Paradigms for Studying the Internet

From Technologies of Politics and Control
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January 31

Before we can even begin exploring the who's, what's, and why's -- we need to answer the critical question of how. Indeed, the phrase "studying the web" could embrace a staggering world of possible routes to explore, even before beginning to examine its relationship with society and culture. We need something to guide us through this massive field of (very interesting!) foxholes, and link the ideas we encounter into a consistent piece. We need some kind of structure to allow us to understand what we are looking at, the same way a chemist thinks of things in terms of atoms and molecules, or a philosopher can think about things in terms of schools of thought.

This class will explore different frameworks for studying the web, which will structure both the discussion and topic matter covered in the course, as well as the methodology that you should apply to your assignments.


Optional Readings

Videos Watched in Class


For people interested in a more technical primer on the architecture of the web, how email works, etc. check out ethan zuckerman and andrew mclaughlin's Introduction to Internet Architecture and Institutions

Class Discussion

Not sure this is exactly how we're supposed to use this section, but I though I'd post a few of my thoughts on the readings for comment and discussion, and I'd love any criticism since I'm not someone with much of a background at all in these areas:

The point in Benkler about Lessig's "Principle of Bovinity" highlighted one of the most interesting aspects of the readings to me: How easy it is to fall into the trap of oversimplifying and assuming that a lot of these issues of control and technology boil down to what will be a recognizable total victory for one side and total defeat for the other. The ratio of creators of technology to consumers does not have to become fully in favor of the business/government creators in order for them to win; it just has to get close enough, resulting in a herd of consumers who are unable to break out of their pattern of accepting technologies exactly as they are when purchased. This reduces the generativity (from Zittrain) that can produce the sort of unanticipated evolutions and improvements that drive technology and innovation forward, often in ways that are more to the benefit of the public than to the groups who are trying to impose their specific type of control.

Indirect and hidden regulation of how these technological resources are used is troubling not only because it (obviously) attempts to stifle this sort of unintentional and often subversive innovation but also because it (less obviously) has a major effect that we often cannot easily perceive on the forces that control our interactions and creations online (law/norms/architecture/market/etc., from Lessig). None of those forces exist in a vacuum. So, not only is one possible outcome to the current technological/cultural upheaval a victory for the strictly control-oriented creators where the majority of people become simple consumers, it is quite possible that many will not even notice the driving factor behind that change. As someone who isn't very adept at using the internet as a creator anyway, that was a troubling conclusion for me.

On a mostly unrelated note, the other most interesting aspect of the readings for me came in Zittrain, where he noted that while the PC and Internet are almost endlessly adaptable, we have often been dealing with problems by making the problems RELATIVELY smaller, and not actually in any way solved (his examples being increased bandwidth for ISPs to deal with spam and more computing cycles for PCs to deal with malware). This reminded me of a presentation I just saw that was given by the head of the EPA for the New England region. He pointed out that for the last 30 years or so, the EPA was solving problems with an equal level of total disregard for sustainability. If water was dirty, create a water plant to purify it, and who cares how much power that takes! It is only in the last few years that a realization has really taken hold that we are unsustainably wasting energy, even in the pursuit of worthwhile results. Now, for example, some purifying plants are being powered by solar, not coal, with the same direct results (pure water) and much better side benefits (no pollution, endlessly renewable resource). Early on in any new field or technology, it is easy to simply minimize and defer issues, but that practice is never sustainable, and a day will come when specific problems actually have to be solved. It would be nice if we could all do ourselves a favor and reach that point voluntarily for internet/computing, and not through necessity. AlexLE 21:03, 28 January 2012 (UTC)