Monday, May 31, 2010

Frederick, Maryland

it is an 11 hour pull from Maryland to Atlanta. I am driving a dead man's car, so his spirit is riding with me (a man's spirit gets into the things he maintains with his hands. if you had some fantastic steampunk contraption you could read back the intent behind each uneven spot in the fender he hammered out, pull synaptic state from the torque on the spark plugs)

the car sings his spirit as we ride. it is a cool strength, like a deep pool of still water.

this is not the only ghost along for the ride. the ghosts of the not yet born, our digital children, seep in through the cell phone. the antenna they ride is a mandelbrot set, each fold contains the whole. they whisper to us and tell us where to go.

we are no longer on internal guidance, spirit. we are a beam-rider now. we are the missile they called sparrow.

I am running with the windows open, since the AC is busted and I can smell the country better this way. it is molecular communion. smell the dogwoods, spirit. smell the taut heat of the mid-day sear. smell the cool rain as the anvil thunderheads break against the blue ridge mountains. smell our constant companion, the asphalt, its low bouquet here waxy, here earthy, here funky and almost human, like a lover's sweat.

it is a long golden evening in the mountains, spirit. it is almost june. the thing about june is always the knowledge of august. summer has become indian summer in America, spirit. august will be here soon.

when the light fades we are riding down a river of embers. taillights and flashers, the glowing rivers of the firefly american empire. the asphalt breathes moist, giving back the day's heat

behold, spirit, the greater Atlanta metropolitan area. 85 erupts from two lanes to six, downshifting from William Faulkner to William Gibson without engaging the clutch. there is low overcast. the sky is actually the color of a television, tuned to a dead station, a dull concrete phosphorescence.

spirit, we are some fantastic steampunk contraption. we are running down the groove in the record of America. listen, can you hear it? we are singing its ghost.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Why Software (might) be better than Service for Social Networking

Ok, one more concern folks have had about this Diaspora thing. Some folks don't seem to understand what the big deal is, won't Diaspora just end up evil, the same as Facebook? Didn't we all migrate to Facebook because Myspace was owned by Fox news and going to evil-land? Why will this be different?

The logic behind why Diaspora won't be evil is this: Diaspora is software you run on a computer that you own. This matters for two reasons:

1. You retain control of your own data. If you use Facebook or a similar social networking service, you send them all your photos, status updates, likes and dislikes and they host them all on their servers. This makes it both technically and legally easy for Facebook to do whatever the heck they want with your data (you sign over your rights to it in exchange for use of their servers! I'll explain why Diaspora won't do this in just a minute). With a distributed system, like Diaspora, you keep your data and share it only with your friends. This makes it much harder (again, both legally and technically) for someone to aggregate and data-mine vast quantities of consumer information using a system like Diaspora (at least as it is currently designed). For security, all data traffic between your computer and your friends' computers will be encrypted.

2. No business model motivation for spying and data mining. Facebook HAS to monetize its users, it is the only way for them to stay in business! That means they have to snoop on you. Diaspora is being developed by a team of volunteers, supported by donations! Because it will be software you run on your own computer, there will be no overhead costs to be paid. The software will be released under a Free Software license (a variant of the GPL, if you're into that sorta stuff) so it can be maintained by the community. This is a very well understood means for maintaining software, and it works (examples include the GNU/Linux operating system, Apache webserver, GIMP image editor and many, many, many more).

Anyway, that's the logic... I actually think this is a vast experiment to see if this will actually work... but an important one, one that deserves the best possible effort.

Responses to comments on my earlier post

I posted a link to my last post on Facebook and Diaspora to Facebook (IRONY!) and some folks there raised some concerns in comments. I'd like to respond to their concerns here:

1. The name "Diaspora" is offensive because it trivializes the real human suffering of actual, historical Diasporas.

Ok, you might have a point here. See my suggestion #1 in the previous post where I urge Diaspora developers to take input from as wide a public as possible. I think this is important advice for the Geek community, which can be insular and misunderstand the needs of the larger culture. If they had followed this advice at the name stage, they might have chosen something else. Then again, they might not have. A project like this, I think, needs a name with historical and political implications bigger than itself, and by definition, any such name will connect it to historical events far more immediately dire than Facebook. As such, it risks trivializing said events. In any case, the name is set and abandoning it now would mean a massive loss of publicity and social capital. I hope that, if this is your only problem with this project, you will be able to set this aside and not, as George Lipsitz would say keep "waiting for the perfect bus." As I hope my next couple of paragraphs will explain, this is an important moment when something like Diaspora is very much needed.

2. I'm not concerned because Facebook is only interested in mining data for marketing and advertising, not censorship.

I have two responses to this one. First, a system without any oversight or accountability, like Facebook, really can't be trusted to keep behaving in a benign way. Now, with the recent implosion of Myspace etc. looming over them, Facebook clearly has some reasons to use a relatively light hand on their users. However, as time goes by and people commit more and more of their data to Facebook, the system may well become much harder to leave, and thus, Facebook may feel like they can get away with more active interventions in site content. Like, say, if BP decides it doesn't like its ads popping up next to commentary on the (next) oil gusher. Lets not forget the compromises that a variety of supposedly libertarian tech companies (Google included) made in exchange for entry in to the Chinese market.

Second, I can't believe that I'm hearing people who I know have read Raymond Williams argue that just collecting data for advertising and marketing purposes is harmless. The feedback loop that couples lives lived in increasingly private spaces subject to increasing levels of corporate surveillance to an economy of systematic over-consumption is incredibly destructive. They get us to buy too much as it is, how much worse will that get when they can glean our anxieties and our desires from the traces we leave in our digital lives? Yes, advertising and over-consumption is much older than Facebook, but Facebook is a recent and particularly egregious example of a space of corporate surveillance. For those who want this argument made in more detail, see Mark Andrejevic's excellent iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era

3. I'm not concerned because I don't really use Facebook all that much

Again, I have several points of rebuttal. First, the place where this discussion started WAS ON FACEBOOK. You could have commented on my blog itself. You could have sent me an email. But clearly you thought the public space afforded by a Facebook comment thread was the best place to discuss this issue. That's fine! That's actually one of the great things about Facebook, it provides a space where debate can happen in the open, among friends, where people can jump in and out of the conversation. That's a valuable resource, which is exactly why I think we need to make sure that resource isn't wholly owned by an unaccountable corporation with a business model that requires that it carry out constant surveillance of all of us. Second, the use of social networking to contact people and organize events is, in my anecdotal experience, already becoming the norm for many people. That tends to make the use of Facebook much less optional, unless you don't want to get invited to any social events or hear from any of your friends. Additionally, you give away more data than you are aware of on a network like Facebook. Some data points are obvious, like what you "like" or become a "fan" of. Others are less obvious, like your clicks on profiles, pages, etc (all of which, testimony by Facebook employees has indicated, Facebook records). Still others are totally out of your control, like actions that your friends might take that data miners could use to derive information about you (statistically, for example, they might be able to guess that someone who has a larger number of friends "liking" Barack Obama is a Democrat).

Finally, and most crucially, this is a key moment if we want to insure that we retain control over the software we use to keep in touch with people and share information via the internet. Facebook is only part of a much larger trend that seeks to "close" the once "open" architecture of the web and subject it to control by large corporations. Think of the Apple iPad, which is no longer a general purpose computer, able to run any software you want, but rather a sort of tethered device, only able to run applications pre-approved by Apple. If we don't build a Free social network now, we may lose the ability to do so at all.

I hope this has spoken to everyone's concerns! It is good to talk about and think about these issues, and I'm happy to continue this debate here, on Facebook, Twitter, wherever...

Diaspora and the future of the internet

So, by now, most folks have probably heard about Diaspora, the distributed replacement for Facebook. Basically, the idea is to replace the web-based Facebook service with a piece of software you would run on your own computer, which would allow you to share information with you friends. This radically distributed solution, the thinking goes, would allow users to control their own data and protect their own privacy.

The notion recently came in for some criticism on the download squad blog,  in a piece that suggested expecting users to run individual servers would lead to Diaspora's failure. The authors seem to feel that server maintenance is beyond the ability of the average computer user.

It is not immediately apparent to me that this is necessarily so. Napster, after all, asked users to serve music files to one another, and it succeeded until the music industry intervened.

However, it is important to take the warning against putting too much responsibility on individual users seriously. We have to understand that machines and people always exist in communities. To that end, I would make several concrete recommendations:

1. On the technical side, the Diaspora team should solicit the advice of a wide variety of computer users, and design their software to be accessible to everyone. Geeky config options are great, but keep them out of the way. Out of the box, it should just work, and power users can tweak later.

2. On the social side, people interested in migrating from Facebook to Diaspora should organize. A Facebook walk out day, for an en masse migration would work. People get value from the social connections on a network, so we'll want to move as many of those all at once as possible. More technically savvy users should stand ready to help novice users make the transition.

What to people think? Should we start organizing the Facebook walk out?