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Posts Tagged ‘Internet

“The Net is the new underlying infrastructure for civilization itself”*…




Most governments have traditionally argued that there are certain critical societal assets that should be built, managed, and controlled by public entities — think streets, airports, fire fighting, parks, policing, tunnels, an army. (And in just about every rich country except this one, access to and/or the provision of health care.) The choice to have, say, a city-owned park reflects two key facts: first, a civic judgment that having green outdoor spaces is important to the city; and second, that free parks open to all are unlikely to be produced by private companies driven by a motive for profit.

When it comes to the Internet we all live on, huge swaths of it are owned, controlled, and operated by private companies — companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Twitter. In many cases, those companies’ public impacts aren’t in any significant conflict with their private motivations for profit. But in some cases… they are. Is there room for a public infrastructure that can offer an alternative to (or reduce the harm done by) those tech giants?

A diagnosis of the issue with a set of proposed remedies: “Public infrastructure isn’t just bridges and water mains: Here’s an argument for extending the concept to digital spaces.”

This article is based on a piece by Ethan Zuckerman, written for the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia, in which he lays out what he calls the case for digital public infrastructure. (He also published a summary of it here.)

Pair with this consideration of another piece of our political/social/economic “infrastructure,” corporate law, and its effects– contract, property, collateral, trust, corporate, and bankruptcy law, an “empire of law”: “How ‘Big Law’ Makes Big Money.”

* Doc Searles


As we contemplate the commons, we might recall that it was on this date in 1865 that the U.S. government dismantled a monstrous piece of “infrastructure” when Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and submitted it to the states for ratification.

The amendment abolished slavery with the declaration: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Thomas Nast’s engraving, “Emancipation,” 1865



Written by LW

January 31, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Reality is not a function of the event as event, but of the relationship of that event to past, and future, events”*…



Dr. Leonard Kleinrock poses beside the processor in the UCLA lab where the first ARPANET message was sent


The first message transmitted over ARPANET, the pioneering Pentagon-funded data-sharing network, late in the evening on October 29, 1969, was incomplete due to a technical error. UCLA graduate student Charley Kline was testing a “host to host” connection across the nascent network to a machine at SRI in Menlo Park, California, and things seemed to be going well–until SRI’s machine, operated by Bill Duvall, crashed partway through the transmission, meaning the only letters received from the attempted “login” were “lo.”

Kline thought little of the event at the time, but it’s since become the stuff of legend and poetic reinterpretation. “As in, lo and behold!” ARPANET developer and early internet icon Leonard Kleinrock says, grinning as he recounts the story in the 2016 Werner Herzog documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. Others have interpreted the truncated transmission as “a stuttered hello”; one camp argues it was a prescient “LOL.”

It’s a staple of tech hagiography to inject history’s banal realities with monumental foresight and noble intentions; Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated as much recently, when he claimed Facebook was founded in response to the Iraq War, rather than to rate the attractiveness of Harvard women. It’s understandable to wish that ARPANET’s inaugural message, too, had offered a bit more gravity, given all that the network and its eventual successor, the internet, hath wrought upon the world. But perhaps the most enduring truth of the internet is that so many of its foundational moments and decisive turning points—from Kline’s “lo” to Zuckerberg’s late-night coding sessions producing a service for “dumb fucks” at Harvard—emerged from ad hoc actions and experiments undertaken with little sense of foresight or posterity. In this respect, the inaugural “lo” was entirely apt…

Fifty years after the first successful (or, successful enough) transmission across the ARPANET, we’ve effectively terraformed the planet into a giant computer founded on the ARPANET’s architecture. The messages transmitted across it have certainly become more complex, but the illusion that its ad-hoc infrastructure developed in a political vacuum has become harder and harder to maintain. That illusion has been pierced since 2016, but the myth that seems poised to replace it—that technology can in fact automate away bias and politics itself—is no less insidious.

The vapidity of the first ARPANET message is a reminder of the fallacy of this kind of apolitical, monumental storytelling about technology’s harms and benefits. Few isolated events in the development of the internet were as heroic as we may imagine, or as nefarious as we may fear. But even the most ad hoc of these events occurred in a particular ideological context. What is the result of ignoring or blithely denying that context? Lo and behold: It looks a lot like 2019.

Half a century after the first ARPANET message, pop culture still views connectivity as disconnected from the political worldview that produced it.  The always-illuminating Ingrid Burrington argues that that’s a problem: “How We Misremember the Internet’s Origins.”

“Is everyone who lives in Ignorance like you?” asked Milo.
“Much worse,” he said longingly. “But I don’t live here. I’m from a place very far away called Context.”
Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

* Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men


As we ruminate on roots, we might send carefully-coded birthday greetings to Gordon Eubanks; he was born on this date in 1946.  A microcomputer pioneer, he earned his PhD studying under Garry Kildall, who founded Digital Research; his dissertation was BASIC-E, a compiler designed for Kildall’s CP/M operating system.  In 1981, after DR lost the IBM operating system contract to Microsoft (per yesterday’s almanac entry), Eubanks joined DR to create new programming languages.  He soon came to doubt DR’s viability, and left to join Symantec, where he helped develop Q & A, an integrated database and wordprocessor with natural language query. He rose through Symantec’s ranks to become it’s President and CEO.  Later he became president and CEO of Oblix, a silicon valley startup that creates software for web security (acquired by Oracle in 2005).

eubanks source


Written by LW

November 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“PLATO was my Alexandria. It was my library, it was the place where I could attach myself to anything.”*…




One upon a time [in the 60s and 70s], there was a computer network with thousands of users across the world. It featured chat rooms, message boards, multiplayer games, a blog-like newspaper, and accredited distance learning, all piped to flat-panel plasma screens that were also touchscreens. And it wasn’t the internet.

It was PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), and its original purpose was to harness the power of the still-obscure world of computing as a teaching tool. Developing PLATO required simultaneous quantum leaps in technological sophistication, and it worked—college and high-school students quickly learned how to use it, and also pushed it to do new things.

Despite decades of use at major universities, it all but vanished in the 1980s and from popular memory in the years that followed, a victim of the microcomputer revolution. At its peak, PLATO was surprisingly similar to the modern internet, and it left its DNA in technology we still use today…

The story of the ur-internet: “PLATO.”

* novelist Richard Powers (who was a coder before he turned to literary fiction)


As we log on, we might send super birthday greetings to Seymour Roger Cray; he was born on this date in 1925.  An electrical engineer and computer architect, he designed a series of computers that were the fastest in the world for decades, and founded Cray Research which built many of these machines– effectively creating the “supercomputer” industry and earning the honorific “father of supercomputing.”


With a Cray-1



Written by LW

September 28, 2019 at 1:01 am

“There’s a compounding and unraveling chaos that is perpetually in motion in the Dark Web’s toxic underbelly”*…


Dark Web


CIRCL, Luxembourg’s computer security incident response team, has published a dataset of 37,500 .onion website screenshots, a subset of which have been categorized by topic (e.g., “drugs-narcotics”, “extremism”, “finance”) and/or purpose (e.g., “forum”, “file-sharing”, “scam”)

Via Jeremy Singer-Vine’s fascinating Data is Plural.

[For more background see “WTF is Dark Web?,” whence the image above]

* James Scott, Senior Fellow, Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology


As we grab our flashlights, we might recall that it was on this date in 1979 that CompuServe launched the first consumer-oriented online information service, which they called MicroNET (and marketed via Radio Shack)– the first time a consumer had access to services such as e-mail.

The service was not initially favored internally within the business-oriented CompuServe, but as the service became a hit, they renamed it CompuServe Information Service, or CIS.  By the mid-1980’s CompuServe was the largest consumer information service in the world and half their revenue came from CIS.

In 1989 CompuServe connected its proprietary e-mail system to the Internet e-mail system, making it one of the first commercial Internet services.  But CompuServe did not compete well with America On-Line or independent Internet Service Providers in the 1990’s and rapidly lost its dominant market position.

compuserve-300x205 source


Written by LW

September 24, 2019 at 1:01 am

“One of the things I did not understand, was that these systems can be used to manipulate public opinion in ways that are quite inconsistent with what we think of as democracy”*…



Nineteen years ago, in his third annual call for answers to an Annual Question, John Brockman asked members of the Edge community what they believed to be “today’s [2000’s] most important unreported story.” The remarkable Howard Rheingold (@hrheingold) answered in a way that has turned out to be painfully prophetic…

The way we learn to use the Internet in the next few years (or fail to learn) will influence the way our grandchildren govern themselves. Yet only a tiny fraction of the news stories about the impact of the Net focus attention on the ways many to-many communication technology might be changing democracy — and those few stories that are published center on how traditional political parties are using the Web, not on how grassroots movements might be finding a voice…

Every communication technology alters governance and political processes. Candidates and issues are packaged and sold on television by the very same professionals who package and sell other commodities. In the age of mass media, the amount of money a candidate can spend on television advertising is the single most important influence on the electoral success. Now that the Internet has transformed every desktop into a printing press, broadcasting station, and place of assembly, will enough people learn to make use of this potential? Or will our lack of news, information, and understanding of the Net as a political tool prove insufficient against the centralization of capital, power, and knowledge that modern media also make possible?…

The political power afforded to citizens by the Web is not a technology issue. Technology makes a great democratization of publishing, journalism, public discourse possible, but does not determine whether or not that potential will be realized. Every computer connected to the Net can publish a manifesto, broadcast audio and video eyewitness reports of events in real time, host a virtual community where people argue about those manifestos and broadcasts. Will only the cranks, the enthusiasts, the fringe groups take advantage of this communication platform? Or will many-to-many communication skills become a broader literacy, the way knowing and arguing about the issues of the day in print was the literacy necessary for the American revolution?…

The Scylla and Charybdis of which Howard warned– centralization-by-capital/political power and atomization-into-cacophony (whether via the pollution of manipulation/”fake news” or simple tribalism)– is now all too apparent… even if it’s not at all clear how we sail safely between them.  It’s almost 20 years later– but not too late to heed Howard’s call, which you can read in full at “How Will The Internet Influence Democracy?

* Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google [as Howard’s 2000 insight dawns on him in 2017, source]


As we try harder, we might recall that it was on this date in 1911 that financier and “Father of Trusts” Charles R. Flint incorporated The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company as a holding company into which he rolled up manufacturers of record-keeping and measuring systems: Bundy Manufacturing Company, International Time Recording Company, The Tabulating Machine Company, and the Computing Scale Company of America.

Four years later Flint hired Thomas J. Watson, Sr. to run the company; nine years after that, in 1924, Watson organized the formerly disparate units into a single operating company, which he named “International Business Machines,” or as we now know it, IBM.

150px-CTR_Company_Logo source



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