Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, December 3, 2016

open letter to Adam Roberts on the Protocols of the Elders of the Internet

This started as a reply to a comment Adam made on my previous post. But then it underwent gigantism.



Adam, I see these matters a little differently than you do — let’s see if I can find out why. I’ll start with cars. I’d say that the main thing that makes it possible for there to be an enormous variety of automobiles is the road. A road is an immensely powerful platform — in this case literally a platform — because it is so simple. Anything that walks, runs, or rolls can use it, which causes problems sometimes, as when a cow wanders onto the street; but for the most part that openness to multiple uses makes it an indispensable technology. Even if your British automobile has its steering wheel on the wrong side, you can still drive it in France or Germany.

By contrast, railway lines are rather less useful because of the problem called break of gauge, which has in the past forced people to get off one train at a national boundary and get on another one that fits the gauge of the tracks in that country. (And of course for a period there was no standardization of gauge even in England.)

Notice that the lack of standardization only becomes a problem when you get beyond your locality — but that’s precisely what mechanical transportation is for: to take us away from our homes. The technology’s power creates its problems, which new technologies must often be devised to fix.

All of these difficulties are dramatically magnified when we get to the the internet, which used to be called, in a significant nickname, the “information superhighway.” Here it seems to me that we have an ongoing struggle between the differentiation that arises from economic competition and the standardization that “platforms” are always looking for. PC makers want you to buy PCs, while Apple wants you to buy Macs, so they differentiate themselves from one another; but Microsoft just wants you to use Word and Excel and PowerPoint and so makes that software for both platforms. Though they’d prefer a world in which every computer ran Windows, they have enough of an interest in standardization to make cross-platform applications. And now they make web versions of their apps that you can use even on Linux.

They do that by employing protocols that were designed back in the era when there were few computers in the world but the ones that existed were made using a variety of architectures and a wide array of parts. When you email the Word file you created on your PC to a Mac user like me, you do so using those same protocols, and updated versions of the communications lines that were first laid out more than a century ago. So again: a tension, in purely technical terms, between variability and standardization.

This tension may be seen in other digital technologies as well. Board games all employ the same basic and highly flexible technological platform: paper and ink (with a bit of plastic or metal, perhaps, though those flourishes are unnecessary). But when it comes to video games, contra Roberts, everyone does not have an Xbox. My house is a PlayStation house. Which means that there are some games that we can’t play, and that’s the way the console makers like it: Microsoft wants us to choose Xbox and stick with it; Sony wants us to choose PlayStation and stick with it. However, the makers of video games don’t like seeing their markets artificially reduced in this way, and so, if they have the resources to do so, will make their games available on multiple platforms, and then will use those internet protocols mentioned above to enable players to play with and against each other.

But the most popular games will always be online ones, because they allow almost anyone who has a computer and an internet connection to play, and to interact with one another: like the makers of board games, they look for the broadest possible platform — but they also encourage us to look beyond the local, indeed to ignore locality when playing with others (players typically have no idea where their opponents and teammates are).

So digital technologies, like the mechanical transportation technologies mentioned earlier, are meant to transcend locality, to remove emplacement as a limitation on sociability. (You can typically only play board games with people who are in the same room with you — though it should be noted that there was a longstanding if not almost abandoned tradition of playing chess by mail.) But this can only be accomplished with the development of either (a) standardized platforms or (b) shared protocols designed to bridge the gaps created by platform variability. Thus Google wants to solve that problem you have sharing photos with your wife: you use the Android version of the Google Photos app, she uses the iOS version, and presto! Solution achieved.

So — still working this through, please bear with me — let’s look at Twitter in light of this analysis. Twitter may be understood as a platform-agnostic MMORPG which, like most other MMORPGs, relies on the standard set of internet protocols, and therefore exchanges data with everything else that uses those protocols. This means that while Roberts is once again wrong when he says that everyone is on Twitter — it has maybe 20% as many users as Facebook and 80% as many as Instagram — those larger platforms, and of course the great vastness of the open web, can be used to magnify the influence of anything tweeted. In that sense there are a great many people in the world who, despite not being on Twitter, are on Twitter. So while some people blame Trump’s skillful Twitter provocations for both his political success and the debasing of our political culture, and others place the blame on the fake-news-wholesaling of Facebook, in fact the two work together, along with Google’s algorithms. In these matters I’m a conspiracy theorist, and I blame the Protocols of the Elders of the Internet.

So, Adam, in your response you referred to “homogenization,” whereas I’ve been referring to “standardization.” At this point we have the standardization of practices without the homogenization of ideology — and that’s the source of all of our conflicts. The platforms that allow us to connect with like-minded people are equally open to people whose ideas we despise, and we have no reliable means of shutting them out; but the encoded, baked-in tendencies of Twitter as a platform are universally distributed, which means that whether you’re a SJW or an alt-righty, you’re probably going to respond to people you disagree by instantaneous minimalist sneering. (The tendencies of early print culture were rather different, but produced a similar degree of hostility, which I've discussed in this post.)

I think, though, that this conflict between standardization and homogenization could be a temporary state of affairs, at least for people who rely on the Protocols, and that means most of us. That is, while standardization does not inevitably produce homogeneity, it certainly nudges everyone strongly in that direction. There’s no way that public opinion in the U.S. about same-sex marriage could have changed so quickly without social media. TV certainly had a significant influence, but social media are collectively a powerful force-and-speed multiplier for opinion alteration. And if you feel good about that, then you might consider how social media have also nudged tens of millions of Americans towards profound fear of immigrants.

So in this environment, majority opinions and opinions that are held very strongly by sizable minorities are going to be the chief beneficiaries. And that could lead ultimately to significantly increased homogeneity of opinion, a homogeneity that you only stand a chance of avoiding if you minimize your exposure to the Protocols. And here, Adam, it seems to me that your novel New Model Army is disturbingly relevant.

For much of the novel, the soldiers who fight for Pantegral are independent, free agents. When they fight, they fight according to, yes, protocols established and enforced by the software they all use — but they can stop fighting when they want to, they come and go. Indeed, this is one of the chief appeals to them of the New Model Army: it doesn’t own them. Or doesn’t at first; or doesn’t seem to. In the end the protocols prove to be more coercively powerful (or should I say more intensely desirable?) than they had ever expected. And then we have homogeneity indeed — on a truly gigantic scale.

Caveat lector, is what I’m saying.

11 comments:

  • What you and Adam are both outlining are a series of issues related to the accountability of information published(*) on the naturally forming monopolies of these massive many-to-many platforms. The solution is simple. We need a public platform for publishing and consuming streams of digitally authored information.

    Current social media is akin to a shopping mall. Twitter is a privately owned place of digital commercial activity. Public freedoms are always limited on private properties and for good reason.

    Imagine the world in the 1750s. Newspapers and pamphlets are for sale in the town square. There are town criers standing next to snake-oil salesmen and they are all on public property. There are private residences and private marketplaces but they are all connected by public roads.

    The Internet has very few public spaces. There are no roads and sidewalks. All interactions(^) take place on private properties. The management and ownership at Facebook has access to all the information. The users, be they housewives or political candidates, do not. There is an asymmetry of information. When these tools were being built this was the only way to achieve a pseudo-public form of interaction. MySQL, Hadoop, Riak, Cassandra, Big Table, and the rest of these data stores that enable Facebook and Twitter can only function with asymmetrical read and write permissions. If you gave everyone access to any of these data stores they would be able to read and write as anyone else and these platforms would not function as intended, with a direct connection between known authors and published content.

    (^) The advent of Bitcoin has created a uniquely public kind of digital wilderness. Everyone has the same read and write permissions, just like everyone has the same ability to cut down a tree in a forest. Bitcoin operates without any kind of centralized authority. The consensus forming mechanism is only necessary when dealing with supra-state forming functions (much like nature itself), that is, when needed to be separate from any existing government authority. This is problematic to the notion of a republic.

    However, a republic could take upon itself the task of creating a public platform of cryptographically signed published content, a sort of Bitcoin blockchain but without the SHA-256 arms race, because the government could act as the state-making function, exactly as it currently does with title deeds to public property and copyright registrations.

    A public platform for social media operated by the republic would be relatively easy to build and maintain. It aligns with our existing notions of the duties and responsibilities of government.

    It would allow the government to adhere to existing rights to search and seizure. There would be no show-downs between Apple and the FBI about gaining access to certain information(^^) on private platforms.

    It would allow the government to censor dangerous information and to enforce notions of free speech. There would be no complaints of Instagram removing certain content in order to curate and keep their customers happy.

    It would allow for copyright to be extended to the digital realm, not by restricting the flow of information, but by allowing for ownership and creating, as was originally intended with the monopolies on intellectual property, a public platform for private business, a friction that creates digital properties out of thin air.

    (continued)

  • (*) I would argue that information posted to Facebook and Twitter is not published precisely because they are not public platforms. The notion of published information in the 1850s was that it was for sale in a public market, or available for purchase in a store front on a public sidewalk or road. Perhaps we should invent the word privished to describe this activity.

    (^^) Search and seizure outlines two sets of rights, those of the citizen of the republic to keep things private, and the rights of the government to intercept information when necessary for the safety of others. Is information on Facebook's servers private? Not by our current understanding of what it means to publish something. Privacy is limited to physical private property. If you put your memoirs in a trash can on the side of the street, anyone has the right to that information, be they bums or federal law enforcement. Scalia's interpretation of the third-party doctrine adds valuable insight to the borders between public and private information but is in no way the final say on the matter.

  • Case in point about the false notion of publishing... I hit a blue button labeled 'Publish' and I am shown:

    "Your comment will be visible after approval."

  • This open letter really is tempting me—and my life-record when it comes to resisting temptation is very much nothing to be proud of—to an even lengthier response. But then we might both find ourselves locked in an exponentially lengthening exchange, one rice grain on the first chess board square, two on the second, four on the third and so on. So I’ll rein myself in and note ve-e-ery briefly (a) it’s a strange experience to agree so much with an essay that devotes so much space to my wrongness (‘ … Roberts is once again wrong when he says that …’); (b) I do indeed take the force of your distinction between “homogenization” and “standardization” and (c) I wonder if my occasional disagreements scale into anything more significant as far as your larger argument goes. So for example, I’d say the change of attitudes on gay marriage tracks changes in attitudes to more general attitudes to homosexuality, and those changes are basically generational: older people tend to find gay marriage more problematic, younger people less. Maybe social media have accelerated this, but I suspect it would have happened anyway, much as Civil Rights, Women’s Lib and so on happened in the 1960s and 1970s without Twitter to incubate them. I could be wrong. And the MMRPG analogy is interesting: but I remember attending university meetings at the end of the 90s where the top brass were sure that online universities were bound to supersede the current costly logic of flesh-and-blood, turn-up-in-person-or-you-don’t-get-your degree universities. They haven’t though, because online universities don’t provide ‘the university experience’. They don’t feel like universities.

    You’re correct of course that Twitter has many fewer users than Facebook (Instagram and Snapchat, where my teenage daughter hangs out, are both dark continents to me, so I’ll refrain from offering any opinion there). But Facebook is sealed into myriad little islets of in-group communication, with little crossover between the millions of separate friendsgroups, so when I’m on there it feels small. Twitter is different, because people RT tweets from all over the place—engaging them, you’re right, often only in terms of sneering dismissal. So Twitter feels both big and intimate, and that’s an unusual, perhaps an unprecedented, combination of things. Twitter also, of course, squeezes out more considered engagements with ideas of the sort we’re indulging in here: 140 characters is the length of a slogan, a joke, or a banality. That means that the content matters much less than the form, and it’s that form that is homogenizing. To put it another way, and agreeing with you when you say ‘lack of standardization only becomes a problem when you get beyond your locality’;—that’s only half of it. We could add ‘… or when your locality gets inside the border and to you.’ Which is where we are now. I think back to how sticky and patchy communication in the larger sense was when I was growing up: how often I was wholly alone, how phoning my girlfriend in another city meant queuing outside at a phone box on a chilly evening and so on. My kids take it absolutely for granted that they have their friends electronically with them all the time, via social media. They’re certainly less lonely than I was (for better and worse: they’re less well driven to that solaces of solitude, reading books, than I was at their age, for example). But surely it changes their perceptive of the world. I don’t say that in a fear-mongery, ‘too much time on screens is damaging the way our children’s brains are wired-up’ way. I say it in a simpler sense that the big world is intimate to them in a way, perhaps, it wasn’t to our generation.

  • But are they less lonely?

    Consider Jean Baudrillard's arguments in 'Simulation and Simulacra',

    Behind this exacerbated mise-en-scène of communication, the mass media, the pressure of information pursues an irresistible destructuration of the social.

    Thus information dissolves meaning and dissolves the social, in a sort of nebulous state dedicated not to a surplus of innovation, but, on the contrary, to total entropy.

    Thus the media are producers not of socialization, but of exactly the opposite, of the implosion of the social in the masses. And this is only the macroscopic extension of the implosion of meaning at the microscopic level of the sign. This implosion should be analyzed according to McLuhan's formula, the medium is the message, the consequences of which have yet to be exhausted.


    As a personal anecdote I recently deleted all of my social media accounts, and went as far as editing my /etc/hosts file to redirect all requests to a number of domains, including but not limited to, twitter.com, reddit.com, and facebook.com to 127.0.0.1.

    In the absence of my only recently normalized social interactions on these platforms, I've reverted to calling up friends on the telephone and having lengthy conversations. I feel much more content after dialing back the information and interconnections and I agree whole-heartedly when Baudrillard states,

    We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.

    and especially,

    Information devours its own content. It devours communication and the social.

    A lot of what makes me unhappy on social media is reading and seeing the spread of biased and uninformed information. I would get angry at my friends for posting an image meme about a political candidate or protest because I felt that they were offering an unbalanced argument that missed important nuance. The mediums themselves promote these kinds of inchoate messaging. The mediums do not lend themselves to nuance and compromise.

    Because the costs of publishing to Facebook and Twitter are subsidized by advertisements and not by the price of purchasing a stamp or paying for the cost of printing copies, people are not held accountable for the information they post and spread. Not only do we not know the origin of this information because authorship is detached from broadcast, there is no friction to stop misinformation.

    Information that is worthy of dissemination will be paid for. If people had to pay the price of a postage stamp for every post to Facebook they would be much less inclined to let their rational characteristics be overwhelmed by their emotions. There is nothing that promotes reasonable thought more than an ever dwindling bank account.

  • In addition to removing social media I have purchased subscriptions to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Economist.

    I've also installed a Chrome plug-in called 'Shut Up', which hides all comments.

    I subscribe to the RSS feed of Text Patterns and the RSS reeder that I'm using does display comments if I choose to have it display the post in the context of it's internal web browser.

    I also wrote a custom javascript snippet to hide all "related content" on sites like YouTube.

    In effect, what I've done is hide all of the frictionless information. There is a cost to write a lengthy and researched article that is self-hosted. There is a cost to information that goes through the editorial process. There is a cost to having to research my own related inquiries.

    Frictionless information does indeed have costs, only they are psychological and not monetary.

    The underlying protocols of TCP, HTTP, HTML, RSS... these do have an impact on the message. Nothing is more socializing and sociable than unmediated (sparing language itself!) interactions around a communal fireplace.

    However, what we do with these protocols and how we use them is still very important. We indeed shape our tools and they in turn shape us, but we are free to choose what tools we would like to purchase!

  • williamcotton: you're right to pull me up on that, of course. How to quantify the relative alienation of back-then teenage me as up against the, it seems to me, social fluency and ease and many friends of my teenage daughter? And like you I feel a lot of sympathy for the Baudrillard you quote. But that might be because I'm old enough to remember how things used to be. My kids are growing up in an environment where they've never known anything but this instancy and proximity of virtual community. They have no older model to feel nostalgic for. More to the point, my daughter's use of social media is much more phatic than it is, as it were, denotative; she uses it to engage with her friends and by engaging reaffirm her friendship. It makes me think that reading such things in terms of their information content is missing the point of them, much of the time.

  • Adam, a confirmation of your point about your daughter’s Snapchat use, from this article in which an adult man talks to his 13-year-old sister:

    ME: Tell me what your day is like on Snapchat.

    BROOKE: When I wake up, I have about 40 snaps from friends. I just roll through and respond to them.

    ME: How do you respond? Like, “haha good one, Elsbitch”?

    BROOKE: No conversations…it’s mostly selfies. Depending on the person, the selfie changes. Like, if it’s your best friend, you make a gross face, but if it’s someone you like or don’t know very well, it’s more regular.

    ME: I’ve seen how fast you do these responses… How are you able to take in all that information so quickly?

    BROOKE: I don’t really see what they send. I tap through so fast. It’s rapid fire.

    I don't really see what they send.

  • That sounds about right. Also: wow.

  • Perhaps your daughter is just more charismatic and sociable than you were during your teenage years!

    I'd argue that she does indeed know of a world based on unmediated interactions. She still goes to school, she still meets up with friends in person, but she does so within the framework of being a child and being forced to do so!

    That is, your teenage daughter doesn't only interact through social media. But how will her relationship to social media change once she enters the adult world and leaves enforced frameworks of unmediated social interaction? Is her employment environment going to be enough?

    Her adult life will still be full of choice and the free expression of her will. She will be able to choose to use social media or she will choose to join the local Kiwanis club. She will choose to buy an electric car or take an electric bus to work.

    Mediums don't seem to go away. Vinyl records and cassette tapes are one thing but isn't it astonishing that people are still writing ballets, operas, publishing poetry, and scoring music for chamber quartets? Ghost stories around campfires will never go away.

    Which of course is in agreement with the notion of the importance of the medium and that "reading such things in terms of their information content is missing the point". Should we all get together and get matching Marshall McLuhan tattoos?

    Speaking of vinyl records, sales have been steadily increasing, and it isn't because of an alignment with a fashionable trend towards old-timey artisanal mustache wax. It is because there is a psychological demand for the medium and what it represents. There is no friction and therefor no substantive exchange with mediums like Spotify. The listener knows the musician is only getting paid in fractions of pennies. After all, what is the ordered arrangement of infinitely reproducible 1s and 0s really worth? The vinyl record, with the physical artwork and material substance, has quantifiable value through quantifiable production costs. The listener chooses to pay more money in order to offset the psychological and sociological effects of having art reduced to nothing more than fields in a MySQL database and the price of a broadband connection. They like to know they are supporting the artist in their endeavor and they like getting something substantial in return.

    My prediction for these younger members of my generation (I'm in my early 30s) is that as soon as they also get to their early adulthood they will make a similar decision to unplug. The revolution will not be televised!

    I've been wired since I was 12 years old. I spent more time on Usenet and IRC than going to the mall. I had a cellphone, AIM and Napster in college and stopped buying records. I spent my extended adolescence on MySpace and Google Reader and never joined any traditional social clubs or institutions. To Twitter, to Facebook... towards increasing headache and heartache. Nothing was more soul destroying than the advent of OKCupid and Tinder.

    Luckily I met my wife the old fashioned way, by walking up to her and her friends at a rock and roll show and asking them if they wanted to come to the afterparty with the band at my friend's house.

  • As per teenage culture... it's like the old rock and roll saying, 'The kids are alright!'

    I'm of the Nintendo generation. A thirteen year old sitting twelve inches from a cathode ray tube and watching low resolution pixels scroll from the right to the left could also lead to some pretty hysterical assertions about the future. Low and behold, most of us found better and more productive things to do with our time. I was absolutely hooked on first-person shooter games until I realized there were more productive things to do with my time. My priorities quickly changed once I had to start paying for my own roof over my head!

    I'm more worried about contemporary adults than I am about what teenagers are doing. Adults have to face up to the realities of the information age. Perhaps I'm too conservative and too enveloped within the notions of Anglo-American jurisprudence and our market-based society, but I do not trust unaccountable institutions. You can't pay rent in retweets, likes and shares. And how can you represent, if you can't pay the rent?

    Snapchat is the shopping mall that the proverbial teenager of yesteryear frittered away their youth inside of... or hip-hop dance halls, movie theaters, serialized novels...

    Who know my people gotta hold a mint
    Or they ain't worth a cent
    How can you represent, if you can't pay the rent
    And leave a dent in my life time, I'm caught up in trife crime
    In fights you never know what you might find


    Dead Prez - The Pistol

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