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Return of blog anxiety


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Six years ago I wrote a column titled "Blog Anxiety," which was all about how bloggers make me nervous and jealous with their lightning-fast news cycles. I bemoaned my inability to commit words to public record without waiting for editorial oversight and without waiting for publication day (inevitably several days if not weeks after I had written those words). I talked about how bloggers can cite sources they’ve talked to informally and how they seem blissfully unburdened by concerns about injecting a personal perspective into their writing.

That was before It All Changed. And by "It All Changed," I don’t just mean that I became a blogger, which I did. More profoundly, I mean that blogs themselves have changed.

They are not the subterranean upstart media without rules anymore. I’m certainly not the first person to observe that blogs are fast becoming indistinguishable from mainstream media, and indeed places like the New York Times and the Washington Post have blogs that are often more newsy than the papers themselves. This blurring between formerly mainstream media and formerly alternative media means that the upstarts are having to follow old-school rules.

While I can’t speak for all bloggers, I prefer not to publish anything on my blog that hasn’t been edited. I don’t want readers to see my spelling errors and craptastic leaps in logic, thank you very much (of course you’ll still see many, but not as many as you would if there were no edits). I also spend a fair amount of time on the phone or on e-mail interviewing sources for my posts, as well as doing research. And I won’t publish anything that I think will get me sued, is libelous, or is just plain wrong, even if it’s funny. What I’m saying is that my blog is not exactly the unedited, stream-of-consciousness outpourings of a person in pajamas. Well, OK, I am often in pajamas.

Recently I was reading a conversation thread on Metafilter, one of my favorite still-subterranean Web sites for smart talk and slagging. Somebody mentioned my science fiction blog io9.com, then snarked at me for starting a blog when I was on record saying that blogs freak me out. An unedited discussion full of spiky banter and maniacal analysis followed — exactly the kind of conversation I once associated with all blogs. People were nastier than they would have been if writing for a mainstream publication, but the cool ideas–to–noise ratio was nevertheless far higher than you’d ever get in USA Today or CNN.

And this brings me to what scares me about blogs now. I worry that instead of taking the Metafilter ethos mainstream, many blogs are leaving it behind. That’s not because we have editors or talk to sources — I’m happy to see bloggers doing that. It’s because our audiences are starting to be as big as those of the mainstream media, and the mainstream media have taught us to be afraid of saying what we really think to those audiences. They’ve taught us that we should tiptoe around hot-button issues like climate change and sex and delay publishing stories that might upset the government until such a time as the government is comfortable with those stories.

This is the source of my blog anxiety in 2008. Will blogs take on all the bad habits of the mainstream media, self-censoring when we should be publishing? Or will bloggers help the media progress just a little bit further toward independence of thought and bravery in publication?

It’s still too early to tell. Even the most mainstream blogs don’t suffer the same pressures that mainstream publications like the New York Times do. Blogs don’t have the 100-year histories of many newspapers and magazines — they don’t have the huge staffs and long, elaborate relationships with corporations and governments and famous, influential people. And I am glad we don’t have that history. I hope we can make our own, new history and shake up the way news is made and culture is analyzed. And then, in 30 years, I hope a new medium will come along and kick our asses too. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who spends all day and all night blogging and editing at io9.com. You think she’s kidding about that, but she isn’t.

Technology in wartime


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION War changes everything, including technology. We are roughly six years into what the George W. Bush administration calls the war on terror and what hundreds of thousands of soldiers know as the occupation of Iraq. Gizmos that a decade ago would have been viewed entirely as communications tools and toys are now potential surveillance and killing machines.

Don’t believe me? Consider how much the Web has changed. Referred to naively 10 years ago by Bill Clinton and Co. as the friendly, welcoming "information superhighway," the Web is now the National Security Agency’s surveillance playground. Last year a whistle-blower at AT&T revealed that every bit of Internet traffic routed by AT&T was also being routed through an NSA surveillance system. Millions of innocent people’s private Internet information, including online purchases and e-mail, was being watched without warrants.

Cuddly consumer robots epitomized by Sony’s Aibo robot dog have changed too. The company that makes adorable Roomba vacuum robots, iRobot, just announced a huge deal with the United States military to make reconnaissance and killing robots called PackBots for use in combat zones. Already, 50 PackBots have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are the ground versions of crewless aerial vehicles, remote-controlled spy planes that can also shoot weapons.

Tech security expert Bruce Schneier describes technology as having "dual uses": one for peacetime and one for war. The Wii video game console, for example, is great for transutf8g physical movements into movements onscreen. That makes the Wii great for party games in which you swing your arms to move dancing penguins on the screen. It also makes a great interface for remote-controlled guns in a combat robot. Just move your arm to aim.

In a time of war you can’t enjoy a party game without thinking about your game console being used to kill people. I realize that sounds melodramatic, but looked at pragmatically it’s quite simply true.

Once you realize that every form of technology has a dual use, it becomes much easier to argue for ways of limiting the uses that aren’t ethical or legal. Consider that a roboticized antiaircraft cannon (similar to the PackBot) turned on its operators during a field exercise in South Africa in October 2007, killing nine people before it ran out of ammo. The software error that led this robot to slaughter friendly soldiers is no different from errors that make your Roomba crash. What do we draw from this analogy? Perhaps robots that are perfectly legal as vacuums should be illegal on the battlefield. Perhaps no weapon should ever be completely autonomous like the Roomba.

Questions like these led me and my colleagues at Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility to put together a conference at Stanford University on the topic of technology in wartime, focusing especially on ethics and the law. Coming up on Jan. 26, the conference will be a day packed with talks and panels about everything from dual-use technology (Schneier will be a keynote speaker) to what happens when robots commit war crimes. We’ll also hear from people who are appropriating military technologies for human rights causes — the very technologies that let military spies hide online also help human rights workers and dissidents shield themselves while still getting out their subversive messages.

We’ll also have a panel on so-called cyberterrorism, or destructive hacks aimed at taking down a nation’s tech infrastructure. But should fears of cyberterror lead to total government surveillance of the Internet? Cindy Cohn, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s legal director, will talk about how the NSA used AT&T to spy on US citizens and the suit the EFF has brought against AT&T for vioutf8g its customers’ privacy rights.

If you want to find out how to change the way militaries are appropriating consumer tech or just want to learn more about how war is changing the way we use technology, come to Stanford on Jan. 26 for the conference. It’s open to the public, and you can register at www.technologyinwartime.org. The cost of admission gets a you free lunch and a T-shirt, as well as a chance to talk to some of the smartest people in the field. See you there!

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who wants smart defense to replace buggy offense.

International intrigue


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION The following story is not entirely made up. But it’s fictional enough that if you think you recognize yourself or your friends, then you must be mistaken.

He had a vaguely European-sounding name and a vague job doing something with the United Nations, or perhaps one of its subcommittees or projects or councils. It sounded important because it had a lot of words in it, and one of those words was Internet. That’s why Shiva met him.

They were at some kind of after-conference party, or maybe it was midconference. Anyway, it was for some center or special interest group at Harvard that was very concerned about the Internet in Africa. Shiva had come late in the afternoon to hear the keynote presentation, which wasn’t actually related to Africa. It was delivered by someone whom she admired, a technologist with a social conscience who would have done something about Africa if he had had time after haranguing the United States government about putting its citizens under surveillance without warrants.

The keynote speaker talked rousingly about how easy it was for governments — even ones in Africa, he was careful to add — to spy on people’s activities online. He talked about all of the great activist groups at Harvard and elsewhere around the world where smart geeks were figuring out ways to hide personal data from invasive states. He invited them all to help out by contributing to several open-source software projects, and then he invited them to the reception for wine and cheese.

There Shiva met the guy with the European-sounding name, who regaled her with stories about the wine in Spain and setting up wireless networks in Africa. He was so entertaining that she forgot to ask him which country in Africa, and then she consciously decided not to ask him since she knew so little about African geography that she might come across as exactly the sort of person who didn’t belong at Harvard. At one point he mentioned Lagos, which she knew (to her relief) was in Nigeria.

One thing led to another, and they wound up at Shiva’s lab at MIT because the European guy got really excited when she told him about her project on assembling virus shells for drug delivery. He would be leaving for Lagos in the morning, he told her, and she thought, "What the hell? I’m going to take this guy back to my lab and fuck him." And she did, and it was pretty hot, especially because he seemed so interested in her work. Before he left they exchanged e-mail addresses.

Lagos is one of the biggest cities in the world, but its exact population is unknown. A 2006 census claims the state of Lagos (which includes the city) has a population of nine million, but locals say these numbers are low and should be as high as 10 or 12 million. A city like that, whose population can’t even be determined to the nearest million, is a good place to disappear.

But the European guy didn’t disappear, and he would occasionally write Shiva e-mails from Lagos, forwarding her links about local politics or commenting on how locals ate this green stuff they called simply vegetable. He was setting up wireless networks and writing reports about them for his UN group or council or whatever. To get data in and out of the country, he wrote, he had to hide it on USB devices that looked like toy models of the TARDIS spaceship. People were so suspicious of anything that looked like a computer.

Eventually, the e-mails trailed off. He was in Switzerland, then Dubai, then Africa again. Never Cambridge. Shiva was busy prepping a paper for Nature, and then she was prepping for a conference. She hooked up with a couple of other people, started exchanging other flirtatious e-mails, then forgot about the European guy entirely.

Until one day she saw a picture of him on her favorite blog, right next to a post about how to make bicycles from foam. Apparently he’d been selling bioweapons information to groups variously labeled terrorists or insurgents, using his UN gig as cover. He had been teaching guerrillas about viruses. Nobody could figure out where he’d gotten his data. They figured it was a disgruntled Islamic militant somewhere, a person with a vendetta against the US government. Shiva never knew if it was her. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who doesn’t know anything about virus shells and has never been to Lagos.

Humans are dogs


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Two new studies of animal intelligence caught my attention last week because they prove that humans are no better than dogs and monkeys. This is something I’ve always felt to be true on an anecdotal level, and now cognitive science backs me up.

A researcher in Vienna, Austria, trained dogs to sort photographs into two categories: pictures of other dogs and pictures of landscapes. This is big news because it means that dogs not only recognize what’s happening in symbolic visual representations (photos) but can also figure out how to translate an abstract concept ("dog") into a category of pictures. Previously, nobody thought dogs could categorize photographs or even abstract concepts other than "food" and "enemy."

The other study is even better, partly because it’s called "Basic Math in Monkeys and College Students" (oh, those zany editors at PloS Biology). In this study, cognitive scientists gave monkeys and college students a series of very simple tests to determine how quickly and accurately they could add up the number of dots on a screen. On average, the monkeys and students answered in the same amount of time. The students were 94 percent accurate in their answers, while the monkeys were 76 percent accurate. So monkeys are nearly as good as humans at adding dots, even without the benefit of a college education.

What struck me first on contemputf8g these studies is that cognitive science has taken us in an unforeseen direction. This is a field that promises to study consciousness as if it were a machine, to look at thoughts as electrical impulses and biological structures rather than sublime metaphysics. It would seem, therefore, to run the risk of dehumanizing us, of converting all of our crazy, ambivalent feelings into mere blips on a chart. Instead, what cognitive science has done, at least in these studies, is show us how deeply connected we are to the living creatures around us.

By breaking down our thought processes into their component parts — pattern recognition, counting — we are able to see that the building blocks of thought are not unique to Homo sapiens. Dogs and monkeys are doing this shit too. In fact, there is a monkey out there who can add better than a college student (some of the humans did in fact score lower than some of the monkeys in the study).

So what do we do now that we know dogs and monkeys are capable of humanlike intelligence? Shall we test more animals and discover what we already knew about elephants and dolphins having language? I hope so.

If nothing else, this should teach humans to be a lot more damn humble about our supposed niftiness.

Of course, there are dangers in taking this scenario too far. Instead of seeing ourselves as having something in common with animals, we might use this information to make animals into better slaves. Science fiction author David Brin’s Uplift series is partly about this. He describes humans using biotech and genetic engineering to "uplift" chimps and dolphins, giving them human-equivalent intelligence. The creatures become fully intelligent, but socially they remain second-class citizens.

The two transformed species are in a constant struggle to prove themselves to the humans, and often fail; Brin portrays the dolphins as liable to slip back into incoherent animalness when threatened.

Still, we have not yet appointed ourselves uplifters. Humans are at a moment in our history when we are still in awe of animals who can think the way we do. Now we have to figure out the appropriate next steps.

Obviously, we need to test more animals for intelligence, using a variety of methods.

Probably the most oddly hopeful news to come out of all of this is the fact that both of these tests were done without any killing or brain invading. The researchers who did the dog test even invented a special paw-operated touch-screen computer for the dogs to use. I like that. Not only have we discovered that dogs are like us, but we’ve also invented the first dog-friendly user interface. What next? Wii for dogs? That would pave the way for true interspecies bonding. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose cat is unfortunately not among the mentally gifted creatures who can add, sort, or even recognize food.

Consumerist crap for the holidays


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION For the holidays, I don’t want to do something nice for the earth. I don’t want to buy special laptops loaded with Western video games and imagery for kids in Africa without computers. I don’t want to get handmade iPod covers from the Etsy online store that nurtures local craftspeople. And I don’t want to go off-line for a day to commune with people in the real world.

I want toxic Chinese toys covered with paint that will make me hallucinate. I want a sparkly-crap mobile phone that will break within a week and turn into circuit-board garbage that cannot be recycled and will therefore be shipped to developing countries where it will be hacked and resold. I want a media device that’s wrapped in so many layers of plastic and nonrecyclable material that the very act of opening it is like smashing my carbon footprint onto the face of Mother Earth. I want a useless gizmo mass-produced by machines that stole jobs from nonunionized workers who stole jobs from the natives.

In short, I want a Nintendo Wii.

It’s the biggest-selling video game console ever, and it’s made from so much biosphere-destroying garbage that I’ll be scrubbing methane out of the air for the rest of my life to make up for even thinking about owning one. Plus, Wii controllers are motion sensitive, which means they strap onto your body. Every time I use my Wii — which, I would like to underscore, I do not yet own — I will be turning myself into a literal extension of my machine.

Do you hear that, hippies? I want to strap electronics to my body and trance out to violent imagery while I wave my arms around, killing imaginary things. That’s what I want to do for the holidays.

But the Wii isn’t just a consumer electronics death monster. It’s also something I think everyone should own or at least try out, because it truly represents the future of technology. The fact that people can now interact with a video game simply by waving their arms — and the video game "sees" the waving and responds to it onscreen — is revolutionary. There’s a good reason why Wiis are popular with people of all ages, unlike most game systems. They respond to natural human movement rather than force people to learn elaborate combinations of buttons and knobs on bizarrely shaped controllers. The Wii is a machine made for humans.

Already those humans are figuring out ways to repurpose the Wii and make it work with other kinds of devices. There’s a Wii DJ (called, of course, WiiJ) who uses his Wii controllers to cue up and mix tracks on a computer. Somebody else is using a Wii controller to operate Bluetooth devices. And so on. The point is, the Wii is cool not because it’s a video game system but because it’s introduced a new way of interacting with computers. If you want to know what a home computer setup will look like in 10 years, play with a Wii. Your mouse will soon be replaced with a motion-based setup. You’ll point with your finger and click by tapping two fingers together. Or by saying click.

I don’t mean to romanticize the Wii, because it is, after all, just another thing with built-in obsolescence. It’s a toy you’ll throw away without thinking, consigning it to an unknowable half-life as indigestible silicon shards. It sucks when great future innovations are doomed to become garbage that may last longer than the benefits of the innovation itself.

But if the holidays are a time of reflecting on the past and the future, you might as well hang out with your friends and play Guitar Hero on the Wii. After all, donating to cool charities and supporting local artists is something you should be doing all year. You should buy a cute present for your sweetie from Etsy when it strikes your fancy, not just when the capitalist juggernaut tells you to. And, of course, you should never be off-line for a day. That’s just taking things too far.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who will be online for the next 50 years.

Comcast’s secret war on file sharing


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION For the past several months, Comcast has been covertly sending commands to your computer that tell it to stop receiving information — especially if that information is coming to you via BitTorrent, Gnutella, or other file-sharing applications. In May disgruntled Comcast users started posting on message boards about how BitTorrent and Gnutella weren’t working for them anymore. So researchers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, along with an AP investigative journalist, started running tests on the Comcast network, using software tools to examine what exactly Comcast was doing to BitTorrent.

What they found was disturbing. Without telling customers, Comcast had begun a secret program to send automatic reset commands to customers’ computers if they were using BitTorrent, Gnutella, or a few other programs. None of these programs are illegal. Moreover, Comcast had sold its services to customers without informing them that this popular Internet software wouldn’t work on its network. And Comcast is still doing it.

To make matters worse, the method the folks at Comcast are using to shut down file sharing is underhanded. They stop BitTorrent by injecting reset data packets into information streaming between two computers on the Comcast network. Then Comcast makes the reset packets appear to be from one of the computers using BitTorrent — not Comcast. So even if customers know to look for these reset packets, they’ll believe the problem comes from the computer they’re trying to share files with.

When the EFF and angry customers confronted Comcast about its sneaky system, the company claimed that it was merely "slowing down" certain programs. But as the EFF pointed out last week in a research paper on the topic, reset packets are designed only to shut down communication between two computers. If Comcast wanted to slow down BitTorrent, it could have used a common program called a traffic shaper, which can adjust data speeds.

Comcast spokesperson Charlie Douglas told the Guardian that "Comcast is delaying peer-to-peer applications but not blocking them." He added that there is "no other technical way to delay" these applications than the method the company has chosen.

Without further explanation from Comcast, one is left wondering why the company would engage in such outrageously anticonsumer behavior. One possibility is that it views BitTorrent as a competitor. BitTorrent has made deals with various Hollywood studios to distribute movies online, which is something Comcast cable does for television. So maybe Comcast is playing dirty so its customers will turn to cable TV for movies instead of getting them online via BitTorrent.

For people who don’t care about using BitTorrent, though, Comcast’s behavior is still a gesture of bad faith. The company is demonstrating quite plainly that it won’t hesitate to deny basic Internet services to its customers without warning, and without even acknowledging that it’s doing it. Today those services are for file sharing. But tomorrow they could be for sending e-mail that doesn’t use Comcast’s Web mail system.

I also think Comcast’s actions are a harbinger of what’s to come as Internet service providers get sucked into larger media companies with cable or content-making divisions. No laws guarantee network neutrality online, so Comcast is free to engage in network prejudice. The company can block any service it wants, especially if there’s a financial incentive. Certainly, consumers can choose to go with another Internet service provider, and I hope they do. But in the future, market competition may not be enough.

If Comcast blocks BitTorrent, then another company might welcome BitTorrent traffic but block my favorite game services. Internet service will become like cable TV, where getting the full range of channels is incredibly expensive. Except it will be worse, because the Internet is a far richer and more diverse place than cable TV. Selectively blocking the Internet is like selectively blocking expression itself.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who gets her movies on BitTorrent.

Why I voted for Josh Wolf


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Last week’s mayoral election in my hometown of San Francisco was one of those weird moments that make you think you’re living in a Philip K. Dick novel, looking at hundreds of alternate futures peeling away from the present like little slivers of psychosis. It was a dismal election, in which the incumbent, conservative–for–San Francisco Gavin Newsom, was the only candidate who had any hope of winning. He was practically unopposed, but there was, technically, a cornucopia of candidates, spanning the gamut from qualified but unpopular to completely unqualified and silly, who were on the ballot running against him.

Things being what they are, the silly candidates got the most attention (albeit not most of the votes). Some guy named Chicken, known mostly for his participation in the art festival Burning Man, ran on a campaign pushing people to vote for him as their second choice, since San Francisco has ranked-choice voting. He definitely had great posters, given his connection to the arts community, but not much of a platform. Then there was the sex club owner Michael Powers, who ran on a platform I never quite understood. Powers does have one of the nicest sex clubs I’ve ever seen, called (appropriately enough) the Power Exchange, and I wondered briefly if that might qualify him to run the city. But in the end, he got the fewest votes. And Chicken did not come in anywhere near second.

As I said, there were a few candidates, like Quintin Mecke, with relevant experience, but none had big enough constituencies to pull off a win. So when it came time to fill in my ballot, I voted for a guy who isn’t a joke and has the kinds of political experience that might get him elected in 2035: Josh Wolf.

Media geeks may remember Wolf as the blogger who was sent to prison for refusing to identify for the police some protesters in video he posted of a political demonstration that turned violent. After he got out of prison he went on the Colbert Report, where he came across as well intentioned and with a burning passion for free speech. In the mayoral race, he ran on a platform that emphasized open democratic processes and a good wi-fi plan for the city. Nobody in his campaign thought he would win, and indeed he only garnered about 1,500 votes. But that’s saying something in an election with only 17 percent turnout.

So why didn’t I vote for somebody like Mecke, who had a good position on dealing with homelessness and had already done some work in city politics? Because, as I said, I felt like I was in this Dick novel looking into a zillion possible futures right there in the polling place. There were the sure-to-fail futures represented by good candidates with no hope of winning, and then there was the dark future of creepy joke candidates like Chicken, whose mockery of the voting process was probably part of why so few people turned out for the election. Why vote when running for mayor had been turned into a joke?

So I voted for the best possible future I could find, the future in which, eventually, smart young people who care about freedom of expression online become mature politicians who understand new technologies and the socioeconomic conditions associated with them. Maybe Wolf won’t grow into that politician, but somebody like him will. And that person will probably understand things like how to organize Internet access for low-income city residents and why entertainment companies shouldn’t be allowed to sue people for hundreds of thousands of dollars because they’ve been file-sharing. That person will also understand how easy it is to violate people’s privacy online and will push for regulations that prevent companies and governments from dipping into private digital data supplies.

Of course, the future in which we have politicians like Wolf may never happen. We can’t predict what will become of him, and we can’t know if digital natives will mature into progressives who care about access and privacy reforms. There’s always room for wired neocons and digital Puritans, whose intimate history with the Internet will make them particularly good at legisutf8g censorship purges and invasive data mining. That’s not the future I voted for, but I am always having to remind myself that’s the future I may get. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is living in an alternate future right now.

Carbon indulgences


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Airlines from Virgin Blue to Quantas have been touting new ecofriendly programs under which passengers paralyzed by enviroguilt over all of those jet-fueled carbon dioxide emissions can pay an extra carbon offset fee for tickets. The money these passengers pay — sometimes as little as $1 — is supposed to go to renewable energy or unspecified green causes and therefore make airline travel carbon neutral.

Carbon offset fees may be new, but the underlying notion goes back to the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church sold wealthy people indulgences to offset the spiritual cost of their sins and assure a place for them in heaven. And yet at least the kids in 1380 knew that indulgences were bullshit. Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic work The Canterbury Tales, written in the late 1300s, makes fun of the thoroughly corrupt pardoner character, a bombastic weirdo who constantly tries to sell everybody official-looking papers that would pardon them for their sins. Chaucer was just one of many thinkers at the time who criticized the idea that any sin can be forgiven with a little gold.

Polluting the environment isn’t a sin in the Christian sense, and yet carbon offset fees are clearly indulgences for a modern, scientific age.

I don’t mean to say that money doesn’t help ecocauses. But the problem is far more complicated than we want to believe. Our planet is in such sorry shape partly because humans are trying to better themselves. China is industrializing in order to make its citizens richer, but last week the Chinese National Population and Family Planning Commission published a report showing that environmental pollution from coal mining has caused the incidence of birth defects to jump 40 percent in the past six years.

There’s no carbon offset price you could pay to fix that. Nor is there an easy way to prevent such disasters from happening in the future if most of the world agrees that industrialization is the road to wealth. Do we use our carbon indulgence money to fund Chinese populations’ return to preindustrial life, thus dooming that nation to a second-class economic status? Perhaps we could use our money to fund education that teaches Chinese kids about alternative energy. But what kind of energy will they use in their classrooms while waiting for scientists to invent something that combusts cleanly and renewably forever?

Preservationist Marc Ancrenaz and his colleagues get it right in a recent article for PloS Biology in which they argue that preserving biodiversity must go hand in hand with eradicating poverty. "Most traditional conservation efforts were typically designed to exclude human residents," Ancrenaz’s group writes. "This failure to consider the interests of local communities has resulted in a general lack of support for conservation and subsequent degradation of protected areas." In other words, if you don’t help the people in a region, it doesn’t matter how many carbon offsets you buy — the area will still suffer.

Ancrenaz discusses two novel preservation programs that incorporate community development in their biodiversity agendas: the Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Project in Borneo and the Tree Kangaroo Preservation Program in Papua New Guinea. Both programs train and hire locals as researchers who can help preserve the habitats of orangutans and tree kangaroos, respectively. I don’t want to offer programs like these as panaceas. Improperly used, they are no better than carbon indulgences. But at least they aim to address the deep connection between human poverty and environmental suffering. Even better would be programs that help locals develop new sources of wealth without requiring them to engage in logging or factory farming to earn money.

I’m not saying you should quit buying your carbon offsets, because maybe some of that money will make it into the right hands. But you should recognize your actions for what they are: guilt-inspired payouts that assuage your conscience rather than thoughtful remedies for problems that won’t be solved with indulgences alone. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who once paid a Linux sysadmin to forgive her for using Windows.

Consumer biotech


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION When will we tire of the endless scandals over bricking iPhones, RSI-causing Wiis, and PlayStation shootings? I think the time is coming soon, my friends. In fact, the whole consumer electronics craze is about to die off and give birth to a new home-tech phenomenon. I refer, of course, to the consumer biotech revolution that’s just on the horizon.

Consumer biotech isn’t a new idea. Home pregnancy tests are a form of consumer biotech, as are Viagra and Prozac. Many diabetics administer insulin using small computers that measure their blood sugar levels and administer appropriate doses when necessary. I call this stuff consumer biotech because it measures and alters biological states for the mass market. And when smart phones become as boring as dumb ones, the lust for cool new biotech will replace the lust for new game consoles. Here are a few ideas about what will happen when consumer biotech goes beyond medical devices and into the realm of entertainment.

DNA Crystal Ball Already people are jumping at the chance to get their genome sequenced using cheapo services like GeneTree.com. Meanwhile, scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology have invented a biosensor for identifying viruses that’s the size of an attaché case. So it shouldn’t be long before a company develops handhelds that identify sections of your DNA that offer hints of your distant parentage as well as what kinds of characteristics you’re likely to develop as you age. Of course, nobody really cares about the science behind this crap — they just want to be told a cool story that predicts what will happen to them based on their allele configuration. Thus Mattel will offer the DNA Crystal Ball, a little computer that will spit out pseudoscientific "predictions" about you based on poorly researched genomics studies. If you have this or that allele, you might become an artist! Or you might be quick to anger. Your ancestors might have been Indian princesses or African warriors! Since the device will be sold purely "for entertainment," it won’t give you, for instance, valuable information about a predilection for breast cancer. But you’ll metastasize happily knowing you’ve got the "gene" for friendliness.

Clonies! Kids love Shrinky Dinks, the plastic toys you color and stick in the oven, shrinking them into hard little plastic ornaments. So why not do the same thing with tissue engineering? Using techniques already perfected by a bunch of Australian tissue artists from a lab called SymbioticA, kids will create wee "clonies," tiny versions of themselves grown from their own skin cells using tissue-engineering edifices. Just culture a bit of your skin and grow it in a petri dish while you build a little model of yourself out of the foamy edifice. Once you’ve got a few inches of skin, drape them on the edifice, let them grow for a few days, and presto! A tiny version of you, made of your own skin! You’ll get days of fun, and then you can dispose of the clonie in a handy biohazard container (sold separately). Try it with your dog, and your friends!

Gene Expression Jam Session Remember how cool Garage Band was back when people thought playing with computer networks was as fun as playing with cellular signaling mechanisms? Jim Munroe has predicted that in the future every kid will have an Easy-Bake Oven for growing new animals, but Gene Expression Jam Session will be way cooler. Mix and match the genes of your choice using an easy user interface and rewrite your biology on the spot. Want to glow green for the evening or sprout hair all over your body? How about growing an extra pair of arms on your torso? Gene Expression Jam Session will produce the genes you need to do it, enclose them in a nifty virus-shell vector for quick delivery to your DNA, and shoot ’em right into your arm for fast-acting fun! Once you’re sick of your newly engineered appearance, you can buy a plug-in that reverses the effects of your newly added genes or adds extra genes to make you look even wilder!

And don’t get me started on the consumer nanotech revolution. You haven’t truly lived until you’ve turned your pet goldfish into a golf ball. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who has this weird growth on her head that won’t stop flashing the Google logo until she pays for a Jam Session upgrade.

When science attacks


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Two scandals rocked the sci-tech world last week. Not to put too fine a point on it, they reminded us that bad research and implementation can kill.

In South Africa, a widely used antiaircraft cannon called the Oerlikon GDF-005 suffered from what many observers believe was a computer malfunction, which killed 9 soldiers and maimed 15 in a training exercise. Its computer-controlled sighting mechanism went haywire, and the gun automatically turned its barrel to face the trainees next to it, spraying bullets from magazines that it automatically reloaded until it was out of ammunition. Many compared the incident to science fiction fare like Robocop or Terminator, in which military bots turn on their masters.

In the United States, James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for helping to discover the double-helix shape of DNA, was suspended from his administrative duties at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory over comments he made to the London Times about how blacks are genetically hardwired with lower intelligence than that of other races. Watson has made comments like this about blacks (and women) throughout his career, but apparently this was the last straw. Reporter Charlotte Hunt-Grabbe, who says she has Watson’s comments on tape, quoted him saying he’s "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really." He told Hunt-Grabbe his "hope is that everyone is equal" but that "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."

Nobody compared Watson’s racism to science fiction, though one could bring up Gattaca, Brave New World, or any other genetic dystopia where DNA warlords like Watson — whose employer controls millions in research money — have created a world where genes are destiny.

These two very different incidents demonstrate the fallibility of science and, more important, how the arrogance of scientists can be horrifically destructive. The tragedy in South Africa could have been avoided if the engineers who designed that cannon had simply refused to computerize its sight. With a big gun, computer error can be far worse than human error. Any decent engineer would have known that failure in computer systems is inevitable and come to the conclusion that weapons should not be programmed to function autonomously.

Watson’s remarks are another form of scientific arrogance that leads to gross and fatal mistakes. After all, Watson is hardly the first person to use genetics as a way to create false hierarchies of human beings based on "evidence" that some races and sexes are "naturally" superior to others. The history of biology as a discipline is riddled with racism and sexism. Eighteenth-century scientist Carolus Linnaeus, who invented the taxonomy of species we still use today, originally divided the species Homo sapiens into four racial subclasses: Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeanus. While Europeanus was "inventive," Africanus was "negligent." Even in the 20th century many geneticists endorsed the eugenics movement as a way to keep the species strong by preventing "dysgenic," racially mixed babies from being born.

Today leaders in the field of evolutionary biology like Steven Pinker and E.O. Wilson routinely say that people are hardwired to behave in certain ways based on their genetic heritage, which is often linked to their racial background or sex. "Scientific" studies on the genetic inferiority of female intelligence are what motivated former Harvard president Lawrence Summers to claim that there are so few women in science because they just aren’t smart enough.

So should a computerized gun run amok and a racist geneticist undermine our faith in science? Yes. People who build autonomous weapons systems know their work might kill people, but they do it anyway. And people like Watson derail brilliant research by bringing sex and race bias into the lab. Science is nothing more than the sum of what scientists do. Without ethics, science is no better than Christianity during the Crusades, a dogma that kills out of arrogance and prejudice. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who knows that Rosalind Franklin discovered the structure of DNA.

Moaning Lisa


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION She looked at me with her motion detectors as I rubbed the piezoelectric sensor between her thighs. Then I spun the potentiometers that jutted out from her chest like nipples. But it wasn’t until I stroked the piezosensor on the back of her neck that she began to moan, first quietly and then loudly, like a thousand women reaching orgasm together.

I was standing in front of a naked mannequin with the proportions of a porn star, her eyes replaced with fat lenses to detect motion, her nipples transformed into knobs, her ass and pussy and neck covered in thin sheets of metal that could detect pressure. Jutting from her left ankle was a USB connector, and through a hole in her back I could see the wires that had helped her respond to my attentions. Her voice had come from two small speakers at her feet. I had just jacked off a USB device.

Her name is Moaning Lisa, and I fondled her at Arse Elektronika, a conference in San Francisco last week devoted to pornography and technological innovation. Her creator, Matt Ganucheau, is a local artist and musician who likes to work with what he calls "novel interfaces." He designed Moaning Lisa specifically for Arse Elektronika, with help from conference organizer Kyle Machulis, to demonstrate the videogame-like properties of the human body. Ganucheau used neural network processing in her programming, and the result is that her responses are randomized. Each time you try to give Moaning Lisa an orgasm, your sensor stroking has to follow a slightly different pattern.

That’s what keeps me hovering around Moaning Lisa in fascination. Her interface, though attached to a strangely distorted female body, seems human. She’s a reminder that every woman has different physical sensitivities, and that sexual stimulation varies from person to person — indeed, varies from encounter to encounter with the same person. She suggests we shouldn’t mystify sex, because after all it’s just like a game you play with piezoelectric sensors and potentiometers. Our bodies are a technology. Arousal is a program triggered by specific inputs.

Moaning Lisa is also a poignant conversation piece, inciting discussions you’d never imagine having with strangers. I got to chatting with Ganucheau about why he doesn’t plan to build a male version, and we immediately start talking about how men experience sexual pleasure, though in an oddly technical way. "Male sex sensors are biased, and not as spread out" over the body, Ganucheau said. "Sure, there are deviances in distribution, but overall it’s not as dynamic as a female. I find that if you go straight for male genitalia, the norm is that you’re guaranteed to get someone off." This situation, he asserted, would make for a pretty boring game. You grab the genitals and you win every time. I countered that men have sexual sensors and patterns as varied as women’s. Neither of us had any proof other than our own experiences.

Aside from some pretty graphic discussions of sexual sensors, Moaning Lisa inspired a lot of admiration from the women at Arse Elektronika. Many of us had suggestions for Ganucheau, especially what one could learn from people’s interactions with her. If he were to continue working on Moaning Lisa, Ganucheau said, he would want to track how women respond to men playing with her. "It would be interesting to have a study where you had one male in a room alone with Lisa, and five women behind a one-way mirror watching, commenting on the interaction."

I have less complicated ideas. I think Moaning Lisa would be a good educational toy for women who are shy about telling their partners what they like in bed. She would provide a lesson in how hard it is to arouse somebody who gives you no verbal feedback until you randomly "score" with an orgasm.

"I see the female body as an instructionless, interactive puzzle," Ganucheau explained. Moaning Lisa is like a Rubik’s Cube, a puzzle that you have to solve with your hands and your innate pattern-recognition ability. But with her exaggerated Barbie doll body shape — giant breasts, tiny waist — she’s also a parody of female sexuality. She meets our expectations for what a sex doll would be, then frustrates those expectations by responding to salacious touches in a chaotic and peculiarly human way. That’s what makes her a truly great piece of art. You cannot pin her down. You cannot forget her.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who wants to give Moaning Lisa some actuators.

Always away


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION My social world is divided into two camps: people who use instant messaging and people who don’t. When I start my workday by booting up my computer, I consider myself to have arrived at the office when my IM program comes to life and is suddenly populated by dozens of tiny names and faces. In fact, it’s sometimes hard for me to work with people who aren’t on IM. E-mail just isn’t fast enough. And the telephone is too fast.

I find meetings on the phone frustrating because I can’t multitask easily while talking. Sure, I can check e-mail or browse the Web, but usually the person on the other end of the line notices. All of those awkward pauses between sentences make it obvious that I’m only giving this call 85 percent of my attention. That’s considered rude on the phone, but not so with IM. Sometimes I’ll be exchanging a flurry of messages with a colleague on IM when suddenly she’ll take five minutes to answer a question. And that seems normal. She’s dealing with another task and will get back to me when she can, and we’ll resume where we left off.

Although IM technology has been around for years, I feel like it’s reached a kind of singularity that early users of "chat" would hardly recognize. There’s an etiquette culture that’s grown up around IM, a set of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors that varies across groups of IM users. For example, most of the people I talk to via IM are colleagues. I work from home, so most of my human contact during the day comes via quick exchanges and meetings on IM. Nearly everyone on my IM list has their status set to "away," which is technically supposed to mean they’re not at the keyboard. But in reality most of us set our status to away because we’re at work and don’t want to be disturbed by random people or purely social messages.

That’s why every time I IM somebody who claims to be away, I discover they aren’t. Acknowledging this, we add custom messages to our away flags to tell the truth about our status; "work only pls" is a common message, as is "on deadline do not disturb unless urgent." Other people set their messages to explain where they are: "in a meeting" or "in New York" or "eating lunch." What’s great about the away flag, though, is that it gives you plausible deniability if you don’t want to talk to somebody who has messaged you. After all, you might really be away. Who knows?

For a couple of years Sun Microsystems researcher Nicole Yankelovich has been studying the habits of people like myself who work remotely. What she’s discovered is that people who don’t work in a physical office tend to miss the casual chatter and bonding that happen before meetings or at lunch. These social interactions wind up improving work flow because people come up with good ideas while chatting casually, and brainstorming is easier in an informal environment. IM is how many of us are filling the gap. IM is our office space, where work chatter can become casual chatter. Like a closed office door, the away flag means "Please knock." And once you’re in the office with the person, you can have a pretty interesting talk, even though you’re supposed to be concentrating on your work.

It’s funny how software that was first used primarily as a goof-around, social tool has become a way for people to have business meetings and talk shop.

Other groups of people who IM, however, do it mostly for social reasons. These people are generally flagged "available," and they have vast contact lists that look more like MySpace friend lists than office contact sheets. Occasionally, these social IM users and I have passed in the night, as it were: one of them will casually message me because they don’t consider it weird to approach a stranger on IM to chat. For them, IM is like a giant nightclub or a college campus. Usually my away flag wards these people off, but sometimes it doesn’t, and I have to politely tell them I’m busy. And I frankly refuse to respond to a repeated "Heya wassup?" from anybody whose name is something like SFKitty233. Unless, of course, SFKitty233 happens to be my colleague. Which she just might be.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is probably messaging somebody on IM right now.

Whose bionics?


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Of course I tuned into the series premiere of Bionic Woman last week. Some of my earliest TV memories are of watching the first Bionic Woman, a hopelessly and gloriously 1970s series about Jamie Sommers, a tennis player who gets bionic implants that give her super strength in her legs, one arm, and one ear. She was a cyborg before cyborgs were cool. And every week, she would fight bad guys and do bionic stuff for great justice.

Now ultimate women’s lib heroine Sommers is back, all spruced up for the 2000s, and the results are rather strange. Thirty years have passed, and time seems to have gone backwards — except the bionics, which have been updated to a nanopseudoscience involving something called anthrocites. This time around, Jamie isn’t an independent career jock: she’s a 23-year-old bartender and college dropout who has just gotten pregnant and is about to marry her surgeon boyfriend. When she asks said boyfriend why he likes her, despite her lack of professional success, he replies, "You’re the one thing my father didn’t plan for me."

This kind of weirdly retrograde treatment of Jamie and her relationship is all the more perplexing because the show is produced by David Eick, whose other show, Battlestar Galactica, is known for its strong female characters. Indeed, when Eick talked about Bionic Woman before the show debuted, he claimed it would focus on how we feel about women’s roles now that we know women can do anything men can. Jamie is hardly the kind of woman to tell that sexual equality story. She’s in a low-status, low-paying job, looking down the barrel of her future as little more than a rich man’s wife.

All that changes, however, when she gets into a nearly fatal accident and her boyfriend takes her to his secret lab at Wolf Creek, where he gives her a secret surgery that turns her bionic. Anthrocites in her blood mean she heals instantly; implants in her eye and ear give her super senses; and she has those superfast legs and a superstrong arm. Even her superpowers come to her via a sexual connection with a dude. And, it turns out, so do the superpowers of her nemesis, a bionic lady (Katee Sackoff, who plays Starbuck on Battlestar) who had sex with another guy who works with the ultrasecret bionic lab.

Now that Jamie has these new powers, however, she doesn’t have to be a bartender. What will she do with her bionic upgrade? Apparently, she’ll have to do exactly what the dude who runs Wolf Creek tells her. He points out that she has about $50 million worth of his equipment inside her body now, and he has a business interest in making sure she toes the line. So the entire premise of the show — that Jamie becomes a "saving the world" type — is founded on the idea that she has no choice because her body literally does not belong to her. Most of her body parts are the property of a corporation. We are left to assume that if she refuses to do what Wolf Creek tells her, they’ll take their toys back and she’ll die. Or maybe they just won’t give her any upgrades and she’ll be infected with some kind of bionic virus that makes her scream "Viagra!" or "Mortgage!" over and over.

So let’s assess our new-school bionic babe, keeping in mind Eick’s comment that this show is about how "we" feel now that we know women can do anything men can. Apparently "we" feel that women only become powerful through their sexual relationships with men. "We" also feel that even when women are powerful, it’s probably because men implanted something inside them that the men continue to own and control.

Sure, there a few ways the show tries to nod to feminism. Though Jamie isn’t educated, we’re told that she has an IQ higher than the Wolf Creek director who owns her. And her little sister is a hacker. So we know that women can have brains, that they aren’t powerful solely because of things that male scientists surgically attach to their bodies.

Nevertheless there’s something deeply wrong about a science fiction show, allegedly about a woman of the future, whose message seems taken from a past much further back than the show’s origins in the 1970s.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who will, in spite of all her protestations, be glued to Bionic Woman every week for the next season.

To see or not to see


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION I did not know the screaming man, nor did I know what country he was in. My view of him was shaking — the video was probably taken with a cell phone or cheapo digital camera with limited vid capability. Suddenly another man came into the frame and cut out the first man’s throat, which didn’t stop the screaming but instead turned it into a horrible, high-pitched wheezing. Eventually he sawed off the rest of his victim’s head and threw it around a little bit just for good measure. I had to stop watching, so I killed the tab in my browser.

My first thought was: what the fuck? And then, as the nausea subsided: what the fuck are these people trying to prove by killing a man like this? I was hungry for context.

The next day, I found myself asking more questions, but not about the motives of the murderers. Instead, I wondered about the communications technologies that allowed me to see that video in the first place. A group of bloodthirsty guys had to have handheld video-capture devices, video editing software, and a high-speed Internet connection to upload the finished product. Then they had to host the video somewhere that anybody could see it. In this case, that somewhere was the Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco devoted to the preservation of history in digital form.

Most of the Internet Archive (www.archive.org) is organized as a physical-world archive would be: curators like film historian Rick Prelinger donate rare and antique collections of media that they’ve digitized, and the archive makes them available to the world. But archive founder Brewster Kahle has a populist streak. He believes the public should have a say in what gets preserved in the historical record, so he invites the public to contribute. That’s why the Internet Archive has a small area on its Web site called the Open Source Movie Collection, where anyone can archive his or her media.

Kahle wasn’t expecting to host raw war footage when he created the open source collection. But curator Alexis Rossi says the archive receives about 30 to 50 Arab-language videos per day that are related to the Iraq war. "About two or three per week are really violent," she adds. "They are taxing to watch." Kahle, for his part, wasn’t sure what to do about them. They are undeniably a legitimate part of the historical record of the war and other conflicts in the Middle East. Watching them provides people in the West with a rare opportunity to see what Iraqi groups, including terrorists, are saying about themselves.

These videos don’t threaten national security, and they aren’t illegal because obscenity laws apply only to sexual content. So Kahle’s worries are purely about social good. Though these videos form a crucial part of the historical record of the war, something about them seems just, well, wrong. Then again, who is to say what is wrong in this case? War is brutal and deadly — hiding that fact isn’t going to help us achieve peace.

After agonizing over how to deal with the archive’s growing collection of war videos and consulting with experts, Kahle has come up with a solution that satisfies both his archivist and populist sides. He’s planning to set up a system on the archive that will allow users to post warnings about violent footage. These warnings will show up before other people see the videos; this way, the community can warn its members not to watch unless they are prepared for extremely graphic content. Rossi also hopes that the Internet Archive community will get involved in other ways too. "I’d love somebody to translate some of these videos for us," she says. (You can find many of the Arab-language videos at www.archive.org/details/iraq_middleeast.)

That warning policy is similar to community-policing systems on the movie-sharing site YouTube. The difference is that the Internet Archive — unlike YouTube — will rarely remove a video. Kahle is committed to preserving history in all its forms, even the ugly ones. It’s a lesson he thinks the mainstream media, with its whitewashed coverage of the war, would do well to learn. If we don’t remember the past, we’re doomed to repeat it.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who always pays attention to what she’s told to forget.

Green satellites dying


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Government-funded satellite systems and sensor networks are supposed to be spook stuff, technologies for surveillance and social control. They’re the "electric eyes" that follow us and turn our private lives into sitcoms for bored intelligence agents, right? Wrong. They may be spooky, but satellite and sensor networks are some of the most powerful tools for studying the way humans are impacting climate change. They allow scientists to create maps showing how land use affects climate, as well as how chemical emissions are linked to rainfall, water levels, temperature fluctuations, and ozone depletion.

And now, according to a distressing report last week from the US Climate Change Science Program, the government is cutting funds to the tools that climate researchers need most. In this report, researchers write that the National Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellite System has been severely downsized, "eliminating several key climate instruments," while rollout on four new systems for measuring atmospheric changes has been delayed or cancelled. At the same time, the government has failed to maintain observatories on the ground devoted to climate change and is scaling back on an ocean climate sensor system called the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean buoy array.

Parts of the CCSP’s report are essentially a plea for more sensor networks. We need good data from these networks to create realistic models of global climate change, the researchers say. But more important, scientists need that data to figure out the best ways for people to intervene and make the future greener. That’s why we need sensor networks sampling the air from high above the Arctic and across the ocean, proving that cutting back on carbon emissions can lower temperatures or prevent hurricanes from forming. We need good satellite maps showing exactly how urban developments are destroying local forests.

For these reasons, the report emphasizes that the biggest problem faced by the CCSP is an inability to implement policies for change. CCSP researchers are frustrated that the data they’ve compiled rarely make it into policy recommendations to the government. And only $30 million of the CCSP’s $1.7 billion dollar budget is allocated to programs that investigate the impact of environmental changes on human beings.

Just as news of this report was breaking, New York environmental group Blacksmith Institute released a list of the 10 most polluted places on Earth. Created by the group’s technical advisory board, and based entirely on how much impact the pollution has on local human populations, the list is topped by regions in the industrializing world: Sumjayit, an industrial manufacturing city in Azerbaijan; Linfen and Tianying, coal and lead mining towns in China; and Sukinda and Vapi, chemical mining and manufacturing areas in India. Also included are similar areas in Russia and Peru.

People in the regions highlighted by the Blacksmith Institute are getting cancer and lung disease, as well as passing birth defects on to their children. If we want to prevent the entire world from becoming like Sumjayit — and indeed, to prevent people in Sumjayit from suffering the worst side effects of industrialization — we need the very kinds of data that CCSP scientists worry we can no longer get. As climate sensor networks decay, and green satellites die, so too does the hope that we can build a better climate model, a sane climate model based on how changing social behaviors.

So if you think that having one less satellite in the sky is a good idea, think again. And if you think that the only thing a sensor network can do is invade privacy, think again about that too. As ever, the problem isn’t with technology; it’s with who controls it.*

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who wants to put toxic emissions under surveillance.

NASA hippies


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION As annoying as hippies can be, it’s strangely comforting to think that the one bit of junk we shot into deep space is emblazoned with a hippie symbol. I’m talking about the golden records screwed onto the shells of Voyagers I and II, two space probes that completely changed our understanding of the solar system and then shot out into deep space bearing record albums intended for alien consumption.

Last week marked the 30th anniversary of the Voyager II launch. While most people recall the Voyager probes for creating close-up photographs and atmospheric readings from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, these probes were always intended to do more than send messages back home for human consumption. In the mid-1970s, when the Voyager spacecraft were being completed, pop cosmologist Carl Sagan convinced NASA to include a message from Earth on the probes. They were to bring news of us to alien beings in the unknowable reaches of the galaxy and beyond.

In consultation with a bunch of other geeks (including Timothy Ferris, who produced the album), Sagan decided that the delivery mechanism for this message should be a golden record, packaged with a cartridge and needle, as well as abstract mathematical instructions for how fast to spin the disc and at what frequencies it would emit sound. You can listen to the entire recording at goldenrecord.org, and the experience is bittersweet, an auditory glimpse of a very different time in human history.

The tracks include greetings in dozens of languages, including ancient Sumerian, which of course nobody knows how to pronounce anymore. And Gaia help us, there is also a "whale greeting." There is a track devoted to "Earth sounds," all which sound totally cool while remaining unrecognizable as particularly Earthly. There are over a dozen music recordings from around the world, all of which are written (and mostly performed) by men. Most are from the West, with a few Russian numbers thrown in — probably for "diversity." Bach is presented alongside Chuck Berry, Navaho chants beside Beethoven. It’s a Sesame Street notion of pluralism, with an emphasis on music and greetings rather than political speeches or academic treatises on economics.

Also included on these records are directions to Earth, using nearby stars as navigation points.

The golden records imply that music, math and images are universal symbolic systems, the best kind for communicating with beings radically different from ourselves. This is an idea that was popular in the 1970s — Steven Spielberg immortalized it in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which humans meeting aliens establish communication via electronic sounds. But as American historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman has pointed out, the idea that music (and the math underlying it) is a universal form of communication also comes from centuries-old encounters between Europeans and natives in the Americas. Early European explorers recount communicating with natives via music upon first meeting and reaching an understanding on that basis.

Music may be a near-universal form of communication among humans, and there is something glorious and touching about trying to share that with other creatures in space. Of course, the notion that aliens might share the idea of "hearing" with us profoundly silly. What if these are creatures who communicate via molecular manipulation, or chemical signatures? What if they live in vacuum, and therefore cannot "hear" at all?

So yeah, the golden record is species-centric. It’s also naively specific to one culture, for who can think of a golden record full of Western music as anything but the work of hippie liberal white dudes? Still, I’d rather be represented by its naive utopianism than by most of the signals shooting off this planet.

No doubt the golden record will bemuse any alien life that actually bothers to examine the goo on a piece of space junk. But a bemused alien may in fact be the one who comes closest to guessing the true meaning of the golden record, and perhaps the true meaning of human life itself. And so it seems fitting that our one letter to the universe reads something like this: Wish you were here. We have no idea what we’re doing, but we sound good!

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who thinks that perhaps the golden record is really a message to ourselves.

Mouse politics


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION My apartment has been invaded by mice, and my biggest worry is not that I will catch some strange disease but that they’ll stage a revolution. I’m like some kind of Beatrix Potter Marxist, worried that the distribution of rice in my house is indeed unfair and that there is a kind of injustice in the fact that I won’t share my stale caramel popcorn with the mice who want it.

This ridiculous philosophical and pestilential situation started when I heard really loud squeaking from behind my bookcase — the one full of books on leftist activism and Marxist criticism. I discovered a family of five mice, fighting over a stash of rice that they’d hidden behind the books. They’d also been eating part of a book on cultural studies and left tiny mouse turds between the pages of another, by Greil Marcus, about punk rock. They’d stolen my rice in improbably large amounts, hauling it up from a bag in my cupboard to the top of my bookshelf for storage. I’m sure they figured that it wasn’t stolen — they’d liberated it.

At first, I didn’t react to this situation with the brute animalistic feeling of "kill the invader" that evolutionary biology would predict. I’ve been so well-trained by blogs like I Can Has Cheezburger? and Cute Overload that at first all I could think, upon discovering this gang of mice in my bookshelf, was that they were adorable. One of them kept running up the wall and jumping down to the floor with an awkward splat. Cute!

I also had a hard time adjusting to the idea that these whiskery little guys might be spreading disease. Apparently mice can spread hantavirus, a very rare and deadly virus that attacks the respiratory system. I’m not sure what else they spread, but all the mouse-control Web sites I looked at had these paranoid instructions on how to dispose of mouse poop in double bags and how anything touched by mice should be rigorously disinfected.

Despite this, my first reaction to the mouse party on my bookshelf was to block the mouse hole that I found near my stove, sweep up the rice and poop, and go to bed. Two nights later, having gotten no sleep due to mouse-related shenanigans, I began to feel the interspecies hate. All the squeaking and scratching and pooping and sneaking in through teeny cracks had worked my last nerve. I’d put all my grains and sugar into sealed containers, and now I needed traps. But of course they should be humane traps. I kept worrying about what the most ethical way to deal with the mice would be. What would animal liberation ethicist Peter Singer do?

Actually, I’m pretty sure Singer would say, "Kill them." But I was still feeling the Cute Overload, so I bought these traps that lock the mouse in a tiny cage so you can release them. I’m not sure what I was thinking: that I would reintroduce them into the wilds of Golden Gate Park? That I would establish some sort of bilateral agreement with them to acknowledge their right to collective bargaining, then raise wages and offer health care so they would stop doing squeak-ins all night in my kitchen? Dear reader, there is really nothing worse than a leftist with anthropomorphizing tendencies. This is exactly why people join PETA instead of unions and protest animal experimentation instead of how humans are treated in jail.

Even my scientific know-how somehow managed to enhance my magical thinking. I kept recalling how similar the human genome is to the mouse genome. Lisa Stubbs of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has written that mouse genomes are, on average, about 85 percent similar to human. Doesn’t that make mice my genetic cousins? Shouldn’t I learn to share my house with them somehow?

No. On day four of the mouse invasion, I finally went into predator mode. I put out deadly traps that kill mice instantly — no torturing them in tiny boxes before releasing them into a park to be eaten by local cats. I know it sounds awful, but mice are not people. It’s true that they have emotions and share many genetic traits with humans, but unfortunately I can’t negotiate with them about living arrangements. I comfort myself by saying that I’m doing the only thing mice can understand: acting like the predator I am.<\!s>*

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose geriatric cat is the only creature in her apartment that can sleep through the nightly mousefest.

Anonymity trouble


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Pundits of the Internet age are fond of excoriating the Web because anyone can post on it anonymously. Andrew Keen, whose recent book Cult of the Amateur is a good primer on why people hate the Web, highlights the horrors of anonymity in his work, contrasting the millions of unnamed Web scribblers with honorable, properly identified writers of yesteryear. Keen’s point is that people who don’t put their names on what they’ve written don’t feel responsible for it; therefore they feel little compunction about lying or misrepresenting their chosen subjects. After all, an anonymous writer doesn’t have to worry that their reputation will be tarred — unlike, say, a writer at the New York Times, whose byline appears on his or her articles.

Every social stereotype has a caricature associated with it, and the "anonymous Web writer" has theirs. They’re always portrayed as a he, first of all. And he’s inevitably described as being "some blogger writing in his basement in his pajamas." In other words, this anonymous person is not a professional (hence the pajamas) and probably poor (he lives in a basement). He’s a nobody, a loner who lashes out at the world from his dismal cell, hiding behind his anonymity and destroying the good reputations of nice people.

Where does this sad little man like to post his anonymous invective? Wikipedia, of course. He can change any entry without leaving his name, adding lies to biographies of innocent mayoral candidates and spewing spam all over facts. And the best part is that most people take Wikipedia seriously. They regard it as a reliable source of knowledge, despite the fact that it’s written by unknown, basement-dwelling bloggers in pajamas.

That’s why I was so gratified when California Institute of Technology grad student and mad scientist about town Virgil Griffith released his software tool Wikiscanner, which you can use to quickly check on who has been editing Wikipedia entries anonymously. You see, whenever you edit a Wikipedia entry, the encyclopedia logs your unique IP address, which can often be tracked back to a physical location, including your place of employment. Even if you think you’re being stealthy with your anonymous writing, you’re not. Wikipedia sees all.

And now the public can see all if they visit Griffith’s Wikiscanner site (wikiscanner.virgil.gr). Turns out that all the anonymous propaganda and lies on Wikipedia aren’t coming from basement dwellers at all — they’re coming from Congress, the CIA, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Somebody at Halliburton deleted key information from an entry on war crimes; Diebold, an electronic-voting machine manufacturer, deleted sections of its entry about a lawsuit filed against it. Someone at Pepsi deleted information about health problems caused by the soft drink. Somebody at the New York Times deleted huge chunks of information from the entry on the Wall Street Journal. And of course, the CIA has been editing the entry on the Iraq war.

Wikiscanner allows you to search millions of edits, perusing a precise record of all the changes that have been made. While you can’t figure out exactly who at the CIA made the changes to the entry on the Iraq war, you can be sure the changes came from somebody on the CIA’s computer network.

Griffith created Wikiscanner for a frankly political reason. As he told the Times of London, he did it "to create minor public relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike." In the process, however, he’s revealed something far more fundamental than the fact that acolytes of Pepsi and the CIA will stop at nothing to propagandize on behalf of their employers: he’s undermined the myth of the anonymous blogger in the basement.

It turns out that the people who are hiding behind anonymity online for nefarious or selfish reasons are not little guys in pajamas but the very bastions of accountability that haters of the Web have deified. It’s not a mean dude with a grudge who is spreading lies on Wikipedia but rather a member of the federal government or a journalist at the New York Times. Cultural anarchy online is coming not from the hordes of scribbling bloggers but from the same entities that have always posed a danger to culture: corporations and governments who refuse to take responsibility for what they’re doing.<\!s>*

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who once had the urge to do an anonymous edit on Wikipedia but was scared people would find out she’d done it.

Foxing in the archive


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Paper archives are dangerous. For the past several weeks, I’ve been standing knee-deep in paper untouched by human hands for decades, sorting through decaying files and strange pamphlets, breathing so much dust that I cough all night afterwards. It’s even worse for archivists and librarians who work with materials that are older than a century; they report that spores and mold on materials give them headaches, short-term memory loss, diminished lung capacity, and severe allergies.

Back in 1994, an archivist working with century-old materials in an antique schoolhouse wrote an e-mail to a conservation listserv that sounded so ominous it could practically have been the introduction to a Stephen King novel. "For several months I sorted through water-damaged ledgers and artifacts. Many were covered with a black soot-like dust," she wrote. "After a few months, I noticed I was losing my balance, my short-term memory was failing, and I began dropping things." Years later, after her lung capacity had dropped 36 percent and her memory was damaged permanently, a doctor finally diagnosed her condition. She’d been poisoned by mold on the archival materials she’d devoted her life to preserving.

A letter published in Nature in 1978 points out that old books and papers actually develop infections, colloquially called "foxing," that look like a "yellowish-brown patch" on the page. That patch, explain the letter writers, is actually a lesion caused by fungus growing on the book "under unfavorable conditions." Today most libraries recommend that conservationists working in archives with old materials and books wear high-efficiency particulate air filtering masks.

My archival adventures this month don’t involve foxing, or brain-damaging mold. I’m preserving an historical paper trail that’s too recent to have gone toxic. In fact, I’m in the odd position of trying to organize the papers of an organization, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, whose entire mission since 1980 has been to promote the ethical uses of technology, and to build a prosocial, paperless future.

With all the dangers of paper archives, and all the love for computers at the CPSR, why bother to preserve the organization’s papers at all? Why not, as one member of the CPSR asked me, just scan everything and create a digital version of CPSR history? There are million reasons why not, but all of them boil down to two things: scale and redundancy.

Over the past quarter century, the CPSR has accumulated 65 crates of papers and nine tall metal filing cabinets full of records. Some of the papers are cracking with age; some are old faxes or personal letters on onionskin paper; some are pamphlets or zines; some are poster-size programs; others are little, folded stacks of handwritten notes. There are photographs, floppy disks, VHS tapes, and even a reel of film. Even if we had all the resources of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit that is scanning books onto the Web at a rapid clip, the CPSR scanning project would take weeks. More important, we aren’t scanning regular papers and books. We have so many kinds of archival material that we’d need specialists who knew how to scan them properly without damaging the originals.

Plus, how would we label each item we’d scanned? Every single one would need to be put into a portable, open file format and labeled with data by hand to identify it. That’s a project that could take months if done by a team of pros and years if it’s being done by volunteers. So part of creating a paper archive is simply a matter of pragmatism. It’s easier to preserve history on paper.

More important, though, we need a paper backup copy of our history. I love online archives as much as the next geek, but what happens when the servers blow out? When we stop having enough power to run data storage centers for progressive nonprofits? And even if digital disasters don’t strike, history is preserved through redundancy. The more copies we have of the CPSR’s history, in multiple formats, the more likely it is that generations to come will remember how a brave group of computer scientists in the 1980s spoke out against the Star Wars missile defense system so loudly that the world listened.

When it comes to preserving history, every digital archive should have a paper audit trail.<\!s>*

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is not just the president of the CPSR but also its archivist and janitor.

Kids safer online!


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION There’s a horrifying new menace to children that’s never existed before. Experts estimate that 75 to 90 percent of pornography winds up in the hands of children due to novel technologies and high-speed distribution networks. That means today’s youths are seeing more images of perversion than ever before in the history of the world.

What are the "new technologies" and "distribution networks" that display so much porno for up to 90 percent of kids? I’ll give you one guess. Nope, you’re wrong; it’s not the Internets. It’s print.

The year is 1964, and I’m getting my data from financier Charles Keating. He had just formed Citizens for Decent Literature, an antiporn group whose sole contribution to the world appears to have been an educational movie called Perversion for Profit. Narrated by TV anchor George Putnam, the flick is an exposé of the way "high-speed presses, rapid transit, and mass distribution" created a hitherto unknown situation in which kids could "accidentally" be exposed to porno at the local drugstore or bus station magazine rack. Among the dangers society had to confront as a result of this situation were "stimulated" youths running wild, thinking it was OK to rape women, and turning into homosexuals after just a few peeks at the goods in MANifique magazine.

A lot of the movie — which you can watch for yourself on YouTube — is devoted to exploring every form of depravity available in print at the time. We’re treated to images of lurid paperbacks, naughty magazines, and perverted pamphlets. At one point, Putnam even does a dramatic reading from one of the books to emphasize their violence. Then we get to see pictures of women in bondage from early BDSM zines.

But the basic point of this documentary isn’t to demonstrate that Keating and his buddies seem to have had an encyclopedic knowledge of smut. Nor is the point that smut has gotten worse. Putnam admits in the film that "there has always been perversion." Instead, the movie’s emphasis is on how new technologies enable the distribution of smut more widely, especially into the hands of children. In this way, Keating’s hysterical little film is nearly a perfect replica of the kinds of rhetoric we hear today about the dangers of the Web.

Consider, for example, a University of New Hampshire study that got a lot of play earlier this year by claiming that 42 percent of kids between the ages of 10 and 17 had been accidentally exposed to pornography on the Web during the previous year. The study also claimed that 4 percent of people in the same age group were asked to post erotic pictures of themselves online. News coverage of the study emphasized how these numbers were higher than before, and most implied that the Web itself was to blame.

But as Perversion for Profit attests, people have been freaking out about how new distribution networks bring pornography to children for nearly half a century. Today’s cyberteens aren’t the first to go hunting for naughty bits using the latest high-speed thingamajig either; back in the day, we had fast-printing presses instead of zoomy network connections.

It’s easy to forget history when you’re thinking about the brave new technologies of today. Yet if Keating’s statistics are to be believed, the number of children exposed to porn was far greater in 1964 than it is today. Perhaps the Web has actually made it harder for children to find pornography. After all, when their grandparents were growing up, anybody could just walk to the corner store and browse the paperbacks for smut. Now you have to know how to turn off Google’s safe search and probably steal your parents’ credit card to boot.

And yet Fox News is never going to run a story under the headline "Internet Means Kids See Less Pornography Than Ever Before." It may be the truth, but you can only sell ads if there’s more sex — not less. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who learned about sex before she learned about the Internet.

Pain and fun


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION A couple of economic researchers have proven via scientific experimentation something that artists have known for millennia: people can feel pain and have fun at the same time. At last, we have a scientific theory that explains why the torture-tastic movie Saw is so popular. Not to mention the writings of Franz Kafka.

Eduardo Andrade and Joel Cohen, both business professors interested in consumer behavior, wanted to know why people are willing to plunk down money for what they called "negative feelings," the sensations of disgust and nastiness that arise during hideous but financially successful flicks like Hostel, the Jason and Freddy franchises, and The Silence of the Lambs. It’s a good question, especially if you’re one of those business types who want to peddle gore to the fake blood–loving masses. As a huge consumer of gore myself, I was immediately intrigued by the scholarly article Andrade and Cohen produced, which sums up four experiments they did with hapless undergraduates paid to watch bad horror movies and describe how this exercise made them feel. The researchers had two basic questions: Do audiences experience fear and pleasure at the same time while watching somebody get dismembered? If yes, how?

First, a word about the researchers’ methods. Let it be known that they did not display discerning taste in horror movies. As a connoisseur of the genre, I’d have made those students watch Hostel, with its shocking scenes of eyeball gouging. Or perhaps 28 Days Later, with its white-knuckle zombie chase scenes. But Andrade and Cohen picked the 1973 seen-it-so-many-times-it’s-no-longer-frightening flick The Exorcist and the craptastic, unscary 2004 version of ‘Salem’s Lot. Hey guys, call me before you do the next round of experiments, OK?

Aesthetic choices aside, the results of these movie-watching experiments were intriguing. Students were shown "scary" clips from both films and asked to rate how they felt during and after watching. Previous scholars had suggested that people who enjoy horror movies have a reduced capacity to feel fear or have fun only when the yuck is over and they leave the theater. What Andrade and Cohen found, however, was that students who loved horror movies reported nearly the same levels of fear as students who avoided these movies. Plus the horror lovers reported having fun during the movies, not just afterward. So, as I said earlier, science uncovered what literary critics have known forever: ambivalent feelings are the shit.

Horror movies appeal because humans like to feel grossed out and entertained pleasurably at the same time. There’s a payoff in coexperiencing two conflicting emotions.

But Andrade and Cohen are careful to explain that the fun of ambivalence doesn’t work for everyone and may not translate into real-world horrors. They suggest that people who enjoy the yuck-yay feeling of horror movies are masters at psychological framing and distancing. Horror viewers who have the most fun are also the ones who are most convinced that what they’re watching isn’t real. People who sympathize too much with tortured characters feel only horror. That also means horror fans who see real-life violence won’t get a kick out of it.

The researchers proved this point by showing people horror films alongside biographies of the actors playing the main characters, constantly reminding viewers that these were just movies and the "victims" were playing roles. Even viewers who normally avoid horror movies reported that they were a lot more comfortable and had some fun when they were reminded that the action was staged.

I would argue that Andrade and Cohen’s research into distancing is the key to understanding horror fans. Our pleasure in horror is not depraved — it is purely a function of our understanding that what we’re seeing isn’t real. This knowledge frees us to revel in the frisson of ambivalent feelings, which are the cornerstone of art both great and small. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose book about horror movies only involved experiments on herself.