL was perceived as a mode of recreating the counterculture ideal of a shared consciousness.

Although I could not have anticipated the difficulties posed by reloading, I was far more surprised by some of the issues I faced in the early stages of the conversation. For instance, for about the first twenty minutes, I simply forgot that I could copy and paste. Instead I was laboriously retyping each username that I was directly addressing. Strangely, it seems as though being on an old-fashioned chat room made me forget about contemporary computer shortcuts, as if for some reason they wouldn’t apply. Here too, the advances in online communication became apparent in that I was unable to ‘tag’ or initiate a private conversation with just one user. Everything that I posted was essentially public to anyone who logged onto the chat room. Thus, although at certain points I responded to one particular user, with so many other active users the point soon was lost, left behind as others moved on. Had this been the case today, I would have simply created a new, private message to that user whether it was through iMessage, Facebook or even Snapchat, and continued the conversation in greater depth. Further, if you did not include the username to whom you were responding, confusion could again arise. For instance, in screenshot #2, Lux replied ‘Such a good show’ yet looking at the previous posts it is not clear which show they are referring to. It could have been an afterthought to their earlier post “’Oh Lizzie McGuire’ or to ‘Air Bud was the shit’ or even to Heisenberg’s post regarding ‘Courage the cowardly dog’. Consequently, I began to wonder just how substantial a conversation could be on these types of online forums in the 90s, particularly given that the price of the Internet was far more expensive than it is today. If conversations were only brief or constantly disrupted by differing streams of thought, was the notion of a ‘shared consciousness’ online ultimately undermined?

The inability to add links to videos or post images was another stark point of difference with how I communicate online today. While I had never truly considered how convenient this tool is on contemporary social networking sites, it certainly became apparent on LALive. At certain points, I would have liked to include an image or link to emphasise a point or add another level of interest. This restriction of the site meant that I had to think more carefully about what I wanted to say and just how clear it would come across to the other users.

However, one feature of the site that I would be interested to see make a resurgence is the anonymous username. Not only was it entertaining to come up with our own handle, but it also provided a sense of freedom. By having no profile image or personal information attached to your posts, there was no risk of being forever associated with your comments or statements. There was, for instance, no need to be embarrassed by admitting your love for Britney Spears. While Turner asserts that some subscribers on the WELL, such as Carmen Hermosillo, felt like they were performers, ‘…selling themselves to other readers…’ I did not notice this play out on LAlive. Of course I only logged in for the hour, but certainly in comparison to how individuals harness social networks today it seemed like a more genuine and less edited space than say an individual’s Facebook or Instagram profile. Again I believe this distinction can be attributed to the anonymity that the site enables and the absence of images, filters and other editing devices. After logging off, I wondered if in today’s society, which has witnessed, as Norberto Gomez, Jr. notes, the ‘commoditization of one’s own identity’ an anonymous online presence would be as effective? Would the separation between one’s identity and their words be considered too radical or would it provide welcome relief from the constant influx of private information being made public?

Ultimately the hour flew by. Despite the inherent limitations of a now out-dated site and the difficulties in adjusting to such differences, I found my time online to be a genuinely enjoyable experience. After all, at its core the site enables users to communicate and share ideas with other individuals, and if the conversation is good then everything else is secondary.

Screen shot #1:

Screen shot #2:

Note: Given that the conversation required my full attention due to the rapid pace at which it was moving, I chose primarily to take screenshots as a means of documentation. By doing so, I was able to go back and reread at least parts of the conversation as it occurred which, in turn, served as reminders of my experience. However, I also took the occasional note using the ‘stickies’ application on my computer in order to ensure that I remembered some key points I found interesting along the way. Further, the inclusion of two screenshots in this post emphasises some of my key points relating to the challenges the site presented, with the visuals providing the reader with a more vivid image of the chat room itself.


Categories: Assignments / Blog / Discussion
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90′s Chatroom Response

// Posted by Emily on 09/08/2014 (12:02 PM)

http://www.pinterest.com/elagan1912/digital-america-90s-nostalgia/

I decided to craft a social media themed response by creating a Pinterest board of topics that we discussed in the chat. Also included on the board are feelings that I had during the experience. The chat room was… Read more

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http://www.pinterest.com/elagan1912/digital-america-90s-nostalgia/

I decided to craft a social media themed response by creating a Pinterest board of topics that we discussed in the chat. Also included on the board are feelings that I had during the experience. The chat room was one of the original forms of social media, where people came together to exchange thoughts, opinions, likes, and dislikes. In many ways, Pinterest operates the same way by giving users the opportunity to locate and comment on sources of inspiration. I pinned about 15 or so topics, ranging from food to music to games, that we discussed in the chatroom. I also pinned quotes to sum up my feelings about the experience, in the hope that this format provides a modern-day reflection of the chat room.


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A Virtual Trip to the 90′s and the Foundation of the Digital Age

// Posted by Brendan on 09/08/2014 (11:50 AM)

I like to think of myself as being well versed in the modern culture of the World Wide Web. Between constant checking of social medias, refreshing my go-to blogs, watching videos and browsing Reddit threads, I spend a lot of… Read more

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I like to think of myself as being well versed in the modern culture of the World Wide Web. Between constant checking of social medias, refreshing my go-to blogs, watching videos and browsing Reddit threads, I spend a lot of time engulfing myself in the cyber world that has entrenched our modern society. My usage of the Internet has been a gradual progression that has coincided with my development.

I remember first beginning to use a computer, when I was a child when I would come home after school, and play Roller Coaster Tycoon, Putt-Putt, the Sims and numerous other computer games on my mom’s pc. As I have grown, I have found the computer and cyber culture gaining an increasing foothold in my life. I started using the Internet daily sometime in middle school. I started getting news updates through various websites, creating social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter, had a brief foray into blogging and just spent a lot of time browsing my interests, keeping my mind occupied with games on Sporcle, redundant information from Wikipedia, videos on YouTube and plenty of other miscellaneous things.

I have grown up with the Internet. But even as I was getting started, the Internet already had a solid foundation with over a decade of use. The Internet of the 1990’s is so foreign to me as I never saw it firsthand. Sure, I’ve seen depictions of it through archived images and the Space Jam website which has apparently not been updated since 1996, but I never experienced the awe and wonder that others felt when exploring this new and untapped resource in its early stages. That is why the chance to reenact a 90’s chat room felt so appealing to me. I was not sure what to expect when logging in to the L.A. Live chat room last Wednesday night, but I was excited nonetheless.

My first look at the chat room interface

My initial impressions of the chat room were pretty representative of the depictions of the 90’s web culture that I had seen online or in other sources of media. The chat room’s interface could not be more terribly outdated, with its black, starry background, and terribly pixelated front-page logo. It was stressful, having to click refresh in order to see new posts and having previously seen posts use a faded font color that was near impossible to see on the starry black page background. Regardless, I powered through the defunct 90s webpage to immerse myself in the chat room’s unique structure.

Once the chat room became active with my classmates and I posting, I began to feel entranced by the experience. In many ways, the chat room conversation was not much different from what I experience browsing Facebook or Reddit now. I found myself refreshing the page as quickly as I could to read through new comments, hoping to stay on top of its conversation. Much like today, if you weren’t the first to respond or add input, your thoughts or comments would be looked over in favor of others. Initially, I distracted myself from the chat room by checking Facebook and other websites, but as the conversation increased I found I was unable to venture away from the chat room.

Our conversation consisted of recalling childhood memories that created a rush of nostalgia within me. With numerous minds collaborating, the discussion brought back memories of candies, games and moments on television that I had completely forgotten or could not have recalled on my own. Within the infrastructure of the chat room, it felt as if we were discussing these things during real time, that we had transported ourselves back to the 90’s.

The discussion grows

Although the early users of the WELL did not have previous experience using online systems, I am led to believe that their use of the WELL created similar feelings of nostalgia within them. For these early users, the WELL must have recalled the Whole Earth Catalog, with which most users would have been familiar. Like-minded people were coming together to produce content and information that could be seen by others all over. Although the digital space they were using was foreign, the users of the WELL bonded over its base structure of the Whole Earth Catalog.

The chat room itself, served as another step in the transformation of the cyber culture. As the knowledge and powers of computers increased, the ability for people to come together took new shapes and forms. The WELL evolved into the World Wide Web, which in turned led to the creation of chat rooms and message boards. For me, it is clear that although the digital age is a constant era of change and growth, the principles that were apparent in its foundation have continued to exist and prevail.  The digital age can credit the human desire to communicate with others and spread information for encouraging its technological growth over the years, a trait was apparent in our chat room discussion.


Categories: Uncategorized
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Chatting with the 90s

// Posted by Aisling on 09/08/2014 (11:05 AM)

http://aislingexperiences.wordpress.com/2014/09/08/experience-1-90s-chatroom-2/

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http://aislingexperiences.wordpress.com/2014/09/08/experience-1-90s-chatroom-2/


Categories: Uncategorized
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Live From the 90s

// Posted by Joe on 09/08/2014 (2:02 AM)

The days when I would spend my nights in my room on my computer, trying to see which of my friends was online in AIM are long gone. It feels like decades, that is how much social technology has advanced… Read more

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The days when I would spend my nights in my room on my computer, trying to see which of my friends was online in AIM are long gone. It feels like decades, that is how much social technology has advanced in the short amount of time since my childhood. Thinking about those nights, it is hard to imagine a more simplistic way of communicating and being social with my friends. Now I frequently am connected to several different methods of communication at all times, and car receive instant notifications of updated within the communication. Life keeps on being lived and every once in a while I can get a reminder that someone is trying to communicate with me. Yet, 5-10 years earlier that my childhood social network, the most innovative and futuristic mechanism of communication was this single page chat forum.
What really struck me most about this primitive experience amongst “anonymous” chatters was the envelopment necessary to participate in the chat. In order to use the chat, one must constantly refresh the page and recover all the messages that were put into the chat since you had last refreshed. You could not be doing something on the side while involved in the chat or you would miss out on the conversation.
The idea of disembodiment and the overwhelming concepts for people when this first came out also showed a few glimmers as I remained on that chat page. The background of darkness and stars, and the psychedelic format of the page made me really think about how for people at the time this was released, is was so incredible that they could put their identity elsewhere from their physical bodies.
Another takeaway that I had from this hour-long chatroom experience was the way in which the chatroom change the way I communicated and behaved with my classmates. I knew they were all my classmates, and I know everyone who was there in person, but something about the anonymity of the specific identities of the other chatters, as well as the anonymity that I gained, allowed me to speak extremely openly and without restraint. I could speak and relate to my chatters as just another voice in some forum.


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Digital Utopianism and the Chat Room

// Posted by Damian on 09/07/2014 (9:33 PM)

When Dr. Rosatelli initially informed us that our first class “experience” would take place in a recreated 1990s chat room, I had almost no clue what that entailed, never having spent any time in a chat room up to that

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When Dr. Rosatelli initially informed us that our first class “experience” would take place in a recreated 1990s chat room, I had almost no clue what that entailed, never having spent any time in a chat room up to that point. Nonetheless, I expected something dreadfully disappointing in its obsolescence.
The Internet has changed immeasurably in the past couple of decades, to such an extent that members of my generation may not even understand what a chat room is, what it looks like, or how it works, or at least in an earlier configuration. For the most part, I did not. Spoiled by the instant gratification of  iMessage, I was perhaps dismayed in understanding that this experience would require us to subject ourselves—perish the thought—to an hour on a program right out of the 90s. I can barely look at the gray Windows 2000 taskbar without feeling the need to immerse myself in the sleek modernity of Apple OS X Mavericks, let alone actually spending an hour on a website right out of the Clinton era. Revisitation of the past can be inherently uncomfortable, for reasons beyond my comprehension, and seeing the pixelated welcome screen on LA Live Chat, I felt the sort of hesitant unease with which I am all too familiar.
Yet, what I discovered in my time on the website was not a growing discomfort or a need to return to the technological progress with which our lives are saturated, but rather a greater appreciation for the chat room, in all its admittedly archaic simplicity, and for the grander notions that it represented for programmers and digital architects of the time.
There is an undeniable naiveté to the notions put forth by thinkers like Norbert Wiener and Buckminster Fuller, whose conceptions of “cybernetics” and related notions would give rise to digital utopianism, first in the form of a New-Communalist return to the land, and ultimately in the form of the earliest online social networks in an ambiguous, transcendent place called “cyberspace.” Regardless of the seemingly logical nature of Gregory Bateson’s philosophy, which denied the idea of “transcendence” (first as LSD and later as a new digital landscape) and viewed the world as a purely physical place in which change was to be made here and now, the wonders of lalivechat.com are perhaps inexpressible in words. Especially placing yourself in the footsteps of an individual living in the 1980s, without any prior exposure to the early internet and the possibilities posed thereby, it is impossible to deny the wonders, and indeed the transcendence, that was offered by a program like the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, or by 1990s chat rooms.
The concept was simple enough: To chat an hour away with members of my class, but to do so anonymously. Theoretically speaking, the experience could have been a rather cold and distant one, to be in a mysterious domain out of a different decade, speaking with people we do not, with certainty, know. The actual experience, however, reflected something much different, something decidedly personal in nature.
My first impressions were not the most positive, especially upon realizing that, unlike contemporary instant messenger services, the chat room had to be reloaded if I wanted to read the most recent comments. How unthinkably inconvenient. But in all seriousness, once that minor annoyance subsided, and the class discussion of our 90s childhood commenced, I felt remarkably empowered and closer to my classmates than I had up to that point.
I felt empowered because of anonymity, or at least the illusion thereof, as I later learned that one could see each user’s email address by scrolling over their username. I am thankful, however, that I had not made this discovery during the course of the chat, as I found it so freeing to speak openly with my classmates. As an individual using the WELL for the first time in the 1980s, unaccustomed to digital technologies, I can barely imagine the amazement one might have felt. The WELL—and soon enough, the young Internet and chat rooms like lalivechat.com—was something unfathomed by a majority of the population, something that could not have been expected by most, because it could not be easily defined. It was not a physical realm beyond the expanse of a monitor and perhaps a keyboard and mouse. Yet to be thrown into this new world, this so-called cyberspace, and to find oneself interacting with other anonymous strangers who might have been thousands of miles away, discussing everything from consequential political decisions to trivial mundanities, must have been one of the most indescribable sensations. It was as if the world were given a new dimension, and users of the WELL were plunged right into it.
Of course, the WELL predated LA Live Chat, but that sort of transcendent socialization, sharing a previously undiscovered world with previously undiscovered friends, even shone through for me as I typed to my classmates about everything from Furbies to “Full House,” and I sense that, immersed in the 1990s and sharing an evening of nostalgia, we all felt the same pangs of wistfulness, a bittersweet longing for a past we cannot reclaim. For all the obsolescence of a 90s chat room, far less advanced than our own modern means of communication, I longed for the days when Britney Spears was still a relevant young star and before “Seinfeld” ended its run and became a syndicated relic of a not-too-distant past. Even with its inconveniently obligatory reloading, something about lalivechat.com just made sense.
I once found a cheesy quote in a fortune cookie that read something like this: “The Golden Age never was the present one.” Cornball though it may be, it stuck with me, and my thoughts kept returning to it as I chatted with my classmates. I found the Golden Age in a chat room, and I knew I was not alone. The sort of closeness such an experience fosters is beyond words, something I had cynically doubted, but something I could not help but recognize as the evening came to a close and I typed, with complete sincerity, that I wanted to come back. That was the truth. I would gladly return to LA Live Chat to engage in conversation with fellow users near and far, but the 90s are gone, and the chat room has faded from popularity. Once my class left, the room was, as it likely will remain for some time, empty, and there is something truly sad about that.
In spite of the melancholy that results from such an understanding, I emerged from the experience nonetheless with hope, only being able to deny the supposed logic behind Gregory Bateson’s cynical rejection of “transcendence.” I have felt that transcendence, and though the dismal realities of the real world may prevent the Internet from achieving the ends towards which Norbert Wiener and Buckminster Fuller hoped to work, if we would reach back into the annals of digital history, to a different time, we could find that idealistic hope that they recognized so many years ago.
Chat rooms may be on their way out, and the 90s may be gone, but wallowing in rueful pity accomplishes nothing. The world has moved on, to iMessage and to Facebook and to Twitter, and though the transcendence we once understood may now be muted by the depth of our knowledge of the Internet and the gradual lessening of its mysterious aura, we still carry with us the same utopian hope, that perhaps, in a world without chat rooms, we may not reclaim a long-gone past, but rather a vision once held by members of that past. Digital utopianism lives on, or at least the dream thereof, as mankind is more empowered than ever before to make the Golden Age the present one.

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