The Internet Doesn’t Do Local Well

I’ve recently noted that my blogging tends to be non-local. The things I encounter on the Internet tend to come from south of the border, leaving me scrambling to try to relate things to a Canadian, Manitoban, or Winnipegger perspective. An article about racism towards African Americans in the USA can draw parallels to the systemic mistreatment of Canada’s indigenous peoples, even though the history and present circumstances are vastly different.1 This approach always begs far more questions than it answers.

As someone who is largely a link blogger at present, my writing is the product of what I find interesting on the web that day, and non-local things simply have the largest signal in the noisy stream of things that make their way across my awareness.2

So, when I read Why Don’t We “Like” Our Neighbors?—which disucsses how the Internet seems better at national and global issues than local ones—I found myself nodding in agreement and wondering about my own inability to link to local issues any more than rarely. While the Internet’s fundamental architcure is decentralized, strong consolidating forces are at work:

Both mass media and digital media rely primarily on advertising revenue, and the political economy of nearly all media runs on corporate consolidation and big business funding. Meanwhile, the proliferation of consumer goods and services has made the buying experience incredibly complex, as anyone who has spent 20 minutes reading Amazon reviews to find the right meat thermometer can tell you. The advertising model relies on sensationalist news items to attract more viewers, and these types of stories are less likely to occur at the local level. Frankly, my local news is pretty boring relative to Trump’s latest fascist tirade.

Maybe the Internet doesn’t do local well simply because we don’t. To over-simplify, we seem to prefer relationships mediated by the technology of the Internet to those mediated by flesh-and-bones contact. And why not? Maybe it’s been a great way to not feel so damn lonely in our isolating suburbs. Maybe this wouldn’t be an issue if we didn’t have a fundamentally anti-social built environment. Maybe.

This is the place where I would ordinarily pretend to have a conclusion. I don’t. I’m going to be thinking about this more.


  1. The main point of commonality is that each country sees prejudice against these communities as largely normal and justified, while hypocritically judging other nations for their own treatment of minority groups. 
  2. Twitter and RSS, mainly. 

Conversation, Smartphones, and the Amish

I admire the Amish. This might sound a bit odd coming from someone who works in technology for a living, but I’ve always had a healthy suspicion of technology. I have no desire whatsover to be Amish, but I do admire the fact that they are a group that evaluates the adoption of technology through the rubric of “how will this affect the life of our community?”

So, when I read Stop Googling. Let’s Talk. by Sherry Turkle for the New York Times, I briefly toyed with the idea of throwing my iPhone into the garbage disposal.

Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.

Conversations are key to cultivating empathy:

We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

That last point about conversation also being key to identity is later expanded on:

In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to say that is authentic, ours. If we can’t gather ourselves, we can’t recognize other people for who they are. If we are not content to be alone, we turn others into the people we need them to be. If we don’t know how to be alone, we’ll only know how to be lonely.

A virtuous circle links conversation to the capacity for self-reflection. When we are secure in ourselves, we are able to really hear what other people have to say. At the same time, conversation with other people, both in intimate settings and in larger social groups, leads us to become better at inner dialogue.

But we have put this virtuous circle in peril. We turn time alone into a problem that needs to be solved with technology.

This reminds me of Charles Taylor‘s notion of the dialogical self; where we only know who we are insofar as we see ourselves reflected back in conversation with others. This is why solitary coninement is the most cruel thing you can do to somebody without killing them.

The article made me instantly desire to carve out some disconnected time in my life.

We can choose not to carry our phones all the time. We can park our phones in a room and go to them every hour or two while we work on other things or talk to other people. We can carve out spaces at home or work that are device-free, sacred spaces for the paired virtues of conversation and solitude. Families can find these spaces in the day to day — no devices at dinner, in the kitchen and in the car. Introduce this idea to children when they are young so it doesn’t spring up as punitive but as a baseline of family culture.

When I think about the future with my nine month old son, I can only find myself nodding vigorously to phone free dinners and the like. But why would I wait for then? Why would I force a rule on him that I’m not willing to abide by today?

What We Need for Durable Digital Archives

We have stone tablets dating back at least 4000 years. We still have some of Gutenberg’s bibles. I’m pretty sure that any pen marks I put to paper will survive at least my lifetime with anything other than gross negligence. But I have no idea if any of the digital formats I’m currently employing to write and store these words will even be around a few years from now.

Every pre-digital medium was inherently archival. You never had to think about the words you recorded being preserved; they just were. Preservation was a fundamental requirement of recording knowledge. If it didn’t last, what was the point?

My recent post on the disappearing digital archive enumerated the ephemeral nature of archiving writing in the digital age.1 In this post, I want to explore the conditions of an archival system that would actually work, that is, a system that would work silently and consistently with little to no conscious intervention on the part of its user.

Archival by Default

This has already been implied, but an archival system worth its salt must take conscious effort to circumvent, much like ripping out an aborted draft from a typewriter, crumpling the paper, and heaving it into the fireplace. Until that moment, the sheet of paper was, depending on its quality, archival-quality material that could last at least a century.

So, whatever we type, on whatever device we type it on, in whichever application we employ, archival needs to happen without thinking. This will of course have many implications, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible.

Networked

Our unthinking, archival-by-default system (let’s call it UAD) will almost definitely need to talk to some form of networked “cloud”-based service in order to be accessible on the proliferating devices we use to record our thoughts. A common workflow for me is to jot down a quick thought on my iPhone, which I’ll later pull up on my Mac or iPad for more in-depth writing with a better keyboard.2 Apple’s iCloud service makes all of this a seamless experience, but it also locks me into their platform and threatens the longevity and durability of my archive (more on that later).

Privacy

If everything we write is archived by default, we would want those archives to stay private until we explicitly choose to release or publish something for public consumption. But if UAD is networked, it becomes a ripe target for invasion by people and entities of many motivations, be they political (NSA), financial (thieves), or personal (anyone who has ever had a grudge against someone else, aka everyone).

While there are ways to be secure in a networked environment, they aren’t generally known or employed by everyday people whose eyes glaze over when you start talking about public keys, or PGP, or the merits of different hashing algorithms. If archival is to happen by default, without thinking, then good security needs to also be the unthinking default that it would take conscious work to circumvent.

Open Source

As I mentioned earlier, I already have a pretty good networked syncing service in iCloud, at least in terms of the user experience: everything is mostly seamlessly synced to all of my devices with little to no thought on my part. I do have to trust that Apple keeps my data private from any prying entity, which I’m not that confident of (especially should that entity be the NSA). I also have to trust that they will continue operating this service and manufacturing devices that can connect to it beyond my death, which would be a lot of blind faith I don’t have.

Instead, UAD needs to be open source. I don’t trust Apple or Google or Dropbox or Microsoft to prioritize longevity and accessibility to my archive beyond me being their paying customer. I would certainly find it cumbersome to move from one system to another, and even if my archive should endure, the APIs and data structures used to store my writing would be proprietary and not easy to access if it was even still around.

An open source protocol and storage format would at least be well-documented and freely inspectable for posterity. And, since anyone could use and run it themselves, it would be more secure against state-level privacy invasions. It would also have a higher likelihood of security, particularly if it was a system that automatically updates itself to the latest security releases.

Durable

If everything else I’ve said sounds unfeasible, this is actually the hardest problem when it comes to a digital archive. Everything else can be solved with today’s technology (if not with today’s user experience). In a non-networked system, your archive is only as good as the durability of the physical medium encoding those 0s and 1s (and also your backup strategy since those media will fail).

And, since I’ve posited a cloud service as the most viable way to have a UAD system today, the utility-based model of all cloud services I’m aware of also becomes problematic for longevity. If I die, how long do I have between someone going looking for my archive and my cloud provider simply deleting everything?

Not only this, but a fundamental weakness of a cloud service is that it’s usually a single point of failure. What happens if the cloud provider goes out of business? Or their data centre is drowned by a tsunami? The archive may be found in whole or in part on discrete devices, but the fact that there’s only a single canonical copy living on a rented server is concerning. We probably need something much more federated like Bittorent.

Conclusion Without Concluding

This has mostly been focused on requirements and problems, not on what a real-world solution might look like. I’m probably missing many critical things. The problem here is that there aren’t any business interests aligned with all of these criteria. That would ordinarily mean the desirability of regulatory involvement, but it’s hard to imagine that keeping pace with the ever-changing state of technology.

I look forward to continuing to explore this space, if only for my own archival peace of mind.


  1. While I’m personally focused on text, photos and videos are probably even more important to preserve for most people. 
  2. On the iPad I use an external keyboard. I often find that iOS’s poor multitasking lessens the inherent distractability of writing on a networked computer. 

Publishing is a Communal Act

Today marked the happy arrival of Contents Magazine, billing itself as “a new magazine at the intersection of content strategy, online publishing, and new-school editorial work.” A quick look at who’s behind it reveals that this is going to be good.

They came roaring out of the gate with Mandy Brown’s Babies and the Bathwater, which looks at how the shifts in technology have left the practice of publishing playing serious catch-up. Thinking about the interplay between technology, writing, and publishing has been a consistent topic for me lately, so I appreciated an insight like this:

[W]e can no longer think of publishing as a broadcast medium. It isn’t, not anymore. The web requires that we listen and converse as much as (if not more than) we ship. In fact, we cannot assume that publishing of any kind is a distinct activity from belonging to a community. Part of the job of a publisher today is to facilitate discussion—and that means being a part of it. It means that we publish for people, not to them.

Go read the rest for more like that.

Daring Myself to Wait Another Version

The iPhone has never been a need. My wife needed a smart phone for her interior design work, and I’ve received her hand-me-downs as she’s upgraded to the newer models for better photo quality.

This left me with an iPhone 3GS, until it died and I had to revert to our previously dormant 3G model. I can’t upgrade to iOS 4.3, much less iOS 5. No iCloud, no wifi tethering, no notification centre. No performance, and constant expectation that I won’t be able to upgrade to the next version of my favourite apps.

I want more, but I don’t really need more. I need tethering as an Internet connection backup for my work, which I can already do over Bluetooth or USB. My battery life sucks, but a replacement battery is cheaper than a new phone. I need occasional voice calls, which work just fine. Everything else is gravy which I’d love but don’t need.

I am not an inferior human being because I don’t have the latest tech. I need to remind myself that it’s not only OK to use Last Year’s Model, but also smarter and more responsible. We’ll see how long I can keep the upgrade siren song at bay.

Love in the Age of “Like”

Jonathan Franzen contemplates technology, “liking,” and love in an excellent essay for the New York Times that was adapted from a college commencement speech. Some choice bits:

[O]ur technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.

A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb “to like” from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving…

But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.

…There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.

I quoted more of the cranky parts, but he gets really good as he reflects more deeply on love in the second half of the essay. Go read Franzen’s essay.