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Final thoughts

December 4th, 2016

This past week, we discussed the internet in light of the recent political election as well as internet in developing countries. I found the first topic to be incredibly interesting and hope to focus on the role of automated accounts in this entry. After reading the articles, I found one statistic particularly surprising: “more than a third of pro-Trump tweets and nearly a fifth of pro-Clinton tweets between the first and second debates came from automated accounts, which produced more than 1 million tweets in total.”

These automated accounts, usually able to respond immediately after a tweet is published, play a huge role in shaping the direction of the following discussions. As users usually see the tweet itself as well as the first few responses, what those responses say would heavily influence the conversation. An interesting question would be if these automated twitter accounts were created by Trump or Clinton campaign teams or if the accounts were created by their avid supporters. In both cases, how would we be able to regulate these automated responses, if they should be regulated at all? In my opinion, the role of a regulator should be attributed to the Federal Elections Commission as opposed to Twitter or social media platforms themselves. In light of the increased role social media plays in elections, the FEC should consider the role of this new platform and the rules that should be in place to prevent misuse of these platforms. Since the power of social media has only become the focus of public attention in the past two elections, it would be interesting to see when FEC will focus on this issue and how they will regulate the many ways that social media could be used.

To conclude this blog entry, I would like to thank Porf. Waldo and Dean Smith for a wonderful, wonderful seminar. After discussions in class, I have been more sensitive to news about the internet and misconceptions that I have held about how the internet works. I could not have wished for better professors for one of my first classes at Harvard. 🙂

Who’s writing this?

November 27th, 2016

I apologize for the wait! Here are some thoughts spinning off of the discussions of online communities and identity.

An interesting thing I noticed while reading “The Online Disinhibition Effect” was the name of the journal that the article was published in: CyberPsychology & Behavior. Seeing “cyber” and “psychology” meshed into one word was strangely thought-provoking. The oneness of the words seems to suggest the merging of two fields when psychology and behavior must be examined in context of the Internet. That is, the term implies that a different set of psychological norms must be applied when examining people’s behaviors in a virtual platform.

Interestingly enough, a search on the term cyberpsychology brings up many articles relating to depression, FOMO, internet addiction, and compulsive internet usage. It appears as though the usage of the Internet, and social media platforms in particular, is recognized as being harmful to one’s mental well-being. However, even when these negative associations are so well established in academia, people continue to grow and expand their social media usage. In my opinion, this phenomenon could be explained by looking at how Internet usage influences people’s emotions in the short-term vs. in the long-term.

Speaking from personal experience, I find that much of what I participate in online is driven by a desire to gain access to information that are traditionally private. That is, the publication of private information on a public platform satisfies my desire to “look into” others’ behaviors in a private domain. Immediately after reading status updates or pictures, I feel like I have “gained” something – knowledge about how others spend their time or perhaps a sense of inclusion. I can easily see how the short-term fulfillments can become so addicting, mostly driven by our desire to blur the lines between what’s private and what’s public.

In the long-term, however, repeated themes in social media posts lead to a desire to not only be on the receiving end of information, but also to be the one posting and sharing information. This, I believe, is what drives the depression, FOMO, or addiction cited in many articles. It is precisely because we see so much of something, that we begin to feel like we have to jump into the conversation by reciprocating something of our own. And when we are unable to reproduce pictures or posts that adhere to what we see, we begin to feel different or out of place. The internet, I find, magnifies all the tiny details because as Suler touches on in his article, the asynchronicity of communicating online allows us to examine the fine prints of others’ lives in comparison to our own.

Internet Governance

November 14th, 2016

Big thanks to Prof. Waldo and Dean Smith for bringing in Dr. Bradner in as a guest speaker during our past meeting. I thoroughly enjoyed his talk and the humor in his PPT.

As mentioned by Dr. Bradner during his talk, the internet remains as one of the few things that is not governed at an international level. This current lack of governance, however, does not suggest that there is a general consensus on how internet should be governed. Instead, much of the decisions are differentiated at the level of individual countries. For example, while the States have minimal rules governing the internet (FCC rules), China has built a “Great Wall” around internet access and usage.

In my opinion, I do not believe this lack of governance is sustainable. There is obvious tension bubbling underneath the surface, particularly with increased international pressure on countries like China that limit access to certain parts of the internet for its citizens. Although this tension is now contained within reasonable scope (no active intervention yet!), it could easily culminate into something greater should “catalysts” be introduced. This catalyst could take many forms. For example, if a specific incidence involving internet governance draws empathy or attention from an international audience, it could be easily sensationalized through media.

Interestingly enough, despite the restrictions that China places on the internet, Dr. Bradner mentions the incredibly vibrant internet community within the country. Although I did not ask what he meant by a “vibrant internet community,” I identify with what he is referring to. Although the media and the general public may imagine Chinese citizens as people suffering from suppression or a lack of access to information, I never felt like I “lacked” access to anything. Although I can’t access YouTube, Google, Instagram, or Facebook, I have access to many outlets like Tudou, Baidu, Weibo, and WeChat. The restricted sites are such small parts of the regular routine in China that a lack of access to those resources only result in small inconveniences, if any. But as China is now a location of tourism and work for many foreigners, the issues are evolving into a larger international concern.

Digital Citizenship

November 4th, 2016

The discussion at last meeting centered around the intersection of technology and governance. It was very interesting to examine positions of authority as nontechnical people attempting to address technical challenges. Guest speaker David Eaves specifically mentioned a change in the expectations of IT departments that occurred at the local level about ten years ago. According to Eaves, initially, IT departments were generally in charge of tackling technological challenges relating to operations of the city. For example, their roles may have entailed making sure that everyone has electronic access to documents or troubleshooting specific computer or access problems. However, as local governments began to conduct interesting studies with data, other cities attempted to emulate the type of technological progressions that took place. Unfortunately, as the IT department was trained to be “traditional” problem-solvers, they generally lacked appropriate skills to conduct innovative research and restructuring of data collection methods.

The problem described here, in my opinion, is something that needs to examined from the bottom-up approach rather than top-down. Although state governments are likely to have the means and man-power to collect data in an efficient and non-repetitive manner, local governments, which are arguably the institutions closest to citizens, may not have enough human resources to develop similarly eloquent or efficient methods. As a result, although everything may seem to move efficiently from the perspective of the upper levels of government, the “ground work” data collection, where the basis for upper level analysis may come from, could be implemented poorly or in a manner that is less than ideal. This in turn, is the most direct impression that citizens have of government’s efficiency, resulting in a negative user experience and government representation.

Something else that stuck out to me was the problem surrounding allocation of resources. That is, the problem of if someone had to choose between using resources towards developing a great software or marketing the product itself, they would choose the latter.  The decision, again, appears to boil down to relating technical concepts to a nontechnical audience. This reminded me of a talk I attended given by Steven Chu, the former Secretary of Energy, where he described communicating the science behind climate change and climate change policies to various politicians. If only there was a lower barrier towards understanding all the technical knowledge behind computer science or science in general, then the policy development process itself could become much more streamlined and efficient….

Oh Facebook.

October 29th, 2016

A couple weeks ago I attended a talk given by a Quora data scientist. He described the ways in which the website would generate suggested content that a user might be interested in. For instance, if user A and user B both like books and poems but dislike movies and music, and Quora knows that user A dislikes videos, it is then less likely to suggest videos to user B. This algorithm seemed incredibly efficient at the time. After all, wouldn’t our feeds be so much nicer if everything was tailored to our interests? However, after our last meeting, I realized that this process skews us towards a certain direction and accelerates our path in that direction. Bringing this in context of politics, if someone starts as a moderate leaning left, as he is exposed more and more to recommended articles or information arguing in favor of liberal platforms, he may become more and more liberal, therefore inducing more suggested content on the left side and creating a snowball effect in the long run. While this may not necessarily be the intent of websites like Quora or Facebook in showing the user similar articles, it is nonetheless a byproduct of the continual domino effect of such automated suggestions.

However, something that troubled me more than suggested content placed by Facebook was its research on the “I Voted” button. As a user of Facebook, I would expect my social media experience to be the same as any other user of the platform. That is, Facebook usage inherently implies to me an assumption of equality across the user experience. I would have access to the same features as John Smith, and I could interact with my friends on Facebook the same ways that John Smith can interact with his. However, the research on the “I Voted” button took away this equality. While some people could see if their friends had voted or have access to a different phrased version of the button, others, specifically those in the control group, had no access or awareness of those features. As this was done for the purpose of data collection for Facebook, it makes me uncomfortable that I could be denied certain parts of the social media experience in order to prove a statistic.

This ties in nicely with another experiment mentioned in the articles where Facebook randomly altered the emotional content for some 700,000 users. Here, it is even more clear that these research experiments disrupt the equality of the user experience. Furthermore, this shows how much control Facebook has over its users, something that perhaps comes as a surprise to users who often assume that they are the more powerful party in the relationship.

The Singularity

October 22nd, 2016

The discussion on singularity this past meeting seemed to draw nice parallels with parts of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. In the novel, although scientist Victor Frankenstein set out to push the boundaries of existing techniques to create something that could be viewed as beneficial to the human race (making revival possible), his creation strayed from this set purpose and instead took the form of something hideous and unexpected. Although a fictional work, the novel conveys a message and in some sense, a warning. Invention, by nature, constitute exploration into certain unknowns. This process of seeking to create or to discover thus includes elements of ambiguity and uncertainty. Specifically because of these elements, there is considerable risk involved in pursuing areas without a clear vision of where the “upper bound” or limitations lie. The concept of singularity is indeed valid, and upon some reflection, I think it is possible for the process to happen in a “sudden” moment.

One could easily find discoveries or products that came from accidental moments in the lab. For example, Wilson Greatbatch, inventor of the pacemaker, did not set out to create a relatively small device that could be used to regulate the pulse of a human heart. Instead, he was working on a heart-rhythm recorder. Due to a mistake, he assembled the recorder using a different resistor than what he intended. As a result, the device took on a much different nature, producing electric pulses rather than recording rhythms. Although this instance and many other similar stories (discovery of x-ray) present favorable representations of the results of accidents in labs, one could sense the magnitude of impacts of these inventions. By extension, if similar “mistakes” are overlooked in the process of building smarter and smarter computers, one could envision a point at which the process becomes sudden and no longer reversible.

One point that especially stuck out to me was the concept of “natural selection.” The concept of computers reproducing to produce a better final product seems nearly unfathomable. As inventors, humans are so used to be in the position of authority to decide the specific components and functions that computers would be capable of. To think of computers as self-directing entities able to select desirable traits based on their own discretions imply a certain autonomy that, for me, is nearly uncomfortable to imagine.

Internet of Things

October 5th, 2016

The discussion at our last meeting reminded me of UniKey, a company that has previously been featured on Shark Tank. UniKey technology allows users to store “keys” on their cell phones, given that appropriate UniKey locking system is already stored inside the lock, so they could unlock the house by simply being in proximity to the lock. In addition, users could send temporary keys to third parties that would expire after a set amount of hours. The purpose of this feature is to restrict the amount of time cleaners and friends would have access to the house.

Interestingly enough, all five sharks placed offers on the table, a scenario rarely seen on the reality TV show. In retrospect, the amount of confidence the sharks had in the product strikes me as a bit unsettling. By offering to invest in the company, the sharks must have believed in the potential of UniKey to become a replacement for traditional keys. It appears as though each necessary steps and tasks in our lives are being dissected and broken down into simpler parts that could be driven by the internet of things rather than human power. Evidently, this trend is clear enough that the sharks, supposedly keen investors, have taken it into consideration. However, is this the direction that we, as a society, are headed in?

To me, this raises the question of who, exactly, are able to take advantage of and participate in the convenience provided by the internet of things. For example, for the UniKey system to work, users must purchase a special lock with appropriate compatibility and must possess a smart phone with access to the UniKey app. Each of these requirements place financial restrictions on who are able to incorporate UniKey into their day to day activities. That is, the users of this technology must weigh the convenience of unlocking doors without a physical lock over the price that they have to pay to install the system. This constraint prevents the UniKey from becoming a common household item accessible to people from different socio-economic backgrounds. That is, the great conveniences provided by the internet of things are often catered to a specific audience, a body with both capital and sufficient knowledge about how these systems work. Given this limitation, is it possible for the internet of things to fully take over the traditional modes of how tasks are completed? Perhaps this may be the case for those who are able to afford the technology, but for those who don’t, all the benefits provided by the internet of things may be out of touch, as least for the immediate future.

Internet and the Economy

October 1st, 2016

An interesting point from last class’s discussion centered around transactions and payment forms that have been made possible by the internet. As my classmates identified the influence that these forms of technology have on their everyday lives, I have noticed that the usage and infusion of these platforms are even more noticeable and engrained in the Chinese society. I want to focus my discussion on two particular giants in these areas: Taobao and WeChat Pay.

Taobao: Taobao was created in 2003 as a website similar to Amazon where consumers can shop from the ease of their homes. The website, however, has evolved beyond its scope as a shopping medium into a favorite cultural pastime. The website itself contains features like “community conversations” where buyers and sellers alike can post blogs to advertise their products or to initiate general conversation. Users of the website refer to each other as “qin,” a term that translates to “sweetheart.” In fact, the internet term “duo shou” evolved from the usage of taobao, referring to the need to chop one’s hands off in order to stop clicking purchase on the website. As a result, many stores such as the Chinese equivalent of Forever 21 have started operating online Taobao stores in hopes of attracting greater consumer attention.

WeChat Pay: Wechat is a Chinese social media platform similar to Facebook and Twitter. Although it’s predominantly used for communicating with friends and sharing posts on timelines, a growing percentage of users have picked up the WeChat Pay feature as a way to send money to friends or to complete transactions in stores and restaurants. For example, it is a tradition during the Lunar New Year for family members to exchange red packets containing money. As opposed to physically preparing cash and red envelopes, a percentage of the younger generation have started to use the WeChat Pay feature to send virtual red packets to friends and family. The app also allows for users to dictate how many people are eligible to claim a part of the money and can randomize the amount each user receives.

This summer while I was in China, I found it nearly impossible to fully integrate into my friend circle if I wasn’t familiar with Taobao or WeChat Pay. These two platforms, the epitome of commercialization of the internet, have asserted themselves as an integral part of comfortable living in China. It’s not to say that these are necessities for every single person, but it gets quite uncomfortable when you’re the only person still pulling out cash when everyone else is busy scanning barcodes in a restaurant line.

Conclusions to History

September 22nd, 2016

It’s strange to think that we have, as a group, successfully covered the history of internet in three weeks. Well, to be exact, a condensed overview of the history. While I can’t claim that I understand everything in the readings perfectly, I’ve certainly come a long way from when I first walked into the class, having never considered the internet as a product from the past. In fact, describing the internet as a product brings everything more into perspective for me, as I can consider it with respect to technological products of current day.

In my life time, I have seen the iPhone evolve from the first generation to the seventh; I have seen its advertisements cataloguing the types of changes made; I have watched the demonstrations put on before new releases; I have seen video reviews made by consumers of the product. The internet, in a sense, went through the same phases, but in a slightly less straightforward and commercialized manner. Rather than having clearly labeled periods where each new “edition” was strictly highlighted as distinct from the previous, the internet evolved much more gradually. From readings, it appeared that the changes made to the systems were in fact not driven by the pressure to create new additions within a set time frame, but motivated simply by the desire to improve upon the user experience. At the same time, the internet, at least during its initial stage, was less about exposing its usability to those outside of the technology circle. As opposed to Apple which made a conscious effort to break down complex technical jargons into terms understandable to its consumers, the internet had a much different audience, one that had more experience with the product itself. In this sense, the earlier internet community was a bit more “exclusive,” as it really wasn’t designed with the entire population in mind. Similarly, the releases and demonstrations were less about garnering day-to-day users as they were towards proving that the internet actually works! Unlike Apple, which already has a strong brand name built, the internet in its earlier stages had to prove itself and its feasibility. In my opinion, the internet had a greater “barrier” as no similar products have really existed before.

I’m not sure if the workers of the internet ever foresaw the incredible influence it would have on our present day, whether from a social or economic standpoint, but it would be interesting to delve into these different sides in the upcoming weeks and to examine how they have evolved with respect to the evolution of the internet.

A Collection of Thoughts

September 15th, 2016

I really enjoy this exercise of writing a blog after each meeting. By creating a space dedicated to the seminar itself, I am able to reflect on the materials and pick through new information to identify topics that really resonate with me. Before coming to Harvard, I conducted computational chemistry research at a local university. But during the two years, I only scratched the surface of the “nuts and bolts” of the why’s and how’s of computational work. In a sense, I’ve always been more focused on the present and future of computers and the internet rather than the history and progression from times of the past. However, after the first seminar meeting, I found a strong sense of urgency in understanding how the past and the present relate to each other. After all, the present that we are in right now will become that past forty or fifty years down the road.

One of the most entertaining parts of the reading was the conversation between PARRY and The Doctor, which branched out in multiple directions before ending with the rather hilarious labeling of The Doctor as a nag. The interaction between the two conversational programs, however, resembled the interaction one would have with Siri in present times. Although Siri appears to be less argumentative in comparison, it still possesses some of the qualities and design of PARRY and The Doctor. For example, it tends to imitate a real life conversation by observing common etiquette rules such as using greetings and exclamations. However, Siri is capable of more complex tasks such as using Automatic Speech Recognition and carrying out actions based on users’ commands. It would be extremely interesting to see a conversation between PARRY and SIRI, which would be symbolic, in a way, of a meeting and confrontation between products of different generations.

Another interesting discussion was focused on the use of the @ symbol in email communications. As the line “If you always wanted to know who put the ‘at’ sign in your Email addresses, then When Wizards Stay Up Late is the book for you” was printed at the top of the cover page of the book, I have been careful to not miss the explanation while going through and catching up in the readings. The end result was a bit more anticlimactic than I expected, with Tomlinson simply picking a punctuation he wanted without realizing what he had done would leave a continuing legacy. However, the ensuing debate appeared more interesting, with different sides questioning what should go on the sides of the “@” sign and whether the sign was appropriate at all. To me, this revealed how much thought was given to a convention that is often taken for granted today and reinforced how the little details we see on our screen may have rich histories behind them.

Excited for next class and all the surprises that will come along the way!