World Wide Web

Are you being modified by the Web?

The Modify App

Somewhere near Reading, England, there's a young girl walking around with the idea in her head that something called 'a modify' exits. She thinks 'a modify' is a software App that can be used to stop virus attacks on computers.

This misunderstanding derives from hearing her teacher telling the class that viruses can modify a computer's operating system. At some point, whilst the teacher was attempting to enlighten his class, we can only suppose the girl's attention wandered off somewhere - never to return, perhaps, even now, she's busy scanning the App Store in search of the elusive Modify.

And why not? They say that penetrative insights may arise from misunderstanding, perhaps our young friend is on to something but maybe she's looking in the wrong place. Perhaps the Modify App is actually the Internet itself, for there are serious concerns that the Internet is having a transformative effect on human cognition.

Cognition and Reality

Cognition covers host of mental processes that handle information processing. The effectiveness with which we process data from the environment determines the people we are as we interact with that constantly changing environment. Put more simply, as things change, we change, whether we know it or not. In a sense we become modified by our environment.

A fact of life, one for long resisted by the scientific community, is that objectivity is impossible. When quantum physicists claim to capture an illusive neutrino they will not be able to show you the little blighter, only the product of its interaction with other particles. Then they will write up the details on a very large blackboard, to impress the people who award Nobel Prizes. The reason the physicist resorts to a blackboard full of equations is because it is the only place his assertions can be kept cosy and safe from people who demand to see the neutrino.

Shallow Reading?

In 2008, technology writer Nicholas G. Carr wrote an essay which was highly critical of the Internet's effect on cognition. Specifically, he focused on his own loss of concentration and reflection while reading. He claimed that his increasing use of the Internet to skim and scan text had altered his reading behaviour.

Carr was unable to point to any neurological and psychological studies to back up his suspicion that his own neural circuitry was being altered by, what he calls, shallow reading on the Internet.

Carr asked the question Is Google Making Us Stupid and the answer he arrived at is it might be since there are suggestions the plasticity of the brain lends itself to the influence of intellectual technologies, i.e. those that are supposed to extend our intellectual capacity like computers.

The medium is the message

“For the “content” of a medium is like a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watch-dog of the mind”

The medium is more important than the message because it may change us more than any message it conveys.

The quote above is from Marshall McLuhan who set out his ideas on how changing technology changed society in his 1964 work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

In Understanding Media, McLuhan describes the "content" of a medium as a juicy piece of meat distracting the watchdog of the mind. People tend to focus on the obvious, the content, it provides us with valuable information but in the process we largely miss the changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, over time.

McLuhan says:

"As society's values, norms and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realize the social implications of the medium. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions that we are not aware of."

He is saying that it is only when the changes introduced by different technologies become profound, embedded, that we become aware of their implications, i.e. after our behaviour has been modified by them.

The Interesting Question

How do you feel about being modified by an App?


The Dark Side Luke

Beyond the Internet, that Google thinks it owns, lays a deeper layer, a hidden web, containing supermarkets for illegal trading. Here criminals trade firearms, drug-making paraphernalia, hacking kits, compromised data and child porn', as well as, forged passports, stolen credit card details, and hardcore drugs. Some of the sites are nothing more than a hidden club for geeks and the hacking community; groups like LulzSec and Anonymous lurk on the Dark Side of the web.

The websites have deliberately obscure addresses and cannot be found by accident, and they are not indexed by any search engines. In order to access them a user must download special Tor software - and when they access the sites, the technology means that they do so anonymously; the software disguises the computer's IP address.


Social online Networking...

is it a mediocre digital nightmare? Or is it something more special, is it about community and collaboration, is it about taking power from the few and distributing it a bit more widely, people informing and helping one another and "changing the way the world changes" (Grossman, Time, 2006).


Nice idea but that moments gone..


Social Networking, has become, in recent years a key feature of Web use. Social networking is what happens when people that don't have any friends create a technology that allows citizens to go 'virtual' into a place where people who don't have friends make some and so-called celebrities stay in touch with the fragility of their own sad existence and people die without consequence and yet, occasionally, the technology appears to become a positive force... e.g., the elections in Iran or the scandal of Trafigura and the collusion of our justice system. Those bright people who created the The Web imagined social networking but not how business would take control of the it.


Enter the nutters...


Unfortunately, whatever the Web was supposed to be, it's not. The bit the marketing men and big business have not taken control of is now in the hands of the nutters; every fruitcake with a computer is out there blogging, making virtual friends, telling the world what they had for breakfast, living a 'second life', playing war games and generally losing themselves...

it's all just the modern day equivalent of going to Butlins for a holiday, with the added attaction of hackers, spyware, adware, and domain hijackers.


Who owns the Internet


The Internet does not belong to Google, eBay, and Amazon although you could be forgiven for thinking it was. All the wires, cables, and routers that enable the movement of information around the globe instantly are owned by governments and large Telcos. This global infrastructure grew from US efforts to build a post nuclear attack means of communication in the early 1960s.

The demands of the military drove network developments, like 'packet switching', that made fast and reliable communication between phyically remote computers possible. The research behind the cold war mania produced ARPANET, the initial core of today's Internet. From the late 60s onward, developments in global networking was the product of a collaborative international research effort.

And it's worth noting that for all those global connections copper wire was used and still is, currently only a limited amount of connectivity uses fibre optic, and satellites are rarely used - too expensive.


The Net will not be the saviour of our world

However, don't get too carried away.... In 2009 when young Iranians took to the streets to voice their dissent, they also Tweeted the rest of the world. Media commentators got carried away, talking about a new age of revolution sweeping Iran. The technology was truly remarkable, giving the down trodden masses a voice, from this change would surely come.

Change did not come from the Twitter revolution in Iran. Since the government of Mr Imadinnerjacket were also able to use the technology, in fact, they employed a army of tweeters to post positive messages about the regime. They used the technology to track down and silence dissenting voices. They discovered that most of those dissenting voices were not marching through the streets in Iran, they were lounging into their university rooms across Europe













World Wide Web




As we may think

From his essay "As We May Think" (1945), Vannevar Bush, told us about his idea for the memex "a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility"

As We May Think predicted many kinds of technology invented after its publication. However, he seems to have underestimated the value of the Memex for science and the storage of knowledge for the layman.

He accurately predicted the use of stored knowledge in laboratory research, business accounting, and law. Yet he neglected to see that it could affect the greatest number of people through entertainment and recreation, as in television, gaming, product information, and event/travel planning, banking and so forth. Bush never considered the power that might be unleashed by 100 million memexes all joined together.

Bush's project was about storage and retrieval, what later became known as information management. In his essay, Bush has much to say about users following data trails but his thinking was bounded by the technology of the time. The problem of following the trail was later solved by the use of hypertext.


Early Internet Use

Before the first browsers came on the scene there were no web pages as we know them today but there were virtual communities, forums of people using dial-up bulletin board systems (BBS). One of first was The Well (1985) inspired by the spirit of counter culture, free access and free expression, collaboration and sharing. In a sense The Well established the 'open source' philosophy that still prevails on the Web today, despite Bill Gates's efforts to profit from the click of every mouse button.

The Refereers

The academic community, who largely had everything to themselves before the early 90s, did not want their networks opened up to commercial use. This was not surprising when you consider that the academic community saw itself as the referee, the arbiter of all knowledge - the growing potential of the Web would challenge this world view.

The Internet begat the Web

All the thinking and cleverness that went into the planning of that project resulted in something remarkable, way beyond the innovators' intentions. Initially, the net belonged to the military and science community, then business was brought in to finance the expansion of the project; for a very long time Joe Public was kept away. Home computers connected to the net just didn't exist, neither did the World Wide Web - that is, the ability to view web pages using a browser.

Tim Berners-Lee

Ultimately, home computers and dial up connectivity arrived. Physicist Tim Berners-Lee, invented HTTP, Hypertext Transfer Protocal (1989). Berners-Lee was also responsible for one of the first web browsers. In addition, Berners-Lee, among many others, was finding practical applications for hypertext, as a means of organising and navigating to and through large amounts of information. Berners-Lee's personal project was and is about sharing useful information.