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When I attended Oxford about a decade ago, I took an amazingly interesting class called ‘British Perspectives of the American Revolution”. The woman who taught said class was fond of pointing out that the United States of America is really an experiment, and a young experiment at that. Whether we can call it a successful experiment will have to wait until it reaches maturity.
I think of that statement often when the internet comes up in conversation. If the United States is a young experiment, the internet is in its infancy. For some reason, people today don’t seem to realize this. Even people who were well into adulthood before the internet went mainstream somehow manage to forget that there was life before modems. While this circumstance always makes me laugh, it becomes especially funny whenever a new Internet Apocalypse looms on the horizon.
Like this latest crap about Google/Verizon and net neutrality. I’m sure you’ve heard about it – the interwebs are all abuzz and atwitter about it (I’m sure they’re all afacebook about it as well, but I have no way to verify it). In a nutshell, it’s a proposal of a framework for net neutrality. It says that the net should be free and neutral, but with notable exceptions. You can read the proposal here. First off, don’t let the title of the piece scare you. Although the word ‘legislative’ is in the title, here in America we don’t yet let major corporations draft legislation (at least not openly).
Anyway, the release of this document has Chicken Little running around and screaming his fool head off. In all his guises. Just throw a digital stone and you’ll hit someone who’s whining about it. One moron even believes that this document will destroy the internet inside of five years. Why will this occur? Ostensibly, the very possibility of tiered internet service will cause the internet to implode. Or something like that.
Let’s put that one to rest right now. The internet isn’t going away any time soon. It won’t go away simply because it is a commodity that people are willing to pay for.
Allow me to repeat that, this time with fat letters: it is a commodity. The problem we’re running into here is the mistaken belief that a neutral net is some sort of constitutionally guaranteed human right. We’re not talking about freedom of expression here (except in a most tangential fashion). We’re talking about a service – a service that cannot be delivered to us for free. Truth is, net neutrality is an attempt to dictate to providers the particulars of what it is they provide.
A neutral net would be one in which no provider is allowed to base charges according to site visited or service used. Period. It’s not about good versus evil, it’s not about corporations versus the little guy, it’s not about us versus them. What it is about is who pays for what. Should I get better access than you because I pay more? Should Google’s service get priority bandwidth because they pay more?
Predictably, our initial response to these questions is to leap to our feet and shout ‘No!’ (and believe me, kids – I’m the first one on my feet).
But should we? Seriously – what other service or commodity do we buy that follows a model anything like net neutrality? Chances are, most of you get more channels on your TV than I do. Why? Because you pay for it. I probably get faster down- and upload speeds than many of you. Why? Because I pay for it. Many people today get data plans (read: internet) on their cell phones. Why? Because they pay for it.
Doesn’t this happen because the service provider dedicates more resources to the customers who receive more and/or better service?
And then there are the fears about the corporate end of the spectrum. As one pundit put it: What would stop Verizon from getting into bed with Hulu and then providing free and open access to Hulu while throttling access to Netflix?
The short answer is: Nothing would stop them. The long answer adds: Net neutrality wouldn’t stop them either. Does anyone really believe that net neutrality would stop Verizon from emulating Facebook by forcing customers to sign into their accounts and click through 47 screens before they could ‘enable’ Netflix streaming?
And I may be missing something here, but Verizon getting into bed with Hulu and throttling Netflix sounds like a standard business practice to me. I’m not saying I agree with it, just that it doesn’t strike me as being unusual. The university I attended was littered with Coke machines. Really. Coca-Cola was everywhere on that campus. Like death and taxes, it was around every corner and behind every door. But Pepsi was nowhere to be found. It simply was not possible to procure a Pepsi anywhere on the grounds of the university. Why was it this way? Simply because Coke ponied up more money than Pepsi did when push came to shove. Oddly, nobody ever insisted they had a right to purchase Pepsi.
Why – exactly – do so many of us think that the internet should be exempt from the free market?
Gather ‘round children, and let me tell you a story. It’s about a mythical time before there was television. In the midst of that dark age, a Neanderthal hero invented the device we now know as TV. In those early times, the cavemen ‘made’ television by broadcasting programs from large antennae built for the purpose. Other cavemen watched these programs on magical boxes that pulled the TV out of thin air. Because TV came magically out of thin air, it initially seemed to be free of cost. The cavemen who made the programs and ran the stations paid for it all through advertising.
Eventually, TV became valuable enough for everyone to desire it. This led to the invention of cable as a means to get programs to the people who lived too far away from the antennae to be able to get TV out of the air. Because putting cable up on poles and running wire to people’s houses costs money, the people at the ends of the wires were charged for the service.
It wasn’t long before the cable providers hit upon the idea of offering cable to people who didn’t need it, but might want it. To get more channels, or to get their existing channels at a better quality. Unsurprisingly, there was much yelling of “I will not pay for something I can get for free!”, but as you know it didn’t last long. In short order cable went from ‘luxury’ to ‘necessity’.
Does any of that sound familiar? Can you see a pattern beginning to emerge? Let me give you a hint: It’s about money. The internet has never been free. It just appeared to be so because someone else was largely footing the bill (or at least it seemed that way. Truth is, you’ve been paying for it all along, and the coin you’ve been paying with is personal data). The internet – like so much of our world – is market-driven. Don’t kid yourself into thinking otherwise.
And I hate to say it, folks, but it looks as though the market is moving away from net neutrality. The simple fact that it’s being talked about so much is a clear indication that its demise is imminent. To be honest, I’m not so sure this would be a bad thing. In the short term, a lack of net neutrality would pretty much suck. In the long term, though, it could very well be the best thing for us, the average consumers.
You see, while money drives the market, the market drives competition (as well as innovation). If our Verizon/Hulu scenario actually came to pass, it wouldn’t be long before another ISP appeared in town, one who wasn’t in bed with Hulu and was willing to offer Netflix (providing, of course, that there was a demand for such a thing). Eventually, we get to reap the benefits of price and/or service wars (much like cell service providers today). In fact, this could help solve one of America’s largest internet-related problems – the lack of adequate broadband providers (you’d be surprised how many Americans only have one available choice for broadband).
I don’t think we really need to fear losing net neutrality, even if it is legislated away. If enough of us truly want to have a neutral net, sooner or later someone will come along and offer to sell it to us.
Living in an area rife with colleges, our lives tend to be awash in free publications. They vary in quality from excellent to – well – crap. Yesterday, I was perusing a paper that lands somewhere away from the excellent end of the spectrum, and I came across an article written by a guy who calls himself a ‘parenting expert’. The oxymoronic nature of this label struck me as being so humorous I felt compelled to tweet a tweet on the subject. One of my tweeps (not sure how I feel about that term. On the surface, I kind of like it, but I’m generally ill-disposed toward words that don’t lend themselves to the singular) responded, calling the ‘parenting expert’ a professional delusionist. I asked permission to use the term, and it was granted (thanks, Jason).
Truth be told, I am so fond of the term Professional Delusionist that I am seriously thinking about including it on my business cards and résumé. I’ll probably put it right after Outrageous Liar.
Anyway, the delusionist oversimplified parenting styles into two oppositional categories, then went on to explain how his personal theory fit perfectly in the middle. Having thus proven his idiocy, he finished up his piece with a ‘fact check’ in which he endeavored to “correct some misinformation that is out there”. This ‘correction’ includes an admonishment to “check the records (not the Internet)”, as well as a brief discussion of how a tidbit of misinformation “ran wild on the Internet”.
Okay. Let’s see if we can hack this to bits. A good place to start would be the common misperception that disinformation and the Internet are conjoined twins. The adage “Don’t believe everything you read (or hear)” was kicking around long before anyone dreamed up the Internet, and for good reason. People lie. They do it often, for a multitude of reasons, and in pretty much all media. Sometimes they do it knowingly, but oft-times they do it because they think they’re doing the exact opposite. But this is a discussion for another day.
The Internet, unlike most other forms of media, has the ability to correct itself. It is a constantly-evolving creature (I hear you, Drew. Allow me a bloody metaphor. Possibly an analogy and/or simile). There was a time when only geeks could effectively navigate the archipelagoes of cyberspace, but as times have changed, so has the Internet. This manifests itself as better browsers, more intelligent search engines, more intuitive web sites and cleaner code.
Translated to human: The Internet works better than it used to. And anyone can use it well, if they just treat it as critically as they treat their newspaper or TV.
Allow me to demonstrate. Open up another browser window, or just another tab. Go to Google and search for:
Man Arrested for Wearing McCain Shirt at Obama Victory Rally
Those of you who are intensely lazy can just click on this.
Okay. Let’s look at our results. The first thing that should catch your eye is that the titles of all the links we’re seeing are very similar. This is the kind of thing that should throw up warning flags. What it’s telling us is that all those pages are either A) linking to the same source, or B) linking to each other.
We can put these results to the test. In this case, we’re looking at page after page that discuss a McCain supporter who was arrested at an Obama victory rally just for wearing a pro-McCain T-shirt! It seems to me that if such an event actually occurred, there would be some mention of it in the news.
Let’s go back to our search page. At the top left, you see a list: Web, Images, Videos, Maps, News, Shopping, Gmail, more. Click on ‘News’ and see what happens.
Nothing. Not a single mention in the news (not even at Fox!) of this event. Does this mean that the event did not occur? No. Just that it’s unlikely.
Alright. So here’s what we just did – we started with a rumor (in blue letters above), we found out whether it was being talked about (our first search), then we checked to see if any reputable sources were talking about it (our second, ‘news’ search). In a nutshell, we came across a rumor and determined that it was crap. And all it took us a couple of minutes.
This, my friends, is the power of the Internet. But it only works if you couple it with a discerning mind.
Which is what far too few people do. A friend once told me about a phenomenon he referred to as ‘barroom philosopher’. A ‘barroom philosopher’ is a person who expresses their ideas in a room full of drunken people. When the rest of the drunks agree with them, the ‘barroom philosopher’ thinks that they’re actually onto something. It doesn’t occur to them to question the fact that a bunch of drunks are agreeing with them.
The Internet has a similar phenomenon, and Jason hit upon it last night. Jason spoke of the Professional Delusionist, but the Internet is populated with a different creature. What you find on the Internet are internet Prowling amateur delusionists.
I studied anthropology in college. At the particular university I attended, this entailed a certain amount of time spent hanging around the anthro lounge with other students. There was a grassy corner outside the building housing said lounge where a curious family would occasionally take up temporary residence to harangue the students passing by. They had a large (about 15’ tall) wooden cross they would hold (usually the father) and they would scream at the passerby about their likelihood of burning in Hell for all eternity. Apparently, this family thought attending university was some form of especially grievous sin. Beside the father, the family consisted of a mother and a small boy, probably around 8 years old at the time.
One day, I sat in the lounge while this family stood at their posts screaming invectives. Dickie, a grad student, entered the lounge and flopped angrily into a chair. I looked up and noted that he was visibly upset.
“What’s up?” I queried.
“I just feel for that little boy,” came the response. “I just want to go out and tell him that there’s another way.”
My reaction to this statement was to question Dickie about a few things. Specifically, why he thought he had the right to tell anyone else how to raise their children, what he thought entitled him to pass judgment on someone else’s beliefs, and whether he liked the idea of someone else telling Dickie how to raise his own children. I didn’t do it very nicely.
I got to thinking about that family today as I was reading yet another article about China/Google. I was thinking about them because the elephant in the room reminded me of them.
You see, in all the discussion about this scenario, I have read reams of opinions about human rights (which I’ll get to later), but I have read precious little about sovereignty. You know – something along the lines of: Who are we to tell China what to do? When companies from other countries do business here in the United States (even Chinese companies), we quite rightly expect them to play by our rules. If they fail to do things our way, we kick them out. This is right and proper and how it should be.
But not, apparently, when China does it. When we do it, we are a sovereign nation exercising its right to protect the interests of its people. When China does it, they’re an evil, tyrannical empire abusing its citizens.
To quote Brian Lewis: “God bless America. And no place else.”
Just one more damn thing I find tiresome about my country. Which should not be taken to mean I don’t love my country. I love my country, and I always have. I just hold it to a higher standard than most people.
Anyway, a large part of the Great American Idiocy is the unshakable belief that everyone else in the world wants what we have (which contains a kernel of truth, but not of the sort most people think). Americans inexplicably think that the rest of humanity would really love to have an American form of government, as well as a full set of American rights. This is inexplicable for a variety of reasons, the largest of which being that Americans don’t even want them themselves.
Don’t believe me? Are you actually under the impression that Americans are protective of their rights? If so, I have one question: Where the hell were you for the first eight years of this millennium? You know – that dark, cold period in American history when the Bush/Cheney empire routinely erased the rights of the American people, in response to which the majority of Americans stood up and cheered.
And our form of government? Please. In the first place, we do not have a democracy in this country, or even anything close to it. ‘Representative Republic’ is one of the phrases that often gets batted around in an attempt to describe what we have. Whatever you want to call it, what we do have in this country is the ability to vote. The actual weight our individual votes carry is an arguable point (and it varies, depending on what, exactly, we’re voting about), but in some fashion it boils down to the fact that we are freely given a real, active and meaningful voice in our government.
And yet, in the last election, only 58% of Americans who were eligible to vote actually did so. This means that 42% of the Americans who were eligible to vote chose not to participate in the process, despite the fact that it doesn’t cost them anything, is easy to do, and directly and immediately affects their lives.
So tell me – if our form of government is so damned wonderful, why do almost half of the eligible participants choose not to play? And please don’t try to tell me that all those Americans want our form of government, but just aren’t willing to ‘work’ for it. That’s just another way of saying they don’t want it. Besides, dropping by the polls for an hour (at most) once every couple of years is not exactly work (truth be told, there are only two things that the majority of Americans really do want. They want to be able to pick up a six-pack on their way home from work, and they want their cable to work when they get home. If these two things are in place, the average American doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anything else). I just don’t understand why we insist on believing the rest of the world wants a piece of our so-called ‘democracy’ when such a large percentage of Americans don’t even want it. Seems like a bit of a stretch.
Which brings us to the subject of human rights. We here in the Land Of Silk And Money tend to believe that the government of China routinely violates the basic human rights of the Chinese people. Personally, I believe this to be true, but not through any firsthand (or even secondhand) knowledge.
What’s unclear to me is why we’re bringing internet censorship into the whole human rights discussion. This is not to say I am a proponent of internet censorship (or any other sort of censorship, for that matter). I’d like to think this is obvious. Censorship in any form is an infringement of the freedom of expression, something I consider to be a basic human right (within reason, of course. You know – the old saw about not yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. Possessing a right to speak freely does not automatically confer a license to use it recklessly. Nor does it absolve one from taking responsibility for things said). What I’m not getting here is why we’re all pretending that the Chinese government is the only government that actively censors the information its citizens receive. Or why we pretend that censorship only comes from ‘bad’ governments. All governments censor information – some are just more honest about it (for which they get sent over to sit on the Group ‘W’ bench).
We here in the United States tend to place freedom of expression into the ‘basic human right’ category, I think mainly because our freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed and therefore we have more of it than most. What we forget is just how rare this is. The overwhelming majority of humanity does not enjoy this right, even many of the people we Americans kind of assume do have such a right – While article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights pertains to the freedom of expression, it contains the conditional: subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society”. In other words, everyone should have a right to free speech, but only insofar as their government wishes to allow (Neil Gaiman wrote a great piece on this a while back). It also should be noted that the European Convention on Human Rights is much like the United Nations – it has no muscles. It is only enforceable if a government chooses to flex its muscles on the Convention’s behalf.
I guess my point here is simply a repetition of one of the great litanies of my life: They are all bastards. I don’t really see how asking Google to abide by their rules makes Chinese bastards worse than all the other bastards.
Okay – I’ve been surfing the Wave for a bit now, and I have to admit that my love for it endures. I’ve bombed around the public Waves, and I’ve taken a good long look at what the Wave has to offer, what it lacks, and what other people think it lacks. From what I’ve seen, most of the early adopters seem to feel that Wave offers too little in terms of control. The fact that anyone can edit anyone else’s words seems to scare the bejesus out of people. What they don’t seem to be getting is that this is one of the strengths of Wave. Wave is like a conversation you have in a room with real live people – you can (and will) be interrupted, people will put words in your mouth, and you will constantly have to deal with the fact people always hear what they think you said, rather than the actual words that came out of your mouth.
To me, these ‘complaints’ are precisely what set Wave apart from other apps. It makes it closer to real interactions with real humans than any other so-called ‘social’ application. To me, this is what makes it so much fun (even the fact that someone else can screw up and totally destroy your Wave. Again – just like dealing with other people in the real world). What I’ve found is that the changes most Wave surfers would like to see implemented would only serve to make Wave into something they’re more familiar (read: comfortable) with. Most (maybe all, come to think of it) of the ‘Wish List’ items I see talked about on various Waves basically boil down to desires to see it behave more like E-Mail, or instant messaging, or texting, or Twitter, or Facebook, or what have you. Personally, I like the fact that Wave exists in its own space. There are, however, a couple of gaping holes in the Wave that I would like to see addressed.
The Wave is being billed as a collaboration tool. This is all well and good but thus far I haven’t seen much about it that would make it especially suited to – well – collaboration. The general concept is there, but the necessary building blocks are (thus far) absent. For example, there is a distinct lack of integration with other Google products that would be particularly suited for collaboration. Google Docs, for instance. And GCal. Throw in Maps, Earth and Voice for the complete package. There is some integration, but it is clumsy and not suited to the non-Dork. I have managed to embed a collaborative document in a Wave, but the interface is not particularly elegant. I have seen some integration of Maps, but I have also watched while someone tried in vain to embed a map created with Google’s own My Maps feature.
There is, however, one Google property that has good Wave integration. Of course, it would be YouTube, the Google property least suited to actual collaboration. The integration is nice, though – just paste a YouTube URL into a Wave, and a helpful light bulb pops into existence, asking if you’d like to embed the video. Pretty slick.
The Wave sloshed around the developer world for a while before it hit the public. Because of this, there are already a fair number of Wave-specific tools floating around out there. I have seen a fair amount of these tools. Some are fun, some are useful, some are just plain silly. Blessed few of them are actually useful for collaboration (the few that I have seen tend to be specifically geared toward scientific communities – mostly tools that allow researchers to communicate with each other using the proper arcane symbology). I have seen Wave bots that will talk to you so that you don’t feel lonely. I have seen bots that will turn a colon and a parenthesis into an actual graphic smiley face. What I haven’t seen are any tools that allow for Wave organization. Waves, by their nature, tend to get slapped together rather haphazardly. It would be nice to be able to apply some sort of order to a Wave after the fact. Thus far, I haven’t seen anything that allows for this (outside of doing it manually in the form of a new Wave). A simple table of contents would be helpful (I hear that there used to be such a tool, but it doesn’t work in the newer versions of Wave). Throw in the ability to hotlink to another location within a Wave (something I have searched in vain for), and we’d really be in business. Update: There is one extension that shows a great deal of promise: The Mediawiki Wave Extension, although it thus far only exists in theory. I fully expect it to come into being, though, and expect it to answer many of my organizational complaints. I don’t, however, expect it to address any of my integration complaints.
The upside is that there are a lot of Geeks involved, and Wave is designed to be open and extensible, so I can hope that someone will come along and develop the tools I’d like to see (or, failing that, I could make them myself, although this is not an option for the average user). The downside is that the Geeks involved are – well – Geeks, and they’ve already shown us where their priorities lie. Which is why we have good YouTube integration, but no real Docs integration. And why we have bots for smiley faces but not organization.
It’s a Brave New World, folks, and it’s full of smileys and dramatic squirrels.
– Will Smith, Men In Black –
I have seen the future, and it is Google Wave. That having been said, I have also seen the present, and it is using Google Wave. Allow me to explain:
I’ve been riding the Wave for about a week now, and I have to say that my first impression was: WOW! So were my second, third and fourth impressions. Wave pretty much takes everything I like about the internet and puts it together in one convenient package. I am – frankly – astounded at the things it allows me to do. This is (as Will Smith so succinctly put it) next level shit. Wave is billed as a collaboration tool and it certainly fills that bill (although I have to admit that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to use it as such – so far I’ve just been playing). It also works well as a replacement for E-Mail, instant messaging and just about any other variety of social media you care to name. I’m not making this up – Google Wave rocks. And it is the future of online communication. This is not to say that the big ‘G’ will be the provider of said future, no more than Outlook personifies E-Mail (despite the fact that many people actually believe this to be the case). It’s not Wave that’s the future, but rather what Wave represents. And what it will become.
Unfortunately, the internet is – in a nutshell – a network that exists to connect people. And, in case you haven’t noticed, people are pretty stupid (in general, not individually. You are very smart). This means that many of the people currently using Google Wave (probably the majority of them) aren’t really getting it. And this is where the present comes in. The sad fact is that we have an incredible wealth of technology at our disposal, yet most people only use it to send sideways smiley faces to each other. So most of the people riding the Wave (that I have been exposed to) are basically just treating it as though it’s a chat room with bells and whistles. I say this to illuminate, not to denigrate. My Darling Wife initially shied away from the Wave, viewing it as being too complicated to readily adopt. She changed her tune after I pointed her attention to two things: 1) E-Mail is a complicated unknown when we’re first exposed to it, and 2) You can use Wave without knowing how to access all of its functionality (or any of it, for that matter). At first glance, Google Wave looks very much like an online forum or the comment threads on any of a number of web sites. And this is where I feel a need to warn the average user: Google Wave is NOT anonymous.
Let me repeat that. Wave is NOT anonymous. Quite the opposite, in fact. Wave requires you to have a Google account (which is your Gmail account). Your Wave address and your Gmail address are functionally the same (@googlewave vs. @gmail). This means that anyone you talk to in Wave has access to your E-Mail address. Is this a problem? If it is, you should stay away from the Wave. If it isn’t, you’re probably the kind of person I’d like to include in my Waves.
Like I said: Next level shit. And that means you have to take personal responsibility for it. Welcome to the new millennium.
Just spent a remarkable amount of time (more than an hour) watching the video describing Google’s new idea-soon-to-be-released, Google Wave. It’s fascinating to watch – well worth the investment of your time. If Google really pays off on this concept (and there’s no real reason to believe that they won’t), it’s going to seriously change the online landscape. Par for the course for Google, I suppose.
Anyway, watch the video, if you have the time:
Came across something a bit odd the other day. I was Googling something (I forget what), and I Googled Jeopardy-style (i.e., in the form of a question). I often do this (oddly, I find most people I talk to don’t realize that you can) and I invariably get good results.
Anyway, this particular time the question I was typing started simply with the word ‘does’. For some reason, after typing ‘does’ and hitting the spacebar, I looked up at the screen. I saw that the Google search bar (in an attempt to be helpful) had dropped down a list of search terms starting with ‘does’. I assume that the list becomes populated in a similar fashion to any Google page – i.e., the result of indexed internet traffic. In the case of the search bar, though, it stands to reason that it would be populated by an index of the terms searched for, rather than an index of what’s available on the web.
So – if you stop to think about it – that drop-down list is a little window into the current popular psyche. In many ways, it’s telling us what’s on the mind of the internet. So – of course – I just had to play around with this a bit.
In true Freudian fashion, I have decided to divide my findings into three basic categories (Id, Ego and Super-Ego), each of which is represented by a single search term (‘does’, ‘why’ and ‘should’, respectively), and here are the results:
So there you have it. Today’s quick peek into the seedy underside of the popular psyche. I assume that the lists I got today are different than the ones I would have gotten last month, as well as the ones I would get next month. It stands to reason that the lists would be as fluid and changeable as the psyche that produces them. Because of this, I think I’m going to have to keep an eye on this. It could be interesting.
Maybe I’ll do this as a regular, weekly post. If so, I’ll be sure to do it on Monday, when the popular psyche is still reeling from all the hopes and regrets of the weekend.