TECHSPLOITATION Last week AOL did another stupid thing, but at least it was in the name of science. The giant Web portal released a data chunk containing three months’ worth of queries to its search engine taken from roughly half a million users. Gathered during the months of March, April, and May, the data shows queries, their date and time, and which Web sites the user ultimately visited. The idea was that this information might be of some use to researchers.
To protect user privacy, AOL replaced the log-in names of searchers with numbers. So you could still see everything that searcher #4356 looked for, but you wouldn’t know who #4356 was, except for one problem: it’s incredibly easy to figure out who people are based on their searches, because they tend to look for themselves, family members, and things in their immediate geographical vicinity. The New York Times did a great story in which reporters examined searches done by user #4417749 and within hours managed to locate their author, a nice old lady in Georgia who now plans to cancel her AOL subscription.
Bloggers and privacy advocates have pointed out that the information AOL released contains more than just the online search patterns of innocent Georgia ladies. It’s unclear what law enforcement might do with the thousands of searches for illegal drugs and pornography. It’s equally unclear what the feds will make of the handful of searches for “Muslim death rituals,” “Muslim brotherhood,” and “Islamic militant web forums.” In a nation where the government is seriously contemputf8g blanket warrants for online surveillance, it’s hard to imagine there aren’t law enforcement types combing this treasure trove of prepackaged personal data. Imagine getting enough dirt on somebody to haul him or her in for questioning just by downloading 400 megabytes of stuff from AOL! That’s like free candy.
After public outcry reached a crescendo, AOL apologized and took the data down. Of course, privacy advocates like the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Marc Rotenberg and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Kurt Opsahl remain pissed off. Why? Because this is the Interweb, folks. Data never dies here. In fact, you can search the records yourself via Dontdelete.com.
Once I visited Don’t Delete, I couldn’t leave. There’s a button you can click to get the search terms from a random user, and every time I hit it, I got another gem. My favorite was user #4206444, obviously a college student trying to cheat quickly on his or her exams in order to get around to the more important things in life. Search phrases like “does social darwinism persist in social welfare policies and in the attitudes of the general public about social welfare” were followed by “free essays on adolescent depression and suicide risks” and “free essays on Charles Dickens Hard Times.” In between these queries were hundreds for “sailor moon pictures,” “pokemon pictures,” “sonic x,” and “selena pictures.”
As blogger Thomas Claburn (www.lot49.com) points out, there’s a kind of poetry to some of the queries. He excerpts a dozen lines from the 8,200 queries made by user #23187425, all of which seem to be a sort of conversation this person was having with the search engine — he or she never actually clicked on any links but just kept querying with plaintive phrases like “i have had trouble,” “i want to change,” and “i know who i am.”
I’m torn. I love having access to this data, both for its touching human qualities and for the kinds of anthropological information it could yield. But as someone who believes strongly in digital privacy, I simply can’t sanction what AOL did. It would be different if I had faith that discovering all those porn searches would somehow inspire people to accept that sexual curiosity is normal. And it would be different if I thought that law enforcement would consider that the people searching for “Islamic militant web forums” might simply be trying to understand the world. But I don’t. This data will be used to “prove” that the Internet is crawling with child pornographers and terrorists.
Someday AOL’s information should be put into the public domain for anthropologists and cultural researchers of the future. That future, however, is probably decades if not a century away. The data is too close to us now — too easily weaponized. Nevertheless, I hold out hope that one day our search queries will illuminate us and provide for another generation a digital outline of our daily desires. SFBG
- No categories
Fun with AOL data
TECHSPLOITATION Last week at the infamous computer security conference Black Hat in Las Vegas, Bob Auger announced what should have already been obvious: reading blogs isn’t safe. A security engineer with SPI Labs, Auger quietly revealed (www.spidynamics.com/assets/documents/HackingFeeds.pdf) that the mere act of checking out somebody’s RSS feed could allow bad guys to steal money from your bank account, post Web spam from your computer, and snoop on everything you’ve written anonymously in that online porn community you secretly visit. This is the new dark side of all that nice free speech that’s been enabled by bloggish technologies.
Generally, free expression advocates worry about how businesses and governments censor the confessional, unedited style of bloggers. And they’re right to be concerned. People posting personal rants have gotten fired for writing mean things about their bosses and been sued for criticizing litigious maniacs. But these bloggers are receiving traditional retributions for speaking openly. They say bad things about someone or some corporate entity, and that person or entity smacks them down.
As Auger and other researchers demonstrated at Black Hat, we’re about to see a new threat to free expression. Massive groups of people will be punished not for what they say online but for using particular tools to say it. Auger researched several popular RSS readers — programs used to pull blog content onto your computer — including Bloglines, RSS Reader, Feed Demon, and Sharp Reader, and discovered that many of them could be turned into delivery systems for malicious code designed to force computers to, for example, post spam on other people’s blogs.
Known generally as “cross-site scripting” and “cross-site request forgery,” the attacks work by covertly moving data from one location to another. And it could get worse than spamming. As Auger pointed out, everything you type into your banking Web site could get reposted elsewhere, thus allowing the bad guys to read your passwords and have fun with your money.
And blogs can spread their malicious code as quickly as they spread news. If I were a bad guy and wanted to steal a bunch of passwords, I would hide some malicious code inside a comment on a popular blog. As soon as your reader downloaded that comment, you’d be infected. Or I would start a blog that sounded particularly interesting (or pornographic), tempt a bunch of people into subscribing to my feed, and inject naughty code into their computers that way. When you consider how many people automatically repost other people’s feeds onto their own blogs in a “what I’m reading” section or something like that, it’s clear how bad things could get.
But even worse, in the process of using the Web’s fastest free-speech engine to wreak havoc, the people injecting nasty code into blog feeds could undermine free speech itself.
Feed injection poses a whole new set of problems for people who want to promote free expression. We’re dealing with a mechanism of censorship that isn’t even aware of itself as such. People who do these hacks may not have our best interests in mind — they’re trying to lie, cheat, and steal — but as an unintended consequence, they may also choke off a powerful avenue of open communication. If people begin to associate using blogs and feeds with being ripped off and spied on, many may stop reading them. Government and business couldn’t have asked for a better self-censorship catalyst. Speaking out, no matter what you say, will turn you into a victim.
Luckily, there are fixes for the speech-stopping problems that Auger found — just as there are legal and social remedies for traditional forms of censorship. After talking with Auger, developers at Bloglines fixed many of the bugs he pointed out. Other vendors are working on fixing them too. And fixes for a lot of cross-site scripting and cross-site request forgery attacks can be borrowed from more protected programs. So people making feed readers simply need to start thinking about security issues and using these fixes when they release the next version of their software.
As ever, what the geeks at Black Hat remind us is that free speech isn’t just a matter of political freedom — it’s also about technical freedom. Getting your message out means being prepared to defend yourself ideologically — and digitally too. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who has tragically been forced to stop using different silly e-mail addresses each week to defend herself against insane volumes of spam.
The nice rats
TECHSPLOITATION OK, here’s my plan: genetically engineered, super-tame, super-skinny, super-long-lived, nonbreeding rats. Or humans. Science says we can do it!
I have this problem where I read two or three articles about so-called recent discoveries and start mixing and matching them, trying to piece together the ultimate überexperiment that will end the world. I’ve been dreaming about super-rodents for the past two days, and it’s all the fault of Nicholas Wade and Alison Motluck, two journalists who’ve published stories about tame rats and nonpubescent mice respectively.
I love it when scientists do experiments on animals and report said experiments in various footnote-heavy journals, and then journalists get their hands on them and ask, “But couldn’t this be done to humans too?” Most decent scientists are willing to admit that of course anything is possible until proved otherwise. So if that question is asked in the right way, your average scientist will get talked into a quote about how drugs that do weird things to mice could do them to humans too.
Which brings me back to my exciting recent plan about rats. Wade, writing in the New York Times science section, describes an interesting long-term experiment that involved breeding tame animals in the Soviet Union. When Dmitri K. Belyaev started the experiment in 1959, he divided a posse of sewer rats into two groups and bred one for “tameness” and the other for ferocity. Over several generations, he was able to generate an extremely friendly group of rats and an extremely pissed-off one. Belyaev died several years ago, but recently some researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany got their hands on rats directly descended from the two populations, and they’ll be running genetic tests on them to figure out which genes are associated with “niceness” and “nastiness” in rats.
Inevitably, Wade raises the question of what this has to do with humans. Is it possible that humans could be domesticated, or that we have already domesticated ourselves? He quotes some expert saying — not surprisingly — that it’s possible. And now his readers are left with a bizarre and irrelevant idea as they finish what is otherwise a completely respectable and cool piece of science journalism. Instead of considering Belyaev’s experiment as something that charted how one species breeds another to become its ally, readers will be thinking: can humans be tamed? The answer should be: that’s outside the scope of this experiment. But that doesn’t stop our intrepid Wade from bringing it up gratuitously, as if somehow applying this research to humans makes it more interesting. (My fantasy is that some clueless editor tortured Wade by asking over and over, “But how is this relevant? What’s the human angle?” until the poor guy tacked on that dreadful ending.)
Sometimes, however, Homo sapiens actually is relevant. For instance, Motluck reports in New Scientist that two teams of scientists have worked out which gene is responsible for kicking off puberty in mice. The gene, gpr54, exists in humans too, and it functions in virtually the same way. Drugs that tinker with the onset of puberty in mice should, therefore, do the same for humans. Why is this fascinating? Not just because of the “human angle” of helping late bloomers start filling out their jockstraps more quickly, but also because it means that gpr54 was preserved over the entire course of evolution since mouse and human ancestors split off from each other. In other words: that’s a hell of an old gene. And as a side note, it turns out that gpr54 may also interact with genes that measure levels of fat in the body. This fits with anecdotal observations that extremely undernourished or highly athletic women often start menstruating later.
So now you understand my fantasy about the super-tame, skinny, nonpubescent rats. First we’ll breed ’em tame (or just steal some already-tamed ones from the Max Planck graduate students). Then we’ll give them a drug that blocks gpr54 receptors so they don’t go through puberty, which may have the additional side effect of keeping them thinner. Or we could just starve them, which would also prevent puberty and make them live longer — there are about a zillion studies showing that people who starve themselves wind up living about 5 to 10 years longer than average.
Now I feel like I’m writing the jacket copy for a new nutritional self-help book. Which brings me to my final question, which (of course) is about humans: what does my concocted experiment say about the things humans study? SFBG
Annalee Newitz is building some awesome rats in her brain right now.
TECHSPLOITATION I didn’t want to see it, and then I did. When Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest came out, I was beyond underwhelmed. But then the box office numbers started rolling in — it was the biggest weekend take in movie history — and I was intrigued. I kept wondering how Johnny Depp’s prancing pirate Jack Sparrow could pack more punch than square-jawed Superman. After seeing the flick, the answer was obvious.
Jack Sparrow lives in a world of magic and monsters, a place where half-fish zombies stalk the seas in a mysterious ship and a giant kraken fells merchant vessels with fat, sucker-covered tentacles. His greatest enemies are Davy Jones, an undead sea captain with a squid for a head, and the British East India Company. How can Superman’s boring domestic troubles and a bald, Method-acting real estate mogul ever hold a candle to that? Metropolis is drably realistic compared with Jack’s South Seas. And yet the films’ supreme enemies do have a lot in common. The British East India Company and Lex Luthor’s real estate firm are both ruthless corporate enterprises whose owners mow down human life in search of bigger profits.
It’s only in an overt fantasy like Pirates, however, that we get a story capable of capturing the full horror of uncontrolled corporate greed. Representing Halliburton-size evil is a toady for the British East India Company, who coerces hero Will Turner into hunting down Jack to get the pirate’s magical compass, which points the way to whatever its owner desires. In exchange for this perfect colonizing tool — essentially, a never-ending source of information about where the raw materials are — the king of England promises to grant Jack a full pardon and make him a privateer.
But Jack is a true pirate. He steals and swashbuckles for the love of it and has no interest in working for a boss. Instead of selling out to the British East India Company, he faces down Davy Jones and his zombie crew, who are cursed to spend their afterlives working under the iron discipline of their tentacled captain. As they get older, they literally merge with the ship itself, melting into the wood until they are just flattened, grimacing faces poking out of the bulkheads. Fleeing the British East India Company’s brand of domination, Jack falls right into the path of a boss whose monstrousness mirrors it.
Of course, this is also just a movie about people fighting monsters with goo and suckers and claws. And that’s what makes Pirates both fun to watch and fun to endlessly analyze. Monster stories leave room for interpretation; they allow us to tell stories that are subversive, that question why we should have to take shitty jobs and respect corporate power. At least, some monster stories do.
I just finished writing a book that’s all about how monster stories in the United States reflect often-buried fears about capitalism run amok. The book is called Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, and you can actually buy the damn thing now. It’s in bookstores and on Amazon and crap like that. I don’t want to tell you how long it took me to write, but suffice it to say that before I became a tech and science geek, I was a horror and science fiction geek.
The weird thing is that I learned to excavate the cultural meaning of real-life technologies by analyzing movies about imaginary ones. That’s because the process of innovation is nearly identical to the process of dreaming up a monster. Just as new devices like the iPod or TiVo respond to changes in social norms, so too do our fantasies. I mean, it’s no accident that a horror movie like The Ring came out during the heyday of file sharing. Let’s think about it — the flick is about a haunted videocassette that will kill you unless you make a duplicate copy and show it to somebody else. It’s like a nightmare analog version of BitTorrent. If you do not share your media, you will die. Creative Commons really should do a cartoon parody of The Ring.
There will always be people who want to consume their electronic toys and mass media without having to think about what they mean. Sometimes they’ll even claim that there are no politics of science fiction — or science — because politics only take place in Congress or at the United Nations. But I say that until we understand the monsters in our dreams, we’ll never defeat the ones who run the world. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who just published a book — w00t!
Come hear her read from it (and enter a B-movie trivia contest): Thurs/27, 7 p.m., City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus, SF. (415) 362-8193, www.citylights.com.
TECHSPLOITATION In the Internet age, conspiracies are niche phenomena. All the classic conspiracies of yesteryear — the Kennedy assassination, ZOG, and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon — had mass appeal. And frankly they’re not nearly as juicy as obscure, narrow-band obsessions plucked from the glowing pages of LiveJournal, such as the Ms. Scribe Harry Potter fanfic sock puppet conspiracy of 2003. The whole thing has been chronicled assiduously in an anonymously written e-book about Ms. Scribe’s rise and fall, deliciously titled The Ms. Scribe Story: An Unauthorized Fandom Biography (www.journalfen.net/users/charlottelennox).
There are fake identities! Homophobia and racism! Brushes with death! Flame wars! Sex! Stalking! Long explanations of how IP addresses work! Plus, many obscure acronyms and internecine battles between said acronyms! It’s like reading a history of the CIA, only with less cross-dressing.
The Ms. Scribe conspiracy unfolded in the vast and lively world of online Harry Potter fandom, where many people write stories (called fanfic) based on the J.K. Rowling books they love. Some of these writers are known as “shippers,” people who write about certain characters falling in love and having sex. (The word “shipper” is from “relationship.”) Three years ago, Ms. Scribe masterminded a covert campaign to dominate and destroy the shipper community by playing two rival camps of shippers off each other: the Harry-Hermione shippers of FictionAlley.org and the Harry-Ginny shippers of the Gryffindor Tower community. These groups weren’t just separated by their ships — they also had moral differences. Denizens of FictionAlley were comfortable with overtly erotic stories that involved homosexuality, while the Gryffindor Tower fans tended to be strictly het and PG-rated.
According to The Ms. Scribe Story, its eponymous antiheroine began her campaign by inventing a set of fake identities online who were Ms. Scribe fans. These so-called sock puppets spent all their time praising Ms. Scribe’s fanfic and linking to it in shipper forums. When that didn’t get Ms. Scribe the attention she seemed to crave, she started posting anonymous comments in her LiveJournal attacking herself for being a depraved homo-lover and for being mixed race. The more she was attacked, the more she could bravely defend herself — and the more attention she got from the FictionAlley community, whose members rushed to her aid against the bigoted “attackers.” Eventually she created several “Christian” sock puppets who made antigay, racist comments on Ms. Scribe’s LiveJournal. They also claimed to be from the rival Gryffindor Tower group. The longer this went on, the more allies Ms. Scribe had; she eventually gained about 200 LiveJournal friends, including elite members of the FictionAlley inner circle.
Although relations between FictionAlley and Gryffindor Tower had always been strained, the Ms. Scribe controversies turned the two groups into outright enemies. Friends of the Gryffindor Tower crowd made a series of posts revealing that the IP addresses on Ms. Scribe’s posts matched those of her alleged Christian attackers and fans, but the FictionAlley fans were so incensed by the “persecution” of Ms. Scribe that they ignored the evidence. Whenever things started to unravel, Ms. Scribe would whip her supporters into a frenzy by pretending to be in the hospital or claiming she was being stalked by one of the Christians.
The author of “The Ms. Scribe Story” believes that Ms. Scribe made her last appearance in 2005, when she stirred up trouble yet again by accusing the fans of being racist for jokingly comparing the fight between shippers to the Civil War. Not surprisingly, the comment thread was filled with mysterious posts from racists who had never shown up before (and never came back) and whose entire histories on LiveJournal consisted of that particular thread.
Nobody knows what Ms. Scribe is doing now.
What’s intriguing about Ms. Scribe and her sock puppets’ microconspiracy is its everyday scale. It’s not hard to understand why secret societies might scheme to kill a president. But why would one woman spend so much time trying to bring down a group of Harry Potter fans? There are many theories: that she wanted attention; that she adored a fight; that she was nuts and unemployed. All we know for sure is that wherever Ms. Scribe is now, we are always one step away from being her, one lonely morning, when all we want are a few online friends. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is still trying to listen to the backward masking on Dark Side of the Moon.
TECHSPLOITATION If you think I’m done making fun of Sen. Ted Stevens from Alaska, then you are sorely mistaken. I have only just begun to mock.
In a rousing speech about why he would be trashing network neutrality provisions in the Senate’s version of the new telecommunications bill, Stevens sagely pointed out that the Internet “is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a truck.” Instead, he explained, “it’s a series of tubes.” And those tubes get all gummed up with icky stuff like big movies and things. For example, Stevens said, “An Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday, and I just got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet.”
Ultimately, after worrying at length about how “your own personal Internet” is imperiled by “all these things,” Stevens concluded that there is no violation of network neutrality that “hits you and me.” And that’s why he’s pushing to keep net neutrality from being written into law. This is the sort of politician who is deciding the future of Internet regulation — a guy who thinks that he received “an Internet” yesterday, and that it was made of “tubes.”
What’s even worse is that Stevens’s main beef with the Internet is that it moves slowly, and this is a problem that will only be worsened when big companies like Verizon and Comcast start creating prejudiced pipes that privilege certain kinds of network traffic over others. You think your own personal Internet is slow now? Wait until Verizon starts making Disney movies travel faster than e-mail over its, um, tubes.
While Stevens is basing decisions that will affect the future of communications technology for decades to come on trucks and tubes, Verizon is covertly preparing its newest customers for a world without network neutrality. A few weeks ago the telecommunications giant announced it would be installing fancy new routers with its high-speed fiber-optic cable service known as FiOS. Available in only a few places across the United States, FiOS has been drooled over by tech-savvy blog Engadget and CNN alike. That’s because it can deliver a wide range of media (from movies to phone calls) much faster than its competitors — supposedly at a speed of up to 20 megabits per second, far faster than typical DSL’s 1.5.
Sounds great, right? Not so much. The router that comes with new installs of FiOS, according to Verizon’s press release, “supports remote management that uses new industry standards known as TR-069, enabling Verizon to perform troubleshooting without having to dispatch a technician.” Whenever I see the phrase “remote management,” I get antsy. That means Verizon can talk to your router from its local offices, which the company claims is all for the good of the consumer.
However, if you actually read the TR-069 standard, you’ll see that Verizon can do a lot more than just troubleshoot. It can literally reflash all the memory in your router, essentially reprogramming your entire home entertainment system. As a result, Verizon can alter its service delivery options at any time. Even if you’ve signed up for a network-neutral FiOS that sends you to whatever Web sites you like and routes your peer-to-peer traffic the same way it routes your e-mail, Verizon can change that on a whim. With one “remote management” event, the company can change the settings in your router to deliver Fox News faster than NPR. It can block all traffic coming from France or prevent you from using Internet phones that aren’t controlled by Verizon.
Verizon’s new router is also great news for anyone who wants to wiretap your Internet traffic. All a bad guy has to do is masquerade as the Verizon “remote manager” and he or she can fool your nifty router into sending all your data through his or her spy computer. The more people allow companies like Verizon to take arbitrary control of their “personal Internets,” the less freedom they’ll have — and the more vulnerable they’ll be.
Surely even the good Sen. Stevens can understand why Verizon’s antineutral router isn’t desirable. You see, it turns the Internet into a truck. A truck that doesn’t go. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is powered by trucks.
Is Updike obsolete?
TECHSPLOITATION In a recent New York Times Book Review screed, the proverbial old-white-male author John Updike offers a reader’s digest version of the argument against online publishing. For those of us who are genuinely puzzled by the animosity directed against efforts to digitize books (like Google Print or the Internet Archive’s Open Library Project), Updike’s short essay is quite instructive.
Updike offers the usual salvos against the “unedited, unattributed” nature of most online writing, but the true source of his wrath is a profound distaste for the idea of reading as a “community activity.” He’s disgusted by the idea of texts being intermingled and passed around “promiscuously” in electronic libraries. More than that, he’s weirded out by the way readers intermingle online. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, Updike was never called on to make appearances or have his photo on book jackets, and he still longs for the silences and authorial anonymity of that experience. Ultimately, he predicts that the demand for an intimate back-and-forth between author and audience on the Web will lead us back to “the pre-literate societies, where only the present, live person can make an impression and offer, as it were, value.”
Most writers who, like myself, spend their days jabbering online have a tendency to read essays like Updike’s as the rantings of an obsolete Luddite who can’t tell the difference between a wiki and an RSS feed. It’s easy to make fun of the guy for not knowing a whole lot about the technologies he’s criticizing. But let’s take him seriously for a minute and consider what he’s actually getting at beneath his profound misunderstandings of Google Print and bookshelf mash-ups.
The essay begins with a wistful evocation of the bookstores he visited when young: Mandrake’s in Cambridge, where Updike found New Directions paperbacks; the old Doubleday’s in New York on Fifth Avenue, “with an ascending spiral staircase visible through plate glass.” He worries about losing the understated beauty of books and the quiet dignity of the stores that trade in them. In short, he feels like he’s losing the public spaces devoted to buying and selling books. And yet what he scorns most in his essay is the idea of a “universal library,” democratically accessible to all and long the dream of techie futurists like Wired cofounder Kevin Kelley and digital archivist Rick Prelinger. Why wouldn’t Updike welcome a new, bigger public space devoted to books?
To answer, let me return for a moment to the complaint made by pretty much every blogger who has argued with an old-school print journalist about the legitimacy of online writing. Typically bloggers upbraid these print writers for fearing new technologies in a sentence that goes something like this: “If you simply replace the word ‘blog’ with the word ‘printing press’ in this argument, you see how the argument against blogs is like arguing against the progress of civilization.”
But there is no evidence that anyone protested the invention of the printing press for destroying writing. Sure, there may have been some angry monks here and there who could no longer make a living writing books out by hand. But in general, writers welcomed the invention of the printing press. It led to a flowering of the writing industry and literacy. Meanwhile, governments liked the printing press because it made propaganda a whole lot simpler. It also made writing easier to censor. Unlike handwritten books, which were labor intensive but hard to regulate, every book made with a printing press could be tracked. In England, shortly after the printing press gained ascendancy, all printers had to register with the state for exactly this reason.
The invention of the printing press is nothing like the invention of the Web, which liberates writers from their dependence on publishers regulated by the caprices of states and markets. And so, for now at least, Updike is right that the Internet takes us back to a pre-Gutenberg era. Until we start seeing major censorship crackdowns on Web publishing — rather than the threat of pervasive surveillance, which is certainly chilling — online publishing will never behave like the printing press. The printing press led to the privatization of reading, but the Web leads to its socialization.
So perhaps what Updike is getting at when he bemoans the rise of digital books is really the rise of an uncensored public space. He’s not afraid of technology, but of the public itself. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who loves libraries and old bookstores.
Never mind Brookers . . .
TECHSPLOITATION In the world of weird cultural appropriation that is the Web, nothing can compare to the strange tale of a Moldavian pop song called “Dragostea din Tei.” It began in 2003 as a catchy disco tune by boy band the O-Zone, who sing in Romanian and look like a queer version of Duran Duran (or perhaps a queerer version). The video for the song started circuutf8g on the Web a couple years ago and is full of silly shots in which the band dances on an airplane, its members hugging one another and randomly morphing into cartoon characters.
The infectious song became a hit in Europe and immediately inspired several parody/homage fan videos online. One, by a Finnish artist, depicted an androgynous anime character dancing to the tune, and so many people accessed her little movie that no server would host it. Soon a Japanese cartoon version appeared, in which two cats dance while subtitles supply words in Japanese that sound like the Romanian lyrics, thus producing a running commentary of Japanese nonsense.
The obvious and exuberant queerness of the video inspired many other versions, including one in which three Polish guys dance around with giant dildos and another that aired on Spanish television with the lyrics changed to include the phrase marica tu, which means “you’re queer.” Earlier this year a group of students at the University of British Columbia gave the Web possibly the last (or at least the best) word in gay appropriations of the video: Four nubile Canadian men jump around, take off their shirts, chase airplanes, and frolic by the seashore while mouthing the lyrics to the song. Although this elaborate creation was linked from Collegehumor.com, it’s hard to see the parody in it — it’s a straight homage to the goofy Moldavian original.
While these queer appropriations (or approbations) warmed up the Net, a very different group also played telephone with “Dragostea din Tei,” creating parodies of parodies inspired by a 19-year-old American named Gary Brolsma. Brolsma had recorded himself lip-synching, making faces, and chair-dancing to the song with a Web cam and posted it on his Web site. Within days, copies of the video had made it all over the Net, inspiring people to re-create Brolsma’s hand-waving and nutty facial expressions in their own videos. Over many iterations, this meme was dubbed the “Numa Numa Dance,” in reference to the chorus of “Dragostea din Tei,” which goes “numa numa iei, numa numa iei.” Although Brolsma was embarrassed by the phenomenon and stopped talking to the press about it, his happy, geeky imitators posted Numa Numa Dances from all over the world — including Thailand, Hong Kong, the UK, and, of course, Canada. My favorite was made by a couple of kids in the United States studying for a calculus exam, who dance around to the song and wave printouts of formulas and binary numbers in front of the screen.
Even the US Navy got in on the action with a video that sort of straddles the line between gay and dorky.
Despite its global popularity, few in the media paid any attention to this queer geek meme until a straight white girl named Brookers appropriated it on YouTube.com. Her version, called “Crazed Numa Fan,” shows her doing the exact same thing you see in every other Numa Numa Dance flick: She waves her arms and makes faces in front of her bedroom Web cam. But her video, which is no more or less creatively cute than the hundreds of others out there, was downloaded 1.5 million times. And a couple weeks ago it earned the skinny blond 20-year-old a development deal with former MTV star Carson Daly’s production company.
I know, I know. Predictable as hell, right?
But while Brookers’s fame will flare out, the Numa Numa Dance will continue on its merry digital way. When I watch all those happy imitators bouncing to “Dragostea din Tei” on their Web cams, I feel viscerally the utopian promise of global pop culture. I’m nodding along to a joyful tune in a language I rarely hear, and it’s been mashed up, appropriated, and reappropriated, our pleasure in it shared and reshared until it feels like everybody everywhere is doing the Numa Numa Dance along with me. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who loves any Romance language that retains the neuter, along with several Latin declensions.
For a short compendium of the best in “Dragostea din Tei,” see the online version of this column at www.sfbg.com.]
Original video: video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2294961099056745991
Personal surveillance etiquette
TECHSPLOITATION In an alternate universe, the National Security Agency’s database of every telephone call made over the past five years in the United States is being used in couples counseling sessions to prove that some guy really did say that mean thing his boyfriend says he said. But in this universe, where the government spies on you rather than keeping couples from breaking up over stupid shit, we must rely on our personal phone surveillance logs to preserve social connectedness.
That’s why I’ve been having an etiquette crisis about my smart phone. It’s a Treo 650, the kind that holds a zillion numbers in memory and can therefore identify anybody calling me who has called before. It’s like a just-in-time call-tracing system. Even when people try to block their numbers, I can often tell who they are based on how the block looks. One colleague’s blocked caller ID always pops up as “4321” and another as “9999999.” My phone also maintains a fairly extensive log of who has called me, so I can browse through my own personal phone records for the past year and a half to figure out names, numbers, and times called.
As more people acquire similar phones, I become increasingly alarmed by all this record keeping — not so much because of the mini-NSA feelings engendered, but because I’m not sure what the social rules around it are. For example, I can now be fairly certain that if I call a friend or colleague’s cell phone, they’ll know it’s me before they answer. Even creepier, they’ll know I called, and when, even if I don’t choose to leave a message. And they know that I know the same things about them when they call. Thence comes my etiquette crisis.
You see, the whole practice of calling and hanging up without leaving a message has taken on a new meaning. Calling and hanging up is no longer really an option — even if you do hang up, a record of your actions lingers on. And there’s no benefit in terms of stopping cranks or fraudsters here because caller ID is easy to fake or block. There are at least a dozen services that help you spoof the number on your phone so it looks as if you’re calling from 6969696 or whatever. So this is really only an issue for the casual phone caller who isn’t energetically paranoid enough to go through the trouble of altering her phone number.
All this is an elaborate explanation for why I stood in the street the other day, staring at a missed-call notice on my phone and wondering if the person who called intended for me to call him back. He hadn’t left a message, but then again, he didn’t need to — he’s a pretty tech-savvy person and would certainly have anticipated that I would know he called and precisely when. Was it like a “call me but not urgently”? Was it just a transient sort of request, like an invite to lunch that would time out by the time I got a message, so he didn’t bother leaving one? (In that case, I thought to myself, I really didn’t need to call him back.) Or was it some new form of passive-aggressiveness, in which my decision whether or not to call him back based on the call trace became the measure of my loyalty to our friendship?
Charlie, who watched me staring at my phone, opined that I didn’t have to call the person back. But then I reminded her of a spat we’d had where she cited my cell phone log, saying she could prove that she’d called 10 times before I called back. She conceded, “Well, you should always call me back if I don’t leave a message, but nobody else.”
This seemed to me an awfully arbitrary rule. Miss Manners would be indignant.
Caller ID is causing a politeness aporia in my life. I suspect this is because surveillance and etiquette are both tools that help us monitor and control what everybody around us is doing. Of course, no matter how stringent the etiquette enforcers are, we still have a choice about how and when we choose to adhere to their little rules. With surveillance, there is no choice.
And, in case you’re wondering: No, I didn’t return the phone call. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who has a record of every time you called her since late 2004.
Feminists prefer genetic engineering
TECHSPLOITATION I’ve been sorely disappointed by feminists’ responses to genetic engineering. Like many life sciences, genetic engineering has its dark side — but that’s no excuse for groups like Gene Watch to claim that the feminist position on genetic engineering should be "just say no." Why the hell shouldn’t feminists seize the means of reproduction and turn them to our own best interests? Why shouldn’t we be at the table when policy makers determine the best ways to regulate cloning, genetic engineering, and new reproductive technologies?
If we turn our backs on the debate, it will just go on without us. And we know how that turns out already. Just look at what happened with birth control pills. The pill was developed and tested in the 1950s entirely by male researchers — one of whom, Harvard’s John Rock, was a devout Catholic. Rock pushed for a dose cycle of the pill that would replicate women’s monthly menstrual cycle, essentially so that it could be, like the rhythm method, a God-approved form of birth control. The Pope disagreed, but the monthly pill cycle stuck, despite the fact that the pill could completely eliminate menstruation for as long as a woman wished and there was no evidence that this was any less healthy than a monthly menstrual cycle.
Let’s think here, people — if women and feminists had been involved in the process of developing the pill, there is no goddamn way we would have let them take away the possibility of a pill to eliminate our "little visitor." No woman likes to bleed once a month. It’s messy; it’s crampy; occasionally there are embarrassingly stained clothes and sheets. Only men would deem it "better" for us to keep on putting up with this biological annoyance even after finding a cure for it. Luckily, there are now a handful of birth control products on the market, such as Seasonale and Lybrel, that do eliminate periods as well as prevent pregnancy. It only took 50 years.
That’s why any feminist worth her sodium chloride should be charging into the debate on genetic engineering with a list of demands. Hell, yes, we want to change the biology of reproduction — and we want to change it now.
The primary goal of a feminist genetic engineering project is to cut the reproductive process loose from patriarchy and male domination. One simple way to do that is to make sure feminist politics are front and center in any discussion about how we will use genetic engineering to eliminate harmful birth defects. I think we can all agree that it would be great to make sure babies aren’t born with holes in their hearts, but what about girl babies born with small breasts? Can’t you just see some clueless researcher claiming that women with small breasts are "harmed" psychologically, and that therefore we should engineer all women to have big ones? Feminists need to shut that shit down right away.
But what do we want? First of all, we want genetic engineering to transform the way families work, perhaps by making it possible for two women to create a baby without male intervention — or for more than two parents to create a baby. (Researchers in Japan have already bred a healthy baby mouse out of genetic material from two females, and researchers in England are working on a human baby that will have genetic material from two women and one man.) Either way, you’ve got new parental formations, and hopefully this biological change will lead to childcare being meted out more equally — or at least challenge our preconceptions about what it means to be a "mommy" or a "daddy."
We also want artificial wombs, so that women don’t have to stay home from work while gestating their fetuses. We need technologies that will at last close the "baby gap" in workplaces where women fall behind their male colleagues during pregnancies and their children’s early development. Plus, we want men to be able to participate as fully in the reproductive process as possible. That’s why male pregnancy and lactation should be a goal of feminist genetic engineers. We don’t want merely to liberate ourselves from the reproductive process; we want to bring men into it as our equal partners.
New family structures, artificial wombs, and pregnant men are just the very beginnings of what feminists should be demanding when it comes to the genetic transformation of our species. Let’s get out of the streets and into the lab! SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who thinks mpreg stories are the wave of the future.
TECHSPLOITATION In downtown San Francisco, if you wander off Fifth Street down a small, twisting alley nestled among the sky-high monuments to money, you’ll find a freshly installed steel door, the glowing numbers affixed to it bearing little relationship to the other addresses on the street. If you’re lucky enough to get past the security cameras and locks, you’ll find yourself at the edge of a huge warehouse space full of stages and sets.
Climb up the stairs that lead away from the "medieval castle" set, and you’re in a huge office space full of computers. People are on the phones, or swapping stories as they return from a trip to the Starbucks around the corner, or gathered in tight huddles around large, flat-screen monitors full of partial layouts. Only the bathrooms offer a hint about what’s really going on here. No ordinary office would stock its toilets with an enormous rack of baby wipes, paper towels, and every feminine hygiene product known to woman. This is Kink.com, home to half a dozen of the Web’s hottest porn sites.
Everyone always asks what porn has done for the Web, but they never ask what the Web has done for porn. A place like this, full of queer hipsters, geeks, and models, would never have existed before 1995. It certainly wouldn’t have looked quite so Ikea.
I’ve come here to visit the set of Fuckingmachines.com, a Web site devoted to images and movies of women having sex with machines. Usually the machine involves some sort of piston and at least one moving part to which a dildo can be attached. The sensibility is perfectly San Francisco: a cross between high-tech fetishism and sexual fetishism. Tomcat, the site’s understated Web master, wears a tie and jeans to the set. With a degree in film and digital media from a large public university, the self-consciously androgynous Tomcat is precisely the sort of hip young professional who is attracted to second-generation Web porn operations like Kink.
Tomcat makes sure the first machine (called "the chopper") is ready to go and picks out a pale blue dildo from a huge, tidy cart that contains — laid out with surgical precision — an array of silicone cocks in various sizes, a fanned display of condoms, towels, baby wipes, and several lube bottles. Next to it is a pine cabinet full of carefully labeled drawers containing "large dildos" and "small dildos." A tiny table holds some soft drinks packed in ice, as well as a handful of lemon Luna bars.
"Last week we did an alien abduction scene," Tomcat says. "It was great — I got to be the alien." Today’s model, a tall brunet with a lascivious smile, named Sateen Phoenix, arrives in a little dress and fuck-me shoes. Like Tomcat, she’s the sort of person who has the education and resources to choose from many careers and has chosen this one because she likes it. "I’m moving to LA to get more work," she says, sipping water. "But I just got into this about six months ago — I like having sex in public, so I thought, why not do it here?"
Settling onto the chopper, Sateen poses and reposes, replaying her naughty grin as many times as Tomcat asks. The scene behind the scenes here is all business. PAs discuss the merits of various lubes and dildos; everyone tries to figure out the ideal position for Sateen’s pussy so that everything fits together when the machine starts pumping. Tomcat manages to issue directions in the tone of a nice but task-masterish boss.
"I know it’s awkward with your knees and the handlebars, but go ahead and insert it so that it’s comfortable," the Web master says. "Now just wank a little until you get off."
"I don’t know if I can get off like this," Sateen suggests. "I’m too lubey."
"Get some baby wipes for her to take care of that lube," Tomcat directs the PA.
Eventually, using another machine called "the predator," Sateen starts screaming in a way that marks this whole scene, again, as something that could only happen in the world of Porn 2.0. She’s had a genuine orgasm, the kind of thing you’d almost never see a woman do in porn before the Web took over.
Ten minutes later, still shaking and sweaty, Sateen pulls on a robe and stumbles over to the snack table. She falls into a chair and lets out her breath in a whoosh.
"Hard work, eh?" she sighs, grinning at me. "Having orgasms all day?" SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who’s never met a machine she didn’t like.
Let’s get neutral
TECHSPLOITATION There’s been a lot of hysteria on the Internet lately over something called "network neutrality," and you can blame it partly on AT&T chair Edward E. Whitacre Jr. Whitacre, whose company’s recent merger with SBC Communications makes it one of the biggest owners of telecommunications cables in the country, got all huffy late last year about sharing AT&T’s precious wires with any old Internet service provider who felt like sending packets. "For a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!” he told a Business Week reporter in one of those classic "will somebody please tell our chair to shut up" moments.
However crudely put, Whitacre gave voice to a sentiment that’s becoming common among execs of companies like AT&T, Comcast, BellSouth, and others that provide the actual physical wires (often called "pipes") that bring us the shiny Web. Because companies like Google take up a lot of space on AT&T’s wires, AT&T wants to get paid extra to handle that. Think how much more cash it could be making if Google paid for the privilege of offering faster searches over AT&T. That’s exactly the way Whitacre and his ilk see it.
The problem with this moneymaking idea is that the architects of the Internet and industry regulators at the FCC are enamored of something they call the network neutrality principle. Although never written into US law, this principle holds that nobody’s Internet traffic should be privileged over anybody else’s — to do so would be like letting an electricity company cut a deal with GE so that only GE appliances got good current. As it turns out, the neutral network provides an excellent platform for business models that cluster at the ends of the wires: Everything from Google and eBay to ISPs and music-downloading companies are based on the idea that money is made by shooting good stuff over the wires, not by making some wires better at getting good stuff.
Underlying network neutrality is the idea that people should be allowed to attach whatever they like to the ends of the Internet’s wires — and they should be able to do it without significant hindrances, like paying steep access fees to AT&T to get their businesses online. Neutrality is why we routinely get cool new "end" innovations like virtual reality world Second Life or smart phones that connect to the Internet. As both Internet protocol inventor Vint Cerf and former FCC chair Michael Powell have argued, these kinds of new worlds and widgets are only possible because the wires are neutral and their ends are open.
What would a world without network neutrality be like? The worst possibility is that companies like AT&T would create "prejudiced pipes" that push paying customers’ traffic along more quickly than nonpaying customers’. If indie bookstore Powell’s wasn’t able to pay AT&T’s fees, its online store might load far more slowly than Amazon’s — if it even loaded at all. Some companies might force music and movie companies to pay extra to make their downloads work, thus preventing anyone but the major labels and studios from making their wares available online. Ultimately, consumers would have less choice online, and small "end" start-ups would be at a great disadvantage when they put their stuff online. If established players like the New York Times can pay the prejudiced-pipe owners for quicker load times, who will bother to read slow-moving blogs?
Many fear that this scenario may come to pass rather soon, because Congress is in the yearlong process of trying to replace the Telecommunications Act of 1996 with an updated legislation package. Several potential drafts have included language that would enshrine the principles of network neutrality in law. Proponents of this move, whom superwonk law professor Timothy Wu has dubbed "openists," say that mandating network neutrality will lead to greater innovation and consumer choice. Meanwhile, deregulationists like the AT&Ts of the world are pushing Congress to keep neutrality out of the law so they can build prejudiced pipes and start charging Google to use ’em.
If the deregulationists succeed, power over the Internet will be centralized among the companies that own the wires, and everyone but the big corporations will lose. We may be about to witness the end of the ends. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who prefers to stay neutral.
TECHSPLOITATION I had the urge to be low-tech, so I spent a day walking across Manhattan. If you believe that culture is the new nature, my trek was roughly equivalent to an amble through the forest. I bought a bagel and lox at Zabar’s, stuck my earbuds in on the corner of Broadway and West 80th Street, and headed south. Surely a Neanderthal could have had this same experience munching on meat and humming to herself as she wandered through Europe 42,000 years ago.
The Upper West Side — bounded by Central Park on one side and Riverside Park on the other — is actually full of old-school traditional nature. There are trees and slightly stinky bodies of water and birds. I know there’s supposed to be some dramatic cultural difference between the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side, but I think my relentlessly Californian senses prevent me from discerning what it is. Both sides of the park are full of well-maintained residences, doctors’ offices, corner stores built in the 1950s, and nannies ambling with baby strollers.
Exiting the park’s south side is pretty much like walking into a really dirty waterfall next to sharp rocks. In fact, scratch that — traditional nature has no metaphors adequate to describe the sheer human hell of this place. Its dense cultural outcroppings and vortices stretch at least to 40th Street below Times Square and create the sensation of being in a crowd that’s just on the verge of rioting in response to a piece of entertainment. This is very different from being in a crowd whose protoviolence is prompted by a desire for food or political freedom.
At the heart of Times Square I made a left and detoured briefly into the Condé Nast building to visit one of my editors. Four Times Square is one of the only high-rise office buildings in Manhattan constructed from eco-friendly materials. Supposedly the windows are specially made to maintain a moderate temperature, and air ducts keep fresh air circuutf8g through the place. I couldn’t really tell whether the building felt any "healthier" than, say, one of the scary buildings near Penn Plaza where I once interviewed a bunch of guys in suits. But it was amusing to try to identify which people in the elevator worked for Vogue and which worked for the New Yorker. After eating a genetically engineered banana with my editor among the translucent plastic structures that bloom like gigantic flowers all over the Condé Nast lunchroom, I returned to Broadway.
I slowed down when I hit 30th Street, moving through each neighborhood and watching the population change gradually the way I would watch a beach becoming forest if I were hiking on the California coast. The closer you get to Union Square Park near 12th Street, the more you start seeing young hipsters and frenetic middle-class people with bags of groceries. Continuing south, I skirted the edge of Greenwich Village and scooted past New York University, where everybody has floppy hair and Converse sneakers and jeans with stitching on the pockets.
Everyone got older and richer briefly in SoHo, but that group dissipated quickly around Canal Street. On Canal it was impossible for me not to examine at least four or five unlicensed pieces of trademarked and copyrighted media. People stuck handfuls of pirated DVDs under my nose; street vendors sold knockoff Hello Kitty and Gucci. If only this crowd could slake the thirst of those protorioters in Times Square, I don’t think we’d have any violence.
The buildings got taller and the air between them colder as I approached the downtown financial district. People in suits with whimsical ties almost distracted me from my favorite part of Broadway downtown: the enormous brass bull statue near Wall Street that celebrates the crude joys of financial power. I never get tired of looking at its huge balls, which hang in remarkably realistic detail between its raised tail and abstract cock. Capitalists have never been a shy bunch, nor do they have any difficulty finding metaphors from nature to explain their peculiar form of culture.
And then, at last, I was at the Staten Island ferry, which brought me to the one place where Manhattanites fear to tread. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who isn’t afraid of Staten Island.
The great e-mail debate
TECHSPLOITATION Geeks turn social events into intellectual debates, so it should be no surprise that intellectual debates are often an excuse for geeky socializing. This was certainly the case at a recent benefit for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (my former employer), held at a San Francisco indie movie theater known for its seedy-progressive ambiance. We were there to ponder nothing less than the future of the free world — at least, if you define "free world" as free e-mail, which is something I know all of us have done once in a while.
Most people already pay an ISP for Internet access, so the notion of having to pay for e-mail on top of that is a fairly repugnant one. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of companies who’d like to make a business model out of it. A case in point is Goodmail, a Silicon Valley start-up that provides a middleperson service called e-mail certification. Companies and banks that send bulk e-mail pay Goodmail to verify their authenticity, and Goodmail passes a cut to ISPs like AOL or Yahoo!, who whisk the certified mail past their spam filters and on to your in-box. The idea is that Goodmail’s certification helps e-mail recipients tell the difference between phishing e-mails and real requests for information from their banks.
Public sentiments went sour when AOL announced it would be using Goodmail because it sounded a lot like a pay-to-play system in which only wealthy customers could afford to get their messages past the ISP’s notoriously clueless spam filters. That could mean more spam rather than less. Worse, it would impair free speech on the Net. Nonprofit bulk mailers like activist group MoveOn might get their mail blocked simply because they couldn’t afford certification. Nearly 500 nonprofit groups, fearing this scenario, signed an open letter the EFF wrote to AOL asking it to drop Goodmail’s certification system.
Longtime EFF supporter and former board member Esther Dyson, however, objected to the campaign against Goodmail. As a free-market idealist, she welcomes any new business model for handling e-mail — and particularly for tackling the epidemic phishing problem — and felt that Goodmail shouldn’t be discouraged from testing its mettle in the marketplace. When I argued with her about this at a recent conference, she threw down the gauntlet. "I’d like to debate EFF about this publicly — you tell them that," she said. Dutiful Dyson fan that I am, I made a beeline for Danny O’Brien, the EFF’s activism coordinator and spam policy wonk. As soon as the two of them started bickering about e-mail protocol SMTP, I knew the fight was on.
A couple months later, I sat with about 100 other geeks who’d come to watch O’Brien ask Dyson why she wants e-mail senders to pay for the privilege. Turns out Dyson’s perfect universe doesn’t involve a Goodmail-style model. Instead, she favors a system wherein e-mail recipients are paid to read e-mail — if you thought a piece of mail is spam, you’d have the option to bill the sender. If you wanted the mail, you could accept it without charge. Although Dyson admitted this system might require an unwieldy billing infrastructure and many market mishaps, she’s nevertheless "pro-choice" when it comes to companies — even Goodmail — experimenting with business models for an e-mail system that, she concluded, "simply can’t be free anymore."
O’Brien, for his part, made an impassioned case for the spam and phishing problems to be solved via social economies like the ones that have made Wikipedia and many open source projects so successful. "Solving this by falling back on the monetary economy is an incredibly old-fashioned and conservative move," he said. He urged everybody to look for nonmonetary economic solutions whereby communities collaborate to build tools that help certify legitimate mail and filter out spam and don’t force people to pay cash to engage in free speech.
EFF founder and techno-freedom philanthropist Mitch Kapor, who moderated the debate, ended the evening by saying that nobody had won. "We’ll see who turns out to be right in the future," he said, laughing. For my part, well, I’m a social economy idealist. In my perfect future, a hell of a lot more than e-mail will be free. But keeping one of the greatest engines of free speech from backsliding into the monetary economy is a good start. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who uses open source software to spam filter the 8,000 e-mails she gets every day.
Sleep-deprived video game maniacs
TECHSPLOITATION A bunch of Belgian neuroscientists finally figured out a way to turn spring break into an article for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the current issue, they report on what happens to the human brain after playing a lot of Duke Nukem and experiencing total sleep deprivation. Although the study is actually about how the brain stores spatial memories (in which "spatial memories" refers to retained information about virtual towns from the game), it is in fact a very tidy way to make a science experiment out of everyday life.
If the scientists conducting the study aren’t themselves in the habit of staying up all night playing video games, they almost certainly have friends, colleagues, or children who are. Being neuroscience geeks, their first response when confronted with video game obsession isn’t "Dude, what level are you on?" but rather, "Dude, what’s it doing to your brain to stay up all night shooting invaders from another world?"
Now they have their answer. The researchers told 24 test subjects to play Duke Nukem, after which one group was given a regular night’s sleep, another no sleep at all. Both groups subsequently got two nights of sleep and were then tested for spatial recall. The sleep-deprived gamers remembered the layout of the game far less clearly than the sleepers. It turns out that sleeping allows the brain to reorganize our spatial memories, moving them from the short-term memory zone of the hippocampus to the long-term memory zone of the striatum (an area of the brain also associated with body movement). So, if you stay up all night killing aliens and go to work or school the next day, you won’t remember very well the layout of the game you played.
Sure, that’s interesting, and it confirms what you might guess: Playing video games instead of sleeping is messing up your brain a little bit. But what I like about this study is the way its elements are cobbled together out of ordinary experience. This isn’t the kind of test that can only be dreamed up in the labs of a synchrotron or a giant room full of superfast DNA sequencers. It’s right out of our living rooms and laptops.
In the world of social science, there’s a long tradition of people studying themselves or their own cultures. Anthropologists who dig live-action role-playing games turn themselves into "participant observers" and write books about friendship rituals in live-action role-playing games. Psychologists in nonmonogamous relationships conduct research on the emotional states of people in nonmonogamous relationships. And ethnographers visit the inner cities where they grew up to create intricate analyses of ghetto graffiti and neighborhood basketball teams.
Is there something wrong with studying ourselves? Some would say it’s not good science because self-analysis is never objective. In fact, classic mad scientists, from the fictional Dr. Frankenstein to real doctors throughout the 20th century who jammed electrodes into the brains of asylum inmates, are dubbed crazy for turning the people around them into lab rats. The madness of these scientists is linked to their propensity for converting their communities into elaborate research projects.
Those Belgian neurologists, although they could hardly be accused of harming anybody, were therefore close to "mad" on a scale of mad to scientist. They took some people engaged in ordinary activities — let’s face it: Sleep-deprived video game playing isn’t that unusual — and made them into a bunch of test subjects. There’s something deeply weird about that. It’s also exactly the sort of experimentation that scientific inquiry should inspire. Sometimes the results may be silly, and they were downright scary in an era before review boards regulated tests on human subjects. But today such experiments encourage us to question what we take for granted in our daily lives. After all, it’s the urge to understand the everyday that drives other MRI nerds to study how the brain processes vision, and geneticists to investigate which genes regulate aging.
I’m glad I live in a world where everything can be turned into an impromptu scientific paper. I’d rather be a research subject than an undiscovered condition. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who has, in fact, been studied by several scientists, but not for the reasons you think.
TECHSPLOITATION We listened to 1930s music in the car, pretending we were on a country jaunt in our new automobile. But when we finally made it out to the country — or at least to Yolo County Fairgrounds — we had to go a lot further back than 70 years. Standing in the muddy parking lot, we shed our jeans and sweats and button-<\h>down shirts and put on the garb of medieval peasants. We could see the colorful peaks of royal pavilions over the roofs of several RVs parked nearby. Just as I was pulling my handmade linen underdress over my head, a knight clanked by in his armor. He was talking on a smartphone.
Quinn, Jesse, Danny, and I followed another set of peasants toward a very non<\h>medieval chain-link fence that would be the gateway to our strange adventure. Little Ada, wearing a tiny quilted princess dress with purple trim that matched her sash, wasn’t impressed by anything — not the Russian ladies in their fur, not the Renaissance rapier fights taking place next to eighth-century cudgel matches, and not the magic potions for sale next to leather vambraces.
“I’m cold,” she declared definitively. “Let’s go home.”
But we couldn’t turn back now. We had come from afar to see the bout to end all bouts. Its winner would ascend to the throne of the Kingdom of the West. Weaving between dogs in jester outfits, humans in thick leather belts and thicker capes, tents full of strange supplies, and a group of women with beaten copper mugs of mead and bags of Doritos, we at last arrived at a wide, marshy promenade around the battlefield. One end of the football field–<\d>size arena was devoted to practice, while at the other end the current king and queen of the West presided over the fights that would determine the kingdom’s future. The fighters, whose efforts were getting them muddy and grass-stained, came from every place and time. Some were dressed in the garb of Arthurian legends, while others had studied early-<\h>modern British history and had perfectly re-created weapons of the period. Some had meticulously knitted their chain mail out of repurposed coat hanger wire, while others had ordered it on the Internet.
“He’s hit! He’s hit!” someone yelled enthusiastically as a knight fell to his knees. When a fighter has been hit on the leg, he or she must keep fighting while kneeling. A hit to the arm means no more using that arm in the bout.
“A hit to the head or torso usually means death,” a serf from Southern California told us. “But ultimately the fighter determines whether it’s a killing blow. Only the fighter can judge, and it’s a matter of honor to take hits when they fall. Certainly some have become king by not acknowledging hits, but they’re in the minority.”
“What time exactly are we in?” I asked.
“The Dark Ages,” replied the serf.
“But this can’t be the Dark Ages,” I argued, gesturing at all the early-second-millennium finery around me. “The Dark Ages come after the fall of the Roman Empire and stretch into about 500 AD. Really, this is the Middle Ages, which start in the 500s and stretch into the early-modern period, say the 1400s.” I neglected to tell him about the Battle of Maldon, which marks a key turning point in Anglo-Saxon history of the 900s. It’s when the Anglo-Saxons finally kicked Viking ass. Although my companions were dressed as Vikings, I had decided I was an Anglo-Saxon.
“Well, we just call it the Dark Ages,” the serf said, edging away.
Quinn rolled her eyes and started snapping pictures of the final bout. A cute herald with long blond hair called out the names of the fighters, the ladies for whom they fought, and their standards. She was interrupted briefly by another herald, who announced that somebody’s car was being towed. Then the fight was on. An Arthurian knight in white who bore a broken lance instead of a shield was fighting a lanky 12th-<\h>century fellow in what looked like black Kevlar. At last the Arthurian knight struck the killing hit. After much heralding he was crowned king, and crowned his lovely partner queen, in a ceremony that was both touching and theatrical.
Night was falling, and the cold was getting to us. We decided to skip the feasting and head straight to Fry’s Electronics without changing our garb. Wandering the warm, clean aisles, we were one of many strange, anachronistic groups who had traveled through time and/or space to buy laptops and WiFi equipment. Nobody looked twice at us. It was just another Saturday night in geekland.
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose favorite Anglo-Saxon poem is The Wanderer and whose new king will be announced on www.westkingdom.org.
Feeling everybody up
One of the things I love about that place known fondly as "the Interwebs" is the way it allows researchers to graph things that should never be graphed. For example, have you ever wondered exactly how excited people really were about the release of the most recent Harry Potter book? Thanks to MoodGrapher, an application created by three Dutch information theorists, you’ll discover that reported feelings of excitement were up 130 percent on the day millions of copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince flooded into stores.
MoodGrapher works by collecting information from the "mood" tags associated with millions of entries on popular diary site LiveJournal.com. Every time you write something on LiveJournal, you have the option to tag your post with a mood from a pop-up menu that includes everything from "bored" to "drunk" (for those feeling eccentric or curmudgeonly, there is also a "fill in your mood" option). After aggregating these moods over time, the Dutch info geeks were able to see clear patterns. Drunkenness spikes on Fridays and Saturdays, for example. Frustration plummeted on New Year’s Day (but loneliness was on the rise). You can search for moods over time yourself if you visit the MoodGrapher at ilps.science.uva.nl/MoodViews/Moodgrapher.
The idea of tracking the moods of an entire global population sounds like something from a movie about a dystopian future in which humanity’s computer overlords monitor everyone’s feelings so they can dope us up or feed us rock and roll accordingly. And that’s not far from the truth. The MoodGrapher’s creators published a paper earlier this month suggesting that their tool could be used to predict the success of a given movie by measuring the warmth of people’s feelings about it before release.
Some might argue that this is a consumer-centric development, in which our feelings are taken into account before new pop culture is thrust upon us. But in point of fact, measuring people’s moods about something before it comes out merely reveals how much buzz has been generated by advertising campaigns. Thus, the MoodGrapher’s results simply reflect how much money has already been blown on getting LiveJournal weenies amped up for the latest Franz Ferdinand album or M. Night Shyamalan’s stupid new movie. There are some exceptions to this, certainly. But you’re unlikely to see mass upticks in excitement for a new thing — whether it’s Windows Vista or Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman movie — unless it’s already being hyped to death.
What’s truly interesting about the MoodGrapher isn’t its marketability but its use as a diagnostic tool to measure how much events in the news affect people’s emotions. In a paper called "Why Are They Excited?" the MoodGrapher team explain how they figure out what’s causing unusual spikes in the mass mood. First they use a simple algorithm to search for massive mood upturns or downturns in a given period of time (usually a day or an hour). Then they search the journal entries of everyone who has reported the popular mood, looking for words or phrases that are used repeatedly. Once they’ve gotten five or six recurring words (like book and prince, for example), they search a news database to find out whether the words are turning up there too.
Using this methodology, the MoodGraphers found that a peak in "excitement" on July 16, 2005, was heavily correlated with the use of words like book and read and Potter. Similarly, they found that a peak in the mood "worried" during late August 2005 was associated with uses of the words hurricane, gas, and Katrina. Quick searches of those words against their news database revealed what you’d expect: They were ripped from the headlines.
The news-driven mood swings on LiveJournal are simultaneously hopeful and disturbing. It’s comforting to know that when something literally earth-shattering happens — like Hurricane Katrina — people are genuinely worried about one another. We’re not a bunch of numbed-out blog zombies. We’re members of a human community, and we care when we read about other people being hurt.
Of course, the more we care about what the media tell us, the closer we get to having our feelings crassly manipulated — especially if cool hunters and other dipshits of the brandosphere start using the MoodGrapher to figure out what makes us excited and drunk and happy. Worse, politicians might study MoodGrapher for ways to tweak national sentiment. Sometimes, it’s just better to keep your feeling tags to yourself. *
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who never had a mood she could sum up in a tag.
Spy on yourself
“Wow,” my hacker friend Mason breathed as he looked at my computer monitor. “That’s really horrendously fucking evil.”
He was responding to the sight of my account with Root Vaults (root.net), a Web service with hazy goals but an interesting tool: If you sign up and download a plug-in for Firefox, Root Vaults will record your entire clickstream. When I go anywhere or click on anything online, the plug-in records it and sends the data to my account at Root Vaults. A nifty graphical interface shows me what sites I visited, including the most popular ones, as well as what I searched for on both Google and Yahoo!.
Since I was just testing Root Vaults, I tried to search for important things like “horse porn” and “cute kitties.” As a result, my clickstream looked sort of like this: www.xxxpower.net (the clickstream from this one yielded some interesting results, as it appears some scamster was trying to make it look like I was clicking on the ads on the site, even though I wasn’t); www.cuteoverload.com (too bad Root Vaults couldn’t measure my utter joy in looking at this site packed with a zillion cute animals); www.pussy.org; www.kittenwar.com.
Now imagine that I spent all week sending my clickstream to Root Vaults. Instead of seeing searches I don’t normally do (well, OK, sometimes I do search for cute kitties), I’d have a record of everything I’d wanted to see and everything I did see. Seth Goldstein, inventor of Root Vaults, calls it the “record of your attention,” and he wants to sell it.
Like Google, Claria, and dozens of other companies that record what you do online, Root Vaults doesn’t quite have a business model for all the data it’s aggregating. Right now Goldstein uses the information he’s gathered to sell “leads” to mortgage and insurance companies looking for people whose clickstream makes them seem like good prospects. Later he might use all the consumer data in Root Vaults to sell companies information about who clicks on what and when. Or maybe he’ll try to sell futures in consumers by claiming he’s got a batch of people whose attention data show they’re on the cusp of buying something big because they’ve been visiting ConsumerReports.org and trolling Shopper.com.
Unlike its sister companies, Root Vaults is letting users see the data it collects. That’s why I don’t entirely agree with Mason’s damning assessment of the service. Certainly clickstream snooping is a privacy invasion, but what’s worse is that it’s something few people understand. For example, when you download the toolbars from Google, Yahoo!, or Microsoft, each one sends the very same kind of data that Root Vaults collects right back to its mother company. So if you want to know how much Yahoo! knows about you, sign up for Root Vaults, watch your clickstream get recorded, and find out.
Goldstein is excited about this idea. As a founder of Attention Trust, a nonprofit whose goal is to regulate the clickstream-tracking industry, he’s intrigued by the idea of corporate scruples in a space that’s best known for spyware. “This tool could be for self-education,” he enthuses. “The same way Fast Food Nation taught us what we’re really eating, Root Vaults could teach you what kind of data companies are really gathering about you.”
You’ll be truly weirded out to discover how easy it is for a tiny little browser plug-in to send every online move you make to a third party. Once you’ve completed your experiment, though, delete all the data from your Root Vaults account, then delete the extension from Firefox. And just to be safe, don’t click on anything you’d be afraid to share with the world.
Although Root Vaults is setting a new standard for transparency in clickstream tracking, one telling detail is still obscured. Goldstein insists each vault “belongs to you.” But it doesn’t. Whenever anything of “yours” is stored on someone else’s computer, it’s not highly protected by privacy laws, largely under the assumption that it must not be as private as the stuff you store on your own computer. So the government or an attorney can get access to this data without contacting you personally, and often with very little court oversight. So remember, kids, just because something’s in your account on Root Vaults, that doesn’t make it yours.
And just because you can’t see your own clickstream most of the time doesn’t mean somebody else isn’t watching it. *
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who can draw a heart in the snow with her clickstream.
DO YOU LIKE to celebrate Christmas? Do television commercials fill you with desire for the products advertised? Do you wear gender-appropriate clothing and hairstyles? Do you think everyone should have a job, get married, and have children? Have you ever laughed at someone for acting "weird"?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might just be a neurotypical. The term, coined by autism and Asperger’s syndrome activists in the neurodiversity movement, is being used more and more within this community to describe the sort of person whose fixation on "normal" mental activity is tantamount to discrimination. As diagnoses of Asperger’s and autism skyrocket, especially among the most driven members of the scientific and arts communities, the idea that people whose minds work atypically are suffering from a terrible disease is starting to ring false. That’s why the non-neurotypicals are rebelling.
At the Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical, a parody site that has lived since 1998 at isnt.autistics.org, a pissed-off autistic writes about the spreading problem of normal personality, which is "a neurobiological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity."
On Wikipedia you can find lists of famous people who have Asperger’s, including electronic music pioneer Gary Numan and Steven Spielberg. For anyone familiar with minority politics, it should be no surprise that there are also lists of people who might be non-neurotypical because they exhibit autistic traits. Bill Gates usually tops such lists. It reminds me of similar lists on queer rights Web sites, in which activists try to figure out which famous people might be gay.
When BitTorrent programmer Bram Cohen came out last year as having Asperger’s, it was like a 1960s rock star saying he’d done LSD. His altered mental state became part of his allure, part of what inspires him to think creatively. Among the geekigentsia these days, you just aren’t glamorous unless you can lay claim to being a little obsessive-compulsive sometimes, or at least unable to engage in ordinary social interactions.
In another era, non-neurotypicals would probably have been called eccentrics: notoriously weird but still lovable and socially useful. Nicola Tesla, who invented AC power and only ate food whose volume he had calculated before consuming it, would certainly have been one. Modernist poet Wallace Stevens, who wrote by dictating poems to his secretary at Hartford Insurance, would have been another. The novels of Charles Dickens are full of such characters. They’re weird but certainly not diseased, and they even have an honored place in their communities.
Clearly, the neurodiversity movement is aiming at a similar kind of acceptance for autistics and Aspies. As someone who could hardly be accused of neurotypicality, I can’t say this isn’t a worthy goal. But there’s an important difference between celebrating eccentricity and glamorizing Asperger’s. Eccentricity describes a behavior, while Asperger’s is an identity.
The non-neurotypicals may have taken the pathologizing sting out of the names for their conditions, but they’re still rallying around the words that doctors came up with to label them freaks. Even this strategy isn’t a bad one. I love it when epithets like queer become badges of pride; even better is when a term like hysterical, spawned by a sexist medical community hell-bent on suppressing women’s sexuality, gradually gets converted into a slang term for something that’s hilariously funny.
But I must admit to a bit of a squicky feeling when people seek to define their entire identities in terms of one particular thing, whether that’s Asperger’s or femininity or being an alcoholic. I’m especially leery when that particular thing, in this case Asperger’s, becomes a kind of personality chic.
The glamour of being non-neurotypical elides the very real issues people face when they suffer from full-blown neurological trauma. It also, in some sense, deprives people of the ability to take credit for their own behavior. Cohen’s considerable talent with the Python language becomes not a spectacular behavior but merely an outgrowth of being an Aspie. I guess what I’m saying is that I’d rather act eccentric than be non-neurotypical. The former lets me take responsibility for my weirdness, and the latter lets other people define me by it.
Annalee Newitz (email@example.com) is a surly media nerd who refuses to eat chocolate-covered garlic. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley’s weekly newspaper.
APPARENTLY IT’S BIG news that the human brain is still evolving. A couple of US researchers announced recently that they’d isolated two genes connected with brain size that appeared to have evolved only over the past two dozen millennia. In other words, our brains changed in the past hundred generations. Why this would be surprising to anyone even glancingly familiar with evolutionary theory is beyond me. As long as we keep engaging in sexual reproduction, we’re going to be evolving. The process ain’t teleological, people.
Greg Wray, a Duke University evolutionary genomics professor involved with the study, told the Associated Press, “There’s a sense that we as humans have kind of peaked.” But, he added, “it’s almost impossible for evolution not to happen.”
Nevertheless, people both in and out of the scientific community were bemused by the study. I’m tempted to say that’s because the intelligent design dorks are making so many headlines that any new information about evolution