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Democracy and Sharks!

// Posted by on 06/04/2015 (3:32 PM)

 

What the readings this week left me with is this:

  1. Clearly, we’re trying to move money and move it fast. These processes help make more money. It might be legal, it might not be, and some

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What the readings this week left me with is this:

  1. Clearly, we’re trying to move money and move it fast. These processes help make more money. It might be legal, it might not be, and some people have developed algorithms to manipulate it. Pretty simple, well, not really, but you know what I mean.
  2. More importantly, I think, access to the internet and all things digital and fast does not necessarily build or promote democracy.

 

 The Internet is designed for collaboration and the promotion of ideas. As long as people are able to access the Internet, they will have a greater possibility of locating like-minded people. When like-minded people collaborate, they develop new ideas and they begin to question things. If they can’t find a logical answer they begin to question those that made the decision, ruling, law, etc. in the first place. If those decision-makers won’t make change, then that group of like-minded people will organize and work to force change. Decision-makers and leaders don’t like this. It puts their power at risk. It calls their authority into question. The Internet definitely gives power to the general public. Power to the people!

Yeah!

The ability to organize and make change is power and the Internet is absolutely a tool for this to happen. The ability to then force our leaders to make change, and if they don’t we vote them out of office, that’s power.

But wait!

The Electronic Frontier Foundation made note that Venezuelans working with several different ISPs lost all connectivity on Thursday of this past week. Users lost connectivity to the major content delivery network Edgecast and the IP address which provides access to Twitter’s image hosting service while another block stopped Venezuelan access to the text-based site Pastebin.

Meanwhile the New York Times reports that the news network NTN24 has been shut down as well. The alternative news channel Telesur, run by the Venezuelan government, is still up and running.

NTN24 has been shut down, according to the president of Venezuela, due to their attempt to “torment anxiety about a coup d’etat.  The President Maduro went on to suggest that “no one is going to come from abroad and try to perturb  the psychological climate of Venezuela.” NTN24 was removed on Wednesday of this past week. (“Venezuelan government shuts down internet in wake of protests“)

The government, big business, and many other powerful and authoritative entities have the same access, if not more, to the Internet as that group of like-minded people that rose up for change. Basically, if they didn’t like that the aforementioned group organized and questioned their power, they have the power to take it away. If there’s no internet, people can’t share ideas, ask questions, or continue to organize. They could target individuals, spy on them, steal their identities, or even make it so their cats no longer recognize them.

The Internet empowers everyone who has access, but don’t use your access to do anything questioning those that gave you access. They’ve been empowered too, and odds are they have even more power and even more internet. David Golumbia states in his article, “High-frequency trading: networks of wealth and the concentration of power,” that “many of the most powerful actors in our world show absolutely no signs of being afraid  of losing their grip on power due to computerization.” This isn’t a redistribution of access or power, but rather the already powerful are sharing just a tiny bit – just enough to keep from asking questions. The powerful have tried to oppress print and television in the same way – either by shutting it down altogether, or by entirely dictating what those mediums are allowed to present to the public.

So no, the Internet is not democratic. It’s a tool that we’ve been given to use, and if we don’t use it right it will be used against us. Golumbia says that “people themselves must reassert their right and their responsibility to govern and operate the parts of society that are and should be democratized.”

Oh! I almost forgot!

3. Sharks! I can’t forget the sharks. It’s crazy to think that these companies are pouring all of this money into establishing this infrastructure only to have the sharks come and play with it. It’s like a squirrel biting a power line. Is it possible to mask this electromagnetic field? I don’t know enough about this stuff to speculate. If sharks get angry at humans and decide to take out the internet, or any of the other fiber optic cables running along the ocean floor, we’re in the dark and they’ll have ample time to devise their takeover. This is power! It seems that access to the internet and the expansion of digital technology really does empower anything and everyone.

Today’s lesson: don’t piss off the sharks.

 


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The NSA Knew I Was Going to Write This Before I Did

// Posted by on 05/26/2015 (11:13 PM)

 

The internet was created out of a sense of building community and sharing ideas – sharing, that important lesson our parents drill into our heads when we are little. When you consider this, Constitutionality aside,… Read more

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The internet was created out of a sense of building community and sharing ideas – sharing, that important lesson our parents drill into our heads when we are little. When you consider this, Constitutionality aside, there’s just something wrong and counter-intuitive about all of the secrecy, trespassing, and stealing involved in the government’s questionable acquisition of domestic data.

I think part of the problem is that the American people are constantly bombarded with newer, greater, smaller, and faster digital media that they are led to believe that they must have, must use, and must constantly be connected to. This new media offers the user fresh ways to enter information and communicate with each other. Which, based on the numbers, the American people love! By intentionally making more data available for the government to collect, the general public offers up more of who they are to the scrutiny of the professionals employed by the NSA. The Wired Magazine article, “The NSA is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)”, states that the NSA is “sifting through billions of emails and phone data.

We give them more information, and they spend more taxpayer money on server farms to collect our information. I was shocked, especially during a time of economic crisis, as to how much money the federal government was spending on facilities, servers, satellites, and upgrades solely devoted to capturing domestic communications and data.

$100 million on a renovation

$2 billion on the Bluffdale digital storage facility

$896 million on a new supercomputer center

Beyond the money, what really sticks with me is a question that John Oliver posed to Edward Snowden, “Is it a conversation that we have the capacity to have? Because it is so complicated that we don’t fundamentally understand.” Is this a conversation that the American people are capable of starting and sustaining? I don’t know. John Oliver’s man on the street videos certainly say, perhaps not.

If speed is the most desirable quality for these super computers and data processors, is it even possible for NSA professionals to separate data prior to deciding whether or not it needs to be addressed? Is it just a big jumble data that they are constantly trying to descramble or decrypt indiscriminately, and they don’t really concern themselves with what they end up with? I feel as if I am an informed citizen, especially more so now after reading these articles, but I still struggle to fully comprehend what is happening and to what degree. You can tell me all about yottabytes, but I can’t comprehend the meaning of that. I understand it’s a lot, but it doesn’t mean anything definitive to me.

Further, I fully agree with Snowden’s comment that, regardless of what the interview context may have been, we should send whatever data, information, or ummm…pictures we would otherwise send. We shouldn’t change our behaviors because our government is doing the wrong thing. Something else I don’t understand – why keep this all secret? We already know that it’s happening? Why not come out with it and be transparent?

Also, wasn’t our government intentionally developed with a built in system of checks and balances? Whose day was it to watch the NSA when they decided to roll out all of these secret programs?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2YsZoqwRnKE

I think it’s hard to look at this situation objectively, with the exception of that whole Constitution thing. We need to maintain a watchful eye on those wishing to do harm to the United States, but, as noted in “The NSA is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)”, these people were listening into calls from anyone. Former NSA employee, Adrienne J. Kinne, said that she found the act of eavesdropping on innocent fellow citizens personally distressing. She likened it to coming upon someone’s diary and flipping through it.

As noted in the previous paragraph, this also brings up the question of the 4th Amendment and how it is interpreted. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,[a] against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Given this, and our freedom of speech, I’d say that based on everything I’ve said, many of the NSA’s surveillance programs are unconstitutional — PRISM and FISA in particular. As many point out, how can you act on power such as this without abusing it? It must be very tempting.

Edward Snowden claims to have carried out his actions because “so that the American people can decide for themselves what kind of government they want to have.” My assumption is that he means one that spies on its own people, thus violating its citizens rights, or one that in entirely transparent and give its people the opportunity to say yes or no to proposed data collection and related expenditures. This is not at all what has happened in this case. Whether or not I think these programs should be in places, I do think that the people of the United States should have been given the opportunity to voice their opinions. As it stands, 46% of the American people favor government surveillance (Oliver). Does this means they think that they are safer, are they unaware that their privacy is also violated in the process, do the American people care?

I think back to all of the critical things I said about the second President Bush and the war in Iraq back in the early 2000s. I can’t imagine what kind of lists I’m on at this point. It’s not just the Republicans though, the Democrats aren’t any better.

“We all want perfect privacy and perfect security, but these two things cannot coexist (Oliver).” This is also a sentiment that President Obama echoes in the below YouTube video. I must say, he seems nervous doing so.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BmdovYztH8

This kind of surveillance is bipartisan!

Though, this does make the point that the Internet is not democratic. Both parties are going to do whatever they want when it comes to security, or what they feel is security, not want the people vote for. How does that make everyone feel?

No matter what each person believes on this issue, this is the country that we presently live in. Are we too far in to turn around or reevaluate? We might not be able to about face, but there is certainly room for perhaps heading in a different direction. However, per the Constitution, the people should have more of a say. Information such as the information shared by Edward Snowden should be public record — to an extent. I don’t think the general populace can wrap their brains around everything that the NSA is up to, I know I certainly can’t.


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Cyberactivism and the #CleanURlake Protest

// Posted by on 11/02/2014 (10:07 PM)

For this experience, my group, which included myself, Elizabeth, and Brendan, decided to have students organize a protest—in two senses. The first component of the activity involved the establishment of an online campaign, including a Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook

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For this experience, my group, which included myself, Elizabeth, and Brendan, decided to have students organize a protest—in two senses. The first component of the activity involved the establishment of an online campaign, including a Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook account (CleanURlake). We also tried to start some hashtags, including one named after the accounts and #URecoli. Students also utilized Yik Yak, which was appropriate considering it is an anonymous social network, and much of our decision in class revolved around the concept of anonymity and the authenticity (or lack) thereof.
After laying the online groundwork and starting to spread the word, students were left with the responsibility of leading a physical protest in front of Boatwright Library. We simply asked students to come prepared, with signs, with evidence of research and a sufficiently strong knowledge of pollution in the lake, including the perturbingly high levels of E. Coli. We also offered flyers, which included the aforementioned hashtags, so as to pique students’ interest and perhaps even get them talking online. Below is a link to a YouTube video, which includes footage of the protest, as well as a few pictures from before, during, and after the protest, just to put the experience into perspective.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtXdv73Hcmk
The approach to this experience was wholly unique in terms of the fact that it was based so strongly around the concept of horizontalism, which stands firmly opposed to hierarchical structures of any kind. In our case, it was our intention to lead this experience by not necessarily taking the lead and acting as co-participants instead. One need not look too far to realize the inspiration for such a decision: In “Inside Occupy Wall Street,” Jeff Sharlet notes that Occupy’s “resistance to organized leadership has proved enduring… The evasion of organized leadership that for many began as a tactic—leaders are targets and weak links, subject to prosecution and co-option—has now grown into a principle.” We translated the horizontal proclivities of Occupy and other movements staged in both a physical and digital realm to the confines of our own class experience, so as to measure the viability of horizontalism and to determine whether it helps or hinders a movement.
To some extent, I am unsure whether or not our experience was a completely fair representation of horizontalism in activism. My group had left the horizontal aspect up to question, hoping to surprise students with the experience. Ultimately, that was a mistake. I think we were inspired by the previous group’s emphasis on surprising the class with their experience, and we decided to go a similar route, not wanting to give much information away ahead of time. However, what we did not consider—or at least what I did not consider—was simply the fact that group three’s experience thrived with the element of surprise. When students could not come in prepared to take part in a digital divide simulation, and when they were simply thrown into writing a response to the question of whether or not digital copyrighting perpetuates inequality, they were left with a more authentic experience. When a group like Occupy, or at least the individuals who get the proverbial ball rolling, decide that they want to lead demonstrations, they do so not on a whim, but over time. They prepare, and we should have recognized the importance of fully informing students so as to enable them to prepare as they needed. I believe that we did with regards to the physical protest, but we did not with regards to the social networking component. So was horizontalism successful in our case? Well, not as much, but one has to take into consideration the context of which I have herein spoken.
I firmly believe that in movements like Occupy, fighting for purely democratic values and fighting against hierarchical structures like those evident in capitalism—specifically the so-called New Economy’s nested hierarchies—it is fundamentally logical and necessary for the movement to be based around a structure that empowers all equally. For how can you criticize any hierarchy without ensuring that you do not propagate one of your own? Nonetheless, is horizontalism practical for movements like Occupy, and does it allow a movement to expand and mature at an optimally exponential rate? I would like to think so, but I have my doubts.
A large portion of class discussion involved another activist group, Anonymous, which initially emerged from the anonymous forum site 4Chan. In 2008, it made its first “big” move and targeted the Church of Scientology in Operation Chanology. Suddenly, a movement that had started with Internet trolls who rotated between using 4Chan’s random /b/ board, planning pranks on children’s games like Habba Hotel, and executing DDoS—or Distributed Denial of Service—attacks had matured into something much more politically powerful. Amassing almost 10,000 protesters worldwide, Anonymous proved it had the clout to effect some real change. What it didn’t have—and still doesn’t—is centralized leadership. Like Occupy, Anonymous is a horizontal movement. While that may reflect well simply as an indication of authenticity, as opposed to hypocrisy, the implications for Anonymous down the line were troubling. Suddenly, the movement was split, between those members of Anonymous who wished to return to the simple delights of trolling and the so-called “moralfags” who wanted to work for a social good. For all the wonderful things Anonymous seemed to be doing in movements like Operation Titstorm, which targeted the Australian government for its censorship of the Internet, there remained a sizable contingent very much like Lulzsec, an Anonymous splinter group which looked not to engage in noble campaigns, but rather to return to trolling. The group pulled such stunts as hacking into the CBS News website and posting a false story about Tupac Shakur (who was, they assured readers, in New Zealand, very much alive) for its coverage of whistleblower Chelsea Manning, with which it agreed. Protesting the actions of a government is one thing. Attacking a news source because you don’t like that they published certain information is another, and it contradicts the notion that you believe information should be free. If information is free, it should be freely publicized by media outlets, and freely editorialized upon by the writers thereof.
The problem with Anonymous is also one of its strengths: that it remains so loyal to its horizontalist roots. When Lulzsec—which no longer exists—hacked the CBS News website, did Anonymous condemn their actions and work to ensure that such abuses of power would not occur again? There isn’t any leadership to do so. It remains contingent on individual members to make a choice, whether to use their movement for the forces of good, or to allow it to drift into the deeply troubling realm of intolerance and chaotic trolling. No leadership exists to steer it in any one direction, so the future is uncertain. Can horizontalism work? In certain cases, yes. It certainly has proved fruitful in select cases involving Anonymous. Operation Payback constitutes the group’s most successful endeavor by far, as its work with Telecomix—a coalition of Internet activists—helped to keep the Internet running in countries like Tunisia where governments had attempted to censor and block use by the populace. In many ways, in getting Middle Easterners in these countries back online, Anonymous played a central role in the overthrow of despotic regimes like that of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It did so without any central command from the top, with the help of “hacktivists” all across the globe. But can Anonymous remain a movement dedicated to the liberation of oppressed peoples, and to fighting all institutions that work in any way to oppress or to suppress information? If its various factions allow it to be split, what is its strength? Can the solidarity inherent in the demonstrations of Operation Chanology be upheld going forward? The answer is certainly unknown. The movement’s choice to remain horizontal, even as it has gained more mainstream attention and effected more sweeping change, has proven wise, for the time being. For as much harm can be done by splinter groups, much can also be done by centralized leadership, if its power is abused.
Whether or not horizontalism worked for Occupy is also a point of contention. Though it served to the movement’s benefit for some of the same reasons as it has for Anonymous, could an organized command structure have provided more guidance? With actual leadership and an official platform, critics like the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib, who complained that Occupy “doesn’t really take you to a particular bumper-sticker action,” may have been silenced, or at least pushed to engage in a substantial debate on the issues, as opposed to merely denouncing the organization’s framework. The problem with Occupy is that, unlike Anonymous, the change it effected isn’t exactly abundantly clear. Is America more wary of corporations—and the immense political influence and power they wield—today than it was five years ago? Likely not. Has Congress passed sweeping reform that keeps corporate influence in check and regulates the private sector more thoroughly? Most certainly not. Has economic inequality been reduced? Again, a resounding no. Then there is the biggest question: Does anyone care? Some people do, but do the majority of Americans feel compelled to become engaged and continue Occupy’s work? Perhaps, but I don’t really see them. Anonymous is the major force right now, and its primary emphasis has not been on economic inequality and corporate influence in the United States. So was Occupy destined to fail, or did horizontalism seal its fate? I work on the argument that Occupy “failed” simply from the standpoint that the aforementioned questions above have been answered with “no”s, even if the New York Times’ Charles Blow has written that the movement ingrained the notion of excessive inequality in the minds of Americans. We cannot be so sure. Even if it was not an abject failure, can it even remotely match up to movements like the women’s suffrage movement? As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich notes, the push to grant women the right to vote was able to sustain itself over the course of many years because they won small victories time and again that gave the movement hope. What small victories has the Occupy movement won that can keep it moving forward? At the moment, Zuccotti Park is devoid of Occupiers, and the physical demonstrations seem to have all but died out. So what exactly is the next step? Is there any? I would contend there is, but it will likely require the leadership of another movement, one that, if horizontalist, must doubtless use its horizontalism to its advantage, as opposed to allowing itself to drift into the anarchic realms of a platform-less, misunderstood campaign.
All of that being said, our experience certainly provides no clearer an answer to the question of horizontalism in activism. Surely, we, like the Occupiers, failed to use it optimally, to our advantage, which led to some initial confusion and disorganization. But I look past the first 30 minutes and to the subsequent 50, and I see glimmers of hope. The physical demonstration was small, as it should have been expected to be with only 7 students in the class, but an impact was clear. I was shocked to find that most students were unaware of the E. Coli levels in the lake. As I held my sign demanding “For your students’ sake clean up the lake,” I received questions like “What’s up with the lake?” People just didn’t know, in spite of a well-done—and relatively recent—piece of reporting by the Collegian. “I knew it was gross,” another student said, “but I didn’t know about the E. Coli. That’s really scary.” It really is. And I hope that that student, if he didn’t like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter, at least went back to his room and did some research, or told a friend. I truly believe that what made our experience successful, in spite of early disorganization and the fact that we did not know how exactly to use horizontalism to our advantage, is the fact that we raised awareness of a serious issue with serious implications. Students who have fallen into the lake have subsequently become ill, but seemingly a majority of their peers were unaware of the presence of the bacteria and the dangers posed thereby. That we were able to connect with dozens of students and talk with them and open a dialogue is important. It means that any impact will be felt not simply during the experience, but after. And that is where I see more success. Students from the Collegian, hearing about our project, came out to write an article, which, once published, shot to the top of the list of most-read articles. It is precisely that sort of publicity that gets a conversation started, and that offers a reminder to those in command that students are informed and concerned and, more crucially, that they want to make a difference. I am unsure that change will be made, but I do sense that there is reason to believe we have started a conversation. On Yik Yak, our post ended up on the “hot” list, with over 40 up-votes. That becomes all the more impressive if one considers the fact that many of the “hot” list entries involve demeaning comments or jokes. We made the list by offering a positive comment and getting students thinking about a legitimate issue.
On the digital front, though, I sense that the question Robert Reich posed to Occupy is the same question we should pose to ourselves: What is the next step? Students insist that they will continue running the Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook accounts, but, in all honesty, I have my doubts. I do not see that as a failure of the experience. I see it instead, as an unusual sort of success. One of the central questions I wanted us to pose in this experience was whether or not online campaigns can last. We see countless examples in the media of campaigns like Kony 2012 that start a widespread conversation before abruptly dying out. Most likely, the online push for the Redskins name to be changed will prove to have a similar fate. Can online movements last, and if so, how? Anonymous surely provides an example of an online movement that has lasted, but it helps that its constituent members are hackers and that their daily routines often revolve around the use of computers and of the Internet. What of the movements like Occupy or CleanURlake, which are constituted not of hackers and 4Chan trolls, but of average students with average knowledge of computers whose schedules are jam-packed and who have more to worry about than a dirty lake or economic inequality? How does an online movement stay alive, winning small victories to give itself momentum, propelling itself forward whilst keeping its participants engaged and informed? Certainly, it is possible to keep an online movement alive, but we have yet to see one that lasts and makes a long-term change, or at least without corporate assistance. What perturbs me is that in searching for examples of successful online campaigns, I only find instances like that in which Google and other Silicon Valley giants teamed up to fight SOPA. Sure, millions took to Twitter and Facebook to voice their opinions, but political change only seems to be effected when corporations throw their hats in the ring. Only then, when money talks, does Washington listen. Nonetheless, I digress, and the central intention of my discussion here regards the social networking campaign our class vowed to keep running. If students fail to do so, it offers a pungent reminder that in many cases, the users of the Internet are too busy—or too disinterested—to use the freedom at their disposal to do something constructive. Students need to ask themselves why we move on so quickly, why we forget about the movements about which we once professed to care. I recognize that not every student in the class cares about the lake (though they should), and not every student will feel compelled to continuing working to have the lake cleaned. For those students who are concerned, though, we need to be asking these questions, and considering the implications.
Lasting online campaigns are rare, and that is for a reason. It is extremely difficult to perpetually keep participants in a campaign interested for months and years on end, and while I might contend that such is a problem springing not from any flaws in cyberactivism so much as from the individuals engaged therein, it is difficult to ignore the point that Reich brings up when discussing women’s suffrage. What allowed that movement to survive for years? What kept its participants engaged? Why didn’t it fizzle out after a few months like Kony 2012? The active engagement in physical protests undoubtedly plays a role. Simply liking a Facebook page or retweeting a tweet requires a few seconds of effort. Making a sign, organizing a demonstration, and working actively to engage passersby requires hours, if not days, of work. The convenience of digital technology is a double-edged sword, ultimately creating an inclination of cyberactivism to be rendered merely “slacktivism” and encouraging the sort of mass acquiescence—as individuals fall victim to the notion that change can ever be a click away—that keeps movements from enduring.
In all of this discussion, what has been thus far left out is the concept of pranking in relation to activism, as well as the Internet meme. How do these concepts fit into the lessons taken from our experience? Most certainly they are not irrelevant to the topic at hand, playing a pivotal role in cyberactivism. Christine Harold in “Pranking Rhetoric: ‘Culture Jamming’ as Media Activism,” contends that “[p]arody derides the content of what it sees as oppressive rhetoric, but fails to attend to its patterns” (191). As a proposed solution, she looks to pranking. Unlike parody, pranks “do not oppose traditional notions of rhetoric, but they do repattern them in interesting ways… strategically augmenting and utilizing the precious resources the contemporary media ecology affords” (208). For the most part, I concur with Harold’s analysis. The Barbie Liberation Organization is more successful than something like Adbusters’ “Blackspot” sneaker campaign because instead of directly attempting to send a message, utilizing mainstream corporate techniques, the B.L.O. sends no direct message and offers only an altered version of an existing product, in effect subverting the system, using it for its own purposes, as opposed to attempting to work against it. In the digital realm, pranking is often seen in the form of Internet memes. Limor Shifman in “Memes in a Digital World: Reconciling with a Conceptual Troublemaker,” notes that “[s]ocial norms, perceptions, and preferences are crucial in memetic selection processes,” and indeed she is correct (366). The study of memetics is crucial to engaging in a thorough sociological examination of the users of the Internet. When Chris Crocker’s “Leave Britney Alone” video is rendered something homophobic, contradicting the purposes for which it was created, that says something about the people who make those videos, watch them, and give their up-votes. What does it say that so many people responded by, in essence, cynically trolling Crocker’s video? What does it say about trolling, the Internet’s version of pranking?
Indeed, pranking can do much good, and certainly it has the potential to do more than mere parody, as Harold contends, but on the Internet, has it done that good? Show me a political meme or a meme intended to bring about some important social change, and I’ll show you five like one of President Obama with the words “Where the white women at?” below it. Sure, trolling doesn’t have to be racist, sexist, or generally prejudicial in any way. There is nothing inherent within trolling or pranking that makes it so, but nonetheless it remains a force for a great deal of very ugly, very negative things, when it could be serving as a force for so much good. And this is the point at which we begin to recognize just how ugly and negative much of trolling has become. When the perpetrators of Internet death and rape threats are dismissed as “juvenile pranksters,” as Amanda Hess notes in “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” we should pay attention. Because that wording isn’t accidental. Yes, dismissing it as pranking trivializes the issue, but this brand of trolling—this insidiously hostile, violent, misogynistic brand—is what pranking on the Internet has become for too many individuals, and that is far from what it should be. When the Biotic Baking Brigade shoved a pie in the face of Bill Gates, it was irrefutably puerile behavior, but it came with a message—albeit an indirect one. As Gates wiped pie off of his face, he was brought down to everyone else’s level. Sure, maybe some people think such a stunt is immature. Maybe others disagree with the potential message of such an action, but the point is that there was a constructive message, not merely something derisive, like threatening to brutally rape and murder a feminist. That may be an unfortunate manifestation of what pranksters on the Internet have become, but it’s not the same pranking of which Harold writes. The very act of pranking—and the foundation thereof—has been perverted.
Quinn Norton argues that “[t]rolls gonna troll,” and that we ought to ask what “[c]ivil inattention, the custom we have of ignoring people you don’t know in public space in order to give them privacy” looks like on the Internet, and I recognize the point she is making. I believe it is an important one. But is there ever an acceptable context in which we can feel free to casually throw around terms like “/b/tard Faggot?” Should we simply ignore those who choose to use such terminology and recognize that “trolls gonna troll?” I don’t think so. Because we can choose to hide those ugly elements of the Internet from ourselves, but in the end, you cannot quarantine ideas on the Web. Slowly but surely, those ideas propagate. They manifest themselves in new and surprising ways, in new and surprising locations. The trolls who call each other faggots end up making memes that circulate around the Web and influence the thought patterns of unassuming social networkers and Internet users generally, who alter or mimic those memes and disseminate potentially prejudicial ideas themselves. So maybe it seems reasonable to simply advocate that people “don’t feed the trolls,” but inaction and a refusal to combat the dangerous ideas being promoted by trolls will only serve to worsen the problem. Indeed, it has. It should not come as any surprise that the same individuals who were online referring to women as “bitches” and objectifying them in dreadful ways ended up harassing female writers, sexualizing them and fantasizing about rape. Certainly, to go from simply objectifying to threatening to rape someone is not a simple transition. You don’t objectify on Monday and make a death or rape threat on Tuesday. The problem, in my estimation, is that by choosing to look away, only considering the context collapse of the Internet as opposed to the wrongful nature of trolls’ words, we are encouraged those actions, words, and ideas. We have fed the trolls by refusing to feed them. We have afforded them an anarchic space to chaotically destroy, piece by piece, without oversight or discretion, surely enough egging one another on, encouraging each other’s sexism, encouraging each other’s racism, encouraging the very idea that a woman with whom you disagree can deserve to be raped or slaughtered. Not all pranksters are sexists or racists, nor are all trolls. Doubtless most do not threaten to rape or kill. But there is a sizable contingent prevalent within that community that does, and to dismiss it as anything other than a problem would be a grave error. Pranking is a wonderful tool to be used by concerned citizens and activists across the globe, and it should be used wisely, for the right reasons, in the appropriate ways. But an overarching problem with the Internet is becoming evident: As with Anonymous, there simply is not enough control over the troll community to ensure that the actions being taken are constructive, healthy, and for the betterment of society. Such is an important understanding that I will return to shortly. It informs my cautious stance on the unit as a whole.
Nonetheless, while I would stop short of advocating for government oversight of trolls, fearing that we would infringe upon their freedom of speech, I also agree with Norton to the extent that these issues must inevitably be handled “IRL.” A troll who perpetuates harmful ideas does not simply pull those ideas out of nowhere. Those ideas come from parents, or from students in school who heard it from their parents. Those ideas are promoted as the education fails to adequately combat prejudice. Numerous studies indicate college graduates are less prejudiced on average than high school graduates. What is the public education system doing wrong, and what are colleges doing correctly? If we can answer those questions, and if we can reform education meaningfully—as opposed to having politicians issue their hollow calls for a “dialogue”—we would see a change, and that would have positive ramifications for the Internet and for the women who are now terrorized by spiteful trolls. The true solutions to the problems with online pranking and trolling lie to a large extent in real-world solutions. Does cyberactivism have a role to play, however, and is it an effective enough force to effect such consequential change?
Before I answer that question, however, I digress once more, simply for the purposes of answering an important question that I posed to the class. Mark Poster in “Information Please” is troubled by the discourse of human rights. The “inherent problem in the term ‘human rights,” Poster writes, is “that it requires a string of supplements to account for its impossibility” (69-70). From the inception of the notion of such rights, it has been tied closely to citizenship, as was the case in the French Revolution. That definition of citizen is no longer relevant or valid. Globalization and the post-national world of the digital age have both redefined citizenship in such a way that fighting for human rights may serve not to liberate individuals, but to legitimize Western hegemony and leave countless in the same—or worse—position they are presently. As a solution, Poster proposes the concept of netizenship. He explains that the netizen is “the formative figure in a new kind of political relation, one that shares allegiance to the nation with allegiance to the Net and to the planetary political spaces it inaugurates” (78). Norton suggests a similar solution to the problems women face on the Internet, with the concept of cyborgs, a closely-related notion. So looking back and recognizing the pivotal role the netizen plays in this unit, I asked the class: Were we acting as netizens?
For me, the answer is yet to be determined. I believe that, as a class, we shared an allegiance to the nation—or, on a smaller scale, to the University of Richmond and the well-being of its students—as well as an allegiance to the Net, with our emphasis on a social networking campaign. The question largely hinges on the issue of whether or not students continue the push. Is one a true netizen if he or she engages in activism—both cyberactivism and IRL activism—and then simply stops? Netizenship is an active concept. The title “netizen” is earned by someone who engages in the community actively and often, who does more than simply just raise awareness of an issue, but takes an active role in educating and recruiting others to engage themselves as well. A netizen not only stands in front of a library with signs, but goes further, standing up and questioning those in power, expanding their efforts, pushing to win the small victories their movement must win. The netizen continues to build online movements, continually developing ways to keep participants engaged. If students continue to build this movement, I believe they can call themselves netizens. If they—as I fear will be the case—leave it at this and do nothing more with the lake, we could not accurately classify ourselves as such. That is a valuable lesson, and if students fail to actively engage going forward, I see it not as a failure of the experience so much as a success in and of itself. Netizenship is not a term to throw around as so many do. It is something that must be taken seriously, and if one wishes to act as a netizen, he or she must take the initiative in earning that title. I hope that in reflecting on the experience, students are coming to the same realization.
All of this discussion is great, but a final question remains: Does cyberactivism even work? Can it work just as well as it might for a clean lake movement as it might for something more sweeping, like ending misogyny on the Web? As always, I will not pretend to have all the answers. This issue is enormously complex, to such an extent that as I try to wrap my head around all of the most complicated questions, I have difficulty untangling the web of contradictions that any possible answer presents. Nonetheless, I will try my best to provide some semblance of a response here that gets to the heart of the issue both adequately and accurately. I believe cyberactivism can work, but I question whether some of our most noteworthy cyber movements have been pushing for the right things.
If anything was made abundantly clear in our experience, it is that cyberactivism requires a very careful balance between the physical aspect of protestation and the digital component. Simply forming Twitter accounts, Facebook accounts, and Tumblr accounts does nothing for a movement if no awareness can be raised. Surely, infrastructure is in place on the Web that enables individuals to raise awareness digitally, but such infrastructure remains inadequate. Physical protests are required to get people talking, to inform them of the problems, to get them to follow your account or like your page, or give you an up-vote on Yik Yak. Cyberactivism is nothing without a physical component as well. If such a balance is ensured, and if participants in a movement engage both in social networking campaigns as well as actual public demonstrations, cyberactivism can be something quite powerful. Anonymous’ efforts in the aforementioned Operation Payback constitute the most hopeful example, especially considering the fact that their efforts came without corporate assistance. A grassroots campaign can be led, and cyberactivism can be an effectual force, if handled correctly and used to fight for the right things. But are we fighting for what’s right?
I don’t ask this question because I see the world in a black-and-white matter. So much of the world is but a mater of interpretation. What is “right” is surely a subjective question. But I pose it because of points that Jaron Lanier makes. Lanier, who was a pioneer of virtual-reality technology and is now a research scholar at Microsoft, has turned against the Web—more specifically, against the concept of cyberutopianism and a fully democratic Web. Americans love the word “democracy,” to such an extent that we throw it around injudiciously. Do we, however, understand what it means? Sure, it sounds wonderful when Anonymous declares that information should be free, but what are the implications of free information? Lanier suggests, “once we made information free… middle-class people… were consigned to the bread lines.” I am not sure I fully agree with Lanier’s argument, in that the purported demise of the middle class has not simply emerged from a vacuum. The availability of free music did not simply render the middle class a relic of the past. Such is an oversimplification of complicated economic issues, including wealth distribution in the United States and trends over the past several decades. Lanier may be making a somewhat valid point, but he misses the mark in oversimplifying and looking past other factors in the problem of which he speaks. Where I concur almost wholeheartedly with him, however, is in his assertion that anonymity constitutes an “enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy.” I say I agree almost wholeheartedly, because I think he misses a more accurate definition of democracy. What is actually the difference between mob rule and democracy? The United States is not a democracy by its nature. It was not founded to be one. On the contrary, it was intended to be a republic. Sometimes, that seems to be forgotten, especially when democracy is a term with such positive connotations, and an easy one to throw around at that. I have never been a proponent of pure democracy in the non-digital realm, so why have I been so enticed by it online? When I ask whether cyberactivism is being used correctly, I mean to refer to this issue. When Anonymous pushes for a—in the words of Artie Vierkant—Post-Internet world, in which objects are not specifically owned by anyone and may always be in flux, are they pushing for the right thing? When Christopher Poole promotes anonymity on 4Chan as a representation of people’s most authentic selves, is he pushing for the right thing? When we push for a freer, “more democratic” Internet, are we pushing for the right thing, or are we just instilling anarchy? Online, what keeps a democratic Internet from becoming an Internet of mob rule? What exactly is the difference if no one is in control but the people themselves? What kind of Internet would we see if our cyberactivism led us to a point at which no one were in control but the people, if nations themselves were rendered a thing of the past and we were beholden only to the Internet, as some cyberutopian theorists have posited will happen? What then will we expect to see? Will it be the democracy of which we have spoken but do not understand, or will it be something else, something uglier, something more dangerous?
By no means am I fully anti-democracy, but I far prefer the notion of a republic to that of a pure democracy from the standpoint that I am unsure whether it is wise to entrust the people alone with the power to control something like the Web. I doubt that cyberactivism will ever be powerful enough to eschew government and corporate control, but nonetheless, the fact that organizations like Occupy and Anonymous—which represent arguably the foremost examples of netizenship—push for a fully democratic Internet and the minimization of government and corporate controls should lead us to ask if that is an appropriate and prudent course of action. So much of what we have discussed heretofore—government surveillance, economic inequality in the New Economy, cyberutopianism—involves the notion of a democratic Web, and I personally have often taken a stance very much in favor of democratization. In no way am I arguing that that is wrong necessarily, so much as one should consider the implications. Cyberactivism, if used to effect such potentially harmful change, may not be the positive force it could be. Cyberactivists must be cautious, realizing for example that while the NSA’s extensive surveillance of the Web is unacceptable and unconstitutional, the inability of governments to regulate the Internet leaves women at risk when they receive death threats. Pure democracy is nothing simple, and though Lanier is certainly not completely correct, he is making an important argument that cannot be neglected.
As always, the class experience raised innumerable questions, only a few of which I have been able to discuss here. I am proud of the experience; in spite of the disorganization of the opening half hour—a result of our mishandling of horizontalism and our failure to adequately inform the class of our horizontal intentions, I think the class was left with an immensely valuable lesson. I hope that they have engaged in it fully to realize the connections to the unit as a whole, and I hope, in the end, that while they may recognize the potential of cyberactivism, they also recognize the need to carefully consider that for which we use cyberactivism to advocate. Much of the class discussion heretofore has led us to this point, at which we explore cyberactivism as a potential solution to problems that may have been thus far encountered. Individuals like Lanier encourage us to ask ourselves whether falling in line behind groups like Anonymous, rather than questioning some of their motives and their philosophy, is the most prudent decision. Cyberactivism is indeed a powerful force, and it can be used for so much good. We need to be making sure, then, that we aren’t allowing it to be rendered something much more destructive.

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A “New Economy” in the Digital Age?

// Posted by on 10/15/2014 (10:40 AM)

As we took our seats, the subjects of a mysterious and seemingly innocent experiment, those of us who had not developed this experience were blissfully oblivious as to the unexpectedly stressful and nightmarish hour that lie ahead.

The class had… Read more

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As we took our seats, the subjects of a mysterious and seemingly innocent experiment, those of us who had not developed this experience were blissfully oblivious as to the unexpectedly stressful and nightmarish hour that lie ahead.

The class had been split into two groups, aptly named group A and group B. Members of both groups were given a deceptively simple assignment: to write a 250-word essay about digital copyrighting, and whether or not it perpetuates inequality. As is usually the case in life, the assignment had a catch: To simulate the digital divide experienced by those in a lower socioeconomic bracket, members of group A would have to do research solely on their phones. Members of group B could only research using books and could not use any device that connected to the Internet. A library computer could only be used to type up the essay. Suddenly, being a member of group B did not seem like such a lucky deal, as I had originally thought. Even so, I still assumed that the task was doable, if challenging.

I had no idea just how tense the subsequent hour would be. We first visited with librarian Marcia Whitehead, who was enormously helpful, but unfortunately left us with the harsh reality that to access the resources we needed—without the aid of the Internet—we would have to travel to the law library. Thus began a 6-minute trek and an even longer search for the books we needed. When we finally found them (of course they were tucked away in a secluded nook), we were confronted not only with excessively technical legal texts and other sources that were not entirely applicable to our central thesis. Whereas we wanted a more accessible listing of examples of copyright infringement and its perpetuation of inequality, what we often found was a five-page legal examination of copyright, defining it and laying out consequences of infringement. Debates over the implications, socioeconomic, ethical, or otherwise, were sorely lacking, or at least in many of the texts we encountered in our necessarily brief search.

We did what we could, jotting down notes frantically, but ultimately providing weak support for our contention. We did not have any other options, though, and realizing that time was running short, we could only place the books back on the shelf in resignation, running once again back to Boatwright. We attempted to scribble the notes that would constitute our unfortunate excuse for an essay as we walked briskly back to the library. In all the confusion, we had lost Brendan, but luckily, he thought ahead and claimed a computer so that we could quickly type out our argument. Nonetheless, we did not have enough time and turned our assignment in late. I highly doubt anyone in the group felt very good about it.

Below, for my documentation (all of which is courtesy of Dr. Rosatelli, since I did not have a phone with which to take pictures or video), I have included a link to a YouTube video with a clip of Aisling, Elizabeth, and myself in the elevator of the law library, explaining the scenario in which we found ourselves embroiled at that point in time, as well as the final class discussion, in which we expressed our findings and our emotions both as experienced during and in the aftermath of the experience. I also have included below a picture of us searching frantically for a book among the shelves of the law library. I chose these mediums of documentation so as to provide a more immersive and visual representation of the difficulties experienced and the stress with which we responded as a group. For as much as I can express in words, video is an even more effective tool that will ideally enhance the reader/viewer’s understanding of the experience and the extent to which my group found ourselves in a situation with which we were considerably uncomfortable.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbTkAkcjwj8

For group B, it was a horrendous experience. Insulated from the realities of the world faced by those less fortunate than us, we had taken for granted our laptops and smartphones and the instant gratification of the Internet. Deprived of those tools, however, we simply could not perform at a high enough level to keep up even with our counterparts in group A, let alone with other students fortunate enough to have complete access to Internet-connected devices.

Though it may seem simple enough to insist that ours was merely a simulation, and not necessarily an accurate depiction of the tribulations faced by high school students from lower-income households, who might not have access to a smartphone or laptop, the fact nonetheless remains that, whether or not we wish to confront the dismal reality of the experience, a considerable contingent of the high school student population relies on public libraries in such a way. As I write, countless students across the country are working frantically to research in a library, wishing they had access to their own computer and failing to find works that apply directly to a paper they are writing. Many are finding that allotted time for computer usage simply is not conducive to the writing of a thoroughly-researched, well-developed thesis. For too many high school students, our experience was not simply an exception; it was the rule.

When I was younger and my family was facing the inhospitable conditions that resulted from the so-called “Great Recession” in 2009, I found myself in the position of those students, and I encountered many of these challenges along the way, relying on public libraries but struggling to complete work in the allotted hour of computer usage. Even with this background experience, the class simulation offered a new perspective, as I was faced with a situation even worse than ones I had experienced heretofore. I am sure that almost everyone in the class was afforded a new perspective on the digital divide. The question that remains, however, is what conclusions we draw from this experience with regards not only to copyright law and the digital divide in general, but also to more overarching topics of discussion from throughout the unit.

It is fascinating—and necessary for our purposes—to juxtapose the idealistic visions of the “New Economy” with the current conditions in which many are now mired. Nicholas Negroponte, who in the mid-1980s had created the MIT Media Lab, envisioned the “New Economy” as one in which existing hierarchies were subverted and superseded by a progressive network of nodes, in effect enabling every individual therein to start anywhere and work on a more equal footing with their colleagues and those who might formerly have been labeled “superiors.”

Negroponte’s notion of a “New Economy” was far from some fringe ideal. Men like Stewart Brand, who worked alongside Negroponte at the Media Lab, shared his libertarian vision. Brand would go on to serve as a co-founder of the Global Business Network, a consulting firm that advocated the aforementioned flattening of hierarchies and would boast such impressive clients as Royal Dutch/Shell and AT&T.

In a profoundly significant way, the GBN represented the propagation of counterculturist ideas within the framework of an evolving economy looking to move into a new age. This intertwinement of counterculture and the libertarianism of Brand and Negroponte (along with that of countless others, including Kevin Kelly and Louis Rossetto, the executive editor and founder of Wired Magazine, respectively) would later reveal itself even more substantively in a manifesto entitled the “Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age,” written by four authors, including Esther Dyson, a writer for Wired at the time. The “Magna Carta” likened Cyberspace to a new frontier, which the American populace had to be empowered to explore, to pursue “civilization’s truest, highest calling.” The manifesto not only called for, but also coincided with, the deregulation of the telecommunications industry as part of Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” Indeed, in the 1990s, the counterculturist ideals of Brand and others were fused with the libertarian laissez-faire fiscal policy so essential to the Republican Party, and this fusion would be represented in Wired Magazine, one of many conduits for the dissemination of idealistic visions of the digital age and the “New Economy.”

On the surface, for those incognizant of the digital divide and conditions represented by the in-class simulation, it may seem that the “New Economy” has delivered what it promised. To look quickly at “accelerators,” like Y Combinator, which finance the start-up businesses of promising young entrepreneurs, accelerating the growth of a product or a business into a more lucrative entity, it seems that we are living in a world in which anyone can simply come up with an idea for a digital technology and subsequently earn tens of thousands of dollars, and maybe more in the long run. When venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal, advocates students NOT attend college and, under his Thiel Fellowships, will pay them $100,000 in a two-year grant to launch a startup instead, it is easy to be led to believe that the economy is changing and that the hierarchies of old truly have been leveled, that the status symbol of college is no longer necessary to have a chance, and that anyone can live the “American Dream,” whatever that really is. Unfortunately, such is a woefully inadequate and incomplete picture, and it provides a largely untruthful representation of the economy in the digital age.

Truthfully speaking, the “New Economy” does not really seem to be all that new. In fact, it seems like more of the same, in deceptive new packaging. Y Combinator may be subsidizing young entrepreneur’s startups, but its intent is not to promote the growth of new businesses so much as to have its investment pay dividends when that venture is ultimately sold to a corporation. Thiel may believe that students should skip college, but that erroneously presupposes that every student is a computer prodigy. People like Thiel, an outspoken libertarian, are the same ones who led the movement towards the “New Economy,” but they are also the same ones who, when pressed to discuss the digital divide, give answers like “That’s not one I focus on as much.”

In the end, it would appear that the “New Economy” was designed not truly for the betterment of every citizen, but rather clearly for the betterment of large corporations, which have benefitted greatly and become, more so than ever before, centralized forces in the private sector, holding sizable concentrations of wealth and power. The hierarchical structure of the “old economy” has not been eradicated; nor has it been superseded by a new network of nodes, so to speak. What we have found instead is that the “New Economy” is instead a complex network of supposed nodes that is structured in such a way as to constitute a complicated system of nested hierarchies, thereby maintaining the decades-old status quo, in a different, superficially appealing form.

Corporations and other powerful parties in the “new” economic order are not simply gaining power, but they are often manipulating the means of wealth attribution in a way that makes economic opportunity—supposedly a cornerstone of libertarian values—less accessible than ever before. A prime example is the high-frequency trading that has come to dominate the stock exchange, not only domestically, but also internationally. In essence, trading firms like Tradeworx utilize machinery that operates using autonomous algorithms that, via transmissions communicated through globe-spanning networks of fiber-optic cable, execute trades faster than humans can intervene. One of the fundamental consequences of HFT for the “average citizen,” not privy to the luxuries afforded a Wall Street trader or oligarch, is that the stock prices published on websites like Yahoo Finance are obsolete by the time potential buyers view them. Stock prices are fluctuating constantly throughout the course of the day, as algorithms perpetually buy and sell stocks to make minuscule gains that, multiplied by millions of trades, add up to substantial dividends. In all of this, David Golumbia is correct in his assertion that the majority of individuals are excluded from participating meaningfully. Such is far from the supposedly democratizing impact that was supposed to be effected by computerization and the rise of the Internet. Indeed, the Internet has equally empowered all citizens, but it serves especially to keep those at the top at the top, as evidenced in the stock exchange and the dizzying rapidity with which trades are being executed, precluding more consequential involvement from a more socioeconomically diverse array of citizens.

The structure of this class and the sequence with which we have discussed different topics is intriguing and appropriate, as I have come to recognize over time that the digital utopianism that at first seems so appealing becomes less and less so over time. Whereas in an earlier unit, especially after the first experience in the LA Live Chatroom, it was easy to stand behind the idealistic vision of a democratic Internet and all of the possibilities presented thereby, the realities with which we are confronted in the units on cybersecurity and the digital economy serve as a reminder that, to a large extent, digital utopianism—and the idealism that has come to so strongly characterize it—is fundamentally flawed and looks only at a portion of the picture. Technological determinism, the notion that technology is inherently democratic, is enticing, but ultimately wrong. Saskia Sassen’s thesis is ultimately a more accurate depiction of technology, as she insists that nothing about the Internet is inherently democratic. Indeed, she is correct. Mark Poster is partially correct when he writes in “Information Please” that the Internet may bring about the “overturning of certain systems of social control,” but it does not have to (193). It can be used, most simplistically, for good or for evil (though such a simplistic, monochromatic dichotomy eschews the convoluted nature of reality).

How, then, can the Internet be rendered a democratizing agent, if at the present time it is far from such a force? The answer is, as always, more complicated and requires more extensive elaboration than I can herein provide, but one such solution is presented in the current debate over copyright, which served as one of the principal foci of the class simulation.

Copyright law, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 more specifically, is most commonly construed by the government and media companies as a defense of the rights of a creator of a work, be it literary, artistic, or otherwise. These authors and artists, we have been told, have a right to recognition and compensation when their work is borrowed by another. As a matter of principle, such seems to be a reasonable argument. What is left out of the equation, however, is the complex web of interests surrounding copyright law. Who really profits?

“RiP!: A Remix Manifesto” does an excellent job of depicting with discomfiting accuracy the state of copyright in this country, and who the real winners and losers are. Anyone who believes that copyright laws are designed to benefit only the creators of a work should consider the fact made clear in the documentary that over 90% of media companies are owned by larger corporations like Disney, NewsCorp, GE, Viacom, and TimeWarner. These are powerful entities that constitute equally powerful lobbies in this country. They have tremendous influence in politics, and they have continued to push for more stringent copyright legislation. Some of the most recent alterations to the law include the provision that corporations can retain a copyright for 95 years after the life of an author. This number, it should be pointed out, will only be increased over time, yet another representation of the ways in which the “New Economy” and the digital age have failed to democratize, instead merely consolidating power in the hands of multinational corporations.

Indeed, answering the question posed during the simulation, digital copyright does perpetuate inequality. On a basic level, I will speak simplistically and give a personal example. If I need to analyze a movie for class, but do not personally own it, I have to go to the library to find it. Without free public availability online (assuming—unrealistically and only for the sake of argument—complete compliance with the law and the extinction of illegal downloading sites), I could not access the movie without paying. If I were a student who could not afford to pay the fee for an online rental, I would find myself reliant upon a likely insufficient online synopsis, and would not be adequately prepared to analyze the film for class, be it in an essay or on a test. Every other student who could afford to rent would be given the upper hand. Again, it is a simplistic example, but it nonetheless serves as a necessary reminder that digital copyright can feasibly serve to perpetuate inequality. On a more complex level, however, who is to say that Girl Talk, the musician who serves as the focal point of “RiP!: A Remix Manifesto,” does not have a right to make mash-ups of classic songs, creatively rendering old art something decidedly new and different and innovative? For a mash-up artist aspiring to move up, to become a star, how does digital copyright do anything but bar them from reaching the heights of other musicians? Is it fair that the law can prevent Girl Talk from doing what he does best to rise up the socioeconomic ladder? To answer such a question requires that we consider, as Poster does in “Information Please,” the relationship between cultural objects existing in the physical realm and those existing in cyberspace.

Poster sees a fundamental flaw in the notion that illegally downloading a music file is equivalent to stealing a CD from a store, writing, “When the CD is taken from the store, the store no longer has it; when the file is downloaded, the person sharing the file still has it” (189). I do not profess to have all the answers with regards to the complex nature of the intangible cultural objects of the digital space, but Poster’s argument seems to incorrectly define theft—or at least he does so in a manner that contradicts my subjective understanding of the term— though of course that definition may be altered by the differing nature of intangible digital objects. Illegal downloading of music may simply entail copying, but it presupposes that theft occurs without a loss of profit for one party involved. In other words, the means by which the music is “stolen” may be different, but the end result is not, so it may theoretically still constitute theft. A stolen CD is problematic because it deprives the store owner of a profit that could have been made off of the product. Though online only a copy is made, someone is still deprived of profit. My intention is not to insist that we grieve the loss of profit for multibillion dollar corporations that probably are not hurt terribly when a 12-year-old girl illegally downloads a $7.99 album, but it is to suggest that the increasingly complex nature of intangible cultural objects must push us to consider definitions of concepts as seemingly simple as “theft” if we are to come to a greater understanding with regards to proper action to be taken on copyright. I am certainly not in the business of defending abusive copyright legislation so much as calling for a more fervent debate over the relation between the physical and non-physical realms we currently occupy.

So digital copyright is perpetuating inequality, along with high-frequency trading, and corporations in the “New Economy” have served to make themselves more central figures in the private sector than ever before. Working against the democratizing potential of the Internet, wealthy tycoons exclude the less powerful from engaging meaningfully in the economy, monopolizing power and minimizing opportunity along the way. The picture thus far has frankly been incredibly depressing; but to paint such a picture without examining the rays of light that we now see would be a gross oversimplification.

It is exceedingly appropriate that the class experience asked us to consider digital copyright in relation to inequality. The issue is so crucial in this discussion, in fact, that the solution thereto provides one of many such solutions to broader inequality that has resulted from the implementation of “New Economy” policies which have too often effected a change diametrically opposed to that which was promised.

Poster makes clear in his examination of copyright that to find solutions to the problems we currently face, “[w]e must invent an entirely new copyright law that rewards cultural creation but also fosters new forms of use or consumption and does not inhibit the development of new forms of digital cultural exchange that explore the new fluidity of texts, images, and sounds” (209). Though seemingly overwhelming a solution at first, “RiP!: A Remix Manifesto” introduces us to a man who provides one very simple but very effective step towards a broader, more democratic solution to problems we face and inequality which must be rooted out: Lawrence Lessig. Lessig is a professor at Harvard Law School and an anti-copyright activist who travels the world speaking out against copyright legislation.

In 2001, Lessig founded Creative Commons, a non-profit group that offers free licenses which can be used by creators of a work to signify that, instead of “all rights reserved,” it is only “some rights reserved,” and that certain rights have been waived so that others may borrow more freely. It seems to be an incredibly simple concept, but in actuality it is incredibly powerful. If Creative Commons licenses were more greatly expanded so as to ensure freer dissemination of cultural objects online, providing a wider range of access to those objects, that alone would serve as a step towards eliminating the inequality with which the current economic order is plagued. It would at least begin to establish a foundation for a more democratic Internet in which access to cultural objects is made more equal and opportunity, in turn, is expanded.

I am not under the illusion that Creative Commons can single-handedly solve the problems that we face with regards to corporate influence over the digital world and the economy thereof. I do recognize, however, the democratizing potential inherent in Lessig’s organization. His example should serve as inspiration to us all, a helpful reminder that we are more than capable of organizing within the framework of the Internet. We—the heretofore repressed masses—can provide the push for democratization, and in so doing, subvert the autocratic rule of authoritarian governments and monolithic corporations. The Internet may not be inherently democratic, but if used to work towards the proper ends, we, as agents of change, can make it so.

For as much of the complexity of the issue I may understand, I will openly admit as per usual that I am not omniscient with regards to solutions to these complicated issues. I do recognize, however, that change can be effected. Millions took to Twitter and Facebook to protest the Stop Online Privacy Act, another piece of copyright legislation, and the bill has yet to become law. It is doubtful at this point in time that it ever will. Of course civic engagement can have an impact on policy decisions in this country. Unfortunately, we must also consider that large corporations like Google also opposed SOPA, and that their influence must be felt in stopping the law as well. Nonetheless, social media and the Internet, if used for the right reasons, can bring about change if we choose to step up and act, as was the case, for example, in the “Arab Spring” uprisings. We know what the problems are, and we see glimmers of hope in new solutions, like Creative Commons, but no change will come if no action is taken first, so it is contingent on the American citizenry to become engaged and to use the Internet as a means of democratic protestation and organization.

As I said before, the organization of this class is both intriguing and appropriate. We see now that if change is to be brought about, it will require organization with the aid of the tools we are afforded within the digital landscape. To render the Internet a more democratizing force, we must make it such, and use it to work towards a democratic end. Though we may not now understand how to do so, or the precedent which exists for digital movements, the next unit should provide ample framework for the implementation of such a movement. We now move forward, beginning to explore civic engagement in the digital age, looking to subversive movements like Occupy and Anonymous and the impact created thereby.

Group “Business” clearly did an excellent job of raising the questions that needed to be raised, and though more exist than can be answered, it is my hope that I have at least skimmed the surface thoroughly enough to highlight, as always, a path forward, and one, I now realize, that likely lies in the next unit. What a pivotal one it shall be.


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Jaron Lanier and The Disappearance of the Middle Class

// Posted by on 03/23/2014 (11:56 PM)

Timberg’s article “Jaron Lanier: The Internet destroyed the middle class,” includes a very interesting interview between Timberg and Lanier about his book, “Who Owns the Future?”, and the… Read more

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Timberg’s article “Jaron Lanier: The Internet destroyed the middle class,” includes a very interesting interview between Timberg and Lanier about his book, “Who Owns the Future?”, and the problems that arise when the concentration of wealth and power is in the hands of very few people.

One of Web 2.0 intellectual Jaron Lanier’s main arguments in his book, “Who Owns the Future?”, is that “free” information on the Internet is leading to the disappearance of the middle class. Lanier criticizes big Web entities, such as Facebook and Google, and their business model. One of the examples he gives in the interview is that Kodak (now bankrupt) employed more than 140,000 people, while Instagram employs 13. Where did all those jobs disappear? This concentration of wealth leads to an intense concentration of formal benefits.

Many of his arguments are also highlighted on The Colbert Report, where Lanier suggested the concentration of wealth is “unhealthy,” because “real wealth” is dependent on everyone else’s wealth– a community of wealth. If there is a concentration of wealth, then that is not real wealth, it is “fake, brittle, phony, it falls apart.” Open economy is a new development, and it is not sustainable.

Lanier argues that we have talked ourselves into a weird double-economy—if material things are what’s being distributed, then we believe in material markets, but if it is information, creativity, the work of comedians and journalists etc., we think it should be shared and open. But, there is danger in that, as this shift from a formal economy to an informal economy puts all the information and workers into one area, so regular people are not getting credited for their information and value their work provides. In the formal economy, people who make contributions to the system receive formal benefits such as salary and pensions. Therefore, Lanier’s proposed solution is that those people involved in the informal economy facilitated by the Internet be “rewarded in micropayments when their data enriches a digital network.” An example Lanier continues to highlight is the issue of online translators. The algorithms that make up the online translators take away people’s jobs, as these corporations “mine” peoples’ skills without crediting them.

Lanier does not completely discredit the development of the informal economy. He believes that there is beauty in the trust that these systems work on, but in a world that is still in most ways a formal economy, one cannot rely on informal benefits, such as cultural capital, to pay for rent or raise kids, etc., “it is not biologically real.”

In Lanier’s view, the benefits of reinstating the middle class distribution of wealth and power are huge—“democracy is destabilized if there isn’t a broad distribution of wealth.” This idea of democracy and the Internet is one we have been grappling with throughout the whole course, and is one that continues to be questioned as we explore further.


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This is What Democracy Looks Like

// Posted by on 02/23/2014 (8:03 PM)

After reading Jeff Sharlet’s article, Inside Occupy Wall Street, it is obvious how much power and influence technology has in our society.  The product of a simple yet powerful tweet, the Occupy Wall Street demonstration proved itself to be… Read more

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After reading Jeff Sharlet’s article, Inside Occupy Wall Street, it is obvious how much power and influence technology has in our society.  The product of a simple yet powerful tweet, the Occupy Wall Street demonstration proved itself to be much more than a mere protest as it inspired a media awareness that lead to Occupy movements worldwide.  After observing the movements growth over the period of a few months, Sharlet, someone whose spent years immersed in the right wing, refers to the OWS movement as “an incredible display of political imagination”.  Indeed, the movement was one-of-a-kind as it united diverse groups of people through technology, promoting a kind of shared voice while simultaneously creating a community that was truly unique.

It is not uncommon for one to as what was that something protesters were fighting for?  As Sharlet mentions, Adbusters had proposed a “‘worldwide shift in revolutionary tactics,’ but their big ideas went no further than pressuring Obama to appoint a presidential commission on the role of money in politics”.  Although they had initiated the beginnings of the protest, they were unaware that they had begun a movement that reached unimaginable heights.  What amazed me was the progression in size of the movement and protesters that loyally followed.  It had begun with around 2,000 individuals but quickly grew, attracting people from all over.  With the creation of a public clinic, library, and kitchen, the Occupy Wall Street movement had created a new whole.  It is almost as if they created a world within a world.  People committed to the cause considered this home and seemed to have this sense of shared generosity and spirit.  People were, undoubtedly, attracted to OWS for different reasons.  As protester Jesse Legraca admitted, he was first drawn to the park after seeing a topless girl.  And the addition of free food did not hurt either.  Fellow protester David Graeber, in contrast, was a radical anthropologist and anarchist who was committed to the cause and even created the theme to the overall movement.

This idea of unification is what drove Occupy Wall Street and allowed it to function for as long as it did.  As previously mentioned, Graeber created a theme for the movement, “we are the 99%”.  This movement was particularly different than past ones as there were no designated leaders or speakers.  People, rather, functioned as a large group and were excited by the idea that they were taking true advantage of democracy.  Thus, this feeling of genuine democracy is a significant aspect of the OWS movement.  As Shalret states, many Americans view “democracy as little more than an unhappy choice between two sides of the same corporate coin”.  With minimal agency, the chance to be part of a real decision—to make a change—is an exciting prospect. With no defined reasons or statements telling people why they needed to come to the OWS demonstration, it created this sense of liberation and open communication.  People came to the cause to decide as a whole what their aim was and what decisions to were to be made.  OWS protesters had one voice, literally, as they adopted a new form of amplification—the human microphone.  This only emphasized the idea that every individual could be heard and served only to further unify the community.

For a leaderless movement, Occupy Wall Street was an extremely unique demonstration of the power of technology in our society.  The movement in itself was created and further perpetuated through technology and media.  It is obvious that a movement like this could not have existed even twenty years ago and just highlights how quickly technology has progressed throughout the past decade.  The question is, what will come next?  How will protests or social/political movements function in a decade? How will technology continue to shape our world and will it be for the better?


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