Internet Freedom & Network Vulnerability

NPR published an article today about the Internet’s vulnerability to government crackdowns. The discussion focuses on other countries, particularly those marked by political dissent and upheaval, and by totalitarian regimes. Of particular interest were those apps/websites (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube, Skype, etc.) that governments either restricted or pressured into exposing/turning in activists. The overall conclusion was a tendency toward less free access to the Internet – “The report’s scope covers the experiences of some 88 percent of the world’s Internet users. And of all 65 countries reviewed, Internet freedom in 34 — more than half — has been on a decline over the past year.” The authors cite increased surveillance as the common first step, and the whole article has ominous overtones in light of the Trump ascendancy.


I know this topic aligns more closely with last week’s discussion, but I’ve been hearing helicopters outside for the last week and it’s starting to feel ominous. When my Internet connection started flickering, and then when it went out for a few minutes, i thought “Oh, they’ll pulled the switch.” Knowing what the cables in my backyard look like (someone once cut them on purpose as some kind of retribution for my neighbor and the whole building was cut off for days), it’s much more likely that (a la Blum) a squirrel was chewing a wire. But how hard would it be, if things get really bad, for them to shut down every IP address in Brooklyn and cripple resistance?

Interestingly, I’ve seen more guides for user encryption circulating Facebook, like this one published to Medium (https://medium.com/@kappklot/things-to-know-about-web-security-before-trumps-inauguration-a-harm-reductionist-guide-c365a5ddbcb8#.xwfu8n794). This stuff seems important, but in the face of a real crackdown, as we’ve seen in our readings, they could simply disable the Internet in problem areas.

I don’t really know here I’m going with all of this – I’m just trying to think through the last week’s gloom and reflect on what’s possibly coming.

“Eye in the sky” (and on the streets)

I had already been making efforts to look for surveillance cameras and speed cameras at intersections and in the subway, cell towers, dishes, analog TV antennae, and various mystery boxes on telephone poles. Until Verizon convinced me to switch from copper to FIOS a couple of years ago (very grudgingly, and only after resisting for years and then deploying the “executive carpet bomb” complaint technique on Verizon officials – it works, btw) it was in my personal interest to be informed about POTS service in the city,  and in particular the contents of two green-gray junction boxes on my street. After the switch, I began to look more carefully at where FIOS cables in the area were coming and going.

But Networks of New York—and this course in general—has made me much more observant of the wireless and wired infrastructural environment, both in the city and in the countryside, where cables and lines are easier to notice (I also keep an eye out for lightning rods on old barns). This morning on the bus I began to pick out a number of wireless surveillance devices that Burrington includes in her field guide: the flat square antennae that enable street and traffic surveillance cameras to talk to each other; microwave antennae; and some unremarkable-looking antennae bolted to streetlamps that didn’t seem to be connected to any other device. So apparently Myrtle Avenue is abuzz with data exchange at all times. But it’s a conversation that none of us can eavesdrop on—at least, not without the right tools.

What seemed before to be a basic, rather linear setup of cameras and transmitters at intersections now feels like a  cloud of surveillance that I move through, at all times, except maybe (I hope) when I am inside my apartment sleeping. Still, it’s easy to tune out because it’s not very visible and doesn’t interfere with my daily activities. A quarter mile away, however, that’s not the case. For the past couple of years, portable towers with floodlights and cameras set up on the grounds of a large NYCHA complex by the NYPD make their presence very well-known at night. Generators emit a continuous rumble and the light undoubtedly intrudes into the rooms of surrounding apartments. The towers were put there presumably because the area had experienced some persistent low-level crime—and occasionally, shootings. But they seem to have substituted the limited one-way communication capacity of machines for any human presence, whether of police or security guards, or anyone who could connect with the community, and facilitate interpersonal networks.

Now, it’s reasonable to assume that many residents would gladly trade the intrusion of the light towers for a safer environment. But sometimes when I pass these towers I try to imagine what it’s like to live every day under the eye of normalized police surveillance: the visibility is surely as much, or more, of a deterrent as the lights and cameras themselves. (And yet, by now these familiar structures might as well be permanent neighborhood fixtures.) I also try to imagine what it’s like to live in an environment where personal safety is often at risk—that’s also an intrusion. And, I think about the difference between subjecting people to pervasive but low-visibility surveillance versus that which is localized but meant to be noticed and to encourage certain behaviors in response. Is one mode more insidious overall? Does one have more potential to erode public trust in legal and municipal institutions?


I was checking out manhole covers on my way to work and noticed one abbreviation (“DWS”) that I later searched for online. Here’s a handy Wikipedia page on manhole cover abbreviations in NYC, and some of them link to pages about the companies or public works divisions they refer to. But some covers only indicate which ironworks made them.

Two of them are rather intriguing:

  • BPB = Borough President Brooklyn
  • BPM = Borough President Manhattan

Would these be leading to dedicated ducts for the respective BP’s offices? And if so, are they   access points for internet, cable, or something else? Vacuum tubes? Escape tunnels?

The Wiki page includes links to a couple of other useful sites – including Forgotten New York (an excellent source for all kinds of info on old NYC infrastructure, streets, buildings, and their vestigial traces.)

There’s also this website, with great photos.


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.

Facebook’s Political Networks

I came across this article in the Times Magazine that really seemed to resonate with this week’s readings, in particular Galloway’s & Thacker’s work in a Theory of Networks. It’s a long article, but it explores in detail the role that Facebook (more specifically, the new types of political posts specifically crafted for Facebook’s newsfeed) has played in this particularly vicious and vitriolic election cycle. Here is the article: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/08/28/magazine/inside-facebooks-totally-insane-unintentionally-gigantic-hyperpartisan-political-media-machine.html?_r=0&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.slate.com%2Fblogs%2Ffuture_tense%2F2016%2F11%2F04%2Ffacebook_is_fueling_an_international_boom_in_pro_trump_propaganda.html

Here are  some important excerpts:

“Individually, these pages [such as OccupyDemocrats, or the Other 98%] have meaningful audiences, but cumulatively, their audience is gigantic: tens of millions of people. On Facebook, they rival the reach of their better-funded counterparts in the political media, whether corporate giants like CNN or The New York Times, or openly ideological web operations like Breitbart or Mic. And unlike traditional media organizations, which have spent years trying to figure out how to lure readers out of the Facebook ecosystem and onto their sites, these new publishers are happy to live inside the world that Facebook has created. Their pages are accommodated but not actively courted by the company and are not a major part of its public messaging about media. But they are, perhaps, the purest expression of Facebook’s design and of the incentives coded into its algorithm — a system that has already reshaped the web and has now inherited, for better or for worse, a great deal of America’s political discourse.”


“This year, political content has become more popular all across the platform: on homegrown Facebook pages, through media companies with a growing Facebook presence and through the sharing habits of users in general. But truly Facebook-native political pages have begun to create and refine a new approach to political news: cherry-picking and reconstituting the most effective tactics and tropes from activism, advocacy and journalism into a potent new mixture. This strange new class of media organization slots seamlessly into the news feed and is especially notable in what it asks, or doesn’t ask, of its readers. The point is not to get them to click on more stories or to engage further with a brand. The point is to get them to share the post that’s right in front of them. Everything else is secondary.”

I won’t quote the entire article, because I think these give you a good sense of where it’s going, and of the ways in which it parallels Galloway’s and Thacker’s argument – in essence, Facebook is a network governed by protocols; these protocols define a technology that regulates the flow of information and connects life forms. Facebook, furthermore, is not a single network, but a network of networks, wherein each individual network sees different things, and comes to radically different conclusions about the same events that often can’t be reconciled. No one theoretically controls these networks, but the networks are controlled regardless, so that, in the words of Galloway, “we are witnessing a sovereignty that is…based not on exceptional events but on exceptional topologies.” Within this “twofold dynamic of network control,” subjects act within distributed networks to materialize and create protocols through their exercise of local agency.

These native posts/pages are designed to function within Facebook’s rhetorical context, but they gain potency through the complex relationships between autonomous, interconnected agents. This, as Galloway explains, is the basis for protocol, and so it seems to me that Facebook, just by setting the initial parameters (posts, newsfeeds, the ability to like and share things),  exercises control over political discourse; we see this control emerge, as the Times article suggests, in a very specific style of political engagement that is grounded in what Galloway would call distinct levels of network individuation (that of the user nodes, who share posts and political memes to perform their politics, and the networks through which these posts/memes can spread, which define the larger political movements). The end result, however, is less a kind of public space, or town square, or commons, than a series of differently structured networks with their own unique and competing swarm doctrines. Control is a kind of coordination that emerges in response to Facebook’s protocol, to its user interface and network affordances, that has real consequences for the kinds of conversations that can happen.

lingua universal



Google is explicit: “Make all the world’s information universally accessible and useful.”

If your device does not recognize a font, it renders little boxes in the character space—unofficially called “tofu.” Google and design company Monotype have been working for over 5 years towards creating a linguistically universal font, one that will render any language on any device : it’s called Noto (no tofu, GET IT!?).

Is there in “digital” the potential for universal language? What does it mean when “universalism” is designed and asserted by commercial actors? Is the effort necessarily more about power, more a move like “commercial imperialism?” Monotype, for its part, tried to be sensitive to this:

Describing the company’s approach to Tibetan, for example, Monotype did “deep research into a vast library of writings and source material, and then enlisted the help of a Buddhist monastery to critique the font and make adjustments. The monks’ constant study of Tibetan manuscripts made them the ideal experts to evaluate Noto Tibetan, and were instrumental in the final design of the font.”

Can a non-imperial universalism be mediated by a multi-lingual digital platform? Readings this week suggest directing this question to the inbuilt protocologic forms brokering digital exchange, where “control” describes our User Interface. Perhaps the question is rather: can a non-imperial universalism be operationalized via any structured interface?


Making Personal the Public Record

In light of our last class’s theme of labor, I thought I would offer some interesting examples of crowdsourced labor that challenge the boundaries between work and play, and public and private. In these examples, I’m interested in how productive leisure activity may be considered “fan labor”, what users get out of such labor, and whether we can consider this labor a personal appropriation of the object. Both of the examples below use crowdsourcing to contribute to literary archives by inviting volunteers to complete transcriptions of written documents.

If we can consider this crowdsourced transcribing activity akin to what Abigail de Kosnik calls “fan labor” in her article, “Fandom as Free Labor”, I’m wondering about the incentive for such labor. How do these volunteers feel enfranchised in their transcription work? And how does their enfranchisement in public, archival work engage with the process of appropriation and customization that de Kosnik describes happens in fan communities?

The first example comes from the Smithsonian. This project allows the average member of the public to engage in archival work by transcribing written documents into print. The website offers a quick tutorial to get volunteers started, and imposes a peer review system to double check the transcriptions. Here, engagement seems to be the primary goal: this is clearly a space for the public, not researchers; there is a low barrier to entry; and participants engage with one another through peer review. Users can just jump from transcription to transcription at will.

The second example comes from University College London, and it’s a “collaborative transcription initiative” that grants digital access to Jeremy Bentham’s unpublished manuscripts. This project requires more experience than the Smithsonian one, as users have to learn how to encode their transcriptions according to UCL’s markup guidelines and create an account before getting started. Despite the higher learning curve, this project has over 30,000 registered users, with almost half of Betham’s folios already transcribed.

These two projects’ methodologies reveal a new type of “fandom.” First, there is the difference in target audiences, then there is how each audience engages with the “product” — the personal process of transcribing the documents. While the Smithsonian project invites all levels of contributors for transcriptions on various subjects, the Bentham project involves a certain understanding of encoding and a special interest in Bentham. Furthermore, all transcriptions in the Bentham project are verified by the paid staff, while the Smithsonian uses a system of public peer review. It seems like UCL’s main audience may be more serious, academically-inclined or interested in the digital humanities, while the Smithsonian is trying to engage with a wider public. Despite this difference in audience, both institutions make users feel enfranchised in the process, perhaps wanting to discuss the text, or feeling a part of it in some way. We can regard these users’ transcriptions as a kind of inverted version of de Kosnik’s “work of customization” that fans undertake when they make something private out of something public (102). Instead of appropriating mass produced objects, these fans work to make the personal widely accessible to the public. Nonetheless, as they carry out their transcriptions, they become a part of the process, and their transcriptions become a kind of appropriation. In a sense, their work of “customization” is to invest the documents with their labor. It would be interesting to look more deeply into these fans to learn more about their relationship to the products of their labor.

Versions of Cause and Effect in Technology and Society

As I was reading this week’s texts on labor in the cloud, I was struck, in particular, by the emphasis on the political motivations behind these tools (I’m using “politics” here in a very specific sense, in connection with Marxian discourses on political economy, etc.). I think this stood out to me in part because so many of the readings we’ve done for this class have been kind of post-Marxist – it’s not that infrastructure analysis and A Thousand Plateaus are anti-politics, merely that politic/political economy become decentralized in their critiques. This political emphasis brought to mind a text that I had sort of forgotten about, and which speaks to the themes of this course – “The Technology and the Society” by Raymond Williams, a Marxist critic, that was written in 1972.

One of the things that Williams analyzes is the notion of cause and effect in discussions of technology, specifically the effects of new technologies on social structures and society. He identifies eight ways of discussing this relationship, using television as an example:

(ii) Television was invented as a result of scientific
and technical research. Its power as a medium of
news and entertainment was then so great that it
altered all preceding media of news and

(iii) Television was invented as a result of scientific
and technical research. Its power as a medium of
social communication was then so great that it
altered many of our institutions and forms of social

(iv) Television was invented as a result of scientific
and technical research. Its inherent properties as an
electronic medium altered our basic perceptions of
reality, and thence our relations with each other and
with the world.

(v) Television was invented as a result of scientific
and technical research. As a powerful medium of
communication and entertainment it took its place
with other factors- such as greatly increased physical
mobility, itself the result of other newly invented
technologies- in altering the scale and form of our

(vi) Television was invented as a result of scientific
and technical research, and developed as a medium of
entertainment and news. It then had unforeseen
consequences, not only on other entertainment and
news media. which it reduced in viability and
importance, but on some of the central processes of
family, cultural and social life.

(vi) Television, discovered as a possibility by scientific
and technical research, was selected for investment
and development to meet the needs of a new kind of
society,l especially in the provision of centralised
entertainment and in the centralised formation of
opinions and styles of behaviour.

(vii) Television, discovered as a possibility by scientific
and technical research, was selected for investment
and promotion as a new and profitable phase of a
domestic consumer economy; it is then one of the
characteristic “machines for the home.”

(viii) Television became available as a result of
scientific and technical research, and in its character
and uses exploited and emphasised elements of a
passivity, a cultural and psychological inadequacy,
which had always been latent in people, but which
television now organised and came to represent.

(ix.) Television became available as a result of scientific
and technical research. and in its character and uses
both served and exploited the needs of a new kind of
large-scale and complex but atomised society.

As you can see, the emphasis progresses from one in which technology is produced through ideologically neutral mechanisms (research) and results in generally unintended consequences to one in which technological creation is itself an ideologically motivated process, aimed at reinforcing latent structures in the capitalist mode of production for the benefit of those in power. I think it’s interesting to consider how our class readings might be mapped onto this continuum, and to what extent something like ANT presents technological production as a quasi-accidental, haphazard, emergent process, as opposed to a politically motivated process that is deeply embedded within a certain ideological context. (I don’t think it actually does this in practice; I merely present this a kind of provocation.) Doing so raises important questions about the benefits and pitfalls of de-emphasizing politics – which strategy, for instance, has the most philosophical/theoretical utility? Which strategy is best suited to creating change? In reading some of the chapters from the Labor book, for instance, I couldn’t help thinking that the authors favored simplistic political reductions over real engagements with the complexity of these systems, and whether or not that reaction is accurate, I felt in some ways like it was conditioned by many of our earlier readings.

For instance, there is an artist, Aaron Koeblin, who uses Mechanical Turk to create artworks, and who uses that process to foreground complex issues surrounding distributed labor and value creation. In a way, his work points to many of the questions raised by our readings, but without landing in a conclusive political judgment. I don’t know if that’s a strength of the work or a weakness, but here are some links to what might be some relevant projects: