Archive for the 'digital citizenship' Category

Steganography and Rhetoric in OSN

Steganography is the art to conceal a message in plain sight, a form of “security by obscurity.” It can be as simple as the “spy ink” that kids use, the hiding of information in digital pictures, up to the complex cultural messages hidden in images and texts. It is a method not only of cryptography; it is a cultural tradition used since the writers of sacred texts inserted hidden meanings so that only the initiated would understand.

Steganography has become a common practice in online social networks, used by teenagers to communicate with their peers using a medium that offers little or no privacy. An article by danah boyd shows how this works.

15M in MadridA more forceful form of steganography in online social media is found in the political discourse, in the rhetoric used with the aim to manipulate public opinion and truth. The activists in cyberspace have found new rhetorical ways that border on steganography.  Its form of the short message does not allow developing a structured explanation of facts and persuasion. The message in digital media works by making references to cultural images, events, urban myths and key persons. Some are the now well known “image-memes” that remix cultural references.

One has to be part of the new public discourse online to be able to decipher its meanings, and to be influenced by it. The activists are not the inventors of the form.  They are using a new way of communicating and conveying meaning that has grown around digital media and social networks.

To be able to influence the digital natives, political groups need to learn this code. And beyond that, they will need to create their own set of cultural references and new tropes, their own structure of meaning around pointers of signifiers. It is like creating a new set of metaphors to be used in the new political prose of the digital media. A new prose, that builds its rhetorical force around steganographic methods of concealment and the power of consensual meaning.

Taking the Square: Digital Activism in Spain

Nobody expects the #spanishrevolution. With this Python-inspired phrase and a V-mask a protester made the point that the Spanish political system is in turmoil. The construction bubble that sustained economic growth burst with the financial crisis of 2008. The result is a high level of public debt that may force Spain to request a humbling bailout from the EU and the IMF.

spanisrevolution

photo by @acampadasol via web

 Unemployment is a more protracted problem. It has long been argued that the social security system in Europe creates structural unemployment, which is not harmful. But the statistics in Spain reach today numbers beyond “structural”: a general unemployment rate of ca. 20% and a rate of 45% in the group of young people 25 or younger. Such dismal figures coupled with an ageing population and an expensive social system has created a political crisis.

 There are three contentious issues: a state regarded as subservient to the global financial forces and institutions and that does not represent national interests, an indirect democratic system that is not representative enough; and last but not least, the fact that a younger population must bear the burden of an older population that maintains its monopoly on political and economic power.  Hence a #spanishrevolution emerging from the “guts of the beast”: the young, bright, educated and unemployed.

Continue reading ‘Taking the Square: Digital Activism in Spain’

Democracy, Crowds and New Media

In Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), flocks have acquired some strange way of communicating and coordinating actions. The birds form swarms with a purpose: to challenge the peace of a small town.  Mrs. Bundy points out that they should not “have sufficient intelligence to launch a massed attack.” (The Birds

Alfred Hitchcock The Birds

AH´s The Birds Trailer...

Along the ensuing violence, the film has a political under-text: the birds are fighting against the ignorant tyrant “mankind” by transcending their non-existence as a group.  In the final scene the birds have taken over the place and rule absolutely and mindlessly.  The Birds was a film that matched the American political climate of the sixties, with references to the civil rights movement.

Continue reading ‘Democracy, Crowds and New Media’

Internet Freedom and Human Rights

In her recent speech in Washington DC, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton spoke of the Internet as the “new nervous system for our planet,” and about protecting its “basic freedoms.” She stopped short of advocating a human right to Internet freedom. Her idea was that “we need to synchronize our technological progress with our principles” (Clinton), the principles that engendered the UDHR.  She continued to expand the analogy to HR with the statement that “the freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace.” It is clear that the Internet plays a vital role in the pursuit of human rights and development. And yet, should Internet freedom be considered a human entitlement on its own, and what is its role in development?

Continue reading ‘Internet Freedom and Human Rights’

The Memory of the Social Thing

Some ideas about how to go approach writing a history of the Online Social Network, the Virtual World (and MMORPGs)…

The first step is to consider how Tom Standage has made a good case that the first instance of a social network, albeit not online or digital, was the telegraph network.  The telegraph was not only a new way of instant communication, a matter which in itself was quite revolutionary at the time.   More interesting was that people created new social activities within the telegraphic network: they played chess, engaged in romantic relationships over the wire, and new forms of crime and fraud were created.  A similar and probably more marked social role had the telephone network later in the century.  Both telegraph and telephone enabled an instant socio-geographical reach not seen before. 

However, both telegraph and telephone systems did lack one important aspect of the later OSN: storage, or an internal memory of the social.  Both were not able to store the information of the activities between the parties for later retrieval and use.  The information about the social interaction was stored in the outer points of the network, in a different media like paper, recordings and plain human memory.  As such, both systems depended on the human element to function as a social construct.

With the advent of the electronic networks and computers this began to change.  At first computers in the fringes of the networks were able to store and manage the information of the transactions (like early e-mail systems), and then when the storage started moving towards the network itself the possibility of the OSN was created.

The development of an electronic system for the exchange of written personal letters and short messages was the next step.  Electronic mail, or E-mail, as it became widely known, was the first instance of an electronic communication designed for human use that was both a social interaction, and stored the information about the interaction, the parties involved and the relevant time and place circumstances.  It used a store-and-forward method of delivery. 

 The first widespread e-mail systems operated using the ARPANET as a transport medium in 1969 and the early 1970s.  Before that some instances of e-mail were present in time-sharing computers at MIT as early as 1965.  E-mail has remained to this day very much the same in structure, but its social and commercial use, and abuse, has reached enormous proportions in the first decade of the 2000s.  It may be well possible to reconstruct whole social models from the content of e-mail messages alone, since e-mail carries the complete social memory within the message.

Tom Standage,  “The Victorian Internet”, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Standage

Pervasive Social Production Networks

It is remarkable that the development of online collaboration, of social production networks and online communities, and of the New Commons itself, is happening in a backdrop of increased wariness with the perceived maladies of over-extended globalization, the surge in power of transnational corporations, the exclusion of large populations from participation in a world dominated by the unequal relation between technological have and have-nots. 

It seems to be a response by the global digital citizen that will not relinquish his capacity to choose the community, market or production network that he or she is willing to participate in.  The digital citizen that is not content with being forced to consume commercial software, institutional encyclopedias or mass media. 

In some sense it is the creation of a new socio-economic environment for production, integration and collaboration.  The idea may seem just another social Utopia, but the vitality of its emergence and the results to date point to the contrary.   Might the communitarian ideal be possible by pervasive social software?

“Ubiquitous Human Computing” (Zittrain) makes working independent of location, employer and the body itself.  Productive workers can be integrated into a loosely connected PSPN by virtue of residence in the Internet “cloud”.  New and very productive ways of linking people, computers and work are becoming reality.

The work performed in a PSPN is inherent to the community and goes mainly to increase the social capital and common goods of the community.  The advent of the PSPN has been declared a “shadow workforce” (Howe), a group of individuals outside the realm of markets and companies that perform work and are engaged in a productive process of their own making.  There is growing interest in markets and companies to be able to tap into this network of informally working individuals for profit.

Online social networks apparently obey neither market pricing rules nor corporate command.  Their rules are framed by collaboration, trust, common property and personal motivation.  Their social codex can be disturbed if changes in those rules are attempted, which can lead to a sort of “Tragedy of the Commons” (Harding): overuse and failure to generate reciprocity.  Their leading design principle seems to be cooperation, in some cases even altruism, as opposed to selfish (i.e. capitalist) economic interest, running counter the idea of the homo oeconomicus.

Online social networks and the PSPN are not systems that emerge out of pure chance and selfless attrition.  They are indeed economic systems in which motivations and gains can be studied and reproduced.  The communities have an important role in designing and implementing a working organization.  Their characteristics, policies and rules are varied and carried out in many different ways.

The Herd Effect

We digital citizens are sometimes described as a herd.  We follow leaders, gather at certain places to exchange information, roam.  The herd can muster collective action, very much like swarms, using the most basic signals and feedback.  The herd is also a New Commons and its social capital is digital information.  We can just feed on it, like at the social networking sites, or we can take action, like at the crucial time of the Orange Revolution.  The idea is the collective, the possible aggregation of information to make sense.

Following a part of the herd, I registered at Herdict.org a couple of weeks ago.  I became member number 58.  Herdict.org is a website designed and managed by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society @ Harvard University.  The name comes from the fusion of “Herd” and “Verdict”.  The site aims to collect the verdict of the herd on various issues.  The first two are PC Health and Network Health.   Using a piece of software installed on every herd member’s PC, reports are sent back to Herdict.org with information about its characteristics, installed software and apparent problems. 

Given a large enough number of herd members active in the system, it could be a good source of information about which applications are causing trouble, which malware is extending and giving the herd a though time.  But it could also signal problems with the Network itself.  Problems that go beyond the merely technical.  For example, it could spot areas or countries where Internet access is being cut off, or filtering and blocking of sites is being practiced.   This could make it easier for digital citizens to by-pass restrictions on Internet access and censorship by using tools like Psiphon.  As such it could become a valuable tool for ICT4D and the movement for an open Internet.

But also other possibilities arise.  These are not at once evident, but Herdict.org could be a call for collaboration of a very different sort.  In one Gedankenexperiment, herd members could put to use their healthy computers to assist and clean up infected computers or “zombies”.  In this way a user that has advanced knowledge on how to fight off malicious software could help many users worldwide that don’t have the skills or that don’t know that their PCs have been sequestered.  Herdict.org could very well become a place to start such actions and measure success.

See an article in MIT Technology Review: The Web’s Dark Energy: Community policing can make the Web safe, by J. Zittrain.


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