Reading Response #5

“The disruptive power of collaboration: an interview with Clay Shirky”, by Michael Chui of McKinsey Global Institute, and “Zizek, plagiarism and the lowering of expectations” by Hollis Phelps deal with the concepts of originality and “authorship” in an age where there is significant confusion/ambiguity regarding what used to considered rather self-evident concepts.  Shirky sees the benefits of a collaborative process that allows things to be done that no one person may be equipped or inspired enough to pull off alone. He also sees the brilliance sometimes achieved by plans that were considered backups or too idiosyncratic to work. But, who’s to say that one’s “Plan B” is not in fact a far better proposition than “Plan A”?  An outside perspective is a useful corrective to one’s own insights. In that regard, Shirky is quite right. We have failure to thank for both Wikipedia and Twitter.

Hollis Phelps’s thoughts on the philosopher and critic Slavoj Zizek are interesting, if not entirely convincing. He admits to admiring the man’s writings and is impressed by their breadth. He mentions being humbled by his intellectual achievements and (genuinely humbly) feeling his own were destined to remain minor. I rather thought of a high school baseball player emulating and feeling inadequate to a major league player who is later found to have used performance enhancing drugs. Using research assistants is not a crime. Publishing what they bring you without verifying it is unethical. Zizek admitted to having thought that the words his friend brought him were his friend’s own. Even then, the friend should have been cited. That he got caught is damning him to either absent-mindedness or deception. Either way, there is a chink in his armor. Phelps thinks he’s just too busy to write all that he does, given his hectic schedule as an intellectual star. Ultimately, though, it might behoove him to publish less and pay a little more attention to each piece. I would not want to be known as the General Motors of academics.

Zizek is not unique. And, luckily, neither are the cases Shirky mentions. Some work is best done alone. Other work benefits greatly from outside collaboration. The key might be to be honest about the nature of the process that brought a work or product before the public. After all, when a sports team wins a championship, every player (and coach) receives a ring. There is no shame in having others contribute to your success. And there is a virtue to working to contribute to the success of others. If there is a lesson to be learned from Zizek, it is that it’s okay to borrow if one but admits it. And, I would add, it’s also okay to not publish something if you didn’t actually write it or have nothing original to add. Both readings suggest, in some way, that we are all dependent on others for whatever it is that we offer the world.

“The disruptive power of collaboration: An interview with Clay Shirky.” McKinsey & Company. March 2014.

Phelps, Hollis. “Žižek, Plagiarism and the Lowering of Expectations.” Inside Higher Education. July 17 2014.

Big Data book review

In an age when the words “information” and “data” can mean almost anything to any given person, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, helps make sense of the way it is often used today. Initially utilized in the hard sciences in the early 2000s, the term “big data” has entered virtually every field of human endeavor. The emphasis is on the applications, often though not always commercial, the data collected can be used for. Now, no once-used data seems to be discarded. New uses (and buyers) can always be found. The authors helpfully present what could be thought of as an abstraction in concrete terms: data as a raw material of business that is used to create a new form of economic value.  Just in case the reader didn’t grasp the meat-and-potatoes nature of it, data is described as “…the oil of the information economy”. Bingo. Thus, Google is the new Texaco (or as E.U. regulators might suggest, Standard Oil itself).

So, one might ask, What makes Big Data “Big”? Besides the sheer quantity of it (now made economically feasible owing to vastly lowered storage costs, thus making possible what just a few years ago was prohibitive for all but governments), it is the “messiness” of its unorganized nature. Now, one need not put everything in charts and graphs. One doesn’t need to sample anything. You can now just drop the whole lot of information, like a phonebook on a doorstep. Being that digital data doubles approximately every 3 years, it will only get bigger.

The authors, extremely prominent in the field (Mayer-Schonberger is professor of Internet governance and regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, while Cukier serves as data editor of the Economist), refer to themselves as “messengers”, rather than “evangelists”, of Big Data. It is, simply put, a revolution in how human society functions now (on par with the Internet and, possibly, the printing press). They succeed in showing the many ways that humans can benefit from it (from predicting flu outbreaks, improving government services, and even making it impossible for a thief to drive off with one’s car if their seated posture differs from the driver’s). They are not blind to the more sinister aspects of big data, however. Whereas knowledge used to mean understanding the past, it is becoming thought of as something akin to predicting the future. The problem, though, is that if Big Data says that you are likely to die of a heart attack, drive recklessly, or commit a crime, then Big Brother will treat you as a pariah or a criminal before you’ve even thought to prove their prediction right. Thus, rational thought and free choice could fall by the wayside when everyone thinks they know what “will” happen. Or, as the authors memorably put it, “Potentiality is slaughtered on the altar of probability.” Like any tool, it can be employed for good or ill. Big Data manages to generate both excitement for and dread of the future in nearly equal measures. As a book, though, it is as excellent as it is timely.

Mayer-Schonberger, V. & Cukier, K. (2013). Big data: a revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Literature Review

Internet Surveillance, Censorship, and Democracy

In recent years, as use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has increased, it has enabled many protests and even resulted in the overthrow of autocratic states. However, states themselves are becoming increasingly proficient in manipulating and controlling use of the internet and social media in order to attempt to detect and suppress dissent in their countries.

In Liberation Technology: social media and the struggle for democracy, Larry Diamond explores the potential of the internet, blogosphere, social media tools, and the growth in access to each of them via mobile phones, to mobilize populations to rise against unpopular governments. “These electronic tools have provided new, breathtakingly dynamic, and radically decentralized means for people and organizations to communicate and cooperate with one another for political and civic ends” (ix). He calls them “liberation technologies” because of their role in such movements. In response to critics who feel that the term has an analytic bias that seems to predict what it should merely describe, Diamond acknowledges that that technology itself is but a tool and can be used equally well for both noble and sinister purposes. The conflict lies in what he considers a race between the democrats that try to get around internet censorship and the autocrats seeking to extend and refine it.

Abdul Paliwala, in his article entitled “Netizenship, security and freedom” in the International Review of Law, Computers & Technology, examines the way in which citizen desire for a free and open internet is restricted by state monitoring and control. His particular focus is on the Arab Spring movements of 2011, where regimes such as that of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt tried to hold onto power through restrictions on the Internet and social media. He ultimately fell, but not all governments were toppled. The role of internet companies such as Google is also more ambiguous than many think. While supporting internet freedom in the abstract, internet companies often support state security concerns (or are intimidated by governments into doing so) (117). Also, there will be different standards in different countries (for example, the U.S., China, and the E.U. all have very different laws governing internet freedom). The author feels, though, that people will always resist restrictions imposed by governments or corporations and will work to circumvent barriers to free access or communication (119).

In “Speak No Evil”, appearing in San Diego Law Review, Jennifer Shyu contends that American internet companies are ultimately complicit in Chinese government censorship and prosecution of dissidents. The House Committee on International Relations invited executives from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Cisco Systems and asked them to account for their roles in this. At the end of the hearing, the House proposed the Global Online Freedom  Act which would seek to prevent American companies from being involved in the state-sponsored censorship of other countries (214). To do business in China, however, companies must comply with their internet censorship laws.

Internet censorship, though, is not merely an issue with foreign or autocratic governments. It happens in America, as well. In “Orwell’s Armchair”, an article in The University of Chicago Law Review, Derek Bambauer examines the phenomenon. After Supreme Court decisions invalidating the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) and the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), soft censorship has largely replaced hard censorship. Government can still influence access to content via enforcement of unrelated laws as means of blocking material, persuading intermediaries to limit content, or the use of threats where the laws are insufficient to achieve the desired ends (867). Bambauer argues that since censorship is already occurring, it should be admitted to and codified (869). He doesn’t advocate censorship, but feels that the indirect variety is more harmful than something transparent, focused, and consistent with established ideals of access, fairness, and legality.

Many countries, as reported by Samuel Greengard in “Censored!” (published in Communications of the ACM), significantly censor the internet. China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are well known for the practice. According to Reporters Without Borders, some 118 people worldwide were in prison because of things they posted online at the time Greengard’s article was written (16). Though no country’s system of surveillance is complete, its existence has the desired effect of dissuading overt forms of protest.

Works Cited

Bambauer, D. (2012). Orwell’s armchair. The University of Chicago Law Review, 79(3), 863-944.

Diamond, L. & Plattner, M. (2012). Libertation Technology: social media and the struggle for democracy.        Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Greengard, S. (2010). Censored! Communications of the ACM, 53(7), 16-18.

Paliwala, A. (2013). Netizenship, security and freedom. International Review of Law, Computers & Technology, 27(1-2), 104-123.

Shyu, J. (2008). Speak no evil. San Diego Law Review, 45(1), 211-249.

Reading Response #4

The three readings for this week (“What Is ‘Evil’ to Google?” by Ian Bogost; “Big data: are we making a big mistake?” by Tim Harford; and “Are We Getting Privacy the Wrong Way Round?” by Kieron O’Hara) deal with the ethics and efficacy of what is called “big data”. The latter is a vague term, but is usually thought to mean “found data”, things such as web searches, credit card payments, or our mobile phone use. There is a tremendous amount of money involved and, inevitably, questions of what is right and wrong are raised.

In “What is ‘Evil to Google?”, Ian Bogost points out that “evil” is not defined. It is generally thought of as the disruption of (computational) progress and not the malice or collapse of morality that the word normally evokes. Google CEO Eric Schmidt rather flippantly says that “Evil is what Sergey says is evil.” Bogost thinks that, like “Be true to yourself”, it is “both tautology and narcissism.” If we can’t even agree on meaning, how are we ever to determine if it is happening or not? And the meaning that the tech industry normally ascribes to the word (undesirable; harmful; bad practice) is only concerned with the efficacy of the engineers and their company. It would be like defining crime solely by “if you get caught” and not the act itself. Thus, if the internet industry is only worried about itself, then it is up to us to determine what is good for us.

That is the main point of Kieron O’Hara’s “Are We Getting Privacy the Wrong Way Round?”. He takes issue with the received wisdom that whereas privacy benefits the individual, sharing benefits the community. Mark Zuckerberg echoes Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in his suggestion that people don’t crave (or, at least, insist on) as much privacy as in the past. O’Hara, as his section heading “Zuckerbollocks” might suggest, isn’t buying it. He maintains that privacy is a public good. Ultimately, he advocates a lot more transparency on how our data is used and insight into how decisions are then made about us. He posits that “We need tools and protocols to support control of our personal data.”

In “Big data: are we making a big mistake?”, Tim Harford dismisses the boosters of big data. The specific assertions he has problems with are that 1) data analysis produces uncannily accurate results; 2) every single data point can be captured, making old statistical sampling techniques obsolete; 3) there is no longer a need to worry about causation, because statistical correlation tells us all we need to know; and 4) statistical models aren’t needed anymore because “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.” He quotes another colorful Brit, who says, “complete bollocks. Absolute nonsense.” An American might say, “Not so fast, boys.” First, this found data is far more about correlation than causation. Meaning that Google searches about colds may very well predict cold epidemics correctly, but they could just as easily fail to do so. And these data sets have unknown biases. Target may think that you’re pregnant, based on your purchases. But, let’s say if you’re a man, Target’s data may not be as clever as all that. So, the human factor of insight and spotting and correcting obvious biases or mistakes is just as indispensable as ever. Data can help, but it can’t think or interpret itself.

Bogost, Ian. “What Is ‘Evil’ to Google?” The Atlantic. October 15 2013

Harford, Tim. “Big Data: Are We Making a Big Mistake?” Financial Times. March 28 2014.

O’Hara, Kieron. “Are we Getting Privacy the Wrong Way Round?” IEEE Internet Computing 17.4 (2013): 89-92.

DSL Projects Online review

Looking through the Digital Scholarship Lab projects, I was intrigued by many of them. The one that stood out for me was Voting America. When individual presidential elections are mapped, what may have seemed a relatively close election in the popular vote will look like a landslide when the electoral college votes are put in color on a map. In both the 1972 and 1984 elections, the Democrats won only one state. The idea of a two-party system is just an abstraction when one party wins 49 of 50 states. But, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s victories in 1932 and 1936 were almost as jarring to the eye: he managed to lose a very few states. You can also look at the county level and places where third parties did well. The same can be done with Congressional elections.

What I found even more interesting, though, were the population maps. These feature African American population density from 1840 to 2000 and White population density for the same years, with each dot representing 500 people. As expected, the dots multiplied for the simple reason that the absolute numbers of each group increased over the years. With African Americans, you can see the Great Migration northwards and, later, towards the West. Also, the increasing concentration in large cities is clearly visible, with dots becoming chunks. The White population had a marked expansion westwards. But, to cite a specific example, as late as 1896 the state of Oklahoma was still largely free of Whites (except for a concentration in the central part of the state). By 1900, however, they had settled the whole state.

What all of these maps do is raise questions that inspire reading into the causes of the visual evidence they display so well. What led the Black migration to the North, the White movement West, or the act that precipitated the (White) settling of Oklahoma? The first two questions are widely addressed in American history textbooks. But, the specific fate of Native Americans (first driven to Oklahoma and then losing out there, as well) is an area that I want to know more about. What was promised to them by the U.S. government? And why could those promises not be kept, even from one election cycle to another? The role of the DSL in both raising and helping to answer questions of this sort is great. There is also a section called Scholar’s Corner, where history professor’s analyze specific issues and their place in American history as a whole. DSL is definitely a resource that I will consult when there is time enough to really get into it and see where that takes me.

Digital Scholarship Lab. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://dsl.richmond.edu/

Reading Response #3

The thoughts of Dillon Ripley, in his “Introduction” from Knowledge Among Men, and those of Edward L. Ayers in “Does Digital Scholarship Have a Future?” frame our discussion of knowledge in different, but very helpful ways. Ripley was the secretary the Smithsonian Institution for 20 years and presided over a significant expansion of the Institution, both physically and in influence. He was a scholar and a distinguished ornithologist, but his beliefs about the acquisition of knowledge were not necessarily what one might expect. Ripley recognized that most people would rather read about objects than study them first hand. He thought that it was the consensus that truth can be learned second hand, by reading what someone else has written. This way of thinking is neglectful of objects and institutions composed of collections of objects.

Ayers noted that while academics have accepted the web and ensuing technologies in their lives and classrooms, their scholarship is remarkably unaltered by new technologies. So, the substance and form of their scholarship essentially looks like it has for decades. ‘Digital Scholarship’ describes discipline-based scholarship that is produced with digital tools and in a digital form. Ayers feels that digital scholarship should focus on things that can’t be done on paper. But, to remain scholarship, it needs to make scholarly arguments and interpret, explain, and explicate. It can gain a larger and more diverse audience, largely because it can be shared free of charge. As a result, it can be both a democratic service and push scholarship forward.

I thought that these readings attacked assumptions about how learning best happens from different perspectives. Ripley’s advocacy was almost for something pre-literate. He spoke of traditional cultures that “had the talent to be illiterate”, meaning that they adapted to their way of life through primarily touch, speech, and hearing. His suspicion was that we may have gotten too far away from that, that “…purely verbal people may come to mistake the representation of reality for reality itself.” Ayers, on the other hand, feels that scholars are not making enough use of the possibilities afforded by new technologies; that we’re not forging ahead boldly enough. But, whichever side they are coming from, one leaves with the impression that the current accepted way of transmitting and contributing to knowledge is by no means the only way, or even necessarily the most effective. This is worth further study, as the warnings are coming from men formed by and participating in traditional scholarship.

Ayers, Edward. “Does Digital Scholarship Have a Future?” Educause Review Online. August 5 2013.Web. <http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/does-digital-scholarship-have-future>.

Ripley, S. Dillon. “Introduction.” Knowledge among Men. Simon and Schuster, 1966. 7-12.

Annotated Bibliography

Internet Surveillance, Censorship, and Democracy: Annotated Bibliography

Bambauer, D. (2012). Orwell’s armchair. The University of Chicago Law Review, 79(3), 863-944.

After Supreme Court Decisions invalidating the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) and the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), soft censorship has largely replaced hard censorship. Government can still influence access to content via enforcement of unrelated laws as means of blocking material, persuading intermediaries to limit content, or the use of threats where the laws are insufficient to block something. The article argues that since censorship is already occurring it should be admitted to and codified. It doesn’t advocate censorship, but feels that the indirect variety is more harmful than something transparent, targeted, and consistent with established ideals of access, fairness, and legality. The title of the article suggests that the government is trying to ease people into acceptance of a censored environment through “soft” means.

Diamond, L. & Plattner, M. (2012). Liberation Technology: social media and the struggle for democracy. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

This book contrasts the experiences of different populations regarding the success of technology in winning democratic gains. For instance, while the internet and social media played a pivotal role in the toppling of autocratic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring protests of 2011, the same cannot be said of democracy advocates in China and Iran. This raises the issue of whether a more entrenched autocratic regime can successfully use technologies against a restive population. Control of the internet through censorship and surveillance allows governments to establish the boundaries of debate.

Fung, Brian (2014, September 19). World Wide Web inventor slams internet fast lanes: ‘It’s bribery.’ The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://washingtonpost.com

Timothy Berners-Lee, designer of the first Web browser and server, says that the internet was intentionally made to be decentralized, preventing any one party from dictating terms to all others. This ideal of net neutrality, of all content on the internet being treated equally, is being challenged by corporations that would benefit from preferring some content to others. By offering preferential treatment to some sites (faster speed, usually), the environment is created whereby content providers would feel the need to secure the faster speeds. This is where Berners-Lee’s use of “bribery” comes into play. Such a two-tiered internet would affect anyone unable or unwilling to pay the price dictated by the providers. Ultimately, everyone else stands to lose a benefit we’ve rather come to take for granted.

Greengard, S. (2010). Censored!. Communications of the ACM, 53(7), 16-18.

Many countries, notably China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, significantly censor the internet. While most often used to stifle dissent (according to Reporters Without Borders, some 118 people worldwide were in prison because of things they posted online at the time this article was written), censorship can also be used to boost or protect government-controlled businesses. Naturally, people try to circumvent such restrictions, but the price of getting caught can be very high. Such censorship is rarely, if ever, admitted to outright. Foreign visitors in Chinese hotels, for instance, will have unimpeded internet access, for fear that they would report censorship back home. The locals, though, have no such luck. On the bright side, censorship is usually sporadic and not systemic. There will always be more mice than there are cats.

Hart, J. (2007). Democracy in the age of the internet: An analysis of the net neutrality debates of 2006. Conference Papers- American Political Science Association, 1-24.

Net neutrality, a term first used by Professor Tim Wu of Columbia Law School in 2003 and published in 2003, has become a constant source of contention between various parties. In strictly political terms, Democrats are strongly for it, with Republicans being opposed. In the business world, the internet companies are for it, while the cable companies that provide internet service to consumers are opposed. The ideal of freedom and impartiality is pitted against the possibility of greater profits and the disincentive of upgrading broadband capabilities. The politicization of the issue suggests that the debate may also be about the role that the internet can and should play in our political process.

Jiang, Y. (2012). Cyber-nationalism in China. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.

Jiang explores China’s blogging community and addresses the issue of censorship that other writers took for granted. The truth may be more complicated. The Chinese themselves have a different tradition and view of censorship than the West and often resent the lecturing tone that accompanies accusations of Chinese censorship. This anger becomes fuel for Chinese nationalism, which the state ultimately benefits from. It is easier to censor people who deny that you are doing so or defend your right to. At the heart of the issue may be the assumption many Westerners have that if not for censorship, the Chinese people would rise up and demand regime change. They see this Western desire for political change in China from a defensive, or nationalist, perspective.

Joseph, Sarah. (2012). Social media, political change, and human rights. Boston College International & Comparative Law Review, 35(1), 145-188.

As in other articles I have cited, the role of social media in fueling political change is examined by Sarah Joseph. She also takes a look at the role social media played in the Arab Spring protests of 2011. But, the conclusion is not cut and dry. She cites one prominent argument that it has a decisive role in revolutions and one that dismisses such a causal role. And Joseph also includes the idea that social media is just a tool and not pro-democracy per se. In other words, it can be used to spread fear and hate as easily as more benevolent or uplifting messages. Terrorists seem as drawn to it as democratic activists. The medium is not always the message, it seems.

Nisbet, E., Pearce, K., & Stoycheff, E. (2012). Internet use and democratic demands: A multinational, multilevel model of internet use and citizen attitudes about democracy. Journal of Communication, 62(2), 249-265.

This article examines the role of internet use on the functioning (or pursuit) of democracy in various countries. First off, the attitudes of citizens to democracy is key. Are they consciously desiring more democracy? If the answer is affirmative, then the amount of internet use has a positive relationship to increase democratization. The internet is different from “one-way” media such as print, radio, and television, which provide information to an audience but do not allow for the level of feedback made easy by the web. As one might imagine, though, the impact that the internet has on democratization in an already fairly open society is greater than in a closed one that closely monitors the internet.

Paliwala, A. (2013). Netizenship, security and freedom. International Review of Law, Computers & Technology, 27(1-2), 104-123.

Paliwala examines the way in which citizen desire for a free and open internet is restricted by state monitoring and control. His particular focus in on the Arab Spring movements of 2011, where regimes such as that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt tried to hold onto power through restrictions on the internet and social media. He ultimately fell, but not all governments were toppled. The role of internet companies such as Google is also more ambiguous than many think. While supporting internet freedom in the abstract, internet companies often support state security concerns (or are intimidated by governments into doing so). Also, there will be different standards in different countries (for example, the U.S., China and the E.U. all have very different laws governing internet freedom). The author feels, though, that people will always resist restrictions imposed by governments or corporations and will work to circumvent barriers to free access or communication.

Sajuria, J. (2012). Is the internet changing our conception of democracy? An analysis of the internet use during protests and its effect on the perception of democracy. Conference Papers- American Political Science Association, 1-26.

People’s views on democracy can be altered by their use of the internet. The ultimate relevance of these views are the sense of legitimacy they give a government. There is also a difference between what people think of democracy as a general ideal and the specific way it is manifested (or not) in their particular society. One can be pro-democracy, but against the democratically elected government in power. The internet’s role in this is the ability it affords opponents or protesters to communicate with each other and mobilize. This often leads to a more horizontal, or non-hierachical, ideal of democracy. The opportunity to do democracy, to participate as a democrat, influences one’s views on power.

Shyu, J. (2008). Speak no evil. San Diego Law Review, 45(1), 211-249.

American internet companies are ultimately complicit in Chinese government censorship and prosecution of dissidents. The House Committee on International Relations invited executives from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Cisco Systems and asked them to account for their roles in this. At the end of the hearing, the House proposed the Global Online Freedom Act which would seek to prevent American companies from being involved in the state-sponsored censorship of other countries. This raises the issue of whether American companies should be bound to American laws or the laws of the countries they do business in. One practical consideration is that to do business in China, companies must comply with their internet censorship laws. The conflict of democratic ideals and commerce is an interesting one to watch played out in the real world.