Thursday, December 25, 2014

Why You Think the Internet Stinks Now

I have been active on the Internet since 1990. In those days, we had Usenet at the university and moderated private bulletin board systems (FidoNet) for amateur fun. This makes me four Internet generations ago, if we assume that an Internet generation is about five years, rather than twenty-five.

Indulge with me in nostalgia. Before the FCC decided to sell bandwidth to the .com top level domain, the Internet was a place of low or no graphics, where users were almost exclusively .edu accounts (with a few .sys, .mil, and .gov), and most accounts were a first initial and last name (mine being misspelled by the IT people at my U, so I had anonymity even then). HTML sites were usually navigated by Lynx or one of the other text-only Unix based clients. Since the entire endeavor was text on slow dial up connections or fast connections on computers with monochrome displays, it was an empire of words subordinated to either a group's activity (e.g. rec.bicycle) or a group's academic research. University and government workers created massive amounts of free information, and the early HTML systems were ways to link information infinitely. People spoke of beginning with an interesting note in the newspaper, clicking on an odd term, following to a strange fact, seeing a strange name, and spending hours “surfing” from site to site, but all of this was via reading.

When America Online and CompuServe opened their closed systems to the Internet, everything changed. There were floods of new users who reflected average America. While many snobs thought that “killed” the Internet, it was, instead, the underlying decision to commercialize the Internet, combined with hypertext, that turned the Internet into today's creature of clicks and “eyeballs.

By 1996, and certainly by 2001, most “Internet” users only knew the world wide web, not Usenet, not discussion. The world wide web itself “was” a series of commercially profitable sites, with the last of the .edu created purchased (e.g., created by Columbia University library to make all of its Columbia UP reference works available for free, was sold, then resold) or forgotten. University server sites providing information became gradually invisible to average users because they went unadvertised, and “the web” was no longer a place where persons “surfed” on an adventure of information. Certainly by the time the "tech bubble" burst, each website invested in keeping visitors on sites, in sites, and preventing outside linkages. Websites became more pictographic, with an increase in sensationalism, as the same pressures that turned superabundant newspapers in 1900 into the Yellow Press created increasingly narrow and vertical forms of discourse (“vertical” refers to information that is recursive and closed, in this case). What had been peer groups in conversation became interest groups engaged in a tailored retail experience. 

“Friendster” and “MySpace” were non-profit simulacra of the older Internet. They succeeded, to the degree they did, by offering like-minded cultures and subcultures. (There have been other simulations since, including Reddit.) However, when their host/software companies offered stock, they were purchased by media corporations that, as early as 1998, had been imagining an Internet/cable vehicle whereby visitors would be captive, ordering television shows, movies, books, radio, and the rest on an a la carte basis by the Internet. '

Neither the websites nor the delivery technologies were in place for such visions to be realized. (This vision, and its failure, was paradoxically critical to the collapse of Enron. The Amazon Kindle/Fire is getting very close to its realization today, according to critics. If they can "own the pipeline" and the store and the production, then the consumer choice is finally completely eliminated -- or "business uncertainty is minimized," if you prefer.)

 I'm no Electronic Frontier Foundation warrior or GNU freak. I haven't the money to be the first or the skills to be the second. I did join Wikipedia in 2003, though. My frustrations with it were that it was not dedicated to a common project of construction as much as it was a "community." My criticisms of capital in technology are not propelled by idealism or ideology. They are directed solely at an analysis of the deterioration of academic freedom and investigation because of a capitalized web.

One thing I've noticed is that a genuine analysis of technology cannot be found under the title of "technology" writing. For about ten years, I noticed that the writing about computer technology, in particular, fell into one of two camps. Either a new device or program was the Swiss Army Knife of Heaven -- able to turn every student into a buddha and genius -- or the next device or program will free the Fenris wolf and extinguish the sun for once and all. "Tech" writers are either reviewers or advocates. Sometimes, even worse, they're salesmen.

Look, capitalized websites serve capital. I get it. That's just and right. But non-capitalized websites are now all but invisible, especially since Facebook learned from MyFace's failure and AOL's persistence and began to fold in a whole universe of outside websites into its "you're still on Facebook" experience. Regular people are beginning, just beginning, to realize one of the more cynical web "memes": If you're not paying for the product, then you are the product.

All of the commercial Internet is riding on public infrastructure. Ask AT&T how it feels about cable companies getting access to "their" infrastructure. Well, how should we feel, then, about commercialized Internet services working against the public's interests or the nation's constitution? EU investigators found out that a person who creates a Facebook account and immediately deletes it generations twenty thousand pages of data that Facebook does not delete. That, after all, is their data.

Windows 8.1 is roping all its users into Xbox Live accounts and beaming geo-location to Microsoft. Apple does that with iTunes. This is without even talking about a smart phone. Any person who owns such a thing is foolish, in my opinion (as a phone, it's a phone, but as a computer, is it equal to a laptop? as an mp3 player is it equal to even a Walkman? doesn't it offer imitations of a dozen functions but at inferior performance, and all with the solitary advantage of fitting in a pocket?). I'm sure you have already read that the new iPhone made news for not including a backdoor into user encrypted data for NSA and FBI. 

Going onto Google is a losing proposition. It geolocates the browser. After a few searches, Google begins to tailor results to "customize the web experience." It predicts the sorts of results this user wants. It discounts, for example, "old" web pages -- so if you're looking for a news story from 2004, you won't find it, because Google simply doesn't want that to show up, because "normal people" don't search for old information. A few more searches, and the results are "customized more." 

Google's search is used by Bing, by the way. Facebook will tailor search results and "help" the user extensively as well. 

Doesn't that scare you? Don't you see why that's the end of the world?

The limitations are being made, in the case of Amazon, Facebook, and others, on the basis of likely purchases, not what one wishes. In the case of Google, it's made on the basis of what you have been interested in before. In other words, these merchants are making decisions about the sorts of questions you can ask, and answers you can get, on the basis of likely sales, likely happiness, not answers, not knowledge, not growth.

As an academic, I have to have open searches, because the Internet has consumed the library. Once that library has then become a public library with card catalogs assembled by advertisers, whole floors of the stacks go missing. The only answer to it is yet more capital outlays in the form of JSTOR and EBSCO subscription services. 

Meanwhile, the Facebooking of conversation has pushed conversation into interest groups, where like meet like, the agreed hear from the confirmed. That is guaranteed to be sterile or frenetic.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Let's change the rules

My only real rule, and it's about me and for me, so I don't have to justify it before any tribunal, is that I won't talk about myself on this blog. I'm fully aware that there is no other subject, if we trace the matter analytically through hoop after hoop, but you can take your hoop and put it in your nose. The simple fact is that I don't like me. I don't find me interesting. More, I loathe "bloggers" who write about the miracle of their daily lives. While these verminous scourges are less common these days, when I began here, they had not yet found their Facebook selfy Reddit Instagram Pintrest nirvana.

I recognize that I have an audience of perhaps two, thinking optimistically. I have made this so.

I want to change the rules a little. I want to talk about the vitreous that blocks me, even if it isn't universal. For example, anyone who reads all of this blog gets the impression that it is written by someone with clinical depression. That makes it nothing special. My last (look down) commented on the fact that this is just how things are, and talking about it might be profoundly useless. However, today I decided to make a play list for my funeral. I didn't do that because I'm planning on hastening the pale visitor's conquest, but because I've gotten a couple of cancers. That's no big deal, except that I'm paid so little that some months mean hunger (really), and our insurance just pushed the deductible from $3,000 to $5,000. I just, in essence, got a $5,000 pay cut.

The IRS has chased me around and taken this month's paycheck. The reason is that my mother borrowed against a life insurance policy of mine some fourteen years ago. The insurance company made sure that the premiums would never go to repay the loan, and therefore the policy would die. When it did, the company reported that I had gotten $5,000 in "income." I, of course, had gotten not a cent. My mother had. She's dead. I don't blame the taxmen. I blame the insurance industry that wants old life insurance policies to die, because they're too cheap. Nevertheless, I owed $1,000 on the "profit" I had made when the policy died. I barely get $1,000 a month, so I wasn't exactly able to pay them from my excess funds.

There's good news, though. If I owed $10,000 or more, there is a "Fresh Start Initiative" to take care of me to renegotiate! But owing $1000? Well, hell, boy, everyone can afford to pay that!

I've been working at a job for 10 years where I am making $5,000 less per year than the starting pay for my position.

Still, money is not something I think about until I have to. I hate money. I hate the people who allow money to carry value. It is, after all, the most abstracted and irrational unit in the world. It is unconnected to morality in the extreme. It is unconnected to work nearly as far. The construction worker works much more than the stock trader, but the stock trader makes an obscenity of ejaculating money, while the construction worker makes a wage and destroys his body while listening to Rush Limbaugh and Neil Boors.

My college president thought it would be a good idea if all of us provided our Facebook profiles to him for a new intranet (that would be linked to the school's Facebook page. . . I'll let you figure that one out). We were also supposed to explain our conversion experiences. When did we realize that Jesus was Lord? What book or preacher was most important to us?

"Consider the lilies of the field. They spin not, nor do they weave...."

I do not do Facebook. I never will. I have Reasons. I put "A Poor Man's House" by Patty Griffin on my funeral play list. My first song is "On the Nickel," because it says, "If you chew tobacco, and never comb your hair," which sets out two of my conditionals.

I took a long time, but I finally came up with a response to the president's request. He wanted to know, so I decided I should tell him. I wrote two documents. I'll share them here, I guess. Maybe I won't. One is the actual story of how I lost my faith thanks to the evangelical movement and its emphasis on altar calls. I came back to it later and discovered a quiet, certain, faith. I never, in the document, point out the problems with the theology and polity that this college president and his new trustees embrace. I only tell the truth. Then I turned in a second document and explained why Facebook and all of the commercialized web is the destruction of academic inquiry.

This second one is boring as a sand pudding. I will post it here.

The point is that we once had a volunteer Internet, where discussion was organized by joint projects or activities. We exchanged that for interest groups and consumer subsets under Facebook or one of the others -- all designed as being conversation under the power of sale.

I will offer one of my blogs of Ideas next.

I remember the t-shirt from 1991: "The Internet's Full: Go Away!" That was a response to the "AOLamers." I thought the snobs were wrong then, and I was right, but I thought the Internet had been destroyed then, and I was right about that, too. In 1993-4, I thought the invasion of graphics into websites was the problem. I was feeling a symptom. The truth is that the decision to sell bandwidth to .com meant that, at best, the "real" Internet of Usenet days would exist only in an underpopulated, unadvertised, esoteric bubble, but "the web" would become a midway of freakshows, where the marks are the exhibits.