Monday, August 8, 2011

What LulzSec Actually Did (And Why It's Important / Not Important)

So. A lot of really interesting things have been going on. From day to day, it's hard to tell which stories are going to actually be important in the long run, so I try to resist the urge to blather about everything I find interesting in a given day (that's what the SBO News Tumblr is for). But it's been a while, and one story has surfaced as having a seemingly lasting importance. It's the story of LulzSec. Some call them nefarious hackers, and others call them vanguards of a new way of thinking, white-hat jokesters exposing weaknesses without doing too much lasting damage. The truth is (surprise!) more complicated.

There are a lot of angles from which to approach this story, but I'd just like to highlight some of the misconceptions that the public and the media seem to have about what LulzSec actually did.

For starters, people act like LulzSec did something unprecedented by exposing all of this private information. And while that's partially true (in that they are probably the most organized effort to do what they did), it's also a kind of misdirection regarding what it is they actually exposed.

Here's what I mean: to me, LulzSec exposing the weaknesses of networks of information is not that different from the series of Facebook privacy mistakes that exposed increasing amounts of personal data. There just isn't that huge of a difference between having your private information exposed on the open web because you wrongly trusted Facebook's default privacy settings and having your login information displayed publicly because you wrongly trusted Sony's encryption policies.

The (already nearly-forgotten) Anthony Weiner story is actually a pretty good example of this. Weiner was just a normal guy who didn't understand how Twitter's architecture protected (or didn't protect) his privacy. This led to his junk ending up all over the internet. Should we cut him more slack than, say, the FBI, who's protection of their website was easily circumvented with some simple hacking scripts? Weiner exposed himself (haha) the same way that the FBI did: because they didn't understand how the technology they relied on worked.

And that's what's really at stake here. Network technology has become centrally important to our everyday lives, but it's also become increasingly sophisticated. And we have a duty to understand that sophistication.

Then again, no matter how high the stakes are, we can't pretend that changing technology hasn't created high risk before. There existed a time when people uniformly left their front doors open, a time when having credit in a store just meant telling them your name. Those are technologies (doors, loose credit systems) that have became outmoded for their purposes (keeping intruders out of your home, keeping tabs on your purchases).

And that happened because people exploited those technologies; they stole from homes and used false names for credit. The unsophisticated and ineffective nature of these types of systems was exposed, requiring better systems. That's how these things have always worked. And that's how they've worked with LulzSec, too.

But here's the thing: the people that took advantage of the system and displayed its weaknesses in those cases were called "criminals," not jokesters or revolutionaries or white-hats. Having a high-minded reason for stealing and trashing things doesn't save you from consequences. Maybe LulzSec deserve the criminal treatment quite a bit more than they deserve the white-hat treatment.

Now obviously it's more complicated than "you're either a criminal or you're a sheep." I wrote a while back about WikiLeaks, which I sort of praised for wanting to change the way information is kept by governments but also sort of criticized for the dangerous way they are going about creating that change. I'd say the same here: I'm all for people using better passwords and companies using better crypto and more secure networks. But that doesn't mean I'm a fan of giving out huge amounts of personal information about otherwise innocent bystanders.

This whole thing is even more confusing when you try to come up with off-line analogs. Imagine a band of jokers wandering around suburban neighborhoods and stealing valuables from homes without alarm systems just to prove how vulnerable these houses are. This is not how social change is made. This is how moderately smart people get their jollies at everyone else's expense. That is what is happening here, possibly not much more.

Though even that analogy breaks down when we realize that LulzSec isn't really hacking deeply sophisticated servers. They're hacking websites, the public-facing, loosely-protected internet billboards for these companies. 

For example: not too long ago, LulzSec took down the CIA's website. But the CIA doesn't keep its secrets on its website; the CIA's website is likely slightly less secure than, say, the Huffington Post. It takes very little work to steal the furniture off of someone's front porch, but it takes more work to steal from their safe. LulzSec basically only stole porch furniture, even if it was the kind of porch furniture we'd rather not be left out.

The bottom line is that the whole LulzSec situation demonstrates the imbalanced interaction between our understanding of our own technology, our expectations of privacy, and our desire to trust the companies that hold our information. That's the same imbalanced interaction that was exposed by the Facebook privacy flap, the Anthony Weiner fiasco, password phishing scams, and every privacy crisis in internet history.

And the solution isn't angry prosecution or sting operations. The solution is trying to understand these interactions better. Technology isn't likely to entirely outmode the social contract any time soon. We still have to make our society work. And only more education and more understanding will make that happen.

(More about LulzSec at the SBO News Tumblr!)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

NEW: The Stars Blink Out Tubmlr!

I know this isn't usually the place for news. So, I've decided to start a blog that IS a good place for news. Surprise! It's the Stars Blink Out Tumblr. Check it out! And if you tumbl, maybe reblog some stuff!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Osama bin Laden, Online Social Networks, and Authenticity

Osama Bin Laden was killed last week.

Yeah, I know, not exactly breaking news. But I know you don't really come to this blog for "news." Instead, as you might expect, I have something to say related to how people responded to this news, specifically on the Internet and on online social networks (surprise!).

Slate's "Culture Gabfest" provided a pretty interesting discussion about how online social networking has effected the reactions to Osama bin Laden's death. I'd like to expand on it slightly.

The always-enlightening Gabfest crowd discussed generally our new-found societal inclination to publicly declare our personally felt sentiments. The argument is that we now live in a society so fixated on authenticity that everyone now feels compelled to share their feelings on this momentous event publicly and immediately, no filtering.

The Gabfest's major misstep is evident in the final moments of the segment: they essentially finish the story with each of them saying that they didn't do this themselves, but everyone else did, so it's a reflection of a cultural force. If it IS a cultural force, why are they immune to it?

I think understanding our obsession with authenticity as some sort of uncontrollable urge to share our feelings is to misstate what social networking actually does accomplish here.

It's certainly true that online social networks make it easier to reflect authentically our own feelings to our friends. But the online social network can do only that: facilitate the offline social network. In other words, the only people who take to Facebook or Twitter to publicly share their emotional reactions to bin Laden's death are the same people that were disseminating these sentiments through their own offline social networks before these websites even existed.

The result is that, while it might look like people are having an unprecedented emotional response to some global piece of news (be it joy at the death of an enemy or shame at the public celebration of a person's death), that emotional response is essentially the same as it has always been, just more visible.

The real novelty in this situation is not that more people are sharing their opinions; it's that more people are seeing each other's opinions. Back on September 11th, 2001, for instance, I could only get the reactions of those people that I saw around me on a daily basis. And believe me, they were vitriolic and extreme and numerous. But they were limited in number by the amount of people in my social network that I saw on any given day.

All online social networks have done is expanded the functional, accessible size of this social network, making these opinions LOOK more common, even though they are as common as they always have been.

But online social networks have also, to a certain extent, democratized the response to situations like this. Offline, the people with whom I correspond most regularly and sunstainedly are those that tend to agree with me. That is the nature of friendship. But online social networks make friendship something a little more broad. A more diverse group of people now have access to my attention, people that I do care about but I wouldn't have heard from in a previous era of information sharing. Essentially, instead of getting the somewhat limited viewpoints of those friends that I already most closely agree with, I get the diverse perspectives of the broadest circle of my friends.

Authenticity is at war with artifice every day. We want to authentically represent ourselves, but we also wear slimming clothes and make-up and only say the things we think won't disrupt or offend those around us. Maybe some of us maintain less distance between impulse and action, but in the end, we shape our actions to what we want those actions to be, not some deep sense of who we are. (Sure, what we want our actions to be is influenced by that deep "who we are," but even if the animus is deep, the agency is at a higher level.)

That war between impulse and control, between authenticity and self-definition still exists online. Online social networks have not achieved some unprecedented level of authenticity in social interaction; they've achieved an unprecedented AMOUNT of social interaction. The nature of that interaction is essentially unchanged, still as authentic or inauthentic as it always has been.

In my opinion, that's probably more useful. How much do we desire a society where people say whatever is on their mind all of the time? How much to we desire pure, unadulterated authenticity? I'd argue that the authenticity that we now have access to is the more useful variety: people can easily, quickly and accurately represent how they see themselves, not necessarily what they objectively are. That, to me, is the bedrock upon which social interaction is built. I'm glad it's the kind of authenticity brought out by such an ambivalence-breeding event like this one.

(Image from this informative post on BlazoMania)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Applied Semiotics and Nuclear Disaster! Wotta Headline!

I love a story that combines really fundamental issues about how people apprehend meaning with the complexities of anticipating how our own technology will impact our cultural future. And no story combines these elements so elegantly and so surprisingly interestingly as the story of the Department of Energy's 1991 waste isolation report, as reported by Slate.

First, a brief summary of the problem the plan anticipates, as reported by the article: our nuclear waste and nuclear materials are going to last longer than us. That's just a fact of the chemistry of these materials. These hazardous materials will remain hazardous long after the possible collapse of all of society, or even the death of all man-kind.

So, in an effort to protect future human societies (and possible non-human ones) from the waste, we'd have to find a way of labeling this material as hazardous for a people whose language might look nothing at all like ours and whose society is entirely unpredictably organized.

The solution hatched by Sandia Labs, in a report commissioned by the Department of Energy, is a surprising but sensible one: hire a bunch of people that are experts at conveying information symbolically to come up with some immediately-recognizable sign or some information transfer mechanism to alert future societies of the hidden dangers we have created.

For those unfamiliar with it, semiotics is a branch of philosophy that deals with symbols. It's a study that seeks to explain how symbols indicate other things, how that indication is created, how the brain dives through layers of symbols almost automatically, and all of the different ways these symbols are manifested.

So expert semioticians are essentially people who are experts at how things MEAN other things. It makes sense, then, that these are the people hired to devise something lasting and language-independent that indicates danger to any observer.

The solutions they propose are just mind-bendingly clever. One proposal: build a lattice of sharp, dangerous looking rocks on top of the waste, discouraging exploration of the area. Another plan calls for building giant stone structures with pathways through them that are too narrow for people to set up camps and live there, thus discouraging settling in the polluted area.

Some rely on more complex systems not directly linked to the symbols themselves, but to how symbols gain meaning. One such proposal is the setting-up of a priestly class of sorts that would know of the dangers of the nuclear sites and would transmit this information in a form more akin to religious dogma than to scientific learning.

The whole discussion smacks of junk futurism and conspiracy theories, like Project Bluebook or a set of secret orders for the president on how to deal with an alien invasion. The difference is that the problem anticipated here is essentially a certainty, something guaranteed by the physical laws of the universe.

This is a forward-thinking approach to something that is essentially a predictable result of our current actions. We've created dangerous waste that, as long as it is on this earth, is dangerous to humanity for generations upon generations to come. The waste already exists. It is something that we KNOW will exist for a predictable time into the future. We're just attempting to mitigate against its ill effects.

I don't know how well the idea of an atomic priesthood is going to work. But I really do love the idea of landscapes constructed to be difficult to live in just to warn people off from nuclear waste sites. What if the darkest, most uninhabitable depths of the ocean are actually created by a long-dead advanced civilization to hide the technologies that became their very undoing?

I know it sounds like an INSANE stretch, but this plan seems to suggest that this scenario might be the reality of distant-future generations.

(Image from the original report, depicting a "menacing earthworks" approach to deterring people from disturbing a nuclear waste site.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lady Gaga's Surprisingly Sophisticated Understanding of Copyright Law (Insert Your Own Gaga-Related Pun)

Those of you that know me (and those that don't but have been reading my posts for a while here) certainly have seen that I'm not a fan of modern copyright law. I think it's too complex to work, too restrictive on first amendment rights, and generally gets used in a way that is anti-art, not pro-art. But that's only the first version of myself. You probably also know that I'm not a copyright abolitionist or copyright-basher. Version two of myself thinks that copyright is necessary, and it can be used reasonably and in a huge variety of ways to actually make the world of culture a lot better.

Now if I were solely that first version of myself, I'd look at a story of an artist doing something weird with copyright law and I'd say "AHA! Copyright is broken! This is endemic of the deeply flawed system!" But for this critique of a recent story involving Lady Gaga, I'm going to be entirely that second version of myself. The tech and law blog Techdirt recently posted a story that's all about how Lady Gaga's recent actions betray just how horribly flawed copyright law is, which is a story that the first version of myself would praise the hell out of, but the second version of myself is just too riled up by the whole thing to let that happen.

The article suggests that, if we look at how Lady Gaga uses copyright law, we can see just how broken copyright law is. The article asserts that Lady Gaga uses copyright in a way that does not at all match with the actual reason for copyright law's existence. Copyright law is meant to incentivize creation of new art, and the article says that Lady Gaga's attempts to use these laws for herself show just how far from this original goal the actual uses of copyright law have strayed.

Specifically, the article cites two major examples: Gaga's recent suit against "Baby Gaga" for the use of her image and her brand, and her treatment of photographers at her concerts, specifically that she requires them to sign agreements that give her copyright in their images. Let's take these one at a time, then talk about why the whole endeavor of criticizing Gaga's use of copyright law is actually really deeply flawed, even more flawed than the actual modern copyright system.

So the article only mentions in passing that the Baby Gaga thing is probably not copyright. But that's really important, so let's not conflate. Gaga sued on the use of her name and on the use of her personality rights, things like her sensibilities and her style. I don't think anyone's arguing that Lady Gaga doesn't have the right to control her image and her brand, which are the EXACT TYPES of things that trademark and personality rights are meant to protect. In other words, the Baby Gaga suit is not an example of Lady Gaga's twisted understanding of copyright law, it's a sign of her ACCURATE understanding of trademark and personality rights law, two fields of law that are actually surprisingly sensible compared to copyright law.

The slightly more sticky example is the photographer contracts. I don't like what Gaga is doing with these, but she's certainly within her rights to do it. Those contracts include terms about how they can use the photos, something that's pretty NORMAL for photographer agreements. These photographers sign agreements when they go to her concerts, so it's not like she's affecting their first amendment rights or something: they are essentially her employees when they contract with her.

The bottom line is that if she wants to put limits on the scope of these photographers' agreements with her, they still have to AGREE to those limits if they want the access she's agreeing to give them. They give something of value up and receive something of value in exchange. If they want to retain copyright of their images, they should photograph a different event, let someone who doesn't care about who owns their art become Lady Gaga's shill for that gig. This is a contracts and competition issue, not a copyright one.

The point of the Techdirt article is essentially that copyright has morphed into something terrible because people like Lady Gaga use it in unanticipated ways. But most of the unanticipated ways they list here aren't even copyright related: they're contracts and trademark related.

But let's not forget the real reason that copyright law is structured as it is, with lots of very small things declared the rights of the artist. It's designed to control the use of an artist's work, no matter what that art is and no matter what the use is. It's supposed to be flexible in the direction of rights-holders, ideally artists. And this flexibility is in place to allow for emerging markets.

Here's what I'm saying: if the purpose of copyright law is to incentivize art by creating ways in which artists can control the use of that art and therefore profit from it, then isn't allowing an artist who's show is a spectacle worth seeing the ability to contract with photographers carefully just another way of incentivizing creating these kinds of shows? Isn't Lady Gaga just taking advantage of one of those incentives with this kind of deal, not going against the incentive-based intentions of copyright law?

That's not to say that she's making a GOOD move or that she's doing something that is good for the legal landscape of art (she probably isn't). But she IS doing exactly what copyright law would have her do: she's monetizing her art using controls on distribution. It's what the founders would have wanted.

(Image: Lady Gaga Screen Print Painting, a CC-licensed photograph of a copyrightable screen print painting, probably a non-licensed derivative work of a surely-copyrighted, duly licensed image of Lady Gaga. IT'S COMPLICATED.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Unpacking The Heart-Shaped Box That Is The Cultural Experience of Valentine's Day

It's that time of year again. That time when we remember romantic love, and how glorious it can be. Where we send cards to our loved ones explaining how unqualifiedly wonderful they are. There are no "If you would stop snoring you'd be perfect" cards or "I wish you were more self-confident" cards, only "I Love You" and "Be Mine."

Yes, it's Valentines Day, the heart-shaped box of treacle that so oversimplifies the complexity of relationships. And that can be kind of nice, enjoying the simple things, remembering the good, and celebrating people we care about. But when we start to unpack that heart-shaped box, we start to see the cracks in the veneer on this love-fest and the complicated troubles of this yearly remembrance.

The trouble starts when you consider the origins of this holiday. Because "holiday" is a laden word, and it's not clear if it applies to Valentine's Day.

The event first started as a classic Catholic saint's day, a day reserved for remembrances of the holiest Christians and how they (usually) gruesomely gave their lives in martyrdom to the cause. In St. Valentine's case, no one really knows what happened to him, but it's pretty clear it probably had nothing to do with love (interestingly, because of the uncertainty around the story of St. Valentine, his official Catholic saint's day was removed from the calendar in the 60s).

Somehow, this religious observance morphed into a celebration of romantic love. It started as far back as the 1700s, and British hand-made valentines were popular throughout the 1800s, but the whole practice turned a corner into mass-production and commercialization at some point.

The blame is usually cast on the greeting card companies. The term "hallmark holiday" was invented for Valentine's Day. These companies had finally created a wholly novel celebration of romantic love, which led to years and years of cards, commercials, movies, and television, filled with plastic portrayals of what is ostensible a very dynamic and heated emotion.

The whole Valentine thing smacks of historical disconnect, exaggerated sentiment, and irrelevance. But when we look at the cultural reaction to that disconnect, instead of seeing a wall of uniform disdain, we see something pretty varied and complex.

On the one hand, a lot of people still really like this holiday. Aside from couples that always make a big deal out of the holiday, there's still that universal grade school experience of making valentines for your classmates (in my school, we had to make one for each student in the class, but anecdotes from others would have me believe that some schools allowed a little bit of selection, and therefore pre-teen heartbreak). Maybe that experience catches some of us and carries over to adulthood, because there's still a pretty solid market for Valentine's Day candy and cards.

There's also the yearly Valentine's episode, a staple of most television shows. By no means are these specials all good, but they are ubiquitous, expected by audiences, and even looked forward to by some critics. For better or for worse, our culture is one in which the mainstream has embraced February 14th as a day to celebrate candy, hearts, pink and red, paper cards with superheroes or puns on them, and, not least, love.

But let's not forget that there's a tremendous amount of backlash against this holiday. Of all of the holidays on the calendar, it's the one people most love to hate. Mother's Day, an equally invented holiday, is pretty universally seen as a good opportunity to thank our mothers, not as the crass commercialization of a complex relationship (even though it basically is just that, to the same extent as Valentine's Day).

Maybe that's the cultural power of this holiday. Valentine's Day is, if nothing else, a versatile holiday. Getting together with your single friends to get drunk doesn't sound like a romantic evening, but it IS a celebration of the holiday. People celebrate by burning their ex's stuff, or by drinking wine with friends, or by watching action movies to rebel against the whole thing. Even those that love to hate Valentine's Day still are getting some serious utility out of its existence.

But the list of hypothetical V-Day activities does seem to focus a lot on the ample dark side of the holiday. I think NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour said it best when they said that Valentine's Day tends to have at least some negative emotional and social effects, no matter what your situation is. The unhappily single person is reminded of their single-ness, the new couple is reminded of the complexity and pressure associated with serious relationships, and even stable, long-term couples still sometimes run into mismatched expectations over the holiday.

On St. Patrick's Day, everyone is Irish. Valentine's Day offers no such out: single people remain single, unhappily married couples continue to be unhappily married, and gay couples remain marginalized and unable to marry.

Romantic relationships are complex, but Valentine's Day is, at its heart, a holiday celebrating simplicity. To that end, those that revel in the simplicity of the whole thing (television shows, the rare adoring couple that gets SUPER into it, greeting card writers, jaded V-Day rebels, etc.) can revel in this holiday. But any reminders of the underlying intricacy and incomprehensibility of romance make this holiday empty and galling.

So from all of us at Stars Blink Out, where we are dedicated to highlighting the complexity in even the most simple situations, have a strange, confusing, complicated, crass, and maybe a little sweet, Valentines Day.

(image adapted from Pink Love Heart Box)