Design Media Technology

Cmd + Ctrl: towards smarter searching and dumber devices

Let me echo Austin Kleon’s ode to the search box:

Maybe it’s not so much the command prompt I’m nostalgic for, but the days when the computer wouldn’t do anything without me — I had to explicitly tell the computer what I wanted to do, and if I didn’t tell it, it would just sit there, patiently, with a dumb look on its face.

I really miss how computers used to be “dumb” in this way. The primary computer in my life — my “smartphone” — is too smart. It used to constantly push things on me — push notifications — letting me know about all sorts of stuff it thought I wanted to know about, and it continued doing this until I had the good sense to turn them all off. It’s dumber now, and much better.

Besides text messages and Snapchat pictures of my new nephew, I don’t get notifications on my phone and haven’t for a long time. I can’t imagine how people with news or social media apps subject themselves to the onslaught of Fresh Hell in their pockets all day.

In Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, Cory Doctorow writes about the need to be protected from computers as they burrow further into our lives and bodies:

I want to be sure that it is designed to take orders from its user, and to hide nothing.

Take orders and hide nothing. Command and control. Pull rather than push. Make Computers Dumb Again.

Relatedly, at Mashable, “Stop reading what Facebook tells you to read” calls for consumers to break out of Facebook’s detention center walled garden and use a web browser to find things:

By choosing to be a reader of websites whose voices and ideas you’re fundamentally interested in and care about, you’re taking control. And by doing that, you’ll chip away at the incentive publishers have to create headlines and stories weaponized for the purpose of sharing on social media. You’ll be stripping away at the motivation for websites everywhere (including this one) to make dumb hollow mindgarbage. At the same time, you’ll increase the incentive for these websites to be (if nothing else) more consistent and less desperate for your attention.

See also: Just don’t look.

Here’s to smarter searching and clicking by everyone in 2018.


Libraries = Internet IRL but better

American Libraries magazine’s “Ten Reasons Libraries Are Still Better Than the Internet”  is some grade-A, top choice librarian bait. Excerpts:

Libraries are safer spaces. The internet brings people together, often in enjoyable and productive ways, such as over shared interests (pop culture blogs, fanfic sites) or common challenges (online support groups). But cyberbullying and trolling can leave people reluctant to engage with folks they disagree with or to share their ideas in the first place. Libraries are places where people can gather constructively and all are welcome.

Libraries respect history. Web pages are ephemeral, and link rot is a real problem. The content of library collections is much more stable. Printed materials are generally published on acid-free paper, which will not disintegrate. And librarians are leading the way to bring similar stability to the web through services like the Internet Archive and

Librarians do not track your reading or search history to sell you things.  Amazon’s book purchase recommendation feature is useful for learning about new books. But this usefulness comes at the expense of your privacy because your reading data is valuable business intelligence for Amazon. The same is true for your web searching history, which is why you often see ads for a product for weeks after searching for it just once. Librarians value and protect your privacy.

The last one is my personal favorite. Though modern library catalogs provide the option to record your checkout history, it is opt-in and the data it collects isn’t sold to anyone.

If I could add one more to the original list:

Libraries are local. Though most libraries are in a consortium or resource-sharing system of some kind and have a lot of the same materials, no one library is the same, and each is the product of its community. I marvel at how true this is when someone asks in a listserv about how other libraries do something and each response is something different.

Books Review

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman

Finished Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman in a single evening, not just because it’s a short and fast read, but because I couldn’t stop reading. I heard Lindy for the first time on This American Life: first her story on confronting her troll and then about “coming out” as fat. As in those stories, in Shrill she’s hilarious, raw, cutting—a self-described “unflappable human vuvuzela” who retains her Jezebel-esque writing style.

Especially memorable was the chapter on her crusade against rape-joke culture within the comedy world. Her endurance of the vicious, demoralizing, and nonstop harassment she receives online is admirable, if also sad and enraging. It’s easy as a non-famous white man to remain oblivious to the vitriol women are subjected to, expected to endure, and refrain from complaining about (“Because that’s how the Internet works”) lest they be viewed as humorless shrews. But the latest fracas with Ghostbusters and Leslie Jones on Twitter is a timely example of just how real and really frustrating the struggle is for women who have the gall to simply exist on the internet.


Data Dumped: On The Freedom Of Forgetting

Do we have the right to forget the past, and to be forgotten?

That’s the key question in this article from The Guardian by Kate Connolly, which part of a larger series on internet privacy. Connolly talks with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance at Oxford Internet Institute, who describes himself as the “midwife” of the idea that people have the legal, moral, and technological right to be forgotten, especially as it relates to the internet’s memory.

In order to make decisions about the present and the future, Mayer-Schönberger claims, our brain necessarily forgets things, which allows us to think in the present:

Our brains reconstruct the past based on our present values. Take the diary you wrote 15 years ago, and you see how your values have changed. There is a cognitive dissonance between now and then. The brain reconstructs the memory and deletes certain things. It is how we construct ourselves as human beings, rather than flagellating ourselves about things we’ve done.

But digital memories will only remind us of the failures of our past, so that we have no ability to forget or reconstruct our past. Knowledge is based on forgetting. If we want to abstract things we need to forget the details to be able to see the forest and not the trees. If you have digital memories, you can only see the trees.

One of his ideas to combat the negative effects of the permanence of data is to implement an “expiration date” for all data — akin to the “Use By” date on perishable food items — so that it can be deleted once it has served its primary purpose. “Otherwise companies and governments will hold on to it for ever,” he claims.

A counter-argument for this right-to-be-forgotten strategy is that it could be impossible to implement due to the many back-ups that are made of the same data; if the data exists somewhere, then you’re technically not forgotten. But Mayer-Schönberger pushes back on this, saying even if Google has a back-up somewhere, if you search for the data and “99% of the population don’t have access to it you have effectively been deleted.”

What’s unclear about his “expiration date” idea is whether it would include a self-destructing mechanism embedded within the data, like how e-books rented from libraries disappear after a predetermined time period, or whether the data’s user could choose to ignore its “Delete By” date. If the data holders are not legally or technologically compelled or obligated in some way to delete the data permanently after an agreed upon time, then this “right to be forgotten” becomes a lot weaker.

As an aspiring archivist, tech enthusiast, and history buff, I can see where something like this could be detrimental to historians, information managers, and culture heritage caretakers. One of the Internet’s strengths is its ability to hold a vast amount of easily transmittable information, much more than any era before ours could, so to effectively neuter this ability would hinder present and future historians and archivists in their quest to accurately document the past. A historian studying late-1700s American history has only select diaries, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera of deteriorating quality from which to cull contextual information and interpret that time period for modern audiences. Researchers studying the present day, however, have millions of gigabytes of data available to them on the Internet – way too much information for even the Internet Archive or Library of Congress to adequately archive, let alone make sense of.

But as an individual, having the ability to regain a modicum of control over one’s own data is very appealing. Anyone who has ever posted a photo on Facebook they later regretted, or sent an email they wish they hadn’t, or wrote an inflammatory blog post years ago could see great value in data that can be, if not irreparably extirpated, then at least banished from digital civilization. This may lead to a less-complete record of our existence, but given how much more data we’re producing overall today than ever before we will not lack for records anytime soon.

We should all, I believe, have the right to the digital equivalent of burning a letter we don’t want living on in perpetuity, even though this idea runs counter to the impulses of our over-sharing and hyper-connected world. It is also anathema in archives: just think of all the information in that letter we’ve lost forever! I hear you, imaginary archivist, but, to return to Mayer-Schönberger’s analogy, even if a forest loses a tree — from natural death or manmade causes — it will still be a forest. And as Theodore Roosevelt, a great man of nature and of letters, said, “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mysteries, its melancholy and its charms.”

The Internet, like a forest, should allow for mystery. Otherwise, where’s the fun in the searching?