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kottke.org posts about internet

How A 1979 Email Chain Letter Helped Give Birth to Our Social Internet

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 12, 2018

Spocks-death.jpg

The Internet connects various bodies of knowledge and enables all sorts of private communication and coordination. It’s also clear in 2018, and has been for twenty-five years, that the Internet supports a variety of social media: public and semi-public communication for entertainment and cultural purposes.

Vint Cerf, co-inventor of the TCP/IP protocol and general internet pioneer, traces the emerging social use of the Internet to an unlikely candidate: a 1979 chain email from MIT’s Artificial Intelligence labs, titled “SF-LOVERS,” that asked Cerf and his colleagues at DARPA and elsewhere in the network of networks called ARPANET to weigh in on their favorite science fiction authors.

Because the message had gone out to the entire network, everybody’s answers could then be seen and responded to by everybody else. Users could also choose to send their replies to just one person or a subgroup, generating scores of smaller discussions that eventually fed back into the whole.

About 40 years later, Cerf still recalls this as the moment he realized that the internet would be something more than every other communications technology before it. “It was clear we had a social medium on our hands,” he said.

The thread was a hit. It also created what might be thought of as the first online social network. Though individuals had been connected via this internet before, this was the first time they were using it for social interactions and, importantly, building a larger community identity through these personal connections. After SF-LOVERS came YUMYUM, another chain email that debated the quality of restaurants in the new Silicon Valley. (In-house gourmet chefs were still decades away.) Then WINE-TASTERS appeared, its purpose self-evident. The socialization also inspired more science with HUMAN-NETS, a community for researchers to discuss the human factors of these proto-online communities.

In the 1980s, these chain emails saw the first use of spoiler alerts, for the death of Spock in The Wrath of Khan (oops, sorry if I spoiled that for you), and emoticons: “:-)” to indicate a joke and “:-(” to indicate a non-joke. (I’d say the semantics of those has drifted over the years.)

And here we are, almost forty years later, still doing the same shit, only with slightly more sophistication and bandwidth, on the commercial successors to those early email threads.

Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

In 1998, author and media critic Neil Postman gave a talk he called Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change. Here are the five ideas Postman shared that day, which are all still highly relevant today:

1. All technological change is a trade-off. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.

2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.

3. Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. Every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.

4. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. The consequences of technological change are always vast, often unpredictable and largely irreversible.

5. Media tend to become mythic. Cars, planes, TV, movies, newspapers — they have achieved mythic status because they are perceived as gifts of nature, not as artifacts produced in a specific political and historical context.

His first idea about technology is perhaps the most apropos to the current moment:

The first idea is that all technological change is a trade-off. I like to call it a Faustian bargain. Technology giveth and technology taketh away. This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost. Now, this may seem to be a rather obvious idea, but you would be surprised at how many people believe that new technologies are unmixed blessings. You need only think of the enthusiasms with which most people approach their understanding of computers. Ask anyone who knows something about computers to talk about them, and you will find that they will, unabashedly and relentlessly, extol the wonders of computers. You will also find that in most cases they will completely neglect to mention any of the liabilities of computers. This is a dangerous imbalance, since the greater the wonders of a technology, the greater will be its negative consequences.

Think of the automobile, which for all of its obvious advantages, has poisoned our air, choked our cities, and degraded the beauty of our natural landscape. Or you might reflect on the paradox of medical technology which brings wondrous cures but is, at the same time, a demonstrable cause of certain diseases and disabilities, and has played a significant role in reducing the diagnostic skills of physicians. It is also well to recall that for all of the intellectual and social benefits provided by the printing press, its costs were equally monumental. The printing press gave the Western world prose, but it made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of communication. It gave us inductive science, but it reduced religious sensibility to a form of fanciful superstition. Printing gave us the modern conception of nationhood, but in so doing turned patriotism into a sordid if not lethal emotion. We might even say that the printing of the Bible in vernacular languages introduced the impression that God was an Englishman or a German or a Frenchman — that is to say, printing reduced God to the dimensions of a local potentate.

Perhaps the best way I can express this idea is to say that the question, “What will a new technology do?” is no more important than the question, “What will a new technology undo?” Indeed, the latter question is more important, precisely because it is asked so infrequently. One might say, then, that a sophisticated perspective on technological change includes one’s being skeptical of Utopian and Messianic visions drawn by those who have no sense of history or of the precarious balances on which culture depends. In fact, if it were up to me, I would forbid anyone from talking about the new information technologies unless the person can demonstrate that he or she knows something about the social and psychic effects of the alphabet, the mechanical clock, the printing press, and telegraphy. In other words, knows something about the costs of great technologies.

Idea Number One, then, is that culture always pays a price for technology.

It is nearly impossible to read these paragraphs and not think about how social media (and the internet more generally) has shaped our culture in both good and bad ways…and those who still believe that services like Facebook or Twitter are “unmixed blessings”. The rest of the talk is equally thought-provoking and enlightening.

P.S. Postman made these remarks about 2 weeks after I started publishing kottke.org 20 years ago. At that time, very few people I knew or interacted with online saw anything but the positive aspects of the internet and personal publishing online. Should we have seen the weaponization of the internet coming? Perhaps. But then again, not a lot of people who enjoyed the simple pleasures of Howdy Doody, I Love Lucy, and Lassie could have anticipated the government-shaping toxicity of Fox News and cable news in general.

Humble, it means humble!

posted by Patrick Tanguay   May 03, 2018

This won’t turn into another GIF (hard G) vs GIF (soft G) battle but it comes as a big surprise to me, just like the soft G did when I first heard of this variation years and years ago. Thankfully, after Buzzfeed started the “debate” between humble and honest in “imho,” Alexis Madrigal swooped in with historical proof with a 1986 PC Magazine glossary and in 1993’s Jargon by Robin Williams.

This little acronym, IMHO, stands for in my humble opinion. It’s often used as a typing shortcut in online communication. When it is capitalized, you are shouting. You might also see the term imnsho, which stands for in my not-so-humble opinion.

Trailer for Wreck-It Ralph 2

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2018

The original Wreck-It Ralph came out in 2012 and was the first inkling of Disney Animation’s revival that has continued with Frozen, Zootopia, and Moana. In Wreck-It Ralph 2 (which is properly titled “Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2”), the arcade gets an upgrade in the form of a modem, which gives Ralph and his pals access to the internet. And if you watch the trailer, the movie’s view of the internet is pretty dystopian (but sadly not all that inaccurate). They’re dumped into a a massive shopping mall where they’re constantly interrupted by the IRL equivalent of the chumbox, attend an eBay auction for bad cat-related art, and digitally overfeed a video game bunny until it explodes, perhaps a sly metaphor for how relying on digital treats such as likes or retweets for self-esteem is problematic.

But the movie looks fun! I guess? Like the internet! The internet is fun! I guess? Right? Hello…

Update: The full trailer:

The internet is an all-in-one machine

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 17, 2017

Kevin Kelly’s helped me make sense of the internet for as long as I can remember. One of his best blog posts, from 2008, is “Better Than Free.”

The internet is a copy machine. At its most foundational level, it copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it. In order to send a message from one corner of the internet to another, the protocols of communication demand that the whole message be copied along the way several times. IT companies make a lot of money selling equipment that facilitates this ceaseless copying. Every bit of data ever produced on any computer is copied somewhere. The digital economy is thus run on a river of copies. Unlike the mass-produced reproductions of the machine age, these copies are not just cheap, they are free…

When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.

When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.

When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied.

Well, what can’t be copied?

Kelly suggests eight “generative” values that can’t be easily copied by the internet: Immediacy, Personalization, Interpretation, Authenticity, Accessibility, Embodiment,
Patronage, and Findability. This list holds up pretty well: digital tech has handled some of these things better than others (we can get our digital files from the cloud almost anywhere; embodiment is still mostly analog). And most of these things we do pay for, if only in the form of being locked in to one company’s ecosystem that manages these things for us. It also ties in clearly to 1000 True Fans and other essays of Kelly’s that have turned out to be prescient and/or influential.

But is the internet really best characterized as a copy machine? This has always bothered me. Unlimited free copies of digital objects proliferating everywhere is a problem because of the internet. But the other things that the internet does pose thorny problems too.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that “the internet is a fax machine.” Most of what we do on the internet is zip digital documents back and forth from one machine to the other. It would be nice to think of that process as simply copying. But we need channels and tubes and signals and protocols to move those docs back and forth, and all of that we pay for. And at a more abstract level, we need distribution channels so the docs reach who they’re supposed to. TCP/IP is a distribution channel, but so are Facebook and Google and Snapchat and Twitter. Somebody ends up paying for all of them.

The other two parts of the all-in-one machine are more complicated. If we’re just copying things backwards and forwards, we never add anything new. And if you look at a lot of internet media, it’s mostly just recycled content from some other part of the internet. A Reddit thread becomes a Twitter meme becomes a web story becomes a TV story, which becomes 20 web stories. Copying is getting pretty tired. We need to do more scanning — literally and figuratively. We need to think harder about how to make the offline and online worlds meet. The internet companies spending real money right now are spending it on this problem.

Printing is just the other side of the same thing. How can we translate online activity to offline action? Or, even if it stays digital, how do we produce a work that people can recognized as a finished object? How can we move a digital thing from one physical experience to another? If we used to print digital documents or photos from our PCs to get a better look at them, maybe now we move videos and games from our smartphones to bigger screens in our offices and living rooms. It’s still the same kind of process, and we need to solve similar kinds of problems to the ones when we were first figuring out how to establish a WYSIWYG relationship between software and a printed page. All of that takes work, and all of that takes money.

In other words, we don’t pay for the copies — we pay for the toner. Same as it ever was.

The hippest internet cafe of 1995

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2016

Opened in 1995 on St. Marks in the East Village, the @ Cafe was one of the first (and coolest) internet cafes in the US.1 They had a bunch of computers, a T1 line (at $9000/mo!), a hip menu including alcoholic beverages, and no idea what they were doing. They didn’t plan for ventilation for all the hardware, so they cooled the server room with a garbage can full of ice!

And I was glad to hear the CU-SeeMe shout out at the very end of the video. I think about that app every time I hear about something “new” like Facebook Live, Periscope, or Snapchat. Talk about being ahead of its time…CU-SeeMe was video chat that predated the popularity of the web.

  1. At the time, very few people even knew what the “@” symbol was. One article featured in the video described it like so: “that @ is pronounced ‘at’ in case you were curious, and it’s often used in e-mails, the way most hackers and computer freaks communicate with one another”. LOL.

Werner Herzog is saying things about the world

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 04, 2016

Lo and Behold, a documentary about technology and the internet directed by Werner Herzog is coming out soon and so Herzog is doing some interviews and such about the film and dozens of other topics. With Paul Holdengraber, Herzog talks about North Korea and volcanoes:

The North Koreans apparently had seen quite a few of my films. I established a trust with them. It’s very strange because you’re accompanied by people who would look after what you were doing, who would politely tell you you cannot film this, or cannot film that, and at one point I filmed something which I was not allowed to do, so I wanted to have it edited or deleted. But since they are filming in 4K or 5K or so, very complicated data management, we were unable to delete it, and they wanted to take the entire memory hard drive. And I said, “But it contains two days worth of shooting, that would be terrible.” So I said, “You know what, I can guarantee to you that I’m not going to use this material.” And they said, “Guarantee, what do you mean by that?” I said, “Just look me in the eye, what I offer is my honor, my face, and my handshake.” And they said “ok” and they trusted me. And of course I’m not going to use this moment of filming that I was not supposed to film.

Herzog talked about Pokemon Go and film school with Emily Yoshida:

Q: You might be able to catch some. It’s all completely virtual. It’s very simple, but it’s also an overlay of physically based information that now exists on top of the real world.

A: When two persons in search of a pokemon clash at the corner of Sunset and San Vicente is there violence? Is there murder?

Q: They do fight, virtually.

A: Physically, do they fight?

Q: No-

A: Do they bite each other’s hands? Do they punch each other?

Jason Tanz spoke with Herzog for his profile on the director and his new film:

Herzog grins as he takes a seat in a conference room at UCLA, which has been set up for an event later this evening. His eyes droop, but his skin is remarkably smooth, like the surface of a slightly underinflated balloon. And then there’s that voice-silky, portentous-you can imagine it coming out of a GPS system giving driving directions to Valhalla. “I like to look back at the evolution of modern human beings,” he says of his interest in the Internet. “Using fire or electricity was an enormous step for civilization, and this is one of those. And I think the poet must not avert his eyes.”

What is interesting about Lo and Behold is that it’s technically branded content. No, really:

It’s a bonafide film that premiered at Sundance in January and has been generating lots of buzz heading toward its wider release. It also happens to be one giant ad, half in disguise, for POD New York client Netscout. The whole thing started out as an agency idea to produce short videos about the internet as part of a online Netscout campaign. But after they roped in Herzog, the vision for the project soon changed-for the better.

“I come from a digital background, and I’ve talked about the internet for my entire career. My first job was as the internet guy at DDB in Brazil,” Pereira said. “When we hired Werner to do content about the internet, I felt like, OK, I know it’s going to be awesome, but I’m pretty sure I know what I’m going to see. But actually, it’s mind-blowing. We gave him the beginning of the idea and told him, ‘This is where it starts.’ He took it from there and owned it. It’s a mind-blowing documentary.”

I saw the film last week,1 and from what I remember, there’s nothing about Netscout in the film. They financed the film but according to Tanz, Herzog had final cut:

Herzog retained final cut while granting McNiel veto power, a privilege McNiel used only once, to excise some of the more horrifying troll comments, a decision Herzog now says he agrees with.

See also 24 pieces of life advice from Werner Herzog.

  1. It was interesting in spots, but I felt like splitting the narrative into 10 parts was not the right way to go. I would guess, however, the less you know about the technical aspects of technology, the more interesting Lo and Behold will be to you.

Obama’s plan for “a free and open internet”

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2014

Today, President Obama came out strongly for net neutrality and asked for the FCC’s help in implementing his plan.

More than any other invention of our time, the Internet has unlocked possibilities we could just barely imagine a generation ago. And here’s a big reason we’ve seen such incredible growth and innovation: Most Internet providers have treated Internet traffic equally. That’s a principle known as “net neutrality” — and it says that an entrepreneur’s fledgling company should have the same chance to succeed as established corporations, and that access to a high school student’s blog shouldn’t be unfairly slowed down to make way for advertisers with more money.

That’s what President Obama believes, and what he means when he says there should be no gatekeepers between you and your favorite online sites and services.

Tim Wu, who coined the term “net neutrality”, reacted positively to the President’s statement.

With another compromise looming, the President today released a video that suggests, in short, that he’s had it. In unusually explicit terms, he has told the agency exactly what it should do. Enough with the preëmptive compromises, the efforts to appease the carriers, and other forms of wiggle and wobble. Instead, the President said, enact a clear, bright-line ban on slow lanes, and fire up the agency’s strongest legal authority, Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, the “main guns” of the battleship F.C.C.

Motherboard notes that the classification of the internet as a utility would not include rate regulations.

To do this, Obama said the FCC should reclassify internet services as a utility, but should do it in a way that has slightly different rules than say, an electric company. Obama’s suggested rules focus specifically on net neutrality and service interruption, not prices, a concession to big telecom companies.

“I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act — while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services,” he said.

In a series of tweets, historian Yoni Appelbaum connects the dots between net neutrality and the Affordable Care Act a bit more elegantly than Ted Cruz did:

Obama’s call for net neutrality his latest effort to grow the economy by defending equality of opportunity. The ACA is the biggest boon for entrepreneurs in generations, allowing individuals to take economic risks without risking their health. The common thread here is a policy framework giving individuals the same access to essential resources as enormous institutions. Obama prefers to stress commonalities than to define his policies in such oppositional terms. But still, that’s what he’s doing here.

This makes me think of Tom Junod’s piece on increased access passes at a water park, The Water-Park Scandal and the Two Americas in the Raw: Are We a Nation of Line-Cutters, Or Are We the Line?

It wouldn’t be so bad, if the line still moved. But it doesn’t. It stops, every time a group of people with Flash Passes cut to the front. You used to be able to go on, say, three or four rides an hour, even on the most crowded days. Now you go on one or two. After four hours at Whitewater the other day, my daughter and I had gone on five. And so it’s not just that some people can afford to pay for an enhanced experience. It’s that your experience — what you’ve paid full price for — has been devalued. The experience of the line becomes an infernal humiliation; and the experience of avoiding the line becomes the only way to enjoy the water park. You used to pay for equal access; now you have to pay for access that’s more equal than the access afforded others. The commonality of experience is lost, and the lines are striated not simply by who can pay for a Flash Pass and who can’t; they’re also striated by race and class. The people sporting the Flash Passes are almost exclusively white, and they tend to be in better shape than those stuck on line. They tend to have fewer tattoos, and to look less, well, pagan. And by the end of the day, they start cutting lines where Flash Passes don’t even apply — because they feel entitled to — and none of them, not even their kids, will so much as look at you.

I think 2008 and 2012 Obama voters are nodding their heads here at Appelbaum’s and Junod’s thoughts…Obama’s statement on net neutrality and the rationale behind it is what they voted for. If you watched any of Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts on PBS, you’ll recognize this is right out of TR’s and FDR’s playbooks. Worth noting also that Teddy was a Republican and FDR a Democrat.

The anternet

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 04, 2014

Researchers at Stanford have observed that foraging harvester ants act like TCP/IP packets, so much so that they’re calling the ants’ behavior “the anternet”.

Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP, is an algorithm that manages data congestion on the Internet, and as such was integral in allowing the early web to scale up from a few dozen nodes to the billions in use today. Here’s how it works: As a source, A, transfers a file to a destination, B, the file is broken into numbered packets. When B receives each packet, it sends an acknowledgment, or an ack, to A, that the packet arrived.

This feedback loop allows TCP to run congestion avoidance: If acks return at a slower rate than the data was sent out, that indicates that there is little bandwidth available, and the source throttles data transmission down accordingly. If acks return quickly, the source boosts its transmission speed. The process determines how much bandwidth is available and throttles data transmission accordingly.

It turns out that harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) behave nearly the same way when searching for food. Gordon has found that the rate at which harvester ants — which forage for seeds as individuals — leave the nest to search for food corresponds to food availability.

A forager won’t return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off.

(via wordspy)

Are you currently on the internet?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2012

In response to some blogfight I don’t really understand or care too much about, Choire Sicha published a handy guide for determining whether you are on the internet or not.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you are on the Internet or not. For example you are almost always typing into a box on a series of screens on your computer. Because of this, there are whole sections of the Internet that are pretty sure they are not on the Internet, because, they are just boxes, right? You could be typing into anything, who knows if it’s public. This was true about LiveJournal for a long time. When you would link to a posting on LiveJournal, back in the day, you would get outraged emails about invasion of privacy. Because in their minds, they were just typing in their diary.

MTV News report on the internet from 1995

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 12, 2011

Lots of footage from The Net, Johnny Mnemonic, etc., virtual reality, Moby with hair, and websites of yore.

At the Web 2.0 conference, Clay Shirky gave

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 28, 2008

At the Web 2.0 conference, Clay Shirky gave a talk called Gin, Television, and Social Surplus. In it, he argues that the “social surplus” soaked up in the latter half of the 20th century by television is now being put to better use on the internet.

For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before—free time. And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV. We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

But maybe it’s possible that the internet is a slightly more sophisticated (or slightly more cognitive) cognitive heat sink?

An article in the Times about the

posted by Deron Bauman   Mar 02, 2008

An article in the Times about the transition of sales in high-end galleries to the web.

Mr. Gupta said about half of his sales take place without the presence of the buyer. “Being in Chicago, without the walk-in traffic of a gallery in New York or even L.A., I can’t imagine working without digital images,” he said. “We have a ton of European collectors, and we reach them through art fairs and digital images, a combined effort.”

(via ev +/-)

Could global warming kill the internet? “The

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2006

Could global warming kill the internet? “The internet is a big network of servers, and servers are hot. They devour electricity, they run hot and they mainline air conditioning. When the global thermostat goes up, the servers start going down.” (via migurski)

A CBC report from 1993 on a global

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2006

A CBC report from 1993 on a global phenomenon called “Internet”. (thx, joshua)

Update: Here’s a mirror on YouTube.

things magazine has a nice little post

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 21, 2005

things magazine has a nice little post on the Internet as reliquary. Reminds me of Julian Dibbell’s comparison of weblogs to wunderkammers.

If public parks (like NYC’s Bryant Park)

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2005

If public parks (like NYC’s Bryant Park) offer free wifi, why don’t expensive hotels? I can’t find the link right now, but I remember reading something awhile ago (possibly on Boing Boing) arguing that free wifi was easier and cheaper for businesses to offer than a paid option because you don’t need the ecommerce bit (sort of like a free grocery store not needing cashiers, etc.) and the free internet will bring people in.

Update: Here’s that Boing Boing post: “Operating a WiFi hotspot that you charge money for costs $30 a day. Operating a free WiFi hotspot costs $6.” (thx alex)

You’ve got to love an article called

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 14, 2005

You’ve got to love an article called The Ten Stupidest Utopias. In regard to the Internet, he says “utopia is never more than what we are; the people in them will always be just like us”.

USA Today article from 1988 on computer viruses affecting the “INTERnet”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2005

USA Today article from 1988 on computer viruses affecting the “INTERnet”.

Good overview of what the Internet Archive

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 08, 2005

Good overview of what the Internet Archive is up to these days.