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The End of Cyberspace

A few weeks ago a friend of mine announced that she was taking a break from Web 2.0.* She was going to prune her Twitter feeds, reduce her time on Facebook, and cut back on her time on IM. She needed to pay more attention to her real life, and to real relationships. Recollecting friends from high school and college was interesting for a while (Web 2.0 is a time machine for my generation, after all), but a large volume of acquaintances can’t provide the same satisfaction and support as a handful of friends you can see— or who can take the kids out to the park for an hour. Getting Tweets on her cell phone was also a poor combination of intrusiveness and minutiae. And there was laundry to be done.

As one of the digital lemmings who pushed her over the edge, the episode got me thinking. Why do I Tweet? After thinking about it for a while, I’ve come the conclusion that while it’s certainly popular with lots of my friends, I have a couple serious questions about Twitter, as a writer and a reader.

First, I have to admit that my regular life isn’t interesting enough to justify throwing out real-time updates about it. Nobody needs to know that I’ve just convinced the kids to make their own breakfasts, or have come back from lunch at Zao Noodles, or am trying to decide where to go on this weekend’s hike. The exception is when I’m on the road or doing something else unusual: at those times, my life— or my world— might get interesting enough document in detail.

There’s also the problem that I’m not sure what I get out of my own tweets. One of the signal features of Web 2.0, I think, is that it’s not just broadcasting: it’s self-documentation. Some of my friends use Twitter to jot down little notes about what they’re reading. But for me, the absence of tags in Twitter makes it hard for me to find things I’ve looked at long enough to know I should look for them again later, or to keep track of citations; del.icio.us is still the better tool for that. (I suppose you could replicate a little of that functionality with #tags, but that’s a workaround, and there’s no auto-complete….) And I’m not sure I’ve gone back and looked at my own Twitter stream, ever. My regular blog is valuable because it’s a way to keep track of my own life; this one has been invaluable for recording and trying out ideas for my book; my kids’ blog has been a place where I could store huge amounts of detail about my kids’ childhoods— those pictures of them doing cute but ordinary things, or saying wonderful things, or just growing up. Tossing out tweets feels like shooting sparks from a wheel: the sparks may be entertaining, but it’s the object you’re shaping with the wheel that’s really valuable.

Finally, as a reader, I find that seeing the raw feed of even a few people’s lives can quickly become overwhelming. In the last 24 hours, a relatively quiet time after Thanksgiving, I got 34 tweets; during a busy time— when people are traveling or at SXSW— I can get several times that, easily. There’s an argument to be made, as Clive Thompson has done, that the minutiae of tweets resolve into ambient awareness… but as it’s currently designed, the system still puts big demands on readers, who have to constantly read their friends’ Twitter streams, develop a sense of the rhythm of their posting, and build up a model of their real-world state from their online behavior. In a world in which the challenge is not to broadcast a lot of information, but to generate a lot of meaning, the stream-of-existence quality of tweeting makes it easy to mistake detail for intimacy, quantity of tweets for quality of expression or depth of understanding. As a preview of the world of ubiquitous computing and ambient awareness, Twitter is an interesting experiment (an experiment that’s being conducted my hundreds of thousands of people on themselves and their friends.)

This is actually not a bad lesson for designers. Creating ambient devices isn’t about pushing information; presence isn’t just about connection. Connecting people virtually is as much about quality and meaning in the digital world as it is in the real world.

Which is not to say that Twitter is hopeless. Twitter is strongest as a platform for conversation and reportage. It’s easy to share a rapid fire of short notes at conferences, for example, and the final result— assuming people are listening and paying attention— can be useful. (I wonder if there are examples of Twitter being used by students in lecture classes?) A couple of the people I follow use it as much for pinging friends as for talking about what they’re doing: for them, Twitter is a cross between the Facebook wall and a chat room. And I find Twitter useful for getting reactions to news events: I stopped watching the presidential debates this fall, for examples, after I realized that most of my friends were tweeting their reactions to them.

So what do I do with my Twitter stream? I’m not going to shut it down, because there are times when I’ll want to provide moment-by-moment updates about what I’m doing («Just cleared customs in Kai Tak! Where’s the cab line?» «Have now been in Victoria Stations on four continents….»). But for me, when I do use it, the challenge will be to figure out how to write the Web 2.0 equivalent of Zen koans: to fit meaning into 140 characters, rather than to fight the limitations of the medium by posting a lot.

*After I started working on this piece, I got interested in what other people had written upon getting fed up with some service, technology, or channel. Turns out that the «declaration of zeroing» is almost a literary genre. I first became aware of it through David Levy (whose book I reviewed in the L.A. Times, and who gave a brilliant talk about this stuff a couple years ago), and his ideas of a digital sabbath and information environmentalism. A couple samples:

Edward Vielmetti on Twitter:

The basic idea is that in systems where there is an infinite capacity for the world to send messages to get your attention, the only reasonable queue that you can leave between visits to the system is zero, because if you get behind you will never, ever, ever catch up gradually. Never. No matter how much time you put into it, there will always be more to do, and you will lose sleep over it.

Carmen Joy King, after quitting Facebook:

The amount of time I spent on Facebook had pushed me into an existential crisis. It wasn’t the time-wasting, per se, that bothered me. It was the nature of the obsession – namely self-obsession. Enough was enough. I left Facebook.

Donald Knuth on email:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.

On the other hand, I need to communicate with thousands of people all over the world as I write my books. I also want to be responsive to the people who read those books and have questions or comments. My goal is to do this communication efficiently, in batch mode — like, one day every three months.

Mark Bittman on his «secular Sabbath:»

I do believe that there has to be a way to regularly impose some thoughtfulness, or at least calm, into modern life — or at least my version. Once I moved beyond the fear of being unavailable and what it might cost me, I experienced what, if I wasn’t such a skeptic, I would call a lightness of being. I felt connected to myself rather than my computer. I had time to think, and distance from normal demands. I got to stop.

And of course there’s at least one blog about turning off all electronics one night a week. «Because of course,» Ariel Stallings writes, «I can’t unplug without blogging about it! (Irony, is that you?)»

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The End of Cyberspace

A few weeks ago a friend of mine announced that she was taking a break from Web 2.0.* She was going to prune her Twitter feeds, reduce her time on Facebook, and cut back on her time on IM. She needed to pay more attention to her real life, and to real relationships. Recollecting friends from high school and college was interesting for a while (Web 2.0 is a time machine for my generation, after all), but a large volume of acquaintances can’t provide the same satisfaction and support as a handful of friends you can see— or who can take the kids out to the park for an hour. Getting Tweets on her cell phone was also a poor combination of intrusiveness and minutiae. And there was laundry to be done.

As one of the digital lemmings who pushed her over the edge, the episode got me thinking. Why do I Tweet? After thinking about it for a while, I’ve come the conclusion that while it’s certainly popular with lots of my friends, I have a couple serious questions about Twitter, as a writer and a reader.

First, I have to admit that my regular life isn’t interesting enough to justify throwing out real-time updates about it. Nobody needs to know that I’ve just convinced the kids to make their own breakfasts, or have come back from lunch at Zao Noodles, or am trying to decide where to go on this weekend’s hike. The exception is when I’m on the road or doing something else unusual: at those times, my life— or my world— might get interesting enough document in detail.

There’s also the problem that I’m not sure what I get out of my own tweets. One of the signal features of Web 2.0, I think, is that it’s not just broadcasting: it’s self-documentation. Some of my friends use Twitter to jot down little notes about what they’re reading. But for me, the absence of tags in Twitter makes it hard for me to find things I’ve looked at long enough to know I should look for them again later, or to keep track of citations; del.icio.us is still the better tool for that. (I suppose you could replicate a little of that functionality with #tags, but that’s a workaround, and there’s no auto-complete….) And I’m not sure I’ve gone back and looked at my own Twitter stream, ever. My regular blog is valuable because it’s a way to keep track of my own life; this one has been invaluable for recording and trying out ideas for my book; my kids’ blog has been a place where I could store huge amounts of detail about my kids’ childhoods— those pictures of them doing cute but ordinary things, or saying wonderful things, or just growing up. Tossing out tweets feels like shooting sparks from a wheel: the sparks may be entertaining, but it’s the object you’re shaping with the wheel that’s really valuable.

Finally, as a reader, I find that seeing the raw feed of even a few people’s lives can quickly become overwhelming. In the last 24 hours, a relatively quiet time after Thanksgiving, I got 34 tweets; during a busy time— when people are traveling or at SXSW— I can get several times that, easily. There’s an argument to be made, as Clive Thompson has done, that the minutiae of tweets resolve into ambient awareness… but as it’s currently designed, the system still puts big demands on readers, who have to constantly read their friends’ Twitter streams, develop a sense of the rhythm of their posting, and build up a model of their real-world state from their online behavior. In a world in which the challenge is not to broadcast a lot of information, but to generate a lot of meaning, the stream-of-existence quality of tweeting makes it easy to mistake detail for intimacy, quantity of tweets for quality of expression or depth of understanding. As a preview of the world of ubiquitous computing and ambient awareness, Twitter is an interesting experiment (an experiment that’s being conducted my hundreds of thousands of people on themselves and their friends.)

This is actually not a bad lesson for designers. Creating ambient devices isn’t about pushing information; presence isn’t just about connection. Connecting people virtually is as much about quality and meaning in the digital world as it is in the real world.

Which is not to say that Twitter is hopeless. Twitter is strongest as a platform for conversation and reportage. It’s easy to share a rapid fire of short notes at conferences, for example, and the final result— assuming people are listening and paying attention— can be useful. (I wonder if there are examples of Twitter being used by students in lecture classes?) A couple of the people I follow use it as much for pinging friends as for talking about what they’re doing: for them, Twitter is a cross between the Facebook wall and a chat room. And I find Twitter useful for getting reactions to news events: I stopped watching the presidential debates this fall, for examples, after I realized that most of my friends were tweeting their reactions to them.

So what do I do with my Twitter stream? I’m not going to shut it down, because there are times when I’ll want to provide moment-by-moment updates about what I’m doing («Just cleared customs in Kai Tak! Where’s the cab line?» «Have now been in Victoria Stations on four continents….»). But for me, when I do use it, the challenge will be to figure out how to write the Web 2.0 equivalent of Zen koans: to fit meaning into 140 characters, rather than to fight the limitations of the medium by posting a lot.

*After I started working on this piece, I got interested in what other people had written upon getting fed up with some service, technology, or channel. Turns out that the «declaration of zeroing» is almost a literary genre. I first became aware of it through David Levy (whose book I reviewed in the L.A. Times, and who gave a brilliant talk about this stuff a couple years ago), and his ideas of a digital sabbath and information environmentalism. A couple samples:

Edward Vielmetti on Twitter:

The basic idea is that in systems where there is an infinite capacity for the world to send messages to get your attention, the only reasonable queue that you can leave between visits to the system is zero, because if you get behind you will never, ever, ever catch up gradually. Never. No matter how much time you put into it, there will always be more to do, and you will lose sleep over it.

Carmen Joy King, after quitting Facebook:

The amount of time I spent on Facebook had pushed me into an existential crisis. It wasn’t the time-wasting, per se, that bothered me. It was the nature of the obsession – namely self-obsession. Enough was enough. I left Facebook.

Donald Knuth on email:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.

On the other hand, I need to communicate with thousands of people all over the world as I write my books. I also want to be responsive to the people who read those books and have questions or comments. My goal is to do this communication efficiently, in batch mode — like, one day every three months.

Mark Bittman on his «secular Sabbath:»

I do believe that there has to be a way to regularly impose some thoughtfulness, or at least calm, into modern life — or at least my version. Once I moved beyond the fear of being unavailable and what it might cost me, I experienced what, if I wasn’t such a skeptic, I would call a lightness of being. I felt connected to myself rather than my computer. I had time to think, and distance from normal demands. I got to stop.

And of course there’s at least one blog about turning off all electronics one night a week. «Because of course,» Ariel Stallings writes, «I can’t unplug without blogging about it! (Irony, is that you?)»

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The End of Cyberspace

Following on recent reports that Chinese hackers have broken into White House computer networks, Slate’s Christopher Beam asks, «Is a cyber-attack by a foreign government an act of war?»

It depends on the context. An «act of war» is defined in the U.S. Code as any act that occurs during declared war or during armed conflict between two countries (although President Bush did call the Sept. 11 attacks an «act of war»). So, technically, if a cyber-attack occurs during a war, it’s an act of war; if not, it’s not. Whether or not a cyber-attack is grounds for war depends on the nature of hackers’ intentions: to spy, by stealing secrets, or to disrupt national infrastructure. Most governments consider espionage—the collecting of information about another country—a crime but not a casus belli. But sabotage—say, pulling down a power grid that serves hundreds of cities—could be construed as one.

cyberspace, end of cyberspace, law, military

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The End of Cyberspace

In last month’s Harvard Business Review, Jonathan Zittrain warns against the seductive appeal of «tethered appliances.» I think he’s onto something.

The core boon and bane of the combined Internet and PC is its generativity: its accessibility to people all over the world — people without particular credentials or wealth or connections — who can use and share the technologies’ power for various ends, many of which were unanticipated or, if anticipated, would never have been thought to be valuable. The openness that has catapulted these systems and their evolving uses to prominence has also made them vulnerable. We face a crisis in PC and network security, and it is not merely technical in nature. It is grounded in something far more fundamental: the doubled-edged ability for members of the public to choose what code they run, which in turn determines what they can see, do, and contribute online. Poor choices about what code to run — and the consequences of running it — could cause Internet users to ask to be saved from themselves. One model to tempt them is found in today’s «tethered appliances.» These devices, unlike PCs, cannot be readily changed by their owners, or by anyone the owners might know, yet they can be reprogrammed in an instant by their vendors or service providers (think of TiVo, cell phones, iPods, and PDAs). As Steve Jobs said when introducing the Apple iPhone earlier this year, «We define everything that is on the phone. You don’t want your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone, and then you go to make a call and it doesn’t work anymore. These are more like iPods than they are like computers.»

If enough Internet users begin to prefer PCs and other devices designed along the locked-down lines of tethered appliances, that change will tip the balance in a long-standing tug of war from a generative system open to dramatic change to a more stable, less-interesting system that locks in the status quo. Some parties to the debates over control of the Internet will embrace this shift. Those who wish to monitor and block network content, often for legitimate and even noble ends, will see novel chances for control that have so far eluded them.

Source: Jonathan Zittrain, «Saving the Internet,» Harvard Business Review 85:6 (June 2007), pp. 49-59.

Technorati Tags: design, interface, internet

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The End of Cyberspace

Another thing I hadn’t thought through is the way that the discourse about «netizens»— people who think of themselves as citizens of cyberspace— helps build the idea of cyberspace as place. People are citizens of places, after all: for all the value of the argument that nations are «imagined communities,» countries are places.

[To the tune of Johann Sebastian Bach, «Toccata in D Minor BWV 913,» from the album «Toccatas BWV 910-916».]

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, politics

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The End of Cyberspace

A article in the Washington Post (via the Volokh Conspiracy) on the mixed value of laptops in the classroom:

A generation ago, academia embraced the laptop as the most welcome classroom innovation since the ballpoint pen. But during the past decade, it has evolved into a powerful distraction. Wireless Internet connections tempt students away from note-typing to e-mail, blogs, YouTube videos, sports scores, even online gaming — all the diversions of a home computer beamed into the classroom to compete with the professor for the student’s attention.

This isn’t just confined to colleges and graduate schools (law schools figure prominently in the article): I encounter a similar issue in workshops that I run. Especially here in the Valley, within ten minutes at least one person in a group of fifteen is going to have their Blackberry in their lap, checking their messages. It’s so common I no longer take it personally, and I find it doesn’t really work very well to ask people to turn things off, or remind them that they should be paying attention. People know they should be paying attention. They haven’t forgotten.

Instead, I take it as a challenge to be more creative and engaging. And I’m not the only one:

José A. Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, is removing computers from lecture halls and urging his colleagues to «teach naked» — without machines. Bowen says class time should be used for engaging discussion, something that reliance on technology discourages.

I think this is good advice. I prefer not to use Power Point in talks or lectures, because I find that I spend more time interacting with the technology than I do actually talking to students. But more fundamentally, Bowen’s advice gets at a deeper point, which is what you might call the information delivery model of teaching— the idea that the point of being in the classroom is to engage in a more-or-less formal set of exercises to master a body of information. Everyone has better things to do in the classroom, and there are more intensive and social kinds of learning that you can practice when you’re with other people that you can’t when you’re alone or online.

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The End of Cyberspace

In the course of my attempts to reconstruct the history of cyberspace, I’ve spent a certain amount of time reading legal writing on cyberlaw— the application of copyright and property law on the Internet. I hadn’t expected it, but the law is arguably the field in which the metaphor of cyberspace has been most influential. The metaphor of the Internet as place, and the way you conceptualize the relationship between real physical places (which have jurisdictions and laws) and digital places (which might or might not be terra nova) has serious consequences.

So I was interested to come across the new Law and Technology Theory blog. As today’s post explained, it’s interested in two big questions: «First, should we have a general theory of law and technology? Second, what form should such a theory take?»

Is it a good idea to have a general theory of law and technology? Should we try to generate principles that will provide us with advance guidance for approaching a new technology? For example, we are currently trying to decide how to deal with privacy threats imposed by RFID tags that are incorporated into passports. Should we generalize from previous efforts to regulate technologies that threatened privacy to formulate principles that will guide us in the case of RFID tags? Alternatively, should we formulate principles that will serve as common guidelines for regulating the adoption of technologies that produce similar social tensions, but at first blush appear quite different? For example, genetic testing and the Internet, two technologies, which were recently diffused, produce similar social tensions. Should they be governed by common principles?

Two primary objections are likely to be brought forward. First, such an endeavor is antithetical to the very essence of technological change. The application of general principles will suffocate human creativity. We are likely to make decisions that will inhibit new opportunities at the expense of stability and social order. Second, the articulation of general principles would be impractical and doomed to failure. Nobody could have predicted the way the Internet has changed our lives. Technology advances beyond our wildest imagination — any principles we formulate today will become very quickly extinct and unworkable.

Of course, in my view the obvious first thing to do is ask, what «theory» of technology should you use? The definition of technology one begins with will have a serious effect on the project.

Technorati Tags: end of cyberspace, law, technology

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The End of Cyberspace

Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu’s Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World. Here’s a bit of Nicholas Carr’s review:

The World Wide Web has always been viewed as a place apart. The constraints of the physical world — territorial boundaries, national and local laws, even distance itself — don’t seem to apply to the virtual world, where everyone is every place (and no place) all the time….

In their excellent new book, Who Controls the Internet?, Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu calmly dismantle this view of the web, revealing it to be a naive and wishful fiction. They show, through a series of engaging examples, why the Internet, far from existing outside national boundaries and laws, is increasingly being shaped by those boundaries and laws. Location, it turns out, matters a great deal on the Internet, for technical, political and cultural reasons. The virtual world, like its physical counterpart, has a spiky geopolitical topography.

(Very weirdly, when you use the ecto Amazon search tool to look for Goldsmith and Wu’s book on Amazon, the second hit is article from International Journal of Men’s Health, Gay and bisexual male escorts who advertise on the Internet: understanding reasons for and effects of involvement in commercial sex. One of these things is not like the other.)

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, end of cyberspace, law

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There are a number of things I’d change about the language of that screed, but, still, a decade later, it feels both impetuous and important. Serious questions remain. Was it accurate? Is Cyberspace naturally anti-sovereign? If so, is that a good thing?

So John Perry Barlow asks in «Is Cyberspace Still Anti-Sovereign?»

There have been notable efforts to regulate or restrict access to the Internet. Indeed, «one could write a book about all the ways in which existing governments and multinationals have imposed themselves on the global commons» in the last decade; in fact fact, «several people have done so.» Netwar has emerged as a new kind of asymmetrical projection of power, enabled by the Internet. Spam and online crime proliferate, and arguments over copyright law continue.

But Barlow is still fundamentally optimistic:

I have not given up on the idea that, as a species, we can be more humane and fair, nor have I forsaken the notion that the greater understanding bred by universal access to knowledge is the key to increasing these qualities in us….

I appear doomed to live a long time, but I don’t think I’ll live to see the world I dreamed of when I was dashing off my little manifesto 10 years ago. Nevertheless, I believe that world is being born. It won’t be paradise, since it will be full of human beings and all our less noble qualities, but it will be more enlightened and enlightening than anything we have experienced so far.

Technorati Tags: culture, cyberspace, end of cyberspace, internet, John Perry Barlow, politics

Other quotable moments in the article:

Back when I wrote the declaration, I was delighted by what I knew would be its greatest boon, the empowerment of the small against the large. But I was thinking of the likes of myself becoming asymmetrically advantaged against the State. I hadn’t considered the possibility of Osama bin Laden, who used the Internet quite effectively in organizing and defending an attack that turned the most powerful nation on earth into a paranoid child with persuasive justifications for imposing fascism on its citizens…. There are, in addition, areas where I was simply wrong. At least, so far. In 1996, I was convinced that giving everyone a voice would change the balance of political power. But, meanwhile, back in the physical world, which is still armed and dangerous, things continue their own ugly course…. [M]y strident and fundamental point about the impotence of those «weary giants» has been demonstrated, but with occasionally different results than I would prefer. Liberty has its downsides; though, considering the alternative, I’ll cast my lot with freedom…. AND YET… IT’S NOT AS IF THE ARISING «CIVILIZATION OF MIND» has yielded no benefits so far….

I still dream of a world where anyone can express anything he or she chooses, no matter how odious or unpopular, without fear of official reprisal…. I imagine a future where intelligence will be the primary economic resource, and the location of one’s cerebral cavity will be irrelevant to the earning potential of its contents.