11/11 – Hot Topics

In this session we will be discussing eight articles that were chosen by the class on “hot topics” related to the course. The articles are:

(1) UK Guardian (2013), The NSA Files – “Essential Guide”

(2) Ken Auletta (April 30, 2012), “Get Rich U. There Are No Walls Between Stanford and Silicon Valley. Should There Be?”

(3) Lori Andrews (February 4, 2012), “Facebook Is Using You”

(4) Ethan Kross, Philippe Verduyn, Emre Demiralp, Jiyoung Park, David Seungjae Lee, Natalie Lin, Holly Shablack, John Jonides, and Oscar Ybarra (August 14, 2013), “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults”

(5) Mark Zuckerberg (August 20, 2013), “Is Connectivity a Human Right?”

(6) Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger (January 17, 2013), “Obscurity: A Better Way to Think About Your Data Than ‘Privacy'”

(7) Michael Erard (September 20, 2013), “No Comments”

(8) Tim Kreider (October 26, 2013), “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”

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8 responses to “11/11 – Hot Topics

  1. I wanted to critique some of the main points Zuckerberg makes in his “Is Connectivity a Human Right?” from the perspective of McChesney’s “Digital Disconnect”. Zuckerberg cleverly frames connectivity as essential, calling it a “human right”, proceeding to write in the first line of his manifesto: “For almost ten years, Facebook has been on a mission to make the world more open and connected. For us, that means the entire world — not just the richest, most developed countries” (Zuckerberg 1). One of the major reasons why the Internet giants (such as Facebook) are such large monopolies can be attributed to network effects. As McChesney elucidates, “The largest firm in an industry increases its attractiveness to consumers by an order of magnitude as it gets a greater market share, and makes it almost impossible for competitors with declining shares to remain attractive or competitive” (McChesney 132). And what better way to increase one’s attractiveness to consumers by presenting oneself as contributing to a basic human right? Thus, “the profitability of the digital giants is centered on establishing proprietary systems for which they control access and the terms of the relationship, not the idea of an Internet as open as possible” (McChesney 135). Zuckerberg’s main claim of public service is veiled under an ulterior profit motive of monopolizing more of the Internet (and, as he writes, “for us, that means the entire world”).

    Furthermore, Zuckerberg’s celebrant perspective of the Internet leaves out important details that actually undermine his purported goal of making the world a better place. Equating the Internet with a successful knowledge economy, Zuckerberg writes, “But a knowledge economy is different [from a resource-based economy] and encourages worldwide prosperity. It’s not zero sum….By bringing everyone online, we’ll not only improve billions of lives, but we’ll also improve our own as we benefit from the ideas and productivity they contribute to the world” (Zuckerberg 3). While I agree that a knowledge economy is the way of the future and has great potential to provide a more prosperous existence for many, I disagree that, in its current economic form, the Internet will actually produce a knowledge economy with the intended effects of a more democratic exchange of ideas. If anything, Zuckerberg’s vision will encourage monopoly since “it’s not zero sum”, due to Metcalfe’s law that the usefulness of a network increases at an accelerating rate as you add a new person to it. As McChesney indicates, “There is also a flip side to Metcalfe’s Law: those excluded from a network face an accelerating cost of exclusion. Depending on the importance of the network, the severity of the exclusion can be tantamount to nonpersonhood” (McChesney 133). Thus, as Facebook’s influence grows to make the world “a more connected place” and to help “businesses drive internet access by developing a new model to get people online” (Zuckerberg 5), its control over the Internet will grow. As a result, those excluded from it, such as industries that are non-information based industries (as well as people who do not even use the service) will have more damage to incur, both economically and socially, due to their exclusion. Furthermore, this major expansion to developing countries will foster a closer (non-democratic) relationship between Facebook (and certainly other Internet industries) and the U.S. government. One reason is that “outside the United States, the U.S. government is an aggressive advocate for the Internet giants, and they therefore want to reciprocate and have the government in their debt” (McChesney 162).

    Ultimately, I believe that the great potential the Internet has for making the world a connected place can be put to use to improving conditions in developing countries. Here, I am in agreement with Zuckerberg. However, if one appropriately examines the situation more closely from an economic and political standpoint (as McChesney does), it becomes clear that the current state of the Internet is unlikely to achieve many of these goals of improvement. The democratic nature of the Internet ought to be improved first before it can be put to large-scale use in improving the world.

  2. In Is Connectivity a Human Right? and Slaves of the Internet, Unite! there is an interesting parallel between interpreting a similar concept with vastly different implications and conclusions. In Is Connectivity a Human Right?, Zuckerberg assesses the current connectivity of the world and argues that not only is “connectivity a human right” (pg. 2), but that it “encourages worldwide prosperity” (pg. 2). For Kreider, connectivity has begun to devalue his trade. Connectivity allows anybody, anywhere to ask for a service that costs money to instead be pro bono. In addition, the internet enables content to propagate, generally without payment.

    While Zuckerberg argues against a resource-based economy contending that “Many dynamics of resource-based economies are zero sum…But a knowledge economy is different and encourages worldwide prosperity” (pg. 2), Kreider, whose occupation relies on dissemination of resources finds that the encouragement of an internet economy diminishes his ability to do his job and make a living. “the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again.” (pg. 2).

    Both of these convictions (those of Zuckerberg and Kreider) fit profiles suggested by McChesney: advocates for the internet and the affected (in particular, those invested in the future of journalism). Consistent with McChesney’s depictions, neither piece creates a compelling argument for whose perspective is more factual and empirically grounded, or even if they are mutually exclusive. It appears rather that Zuckerberg is idealistic with little deliberation of full effects of the “knowledge economy” while Kreider is hyper-focused on one implication without consideration of the whole.

    It seems to me that the most consistent element among the three overlapping opinions and courses of action is that the expansion of the internet has multi-faceted and unpredictable implications. For this reason, Kreider and (to a greater extent) McChesney call for a conscientious approach to connectivity with consistent analysis of what change is brought about by technological change so that powerful people like Zuckerberg don’t take connectivity too far.

  3. A. To

    I was very drawn into the article “Get Rich U. Is Stanford Too Close to Silicon Valley?” from the Ken Auletta – particularly his movement from establishing Stanford University as a necessary installation to Silicon Valley to frightening instability introduced by free online education. The article as a whole tries to capture Stanford by reporting on as many facets of the institution as possible from undergraduate research, athletics, administration, and connection to startups and corporations in the area. These parts of the university have been developing, some for decades, some for centuries. But online learning is an entirely new realm with an unknown future.

    The articles reports, “a hundred and sixty thousand students in a hundred and ninety countries signed up for Sebastian Thrun’s online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class,” which was offered for free along with two other engineering classes by Stanford online. With the phenomenal success of this project, the provost, John Etchemendy asks, “how can we increase efficiency without decreasing quality?” This article has presented Stanford University as a place that drives innovation, and online learning seems like a clear front-runner for up and coming technology. But Auletta has reported to us a school that uses that innovation to succeed financially as well as academically. For a school that has consistently been number one in fundraising and has generated $1.3 billion in royalties, how can free online education factor into a successful branch of the institution? But this one-to-one relation of money isn’t even the most pressing concern – at least as discussed here. Online education poses more abstract threats to the simultaneous and perhaps even codependent success of Stanford and Silicon Valley. As Auletta writes, “could a student on a video prompter have coffee with a venture capitalist?” Online learning is happening, even amongst students who are physically attending the university. Students stay at home and watch recordings of their lectures, missing out on the chance to engage with professors in the lecture hall. It is not a question of whether online education will disrupt the things that distinguish Stanford, it is how and how fast.

  4. In “Facebook Is Using You,” Andrews highlights the extent of information that companies and institutions can access based on our activities online and the effects that this information can have on our future opportunities. I was already familiar with the significant amount of user data that companies like Google or Facebook pass on to advertisers. Yet I was surprised by the range of other companies that can also access this data, either directly or indirectly, to draw conclusions about whether to offer services or jobs to individual people.

    Andrews points out that advertising revenue makes up a huge portion of overall revenue brought in by major online companies like Facebook. Advertisers probably wouldn’t pay a high premium for information unless it has proven to increase companies’ sales in some significant way, so targeted online advertising seems like a successful enterprise. Knowing that these companies can give user data out to advertisers and other institutions, two questions come to mind: should this kind of data be given out, and should we know about the data that companies have about us? With regards to the second, Andrews observes that “In Europe, laws give people the right to know what data companies have about them, but that is not the case in the United States” (1). Seeing that this is standard practice in Europe yet nonexistent in the U.S. is reminiscent of the “unknown policy debates” that McChesney mentions when talking about the opacity of the initial privatization of the Internet. With little debate and discussion on the long-term effects of data released to other companies, it makes sense that U.S. citizens might be less able to understand whether this is a good policy for them or not, and major companies with connections to government keep the debate opaque. Yet the effects can be huge, and as Andrews points out, “your application for credit could be declined not on the basis of your own finances or credit history, but on the basis of aggregate data — what other people whose likes and dislikes are similar to yours have done” (1). This is just one example of Weblining, which “describes the practice of denying people opportunities based on their digital selves” (2).

    The real question here is whether more harm than good is produced by these companies having access to enough data that Weblining is standard practice. Targeted advertising doesn’t seem bad in all cases, and perhaps even the majority of cases, where the products being advertised are things that people might actually want to use and might not have known about otherwise. However, as Andrews points out, when this kind of data is used by companies to not offer jobs to employees based on generalizations from online content, or when “young people in poor neighborhoods are bombarded with advertisements for trade schools, will they be more likely than others their age to forgo college?” It’s when this data begins to seriously shape our preferences – whether that means our preferences for products or our preferences for careers based on our experience of being Weblined – that the effects of mass user data release become profound on the individual level, and even more complex for society.

  5. While reading “Facebook is using you” I was hoping to find useful information regarding Facebook’s policies and tactics. Although the facts revealed about Facebook were old news (due to the release date of the article), I was intrigued by the findings presented on data aggregators.

    I have always found the business of data aggregating to be underhand. Until now, I have never been presented with full facts regarding the business itself of data aggregating, but I did immediately agree that “stereotyping is alive and well in data aggregating.” After reading the American Express anecdote, I was curious to know the number of people who lose their credit, but either never receive an answer from the lending company or never bother to ask.

    From what I understand, data aggregating seems to be an efficient way of not only adjusting a credit score for a person but also creating a person’s credit entirely. If a credit score is an estimation relative to the rest of the populace, wouldn’t the company with the most data have the biggest advantage? To that end, I argue that all companies capable of using data aggregation are using as much information as they have access to. It now seems expected that any credit company will use data aggregators to no end.

    The article revealed an alarming side of the data aggregating business when it “Even though laws allow people to challenge false information in credit reports, there are no laws that require data aggregators to reveal what they know about you.” This is the wall I repeatedly find myself running into when rationalizing the possible benefits of technologies like data collecting. It’s a one-way mirror. The “big brother” holding the technology will always have an advantage of the “little brother” that does not have it himself. In this way, the states of interactions are determined entirely by the big brother and the littler brother has no power.

    This is where democracy is currently failing under our current society.

  6. hramesh2013

    Many of this week’s readings focused on Facebook and its effect on people, and upon reading them, one thing is clear about this social networking platform: it has achieved connectivity at risk of lowering standards for privacy and subjective well-being.
    In his paper, “Is Connectivity a Human Right”, Mark Zuckerberg, the unabashed founder of Facebook, write, from an obviously biased perspective, lauds his own website as making the “world more open and connected” and enabling “the entire world – not just the most richest, developed countries” to participate in the “knowledge economy” (Zuckerberg 1-2). He does acknowledge the obstacles in making the Internet more accessible and affordable for those living in developing countries and goes on to talk about ways to optimize and reduce costs. However, Zuckerberg barely touches on why the average world citizen should participate in what he claims to be the “foundation of the global knowledge economy”. He talks about GDP growths in countries that have introduced the Internet into business but he fails to recognize that GDP growth does not necessarily translate to increases in income for, say, the poor farmer in rural India who might even get poorer as his boss gets richer. In addition, even if the poor farmer in India gets access to social networking, one must ask what use is there is having such a tool when there are so many costs?
    As we have read in other articles, citizens who live in richer more developed countries and who do participate in Facebook deal with issues that come with social networking in the form of privacy invasion and decreases in subjective well-being. As Ethan Kross and his colleagues have reported in their paper, “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults”, “Facebook use predicts negative shifts” in both “how people from moment-to-moment and how satisfied they are with their lives”(Kross 1). “In fact, direct [face-to-face or phone] social network interactions led people to feel better over time” (Kross 4). This finding leads to me believe that Facebook could never truly supplant direct interactions and gives credence to Sherry Turkle’s beliefs in her book “Along Together” that people, in having higher connectivity, end up feeling less intimate with others due to lowered well-being on at least one party’s account.
    Not only does Facebook affect one’s psychology but also his or her privacy. Lori Andrews, in her article “Facebook Is Using You”, points out “Facebook makes money by selling ad space to companies that want to reach us” (Andrews 1). These companies “choose key words or details — like relationship status, location, activities, favorite books and employment — and then Facebook runs the ads for the
    targeted subset of its 845 million users” (Andrews 1). As of now, these ads may seems annoying but they indicate the power data aggregation could yield. Andrews worries that “Your application for credit could be declined not on the basis of your own finances or credit history, but on the basis of aggregate data — what other people whose likes and dislikes are similar to yours have done” (Andrews 2). These invasions in privacy would not be possible without Facebook and the Internet.
    Upon reading these articles, one might think the poor farmer in the India may be better off and happier without his world being made “more open”. Time will tell.

  7. In Michael Erard’s “No Comments,” he describes the rise and demise of comments and the promise of annotations for online content. I think we are starting to see the trend of annotations take shape. For instance, when I read a book on my Kindle, I can highlight and mark certain passages, and I can see passages that are commonly marked by other readers. Likewise, when I listen to a song on SoundCloud, other people’s reactions to specific parts of the song appear as the song plays. These types of feedback are different than traditional comments. Erard describes that comments are not as rich because they are “at the bottom of the page” and “not as legitimate a voice as the original post.” However, I don’t think annotations could ever fully replace comments. I still think comments are an important way to interact with content that cannot be easily annotated.

    First we have to recognize that annotations won’t work everywhere. It’s important to make this statement because Erard believes that annotations could have provided an “alternative history” of the web if annotations replaced comments originally. Annotations are reactions that are “placed directly on the text itself.” Would we want a video on YouTube to constantly have comments popping up? As you read an article on New York Times, would you want a reaction to every sentence? I don’t think so. It works on SoundCloud because you are mixing audio and visual content, so you can ignore one modality easily. The Kindle works because it simply underlines certain sections and does not provide competing textual commentary. I think annotations work where they don’t compete with the content, so when we are talking about visual content, it’s hard for me to see any type of annotations working other than the Kindle-type highlighting.

    Erard mentions there have been efforts to improve the quality of comments as well. Social log-ins try to link user’s real identity to their post and filtering algorithms to get rid of spam. He says this is not enough because it’s not rethinking the relationship of content creators and commenters. However, I think the social linking actually is. At the end of the article he prompts the reader to “imagine an alternate version of Facebook or Twitter made up of people who regularly annotate certain sites across the web.” I think that’s exactly what’s already happening. People are posting reactions to pages and linking to the page. Sometimes, comments appear simultaneously on a person’s Facebook wall and the content page. The comments also try to bring in third parties into the dialogue of the comments. This kind of social commenting is creating more engagement, outside of one specific site. It’s also tying more responsibility to comments.

  8. In “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” Tim Kreider argues that the ease of free content availability through the Internet has spelled death for content creators. Under the guise of exposure, professionals in every major creative field are working for little to no money, which Kreider contends harms the industry as a whole. While a worthwhile caution against the pitfalls of devaluing one’s own work, Kreider’s work is also limited in its scope and subjective in its evidence.

    First, Kreider gives no specific information that would lead us to believe he is receiving less writing work than he would otherwise be able to find without the aid of the Internet. It is possible that he is misdiagnosing the problem he believes to have identified; perhaps the reason he is receiving and increasing number of invitations to produce free content is simply a consequence of the lowered barriers to communication in the Internet age. If one quick email might land a struggling school administrator some work by a professional, well-respected writer despite a nonexistent budget, wouldn’t the shot in the dark be worth it?

    The essay is, overall, a one-sided critique of the Internet as a vehicle for content creation. It neglects to mention the possible benefits of exposure on a platform visible to two and a half billion people. There is no mention of the hundreds of musical artists who amass an initial following through Myspace, or the graphic designers who first get feedback and grow creatively through tools such as dribbble and behance. It is possible that many aspiring artists, writers, and musicians may not have developed enough confidence or experience to pursue their passions without working on a few project for the sake of projects, and without forging contacts they made through those first few opportunities.

    There is also no mention of the thousands of creative projects – both entrepreneurial and personal – being funded through crowdsourcing platforms such as indiegogo or kickstarter that would otherwise never see the light of day. Other tools are also helping content creators to monetize their work in less traditional ways. The digital sales platform Gumroad, for example, was conceived as a solution to the problem of a digital artist who thought he might be able to make some money off one of his working, transitional files that would otherwise have been simply part of a much larger project (and would not have sold on its own).

    The Internet makes it much easier to access content. It also makes it much easier to contact people directly. But it doesn’t necessarily make it harder to sell or monetize content. It just means you have to be more selective. Opportunities of all caliber will be more accessible and more visible, but it’s up to content creators to appropriately filter through those options and leverage the potential of the Internet.

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