Category Archives: Cyber ethics

Internet is young. We are shaping new rules. These texts offer thoughts on how to deal with this medium.

Freedom of press

A social media revolt occurred a number of weeks ago (and is ongoing), in which the Dutch and the Germans publically accused the Turkish dictator as well as their own government for not being allowed to call him a goatfucker. Since I joyfully get mixed up a good fight once in a while, I joined that argument, mainly by stating that it was not about civilized people defending free speech, but rather about westerners bullying Turks.

I’d like to carry this line of thought to punch mode now that the Dutch newspapers published an item on a far more severe threat to the freedom of Dutch speech, yet got ignored by all the free speech heroes of the past month.

This morning, it was announced that the editors-in-chief of the most prominent Dutch newspapers wrote a letter to the government in which they presented their analyses of a new law proposal. As a protection to freedom of press, the Dutch law grants journalists the right not to denounce their sources if questioned. Recently, however, the government has been accused of regularly listening in on Dutch journalists and locking them up, hoping to find out who their sources were. The government will reassess this freedom of press law in June.

The editors-in-chief draw two scary conclusions. First, the current law proposal would grant the AIVD (the Dutch version of the NSA) the legal right to trace sources of all journalists through their telecommunication systems. Second, the proposal creates confusion on the definition of ‘journalism’, and would put bloggers like myself into a grey area for the questioning bit. These laws would give the Dutch government the legal right to track down any informant without interference of a judge. Thus, people who provide sensitive information should start watching their backs. In other words: goodbye protection of the freedom of speech.

But is twitter booming? Do the comedians revolt? Is anyone else talking about it? Just a few people. If I search for ‘vrijheid van meningsuiting’ (‘freedom of speech’ in Dutch) on twitter, I find no one. Persvrijheid (‘freedom of press’) gives just a few hits.

Let’s be clear, here, I have relatively good trust in the Dutch government. I think they were more civilized 20 years ago, but we all were, so yes, they have my blessing to govern me. To give them the right to all of my future news sources, however, is a different story. Who is going to rule us next? Will they benefit from the potential law change? Maybe not, but to give an unknown future group that power is a bad idea.

I could wonder: who am I kidding? The state is already right on top of us ever since the technology is available. True, but they can still be sued for it, and it should stay that way.

Now: why is does this not cause a revolt as big as the Böhmermann vs Erdogan face-off? To be honest, I think it’s because of how the human mind works. The case is just too complex, too distant, too hard to grasp. There’s no easy black sheep. It’s not a fight on which you can place your bets. So person number one doesn’t care, and person number two doesn’t follow person number one, while person number three sees no opportunity to earn any money here, and turns the other way. Hence the case resides in obscurity.

But let’s keep up the spirit. I do believe the government will listen to these editors-in-chief. I do suspect adaptations in the plans. Still, the statement that was made would be far more powerfull if the people would join the debate. The self-proclaimed protestors for free speech are now losing their face. They sham they go against the current, yet in reality enter the main stage and scream what the crowd wants to hear.  Entertainment prevails while justice gets hidden in the noise.

 

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Everything that’s wrong with personal computers

Okayokayokayokayokay. Yes. I owe the fact that you’re reading this to the same personal computers I’m about to abolish. I’m sure there’s a great deal of good coming from them. And I mean PC’s, laptops and smartphones as well. But before we as society have completely disappeared inside our close companions, let’s take a little step back to look at the damaging part of computers and our relationships with them.

They’re flat (even the yoga-ones)
Some days ago, I flew over Paris at night, and for the first time in my life recognized a city by its lights, while flying above it. Then I thought that it seemed as though I was looking at google maps. Then I thought of how much this didn’t look like google maps at all. Very much. Real life is so incredibly more striking than the screen, even if you have to stretch your neck into a cramp to perceive it through a tiny airplane window. Suddenly seeing the Champs-Élysées with my own eyes reminded me of that.

They demystify
In real life, miracles are something you cherish, something exceptional, something that feeds the life inside you, something you breathe. Building a friendship for example. Computers give us access to an endless flow of cute cats, beautiful women, great inventions and unlikely basketball points. But they’re not special! You will never see someone on the street or even in a theatre dance as well as you saw them on youtube, or hear a better song. So we keep watching, turning the exceptional into the norm, and making the normal unattractive. Seemingly unattractive.

They hypnotize
Yes. I’m fairly sure that there’s actual hypnotization going on when we face a screen. Why else is it hard to stand up and walk away? Computers, with all their imagery, sounds and repetition hook us stronger than Coca Cola ever did. What’s more, I believe that working with several tabs or windows at once, actually fragments our minds. It creates the feeling of having a pile of tasks to attend to. That causes stress. Anxiety. It scatters your attention. As if you’re talking to a hundred people at once. O, wait, you are.

They make mistakes (and you get the blame)
Some say machines don’t make mistakes. Well, sloppy programs sure do (not that I can write them better). In the past months, I have spent at least a week on phone and e-mail to correct wrong transactions, fix technical issues and create new categories for my particular case. If more and more of our data get registered and uploaded, that means that more and more of them get mixed up in some administrative system, which bounces it on to the next. And as the gear wheels of those machines keep turning, they suck our identities in untill we’re completely stuck. And of course we’re not the ones to benefit from that, we just have to fix it. More than anything, it’s a problem for elderly people, who are already in deep water when it comes to the digital status quo.

They disempower
To give an example: some say social media give people the chance to bypass the traditional media which are controlled, edited and censored by an elite. It has been true for places where censorship was high. For a bigger part, however, social media follow the already established entities, who know perfectly well what to say and how to build their capital of followers. Indeed, the algorithms of social media have the weak feed the strong. A new capitalism of attention. The big ones casting shadows over the small who hope to be heard, but are silenced by the noise of their soulmates. Thus, they waste time in virtual life.

 

Ha! Writing this makes me sound old. Yet I always had my reservations (and attractions) to computers. It is clearer to me again, now, how important it is to take time off the screen. Watch the brightness of the sun. Smell the smog on the streets. Hurt my head on a low ceiling I didn’t know before. And luckily, that actually works. Joy cannot be injected through the eyes. It arrives when you are in motion, rushes through your veins when your heart pumps wildly. Spring is coming.

Here’s the thing

If you want to sound cool nowadays, or sell some random shit, try to make use of the fresh and fashionable word combo “here’s the thing”. Use it as many times as you want, particularly if you’re called John Oliver.

Not unlike other epidemic soundbites, “here’s the thing” is catchy and rhythmical and it has a symmetrical assonance to it. Besides, it fits to a few contemporary trends while at the same time adhering to important marketing principles. To give you an example: in storytelling, it serves as a rock upon which you break the wave of your self-created wordflow in order open a void that urgently needs filling with the introduction of … your product!

Now, let’s cut the crap and get to the essence straight away. In other words, here’s the thing “here’s the thing” represents, or: here’s the thing. It’s about importance. Deep and meaningful. Whatever follows “here’s the thing” makes all the previous redundant. And what does that matter? It’s all in the past. While your audience dwells in their tweet-sized attention spans, this thing here is all that counts.

And here’s the thing: “here’s the thing” can also be interpreted as a gift by the speaker to the listener. Here’s my thing for you. You may be grateful that I share this valuable piece of information with you. I have given your life meaning. Subliminally, I am now in your favour.

In a New Age way, all the previous events in your death-life continuum have led to this thing here that I present to you now. All your mental worries and physical struggles disappear. Just sit back and relax, and you may let go and be influenced. There’s only the thing here. And now.

Early adopters are using it in abundance, and it wouldn’t surprise me if “here’s the thing” will soon resound all around us. People wielding it will first employ it strictly to the things they find meaningful. Then, long after John Oliver has stopped using it, “here’s the thing I just picked my nose” will be a normal sentence to hear on the street. The soundbite’s popularity will wear off, and here’s the thing: there’ll be another thing. May I advise you to buy that thing?

Social media do not a prison make, nor avatars a cage

The demonization of social media is a trend on social media. Social technology causes isolation, leads to blind consumption and causes blood and explosions. People have coined terms like iDisorder and mobilegeddon, and some even blame global environmental issues on the blind indulgence in cyber illusions. We have witnessed a collective behavioural shift and are shouting that out to the world.

I was in my adolescence during the coming of mobile phone age. Some of my classmates had mobile phones, others did not. I personally was against it. Imagine. We had that option back then. Nonetheless, I remember having a conversation with one of my teachers, where I told him that I thought it would be easier to date girlfriends with a phone than without. You could just ask their number, send them a text and go out. The thought seemed to surprise him.

Of course, there aren’t many things more annoying than people checking their phone all the time when you’re having diner, or strangers who bump into you on the street because they are not looking (this happened to me). And if it’s yourself, yes, it’s exhausting to deal with having countless pages open twenty-four seven. But I believe that’s a phase. There are barriers to overcome, and yes, that needs effort. We are forced to learn to deal with this increasing pressure of information. We need to jointly establish proper codes of smartphone conduct. We need to master our new gift.

One field of this debate where I fundamentally disagree with the main stream is on the question: is digital contact less real than physical contact? Many suggest that it is. Consider this: whose face do you see when you look at someone’s face? Does the air blur your sight? Do your eyes change their shape? If you touch? What more is it, really, than a stream of electricity from brain to brain? People say social media distract us from reality, but physical appearances equally do. Don’t we like beautiful young women more than ugly old ones? Aren’t we more likely to believe deeper voices than higher ones? People wear masks in real life, which they sometimes release on the net. It might sometimes be easier to have real contact with people on the web, because distractions there have different shapes.

I perceive it almost as my duty as a writer to state that sometimes, a carefull selection of words in a text can be more physically stimulating than a kiss. What I want to say is that real contact is not dependent on physical circumstances, real contact is a joint choice. It’s about the attention you give.

The power of social media and smartphones is not that it provides us with illusions. The illusions were already there. The power of social technology is that it actually facilitates a type of getting to know each other that did not exist before. It enables us to be continuously in touch with a large number of real, existing friends. It allows us to keep building on lasting relationships all over the world. Today, that statement may not surprise you, but if you think about it, that truly is magical.

Programmed soul

I recently had a conversation with a webdesigner about The Grid. The Grid is a website builder that uses ‘Artificial Intelligence’ to design websites according to the demands of the user and makes it look attractive. It will launch soon, and I’m considering to try it out. My conversation partner told me he believed human minds will always be necessary for this kind of thing. I replied that I wasn’t sure. One of the most striking films I recently saw on this topic was Her. In it, a program and a human become friends. I don’t want to spoil too much, but at some point the AI composes a jolly song. It’s fiction of course, but the story is self-explanatory and makes it credible. I bet it’s not the first time you hear that Artificial Intelligence is rising and taking over our jobs or even our lives, but have you ever really believed it? I’m starting to. If you would have asked a person before the war if a computer would ever be able to beat a human in chess, the answer would have been “No!”. Today, computers beat all champions. You could argue that chess is limited to the board and the predictable movements of the pieces, and therefore easy to calculate. Then, you could say that thoughts and words are unlimited, and that their sounds and meanings are too subtle for a computer to get, let alone to create with it. My answer would be: maybe. It might depend on how you program the AI. Let me take writing as an example. I’m not a grandmaster, but I’ve been doing it for a while now. A big part of it is technical: you attract attention with a title, build a structure of intro, middle and end, and try to choose your words such that they mean something. Build in some contrasts, break some grammatical rules. I don’t think people would disagree that the technical part is easy to learn for Artificial Intelligence. It’s the lived aspect that is harder. The part where emotions come in. Where meaning comes in. Where the sounds of the words dance around in your head. Where senses are triggered. The rhythm. Knowing what works and what doesn’t. Re-reading. Disagreeing with yourself. Making impossible choices. Creating symbols and metaphors. And yet when the text is done, there was only so much that a writer could do: the rest is what the reader creates for herself. If google can learn to recognize voices, can’t there also be a recognition of emotions in the tone of the voice? It’s all sounds, no? If facial recognition is possible, aren’t facial expressions the next step? With the increasing sensorial finesse of AI based systems, it could well be a matter of time before AI can discern a good wine from a bad one. Or a good story from a bad one. Give it control over the story, and it might improve it. I think another crucial thing to program is hunger. The insaturable need to take up information. To learn. The program should have limits, which force it to create. Digest, get stuff out. And it should be able to grow, but with a limited speed. Those are probably the hardest things to program, yet they have been attained with bacteria. Peristalsis, perhaps? I’m not an expert. Finally, to increase its status as a creator, the AI should have a drive to be acknowledged. If nowadays you can measure much of your societal recognition by the amount of views and likes of your webpage, then a ‘like = good – no like = bad’ algorithm should do the trick. Of course, you could further improve it with video information of people reading the words. Add up the factors and computers could become better at creating art, marketing themselves and being loved than humans ever have been.

Organized Judgement

We live in a society where judgement is an institutionalized norm. Even though we read books that say we should leave judgement up to whichever divine entity we worship, we are totally okay with apps such as Tinder or cultural phenomena like Facebook.  We are thrilled, even, when watching programs such as X-factor, the Voice or So you think you can dance. They are programs where we are stimulated to judge. It feels rewarding.

Consider the job interview structure. It is a generally accepted fact that the choice if you’re in or out is made within the first few seconds after meeting. Still, we all look upon it as an adequate way to determine who is going to work and who is not. But if there are 100 working hours for two candidates, why don’t we divide them 50-50? Because one of them is better at promoting himself? We believe that by judging both, we make a wise selection. That’s also why we vote for politicians. The truth is: we are guessing in the dark. Judging just makes us feel in charge. But do we really need to?

In the Netherlands – a country that’s supposed to be developed and tolerant – the more pigment you have in your skin, the harder it is for you to get a good job. Darker people are more likely to be searched by the police and less likely to be accepted into classy bars or clubs. And yet we keep believing that our views help us separate the wheat from the chaff. What’s more, we want to be judged by others, equally blind, as the ‘good’ group. Why else do we dress up nicely, post duck-faced selfies online and correct our exteriors with surgery?

Even if a part of this behaviour has natural roots, these issues should be publically put into question. Whoever is hip today will be forgotten tomorrow. I wonder how aware people are how much we collectively praise judgement, yet at the same time carry the burden. Is that truly necessary? Could we change this in society? In ourselves? Would you?

Cheaper Sneakers

What does president Obama have in common with The Flight of the Conchords? I’ll spare you the impossible puzzling: you already read the answer. ‘Cheaper sneakers’. Check Obama’s Vox interview at 29 minutes 45, and our New Zealanders’ song at 1 minute 30. Now, before you go wild on the far-fetchedness of suggesting a liaison between these two fragments: I’m not trying to convince you that Obama is a fan, nor am I revealing that Bret and Jemaine are the true rulers of the planet.

Imagine you could label the soundbite ‘cheaper sneakers’ and trace it wherever it is spoken or heard, written or read and repeated or not. You would be able to see it move between videos, to people, to texts and vice versa.  You’d see it reproduce in brains and come out of new minds all the time, rippling ever onwards through society, back and forth between the digital world and the other one. Now and then it would probably even appear out of nowhere. I imagine that if you could follow it, you would see it travel through the noosphere in much the same way as bacteria or viruses travel through the biological world. If you could track down ‘cheaper sneakers’ and study it’s behaviour wherever it goes, you would probably call the fragment alive.

Why has this co-occurence triggered me? Why ‘cheaper sneakers’? Why not ‘the dance floor’ or ‘I have a dream job’? What makes this one so special? Well, whether it happens quickly or in slow motion, the song of The Flight of the Conchords perpetually bounces around in my head. The instant Barack mentioned the sneakers, it surfaced to my awareness. It sounds catchy, doesn’t it? Cheaper… sneakers… . It’s got groove. But most of the power of this catchy combination of words comes from what it symbolizes. A field of tension between the rich and the poor. It is the product of hard, unfair work done in Bangladesh, that’s comforting our feet. A spiritual friction. I knew I would write this article the instant I heard him mention it.

‘Cheaper sneakers’ is a dimension of thoughts encapsulated in an appealing sound and an image. The fact that Obama used it in this Vox interview indicates its enormous political power. Mark my words: you will hear it more often in the context of the equalizing economy. It is turning into a discursive weapon that can be used to silence political opponents.

Now: are politicians using these words or are the words using the politicians? If politicians depend on the composition of strong soundbites for their power, how much in control are they, really, of the course of mankind? What is that force inside these words that pushes them into our brains? If the words big people herd live double lives, how much influence do these people truly have?

Being able to measure the movements of soundbites through the digital and analogous worlds would, I don’t doubt it, provide us humans with a spectacularly humbling view upon ourselves. And who knows, with the increasing registration of absolutely everything, perhaps one day we will do such measurements. I think it would be fun to see.

Winter Ramblings

Over the years, I have accumulated some subconscious rules as a blogger. Customs, so to speak. Most of them for the benefit of clarity. One is to treat one topic at the time. Another is to write the article in pen first. There are phases when I have to do effort to find a topic to write about. This week, I have gathered so many impressions and frustrations, that I’d like to break my rules and fire an incoherent set of thoughts back onto the internet. My lunch consists of a piece of precut raw brocolli of which I take bites only when I manage to lift my fingers of the keyboard.

Charlie Hebdo and his clan got killed. What a surprise. We all saw that coming for years. Is this an attack on freedom of expression? No it is not. It is an attack on insults to a religion. An over the top reaction, I agree, but a reaction nonetheless. We in the West are lucky to be able to get killed while doing the thing we love. Thousands of journalists are killed world wide every year (just a passionate guess, I admit), For saying far less bad things.

Yesterday, the ECB announced that the deflation in Germany is worse than expected. Bad news, we would say, but the European stockmarkets went up. Huh? Because investors have learned by now, that when this happens, the ECB pumps in some new artificial money to prevent a crash. Therefore, they invested their own money, just to be able to fish more out of the market later. I sincerely hope the ECB takes a wiser decision this time.

My new favourite word is Wiggle. Wiggle is a great word. Not only is that because of the sound it makes when you say it and the smile you put your face in when you do, or the feeling you get when you wiggle your toes, but also because I discovered that wiggle is also an emotion, and I’m looking forward to write an article about that one day and I know this sentence is way to long but I don’t care.

O yes, I posted a new video with my friend Michael Kailis, yesterday. If you want to kill me for it, come visit me. By the way, I just noticed I have outsling. I hate rain. Don’t expect me to reread this, just going to look for a picture now, and post it right away, breaking another rule as I go. Deal with it.

Below a river

The Ebro Delta. We just had a delicious comida in a restaurant on poles in the sea. My aunt is driving her car, exited because with its far-stretching flatness, this landscape looks like her country of origin. With its palm trees, great egrets and temperatures of 30ºC and above, it looks a lot like Spain to me. Exactly as I want it to.

I consider taking a picture, but I don´t.  The inclination triggers a thought. Every person is a unique being with a unique path and unique experiences. I am now sitting here in the back of a car, perceiving a landscape in which people have grown up, raised their children and found their way back into the earth. By taking a picture, would I have overlooked them? Capturing this landscape would be a visual reference to my own passing through it, far less meaningful than theirs. Do I even have the right to claim this land and take it home?

And those who would see my picture stand even further from the place than I do. To them, It would likely just be another image that drifts by, along with an ever-increasing amount of others. It would instantly erase itself from their tiny memories and remain hidden in a dark corner of an enormous database of forgotten stuff. With what purpose?

Some people believe that humans are on earth to experience. Some say that these experiences are stored somewhere in a collective field of knowledge. The idea would explain our tendency to so carefully document the things we see and hear and think. You hear objections to that behaviour nowadays, but I don´t think it´s fundamentally bad.

And yet there is something tragic about it. However well we try to put the moments we experience in forms and works, there always are essential aspects that slip away. We can photograph, paint and write what we want, but the intangible besieges our existence, approaching us continuously from angles we instantly forget. On the plus side, perhaps this feeling helps us live with the fact that similarly to the pictures, words and ways we once so passionately held on to, one day we too will disappear.

Five reasons why this amazing post will absolutely blow your mind

1. It has numbers
The human mind loves numbers. Indeed scientists have shown that using numbers increases your credibility by 86%. It has to do with the sense of structure they convey. In these speedy chaotic times, providing your audience with bite-sized chunks of text is an act of compassion, and if you announce it in the title, that increases the likelihood of people clicking on it. The number five in this title has a mystical connotation, which goes well with the theme of this blog. It makes a person wonder.

2. It was written in English
English is one of the most popular languages on the globe. The fact that this text is written in that language, means that you can read it. It would have been possible that I could only speak Swahili. That would have drastically impeded your capacity to do something useful with this amazing piece of text, which would have dramatically decreased its awesomeness. Or I could have written it in a language I made up, but that would not have helped either. So here you are, ready to read point 3.

3. It has a joke in it
People love jokes and laughing regularly will increase your lifetime with 16%. Here it comes.

Why don’t Insects go to church? Because they’re in sects.

Did you laugh? I hope you did.

4. It’s informative
Though not all facts in the article may be entirely accurate, the underlying flow of ideas behaves according to the laws of some kind of logic. People may learn something new when reading it. Learning new things is a good training for the human intellect.

5. It saves the internet
People often list top-down global internet regulations as the top threat to internet freedom. They may be right that it is.

What I see a lot lately, is that titles such as the one of this post a spread better than lots of others. They are smart because they speak to people in a certain way. They persuade the mind to click. And the more something is clicked, the higher up it gets in the rankings.

Such titles are a result of long studies of our minds. Companies and individuals now know how to attract peoples attention with random bullshit. Humans will soon get bored by “will blow your mind”, and it will be replaced by some other, even smarter bait sentence, which will then spread again. This way, we humans flood the internet with contentless crap, making it harder and harder for everyone to find reliable information.

This pattern of mindless clicking should to be made explicit. By becoming aware of such tricks, we can release ourselves from its grip.