World War 3.0

Michael Joseph Gross, in Vanity Fair, writes on the inevitable war for the internet:

The War for the Internet was inevitable—a time bomb built into its creation. The war grows out of tensions that came to a head as the Internet grew to serve populations far beyond those for which it was designed. Originally built to supplement the analog interactions among American soldiers and scientists who knew one another off­-line, the Internet was established on a bedrock of trust: trust that people were who they said they were, and trust that information would be handled according to existing social and legal norms. That foundation of trust crumbled as the Internet expanded. The system is now approaching a state of crisis on four main fronts.

The first is sovereignty: by definition, a boundary-less system flouts geography and challenges the power of nation-states. The second is piracy and intellectual property: information wants to be free, as the hoary saying goes, but rights-holders want to be paid and protected. The third is privacy: online anonymity allows for creativity and political dissent, but it also gives cover to disruptive and criminal behavior—and much of what Internet users believe they do anonymously online can be tracked and tied to people’s real-world identities. The fourth is security: free access to an open Internet makes users vulnerable to various kinds of hacking, including corporate and government espionage, personal surveillance, the hijacking of Web traffic, and remote manipulation of computer-controlled military and industrial processes.

On boundaries on the internet:

Freedom in human society, by definition, includes some concept of bound­a­ries. Freedom on the Internet has, thus far, lacked any real concept of boundaries. But boundaries are being invented. It seems certain that nations, corporations, or both will create more zones on the Internet where all who enter will have to prove their real-world identities. Google and Facebook are already moving in this direction. The most heavy-handed suggestions entail a virtual passport or ID, which could include biometric data.

Some see stringent, universal, and mandatory authentication of identity as a commonsense solution to a number of the Internet’s biggest problems. If all of our alter egos were brought into line with our analog selves, wouldn’t we all behave better? Wouldn’t online criminals stop using the cloak of anonymity to steal from and spy on people? Wouldn’t people pay for the books, music, movies, and newspapers that many now take for free?

A thought provoking read.

A Mistaken Identity on the Internet

Rose Agree was a librarian most of her life. But a Wikipedia entry had conflated some of Ms. Agree’s biography with that of an aging pornographic movie star with the same name:

Mistaken identity is an occupational hazard for people who are mentioned even fleetingly on the Internet. Still, consider Peter Agree’s shock when he searched the Web for references to his mother.

“The references I turned up were to ‘Rose Agree, geriatric porn star,’ ” said Mr. Agree, the editor in chief of the University of Pennsylvania Press. “Wikipedia had a biographical entry for this person, and to my horror it fused elements of my mother’s biography, including her having been a librarian on Long Island.”

Mr. Agree’s wife, Kathy Peiss, who headed the history department at Penn, contacted Wikipedia, the self-policing open source encyclopedia, which dutifully removed the entry along with a photograph. But it was too late. The Long Island librarian and the geriatric porn star had been irreversibly conflated. The librarian turned pornographic movie star took on a life of her own.

Two years ago, a Columbia undergraduate wrote to Professor Peiss about a book that she had edited. It was titled “Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality” and was dedicated to her mother-in-law. In retrospect, Rose Agree’s experience with the Internet might have merited a whole chapter.

The story is certainly not unique, but it is interesting how one’s biography can take a life of its own on the internet.

Internet Speeds Around the World

The numbers guy at the WSJ has a great post profiling how internet speeds around the world vary. More importantly, many consumers aren’t aware of what they’re actually getting from their internet service provider.

Government regulators in several countries are on speed patrol, though, and they have discovered that providers’ performance often fails to match their ads. For consumers, that could mean more time spent waiting for video to buffer, for photos to load, and for online games to continue.

This graphic is very informative. The gist:

1) Lithuania has the fastest internet in the world, clocking in at an average of 31.89 mbps. Also, the actual speed is very close to the promised speed (99.6% reliability).

2) The tiny nation of Iceland has the 10th fastest internet speed in the world, with an average of 21.9 mbps. However, the reliability of the advertised rate to the actual rate is much lower than that of Lithuania at 70.9%.

3) The United States has the 33rd fastest internet speed in the world, with an average speed of 12.29 mbps. The reliability rate is 93.6%.

4) Israel has a very high (99.6%) rate of advertised vs. actual speed, but it’s ranked at number 56 in the world with an average speed of 7.15 mbps.

5) Finally, Greece’s woes aren’t just tied to their economy. They have an abysmal 44.4% rate for promised vs. delivered internet speed, which clocks in at 6.05 mbps, or number 66 in the world.

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What’s your internet speed where you live? And who’s your internet service provider?

Is Internet Access a Basic Human Right?

Vinton Cerf, a fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, begins this op-ed by expounding on the importance of the Internet, but concludes that Internet access is not a human right:

It is no surprise, then, that the protests have raised questions about whether Internet access is or should be a civil or human right. The issue is particularly acute in countries whose governments clamped down on Internet access in an attempt to quell the protesters. In June, citing the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, a report by the United Nations’ special rapporteur went so far as to declare that the Internet had “become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights.” Over the past few years, courts and parliaments in countries like France and Estonia have pronounced Internet access a human right.

But that argument, however well meaning, misses a larger point: technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.

The best way to characterize human rights is to identify the outcomes that we are trying to ensure. These include critical freedoms like freedom of speech and freedom of access to information — and those are not necessarily bound to any particular technology at any particular time. Indeed, even the United Nations report, which was widely hailed as declaring Internet access a human right, acknowledged that the Internet was valuable as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.

By similar logic, Cerf explains that Internet access is just a tool for obtaining something else more important, and shouldn’t be considered a civil right either (though the case for Internet as a civil right is stronger than that of a human right, he concedes).

Cerf’s argument is in opposition to United Nations, which released a report in June of 2011, citing Internet as a basic human right.

On Slowing Down

Some startling statistics about our obsession with technology:

The average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen, Nicholas Carr notes in his eye-opening book “The Shallows,” in part because the number of hours American adults spent online doubled between 2005 and 2009 (and the number of hours spent in front of a TV screen, often simultaneously, is also steadily increasing).

The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day, though one girl in Sacramento managed to handle an average of 10,000 every 24 hours for a month. Since luxury, as any economist will tell you, is a function of scarcity, the children of tomorrow, I heard myself tell the marketers in Singapore, will crave nothing more than freedom, if only for a short while, from all the blinking machines, streaming videos and scrolling headlines that leave them feeling empty and too full all at once.

That’s from an op-ed “The Joy of Quiet” by Pico Iyer, who also notes that there are hotels that cite lack of access to internet and television as a selling point:

I noticed that those who part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in “black-hole resorts,” which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.

In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight.

In 2011, I’ve had the chance to unwind and go internet-free for a few days (at least several independent occasions). One of my resolutions for the coming year is to have more days where I unwind and slow down.

Vision of the Internet from 1982

An archived article at The New York Times from 1982 envisages the internet:

The report suggests that one-way and two-way home information systems, called teletext and videotex, will penetrate deeply into daily life, with an effect on society as profound as those of the automobile and commercial television earlier in this century.

It conjured a vision, at once appealing and threatening, of a style of life defined and controlled by videotex terminals throughout the house.

As a consequence, the report envisioned this kind of American home by the year 1998: ”Family life is not limited to meals, weekend outings, and oncea-year vacations. Instead of being the glue that holds things together so that family members can do all those other things they’re expected to do – like work, school, and community gatherings -the family is the unit that does those other things, and the home is the place where they get done. Like the term ‘cottage industry,’ this view might seem to reflect a previous era when family trades were passed down from generation to generation, and children apprenticed to their parents. In the ‘electronic cottage,’ however, one electronic ‘tool kit’ can support many information production trades.”

I’ve never heard of the “videotex” industry before:

The study focused on the emerging videotex industry, formed by the marriage of two older technologies, communications and computing. It estimated that 40 percent of American households will have two-way videotex service by the end of the century. By comparison, it took television 16 years to penetrate 90 percent of households from the time commercial service was begun. 

Some incredibly prescient predictions here:

The home will double as a place of employment, with men and women conducting much of their work at the computer terminal. This will affect both the architecture and location of the home. It will also blur the distinction between places of residence and places of business, with uncertain effects on zoning, travel patterns and neighborhoods.

Home-based shopping will permit consumers to control manufacturing directly, ordering exactly what they need for ”production on demand.”

Interesting to dig up archive articles like this, no?

William Deresiewicz: On Solitude and Leadership

The best piece of writing/advice I have read this week comes courtesy of The American Scholar; it is a lecture delivered by William Deresiewicz (formerly a professor of English at Yale University) to a plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009.

The lecture explores a number of ideas: how we think, what it takes to be a leader, and even the influence of Twitter/Facebook in our lives. A few of my favorite passages are below (keep in mind that I always recommend reading articles in their entirety, but if you want the general idea, see below).

What does it take to be a leader?

So I began to wonder…what leadership really consists of. My students, like you, were energetic, accomplished, smart, and often ferociously ambitious, but was that enough to make them leaders? Most of them, as much as I liked and even admired them, certainly didn’t seem to me like  leaders. Does being a leader, I wondered, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight As make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons or great novelists or great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders. Leadership and aptitude, leadership and achievement, leadership and even ex­cellence have to be different things, otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning. And it seemed to me that that had to be especially true of the kind of excellence I saw in the students around me.

I loved this paragraph on students described as “excellent sheep” (I saw quite a few of these in my high school and college years):

So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life. They would come back for their 25th reunion as a partner at White & Case, or an attending physician at Mass General, or an assistant secretary in the Department of State.

Why is there a crisis of leadership in America?

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision. [emphases mine]

There’s a great case study in General David Petraeus in the lecture. On his leadership:

No, what makes him a thinker—and a leader—is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself. And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors. Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.

This is the paragraph that stuck with me. What exactly is meant by thinking? William Deresiewicz’s explanation:

Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

An excellent point that the first thought isn’t one’s own:

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

William Deresiewicz take on Facebook, Twitter, and even The New York Times as distractions:

You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself.

I’ve made this argument before in my previous post (does the Internet make us dumber or smarter? I claimed that it makes us more distracted). The question is: what can we do to get away from all this distraction in our lives? This is the importance of solitude:

So it’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within—without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.

There is one passage with which I disagree:

Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself.

I think “marinating” in other people’s thoughts helps me develop my own: I probe what I already know, what I believe in, and what I question by examining what others have to offer. Of course, it is important to take what anyone says with an inquisitive (some would say skeptical) mind.

Finally, an excellent point on why it’s important to read books:

So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself.

Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today. Even if they merely reflect the conventional wisdom of their own day, they say something different from what you hear all the time. But the great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today.

The goal of this blog has been to profile the books I’ve read in 2010. Over the last few months, I’ve shifted more to profiling interesting articles I have found on the web. It seems to me people are less interested in reading book reviews compared to reading interesting articles on the web (at least, that’s my interpretation; let me know if you think otherwise). I absolutely hope you read the entire lecture. It’s one of the most lucid pieces of writing I have read in a while.

Links of the Day (01/12/10)

Two must-read posts from today, one slightly humorous and the other much less so.

(1) “Conan O’Brien Says He Won’t Host ‘Tonight Show’ After Leno” [New York Times] – Conan came out with a marvelous statement saying that hosting The Tonight Show after midnight will “will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.” The statement is so bold and refreshing that perhaps he should have started the statement with “Inhabitants of the Universe” rather than the more mundane “People of Earth.”

(2) “A New Approach to China” [Official Google Blog] – in this groundbreaking post, Google outlines a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” on their infrastructure coming from China. The entire post is a must-read, and the conclusion cannot be missed:

We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

Robert Scoble called it the “bravest corporate move I’ve ever seen a tech company make.” I think it’s a very strong statement, but we shall see how Google actually responds in the coming weeks.

Update: Another worthy reaction to the Google news comes via Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?. Jeff Jarvis writes:

I have been consistent in my criticism of Google’s actions in China. And so now I have not choice but to become even more of a fanboy. I applaud Google for finally standing up to the Chinese dictatorship and for free speech.

Will the Chinese people revolt at losing Google? We can only hope. Will other companies now have to hesitate before doing the dictators’ bidding? We can only hope. Will Google be punished by Wall Street? It probably will. But as I’ve argued, we should hope that Google’s pledge, Don’t be evil, will one day be chiseled over the doors of Wall Street.