Cyber-skepticism

The British newspaper The Guardian pulls together a number of books that are criticizing our brave new cyber-world:

The way in which people frantically communicate online via Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging can be seen as a form of modern madness, according to a leading American sociologist.

“A behaviour that has become typical may still express the problems that once caused us to see it as pathological,” MIT professor Sherry Turkle writes in her new book, Alone Together, which is leading an attack on the information age.

Turkle’s book, published in the UK next month, has caused a sensation in America, which is usually more obsessed with the merits of social networking. . . .

Turkle’s thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.

But Turkle’s book is far from the only work of its kind. An intellectual backlash in America is calling for a rejection of some of the values and methods of modern communications. . . .

The list of attacks on social media is a long one and comes from all corners of academia and popular culture. A recent bestseller in the US, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, suggested that use of the internet was altering the way we think to make us less capable of digesting large and complex amounts of information, such as books and magazine articles. The book was based on an essay that Carr wrote in the Atlantic magazine. It was just as emphatic and was headlined: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Another strand of thought in the field of cyber-scepticism is found in The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov. He argues that social media has bred a generation of “slacktivists”. It has made people lazy and enshrined the illusion that clicking a mouse is a form of activism equal to real world donations of money and time.

Other books include The Dumbest Generation by Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein – in which he claims “the intellectual future of the US looks dim”– and We Have Met the Enemy by Daniel Akst, which describes the problems of self-control in the modern world, of which the proliferation of communication tools is a key component.

The backlash has crossed the Atlantic. In Cyburbia, published in Britain last year, James Harkin surveyed the modern technological world and found some dangerous possibilities. While Harkin was no pure cyber-sceptic, he found many reasons to be worried as well as pleased about the new technological era.

via Social networking under fresh attack as tide of cyber-scepticism sweeps US | Media | The Observer.

If you want to read any of these, download them on your Kindle from the Amazon box on this blog.  Oh, I guess we are dependent on the internet even as we criticize it.  But don’t these books make some valid points?

The end of the store?

What the big chain bookstores did to the mom & pop shops, Amazon.com is doing to the big chain bookstores.  At least Borders, which may be in its death throes.  (Barnes & Noble is hanging in there.)  Border’s woes are not just the internet.  The Washington Post published a fascinating article about Borders in the context of the larger book business:  Borders struggles amid rapid changes in book sales.

We have discussed the pro’s and con’s of Walmart, which gives customers good prices and thus a higher standard of living, at the expense of wiping out small local businesses.   I wonder, though, if even the big corporate department stores are at risk from the internet.   My daughter (a grown-up) buys virtually everything online–shoes, clothes, vitamins.  Will we even need hard-copy shops, except to buy food and maybe staples from Wal-Mart, which will surely survive?

Would this be yet another phase of gigantism, as the big stores themselves get outdone by even bigger nation-wide virtual stores?

In the early days of the internet, it was thought that small, even home-based businesses would flourish, since the new medium would allow them to compete on an even playing field with the big corporations.  Maybe that is so.  The online companies that get my daughter’s business are in some cases small ventures run by stay-at-home moms.  Or is internet commerce itself getting taken over by the big players?  Might the human impulse to “go shopping” mean that there will always be bricks and mortar shops, including bookstores?

Default blocking of all internet porn

We blogged about this a while back ago, but Great Britain is going through with it, requiring internet providers to block pornography on the internet unless adults specifically ask for it. Our discussion, though, missed the point, focusing on whether or not this was technologically feasible and how easy it would be to get around it. But there would be no need for an adult to get around it, since he would merely need to ask for access to this material and he would have it.

Let me reiterate what England is planning to do and pose some specific questions.

The UK Government is to combat the early sexualization of children by blocking internet pornography unless parents request it, it was revealed today.

The move is intended to ensure that children are not exposed to sex as a routine by-product of the internet. It follows warnings about the hidden damage being done to children by sex sites.

The biggest broadband providers, including BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk, are being called to a meeting next month by Ed Vaizey, the communications minister, and will be asked to change how pornography gets into homes.

Instead of using parental controls to stop access to pornography – so-called “opting out” – the tap will be turned off at source. Adults will then have to “opt in.”

via All internet porn will be blocked to protect children, under UK government plan | News.com.au.

Would this work, in theory, in the U.S.A.?  It wouldn’t violate anyone’s freedom of speech or freedom of the press or freedom of porn.  If an adult wants it, he could have it.

Wouldn’t this not only protect children, but also be beneficial for adults, many of whom I suspect take advantage of the easy access now but would be ashamed to sign up for it?

Are there any down sides of doing the same thing here? Should people concerned about the moral harm of pornography launch a crusade to do what England is doing?

HT: Joe Carter

Smartphone over-dependence

Forget what’s in your wallet — beware your smartphone. It’s becoming one of your most dangerous possessions.

CNN business reporter Blake Ellis warns us about how our do-everything smart phones might get us into trouble, especially if they are stolen:

If your phone was stolen a few years ago, the thief could make prank calls and read your text messages. Today, that person can destroy your social life — you said what on Facebook?! — and wreak havoc on your finances.

Now that smartphones double as wallets and bank accounts — allowing users to manage their finances, transfer money, make payments, deposit checks and swipe their phones as credit cards — they are very lucrative scores for thieves. And with 30% of phone subscribers owning iPhones, BlackBerrys and Droids, there are a lot of people at risk.

“It’s crazy the amount of information on that phone — it’s like carrying a mini-computer around with you, except that more people know the settings on their computer than they do on their phones at this point,” said Nikki Junker, social media coordinator and victim advisor at Identity Theft Resource Center. “People are incredibly at risk as technology improves.”

via Your smartphone could be your most dangerous possession – Jan. 11, 2011.

Cyberwar against Iran

The New York Times reports on an Israeli-American collaboration that apparently created a computer worm that may have set back Iran’s attempts to build a nuclear weapon for years.  You’ve got to read this story.  A sample:

Behind Dimona’s barbed wire, the experts say, Israel has spun nuclear centrifuges virtually identical to Iran’s at Natanz, where Iranian scientists are struggling to enrich uranium. They say Dimona tested the effectiveness of the Stuxnet computer worm, a destructive program that appears to have wiped out roughly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and helped delay, though not destroy, Tehran’s ability to make its first nuclear arms. . . .

Though American and Israeli officials refuse to talk publicly about what goes on at Dimona, the operations there, as well as related efforts in the United States, are among the newest and strongest clues suggesting that the virus was designed as an American-Israeli project to sabotage the Iranian program. . . .

In interviews over the past three months in the United States and Europe, experts who have picked apart the computer worm describe it as far more complex — and ingenious — than anything they had imagined when it began circulating around the world, unexplained, in mid-2009. . . .

The worm itself now appears to have included two major components. One was designed to send Iran’s nuclear centrifuges spinning wildly out of control. Another seems right out of the movies: The computer program also secretly recorded what normal operations at the nuclear plant looked like, then played those readings back to plant operators, like a pre-recorded security tape in a bank heist, so that it would appear that everything was operating normally while the centrifuges were actually tearing themselves apart.

via Stuxnet Worm Used Against Iran Was Tested in Israel – NYTimes.com.

HT:  tODD

List of common misconceptions

Something really interesting from Wikipedia:  An extensive List of common misconceptions in history, science, religion, sports, travel, and technology.  The list includes my pet peeve, the myth that the ancients believed that the earth is flat, as well as many similar urban legends and scholarly bloopers.

Did any of these surprise you?  Do you want to challenge any of these misconceptions to argue that they are correct conceptions?

HT: Joe Carter