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.

Deportation without Standardization

It was weird to see David Eaves in person when my first impression of him was through a video from seven years ago. Breathing human beings are more intimidating yet more relatable than their virtual counterparts.

Anyways, our discussion brought up the idea of an “open government.” I’m still not 100% sure what an open government entails or looks like, but I imagine it is accessible and easier to navigate for both the general public and government employees. Incorporating technology and the Internet into the government seems like a no-brainer to me; it’s already an inherent part of our lives. Why would we not want a more well-informed and involved population?

Honestly, I think that Donald Trump won the election in large part due to his Twitter account. It was honest, raw, and accessible. Beyond the face value of his immature trash-talking and whiny tantrums, people saw a real person. He clearly has the open sharing down pat, but I wonder how our democracy could improve if internal government communication were emphasized as well. It seems like the liberals and conservatives are split now more than ever, but I think intercommunication of the two groups would reap more benefits than this perpetual echo chamber.

For example, immigration and citizenship policies could be vastly improved. With our chaotic political climate, people are immediately picking sides. While I applaud people for desiring to stay informed, sometimes (most times) Facebook is not the best source for political information.  If the government had more comprehensible information available online, then I think everyone would be better informed and could sufficiently draw their own conclusions. Of course, this creates the problem of biased information and political agendas created by the people who determine which data sets and information get published.

One app I use to stay informed is Countable (I highly recommend). First of all, the interface is extremely user friendly and easy to understand. Countable notifies you of Congressional votes in real time. You can click on a certain case and read about both sides of the debate while seeing which side your representative voted for. If you disagree with their vote, then you can swipe on their picture and easily find their phone number to tell them what you think. It’s a wonderful app that encourages people to think beyond their black and white opinions while offering convenient ways to act on them.

Nevertheless, I wish my dad had something like this when he was growing up. My dad has become jaded in his political involvement which I don’t really blame him for. He was born in Laos during the Vietnam War and came to the U.S. as a refugee. To this day, he doesn’t exercise his right to vote because he doesn’t believe it makes a difference. On the other hand, my stepfather is an undocumented Mexican immigrant who deeply wishes he could vote. It’s been interesting to see the complexities of the American citizenship system, yet I still don’t completely understand it. Why is my father more deserving of citizenship than my stepfather? The process takes one million years too many, and its still not concrete or secure.

By creating more internal government communication, I think we could standardize the citizenship process in a way that makes it more approachable. Most immigrants are here to find more opportunities or jobs. They would pay your hecking taxes if you let them. However, the vague, complex process and constant articles of random ICE raids deter them from it. I am tired of hearing ill-informed people who were born into this country beg the question, “Why don’t they just become citizens like everyone else?” Coming from Nebraska, I was exposed to these comments on a daily basis. I clearly remember one girl asking, “But, if we built a wall, how would I vacation in Cancun?” Yeah, just let that sink in for a while.

Anyway, I am interested in how Estonia and India have incorporated technology into their citizenship process. I don’t know enough yet about how it works, but it seems readily available to everyone. If the United States could draft a similar system, then maybe we could end this immigration debate once and for all? That’s pretty ambitious, but all I’m saying is that it seems like everyone is fighting the wrong battle. Like, if the government really cared about how many people knew when the constitution was written or which territories the United States bought from France in 1803, then most current citizens would be deported. Some conservatives simply want immigrants to pay taxes which they would, but it’s not that simple. If we created an online template that was informative and standard for everyone, then this could eliminate all the ambiguous and insecure hoops we make immigrants jump through.


Our human experience is completely limited to our own; we can never truly know what it feels like to be someone else. In this sense, we understand consciousness and self-awareness through a deeply personal and intuitive experience without a concrete definition or defined boundaries between what dictates the conscious or the unconscious. Therefore, how can we determine when artificial intelligence crosses that undefined line?

We still don’t have a solid answer, but most accept that it will inevitably happen. It’s interesting that most people agree that something will happen although we’re not quite sure what that something is. A part of me hopes that I won’t live to see artificial intelligence become self-aware and independent, but another part is curious as to whether humans and AI could actually coexist. Since we keep pushing the definition of what sentient AI is, maybe it will forever be something of the far future, or about 10 years.

On that same note, I find it extremely difficult to imagine a world that doesn’t revolve around humans. I mean it took me up until about the 6th grade to realize the world didn’t solely revolve around me. Evolution tells us that humans and animals alike evolved from a common ancestor, yet something along the way diverged in order for us to deem ourselves superior. Cats, on the other hand, would disagree because they view us as big dumb furless babies.

Whether superior AI decides to obliterate the human race or simply disregard our existence depends solely on their desires and the role we would play in their lives. I think, or rather optimistically hope, that if humans did not pose a risk to the existence of AI, then they would have no reason to want to destroy us. Whenever I see ants going about their day, I don’t feel the need to squash them. However, if they invade my kitchen and contaminate my watermelon, then it is war. I think that insects/animals that are larger in size and more similar to our humanity are generally more sympathized with. For example, humans will not think twice about killing a tiny spider, but it is unthinkable and utterly inhumane to kill a dog. We have to take into account the cultural aspects as well. Cows are larger, but they are considered an essential meat group in the United States. As a result, slaughtering them by the thousands is commonplace. In India, cows are extremely sacred, so murdering a cow would be blasphemous and morally wrong. There’s no set rhyme or reason to religion, so perhaps AI would develop their own way of life and humans could easily be on their shitlist or a part of their holy trinity. There’s no surefire way to tell. OR, maybe, unlike humans, AI would be perfectly comfortable with existing without a purpose or reason and wouldn’t need to come up with arbitrary guidelines and values to justify and validate their lives.

To be honest, our discussion left me feeling muddled in existential dread with equal parts eager curiosity. My favorite part was when someone stated, “Happiness is overrated.” It got me thinking about when and how did I learn that achieving happiness through altruism and ~making the world a better place~ was the ultimate end goal? Is it something that is intrinsic to our humanity? Personally, I am a fan of films and books that end with a question, instead of some positive universal cliché call-to-action of some sort, because they are unapologetically honest.

The Internet is Forever, and We are Immortal

With the speed at which technology is advancing, literally any object is a viable option to integrate into the Internet, even salt shakers with ambiance. I find it curious that toasters and refrigerators are always used as the quintessential Internet of things. I think this is because toasters and refrigerators emphasize that no simple or daily task is incapable of more convenience. Nevertheless, every time I go on road trips with my dad, I wonder how anyone ever got around with paper maps. I wouldn’t even know where to begin on a map because it was never something I needed to do. My entire driving career has been accompanied by mobile GPS, and everything else I rely on my phone for.

I remember in April 2016, my eccentric art teacher tried to convince me to switch to a flip phone (read: not a smart phone) for a month just like him. He had already given up his car which is significant in itself because we lived in suburban Nebraska. His idea captivated me, so I told him maybe after Visitas I would temporarily get rid of my iPhone because there was no way I could get from Nebraska and all around Boston/Cambridge without it. However, when I returned, I discovered that my phone contract would not end for another year and a half, so I couldn’t switch without paying about $300. My art teacher also realized he could not get rid of his phone because of some technical complication. Anyway, my point is that it is so much easier to gain technology than it is to rid ourselves of it. Even the people who are store our data find it far more difficult to dispose of it.

Not only is the technology we purchase financially binding, it also transforms our dependency into handicaps. We lose the skills we fail to use. Physically, it’s complicated and time-consuming to dispose of properly. The Internet is ~forever~ and for anyone to see. People are still pretty cautious about the content they post and who can see it. For example, seniors in high school will change their social media names to pop culture references or even just random objects similar to their name, so college admissions cannot find their Internet presence on social sites. They change their name and accompany it with a meme-like poorly photoshopped cover photo or profile picture. Mine was Brita Waterfilter.

Although it’s usually done for the meme rather than actually trying to conceal our online presence, it’s still peculiar that people must go through certain lengths just to be hidden. I remember how whenever I would have an existential crisis in the 7th grade I would delete all my social media for a couple days, and the relief that would result from it. However, I knew that some things I posted could be pulled up with a simple Google search. The Internet never forgets about us and, in a sense, immortalizes us.


Robot Rights

During our discussion on Monday, we digressed on a long tangent about whether a self-driving car would save its own passenger or a larger group of people about to be impacted. Of course, this would be a decision made by a programmer, but the computer’s ability to think faster than humans would be in control of the situation if a car accident were to occur. Ideally, if everyone had self-driving cars, then car accidents would become obsolete. However, humans are dumb/impatient at being drivers as well as pedestrians (which became extremely obvious to me upon coming to Cambridge), so there is still potential for lethal collisions. That is a big decision and a lot of power in the hands of a programmer. If someone were to die, then who would be held responsible for the death?

This very question reminded me of the Takata airbag lawsuit that resulted in the deaths of over 11 people. Basically, the creators/testers of the airbags knew that the airbags were faulty and used harmful chemicals but fudged the numbers and lied on documents in order to get them approved and make more profit off of them. After multiple deaths were attributed to shrapnel and explosions emitting from the airbags, they accused the executives with egregious conduct. However, I remember listening to the radio when they said the executives were charged with murder, and I thought it was peculiar. Technically, they didn’t kill anyone with their own hands, but the middleman was a product of their design. Where do we draw the line between cause and correlation? Can a machine be held responsible for death?

In the future, I think we will begin to see advocates for robot rights (especially with our PC culture). I am not sure about the possibility of robots gaining self-awareness or consciousness because I’m not really sure what it means to be self-aware and conscious myself, but they are definitely making strides in their ability to adapt and learn on their own. Can we program AI to have feelings? Siri seems to be able to feel sadness/anger when you insult her. It is only a algorithmic verbal reaction, rather than visceral or deeply-rooted emotional one, but I’m not sure if that’s any different from some of my emotions/reactions.

On that same note, Vonnegut wrote a short story EPICAC about a machine who is programmed to gather data about one woman in order to write poetry that she would like. Although the programmer designed the machine to make the woman fall in love with him, the machine ends up falling in love with the woman instead. The ending is hilarious, which I recommend watching the 20 min. short film here. Anyways, this was written in 1950, but we’re still begging the question whether computers can make ~real~quality~meaningful~ art. In my opinion, I totally think they can. As long as it produces emotional reactions in its viewers, it is worthy of my approval as fine art. Whether the artist or machine intended for it to have a certain meaning is besides the point because art can have multiple interpretations. The whole point of art is to get you to think about something in one way or the other. In fact, I want to see a computer produced artwork in a major art museum before I die. It’s no different than Ai WeiWei coming up with an idea and hiring his crew of painters to actually execute it while he’s probably away pissing off the Chinese government or something.

Nonetheless, back in the early 2000s, I remember when I first discovered Cleverbot, my first encounter with AI. Frankly, it creeped the heck out of me, but I couldn’t shake my awe. I thought “there has to be someone on the other end responding to me. There’s no way this is a computer.” I would invite my friends over, and we would log onto my fat PC, Windows 95 landscape and everything, so we could converse with Cleverbot for at least an hour. We tried everything to catch her in a mistake. Occasionally, she would say something that didn’t make sense, and we would feel a sense of relief that this AI was not quite as advanced as us 5th graders. After we validated our superiority, we would log off, forget about it, and go play some Poptropica or something. We had no idea how powerful this new technology truly was.


Kidneys for Sale

Our discussion of cryptocurrency sparked my interest in the new fad. Blockchain technology and cryptocurrency seem so revolutionary to me, and I see a lot of potential in their futures. Due to the growing accessibility and integration of the Internet, everything we do has become so globalized. We are beginning to see the formation of a monopoly on electronic devices. As more and more companies come together to form business deals, such as Spotify and Hulu, I wonder if we are ever making real choices for ourselves or simply choosing between two parts of the same thing. Are we losing our individuality in our naïve attempt to have the best products?

Nevertheless, that is why I am drawn to anything that moves in the direction of decentralization or in the spirit of punk/DIY. Blockchain technology puts the power in everyone’s hands rather than a handful of exclusive individuals. Naturally, by storing all the same information across multiple computers, it is less prone to failure and loss of important documents. According to this extremely helpful article by BlockGeeks:

“Bitcoin was invented in 2008. Since that time, the Bitcoin blockchain has operated without significant disruption. (To date, any of problems associated with Bitcoin have been due to hacking or mismanagement. In other words, these problems come from bad intention and human error, not flaws in the underlying concepts.)”

In terms of cryptocurrency, this means there are no need for banks or central authority. Banks are sketchy because some are only required to withhold a certain amount of your money. The rest they are able to invest and spend without telling you. Generally, this system works well –but if a recession were to occur and everyone took their money out at the same time, then we would have problem. This happened during the Great Depression, and people were not sure if they could trust their bank accounts to secure their money anymore. Now, we have the FDIC, but they only have enough to cover 1% of all the deposits they claim to insure. That’s where cryptocurrency comes into play. It is secure, reliable, and most of all, it is actually yours. Although you cannot go to any store and purchase things with Bitcoin, I think we will begin to see a growing online economy in years to come.

However, what I am most curious about is the dark web. I still have a ton of research to do, but I wonder how encryption allows people to make furtive transactions through the web. It feels like broke college kid culture has made it common knowledge that kidneys sell for a couple hundred thousand dollars on the black market. I mean, you technically only need one kidney… Everyone talks about the black market, but not many actually know how it works. Most college kids purchase fake I.D.s online as well. I wonder, how do you not get caught? Even as I search these sites and terms, I worry that Harvard will monitor me and place my name on some sort of watchlist. If it is easy enough for kids to access these sites, then it must be cake for the FBI to crack down on them. Is no one monitoring all of these illegal transactions? I remember seeing Bodies: The Exhibition in Las Vegas, and my Biology teacher informed me that most of the bodies were purchased through the Chinese black market. All in the name of making a profit. Who’s getting paid anyways?

I brought up my desire to learn about the underground dark web to my friend to which he recommended The Onion Router, or Tor. I’m still skeptical to download the software onto my laptop, but I see a lot of potential in the ability to put all the power and control of privacy back in the hands of the users. The underground secret nature of the dark web lends itself to illegal products, but the stigma surrounding it overshadows what it could be. Maybe, I’m too optimistic and place too much faith in mankind to use such a powerful tool, but there’s simply so much left in this field to explore. I have a lot to learn, but I can tell I’m not going to forget about cryptocurrency or the dark web anytime soon.