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July 17, 2017

The Internet is also a thing

A list I am on is counseling that a particular writer not to be taken in by a tour of a data center or network operations center. These tours are typically given by PR guides and can leave the impression that the Internet is a set of writes owned by a corporation.

I certainly agree with both concerns. But, having been a Rube on a Tour more than once, I think technologists who are deep into protocol issues may underestimate how shocking it is to most people that the Internet is also a physical thing. Yes, I understand that the Internet is a set of protocols, etc., and I understand that that is usually what we need to communicate to people in order to counter the truly pernicious belief that Comcast et al. own the Internet. But the Internet is also, as instantiated, a set of coiled wires and massive industrial installations. Seeing the blinking lights on a bank of routers and being told by the PR Tour Guide that those signify packets going somewhere is, well, thrilling.

Every Internet user understands that there is a physical side of the Net. But seeing it in person is awesome and inspiring. That’s why Shuli Hallak‘s photos in Invisible Networks are so impressive.

It is tremendously important both conceptually and politically to understand that the Net is fundamentally not a thing and is not owned by anyone. But seeing in person the magnitude of the effort and the magnificence of the hardware engineering also teaches an important lesson: the Internet is not magic. At least not entirely.

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May 29, 2017

The Internet is an agreement

Jaap van Till has posted an aggregation of thoughts and links to remind us of what it seems we have so much trouble remembering: The Internet is not a thing but an agreement.

An internet, network of networks, is a voluntary agreement among network operators to exchange traffic for their mutual benefit. (The Internet is a prototype internet.) That’s all — it’s an agreement.

That’s from an earlier post by Jaap, which along the way links out to the World of Ends post that Doc Searls and I wrote in 2003 that aimed at explaining the Internet to legislators.

I sense that we are due for a shift in tides, maybe over the next two years, in which the point that needs making is not that the Internet is dangerous and sucks, but that it it is dangerous and sucks and is the greatest invention in the history of our species. Cf. Virginia Heffernan, Magic and Loss.)

This pendulum swing can’t come soon enough.

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December 3, 2016

[liveblog] Amber Case on making the Web fun again

I’m at the Web 1.0 conference, at the MIT Media Lab, organized by Amber Case [@caseorganic]. It’s a celebration of sites that can be built by a single person, she explains.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

The subtitle of Amber’s opening talk is “Where did my data go?” She talks about hosting sites that folded and took all the home pages with them. After AOL Hometown got angry comments about this, it AOL Hometown “solved” the problem by turning off comments“solved” the problem by turning off comments. Other bad things can happen to sites you build on other people’s sites. They can change your UI. And things other than Web sites can be shut down — including household items in the Internet of Things.

She shows the Maslow Hierarchy for Social Network Supermarkets from Chris Messina. So, what happened to owning your identity? At early Web conferences, you’d write your domain name on your ID tag. Your domain was your identity. RSS and Atom allowed for distributed reading. But then in the early 2000s social networks took over.

We started writing on third party platforms such as Medium and Wikia, but their terms of service make it difficult to own and transfer one’s own content.

The people who could have created the tools that would let us share our blogs went to work for the social networking sites. In 2010 there was a Federated Web movement that resulted in a movement towards this. E.g., it came up with Publish on your own Site and Syndicate Elsewhere (POSSE
).

Why do we need an independent Web? To avoid losing our content, so businesses can’t to fold and take it with it, for a friendlier UX, and for freedom. “Independent Websites can help provide the future of the Web.”

If we don’t do this, the Web gets serious, she says: People go to a tiny handful of sites. They’re not building as many quirky, niche, weird Web sites. “”We need a weird Web””“We need a weird Web because it allows us to play at the edges and to meet others.” But if you know how to build and archive your own things, you have a home for your data, for self-expression, and with links out to the rest of the Web.

Make static websites, she urges…possibly with the conference sponsor, Neocities.

QA

Bob Frankston: How can you own a domain name?

Amber: You can’t, not really.

Bob: And that’s a big, big problem.

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November 6, 2015

My odd talk on Monday

The Emerson Engagement Lab (of which I am a fan) is having me in for a talk that is apparently open to the public on Monday at 2pm. I’m talking to Paul Mihailidis‘ course in Emerson’s Greene Theater about whether and how we’ve managed to let the Internet become just yet another mass medium or possible the Worst. Mass Medium. Ever. I’ll be talking about why my aging cohort had such high hopes for the Net, how well the Argument from Architecture has held up, and why I am not quite as depressed as most of my friends.

This is an odd talk in part because I’m not using slides or notes. That changes things. For the better? Well, there are reasons why people use slides and why people like me, who only have three remaining neurons devoted to memory, use notes.

Has anyone seen my keys?

 


Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to talking with Penn State’s Center for Humanities and Information this afternoon. I’m giving a talk about our changing ideas about how the future works, but I believe there will be lots of time for conversation.

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October 31, 2015

What the Internet actually is: A reminder for policy-makers

Just in case you’ve confused the Internet with the entities that bring us access to the Internet or with the machines that instantiate the Internet, here’s an actual goddamn definition:

RESOLUTION:

“The Federal Networking Council (FNC) agrees that the following language reflects our definition of the term “Internet”.

“Internet” refers to the global information system that —

(i) is logically linked together by a globally unique address space based on the Internet Protocol (IP) or its subsequent extensions/follow-ons;

(ii) is able to support communications using the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) suite or its subsequent extensions/follow-ons, and/or other IP-compatible protocols; and

(iii) provides, uses or makes accessible, either publicly or privately, high level services layered on the communications and related infrastructure described herein.”

This is from a 1995 report by The Federal Networking Council, which is too old even for the Wayback Machine. According to Wikipdia, the FNC was “was chartered by the US National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on Computing, Information and Communications (CCIC) to act as a forum for networking collaborations among US federal agencies…” It was dissolved in 1997. But its words are still good.

More than good. The definition quote above comes recommended by a coupla guys who know something about the topic: Robert E. Kahn and Vinton G. Cerf. In their classic article, What is the Internet?, they refer to it as follows:

The authors believe the best definition currently in existence is that approved by the Federal Networking Council in 1995, http://www.fnc.gov and which is reproduced in the footnote below [xv] for ready reference.

Keep it ready for reference the next time an access provider complains about regulations as if the access providers are or own the Internet. The Internet is bigger than that. And deeper. And ours.

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September 29, 2015

BREAKING NEWS: The New Republic runs an article that does not bash the Internet!

Stop the presses!

The good news is that the New Republic seems to be making an effort to include articles about race that are not by white liberals — not that I have anything general against white liberals since I am one . The even better news is that that article credits the Internet with enabling a flowering of African American intellectual thought, rather than the magazine once again (and again and again and again) thinking it’s being oh-so-daring by criticizing the Net as the source of all that is dumb and crass.

In “Think Out Loud,” Michael Eric Dyson argues:

Along with [Ta-Nehisi] Coates, a cohort of what I would like to call the “black digital intelligentsia” has emerged. They wrestle with ideas, stake out political territory, and lead, very much in the same way that my generation did, only without needing, or necessarily wanting, a home in the Ivy League—and by making their name online.

He describes how “the Net enables these voices to be heard”the Net enables these voices to be heard, and how it helps them to form and pursue their ideas through community and social engagement. (It’s a great example of what some of us would describe as the networking of knowledge.)

And, in a generous way that embodies the best of the Net, Dyson in this article is using his position as a well-established voice to give a boost to the upcoming cohort—one that notably includes many women.

Nicely done all around.

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June 22, 2015

Has the Internet been paved?

Atlantic.com has just posted an article of mine that re-examines the “Argument from Architecture” that has been at the bottom of much of what I’ve written over the past twenty years. That argument says, roughly, that the Internet’s architecture embodies particular values that are inevitably transmitted to its users. (Yes, the article discusses what “inevitably” means in this context.) But has the Net been so paved by Facebook, apps, commercialism, etc., that we don’t experience that architecture any more?

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January 8, 2015

New Clues

The project with Doc that I mentioned is a new set of clues, following on The Cluetrain Manifesto from 16 years ago.

The clues are designed as an open source publishing project: The text is in the public domain, and we’re making the clues available at Github in various computer-friendly formats, including JSON, OPML and XML.

We launched this morning and a happy hell has broken loose. So I’m just going to posts some links for now. In fact, I’m copying and pasting from an email by Doc:

Gotta run…

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August 28, 2014

The problem with civility

Talk about “civility” on the Internet always makes me a little nervous. For a bunch of reasons.

First, I generally try to be civil, but I’d hate to see a Net that is always and only civil. Some rowdiness and rudeness is absolutely required.

Second, civility as a word feels like it comes from a colonial mentality, as if there are the civil folks and then there are the savages. I’m not saying that’s what people mean when they use the term. It’s just what I sometimes hear.

Third, civility is so culturally relative that demanding that someone be civil can actually mean, “Please play by our rules or you shall be removed from the premises!” Which is I guess what gives rise to my second reason.

Fourth, civility seems to be more about the form of interaction, the rhetoric of the interchange. That’s fine. But given a preference, I’d be hectoring people about dignity, not civility. You can be civil without according someone full dignity. If you treat someone with dignity, the civility — and more — will follow. For example, you’ll actually listen. (Note that I fail at this frequently.)

Fifth, civility and dignity are not enough to make the Net the place it ought to be. I would love to see being welcoming taken as a core value for the Best Net, that is, for the Web We Want. Welcoming the stranger is one of the originary traditions of the West, from Abraham inviting strangers into his tent, to the underlying theme of The Odyssey. (Another of our originary traditions: killing or enslaving strangers.) In embracing the stranger, we accord them dignity, we recognize our differences as something positive, and we humble ourselves. So, given a choice, I’d rather hear about a welcoming Net than a merely civil one. (Here’s a shout-out to the new Pew Internet study that reports that we’re not welcoming unpopular views on social media.)

Point five-and-a-half is: Just as welcoming precedes civility, safety precedes welcoming. This is a half point not because safety is a half point but because the outstretched welcoming hand entails reassuring the stranger that she is safe. And more than safe. Safety is essential, but it is obviously nowhere near enough.

Let me be clear, though. When I talk about “the Net,” I’m being misleading. The entire Net is not going to be characterized by any one set of values. And we don’t need the entire Net to be welcoming, civil, and a place where all are treated with dignity. (Safety is a different matter.) But we do need more of the Net to be welcoming, civil, and dignifying. And we absolutely need the networks where power and standing develop to go far beyond civility.

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August 9, 2014

Tim Berners-Lee’s amazingly astute 1992 article on this crazy Web thing he started

Dan Brickley points to this incredibly prescient article by Tim Berners-Lee from 1992. The World Wide Web he gets the bulk of the credit for inventing was thriving at CERN where he worked. Scientists were linking to one another’s articles without making anyone type in a squirrely Internet address. Why, over a thousand articles were hyperlinked.

And on this slim basis, Tim outlines the fundamental challenges we’re now living through. Much of the world has yet to catch up with insights he derived from the slightest of experience.

May the rest of us have even a sliver of his genius and a heaping plateful of his generosity.

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