Directions for the Information Superhighway

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Open Source Saves Education

When I try and wrap my head around the implications of open source software and the abundance of programmers and coders and "hackers" that are trying to make it available today, I still often struggle. What is it that these people do collaboratively, and how is it different from what Microsoft produces? Although the legal history, names and jargon are complex, one clear and critical social benefit of open source emerges for me: education.

Open source software might not be perfect in a user-friendly interface sense. It might not have the snazzy packaging. It might not (yet) be as familiar to computer owners and school teachers as Microsoft programs like Word and search engines like Internet Explorer. But it has the potential to transform classrooms, particularly less well-funded ones, into centers of innovation and technology savvyness. Imagine if even poorer districts could get outfitted with desktop publishing software, math and reading programs, learning games, word-processing, Internet access, etc. at a fraction of the price? Think of how we could close the gap, or the Digital Divide of which we so often speak. Open source creators would have to circumvent Microsoft and other corporate software structures (which do, one would argue, have their place economically and socially) but it's possible, apparently.

Collaborative models are likely to be prominent in the Web (2.0) of the future, so the giants better get used to a shifting paradigm of power. I just love the promise it might hold for educating youth at a cheaper rate and on a broader scale.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Bloggers Unite!

After reading the Herald Tribune article about Brian, Stetler, the Maryland undergrad with the insanely popular and respected blog, TVNewser, I can't help but think how great it is. Several things stuck out to me about the story of a young and once anonymous blogger who now commands the eyes and attention of so many major TV news executives. Brian, growing up, dreamed of one day being an anchor for one of the major networks. But he realized that only a handful of people will ever have that job, and a lot goes into how they get there (like money, politics, connections, and dare I add--aesthetically pleasing good looks). The Internet takes down those obstacles. The biggest criteria for success as a blogger are hard work, intelligence, insight, articulateness, availability, carving out a unique niche. And, therefore, it's a truly democratic process. Blogging, to me, seems to break down a lot of social norms and divisions that have long held society in place. I love that, I think it's liberating. If people want to read what you have to say (like they do with with Mr. Stetler) they will. You'll get noticed. You'll get acknowledged, and you'll even get money and opportunities, in some rarer cases.

I realize there is a glut of information and opinion circulating out there on the Web. Most likely, a lot of it is crap. Not all bloggers have anything, not to mention anything new or good, to say. But the fact that the medium exists for the good stuff to be elevated to a new and powerful status is exciting. It shakes up the media power structure, which in America today, (amongst spin, conglomeration, alliances, big wigs, and bias) can be useful. Go Brian! Thanks for giving up your free time, social life and privacy for this cause.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Feingold and Patriotism

As the saying goes, I suppose many Americans might like to say these days that "hindsight is 20/20." This speaks to a lot of things...government-related. The USA PATRIOT Act as we know it has come to be a sort of elephant in the room in the war on terror. It seems to many now that it was a reactionary piece of legislation, since it was passed only weeks after the attacks in NYC. Few members of Congress really had the time to deliberate about it, should they have chosen to.

Reading Feingold's statement, which I hadn't yet, I was very impressed by the degree of eloquence heartfelt sentiment. The vote Feingold cast was viewed--then and now--as unpatriotic. Perhaps what is truly unpatriotic is denying our own American-born citizens the civil liberties they deserve because of their appearance, religion, skin tone, or because their name in any part includes, "Mohammad." I realize we may not often hear of the FBI successes in which the PATRIOT Act was used to protect us Americans from security threats, but for each of those stories I am sure there are many more of invasion of privacy, misidentification, prejudice and rights abuse. It's a difficult situation we are in as a nation, and it's surely made all the more difficult by the ease of access to information afforded by the Digital Age. Should we worry? You bet we should.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Feed

Wow, that's all I can say. I might be nerd, a novel buff since I was a kid, and maybe this brings me right back to being a kid lying in bed immersed in another world, but "Feed" did that for me. I realize the concept is not always fully developed, and the read is quick because the language and the story are simple, but I was moved by the innuendos here. MT Anderson really pulls some punches at America's overconsumption, and that's the part that makes me saddest. When he describes Clouds with a TM trademark, or how the birds and deer from the forests flocked into the cities when the forests were destroyed. Are we really so far from that, now? So far from the time when the air we breath will HAVE to be artificial, as will perhaps the atmosphere in which we exist? There is an environmentalist message here that resonates very powerfully. I don't know if technology is even deemed the "enemy" to the extent that blind consumption is. The concept of a "feed" is also truly not distant. The smaller and more integrated our technology devices get, the more they are incorporated into our very being. How often, even now, do we sit in a room with each other and NOT talk, but tune into other things in other places. How often do we consider "chatting" an easier and more socially safe mechanism to communication uncomfortable things?

There is a buffering of information about international events. It seems like the feed, unlike our modern cyberspace, somehow blocks a lot of news and internationally relevant content? Perhaps that's because it's designed to hone in on the the habits and preferences of the feed user. None the less, Titus and his friends are frustratingly in the dark about global affairs. What do they "know" on their own? What knowledge isn't being tailored and then "fed"? They depict a horrible image of our future.

Really, all around, feed is a visionary snip--albeit an exaggerated allegory--of a direction our own tendencies could take us in. My question is, if the book is dedicated to "resisting the feed," what is the feed in our modern context? How do we resist it?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Bruce Bimber, “Information and American Democracy” Chapter Two
In chapter two, Bimber separates his theory about the roots of information in America into three “revolutions.” He begins with the example of Alexander Hamilton’s successful publishing of “The Federalist” in early colonial America, one of the first political communications to recognize the importance of information dissemination to government affairs. The problem remained, however, that citizens often fear placing much power in the hands of a government remote from its people. This was true for the earliest American states, and it’s certainly true today. We often don’t believe government at the federal level is accountable or attuned to local concerns.

The First Information Revolution and the Rise of Majoritarianism
Bimber says people in early America were in effect “quarantined” from the government by the lack of information flow. This didn’t change until the 1830’s/40’s with the creation of a national news media system and the development of the world’s most extensive postal service. Then at last national identities could form, as could political affiliations. The press and the postal service were responsible for the creation of a political party structure over time. Working closely with the media, parties soon dominated info flow, and in many ways they still do today. Hence our strict 2-party system and “majority rule” were spawns of information revolutions.

The Second Info Revolution and the Roots of Pluralism
By the time of the Industrial Revolution, the number of civic, social and public interest groups in America was growing rapidly. There were unions and consumer rights groups and lobbyists and all sorts of communication bodies that never existed before. Bimber calls this a “mania for association formation” This revolution was rooted not in the change of technology, but in the growing complexity. There were simply more subjects being discussed—a plurality of information to digest. This implies the fragmentation of later years…

The Third Info Revolution and the Mass Audience
During the third and most recent info revolution, information is getting faster and cheaper and more accessible. We’ve reached that economizing stage that creates a very egalitarian information model. But what will the effects be for political engagement and democracy? Information is now non-linear (more like circuits that are never-ending). This might, it can be supposed, challenge the normal modes for political action. If everyone can have private and specialized forums online to discuss the information that interests them, what will happen to our holistic sense of current affairs and politics? How will politicians legitimate themselves before the mass audience? Will we really be more active? Bimber thinks not.

Bottom line? Bimber takes a middle of the road stance by saying simply that technologies like the Internet don’t make democracy better, but they surely make it different. More pervasive? More effective? More equal? This has yet to be determined.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Michel Foucault, "Panopticism"

Marx was an early thinker to fear capitalist controls and surveillance, and Foucault follows in a similar vein. I think I have read about Foucault in sociology classes in the past, and it certainly is relevant to apply his ideas to a cyberspace setting, even if we never think about the Internet as a place where power structures operate. Like the issues raised in "Code," so many assumed at the Net's birth that it would prove unregulable by the state. Such is not the case. In his article, Michel Foucault discusses the panopticon – a prison designed by Jeremy Bentham--a circular structure with a guard station posted at the radius. The outside walls are windowed so light shines in on the prisoner providing a back light. Another window at the front of the cell shows a guard station, which has darkened windows preventing the prisoner from seeing anyone who may be watching him. The theory is that the prisoner will never know when he is being watched, thus he will assume he is always under surveillance. Does it work? Do we fear what we don't know? And if so, is it enough to dictate out behavior? Foucault suggests that many social structures, not just prisons, implement a Panopticon. He raised a fascinating point when he questioned whether the uses of power and surveillance could serve to make the world "lighter," more productive, safer, etc... Do we feel that Internet banking and online shopping is safe? Do cookies that track our every click make our experience more efficient, in the long run? Or, like so maaggravatedted users and activists would agree, does information merely long to be free?

Shoshana Zuboff, "Managing the Informated Organization"

Zuboff's seemingly obvious point about "technology changing the world," is actually quite valid when we consider the times in history where technology has moved nations and cultures and economies forward during periods of stagnation. Technology during the Industrial Revolution brought America from a small aseparatedted and slow growing agricultural nation into a booming, developed and productive nation competitive and relevant on a world scale. Without technology, we would still be building everything by hand--there is an obvious time and speed element to this argument. Technology also changes all the rules of work and the workforce. ("When managers increase their engagement with the electronic text, they also risk a new kind of hyperrationalism and impersonalization, as they operate at a greater distance from employees and customers". ) The consequences are profound indeed when people stop truly communicating with each other because of over-reliancence on machines. Power structures already dictaseparationion, but managers and workers of the future that no longer "need" to talk to each other face to face are surely going to suffer.

David Lyon, "Directions in Theory"

In his attempt to explain the surveillance relationship Lyon discusses four strands of surveillance theory. The first deals with surveillance in relation to political and military factors. The second strand focuses on the bureaucracy of surveillance, asking important questions such as who is controlling this information and how will it be used? The third strand centers on the themetechnologicallogic and the fourth strand spotlights the political economy. For Lyon, surveillance is magnified by the powers on the Internet to track, code, encrypt, monitor, etc. content. It's best to find a balance that does not upset the normal social functioning and political action potential in society. There is obvious concern in society today about surveillance, and this concern is only likely to escalate in coming years. Just note uproar in Internet communities when the federal government passes laws that seem intrusive or limiting. In constructing a an overarching "surveillance theory," Lyon believes that three things should be included. The first is the importance of keeping citizens--real people--central to surveillance conceptualization. The second is omniperception must continue to be explored. The third is that politics and theories on surveillance should be conceived of concurrently.

Monday, October 23, 2006

PART FIVE: Divisions

Herbert Schiller, "Data Deprivation"

Schiller has been criticizing the "corporate" nature of the technology industries since back in the 1960's, when inequality and class warfare first became the buzzwords of our society. Though perhaps he comes off alarmist at times, he raises some valid points and the new divisions he sees emerging in 1996. There is a note about censorship in what he says--that even though there is a glut of information, the big corporate hands can guide and withhold and manipulate that information. It is disheartening to think that corporations make what is accessible to us (the masses) into something of a lower quality, or a strictly commercial nature. I notice this far too often in my Internet searches--sponsored links, advertisements masquerading as information, pay-per-use scholarly content, guerilla marketing, etc. While Schiller does sometimes sound a little radicalist, I think we all know even more today (10 years later) that big biz conglomerates have a dangerously concentrated and omnipresent degree of power.

He also distinguishes that the speed and force of inequality do vary from country to country. In America, for example, the stranglehold of a very few companies in communications and information is different from the rest of the world. Another good question for study: how did we get this way? The economy and commerce have always been hugely important in America, but when did it become beneficial for just a few to control so much? And of course, this raises the question about democracy of information and access to ideas, which is exactly what Schiller is trying to parse out... These days the government can't tell us what to think, but apparently AOL Time Warner can.

Pippa Norris, "The Digital Divide"

The title sounds like a worn concept, but Pippa was apparently one of the first to really analyze it. Norris distinguishes, like any good sociologist, three separate divides: the social, the global, and the democratic. The global divide is among countries--wherein there are many differences in the ways in which these technologies are put to use on a country by country basis. I thought Norris's point about "whose voices do you hear around the globe"? Clearly, American-sounding words are resonating around the world. Poorer countries have no stake in something so seemingly egalitarian in its conception. There is no trickle down. They just aren't creating websites (duh!).

Does the Internet really reinforce each distinct country's political structure and nature? It seems to me (and probably most Internet scholars/theorists) that the Internet would supersede-- or at least change--the nature of each separate government. Norris's data proves otherwise.

Christopher Lasch, "The Degradation of the Practical Arts"

Lasch's article has a much drier technical tone that is harder for the reader to wade through, or to get some main points from (too much quoting going on!)
The concept of technology as "ethically neutral," and determined by our own values in application was very interesting to me. Bringing the focus back to our uses in terms of technology will help to remind us all whether what we do or create or utilize is beneficial in a human sense. Lasch disagrees about this value-neurality, claiming that since technology influences social structures and class definitions directly it cannot be deemed impersonal. The technology was designed with these very changes in mind. For example, so much of what came out of the Industrial Revolution and the Post WWII period were machines designed to cut back and down on human labor. In doing so, they have revolutionized and restructured the workforce. Machines can do what humans can't and won't--well, most won't--but where does that leave these humans? An unemployed army? Outsourcing to robots is a dangerous but all too realistic image of the future.
This doesn't have to be the case, since Lasch says there is nothing inherent in technology and machines that should signal this degradation of the workforce. It will merely continue unchecked unless we choose (with policies?) to change it.