Tag Archives: Internet Philosophy

tweetsfromtahrir

Tweets from Tahrir

I am surprised I missed this as the time: Tweets from Tahrir. Its a compilation of tweets from Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring uprisings, edited by Nadia Idle and Alex Nunns.  During the protests I suggested that the protestors in ‘the world’s biggest think-tank’ publish their hopes for the future of Egypt and that new technologies could help them do it very quickly.  Idle and Nunns appear to have got this precise project published within a month.

This book obviously owes something to James Bridle’s TweetBook.  It is also a companion to books like We Are Iran and Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution, two collections drawn from blogs and activists, and supported by English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme.

Press regulation and the Internet's "ethical vacuum"

Following the Royal Charter announcement earlier this week, there has been much concern over how the new system for press regulation will affect bloggers.  English PEN expressed concerns about this immediately after the Leveson Report was published.  On Labour List, Mark Fergerson called the Internet ‘The Elephant in the Room‘ and in the Guardian, Emily Bell said the Royal Charter was ‘illiterate‘ about the Internet.  Since this problem arises from the lack of discussion about the Internet in the Leveson Report, it is worth revisiting that document to see what Leveson actually said.

It is technically wrong to say that Leveson only devotes one page to the Internet in his entire 2,000 page report.  In Volume I, pages 164 to 178 are given over to describing part of the online publishing ecosystem – Huffington Post, Popbitch, and Guido Fawkes.  However, there are only five paragraphs of actual analysis on the Internet, on pages 736-37 (Volume II).  Leveson says:

Many editors and commentators have argued that the burgeoning of the internet is likely to render irrelevant much of the work of the Inquiry even assuming that it has not already done so. If, for example, celebrity X’s privacy is violated online, then the metaphorical cat is well out of the bag, and there is no reason why open season should not exist in the printed media. …

In my view, this argument is flawed for two reasons. … the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’. This is not to say for one moment that everything on the internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross miischaracterisation of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional. The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.

The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct.

This, in a nutshell, is the justification of focusing on regulating the tradition print media, and not on the wider publishing ecosystem.  Superficially, Lord Justice Leveson’s reasoning seems persuasive, but I think he mistakes precisely what ‘freedom of the press’ actually is.  Writing in the New Statesman last July (i.e. before Leveson reported), legal blogger David Allen Green explained the term:

The “press” to which it refers is often identified by many in England with the big-P Press of Fleet Street: the professional journalists who have “press cards” and go along to “press awards” …  But this may not be the best way of understanding the term.  In fact, the expression “freedom of the press” significantly predates the existence of the modern newspaper industry, which was largely a product of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Instead, the expression “freedom of the press” came out of the great age of pamphleteering and protest which occurred during and after the civil wars in Britain of the mid-1600s…. In this way “freedom of the press” was not some entitlement of a media elite but a more basic right of anyone to circulate their ideas more widely than they could do simply by themselves.

So perhaps Leveson is wrong to suggest that bloggers and the Internet exist in an ‘ethical vacuum’.  The act of publishing what you wish, without interference, is inately a ethical act, excercising moral rights, that is available to everyone.  Its wrong to create a two-tier ethical system, with bloggers and print journalists on different planes.  And it is wrong to create enshire a two-tier regulatory system in law, too.

Retreat To The Corporate Silos

Here is a technology trend I have spotted: it may be old hat to experts and tech journalists, but its news to me.

First, I installed iOS 6 for my iPhone this week. As had been extensively trailed, Apple has switched out the Google Maps app for its own, proprietary mapping service. It is a weaker product.

Then, yesterday, I received an e-mail from IFTTT (If This, Then That, an excellent tool that allows you to automate many tasks between online services, such as cross-posting blogs, auto-tweeting, or logging your social media activity). The e-mail said:

In recent weeks, Twitter announced policy changes that will affect how applications and users like yourself can interact with Twitter’s data. As a result of these changes, on September 27th we will be removing all Twitter Triggers, disabling your ability to push tweets to places like email, Evernote and Facebook.

This is really irritating, as I use IFTTT for many Twitter related tasks.

So, in a single week, I’ve been inconvenienced by the decision of two of the biggest brands in technology to stop co-operating with other services. There is no law that says that they must collaborate, of course, but this is still a dismal state of affairs. I wonder if these announcements might be the beginning of a new era of unco-operation, with more and more products becoming locked, proprietary, and incompatible with one another. I cannot see how this can be good for innovation, small businesses and start-ups in the sector, or the users… Though I do see how it might maximise revenue for the big companies.

The previous high-minded rhetoric that came from these companies makes their current revenue-maximising attitude all the more galling. It has become trite to point out how Apple has changed since it premiered its famous Nineteen Eighty-Four advert at the Superbowl; and Google’s motto was “do no evil”. These latest manœvres, retreating into the corporate silos, are a reminder of the corrupting influence of power and money, and puts one in the mind of the final passages of Animal Farm, when it becomes impossible to tell man from pig, pig from man.

I await deliverance with an iOS 6 Jailbreak.

Betting Against Page 3

Well well, this is interesting. The bookmaker Paddy Power have offered odds on a Change.org petition reaching 100,000 signatures. It’s 4/1 in September and 7/4 in October.

It will be interesting to see if this affects the rate at which people sign the petition. If it does, then we will see a new era of campaigning. Just as now, activists spend time trying to get re-tweeted by Stephen Fry, in the future Ladbrokes and Paddy Power may become targets of the same kind of secondary lobbying.

But there is more: there is a kind of open source game theory on offer here. If everyone in the country who agreed to sign the petition, while placing a £10 bet, we would all get paid for our social activism!

At the time of writing, the petition only has 26,000 signatures. So the conservative analyst would not favour September. However, we have seen in the recent past how social media and we interconnectivity it brings can have exponential effects. Remember how Claire Squires posthumously raised almost £1 million for the Samaritans.

I don’t know much about how bookies set their odds on certain outcomes, but participating in this particular ‘market’ seems odd. Unlike a sporting event, an election, or a financial exchange, there is no other person, group or team that can adversely affect the rate at which the figure in question rises. It’s not as if there is a counter petition, and the bookies are taking bets on a race between the two. Opponents of this campaign cannot marshal their own supporters in a comparable way. So the bet is simply about how quickly a political constituency can mobilise itself. I wonder if someone who knows more about this might comment?

I am entirely in favour of the petition, by the way. In my opinion, page 3 demeans and objectifies women. A formal ban on this kind of publication would be anti-free expression, but social pressure on an editor to make a particular decision is entirely right and proper.

clickanddrag

xkcd: Native Internet Art

xkcd is an online comic strip that has gained a cult following. Penned by Randall Munroe, it presents naif, stick-like figures doing strange, wonderful and weird things. There is a strong geek element to the cartoons, with physics jokes, science fiction references, and spin-off comic What If? which seeks to answer absurd questions with mathematical precision.

I love the sentiment which imbues the comics. Its wistful, and has an appropriate sense of awe at humanity, the world, and the universe.  However, I can see how others might find it whimsical, precious or twee.

xkcd: Click and drag - opening panels

The latest cartoon in the series, Click and Drag, is really something.  A man clutching a balloon drifts over the landscape.  “From the stories, I expected the world to be sad, and it was. And I expected it to be wonderful.  And it was. I just didn’t expect it to be so big.”

Underneath this is a large panel with a cartoon landscape.  The reader can click and drag to reveal more of the image, and see little vignettes featuring other stick figures, pop-culture references, and rendering of architectural structures and geological features.  Its a huge image in total, approximately 160,000 pixels wide, and so clicking and dragging takes a long time!

Why is this so good?  Commenter Pochacco has a good, simple analysis on the NeoGAF meesage boards:

I have a feeling the author is trying to troll us.
It’s so “big” that you can’t see it all. You will miss some parts and it will haunt you. Just like life.

I suspect this is right.

But there’s more: This is art that is native to the internet, and therefore still relatively rare.  While most art we see online (photography, film, creative writing) can actually be viewed in other media (on a wall, in a book, on TV), this piece of art only works online.  The clicking-and-dragging is inherent to experiencing of the art.  Users on the NeoGAF board are busy trying to download the entire panorama in its entirety, but doing that is a mistake that spoils enjoyment of the cartoon – that you can only see a small part of the image at any one time, and that you may miss something, is precsiely the point.

Unburdened Enjoyment

https://twitter.com/lukewaterfield/status/231319214496043008

I was at the Olympic Park earlier this week, and for technical reasons I was unable to share this fact via my social networks.  As Luke says above, this absence of the need to login and share is indeed ‘freedom’, but nevertheless the unease took a few minutes to wear off.

This feeling should not be written off as mere addiction.  The desire to tweet and share and document is not always a sign that we are slaves to technology.  As well as being a means to share, these technologies are also simple aide memoirs, reminding us where we read something, or when we went somewhere and who we spent time with.  The value of such archives depends, to a large extent, on their completeness (this is also true for a lot of digital art like timelapse montages, which are another type of archive).  In my senile years I anticipate being grateful that I compiled a comprehensive diary of my activities.

https://twitter.com/dance4joseph/status/231323499057266688

For me, the main unease generated by my missing smart phone was not that I could no longer (over)share, but that I would not be able to fill the regular moments of downtime that city living always presents.  The time spent waiting for a bus or on a platform is no bother when you have a near-infintie supply of quick and quirky messages to read.  Kipling’s penultimate stanza “If you can fill an unforgiving minute / With sixty second’s worth of distance run” sticks in my head.  Does the tweeting count as a useful way to spend that “unforgiving minute”?

How Effective Are Free Speech Campaigns?

First posted over at the English PEN site.

In her monthly column for MediaShift, Jillian York (Director of International Free Expression at the EFF, and a Global Voices board member) turned her attention to online campaigns for imprisoned bloggers. In particular, how can a campaign be effective in a country like Syria, which has recently become impervious to international pressure?

As part of the piece, Jillian asked several free speech campaigners for their views on the question, and I responded on behalf of English PEN:

When a blogger is imprisoned, it is not just his voice that is silenced. Those who share his point of view are discouraged by his example, and choose to keep quiet. A public solidarity campaign on social media can have the opposite effect, emboldening others to speak out and fill the void left by their imprisoned comrade … so while the text of a message may be “Free Hussein Ghrer,” the subtext is “We Have Not Forgotten Hussein Ghrer,” which is a powerful message to send to the authorities. Sending letters or (as English PEN does) books to these prisoners carries a similar message.

You can read more of my comments, alongside those of several bloggers who are on the frontline of activism, at the MediaShift website. You can leave comments there too.

After the Debate

While I certainly stand behind the broad message of my Oxford Union speech, it is only right to acknowledge that the subject of debate – the impact of social media on social activism – is a little more nuanced and complicated than my bolshy assertions would have you believe. It’s worth acknowledging some of the arguments in favour of the motion, and expanding on some of the issues I was only able to cruise by in my eight minutes at the despatch box.

First, I wrote down a phrase from Mark Pfeifle, where he described social media as enabling “the soft power of democracy”. I thought this was a persuasive point. My speech focused on social activism in the UK and the USA, where there is a long tradition of social activism, and therefore ‘reinventing’ such activism is a very tough proposition. By contrast, those countries plagued by dictatorship have a stunted tradition of social action, so any tool that enables any kind of activism might be seen as a ‘reinvention’.
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This House Believes That Social Media Has Successfully Reinvented Social Activism

Egypt, February 2011

On 31st May, I was delighted to be invited to the Oxford Union to debate the proposition This House Believes That Social Media has Successfully Reinvented Social Activism.

I chose to debate against the motion, and spoke last. Also speaking against the motion was Matt Warman, Consumer Technology Editor at The Daily Telegraph; Mark Kersten of the LSE; and Dr Christopher Carpenter from the University of Western Illinois. Speaking in favour was Senator David Vitter of Louisiana; Mark Pfeifle, National Security Advisor to President George W Bush; and Benjamin Cohen, the Channel 4 News Technology correspondent and founder of pinknews.co.uk. Ella Robertson of the Union opened the debate.

An iPhone recording of my speech is here, along with the transcript below. I shall write a follow up post with some nuanced thoughts on the debate, to balance the high flung rhetoric.

And for the record: Our side was successful. The motion was defeated!

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Twitter Censored in Pakistan

Over at the English PEN site, I have rehearsed the issue of social media censorship. Here’s an excerpt:

When such controversies flare, it is also important to remember that the social networks are corporations, intent on making money. This was made very clear to us all this week, when Facebook was listed on the NASDAQ. To justify its $100 billion valuation, the site needs new users, and it will get them from populous countries with technical infrastructure… like China, India and Pakistan. In order to secure access to these users, the company will have to co-operate (some might even say ‘collaborate’) with the governments of those countries. We should expect to see more censorship of the sort Pakistani users saw over the weekend, and also more sophisticated forms of control. People notice a nationwide social media blackout, but they are less likely to perceive a ‘throttling’ of internet access during periods of unrest or dissent. We are also likely to see an automated sieving of messages, where a site will appear to function normally, but certain keywords or phrases (for example, ‘Jasmine Revolution’, ‘Tiananmen Massacre’ or ‘Mohammed Cartoons’) will be filtered. Can we trust the large corporations to resist governments’ demands to filter? What if the sovereign wealth funds in authoritarian regimes buy up Facebook and Twitter shares?

You can read the whole thing on the PEN site. I have blogged previously about the problem of “Corporate Silos” and the need to diversify our social media use, though I am as useless as anyone at actually following through on this.