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Author Archives: Aleksandr Segal

The Value of the Private Platform

I wanted to reiterate a notion that I brought up in class regarding social networks and online communities. The topic of how susceptible digital media such as social network feeds, advertisements, results to search queries, etc. is frequently discussed as a parallel to the openness and freedom that the Web affords us. By being open to all users, the web and all of its constituent parts are also open to corporate, political, and illicit exploitation. The trade-off has always been the universal access to these forms of media, which effectively places the price to access in compliant, even passive, participation in a highly exploitable format of social and cultural mediation.

I mentioned in class the value of closed networks citing the now-retired What.CD music sharing community. My suggestion is effectively challenging the benefits of “open” access to digital media against the benefits of maintaining social, political, cultural, and all other possible kinds of assemblages in a more controlled format. Because private trackers for music (or any other types of digital media) are not available to any and all persons who happen to stumble upon the site to become members of the community, the capacity for external parties to exploit this platform is severely diminished. However, the way that community operates can be dramatically unchanged from that of freely accessible platforms because, as The Stack and  other readings pointed out, how people exist within this digital spaces is directly shaped by the protocols that enable those spaces to exist.

An inevitable contrast between public and private platforms for sharing and consuming media is the influence that unintended parties may have within those communities. (Here I mean that these parties are considered unintended or unwanted by the community itself, not by the media platforms that directly invites and profits from this participation.) Facebook, for instance, is dealing with the criticisms that its daily feed algorithm allowed fake news stories to influence how the consumers of those stories voted in the presidential election. Facebook, however, profits heavily from the public nature of this service and through the access it grants to explicit corporate entities in the form of advertisements and data-mining. The ease of access to Facebook also ensures that it becomes a dominant figure in social media further increasing its profitability. Not all “unwanted” participation is explicit or conducted with Facebook’s approval; The use of surveillance, scamming, phishing, and bullying are just a few examples of how being a public domain facilitates highly destructive entanglements between the community and those parties who wish to exploit the high degree of congregation and access this community allows.

In summary, perhaps the value that social networks, digital media, and constant connectedness offer to consumers is minuscule in comparison to the value we hold as consumers who are compliant in their own vulnerability. In the case of What.CD, it was the largest music database and music-based community in the world, and it operated illegally and entirely through member donations. It could not be public nor did it need to be.

 

Wifi enabled chip allows paralyzed Rhesus monkey to walk again

The rear left leg is normal, the rear right leg is being moved through wifi enabled electrodes.

The rear left leg is normal, the rear right leg is being moved through wifi enabled electrodes. Source: http://spectrum.ieee.org

Researchers have successfully used wifi enabled electrodes to allow a monkey with nerve damage to walk again. From an article in the BBC:

Dr Gregoire Courtine, one of the researchers, said: “This is the first time that a neurotechnology has restored locomotion in primates.” He told the BBC News website: “The movement was close to normal for the basic walking pattern, but so far we have not been able to test the ability to steer.”

The technology connects the portion of the brain in control of motor function to the extremities of a Rhesus monkey with spinal cord damage. Signals that would normally flow along the spine, instead, travel over a wireless signal to electrodes that then signal nerves.

Implantable technology is nothing new but this development is monumental because the device is replacing a motor function that happens almost instantaneously. And, thanks to technology being created to transform Bluetooth signal (low power demand) into a wifi signal (high power demand), the possibility of implants in the brain and other parts of the body are capable of long and dependable operation.

I’m fascinated by this dislocation of electro-chemical signaling to electro-numerical signaling. Until now, chips implanted into the brain of a subject only collected data or controled simple robotic limbs. This device re-enables the use of the subject’s own body. Of course, the brain chip that allows a monkey to move its legs is not interpreting brain functions — it is only by-passing the damaged spinal cord. The cliche question to ask is whether someone can hack the wifi enabled transmitters.

Users, Waste, and the Public – Response to Hu

In the class discussion about Hu’s A History of the Cloud, the issue of what a truly “public” space would look like on the globally connected digital network. Youtube came to mind in part because of it’s specified design allowing users to make their own entertainment, education, and art through a medium that was, until then, almost exclusively populated and controlled by corporate entities. Professor Gold pointed out that Youtube is likely an example of just the opposite, i.e. Youtube creates the platform for media circulation that appears to be community-based but is, instead, a product that the viewer creates through the process of consumption as individuals users.

I wanted to try and better understand Hu’s argument by focusing on the particular issue of waste. I also wanted to find particular examples of practices in the physical world related to waste in ways that are related to Hu’s discussion on the topic. These examples can be found below.

To recap, Hu details the time-sharing model of early computing and the problems of errors, bugs, and “waste.” He offers a comparison to Victorian era implementation of the sewer system and, equally important, the dividing lines between public and private. These divides were made possible by the acknowledgement of waste and the need to dispose of it without publicly shaming or peeping in on the individual household. Thus, in addressing the issues of networked computing, an infrastructure was created that made “waste” invisible in order to assuage concerns over privacy and to allow users to focus on generating more value through their work.

Youtube, of course, operates through the active consumerism of likes, shares, and comments and the linking of activity of users to individual people. This activity is what makes Youtube a behemoth commercial entity; by engaging in this “community,” this population of users radiate what they see as waste (if they even consider it at all) but what Youtube collects to turn into profit.

For Hu, the isolation of the public into a community of individual users is what negates the possibility of a truly public space on the internet. A public space cannot exist if people desire a system that collects and secures their waste away from the public – a service that, at this time, is conducted by private companies like Youtube. Thus, regaining sovereignty of our data is actually a regaining of control over our waste. The public must operate without distinct digital identities; it must make its waste visible and have control over its waste. But, how? I think one method of controlling the data we produce either directly or through the radiation of our presence and activity is obfuscation. We can manipulate the content of our data so that it offers no value to those who collect it.

There is, I believe, far better examples of returning to a public sphere through the management of waste in the physical world. I link to some of these examples below. (The irony of using Youtube to share this information with you is not lost on me. I recommend signing off from any Google profiles, using a Tor browser and a VPN, and or simply sharing your online identity with other people in order to obstruct the exploitation of you, the user.)

Refining platinum and other precious metals from roadside dirt

Hunting for silver dimes still in circulation

Urban gold mining on the streets of New York’s Diamond District

Tales of the Trash – A neighborhood garbageman explains modern Egypt. (New Yorker Magazine)

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/13/tales-trash

“In Cairo, my family lives on the ground floor of an old building, in a sprawling, high-ceilinged apartment with three doors to the outside. One door opens onto the building’s lobby, another leads to a small garden, and the third is solely for the use of the zabal, or garbageman, who is named Sayyid Ahmed. It’s in the kitchen, and when we first moved to the apartment, at the beginning of 2012, the landlady told me to deposit my trash on the fire escape outside the door at any time. There was no pickup schedule, and no preferred container; I could use bags or boxes, or I could simply toss loose garbage outside. Sayyid’s services had no set fee. He wasn’t a government employee, and he had no contract or formal job. I was instructed to pay him whatever I believed to be fair, and if I pleased I could pay him nothing at all.”

“Life Inside a Secret Chinese Bitcoin Mine” via Vice

I wanted to post this video to the blog as we mentioned bitcoin in our previous class and because it delves into the infrastructure of the exchange protocol (labor, computing, electricity & heat, etc.).

For anyone interested in learning more about bitcoin from a technical standpoint, I highly recommend with the following topics: public key cryptography, proof of work, and the public ledger, also known as the blockchain.

(If you ask me about it, I will probably bore you for hours.)