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This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Internets: Democratic Online Revolutions and Not-So-Democratic Internet Hoaxes

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Image Sources: Gmail Autopilot.

There's a tongue-in-cheek report at Red Gage (here) that Google is experimenting with artificial intelligence technology to help Gmail users field the avalanche of messages in their inboxes with auto-responses (Hat Tip: @Altaire).  This is the kind of funny little Internet story people talk about over the water cooler at work.  But it has huge implications.

Red Gage: "This new technology reads the emails for you, contextually processes the email's content, and then sends an appropriate, content relative, short reply to the sender which would approximate your response to the email. For years you have been on the receiving end of cold, impersonable, generic corporate auto-responders. Whenever you contact customer service their email servers blast back some P-O-S canned email thanking you and telling you that they will fix the issue A.S.A.P.! (Which is a total crock) Even Gather uses those generic auto-responders when you write them about important things like stalkers. Well it's about time that someone gave the average person their own auto-responders, and it is even better than the generic crap corporate models. The new Google contextual auto-responder sends back thoughtful and individual reponses to all the email you receive so that none of your family, friends, or contacts feel overlooked."

I blogged earlier about Google's experiments with artificial intelligence hereGmail Autopilot has put up some funny auto-responses (above), but claims that this will be the new best way to get through the mountains of e-mails (main site here). It also works with Google chat instant messaging, and two auto-response systems can talk to each other for up to three messages: "Two Gmail accounts can happily converse with each other for up to three messages each. Beyond that, our experiments have shown a significant decline in the quality ranking of Autopilot's responses and further messages may commit you to dinner parties or baby namings in which you have no interest."

If it weren't for the obvious jokes in the samples pictured above, it would be very convincing because the world is just getting that crazy. In fact, Google Autopilot was an April Fool's joke posted by Google in 2009. There is a list of other jokes posted by Google and other big sites like Youtube, here.  There are several sites devoted to the hundreds of internet hoaxes that have appeared since 1999, here and hereHoax Busters lists so many hoaxes and weird internet urban legends that just glancing at their homepage gives you a snapshot of the popular mentality around the turn of the Millennium. 

Like my earlier post on trust here, internet jokes and hoaxes draw the line between public trust and the steadily eroding credulity of online users. We trust everyone and no one at the same time.  Is this just some residual gullibility left over from an earlier, more innocent, pre-Internet age?  Is this about what information people are still willing to believe during a transitional period, that is, the first wave of the Information Revolution? Or is it about the momentum of information creating a sphere of power?  Do we feel that reading something online means it is authoritative and credible, and therefore give it more credit, even if the site looks dodgy?  How do we sort out fact from fiction, and truth from lies, if we innately trust the medium which transmits the information?  We indicate that innate trust simply by using the internet.  How much power, how much time, how much of our lives, do we give to the system, every day?

And having established that we've placed our trust in it, what is the nature of that power?  The fact that internet hoaxes are often believed is an ominous sign of the power of the new medium itself, which is currently up for grabs.  Savvy Web designers and gurus, as well as a motley crew of governments, terrorists, militants, agitators and assorted despots know this.  The power of the Internet goes way, way beyond Bright Young Millennials skimming profits in the next dot.com bubble.  It creates new realms of public discourse, action and control, moderated by evolving rules.  It tears down old systems of power and potentially will change the way we all govern ourselves, no matter where we live.  As Osama Bin Laden clearly understood when he engaged in an online media war with George Bush back in 2001, or as those who circulated the horrific 2004 Web-casts of beheadings knew, this power could migrate anywhere, could be bent to any purposes.  Anyone could lay claim to that new realm.  So far, we've just been testing the capabilities of the new tool, seeing how far it will go.  We have not yet reached the point where it has been used systematically to create a new breed of régimes, a new body politic.

The British Empire. Image Source: Wiki.

But maybe the new body politic is not up for grabs by just anyone.  The new medium has cultural origins that intrinsically flavour its use.  There are two views on this.  One runs as follows.  Invented in California in the 1970s, the internet is ultimately an American-made tool, and no matter what anti-American uses you may put it to, using it indelibly and inescapably transmits American values - to the user as much as his or her targets.  You may despise America and use the Web against her, but in so doing you are simply becoming deeply Americanized.  This vision does not see Americans successfully and consciously pedalling some heavy-handed propaganda. Their persuasion is unconscious, unarticulated, organic.  So many of the country's critics forget her rebellious and revolutionary past.

The same argument observes that there is a reason why English has become the lingua franca of the world, an endeavour begun in the British Empire.  Critics of American expansion conjure up militaristic images of napalm in Vietnam and troops in Baghdad.  An American Empire, an Anglosphere, an Anglo-American realm of power?  You're sitting in front of it.  The Internet is like a latter day Roman aqueduct.  And no one is going to escape it, any time soon.  Looking at the incredible explosion of the Tech Revolution, it can be argued that the spread of the Internet was an unbelievable American victory, a victory that will change the whole history of the world.  It is as big, or bigger, than the invention of the printing press.
US Military Bases in the world. Image Source: Wiki.

The other argument: way beyond American political rhetoric and military campaigns, the Internet is a soft power tool that embodies the best of America's early ideals.  This side of the debate doesn't see that outcome as imparting imperial power to the United States.  The Internet transmits the essence of bare bones democracy along with freedom, sharing, enterpreneurship and seminal community organizaton, while inspiring a chaotic lawless fringe as part of the social cost for those gains.  Certainly, this vision is borne up by some facts: the current uprisings in the Middle East began with WikiLeaks-inspired unrest in Tunisia and a Twitter and Google-related success in EgyptThe Internet lets protesters circulate the data and tyrants fall.  The turning point occurs when the virtual becomes real.  Boingboing has just reported on a Google Maps-Twitter mash-up created by Virender Ajmani (here) where you can follow tweets as they appear in different regions of the Middle-East; it's called 'real time tweet-mapping.'

Image Source: Google Maps/MiBazaar via Boingboing.

What of the rumours of Internet calls for a 'Jasmine Revolution' in China - and of a report that the original call came from a computer located in the United States; while another claim states that the call started at the Chinese site Boxun.com?  A search for Boxun brings up a Google-powered Blogger site asserting: "This is the temporary site of Boxun during the attack period."  Here's a very rough translation of the February 20 transcription of a reporter asking demonstrators in Shanghai about their motivations:
Reporter: "Jasmine revolution" do?
Youth answer: Egypt people, freedom and democracy. One-party rule of the Communist Party is over.
Reporter: do you have a job?
Youth answer: I have a job, has a bona fide career.
Question: How do you know here?
Youth answer: seen on the Internet.
Reporter: what?
Youth answer: freedom of expression, democracy.

Pictures of demonstrators in Shanghai's Huangpu district.  The location and date of the protest was publicized on the Internet.
Demonstrators in Harbin.

Demonstrators in Guangxi: Nanning Chaoyang Plaza. All Images Source: Boxun.com mirror site on Blogger (20 February 2011).

Boxun is publishing casual reports which are purportedly streaming in from town squares across China about pre-arranged places for demonstrators to meet - and of the large police presence waiting for them.  People arrive and stand around in twos and threes, eyeing each other.  The authorities have blocked Internet searches on, and the online use of, sensitive words such as 'Jasmine'; but the protesters come up with new search terms to contact each other cryptically on migrating Websites.  Mobile cell phones also experience high levels of interference at scheduled protest times.

How do you clamp down on a revolution that has no leaders - that is inspired merely by the circulation of information?  How can you stop that circulation of information, once it's started moving?  It's almost impossible.  Internet blackout.  It's an oxymoron.  At this point, the only thing that could truly quell the Internet is a monster explosion on the sun.  And what would we do with ourselves then?

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