Annalee Newitz

Does Obama Want to Replace Your Facebook Profile with Your Social Security Card?

Today U.S. President Obama announced plans for a "cyberspace strategy" that includes everything from possible offensive cyberwar strategies to education. It also contains a little-discussed "identity management" plan that makes me wonder if Facebook profiles are about to become the new Social Security cards.

Keep reading... Show less

My Last Column

I've been writing this column for nine years. I was here with you through the dot-com boom and the crash. I made fun of the rise of Web 2.0 when that was called for, and screamed about digital surveillance under the USA-PATRIOT Act when that was required (actually, that's still required). I've ranted about everything from obscenity law to genetic engineering, and I've managed to stretch this column's techie mandate to include meditations on electronic music and sexology. Every week I gave you my latest brain dump, even when I was visiting family in Saskatchewan or taking a year off from regular journalism work to study at MIT.

But now it's time for me to move on. This is my last Techsploitation column, and I'm not going to pretend it's not a sad time for me. Writing this column was the first awesome job I got after fleeing a life of adjunct professor hell at UC Berkeley. I was still trying to figure out what I would do with my brain when Dan Pulcrano of the Silicon Valley Metro invited me out for really strong martinis at Blondie's Bar in the Mission District and offered me a job writing about tech workers in Silicon Valley. My reaction? I wrote a column about geeks doing drugs and building insanely cool shit at Burning Man. I felt like the hipster survivalist festival was the only event that truly captured the madness of the dot-com culture I saw blooming and dying all around me. I can't believe Dan kept me on, but he did.

Since then, my column also found a home in the Guardian and online at Alternet.org, two of the best leftist publications I've ever had the honor to work with. I've always believed the left needed a strong technical wing, and I've tried to use Techsploitation to articulate what exactly it would mean to be a political radical who also wants to play with tons of techie consumerist crap.

There are plenty of libertarians among techie geeks and science nerds, but it remains my steadfast belief that a rational, sustainable future society must include a strong collectivist vision. We should strive to use technologies to form communities, to make it easier for people to help the most helpless members of society. A pure free-market ideology only leads to a kind of oblivious cruelty when it comes to social welfare. I don't believe in big government, but I do believe in good government. And I still look forward to the day when capitalism is crushed by a smarter, better system where everyone can be useful and nobody dies on the street of a disease that could have been prevented by a decent socialized health-care system.

So I'm not leaving Techsploitation behind because I've faltered in my faith that one day my socialist robot children will form baking cooperatives off the shoulder of Saturn. I'm just moving on to other mind-ensnaring projects. Some of you may know that I've become the editor of io9.com, a blog devoted to science fiction, science, and futurism. For the past six months I've been working like a maniac on io9, and I've also hired a kickass team of writers to work with me. So if you want a little Techsploitation feeling, be sure to stop by io9.com. We're there changing the future, saving the world, and hanging out in spaceships right now.

I also have another book project cooking in the back of my brain, so when I'm not blogging about robots and post-human futures, I'm also writing a book-length narrative about, um, robots and post-human futures. Also pirates.

The past nine years of Techsploitation would have been nothing without my readers, and I hope you can picture me with tears in my eyes when I write that. I've gotten so many cool e-mails from you guys over the years that they've filled my heart forever with glorious, precise rants about free software, digital liberties, sex toys, genetic engineering, copyright, capitalism, art, video games, science fiction, the environment, and the future -- and why I'm completely, totally wrong about all of them. I love you dorks! Don't ever stop ruthlessly criticizing everything that exists. It is the only way we'll survive.

Three Myths About the Internet That Refuse to Die

Since I started writing this column in 1999, I've seen a thousand Internet businesses rise and die. I've watched the Web go from a medium you access via dial-up to the medium you carry around with you on your mobile. Still, there are three myths about the Internet that refuse to kick the bucket. Let's hope the micro-generation that comes after the Web 2.0 weenies finally puts these misleading ideas to rest.

Myth: The Internet Is Free

This is my favorite Internet myth because it has literally never been true. In the very early days of the Net, the only people who went online were university students or military researchers -- students got accounts via the price of tuition; the military personnel got them as part of their jobs. Once the Internet was opened to the public, people could only access it by paying fees to their Internet service providers. And let's not even get into the facts that you have to buy a computer or pay for time on one.

I think this myth got started because pundits wanted to compare the price of publishing or mailing something on the Internet to the price of doing so using paper or the United States Postal Service. Putting a Web site on the Net is "free" only if you pretend you don't have to pay your ISP and a Web hosting service to do it. No doubt it is cheaper than printing and distributing a magazine to thousands of people, but it's not free. Same goes for e-mail. Sure it's "free" to send an e-mail, but you're still paying your ISP for Internet access to send that letter.

The poisonous part of this myth is that it sets up the false idea that the Internet removes all barriers to free expression. The Internet removes some barriers, but it erects others. You can get a few free minutes online in your local public library, maybe, and set up a Web site using a free service (if the library's filtering software allows that). But will you be able to catch anyone's attention if you publish under those constraints?

Myth: The Internet Knows No Boundaries

Despite the Great Firewall of China, an elaborate system of Internet filters that prevent Chinese citizens from accessing Web sites not approved by the government, many people still believe the Internet is a glorious international space that can bring the whole world together. When the government of a country like Pakistan can choose to block YouTube -- which it has and does -- it's impossible to say the Internet has no boundaries.

The Internet does have boundaries, and they are often drawn along national lines. Of course, closed cultures are not the only source of these boundaries. Many people living in African and South American nations have little access to the Internet, mostly due to poverty. As long as we continue to behave as if the Internet is completely international, we forget that putting something online does not make it available to the whole world. And we also forget that communications technology alone cannot undo centuries of mistrust between various regions of the world.

Myth: The Internet Is Full of Danger

Perhaps because the previous two myths are so powerful, many people have come to believe that the Internet is a dangerous place -- sort of like the "bad" part of a city, where you're likely to get mugged or hassled late at night. The so-called dangers of the Internet were highlighted in two recent media frenzies: the MySpace child-predator bust, in which Wired reporter Kevin Poulsen discovered that a registered sex offender was actively befriending and trolling MySpace for kids; and the harassment of Web pundit Kathy Sierra by a group of people who posted cruelly Photoshopped pictures of her, called for her death, and posted her home address.

Despite the genuine scariness represented by both these incidents, I would submit they are no less scary than what one could encounter offline in real life. In general, the Internet is a far safer place for kids and vulnerable people than almost anywhere else. As long as you don't hand out your address to strangers, you've got a cushion of anonymity and protection online that you'll never have in the real world. It's no surprise that our myths of the Internet overestimate both its ability to bring the world together and to destroy us individually.


Using Sci-Fi to Change the World

Every year in late May, several thousand people descend on Madison, Wis., to create an alternate universe. Some want to build a galaxy-size civilization packed with humans and aliens who build massive halo worlds orbiting stars. Others are obsessed with what they'll do when what remains of humanity is left to survive in the barren landscape left after Earth has been destroyed by nukes, pollution, epidemics, nanotech wipeouts, or some combination of all four. Still others live parts of their lives as if there were a special world for wizards hidden in the folds of our own reality.

They come to Madison for WisCon, a science-fiction convention unlike most I've ever attended. Sure, the participants are all interested in the same alien worlds as the thronging crowds that go to the popular Atlanta event Dragon*Con or the media circus known as Comic-Con. But they rarely carry light sabers or argue about continuity errors in Babylon 5. Instead, they carry armloads of books and want to talk politics.

WisCon is the United States' only feminist sci-fi convention, but since it was founded more than two decades ago, the event has grown to be much more than that. Feminism is still a strong component of the con, and many panels are devoted to the work of women writers or issues like sexism in comic books. But the con is also devoted to progressive politics, antiracism, and the ways speculative literature can change the future. This year there was a terrific panel about the fake multiculturalism of Star Trek and Heroes, as well as a discussion about geopolitical themes in experimental writer Timmel Duchamp's five-novel, near-future Marq'ssan series.

While most science fiction cons feature things like sneak-preview footage of the next special effects blockbuster or appearances by the cast of Joss "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Whedon's new series Dollhouse, WisCon's highlights run toward the bookish. We all crammed inside one of the hotel meeting rooms to be part of a tea party thrown by the critically-acclaimed indie SF Web zine Strange Horizons, then later we listened to several lightning readings at a stately beer bash thrown by old school SF book publisher Tor.

One of the highlights of the con was a chance to drink absinthe in a strangely windowless suite with the editors of alternative publisher Small Beer Press, whose authors include the award-winning Kelly Link and Carol Emschwiller. You genuinely imagine yourself on a spaceship in that windowless room -- or maybe in some subterranean demon realm -- with everybody talking about alternate realities, AIs gone wild, and why Iron Maiden is the best band ever. (What? You don't think there will be 1980s metal in the demon realm?)

Jim Munroe, Canadian master of DIY publishing and filmmaking, was at WisCon talking about literary zombies and ways that anarchists can learn to organize their time better, while guest of honor Maureen McHugh gave a speech about how interactive online storytelling represents the future of science fiction -- and fiction in general. Science fiction erotica writer/publisher Cecilia Tan told everybody about her latest passion: writing Harry Potter fan fiction about the forbidden love between Draco and Snape. Many of today's most popular writers, like bestseller Naomi Novik, got their start writing fan fiction. Some continue to do it under fake names because they just can't give it up.

Perhaps the best part of WisCon is getting a chance to hang out with thousands of people who believe that writing and reading books can change the world for the better. Luckily, nobody there is humorless enough to forget that sometimes escapist fantasy is just an escape. WisCon attendees simply haven't given up hope that tomorrow might be radically better than today. They are passionate about the idea that science fiction and fantasy are the imaginative wing of progressive politics. In Madison, among groups of dreamers, I was forcefully reminded that before we remake the world, we must first model it in our own minds.


How Do We Fight Corporate Control of the Internet?

Last week I wrote about the premise of Oxford professor Jonathan Zittrain's new book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (Yale University Press). He warns about a future of "tethered" technologies like the digital video recorder and smartphones that often are programmed remotely by the companies that make them rather than being programmed by users, as PCs are. As a partial solution, Zittrain offers up the idea of Wikipedia-style communities, where users create their own services without being "tethered" to a company that can change the rules any time.

Unfortunately, crowds of people running Web services or technologies online cannot save us from the problem of tethered technology. Indeed, Zittrain's crowds might even unwittingly be tightening the stranglehold of tethering by lulling us into a false sense of freedom.

It's actually in the best interest of companies like Apple, Comcast, or News Corp to encourage democratic, freewheeling enclaves like Wikipedia or MySpace to convince people that their whole lives aren't defined by tethering. When you get sick of corporate-mandated content and software, you can visit Wikipedia or MySpace. If you want a DVR that can't be reprogrammed by Comcast at any time, you can look up how to build your own software TV tuner on Wikipedia. See? You have freedom!

Unfortunately, your homemade DVR software doesn't have the kind of easy-to-use features that make it viable for most consumers. At the same time, it does prove that tethered technologies aren't your only option. Because there's this little puddle of freedom in the desert of technology tethering, crowd-loving liberals are placated while the majority of consumers are tied down by corporate-controlled gadgets.

In this way, a democratic project like Wikipedia becomes a kind of theoretical freedom -- similar to the way in which the U.S. constitutional right to freedom of speech is theoretical for most people. Sure, you can write almost anything you want. But will you be able to publish it? Will you be able to get a high enough ranking on Google to be findable when people search your topic? Probably not. So your speech is free, but nobody can hear it. Yes, it is a real freedom. Yes, real people participate in it and provide a model to others. And sometimes it can make a huge difference. But most of the time, people whose free speech flies in the face of conventional wisdom or corporate plans don't have much of an effect on mainstream society.

What I'm trying to say is that Wikipedia and "good crowds" can't fight the forces of corporate tethering -- just as one person's self-published, free-speechy essay online can't fix giant, complicated social problems. At best, such efforts can create lively subcultures where a few lucky or smart people will find that they have total control over their gadgets and can do really neat things with them. But if the denizens of that subculture want millions of people to do neat things too, they have to deal with Comcast. And Comcast will probably say, "Hell no, but we're not taking away your freedom entirely because look, we have this special area for you and 20 other people to do complicated things with your DVRs." If you're lucky, Comcast will rip off the subculture's idea and turn it into a tethered application.

So what is the solution, if it isn't nice crowds of people creating their own content and building their own tether-free DVRs? My honest answer is that we need organized crowds of people systematically and concertedly breaking the tethers on consumer technology. Yes, we need safe spaces like Wikipedia, but we also need to be affirmatively making things uncomfortable for the companies that keep us tethered. We need to build technologies that set Comcast DVRs free, that let people run any applications they want on iPhones, that fool ISPs into running peer-to-peer traffic. We need to hand out easy-to-use tools to everyone so crowds of consumers can control what happens to their technologies. In short, we need to disobey.

Is the Creative Internet Just About Dead?

A couple of weeks ago I went to the annual Maker Faire in San Mateo, an event where people from all over the world gather for a giant DIY technology show-and-tell extravaganza. There are robots, kinetic sculptures, rockets, remote-controlled battleship contests, music-controlled light shows, home electronics kits, ill-advised science experiments (like the Mentos-Diet Coke explosions), and even a barn full of people who make their own clothing, pillows, bags, and more. Basically, it's a weekend celebration of how human freedom combined with technology creates a pleasing but cacophonous symphony of coolness.

And yet the Maker Faire takes place against a backdrop of increasing constraints on our freedom to innovate with technology, as Oxford University researcher Jonathan Zittrain points out in his latest book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (Yale University Press). After spending several years investigating the social and political rules that govern the Internet -- and spearheading the Net censorship tracking project OpenNet Initiative -- Zittrain looks back on the Net's development and predicts a dystopian future. What's chilling is that his dystopia is already coming to pass.

Zittrain traces the Net's history through three phases. Initially it was composed of what he calls "sterile" technologies: vast mainframes owned by IBM, which companies could rent time on. What made those technologies sterile is that nobody could experiment with them (except IBM), and therefore innovation related to them stagnated.

That's why the invention of the desktop PC and popularization of the Internet ushered in an era of unprecedented high-tech innovation. Zittrain calls these open-ended technologies "generative." Anybody can build other technologies that work with them. So, for example, people built Skype and the World Wide Web, both software technologies that sit on top of the basic network software infrastructure of the Internet. Similarly, anybody can build a program that runs on Windows.

But Zittrain thinks we're seeing the end of the freewheeling Internet and PC era. He calls the technologies of today "tethered" technologies. Tethered technologies are items like iPhones or many brands of DVR -- they're sterile to their owners, who aren't allowed to build software that runs on them. But they're generative to the companies that make them, in the sense that Comcast can update your DVR remotely, or Apple can brick your iPhone remotely if you try to do something naughty to it (like run your own software program on it).

In some ways, tethered technologies are worse than plain old sterile technologies. They allow for abuses undreamed of in the IBM mainframe era. For example, iPhone tethering could lead to law enforcement going to Apple and saying, "Please activate the microphone on this iPhone that we know is being carried by a suspect." The device turns into an instant bug, without all the fuss of following the suspect around or installing surveillance crap in her apartment. This isn't idle speculation, by the way. OnStar, the manufacturer of a car emergency system, was asked by law enforcement to activate the mics in certain cars using its system. It refused and went to court.

Zittrain's solution to the tethering problem is to encourage the existence of communities like the ones who participate in Maker Faire or who edit Wikipedia. These are people who work together to create open, untethered technologies and information repositories. They are the force that pushes back against companies that want to sterilize the Internet and turn it back into something that spits information at you, television-style. I think this is a good start, but there are a lot of problems with depending on communities of DIY enthusiasts to fix a system created by corporate juggernauts. As I mentioned in my column ("User-Generated Censorship," 4/30/08), you can't always depend on communities of users to do the right thing. In addition, companies can create an incredibly oppressive tethering regime while still allowing users to think they have control. Tune in next week, and I'll tell you how Zittrain's solution might lead to an even more dystopian future.

User-Generated Censorship

There's a new kind of censorship online, and it's coming from the grassroots. Thanks to new, collaborative, social media networks, it's easier than ever for people to get together and destroy freedom of expression. They're going DIY from the bottom up -- instead of the way old-school censors used to do it, from the top down. Call it user-generated censorship.

Now that anyone with access to a computer and a network connection can post almost anything they want online for free, it's also increasingly the case that anyone with computer access and a few friends can remove anything they want online. And they do it using the same software tools.

Here's how it works: let's say you're a community activist who has some pretty vehement opinions about your city government. You go to Blogger.com, which is owned by Google, and create a free blog called Why the Municipal Government in Crappy City Sucks. Of course, a bunch of people in Crappy City disagree with you -- and maybe even hate you personally. So instead of making mean comments on your blog, they decide to shut it down.

At the top of your Blogger blog, there is a little button that says "flag this blog." When somebody hits that button, it sends a message to Google that somebody thinks the content on your blog is "inappropriate" in some way. If you get enough flags, Google will shut down your blog. In theory, this button would only be used to flag illegal stuff or spam. But there's nothing stopping your enemies in town from getting together an online posse to click the button a bunch of times. Eventually, your blog will be flagged enough times that Google will take action.

And this is where things get interesting. Google has the option of simply shutting down your access to the blog. They rarely do that, though, unless it's a situation where your blog is full of illegal content, like copyright-infringing videos. Generally what Google does if you get a lot of flags is make your blog impossible to find. Nobody will be able to find it if they search Blogger or Google. The only people who will find it are people who already know about it and have the exact URL.

This is censorship, user-generated style. And it works because the only way to be seen in a giant network of user-generated content like Blogger (or MySpace, or Flickr, or any number of others) is to be searchable. If you want to get the word out about Crappy City online, you need for people searching Google for "Crappy City" to find your blog and learn about all the bad things going on there. What good is your free speech if nobody can find it?

Most sites that have user-generated content, like photo-sharing site Flickr and video-sharing site YouTube, use a system of flags similar to Blogger's that allow users to censor each other. Sometimes you have to pick a good reason why you are flagging content -- YouTube offers you a drop-down menu with about 20 choices -- and sometimes you just flag it as "unsafe" or "inappropriate." Generally, most sites respond to flagging the same way: they make the flagged stuff unsearchable and unfindable.

Censorship isn't working the old-fashioned way. Your videos and blogs aren't being removed. They're simply being hidden in the deluge of user-generated information. To be unsearchable on the Web is, in a very real sense, to be censored. But you're not being censored by an authority from on high. You're being censored by the mob.

That's why I find myself rolling my eyes when I hear people getting excited about "the wisdom of crowds" and "crowdsourcing" and all that crap. Sure, crowds can be wise and they can get a lot of work done. But they also can also be destructive, cruel, and stupid. They can prevent work from being done as easily as they can make it easier. And just as the Web is making it easier for crowds to collaborate, the Web is also making it simple for mobs to crush free expression.

The Color Wars

Imagine that you had a group of friends and acquaintances you saw every day at school or at work, and one morning instead of saying "How are you?" they suddenly started saying, "Have you joined one of our teams yet?" At first, you would dismiss it as some dumb joke you missed on The Colbert Report the night before. But it keeps going: "I'm on white team. But Bob's on blue team," your pal says to you later. "Are you on the puce team?"

At this point, you truthfully believe that everybody has gone fucking crazy and that the people you thought were your friends are actually a bunch of kids living on that island from the movie Battle Royale (2000) where everybody has to kill one another for arbitrary reasons determined by a capricious authority figure who thinks he's a comedian.

This actually happened to me last week on a social network called Twitter, an online service that lets you send short messages to people on your list of friends. As you look at your Twitter "stream," you'll see your friends' names and short "tweets" about what they're doing or how they're feeling. When you work at home and don't have office pals to say hello to in the morning, Twitter is your surrogate office chit-chat zone. In the morning, I see my friends saying things like, "Yawn, I'm drinking coffee" or "Gotta finish this awesome project." In the evening, people will say, "Going to Sugarlump Café -- anyone want to come hang out?" Though I'm home on my computer, Twitter keeps me in touch with the social world.

But last week, for the first time, I felt like my friendly chat zone had become a freaky arena of prototribal warfare. And not the good kind of tribal warfare like in the recent flick Doomsday, with punk rock cannibals and Malcolm McDowell dressed as a medieval king. Everybody had started joining colored teams. I kept getting messages like the ones I described earlier, where people were saying, "I'm on blueteam! I'm on greenteam! What is your team?"

Finally, after hours of this, I typed a quick message to everybody: "I do not want to join a team." One of my friends replied, "OK, I've set up a team for you -- noteam! You can join that!"

No. I do not join colored teams. I don't join nonteams just to feel like I'm part of the team-joiners. I do not like when social spaces degenerate into meaningless competitions. It seems too much like Facebook.

I had to get to the bottom what the hell was going on. After a few quick searches, I discovered that the color wars were started by a popular Web personality named Ze Frank, who is most famous for doing funny shit online and creatively promoting the hell out of it. He decided it would be fun to say he was on "blue team" and then see how many people would join it or join other teams in response. On his blog, he wrote that it would be just like summer camp, where everybody joined a colored team and played tug-of-war or egg toss.

Except there are no potato sack races on Twitter. It's a communications medium, not a freaking summer camp. I love the hell out of tug-of-war and summer camp, but if you want to do that, why not create a "summer camp" group on Twitter and get everybody to go out to the park, form teams, and do shit? And then -- post all of the photos on Flickr? Why divide a gregarious social space into meaningless factions?

The whole thing depressed me more than it should have because it confirmed my worst suspicions about humanity: one, that people will blindly do what a charismatic figure asks them to do even if it's stupid; and two, that in the absence of conflict, people will still race to form teams that fight each other for no reason. This team thing took over a huge portion of the Twitter social network within a day. It spread that fast -- as fast, perhaps, as our desire to form alliances based on conflict.

So forgive me if I can't think of Ze Frank's little game as something "fun," like summer camp. It was about as fun as the Stanford Prison Experiment, and just as revealing.

BRAND NEW STORIES