Post Over Reading for 4-15

Asking “what is private?” at first seems a simple question, but quickly becomes complex as we see privacy in practice. Helen Nissenbaum explores what is private and what is not, and how information technology can threaten this, in the first two parts of her book, Privacy in Context.

What limits should be placed on privacy? On the scale from “right” to “privilege”, where does privacy lie? There are three conceptions of privacy that Nissenbaum writes on: as a protection of citizens against government, as a protection of the domestic realm, and as a protection of certain information (90-91).

The first of these is key to liberal democracies. Much of the U.S. constitution and Bill of Rights is based around a citizens’ right to privacy. The right of U.S. citizens to privacy, as in the form of property, that is protected from the government is central to the founding documents. But this must be balanced with security. When does security trump privacy? (See Patriot Act, wiretapping.)

Then there’s the realm of the home. In this case, individuals should not only be shielded from the government but also from private agencies. There is a mutual respect here—the home is ‘understood’ to be private. Surveillance of one in one’s private dwelling is a great fear associated with loss of freedom. Everyone needs a place to go where they can be unobserved. But is this a right? When should privacy be set aside? If someone had a neighbor who was suspected of being a killer, or a spy, or some such thing, and this neighbor’s house was under constant FBI surveillance, would this someone feel okay about that? Giving up privacy for security must be done in moderate measure. If our homes had cameras throughout with 24-7 police observation, we’d be a lot safer (save from potentially corrupt officers). But we’d also have no privacy. The downside to a private realm is that it is potentially very dangerous. Imagine living alone in a country cabin versus sitting on a bench in the middle of a crowded downtown park to get an idea. In the public realm, we have help all around us. In the private realm, we are on our own (94-96).

Then there is the privacy of information. The California vs. Greenwood case serves as a good example of both dimensions of privacy that Nissenbaum lays out. Garbage is private content only when in the private realm of the home. Once in the public realm, garbage is no longer private content. This can be applied to information. For example: we’d agree that one’s past associations may be private, but not if one becomes a public official. This is because the line between what is public and what is private is relative and always changing. See the shift from Olmstead vs. U.S. to Kutz vs. U.S. Also consider email, which once was private, but now public (101).

In light of all these considerations of privacy, we must be aware of how technology has made privacy less sanctified. As pointed out in chapter 2, advances in computer processing and digital storage have increased the capability for storing, accessing, organizing, and sharing large amounts of data. Nissenbaum lists four “pivotal transformations” in which computer technology has affected privacy. By one, a greater number of people have access to information; by another, information can potentially be accessed from any location; by another, information can be stored in databases, varying in breadth and depth; and by another, new knowledge can be drawn from information. Each of these transformations occurred because of advances in computing technology and in the mathematical sciences. We have always struggled to define and understand privacy, but today, with these transformations computing technology has wrought, the problem is compounded as true privacy has become less realistic.

Here is my midterm for EMAC 6300:

Whalen, Trevor midterm


EDIT: It says posted on 3-26-2014. I did post it late, after class, but it was at around 11:15pm on 3-25-2014, and was not a day late. My WordPress must not be on DST or something.

Post over readings for 3-25

The PC Gamer Ethic

~Comparisons with the Hacker Ethic~

Reading the selections from E. Gabriella Coleman’s Coding Freedom, I felt a strangely strong sympathy with the hackers and their “lifeworld”. I say “strangely strong” because I am not a hacker, nor have I ever been one. The only coding I’ve done is HTML in a high school class and a few hours of BASIC for fun one summer. I couldn’t code Pong. Yet I immediately related, passionately, to these hackers. Why?

First, I have to say that I have read of hackers before. While working on my senior thesis in undergraduate school, which was on the history of computer games, I read a lot on hackers, the hacker ethic, and the computer underground during the latter half of the twentieth century. One book I read, Masters of Doom, told the life stories of id Software’s founders. It’s a great read not just if you’re a fan of id or are a gamer, but also if you’re interested in a personal look at a couple hackers from that era.

So I’m familiar with hacker culture, but this familiarity alone does not explain my reaction to Coding Freedom. I understood the hacker lifestyle and hacker passions because I am a PC gamer. This is as opposed to “gamer” in general, which could include console gamers. Console games are any you play through a TV, on, for example, a Sony, Nintendo, or other company’s system. PC gaming refers to playing games on a PC—on a computer (most computer games are played on PC platforms, as opposed to Mac, hence the term ‘PC Gamer’ rather than ‘Computer gamer’). This is an important distinction which I’ll return to later.

So I’m a PC gamer—lifelong, die hard, through and through. And as such, I’ve enjoyed the same connectedness with computer technology that hackers have. This has led to me, over the years, developing similar sensibilities that develop in hackers. This is not a simple phenomenon—this isn’t just a case of “Well, if you do a lot of something on a computer, then you’ll think like a hacker.” There’s more to it than that. But before I explain the specifics, indulge me in a little biographical details, as the stories of many PC gamers can be related to the life stories of hackers that Coleman shared with us in chapter one.

I first started playing PC games when I was four years old, on a thick, gray NEC laptop running Windows 95. It was June 1996, in fact, one month before I was to turn five, when my dad brought home a big box which I knew contained computer software. But unlike other computer software boxes, this one did not have an image of some office objects, or of a notepad with a pencil, or of two businesspeople smiling and shaking hands. This software box bore the image of an island, with strange, mysterious buildings on it. The island sat alone in the middle of a vast ocean, with gray clouds in the background. In the midst of the gray clouds you could make out the dim image of a man falling, with his destination being the island below. Above this dimly visible man were four letters which spelled out “MYST”, in all caps, and at the bottom of the box read more text: “The Surrealistic Adventure That Will Become Your World.”


My first computer was an NEC Versa 6000H.

My first computer was an NEC Versa 6000H, loaded with an Intel Pentium. (That’s right-no number afterwards!)

I knew this was no ordinary piece of software, and what my dad, brother and I discovered upon opening the box, reading the manual, inserting the disc, installing the program, and then finally running it, was that MYST was a world to explore. It was full of enchanting imagery and sound, haunting music, and neat logic puzzles. It was unlike anything I had experienced before, and it was the beginning of a lifelong passion for games, software, and computers.

MYST would be the first drop in a long stream of PC games I would begin playing in the summer of ’96. Next my dad got Lego Island, which blew my brother’s and mine Lego-loving minds (you can walk around a Lego world and talk to Lego people? Holy cow!). By visiting PC game websites, we inevitably discovered the shareware “market”. We began downloading the shareware versions of the most popular games at the time.

Shareware versions of games are a chunk of a game—usually the first fourth or third of a game—that a game developer, which at this time would have meant a handful of hackers, uploaded for free to the web. You would play the shareware and, if you liked it, would then order the rest of the game from the developer. As this was back in the days of dial-up, downloading a piece of shareware software was an event. But when the download finally completed, my brother and I knew we had another software world to explore.

The box art for Myst.

The box art for Myst.

The first shareware we downloaded was of 3D Realms’ Terminal Velocity. We soon ordered the full version of the game. Next was the Doom shareware, through which my dad, brother and I caught onto the “id-mania” that had gripped so much of the computer world since Doom had first been uploaded in December 1993. First playing the Doom shareware was an experience I’ll never forget. Doom, like with all the other games we were playing, wasn’t just a game—it was a world.

On from the Doom shareware we downloaded the Quake shareware, which, at the time, was id’s latest game. Then we got the full version of Quake. Then Riven: The Sequel to Myst came. Then Quake II. Then the mesmerizing Unreal. Then Half-Life; Thief; System Shock 2; on and on and on. With each game, my dad, brother and I—but especially my brother and I—were becoming more and more obsessed with and wired into our computers. We experienced a similar bliss as hackers would when they first discovered the joy of computers, as, after all, the games we were playing were the product of code—lots and lots of beautiful code that could output amazing things.

And we didn’t just game—like hackers, we interacted with our computers. We built point-and-click games—like MYST—in PowerPoint. We constructed missions in level-editing utilities for various games. And, perhaps most importantly, we discovered online communities of gamers. And in these, we discovered game mods (mod being short for “modification”). Game mod-making and the modders who build them is where the world of gaming intersects with the world of hacking. This is also what makes PC games unique from console games.

Console games, which at the time my brother and I were first becoming gamers would have been the Sony PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Sega Saturn, did not encourage modding. All you could do through these video game systems out of the box was play the game. But with the PC, and PC games, you could dig into a game’s files, download editing utilities for it, make your own content for it, change up the existing content in it, and then share it with others on a fan forum. Modding made PC games alive, much like F/OSS made code alive.

My brother and I weren’t the most active modders. In fact, as I’ve never completed a mod, I’m not a modder at all. My brother made and uploaded a couple missions for Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. I prefered to tinker around in “Dromed”, the level editing utility for the Thief games and System Shock 2. But while we didn’t create a lot of mods, my brother and I consumed a lot of them. We loved being part of mod communities. These communities, and all the activities and sharing of files therein, is the gamer’s hacking-world.

Game mods are made by people in their spare time and are uploaded to game communities where they can be downloaded for free. Some mods have been large and complex, like full, ‘officially’ made games. I’m a big fan of Looking Glass Studios’ games, and the fans at Through the Looking Glass ( have created volumes of amazing content for the Thief games, two of Looking Glass’ releases. One fan project, Thief 2 X, had as much content as a fully new game, yet it was made by fans and completely free. The Dark Mod is a total conversion of the Doom 3 engine by which that engine is given a Thief-style world.

The mod scene for id Software’s games has been one of the largest. This trend started because with Doom id Software made the games’ data files more accessible for modders. The mod communities for id’s games Doom and Quake are still strong. Just take a look at Doom World, QuakeOne, and lvlworld. The amount of fan content, whether full-on mods or just maps or models, is staggering!

Fan mod projects can be as impressive and fun as any commercial game. Each of them are essentially “good hacks”, for in making game mods, modders are essentially hacking into a game’s content and changing it and adding to it. Hacking has been a part of PC games since home computer games first started selling on the market.

Modders and PC gamers, like hackers, have their own convention, too: Quakecon. Quakecon first started in 1996 when a group of PC gamers gathered together near the id offices in Dallas to play rounds of Quake via local area connection (LAN). The id employees heard about it and joined in too. Since then, Quakecon has remained an annual tradition for PC gamers. Quakecon has panels, a showfloor, gaming tournaments, and, most famously, a gigantic LAN setup called the BYOC (“C” standing for computer). Quakecon’s unique from other game conventions because it celebrates specifically PC gaming, including the modding of both games and the PC systems themselves. Run by volunteers and with free general admission, Quakecon also has a grassroots vibe to it. I’ve attended it each year since 2010 and have enjoyed it.

Each summer, deep in the bowels of Dallas’ Hilton Anatole, nests Quakecon’s “BYOC”: a slice of heaven for gamers, computer enthusiasts, and those who are some of both (everyone at Quakecon is a lot of both).

Each summer, deep in the bowels of Dallas’ Hilton Anatole, nests Quakecon’s “BYOC”: a slice of heaven for gamers, computer enthusiasts, and those who are some of both (everyone at Quakecon is a lot of both).

Because of mod-making, the world of PC gaming is very much part of the world of hacking. It’s no coincidence: both share common platforms (computers), both have been part of the computer and Internet revolution, and both give users the ability to creatively interact with the product. Modding is hacking, basically, as to make a mod requires hacking into a game file. This is why I felt such sympathy for the world of hackers and hacking that Coleman presented; as a lifelong PC gamer and mod-enthusiast, I’ve participated in a part of the world of hacking. I live by the modder ethic or the PC gamer ethic, which is a subclass of the hacker ethic we read about for this week.

Blog Post over Readings for 2-25

This week’s readings and viewings all had to do with identity: how our identity affects our lot in life, how we are perceived, and how we can construct identities in online media.

The piece on LGBT Identity and Activism is a succinct overview of what online social media can mean for someone of LGBT status. Being one of these—for example, being gay—affects how one is perceived in the physical world. Heterosexual couples are not noticed, but a homosexual couple will usually draw many long looks. Of course, this varies depending on location, but, in general, being openly gay—or lesbian, bi, or transgender—in public can bring, at best, unwanted attention and, at worst, physical assault.

Online social network sites are an accessible “underground” communication platform for LGBTs. Gay people, etc., have always been around and have, mostly, had to resort to underground communication with other gays. Social media sites allow such underground communication to happen more frequently and effectively.

The problem is that in the online world there is no true privacy. One may be open to one’s friends, but not to one’s family. Yet, unless one wants to ignore the friend requests of family members, one cannot keep secret from their family what they reveal to their friends. This is where the tricky game of identity management comes into play, which the authors recognize. Identity management can apply to us all, LGBT or not, as we all wear different masks for different people (friends, family, coworkers).

On p. 105, the authors are giving a couple examples of gay Facebook users who have to strategize to whom they reveal their sexual orientation. Ideally this could be revealed to anyone, but a present fact is that being homosexual can act as a marker that denigrates one to family and coworkers. Even if a gay person’s family members are not homophobic, they may be uncomfortable with the revelation. Those like the example of Cary show that it’s hard to balance friending those whom we know on Facebook and keeping secret from them pictures that may be posted by other friends.

What we put out online can never assuredly be deleted, and whatever activities we do on Facebook, such as joining groups, are visible to our friends. The dilemma LGBT people face is the same that any of us, who share things with friends that we don’t share with family members, could face. As the authors note, especially in the last section of the reading, online social networking can serve to connect LGBT people with others like them, and allow them to feel a part of a large network. But social networking also opens up a new dimension for identity negotiation.

Identity negotiation can be a nasty business, and it’s a shame that factors such as sexual orientation or race are even determinants of identity in the first place. It’s appropriate to use the phrase “physical trappings” when talking of identity, as our human souls are “trapped” in our physical body. When anyone is oppressed because of a physical or physiological trait they bear, one finds that one is being judged by an external trait over which one has no control. We want our individual soul to be recognized as who we are; we do not want to be judged by our trappings. This is where we ask on what we should base our identity. Should we define our identity by our race, sex, or sexual orientation? To an extent, it’s unaviodable, as these traits are imbedded in our individual identities. But the response to prejudice is that another should not judge one by one’s external traits: “I’m gay, but that doesn’t mean ____.”, etc. This response to prejudice indicates that we all want to be judged as an individual and not be judged by our accidental characteristics. So should we then create identities, online or off, based on these characteristics?

It is necessary for LGBT individuals to network as part of larger groups and commit themselves to the LGBT “identity,” as this must serve as a bulwark against the still prevalent misconceptions of LGBTs. But this should always be understood as a temporary means to an end. I would not discourage LGBT individuals from networking and being active, but I would remind them that what gay activism is working towards in the first place is a world where the activist gay identity is no longer needed.

Blog Post Over Readings for 2-4


         Reading Blown to Bits, my emotions ranged from awe, to fear, to confusion, to aggravation, to panic, and back through again. Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, and Harry Lewis have put together a comprehensive tome that educates as it warns. The digital age has been upon us for a while now—certainly a good while by Miller’s law standards—and this reading explored most of the relevant areas in which the bits explosion affects parts of our lives we take for granted.

            Chapter 1 was a confirmation of something I, and I’m sure most of us, already knew. Somewhere in the second half of the twentieth century, computing technology began advancing exponentially. In twenty years, in ten years, even, the speed and memory capabilities of computers has grown at a rate well beyond the expectation of the general public. With the growth of the home computer market since the 1980s, and the widespread use of the Internet since the 1990s, any bit of human information can be recorded as bits and transferred to anywhere in the world by anyone. All of mankind’s history and achievements could be catalogued many times over in the digital memory, and there’d still be room left. The digital age is the most impressive time yet in human history as regards technological advancement.

            Amidst all the growth, privacy and security have been changed forever. Issues of advancement, privacy, and security are the basis of the whole book, and in chapter 1 the authors lay down seven truths—or “koans”—of the digital age. They are: all digital information is the same, just bits; digital copies are perfect copies; the focus on digital is at the expense of the non-digital record; processor power is always growing at a huge rate; the slow and steady exponential growth of computing technology can catch us off guard with “dislocating explosions”; and once info has been put out into the digital world, there’s no certain way of getting it back. Chapter 1 argues that digital technology, like any technology, is neither good nor bad, but must be understood and used properly (see pp.33-34, by the PDF document page numbers, for a good summary of the good and bad uses of technology).

            One thing digital technology allows humans to be better at is practicing secrecy. The 0s and 1s behind all digital pieces can be used to hide messages, or make visible messages that were thought to be hidden. Chapter 3 explores this disconnection between what we see on a computer screen and the actual bits that are displaying what we see. Messages made out of 0s and 1s on the backend can, on the frontend, be an image, a text document, a music file, a video file, or any digital file type. Likewise, what appears on the frontend may not illustrate what is true of the backend. An example of this is the U.S. government embarrassing itself after thinking it had redacted a PDF document, which had only been redacted on the surface. The bits behind the text had not been changed (see the first few pages of the chapter).

            Though digital copies may be perfect, they are only a “model” of the original. What we see on a computer screen is not really what we think we are seeing, but a computer program emulating something. The authors use throughout the chapter the example of the Book of Kells. The backend of a computer program might just as well see that medieval book’s fancy font design as standard text in a word document, despite how it is displayed to us.

            The chapter goes into a long look at how messages can be hidden in all sorts of ways because of how computer programs operate. Though there are exceptions, what you see is not always what you get with computer programs. This can even be the case with what we think we have just deleted. As the MIT experiment the authors cited demonstrates, data thought to be deleted can be salvaged. Of course, the way technology progresses, a few years down the line data containers may not be able to be read properly (see the end of the chapter when the authors cover the problem of the 1986 Domesday book).

            Using search engines is something we take for granted. As we learn from chapter 4, there is much science and politics behind search engines. Who controls what appears as the top result? How are search results selected in the first place, given the vastness of the web? The chapter’s look at Google, from PageRank to its compromise to keep the Chinese market, show that searching is not as simple as it seems on our end. To search the web, we need a service (lest searching be impractical), and this service must have some method for choosing what comes back as a result.

            Secure encryption is something else we may take for granted. It’s scary to think of how often I’ve given out my personal information in online transactions, and how in online, and real-world, transactions a record of everything I’ve ever bought, and where and when I’ve bought it, has been kept. Chapter 5 confirms that solid encryption software is a cornerstone of today’s market, as so much commerce happens online. For this reason the U.S. government was not able to regulate encryption methods, as revealed at the beginning of this chapter. This is also why large-scale hacks, such as of Target’s database last year, are so frightening (see also the TJX hack in 2005, on p.194 of the PDF file). That nothing is perfect is an especially uncomfortable fact when it comes to security software. Millions of people’s secret information is floating in cyberspace, waiting to be hacked.

            This chapter goes over a lot of cryptographic methods, like substitution and Vigenere cyphers, which I won’t cover here. The key part here is ‘public key cryptography’, proposed by Whitfield Diffie, Martin Hellman, and Ralph Merckle. It is a method by which one can communicate in code to another and let the other know the secret to the code even if the communications are observed and the two communicators have never met. (See pages 196-203 of the PDF document). Apparently this method of secret communication has never been cracked.

            Reading chapter 7, I sympathized with lawmakers. Who can make laws that effectively regulate the Internet without causing censorship? As I learned from this chapter, no one can, really. Through page 261 (going by the PDF page numbers), I tended toward thinking that the laws regulating activity and content on the Internet were censorship. I almost wholeheartedly agreed with John Perry Barlow’s sentiment. The “Good Samaritan” clause of the CDA seemed a good compromise to me. Then I read the rest of the chapter. I don’t know what to think now.

            The core themes in this chapter are: how to regulate content on the Internet, how Internet service providers should be categorized, and how local laws should apply to matters of cyberspace. Cubby v. CompuServe was correct for not holding CompuServe responsible, but America Online should have held some responsibility for the defamation of Ken Zeran and for the case of the abused eleven-year-old boy. In extreme cases like these, as the authors noted on p. 265, distributors do need to be held responsible. Confusion over regulating cyberspace comes from not having the right analogy to, or a full understanding of, the web, so the authors argue. Should the US version of Yahoo be bound by French laws, as Yahoo US could accessed in France? Should a California couple be charged by Tennessee law? This chapter is rife with questions that have no clear answer, precisely because there is no clear way to understand the Internet. Certainly not for the general public of the 90s, and not fully so today.

            Chapter 8 continues this theme: how we are to understand new technology. By looking at an extensive history of radio technology, and how the Federal government regulated the airwaves, the authors arrive at the conclusion that the FCC’s outdated regulation of radio waves, enmeshed by special interest groups, is hindering full technological growth in that field. Wireless technology, such as with Wi-Fi, shows how deregulation can create huge advancement in this field. But the problem is, again, that special interest groups and an outdated view of technology on the part of the FCC have prevented the full fruition of wireless technology.

            The conclusion reiterates the central theme of this book. The digital explosion has created a legal mess. Technology is moving faster than bureaucracy. The interaction between the legal and governing sphere and the realm of cyberspace will determine much of our future happiness, securities, and freedoms. This adds as much fear to living in the digital age as there is excitement in it.

            [As for the other two readings, a couple notes:

            I liked the part in the Galloway reading about how JVC’s VHS became industry standard format. It reminded me of the open-source software practices of games companies, like id Software and Epic MegaGames, in the 90s. That is: licensing out software/hardware for others to use has been a proven success method multiple times. He also notes that the DVD format saw no such competition, but then we got a little more of it with the blu-ray vs. HD-DVD format back around 2007 and 2008.

            The Manuel Castells Afterword notes 7 consequences of the network society. The most important comes at the end: power in the network society comes from associations, or the shape of the networks themselves. He lists several examples of this in the first full paragraph of the last page. The configurations of the networks themselves are what exert power, and as these fluctuate, so too does the power.]

-Trevor Whalen