Tag Archives: Internet Philosophy

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Google’s Sochi Rainbow Doodle is Not All That

My social media stream is full of people praising Google for taking a ‘brave’ stand against the Russian state.  Why?  Well, today’s Google Doodle is a rainbow themed Winter Olympics Graphic.

The Russian Government has recently passed blasphemy laws and other measures that restrict freedom of expression.  They have also passed a ‘gay propaganda’ law which bans discussion of homosexuality around minors – an attack on the already embattled homosexual community in Russia.
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Quoted in the Washington Post

I’m delighted to have spoken to the Washington Post for an article about the Twitter abuse furore:

“The worry is that the abuse button will be abused,” said Robert Sharp, a spokesman for English PEN, a literary group that promotes freedom of expression. “It puts the power of censorship into the hands of those who would be offended, which is fine when it’s a rape threat. But the same technology will be used by Christians to censor atheists, used by atheists to censor Christians, and so on.”

Credit where its due: Tom Phillips’ article on theTwitter abuse button was fresh in my mind when I spoke to the WaPo journalist.  And there’s a huge body of work out there on the issue of ‘offence’ as a trigger for censorship.  My turn of phrase “those who would be offended” is not natural speech, but its the sort of thing that springs to mind when you’ve been marinated in these kinds of arguments.

How we wake up to the misogyny in our midst

This post by sexologist Jill McDeviitt is quite astonishing. It chronicles her rage at being sent an entirely inappropriate e-mail by a man she had never met, and his subsequent approach to her parents when she threatened to publish the e-mail on her blog.

It is yet another story of how men send women inappropriate, disgusting and/or downright illegal messages over the Internet – an issue that we have been discussing all week.

The part of McDevitt’s post that I found particularly revelatory is when she describes how her parents behaved, when the man contacted them (he was the husband of someone who worked with Jill’s step-mother):

I’m left to marvel not just at your individual misogyny, but also the infantilizing sexism that exists in the back corners and in the cobwebs of the brains of everyone involved.

Receiving a repugnant email from you, a strange man, is bad enough. But what makes this case so compelling is how you were able to entangle my normally feminist and self-aware family, illuminating just how deep tolerance of predatory men goes in our society.

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Notes on PRISM, privacy and surveillance

I have been away this week and unable to write anything on the PRISM revelations that have dominated the news over the past few days.  Here are a few notes and links in lieu of something more rounded.

At ORGcon, I did preface my remarks during the ‘free speech online in the UK’ panel to note that the right to free speech includes the right not to be surveilled.  If you think your conversations are being monitored, then you are not going to speak as freely as you may wish.  (I will post a longer reflection on the ORGcon discussion soon).

This week I did read an article by Daniel Solove in the Chronicle of Higher Education which summarises variations on the “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” argument for surveillance. It’s obviously extremely relevant given recent revelations surrounding the US Government’s PRISM programme.

Solove’s article is a frustrating read, because the arguments against surveillance are, like many human rights issues, bound up in ‘slippery slope’ or ‘boiling frog’ concepts that tend not to resonate with ordinary people. Public interest (and outrage) at privacy invasions only occur when rare real-life examples manifest themselves, as when the damage has already been done (the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone being the prime example).  Liberally minded people who oppose surveillance and privacy intrusions on principle need more sound-bites to compete with “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”. Solove lists a few candidates – “Why do you have curtains, then?” is probably the best retort. Continue reading

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I was using WordPress before it was cool

Yesterday was the 10th birthday of WordPress, the blogging platform from which these words that you are reading are delivered to your glowing rectangle.1 Here is an interesting infographic, showing how dominant the software has become.

WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg has typed a love letter to his anthropomorphised project.

I’ve been using WordPress since September 2005, or eighty percent of the platform’s lifetime.  I have used every version of the software since the antiquated version 1.5.  When I began blogging, WordPress had been downloaded 538,514 times.  According to the infographic, that number has risen to more than 66 million.  This puts me comfortably into the earliest 1% of users.  I was using WordPress before it was cool.

When I began, the default Kubrick design had only just been introduced, and there was even an option to activate an older ‘classic’ template.  There were no options for uploading images (you had to do that via FTP or ‘hotlink’ from an existing image online) or integration with social media, and there was no way to change the look and feel of the site unless you knew some CSS and PHP.

However, the two core pieces of functionality that make WordPress so useful were already in place back in 2005 - themes and plugins.  By uploading small pieces of stand-alone code, you could change the look (themes) or functionality (plugins) of the site without messing with the core code.  That was not a unique feature of WordPress, but I am sure that the simplicity of the way it was implemented contributed to its success.

That, and the fact that WordPress is OpenSource, meaning anyone can edit the code and create themes and plug-ins.  I was very impressed when, in 2010, Mullenweg transferred ownership of the WordPress trademark to a non-for-profit company, meaning the platform cannot be sold to an Internet giant, as Tumblr was last week.

Other sites in which I have a hand that use the WordPress platform include The LIP Magazine archive, The Word of an Insignificant Woman, Liberal Conspiracy, and English PEN.



1.  Unless, of course, you’re reading this at some point in the near or far future when I have, in an ironic twist, abandoned WordPress for some other software and imported all my old posts.

Notes on design trends for long-form and creative writing

My virtual meeting with Sam has prompted a meandering journey through a few websites dedicated to the stylish presentation of text. I thought I would note the links in one place: first, merely to note the trend; and second because it will aid discussions with colleagues over how to present our own literary content on the fantastic PEN Atlas.

First: Medium is a relatively new site created by Twitter founder Evan Williams. Writers can create beautiful looking stories and essays very quickly. The site has the clean and spacious aesthetic that has become fashionable recently. Design led by the need for readbility and usability on tablets, mobile phones, while also providing a reading experience on desktop and laptop monitors that is easy on the eye. I was delighted that my request for an early-bird account was granted by Medium’s Director of Content, Kate Lee, and I have just uploaded a story to the site to try out the composition features.

You can read ‘Northern Line Lovers‘ on Medium (and if you like the story, please hit the ‘recommend’ button below the text). I think I will post my other ‘Ficciones‘ there at some point. Continue reading

To 'publish' means giving up control

I had not read the term ‘fauxtroversy’ before now, but I think Dorian Lynskey uses it perfectly in his New Statesman article about the Kent Youth Commissioner Paris Brown. 17 year-old Paris has been forced to resign from her appointment, following ‘exposure’ of inappropriate tweets… Some written years ago. The views expressed would be surprising coming from the feed of, ooh, let us say, a thirty-something blogger and campaigner for PEN. But not from a young teenager. Outbursts, inarticulacy, immature, ill-thought-out and prejudiced views are as much a part of adolescence as spots, puberty, resentment of your parents, and fancying inappropriate, unattainable people.

The great thing about voicing ridiculous and ill-considered political views, is that people challenge them. There is nothing like being scrutinised on a stupid, unsophisticated political position to realise that life and politics are nuanced and complex.

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Tap Essays: Native Internet Art

http://twitter.com/samatlounge/status/320275455842332673

I enjoyed this short essay promoting Lauren Leto’s book. It’s honest and (I assume) true to the book it seeks to promote.

It’s also presented in an interesting manner, native to the digital world. I wonder if would be as engaging if it were on a couple of pages (either printed or HTML). Probably not.

This type of presentation is not new. Last year Robin Sloane created a ‘tap essay’ called Fish that was published as an iPhone app. Like Leto’s essay, there is no back button, which (according to this Wired review by David Dobbs) provokes the reader to read more closely.

I would say this is another type of native Internet art… although the tap essay format is analogous to picture books that have few words to a page, or stylised essays like Marshall Mcluhan’s The Medium is the Massage. Continue reading

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Google Reader is Dead, Long Live RSS

Irritatingly, Google Reader is to be discontinued. It’s an RSS reader web app, which over the past few years has become a kind of industry standard. I use it to read blogs, but others fell in love with it as a social network. Many people have said that Google have made a huge mistake in sacrificing an organic social network in favour of the failing, centrally planned monstrosity that is Google+.

Despite the fact I use Google Reader a lot, I think it’s demise is probably a good thing. Within hours of the announcement there were plenty of posts published, telling me about alternatives like Feedly or Newsblur. And I was won over by Marco Armet (creator of the brilliant Istapaper) who said:

Now, we’ll be forced to fill the hole that Reader will leave behind, and there’s no immediately obvious alternative. We’re finally likely to see substantial innovation and competition in RSS desktop apps and sync platforms for the first time in almost a decade. … It may suck in the interim before great alternatives mature and become widely supported, but in the long run, trust me: this is excellent news.

There is one more thing: Google Reader managed to force a large chunk of the RSS feeds through a single, cloud-based server run by a single company. This was bad. Many of the reading apps out there were not really RSS readers. They were just Google Reader readers!

If you have read any of the writings of Dave Winer (credited with inventing RSS), you will know that one of its virtues is that it is a decentralised tool for publishing. Anyone can publish a feed for their website (or for anything application or machine, it just needs to generate XML information about what it is doing). Anyone can subscribe to that RSS page. It makes no sense for an intermediary like Google to be in the middle of that relationship.

Torrent technology is similarly decentralised. Information is saved in multiple places at once, seeded my more than one person. Users connect directly with each other, unmediated by what a particular web company chooses to let you see or download.  These technologies are in the decentralised, democratising spirit of the Internet, of users communicating directly with each other, without interfernce from a Government or Corporate behemoth that monitors that communication, and imposes its own restrictions on what can or cannot be communicated.