Sunday, October 09, 2016

Internet Space: A New Moral Geography

An excerpt from an article of the current America Magazine (October 17, 2016 Issue):

The internet enables our eyes to see around the world, but it does not extend the reach of our hands in the same way. Whereas physical space holds knowledge and action together, the internet separates them. The problem here is not disembodiment but the particular construction of moral space. Disembodiment is nothing new. Written text, phone calls, radio and television are all disembodied. Each communication medium constructs a particular form of presence and absence and mediates a certain type of encounter. In order to understand how the internet transforms moral geography we have to look at the details of how it works.

Technologists likes Jaron Lanier point to the importance of the internet’s underlying “packet switching” network architecture. This architecture was inspired in part by the Cold War-era need to build networks that could withstand nuclear attack. The standard networks of the time were hierarchical, like the first telephone systems. They routed data through central switchboards. Attack the switchboard and you disconnect all its connected nodes (e.g., radar sites and missile silos). This weak link could be targeted to disable an entire system. Packet switching addresses this weakness. In such a network, data does not require a fixed connection between two points. Instead, messages are broken into packets, and those packets are sent out into a web of routers that passes them on to other routers on multiple and varied paths to their final destination, with the final recipient reassembling them into the original message. If part of the network is compromised, the packets can be routed through the remaining sections.

What do missile silos have to do with our experience of the internet? This network architecture was designed to free data from the contingencies of geographical space. No particular pathway through the network is crucial; if one is blocked, finding another path is automatic. Once a packet has arrived, the particular route it took is unimportant, and indeed that information is generally discarded. This architecture creates a nonlocal space where the Silicon Valley mantra “information wants to be free” is a fundamental law. As a result, data comes to us from everywhere and our sight is extended far beyond the reach of our hands.

But the internet as we know it is built in many layers on top of this underlying spatial geometry. The search services, social media and apps we use employ this underlying spatial freedom to facilitate individual choice. This is a result of particular historical decisions. When internet companies were seeking a business model that could convert clicks into profits, they chose to offer “free” services paid for by advertising revenue. Thus began the monitoring of our preferences, messages and social circles in order to personalize the ads we are shown. Google tracks the results we choose so it can filter search results in the future—to better give us what we are searching for. This threatens to structure the information we receive according to our preferences and prejudices. All of this is symbolized well by the empty search engine box: what do you want?

As we receive more and more news through our social media feeds, our informal social circles become de facto editorial boards. In a group of about 20 mostly white young people at a recent lecture, all were familiar with an image of Omran Daqneesh, and about two-thirds had watched the video. Far fewer were familiar with Philando Castile, and only one had watched the video of his death. Both were featured prominently in traditional, edited media sites like newspapers and broadcast networks.

We spend time in internet space even when we are out in the world rather than sitting at a computer. The smartphone was no small revolution. Through mobile phone networks, the internet’s reach expanded into just about all spaces and its depth into the capillary times of our lives. Notifications chime and buzz, calling us to turn to this space and attend to social networks constructed by its logic of choice. As a result, the internet writes over the physical geography in which we as embodied persons ostensibly dwell. We are free to choose to be elsewhere by simply glancing at our phones—and we do much more than glance. The very same day that Philando Castile was killed this summer saw the release of Pokémon Go, the augmented reality sensation that literally overwrites physical reality with an engrossing world of intriguing monsters and engaging competition. Parks and public spaces are now filled with people walking about literally viewing the world through smartphone screens.

Read more

The Geography of Mercy

October 17, 2016 Issue

Vincent J. Miller

On the internet, we encounter suffering from afar. How do we respond?

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