All that Glitters is Not Gold

Coding is wild, y’all. Literally one simple mistake like not capitalizing a letter or hitting the wrong character can result in the loss of over $55 million in cryptocurrency. But, what is it even worth? From what I understand, some currencies are backed up with gold. My question is why is gold valuable other than it is rare and shiny? Are humans really so dense that the most valuable form of exchange we could come up with is a shiny metal? I think it is a psychological placeholder. It’s a practical system of IOU’s that can only work if a large amount of people partake. We derive value from the things that it represents, or the things we can exchange it for. In the Spanish film Don’t Tempt Me (2001), a burglar says, “Money’s just paper, but it affects people like poetry.” With this in mind, I realized that cryptocurrency might actually be worth something after all. It has become this sort of buzzword that everyone talks about even though not many people actually use it. It’s no wonder it caught over $10,000 on the stock market. The variability in its value makes me skeptical as to how dependent we can be on the new currency. Also, some people claim that cryptocurrency is “too big to fail” and rave about how secure it is, yet it only takes a single misplaced character in a coding sequence to result in a catastrophic heist. I don’t know of a ton of places that currently accept Bitcoin (except Subway!), but it still feels far off from the common American dollar. It’s going to take a long time and a lot of changes before Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies become widely accepted.

P.S. I can’t believe we are done with the freshman seminar! I am going to miss our philosophical discussions, passionate rambling about tech news, relatable tangents over Internet culture, and, of course, the awkward silences. Thank you Professor Waldo and Professor Smith for a wonderful first semester!

Friend or Foe?

Our discussion with Professor Sweeney was extremely relevant with everything that is going on with the FCC and their wildly stupid idea of taking away net neutrality (honestly, how have they gotten this far?). I appreciated how Professor Sweeney really encouraged us to consider jobs at the intersection of computer science and governance because most of the people in power now are not well informed about the technologies they are controlling. Her lack of hope for the future of the FTC was a sobering yet humanizing observation.

One thing she wanted to learn more about was our identity on the Internet and how that affects us. It’s strange to think that how I present myself online to the world is different from the person that I actually am. I remember when MTV’s Catfish first came out, and it was an instant hit. People related to presenting a false persona in order to receive online validation and adoration. Obviously, Catfishing is an extreme example of this, but I couldn’t help but wonder what it means to love and be loved in the age of the Internet. Why were people obsessed with making others fall in love with this persona that wasn’t even genuinely themselves? How much are we willing to lie to ourselves in order to achieve these false emotions and connections?

Also, there are different versions of ourselves that we present to others depending on how close we are to them or the professional nature of the relationship. How does the globalizing impact of the Internet have an effect on this dynamic? I think that’s why we have isolated certain cultures for certain social media sites and apps. I don’t think this is so much an attempt to project a fake identity so much as an act of professionalism. I don’t think we need to combine all compartments of our life. That being said, I’ve noticed a societal shift in what we think is acceptable to share online with the world. From self-deprecating tangents of emotional oversharing to updates about one’s location, people no longer hold the view that you shouldn’t talk to strangers through the Internet; now, it’s encouraged. I mean, that’s what the Internet promised to do, right? Connect us to others around the world that we wouldn’t otherwise interact with? This is a valuable tool to have, but it’s difficult to know where to draw the line.

Who took the cookie from the cookie jar?

Everyone is talking about the Shadow Brokers and for good reason. How did one group singlehandedly infiltrate our agency whose main purpose is to protect classified information? They have released the information over a span of three years, yet no one knows who they are. What is interesting to me is that instead of using the stolen hacking tools to their own personal and secretive advantage, they are simply dumping it on the Internet for anyone to see. It makes me wonder what their ultimate motive is. We know who they are harming, but who is this benefitting? A lot of clues point to Russia. I’m not informed enough about international relations to have an opinion on it, but I’d say that’s a good guess. It obviously has to be a technologically advanced nation big enough to risk having a major intelligence-agency on the search for them.

What does this mean for everyone else? Obviously, it’s embarrassing that the NSA can’t solve the mystery, but they’re our best bet. It means that someone has the upper hand in this cyberwar. Mike McConnell thinks that our problem does not lie in our offensive tactics but rather our lack of defense. While I agree with McConnell, our guest lecturer Michael Sulmeyer brought up the point that no one has made an effort to retaliate. If the U.S. were to launch a counter cyber attack on Russia or North Korea, then they would be stirring up more conflict. The government’s job is not to win the ultimate argument. Their job is to protect us from having our privacy invaded and property stolen.

This Shadow Broker leak is a big deal in the privacy of technology, yet I don’t find myself particularly moved to take more precautions. I just don’t feel like my information is of any value to Russian officials and the like. However, I’ve seen too many scary articles and episodes of Black Mirror to not feel paranoid and know better.  While I think everyone can improve their cyber hygiene, I think there should be better ways to protect ourselves. Why is it so hard to use the Internet without fear of putting personal information in the wrong hands? I will say I feel a lot more prepared for potential viruses and scams as opposed to the older generation just because I grew up on the Internet and probably use it a lot more often. But then there are some viruses that spread through vulnerabilities rather than user interactions–when that happens, well, no one is safe.

Please Clap

In discussion, we talked about the differences between apps and browsers–and I didn’t even realize there were any major differences. I thought apps were just shortcuts and specialized versions of browsers… To be fair, I never really gave it much thought. That’s the point. They’re convenient and do what I downloaded them for. Not many people would choose a browser to do a specific task that an app can do more efficiently and more conveniently.

Sometimes I like to look through my friends’ phones and look at their apps. I like to see which ones they keep on their dock for easy access and which folders they group them into. I like to see how many pages they have and how they organize their apps around their phone wallpaper. You can learn a lot about someone’s day to day life just from the layout of their phone.

Speaking of apps, I read this VICE News article about this app created by a Chinese technology company that allows people to virtually clap for the Chinese president while he gives a speech. The app is appropriately named “Excellent Speech: Clap for Xi Jinpin.” You can earn points for the amount of claps accumulated and pit yourself against friends and family to see who is the most loyal to the Communist party (reminds me of the CrimZone app that let’s you gain points for attending sporting events). This is disturbing for a number of reasons, but it’s almost comical at the same time. Just me? With the increased integration of the Internet into our lives, I’ve noticed a shift in humor. It’s impossible to take anything serious without a popular meme to accompany it. I can’t tell if dark humor is a maturity thing, but I’ve definitely seen a rise of crude jokes in the past few years. I think dark humor has evolved into a coping mechanism. Maybe it has to do with desensitization since we are increasingly exposed to the horrors of the world? Maybe we’re too occupied with other things to care? I’m not really sure.

Fake News! Readallaboutit!

Our discussion brought up the question of how to solve the relatively new problem of fake news. Although news has been around for centuries in the form of newspapers and magazines, it seems as if false news articles are making headlines more than ever before. If we are in the age of information, then why are we so bad at addressing this problem? I think this has to do with the fact that you can’t pass a law that says no one can lie because, well, we all do. However, we have laws that protect against fraud, so isn’t this the same thing?

Facebook receives a lot of public pressure to combat this problem because a large amount of traffic to these false news sites come from it. In my opinion, I don’t think Facebook is obligated to do anything. They are, after all, a corporation. They exist to make money. Some might argue that they are a service, but it is a service that people have a choice to use.

I don’t trust any source 100% because there is simply not enough curation or fact-checking that goes on behind these reports. I appreciate websites like Snopes that work to disprove any false news, but how far is this from the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984?

I’ve seen a couple of talks by people who have escaped the brutal regime of North Korea, and they always talk about how blinded they were to the rest of the world. All their books and images in North Korea served to praise Kim Jong Un. They had no idea, and there really wasn’t a way they could have known. This makes me wonder if I am living in someone else’s world as well. How can I know what is true or false without personally witnessing it myself? Even if I am present to witness something happen, it’s not always what it seems. These questions just leads into the rabbit hole of existentialism.

Nevertheless, when it boils down to it, there’s a clear line between events that actually occurred and completely fabricated news. People will create the craziest conspiracy theories which are all fun and games until someone takes it too seriously and kills harmless people. I think the government should be responsible for monitoring fake news and punishing those who create it. Obviously, there will never be a perfect system, but we need to start somewhere. Quantitative sources like statistics are pretty black and white; they’re either right or wrong whereas opinion and commentary are easier to misconstrue. But, then again, there’s the age old quote that still rings true, “Statistics don’t lie; statisticians do.” I guess as long as humans are a part of the picture then lying will always be a problem.