Does “cyberspace” still exist?

A food-for-thought/thinking-in-progress post: does “cyberspace” still exist?

I’ve been thinking about this issue recently in connection with several law review articles I’m writing. My feeling at this point is that our earlier conception of networked communications at the dawn of “cyberspace” in 1996 (see Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace) is quite different from the conception we have today. In an era of social networks, smartphones, apps, and customized services, it may no longer make sense to think of cyberspace as a shared place we visit.

One way of showing this is by examining how Google treats searches for formatives of the word “cyberspace.”

cy

1. Search for “cy”: None of the suggestions include “cyberspace.” Considering the advertising orientation of Google, I’m not surprised that “cyber monday” shows up. But “cyanide and happiness?” Disturbing, much, until I realized that it is a webcomic.

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cyb

2. Search for “cyb”: Even more “cyber monday” stuff, with “cyberpower” at the end. Cyberpower makes UPS power strips.

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cyber

3. Search for “cyber”: If anything should show “cyberspace,” this should. But I got the same results as for “cyb.” Maybe people just don’t think about “cyberspace” as a place anymore. I’m not sure that I should, either. (“Professor, you’re sooo 20th century….”)

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cybers4. Search for “cybers”: You’d think “cyberspace” would have shown up by now. But it still doesn’t; instead, we see “cybersource” (I had to look it up, it’s a credit card processing company), “cybersquatting” (which I’ve written about), “cyberscholar” (a/k/a, hopefully me), and “cyber security” (a hot topic). But no “cyberspace.” Interesting.

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cybersp

5. Search for “cybersp”: Finally, “cyberspace” is the first hit. The first hit is Wikipedia, and claims that the term is “ubiquitous.” But based on Google’s suggested searches, I’m not so sure.

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Beyond the observations above, I’ll not speculate unduly as my thoughts are still forming. But as Dan Hunter wrote in 2003, “Thinking of cyberspace as a place has led judges, legislators, and legal scholars to apply physical assumptions about property in this new, abstract space.” That’s very true: the assumptions we make about things affects how we choose to regulate them.

But I suspect that we’re now moving into a post-cyberspace era, one of networked communications devoid of “place.” Indeed, I don’t think of either Facebook or Twitter–which I call “Super-Intermediaries” in one of my forthcoming pieces–as a place at all, but rather a connectivity tool. Super-Intermediaries are not thought of as metaphorical “places,” but as things that provide ever-shifting and oftentimes highly complex networks that can vary significantly between individuals (Twitter and Facebook) and sometimes between geographical regions (YouTube).

I suspect that this arguable shift away from place-ness may have a significant effect on how we conceive of the internet, how we describe it, how lawmakers try to regulate it, and how human rights are affected. I’ll demur from saying more as my thoughts are still forming, but I plan to discuss some of these themes next month at the upcoming Internet Law Work-in-Progress Conference at Santa Clara Law School.

Cross-posted to Infoglut Tumblr.

Google abandons “minimalist” homepage, permits distracting background images. Yuk.

For everything but its core search engine, Google has been at the forefront of the participatory web, i.e., Web 2.0, with products like YouTube, Picasa, and more.  But its core search engine has for over a decade been sacrosanct, with a minimalist aesthetic: logo, search box, and a so-called 28-word rule that limits the words on the homepage.  And, of course, the minimalist, non-distracting white background.

Until today.  Now Google permits users to select background images, either from an online database or their own computers.  Sure, other search providers have pretty backgrounds (Bing, anyone?)  Sure, it’s kind of pretty.  But after playing with backgrounds for a few minutes, I went back to the default white.

Why avoid backgrounds?  To reduce information overload and the attendant distractions.  Google is an essential tool, one that should foster focus rather than distraction.  The loading of the background and the perceived — even if not actual — delay, is another addition to a sea of distractions.  For better or for worse, I use Google numerous times a day.  In an era where focused attention is becoming increasingly difficult — see, e.g., Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson — the fewer distractions, the better.

Plus, Google is a hypocrite.  Contrasting Google’s new “backgrounds” feature with the company’s stance on privacy is extremely revealing.  A few years back, as noted here, Google adamantly refused to include a link to its privacy policy on its home page, allegedly because an additional link would distract from its “beautiful clean home page.”  Only after privacy advocates pushed did Google finally relent and add a privacy link to its homepage.  Even now, that link remains in the smallest typeface, possibly to avoid reminding people of how much information they sacrifice to Google daily.  Yet if Google truly cares so much for its minimalist aesthetic, why permit users to now clutter their homepages with pictures of kittehs?

So my response to Google: yuk.  For now, I’ll carry Google’s banner and stick to the minimum.  Enough distractions.

The hindsight of archives: “Popular Science” & incorrect technology predictions

Sci-fi and tech site IO9.com reports that Popular Science Magazine is now making its archives available online dating back to 1872.  The archives can be searched either at the magazine’s website or via Google Books.  In the archive, I was able to quickly find articles of historical interest, each showing a technological prediction that didn’t pan out.  Of course, for technology, such history can be shockingly recent.

Here’s a failed prediction of success.  1980s computer buffs may remember the venerable Amiga.  A 1985 article describes the $1295 machine in glowing terms.  Even with only 256 kilobytes of memory, the machine could run a Mac-like operating system, and with an emulator, also PC programs like Lotus 1-2-3 (a popular pre-Excel spreadsheet).  An Amiga representative predicted that Amiga would become “the new standard for home- and small-business computer needs.”  Needless to say, this prediction did not become reality, and the Amiga never became a widely used platform, instead outgunned and outnumbered by the less-powerful Macs and PCs of the era.

Here’s a failed prediction of failure, and a good reality check on how far we’ve come.  A 1995 article discusses the emerging use of the Internet:

Set aside for a moment the hype about what the Internet represents (“the assembly line of the electronic era”), what it could become (“the bedrock of the information superhighway”), or what it might turn us into (“a global community of data-seeking homebodies”).  Instead, let’s take stock of what it is.  This worldwide computer network you hear and read so much about is today little more than a high-tech candy dispenser for the eyes, ears, and mind.  It is fuzzy satellite weather maps, canned audio clips from the President, unfettered access to obscure college journals, and very likely, not one damn thing that will make a lasting difference in how you work, play, or live.

In fairness to the author, much of what he said was true in 1995.  He understandably bemoans the “impractical” nature of the web of its time, noting that “you can’t stop and make plane or hotel reservations” online.  But to be sure, the web very quickly made, and continues to make, a transforming difference in our lives.  But enough for now.  I have to pull up Expedia to get some plane tickets before getting back to the work I’m doing from home over Spring Break.  Later on, maybe I’ll order some coffee from Amazon, or watch some Hulu.  Or better yet, maybe I — a “data-seeking homebody” — should unplug and walk the dog, who could care less about computers and archives.

Sleepy sepia golden retriever

Is Zoetrope the next-gen Internet Archive?

Although the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is a great research tool, its utility is hampered but a lack of basic search mechanisms.  One can search by URL and archived links, but basic Google-style boolean searching isn’t available.  The Archive once offered a beta boolean search tool, but it never worked and it was later withdrawn.

However, a new application may significantly expand our ability to data-mine archived webdata. Reports give a sneak peek at Zoetrope, an application being developed by researchers at Adobe and the University of Washington.  As put by the researchers:

The Web is ephemeral. Pages change frequently, and it is nearly impossible to find data or follow a link after the underlying page evolves. We present Zoetrope, a system that enables interaction with the historical Web (pages, links, and embedded data) that would otherwise be lost to time. Using a number of novel interactions, the temporal Web can be manipulated, queried, and analyzed from the context of familar [sic] pages. Zoetrope is based on a set of operators for manipulating content streams. We describe these primitives and the associated indexing strategies for handling temporal Web data. They form the basis of Zoetrope and enable our construction of new temporal interactions and visualizations.

The demo video shows how historical webdata could be manipulated and compared, as the authors note, in a variety of “novel” ways.  Even more significantly, researcher Eytan Adar “hopes to eventually incorporate information from the Internet Archive’s nearly 14 years of records.” Such a combination would massively increase the utility of web archives, but would also — as discussed in a paper I’m writing — exacerbate concerns over informational autonomy.

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The research paper can be found here.

Google finally posts privacy link on homepage

Yesterday, Google finally posted a privacy link on its homepage, replacing the word “Google” in the footer with “Privacy.”  A step in the right direction, but the link is in the smallest text, below larger links for “Advertising Programs,” “Business Solutions,” and “About Google.”  See below:

google-privacy-link

Hmm.  I wonder if the timing of Google’s change-of-heart had anything to do with this week’s court order that Google produce records of millions of YouTube user’s viewing habits.