Russia Considers Building a Garden Wall

February 14, 2018

In a move that could presage the future of the internet, Russia is considering a walled garden for itself and its fellow BRICS members; TechDirt reports, “Russia Says Disconnecting From the Rest of the Net ‘Out of the Question,’ but Wants Alternative DNS Servers for BRICS Nations.” We learn it was the Russian Security Council that recommended its government develop this infrastructure, proposing the creation of a separate, independent DNS backup system. The write-up observes:

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the story is the following comment by Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov: ‘Russia’s disconnection from the global internet is of course out of the question,’ Peskov told the Interfax news agency. However, the official also emphasized that ‘recently, a fair share of unpredictability is present in the actions of our partners both in the US and the EU, and we [Russia] must be prepared for any turn of events.’ That offers a pragmatic recognition that disconnection from the global Internet is no longer an option for a modern state, even if Iran begs to differ. It’s true that local DNS servers provide resilience, but they also make it much easier for a government to limit access to foreign sites by ordering their IP addresses to be blocked — surely another reason for the move.

The “unpredictability” of the US and Europe? That’s a bit rich. We’re reminded Russia has been trying to localize control over parts of the Internet since at least 2012, and it looks like its fellow BRICS members may be supportive.

Cynthia Murrell, February 14, 2018

How SEO Has Shaped the Web

January 19, 2018

With the benefit of hindsight, big-name thinker Anil Dash has concluded that SEO has contributed to the ineffectiveness of Web search. He examines how we got here in his article, “Underscores, Optimization & Arms Races” at Medium.  Starting with the year 2000, Dash traces the development of Internet content management systems (CMS’s), of which he was a part. (It is a good brief summary for anyone who wasn’t following along at the time.) WordPress is an example of a CMS.

As Google’s influence grew, online publishers became aware of an opportunity—they could game the search algorithm to move their site to the top of “relevant” results by playing around with keywords and other content details. The question of whether websites should bow to Google’s whims seemed to go unasked, as site after site fell into this pattern, later to be known as Search Engine Optimization. For Dash, the matter was symbolized by a question over hyphens or underbars to represent spaces in web addresses. Now, of course, one can use either without upsetting Google’s algorithm, but that was not the case at first. When Google’s Matt Cutts stated a preference for the hyphen in 2005, most publishers fell in line. Including Dash, eventually and very reluctantly; for him, the choice represented nothing less than the very nature of the Internet.

He writes:

You see, the theory of how we felt Google should work, and what the company had often claimed, was that it looked at the web and used signals like the links or the formatting of webpages to indicate the quality and relevance of content. Put simply, your search ranking with Google was supposed to be based on Google indexing the web as it is. But what if, due to the market pressure of the increasing value of ranking in Google’s search results, websites were incentivized to change their content to appeal to Google’s algorithm? Or, more accurately, to appeal to the values of the people who coded Google’s algorithm?

Eventually, even Dash and his CMS caved and switched to hyphens. What he did not notice at the time, he muses, was the unsettling development of the  entire SEO community centered around appeasing these algorithms. He concludes:

By the time we realized that we’d gotten suckered into a never-ending two-front battle against both the algorithms of the major tech companies and the destructive movements that wanted to exploit them, it was too late. We’d already set the precedent that independent publishers and tech creators would just keep chasing whatever algorithm Google (and later Facebook and Twitter) fed to us. Now, the challenge is to reform these systems so that we can hold the big platforms accountable for the impacts of their algorithms. We’ve got to encourage today’s newer creative communities in media and tech and culture to not constrain what they’re doing to conform to the dictates of an opaque, unknowable algorithm.

Is that doable, or have we gone too far toward appeasing the Internet behemoths to turn back?

Cynthia Murrell, January 19, 2018

Online Privacy Just Got a Lot Less Private

December 15, 2017

Forget for a moment political hacks from other countries and think about yourself. We are far more vulnerable online than you might think. A scary new report was discovered in a University of Washington News story, “For $1,000 Anyone Can Purchase Online Ads to Track Your Location and App Use.”

According to the story:

The researchers discovered that an individual ad purchaser can, under certain circumstances, see when a person visits a predetermined sensitive location — a suspected rendezvous spot for an affair, the office of a company that a venture capitalist might be interested in or a hospital where someone might be receiving treatment — within 10 minutes of that person’s arrival. They were also able to track a person’s movements across the city during a morning commute by serving location-based ads to the target’s phone.

 

Importantly, the target does not have to click on or engage with the ad — the purchaser can see where ads are being served and use that information to track the target through space. In the team’s experiments, they were able to pinpoint a person’s location within about 8 meters.

The scariest part of this story is that, while there are many techniques for hiding your online browsing and consumption, there is not much you can do from being spied on by software like this. However, the ebb and flow of the internet tell us that as soon as this becomes a public concern some programmer with dollar signs in their eyes will invent a solution. We just hope it’s not too late by then.

Patrick Roland, December 15, 2017

China Has a Big Data Policy Setting Everyone Back

December 5, 2017

China is very tightlipped about the way its government handles dissent. However, with the aid of data mining and fake news, they are no longer crushing opposing voices, they are drowning them out. We learned more in the Vox piece, “China is Perfecting a New Method for Suppressing Dissent on the Internet.”

Their paper, titled “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument,” shows how Beijing, with the help of a massive army of government-backed internet commentators, floods the web in China with pro-regime propaganda.

What’s different about China’s approach is the content of the propaganda. The government doesn’t refute critics or defend policies; instead, it overwhelms the population with positive news (what the researchers call “cheerleading” content) in order to eclipse bad news and divert attention away from actual problems.

Seems like an unwinnable situation for China. However, it would be interesting to see what some of the good guys fighting fake news could do in this situation. We already know big data can be useful in stifling false news stories and intentionally abrasive points of view. But with China not exactly letting outside influence in easily, this will be an uphill battle for the Chinese online community.

Patrick Roland, December 5, 2017

Silicon Valley Hubris

November 1, 2017

Are today’s big tech companies leading our culture down foolish paths? Writer Scott Hartley at Quartz declares, “Silicon Valley Is Suffering from an Icarus Complex.” After briefly summarizing the story of Daedalus and Icarus, Hartley extrapolates that, today, the same examples of hubris would be cast as a pair of tech entrepreneurs, lauded for their bold wing-building initiative and attracting eager investors. He observes:

The Greeks distinguished between craftsmanship, known as technae, and knowledge, known as espisteme. But today we conflate doing with knowing: We believe that doers are wise, when perhaps they are only clever. Silicon Valley is so obsessed with crafting new wings—to harness the power of the Gods and tame the heavens—that it has overlooked the notion that cleverness is not necessarily wisdom. The ability to harness technology alone may be clever, but it isn’t wise unless it is contextualized within a greater human need. For example, someone might design the cleverest new system to optimize ad delivery—but few of us would call such an entrepreneur sagacious or wise. We might justly lionize them for their capitalistic prowess or for their ability to abstract value from the ever-tightening mechanics of how pixels are dangled before us like candy—but we wouldn’t call them a ‘genius.’ We require great technologists and clever doers, but we require those who question, probe, and seek to contextualize our advances in equal measure.

Yes. Just because we can “reinvent every human process with something mechanistic,” as he puts it, does not mean we should. We need more wise minds to consider what technology goals are worthy, and fewer who would pursue anything they can devise to make a buck, regardless of the consequences to society as a whole.

Cynthia Murrell, November 1, 2017

My Feed Personalization a Step Too Far

September 15, 2017

In an effort to be even more user-friendly and to further encourage a narcissistic society, Google now allows individuals to ‘follow’ or ‘unfollow’ topics, delivered daily to devices, as they deem them interesting or uninteresting. SEJ explains the new feature which is considered an enhancement of their ‘my feed’ which is intended to personalize news.

As explained in the article,

Further advancements to Google’s personalized feed include improved machine learning algorithms, which are said to be more capable at anticipating what an individual may find interest. In addition to highlighting stories around manually and algorithmically selected topics of interest, the feed will also display stories trending in your area and around the world.

That seems like a great way to keep people current on topics ranging geographically, politically and culturally, but with the addition of ‘follow’ or ‘unfollow’, once again, individuals can reduce their world to a series of pop-star updates and YouTube hits. Isn’t it an oxymoron to both suggest topics and stories in an effort to keep an individual informed of the world around them, and yet allow them to stop the suggestions are they appear boring or lack familiarity? Now, Google, you can do better.

Catherine Lamsfuss, September 15, 2017

Google Drops Instant Search as Mobile Use Rises

August 28, 2017

As more and more Googlers turn to mobile devices to access the search giant the Instant Search feature, first introduced in 2010, becomes irrelevant. Originally, this feature was a time saving (albeit milliseconds) feature giving Google users a much-needed edge in search. But that was for desktops. Now that mobile is king, Google is rethinking their strategies.

According The Verge,

…more than half of Google searches happen on mobile, with the scales continually tipping away from desktop as time goes on. On mobile screens, Instant Search doesn’t make as much sense given we use our fingers and virtual buttons to interact with software, and trying to load a results page on top of the onscreen keyboard isn’t exactly good user experience design.

Internet based services recognizing the trend toward mobile use is nothing new, but Google eliminating one of its hallmark features shows that mobile use for search is much more than simply a trend. Always leading the way, Google is making a statement about the direction of search and we expect others to quickly jump on the bandwagon.

Catherine Lamsfuss, August 28, 2017

Big Data as Savior of Newspapers? Tell That to NYT Editors

August 7, 2017

This would be ironic. The SmartDataCollective posits, “Is Big Data the Salvation of the Newspaper Industry?” The write-up tells us that several prominent publications are turning to data analysis to boost their bottom lines and, they hope, save themselves from extinction. Writer Rehan Ijaz cites this post from the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation as he describes ways the New York Times and the Financial Times are leveraging data. He quotes publishing pro, David Soloff:

The Financial Times, one of our global publisher customers, uses big data analytics to optimize pricing on ads by section, audience, targeting parameters, geography, and time of day. Our friends at the FT sell more inventory because the team knows what they have, where it is and how it should be priced to capture the opportunity at hand. To boot, analytics reveal previously undersold areas of the publication, enabling premium pricing and resulting in found margin falling straight to the bottom line.

What about the venerable New York Times? That paper hired a data scientist in 2014, yet now is slashing staff, we learn from Reuters’ piece, “New York Times Offers Buyouts, Scraps Public Editor Position.” It is, in fact, most editors facing unemployment (because clear prose and verified facts are so last century, I suppose.) Reporters Jessica Toonkel and Narottam Medhora reveal:

The newspaper said it would eliminate the in-house watchdog position of public editor as it shifts focus to reader comments. ‘Today, our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be,’ publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr said in a memo, which was reviewed by Reuters.

“Vigilant and forceful?” Is “correct” not a consideration? Professional editors exist for a reason; crowdsourcing will not always suffice. Also, call me old-fashioned, but I think facts should be confirmed before publication. This is an interesting choice for the Times to be making particularly now, amid the “fake news” commotion.

Cynthia Murrell, August 7, 2017

Bibliophiles Have 25 Million Reasons to Smile

June 6, 2017

The US Library of Congress has released 25 million records of its collection online and are anyone with Internet access is free to use it.

According to Science Alert article titled The US Library of Congress Just Put 25 Million Records Online, Free of Charge:

The bibliographic data sets, like digital library cards, cover music, books, maps, manuscripts, and more, and their publication online marks the biggest release of digital records in the Library’s history.

The Library of Congress has been on digitization spree for long and users can expect more records to be made online in the near future. The challenge, however, is retrieving books or information that the user needs. The web interface is still complicated and not user-friendly. In short, the enterprise search function is a mess. What The Library of Congress really needs is a user-friendly and efficient way of accessing its vast collection of knowledge to bibliophiles.

Vishal Ingole, June 6, 2017

The Golden Age of Radio as Compared to the Internet

April 3, 2017

Here is an article going out to all those old fogies who remember when radio was the main source of news, entertainment, and communication.  Me Shed Society compares the Golden Age of Radio to the continuous information stream known as the Internet and they discuss more in the article, “The Internet Does To The World What Radio Did To The World.”

The author focuses on Marshal McLuhan’s book Understanding Media and its basic idea, “The medium is the message.”  There are three paragraphs that the author found provoking and still relevant, especially in today’s media craze times.  The author suggests that if one were to replace the Hitler references with the Internet or any other influential person or medium, it would be interchangeable.  The first paragraph states that Hitler’s rise to power is due in part to the new radio invention and mass media.  The most profound paragraph is the second:

The power of radio to retribalize mankind, its almost instant reversal of individualism into collectivism, Fascist or Marxist, has gone unnoticed. So extraordinary is this unawareness that it is what needs to be explained. The transforming power of media is easy to explain, but the ignoring of this power is not at all easy to explain. It goes without saying that the universal ignoring of the psychic action of technology bespeaks some inherent function, some essential numbing of consciousness such as occurs under stress and shock conditions.

The third paragraph concludes that there should be some way to defend against media fallout, such as education and its foundations in dead tree formats, i.e. print.

Print, however, is falling out of favor, at least when it comes to the mass media, and education is built more on tests and meeting standards than fighting hysteria.  Let us add another “-ism” to this list with the “extreme-ism” that runs rampant on the TV and the Internet.

Whitney Grace, April 3, 2017

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