Monthly Archives: January 2010

Response to Daily Life in Cyberspace

Two things struck me as particularly interesting when reading Rheinold’s piece.

The first is the fact that these online communities were in large part created, designed, and structured by ex-commune members and old hippies. Having grown up in the age of the internet and being only a standard internet user (i.e. Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, and Youtube are probably my most visited sites), I’ve never thought of the web as something which could be used as a potentially left-leaning tool for communication in any way. Of course, now it makes total sense that something like the web (and specifically these types of online communities) is actually pretty progressive, in that it’s largely uncensored, encourages free thought and [written] speech, and is pretty much ungoverned by a higher authority.  

The second thing I found interesting was Rheingold’s lack of any mention of the potential dangers of online communities pose. The anecdotes he provides about coming to know specific WELL users personally on are interesting and engaging, but pretty unlikely today. I feel like early on, I was always warned about not giving any real information about yourself online to strangers. Particularly in the age of Myspace, I remember hearing horror stories about teens meeting people online who turned out to be pedophiles. I don’t know how often this actually occurred, but I definitely feel that privacy has become a much larger concern than Rheingold might have predicted.

"Robots evolve to learn cooperation, hunting"

If robots, like animals, undergo natural selection as they evolve, they will “develop adaptive abilities to hunt prey, cooperate, and even help one another,” according to Swiss researchers.  As described in PLoS Biology Journal, robots, like the ones in the picture above, can alter actions such as movement without and homing methods within 100 “generations.”

These ‘bots are managed by a neural network that mutates in accordance to received sensory information. The robots who were able to adapt the best to the selected course were considered to be the fosters of the next “generation.” These robots were used for their parts to be passed  over to the following generation.  Within 100 generations, the robots were able to successfully maneuver a maze without hitting any walls.

In another experiment the robots were instructed to push round discs along a wall for points. The robots actually worked together to push the larger objects to earn points for their whole group and often times would sacrifice their own points for the betterment of the group.

The researchers also found that the robots emulated hunting techniques in other experiments and would actually lay low in wait for prey, while the robots being hunted, would  rotate in place, to reduce the probability of being confronted on a side without a sensor.

I mean, I don’t know how much this really says about robot evolution and its similar nature to humans, but I definitely found this article interesting.  There’s no mention of “thought” and its adoption by robots… but maybe this is the direction Turning was predicting?

Online communities

I find the most significant question that arises out of Rheingold’s “Daily Life in Cyberspace” to be, how well can a virtual community replace a real one? And is there even a difference between the two?

Rheingold’s portrayal of the heady early days of the Internet reveals something that is becoming exceedingly true today. We are addicted to communication and information and it doesn’t so much matter where or what is satiating this desire, as how much and how fast can we receive it. My guess is that this phenomenon has its roots in our social evolution. For example, as we learned in my neuropsychology class last semester, humans aren’t terribly strong or fast compared to other animals in the wild: our strength is that we can band together to form incredibly cohesive groups that are able to create a stable core that allows us to survive. By and large, a human cannot survive on his own and thus requires communication for survival.

Additionally, the ability to survive is also dependent on being aware of one’s surroundings. We are quite good at taking in vast amounts of information and the more we can get the better. I think this is why we have the news. I have a friend who once told me that she gets breaking news text updates from CNN that often wake her up in the middle of the night. I was dumbfounded and asked her why. She said “I want to know what’s going on the world,” as if a bomb going off in Pakistan really had any effect on her life. It’s more about just wanting to know. The New York Times published a great article in 2008 called “Overfeeding on Information” in which it reported that news information is not just reassuring (“In times when people think their fate is tied to enormous events that are out of their hands, stockpiling information can give some people a sense of control, social scientists said”) but it is also valuable in terms of maintaining social bonds (“for those whose social circles think of knowledge as power, having the latest information can also enhance status”).

So, with the WELL, it’s easy to see what makes it so appealing, and intoxicating. It combines these two fundamental human drives of information and communication into one website with plenty of members. The same could be said about any community existing outside of cyberspace though, too. I guess it’s a little eerie to think that of our social drives as biological as, say, eating, but this seems to be the case. However, before while we were restricted by factors like distance and temporality and just the normal conventions that humans interacted in, now it is always possible to find an online community that is available and active. With the Internet, when it comes to social interaction and relevant information, we take as much as we can get to the point of dependency.

Daily Life in Cyberspace: How the Computerized Counterculture Built a New Kind of Place

The Whole Earth Catalog publication was a visionary endeavor undertaken by the counterculture that was able to economically prosper and from it, in 1985, sprung The WELL: “the birthplace of the online community movement.” Members of the counterculture realized that technology could be used for a new form of communication that had not been utilized by computers previously.  The PC industry was the next defining topic of this generation. Deadheads became the largest consumers in this budding enterprise.

The WELL was “consciously a cultural experiment” and was founded with 3 goals in mind: 1. “to facilitate communications among interesting people in the San Francisco Bay area,” 2. “to provide sophisticated conferencing at a revolutionary low price,”

and 3. “to bring e-mail to the masses.”

Its founders believed The WELL should be free (or as close to free as possible,) profitable, an “open ended universe,” “self-governing, a “self-designing experiment” (having its users define its system,)  and finally, seen as a “community.”

This “community,” that would be be created, would not necessarily be a “conflict-free environment.” Users would need to believe in the “possibility of community” for its preservation.  There has to be something that brings them back to these chat rooms. “Reciprocity” plays a large role in this new culture.  People learn to offer information without the promise of receiving anything of interest back within the near future, which is a risk most people are not willing to take.

The WELL is made up of many people, many thoughts, and many beliefs. The problem with this new stage of thought/information sharing unfortunately is that there is an excess of information out there and few effective ways to process it all.  “Computer conference conversations are dialogues that are situated in a specific place and time. The place is a cognitive and social one, not a geographic place.” These conversations transcend “traditional hierarchical organizational boundaries,” which I find the most interesting point in the reading. The fact that people from all over the world, with varying skill levels and experience, can come together in one landless place, despite their differences, amazes me.

Of course the children of the counterculture saw the potential in this technology !

Digital Sweatshops?

One of the things I think is fascinating is how our perspective on an economic issue is defined by the issue’s effects on either buyers or sellers. Consider our perspective on falling media prices, whether it be the declining price of music to the availability of free content on the Internet. Most of us, as consumers but not producers of this content, would view it as an unalloyed positive development. But what about the producers?

I used to use a service called Mechanical Turk. It was a “work at home” job that had employers put job offers on the websites and producers (like myself) accept jobs for pay. What always amazed me was the low wage paid by these jobs. For instance, the average pay for a “service writer” in the United States is currently $35K. I just went on Mechanical Turk and found a job to write a 400 word article on a health insurance companies for $2.50. You would have to write 14,000 articles per year in order to make the average pay for a low-level writer in the United States. And the example I gave is one of the more generous ones — I’ve seen other jobs offer $.25 to write about topics.

My first reaction was to think about the implications of these low-paying jobs on labor laws and ethical issues. If you think it’s unethical to buy clothes made in a sweatshop, how ethical is it to read an article written by someone making less than US minimum wage? The analogy to outsourcing is more apt than one might initially realize, since Amazon Turk offers pay in Indian rupees as well as US dollars. Similarly, should companies be able to contract work out and avoid labor laws simply by having people work at home as “contractors?” I worked for a text answering company called kgb_ that paid individuals $.10 per text and required “contractors” to work certain hours a month. From personal experience, I can tell you that it is almost IMPOSSIBLE to make minimum wage working that job. Should it be legal to hire workers and DESIGN the job to violate labor requirements? If we exempt online jobs from these laws, what’s the point of having those laws for non-online jobs?

The broader question that Internet users have to encounter is: Do you get what you pay for? Here is an answer from Google Answers concerning the sale of “International Editions” of certain textbooks. You don’t have to read it, but I am always amazed at the detail and precision with which the question was answered. Let’s take a sample of what you give up by refusing to pay for content. Or this one, which I found to be even more appalling. Now, there are several problems with this answer, and I would ordinarily be willing to give the writer of this answer the benefit of the doubt.  However, a Google search for “Amazon international edition” brings up Yahoo! Answers as its first result.

I read another article here about a company called Demand Media, which pays users to create content that is ad-supported. On the one hand, this content is made free by the Internet obviously benefits those who would not want to pay for the content provided.  On the other hand, the low pay provided by many of these services   That text messaging service I mentioned earlier had a database of all of the questions they had previously answered.  What amazed me was how TERRIBLE most of theseanswers were; they were often irrelevant or, worse, wrong.

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I thought I’d share my favorite website with you guys. It’s called “designboom” and it has some of the most amazing designs ever. They have competitions and I love looking through the winning entries to find the most insane inventions ever. We’ve talked about using technology and innovation for a greater good and there are a lot of designboom competitions that encourage and push designers (amateur and professional) to design things that could be used to improve the world.

Some standouts:

A rocking chair with a lamp that lights up from the power of the person rocking by Rochus Jacob

A LED lamp that can be placed anywhere by Cornelius Comanns

Shelter in a cart by Panagiotis Dramitinos, Karaolis Alkis, and Alexandros Papageorgiou

It’s basically just awesome to see all the new ideas people have and think about what the future may be like!

A New Discovery! Scientific Breakthrough!

Reading the articles of last week got me thinking of a machine I’ve created in my mind which will significantly improve and facilitate human lives. It all started with my annoyance at how I never know how many calories I’m taking in each day and my curiosity of how much I’m burning, compared to my intake. So I imagined a machine, a small flat, paper-thin screen attached to a human body that scans and calculates all the processes going on. It will not only calculate amount of calories, fat, sugars, vitamins, etc, but will be adjusted to a person’s individual rhythms and will suggest improvements based on the diet (for example, it can identify deficiency of vitamin A and suggest you eat more foods containing that vitamin). In addition to that, it might suggest different types of physical activity that are suitable for the body type and any body conditions the individual might have (for example, if he/she has a sprained ankle, it will only pick out work-outs that do not strain it additionally). Further on, it will be able to scan the whole body to identify health problems (anywhere from a unheathly BMI to heart conditions, liver damage or cancerous cells). There will be no more need for x-rays or blood tests; no visits to the doctor to diagnose, only to treat (by, for example, showing a health report compiled by the machine). No more weighing scales, body thermometers, nutrition information, blood pressure or sugar levels gadgets. This baby will have it all. Some might argue that such a machine forces people to know how many calories they eat and thus takes some of the simple pleasure of eating away. Therefore, there will be options to shut this specific function, or others, off. The idea of being able to diagnose a potential tumor or a heart attack right away can save millions of lives. The implications are countless.

I envision such a device to work in the following way: millions of robot-submarines (already invented), as small as (or smaller) than red blood cells will travel through the body, communicate with each other and send signals to the main screen, which will display the outcomes of the surveys they make. It will then make connections between the different outcomes so as to come to a general conclusion. In my opinion, this is not a wishful-thinking machine since some of the components I discuss are already in existence. The next step would be to just put it all together.

Daily Life in Cyberspace

I found “Daily Life in Cyberspace” to be one of the more engaging readings of the class so far. The WELL as starki09 points out is very similar to our current cyber community, even if the technology itself is different. So, in this sense it felt extremely relevant. To me, however, the point Rheingold makes that stands out is his characterization of the personal computers as a form of counterculture. Today, the web and computers are enmeshed in daily life. Computers are used for the most mundane and corporate of functions; it is all too easy to forget the dazzling array of creative and intellectual possibilities made possible by this technology.
I think part of the reason why my perception of the Internet has been so different than that of Rheingold is that I generally don’t conceive of the resources of the web as connected to individual people. With the exception of social networking sites like Facebook, I rarely imagine individual people shaping the web. Somehow I imagine it as a distinct entity removed from individual impact.
The section of “Daily Life in Cyberspace” called “Persons” really helped me to reverse this image. The description of the participants of the WELL really made me feel like I had a more tangible understanding of why this community was so highly valued by Rheingold. Additionally, the biographies of new users emphasized the diversity of experiences that converged in this system and the potential for knowledge and shared understandings that this kind of interaction affords.
However, in my day-to-day Internet use I have not stumbled upon any sites that have both this same community feel AND the wealth of information described in the article. I’m starting to release that as much as the Internet feels like a part of my daily life, my use of the Internet is in fact quite limited. Does anyone have any experience with sites that could expose me to the same type of discussions and community of the WELL? If so, have you found these sites helpful? I’m really curious about exploring this kind of forum, but I don’t want it to be another huge procrastination tool in my life. Suggestions?

An Exploration of Literature and Latte

In class last Wednesday, we briefly discussed the Mac app Scrivener. To refresh everyone’s memories, Scrivener is a tool designed to aid writers in the creative and research process. This technology is especially exciting to me because one of my goals for 2010 is to edit the work I have created the past two semesters in creative writing classes. Frankly, the prospect of piecing together all the drafts and comments is incredibly daunting. So I downloaded the free 30-day trial and began experimenting.
As someone who is admittedly somewhat out of touch with new technologies, I was surprised at how many things I liked about Scrivener. While I still have a lot of tinkering around to do in order to truly understand all that the technology is capable of, I really love the organization and structure the program provides to a process that is messy and difficult to manage. Instead of having to organize the physical pages of countless drafts, sheets of research, and sources of inspiration into a system that is somehow comprehensive, a system is already in place and the clutter (and waste) of paper is drastically reduced or entirely eliminated.
At first I worried that the paperless system would be more difficult to interact with, but visually Scrivener is quite accessible. I think my favorite feature is the corkboard, where you can lay out notes and tag them to specific documents. My appreciation of the visual layout of Scrivener really drove home the point we were discussing about the cultural significance of paper. The main reason I found Scrivener appealing was that it mimicked the way one would organize a novel using paper. The index cards on the corkboard look identical to the ones I would place on a bulletin board in my room without requiring a physical space.
One of the main advantages I see about Scrivener is that it has the potential to speed up the creative process. While it seems strange to think of making a more efficient creative process, it will allow writers to be more prolific and increase the amount of literature that is being put out there. That said it is possible to take the goal of efficiency too far. One review I read of Scrivener was on the National Novel Writing Month webpage that recommended Scrivener for its participants. After reading their review, I skimmed the rest of the website which described the competition as writing an entire 175 page novel in the month of November. I was somewhat appalled to find that the goal of the program was “quantity not quality.”
The program in some ways is enticing as it provides incentive for aspiring novelists to write a novel in entirety. In some ways, I’m tempted to attempt it next November, just to give it a try. However, I think that advertising Scrivener as a technology to aid in the creation of “quantity, not quality” is deceptive. The main advantage of Scrivener as far as I can see is its ability to assist the author in the most important part of the process: rewriting. It is through rewriting that the shapeless quantity morphs into a more substantive piece of true quality.

Our Daily Lives in Cyberspace

It seems like, for the past few discussions, we’ve been talking about how much change the future has brought. However, with Rheingold’s Daily Life in Cyberspace I realized that many things don’t change. The people who, in 1985, pioneered WELL aren’t that different from us. While the WELL system which Rheingold describes would, in all likelihood, look alien to us, its structure and ideals are omnipresent around the internet of today. While “our” daily lives in Cyberspace have evolved “we” haven’t.
While technology has taken the world of BBS (now extending into social networking) to a whole other level, the fundamentals are the same. We still see people messaging each other, looking up and sharing useful information in a similar manner to WELLs. Sites like Wikipedia, eHow, and even Facebook seem to have been inspired by WELL. However, I think the key aspect of the lack of complete change can be attributed to the people using these sites. Rheingold’s random sampling of users from 1991 reveals that people from all walks of life were using the internet. The diversity show here is just as, if not more, prevalent in our digital society. The fact that the people entrenched in this online culture are similar to those who were in the days of WELLs is why, while the face of these types of sites have changed, their essence is the same.
Looking at all of the message boards and social networking we have now, it’s clear that their roots lie in WELL and programs similar to it. While the advancement of technology has changed the face of these services, their goals and ideals still seem to be fundamentally the same as when WELL was around. The important thing, it seems, is not the programs, but the people using them, which is why I guess that our daily lives in Cyberspace aren’t that different from how they were in the past.