How Literature Impacted The Internet As We Know It

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When I say the word “hypertext” what’s the first thing you think of? Most likely, you thought of HTML, right? Hypertext is defined as, “a database format in which information related to that on a display can be accessed directly from the display.” For most of us, the reason the word “hypertext” doesn’t even connect for us, is because we grew up with computers, so the idea of selecting something on a display and accessing other information is so commonplace. We just think of it as, “Well, duh, you click the link.” In reality, Hypertext has a far more interesting history than most of us would imagine, and it links back to writing.

There was an attempt at a literary revolution led, arguably, by a person called Ted Nelson. Nelson is credited with being the person behind the concept of hypertext, hypermedia, and hyperlinks. In his writings in the sixties, Nelson saw the future of hypertext as a way to bring literature back into fashion in the 21st century as a way to take people away from television and its stagnation of creativity and make reading the new big thing again. The concept was that through the use of hypertext, books would be published online in an interactive way so that the reader moves on to different parts of the story by clicking links, basically.

Though nobody in the reading I’ve done calls it this, it sounds to me like an internet version of those Choose Your Own Adventure books I used to read as a kid.

While the idea was ambitious, as we all now know, Nelson’s dream of an interactive novel online as the next revolution of entertainment didn’t, in fact, work out in the end. There are multiple reasons for that, and some of them are pretty simple to work out the cause. One of the main issues was just the timing of it all. Another was the formats through which hypertext was meant to become a reality.

Before the internet, Apple came out with one of the first platforms for hypertext in a program called HyperCard. From what I can understand, HyperCard was a lot like a powerpoint platform, but rather than doing a presentation with it, it was meant to link slides together so that the user could explore a multimedia artifact via hyperlinks. In his look back on the HyperCard, Matthew Lasar tells us,

Even before its cancellation, HyperCard’s inventor saw the end coming. In an angst-filled 2002 interview, Bill Atkinson confessed to his Big Mistake. If only he had figured out that stacks could be linked through cyberspace, and not just installed on a particular desktop, things would have been different.

“I missed the mark with HyperCard,” Atkinson lamented. “I grew up in a box-centric culture at Apple.

This goes back to the issue of timing that made hypertext miss the mark, so to speak. Before the broad release of internet connectivity, everything created was installed on a single computer. That meant that only the users of the computer the HyperCard was created on could access it. This was the same for a lot of computer programs at the time. There was no thought process leading up to the idea that one day soon, computers would be interconnected, so the creators didn’t anticipate needing that ability.

Though there were some attempts at making hypertext novels the Next Big Thing™, such as Douglas Cooper’s Delirium, Steven Johnson tells us why it was that hypertext stories just never took off.

It turned out that nonlinear reading spaces had a problem: They were incredibly difficult to write. When you tried to make an argument or tell a journalistic story in which any individual section could be a starting or ending point, it wound up creating a whole host of technical problems, the main one being that you had to reintroduce characters or concepts in every section.

As you could expect, such a difficult and complex medium for telling a novel-like story wasn’t successful. It would have created some really interesting stories, no doubt, but nothing that complicated would have ever been the next revolution to replace TV and change the way literature as we know it is experienced.

However, what we did get out of these revolutionary ideas was something equally as important: blogging! Yes, the very platform you are experiencing right now hails from the idea of hypertext fiction. And it wasn’t just blogging that came out of the hypertext revolution that never was, as Steven Johnson outlines in the same article.

It’s not that hypertext went on to become less interesting than its literary advocates imagined in those early days. Rather, a whole different set of new forms arose in its place: blogs, social networks, crowd-edited encyclopedias. Readers did end up exploring an idea or news event by following links between small blocks of text; it’s just that the blocks of text turned out to be written by different authors, publishing on different sites. Someone tweets a link to a news article, which links to a blog commentary, which links to a Wikipedia entry. Each landing point along that itinerary is a linear piece, designed to be read from start to finish. But the constellation they form is something else. Hypertext turned out to be a brilliant medium for bundling a collection of linear stories or arguments written by different people.

What may have started as an attempt at a literary revolution failed to bring about a new literary form that would bring literature back to the masses and dethrone the entertainment king that was television, but from the ashes of a failed endeavor rose basically the entirety of new media as we know it now. News, social interaction, education, communication, all of our common forms of new media that we utilize every single day is only made possible by hypertext.

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Post-New Media: Cynicism and Modern Media Culture

As some of you know, I am taking a class in which we are encouraged to express our thoughts and opinions about New Media and specifically cultural shifts in New Media related in large part to the rise of Social Media and the digital age.

What a lot of you may not know, and it is something I never expected, is that there are a large amount of people in my age bracket studying New Media like I am who are extremely cynical towards the digital world. I half-jokingly think of them as ‘Post-New Media’ since a lot of people seem to have moved beyond the are of embracing New Media and moved on to disdain. I seem to be the wild and free optimist of a fairly large group of young people because I embrace the digital world and I see far more net-positives in our future due to the rise of digital communication and social media. I find myself often being one of the lone voices in the crowd who doesn’t seem to think in terms of ‘who controls what we see and hear’ and ‘The Man is still pulling the puppet strings’. I half expect someone to use the word, ‘Sheeple’ at some point half the time in that class.

However, in the reading for this class, I found something really interesting that I think mirrors the strange preponderance of digital cynics in my current class in a very funny way.

One of the things in our text book is an essay by Hans Magnus Enzensberger called “Constituents of a Theory of the New Media” that was written in 1970. In this essay, which is actually more like a collection of smaller essays, he has a section called, “Cultural Archaism in the Left Critique” in which he talks about how the New Left movement of the sixties likened media and the advances of media to a new form of manipulation. Enzensberger says that, while the basic idea is correct – “the means of production are in enemy hands” – he calls this cynicism towards new methods of communication an issue of self-defeating archaism, by which he means if people buy into the idea that the game is rigged, they give up, thus falling for the very manipulation they proclaim to be the problem.

The manipulation thesis also serves to exculpate oneself. To cast the enemy in the role of the devil is to conceal the weakness and lack of perspective in ones own agitation. If the latter leads to self-isolation instead of mobilizing the masses, then its failure is attributed holus-bolus to the overwhelming power of the media.

With respect to my peers, I somewhat feel like I’m witnessing the same phenomenon in which this cynicism is manifesting in a self-defeatist manner. Obviously, it isn’t just something attributed to my classmates, this is a far widespread phenomenon than just amongst a group of twenty-five college students, but I feel like this is something we’re all seeing lately.

Enzensberger attributed a rather interesting form of archaism to this cynicism in the sixties, as he outlines in the same section when he says:

At the very beginning of the student revolt, during the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, the computer was a favorite target for aggression.

That is reflected today in the distrust to not just the traditional media, but towards Social Media as well. There is this push back against Social Media in constantly pointing out the negatives and talking about all the harm that Social Media does to interpersonal communication and to the culture of communication as we know it by highlighting aspects such as the ability to bully and the lack of accountability that the internet provides rather than by championing the new avenues to communication that Social Media has opened to people all over the world.

Perhaps I am being the crazy naive one of the herd, but I really feel like this is a self-defeating level of cynicism just like Enzensberger talked about seeing in the sixties, especially since I’m a New Media major. To reject and demonize the very progress in communication and democratization of access to information that allows less control by ‘the man’ just because there is still a platform in which the information is contained is to basically say all that we have striven for in terms of progress hasn’t been achieved, so we may as well give up.

I embrace the digital world and all the different forms of communication available to us, because I feel like the world as a whole always benefits from broader access to information. And it isn’t even just the platforms, like Social Media, but the culture around how we view communication that makes me feel so optimistic about the future. Like I said in a previous post about New Media,

New Media has managed to affect global changes in the very idea of communication because it has lowered the barrier to entry to what is and isn’t possible when it comes to communication regardless of location, wealth, or status of privilege.

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This lady could tweet about her farm’s hay yield from rural India right now! How cool is that? Thank you technology!

Though New Media and the digital world is not a perfect system by any means, and while there are a lot of theories about why people are so cynical in the digital age, I just still absolutely fail to see how allowing more people the access to information and the ability to share ideas faster, easier, and in a better organized fashion can possibly a net-negative in the big picture.

What about you guys? Are you a cynic? Are you an optimist? Are you like me and didn’t think you were an optimist until you realized most people you meet are cynics? You can always let me know here or on Twitter. I welcome a conversation!

Women’s March 2017: A Textbook Example of New Media’s Contribution To Global Progress

By now, over a week later, we have all heard about Women’s March 2017. On January 21st, the day after President Trump’s inauguration, there was a planned Women’s March on Washington to protest the new president. The organizers of the event expected approximately 250,000 attendees the day of the event in Washington. Instead, as sister marches sprung up around the US and eventually around the world, January 21, 2017 will most likely go down in history as the second-largest global protest event in history.

The reason that what started as a single planned event, the Women’s March on Washington, became a globally successful series of protests not only about women’s rights, but also about queer rights, immigrants rights, civil rights, and just the general idea of human’s rights being threatened in the wake of the inauguration of President Trump, is because the way people communicate and the dynamic ways in which organization is possible has changed so much in just the last decade due to the rise of what we consider New Media.

While the total number of marchers around the world may never be known exactly, the count in the United States has been reported by Daniel Dale, a Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star, in a tweet linking to a table compiled by a professor from the University of Connecticut, Jeremy Pressman, with the help of Erica Chenoweth from the University of Denver.

(Though it must be emphasized that this table is unverified, all numbers on the table have sources linked, and it does match other reports regarding the turnout to the Women’s March events around the nation.)

The estimates reported by Dale and compiled by Pressman and Chenoweth only provide details to the reports since that day that the Women’s March events not only were a success, but far outreached any expected participation. Though there was a large amount of celebrity participation, which garnered a large amount of attention and may have encouraged more people to attend, but even with these things planned ahead, nobody ever expected to see seas of pink taking over American cities.

Los Angeles expected up to 80,000 participants and instead, there were 750,000

Chicago expected up to 50,000 participants and instead there were so many attendees (up to an estimated 250,000) that there wasn’t enough room for them all.

Even in cities that hadn’t prepared for such massive crowds, the turnout was a moving mass of pink as far as the eye could see.

Here in Georgia, there were at least four times as many marchers than had been expected at the Atlanta, Georgia Women’s March, and that isn’t counting the several other protests in other Georgia cities.

What made these events so successful, not just in America, but globally, is the ways in which New Media has changed not just the ability of how we can communicate, but the culture around communication that has shifted with these new methods of communication.

Traditional news spent most of the weeks leading up to President Trump’s inauguration talking about his cabinet confirmation hearings, his plans for the first days as president, and the plans regarding the actual inauguration. This makes sense, because that’s what most people in America and around the world would be talking about. Because of that, the plans for the Women’s March on Washington were casually mentioned through traditional, mainstream media sources, whereas they were broadly discussed, shared, and built upon via social media.

On November 23rd, 2016, Christina Cauterucci wrote about the potential for disaster regarding the planned Women’s March in Slate:

They weren’t professional organizers, but they knew how to make Facebook events. Eventually, a handful of different actions (one was to be called the Million Pussy March) collapsed into one: Originally dubbed the Million Woman March, it’s now the Women’s March on Washington, it’s scheduled for the day after Trump’s inauguration, and, as of this writing, 116,856 people from all over the country have said on Facebook that they are “going.” What they’re “going” to—and when, and where—nobody knows. Not even the people in charge.

She also added:

Right now, it looks like some form of the march and rally will happen, though probably not as first advertised. Without any experience planning large-scale events and without anticipating the potential scope of what they were starting, the original creators promised a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a march to the White House.

As we now know, the Women’s March on Washington, which was just one month ago still seemingly a disjointed collection of ideas that had no real sense of organization and was being planned by individuals without professional experience organizing large events, ended up being a massive success not only in Washington, but around the world. The reason for this is simple: broadly accessible and easily coordinated communication all made possible by the rise of New Media.

So while the original goal of having a larger number of people attend the Women’s March on Washington than the inauguration of President Trump was successful, with scientists saying that three times as many people attended the March than they did President Trump’s inauguration, the unintended results of an attempt at a standard counter-protest to a new presidency amounted to one of the largest global protest rallies in history, and it was all due to the ways that our perception of what communication is and the methods through which we communicate to large audiences instantly has been forever altered by New Media.

Artificial Intelligence: Not A Matter of “Can We” But A Matter Of “Should We”

While the title sounds like the one guy in a science fiction movie about the robot uprising that gets to say ‘I told you so!’ later, I don’t actually mean ‘they’ll rise up against their human overlords!’ in this case. Though I’m not entirely able to shake the mental image of the SciFi robo-uprising after all my years watching movies and TV shows on that topic, the more realistic issue I would like to pose to you guys today is the issue of the morality of AI Androids and why we should really question whether or not it’s right to pursue them as technology progresses.

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I,Robot, 2004

While at first blush it seems like a dumb question to ask, because they’re just machines like any other AI programming, there is a lot of discussion in the tech industry over the actual issue of the ethics of AI. Most of the issues raised about the idea of AI comes from logistical issues such as replacing humans in areas that would take too many jobs, and in the instances where AI isn’t as reliable as a human would be.

The more SciFi issues revolve around things like the idea that Superintelligent AI Androids could outsmart humanity and take over, which is what I like to call the, “VIKI” scenario. In the film I, Robot the android VIKI utilizes the Asimov Three Laws of Robotics to the point that she realizes humans are a threat to each other, so the best way to prevent harm to humans is to ‘control’ them. There are some issues that are closer to my main point but are about the AI Androids becoming human-like and self-aware and understanding that they are not humans though they have human feelings. I call this one the “Roy Batty” scenario from the film Bladerunner, in which the replicants have gone rogue because they know they are going to be destroyed and they fear death. The Roy Batty is related to the ‘enslaved masses rise up against their masters’ concept.

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Blade Runner (1982)

But the question I think is first what should be asked is in relation to the ‘enslaved masses’ but on the side of the humans: at what point does the creation of AI Androids become a replacement for slavery?

Now, before anybody goes, “Dear God, they’re robots, not people”, let’s take a look at the entire point of computers and machines. The first proposed mechanical computer was Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in 1837. The purpose of the Analytical Engine was to do math faster and more accurately than any human could. This continued to be the purpose of computers for a long time, as the name ‘computer’ suggests. Since the invention of computers, the entire concept of a computer is to do things at a faster and more accurate rate than humans can do. Though our modern computers are far more than just calculators on steroids, the concept of most technological advances is to make things easier on humans and allow us to do more with less effort.

While many would argue that this is exactly the point of an AI Android, to make life easier for humans, because it is just another machine, I want to raise a question about human psychology. Humans have a tendency for anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is defined as, “Giving human characteristics to animals, inanimate objects or natural phenomena.” Anthropomorphism is a phenomena that has also been studied in regards to robots and human-robot interaction regarding how people feel about the robot after viewing it through an anthropomorphic lens.

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Humanoid Robot, ASIMO, 2000

As humans, we are more inclined to anthropomorphism with a figure that is human-like in shape and other characteristics. Rick Nauert, PhD describes the psychological and evolutionary purpose of anthropomorphism as:

Neuroscience research has shown that similar brain regions are involved when we think about the behavior of both humans and of nonhuman entities, suggesting that anthropomorphism may be using similar processes as those used for thinking about other people. Anthropomorphism carries many important implications. For example, thinking of a nonhuman entity in human ways renders it worthy of moral care and consideration.

Anthropomorphism is relative to empathy, which is only increased when the thing being anthropomorphized is humanoid in shape and, in most people’s plans for humanoid AI Androids, would become a household implement that ‘lives’ in people’s homes and performs tasks for them.

This is where we come back to the question raised above, because presuming we, as humans, are likely to anthropomorphize the household Android and give it a name and expect it to do household chores, what does it say about us as people that we would want that?

Does it not, essentially, mean that the idea of an AI Android is a servant you don’t have to pay for their services? What do we generally call servants who don’t get paid?

Slaves.

It is very important for me to reinforce the fact that I am not in any way claiming that people who want an AI Android want to welcome back slavery, and I am not suggesting that this is a definite ‘AI is Slavery’ idea. I don’t even know how I feel about my own questions at this point. We have moral gray areas all across the board, but does this constitute as something that belongs in that gray area?

I’ll leave it up to you guys to think about on your own and decide for yourself, but I just think that this is a very important question we in the future may to consider, especially after reading this passage regarding the anthropomorphism of military robots.

As human robot partnerships become more common, decisions will need to be made by designers and users as to whether the robot should be viewed  anthropomorphically.  In some instances, Darling notes, it might be undesirable because it can impede efficient use of the technology.  The paper uses the example of a military robot used for mine clearing that a unit stopped using because it seemed “inhumane” to put the robot at risk in that way.

Interconnected World: How New Media Has Lowered The Barrier To Entry For Global Communication

When you hear the words “New Media” you probably think of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, ect. However, New Media is more than just the social media platforms we all use every day.

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New Media, defined as “Mass communication utilizing digital technologies” by Oxford English dictionary, is not just limited to social media, but also includes the lightening fast way in which information is shared around the world. New technologies as well as the culture around global communication all are part of the idea of New Media. There are many more ways than just social media platforms that make up all the ways New Media has shaped the way that we communicate in the twenty-first century, and communication is changing every single day. The way that global news is reported and verified utilizing these types of sources is also New Media.

Just a decade ago, even with the internet age at a high point, the bulk of people seeking news were limited to what major news networks reported on, both in traditional print, television media, and in their online websites. While we had access to talk to others from around the world, there was far less platform availability for news to be disseminated by individuals in various parts of the world to a broader audience than one-on-one communication. In other words, digital communication between unofficial sources was still, largely, not an actual method of mass communication so much as a modern-day ‘phone-tree’ .

Though technology has been advancing rapidly for decades now, we have now reached a point in which there are very few barriers to communication with others. Though her take is a little more negative in her post, Mandy Edwards say something very crucial to this phenomenon when she says, “As communication and information travel faster and faster, the world seems to get smaller and smaller.” What this means to most of us is that what would have once been virtually impossible to the average person, communicating with someone anywhere in the world at any time instantly, is now just a few key-strokes or screen-taps away. In essence, New Media has lowered the boundaries of privilege regarding communication.

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From the 1995 film Clueless

When I was a child in the 90s, though people on TV often had cellphones, I didn’t know a single person in real life that had a cellphone, because they were an expensive device that had a certain level of privilege attached to its ownership. My aunt and uncle owned a bag phone for their car, and even that was the kind of luxury they boasted about and showed off like one would show off a diamond necklace. Also in the 90s, my other aunt was the only person I knew who had an internet connection, because she owned her own business. Twenty years ago, having an internet connection and a mobile phone were markers of privilege, but today those items are in some ways free (think free Wifi at a cafe and free computer use at libraries) and a cellphone of some sort is relatively inexpensive for even the lowest income individuals all over the globe.

Another way in which there was a certain barrier to access in the 90s regarding the idea of global communication was the cost of long-distance phone calls. Even today, an actual phone call internationally will cost a fortune to some. The cost of even one-one-one communication across borders has formerly been limited to news reported by major news networks, individual communication via mail, or expensive phone calls. The invention of email still required an internet connection and a device to access it from, which we have already established, were expensive commodities for all but the privileged members of society just in the few decades previous.

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Inflation Adjusted Price in 1995: $5,467

However, within the last decade alone, the barriers to one-on-one communication have fallen significantly and, more important and more pertinent to the actual discussion of what New Media really means, the barriers to mass communication have fallen away with the rise of social media. Social media as a method of mass communication may have its downfalls, such as lower barriers to entry meaning lower barriers to accountability in what information is spread, but it allows more information to be shared to a large audience and shared around to more large audiences without the curation of major news networks.

While there is often something negative associated with news networks curating what information to broadcast, the major issue is not some censorship-esque control of information, but rather the fact that major news networking sources choose what to report on based on what will get the most attention from their audience. There are a lot of things that an America-centric news report would leave out that social media allows reports on to be spread throughout global audiences, for example. The point of this is that New Media changes the speed and the methods of distribution of information through the channels of social media. What would have likely never become broadly reported news finds it’s audience through social media. New Media has made it possible for people all over the world to share information that is significant to certain groups of people that would otherwise not be considered significant enough to warrant an article on CNN or a spot on the nightly news on NBC in a way that makes it possible for the intended audience to find and access the information with a quick search and a few clicks.

When it comes down to it, New Media is more about the way we think about communication than it is about the methods through which we communicate. Though technology is the basis of the concept of New Media, it isn’t just about the platforms we share information through with social media, it is also about the way we think about communication. New Media has managed to affect global changes in the very idea of communication because it has lowered the barrier to entry to what is and isn’t possible when it comes to communication regardless of location, wealth, or status of privilege.