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Posts Tagged ‘History

Man and Computer: An exhibition from 1979

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Another history oriented post following my Google Video recommendation on the History of Hacking. Today, while strolling through the digital remains of the Dutch National networks at Beeld en Geluid, I came across this ‘Polygoon Journaal’ news item from 1979. It mentions the early debates around the computer and there is a focus on the microchip as being responsible for future unemployment. Although this modernist view of machines replacing humans sounds very outdated in the postmodern/posthuman age, isn’t it still valid today? You be the judge.

English Translation of ‘Mens en Computer’
(1979 – Beeld en Geluid Hilversum)

The development from tangram to ruler to calculator all the way to the computer can be seen at the exhibition ‘Man and Computer’ in the Museum for Education in The Hague. Students of schools are familiarized with the workings of the electronic machinery which has become an essential part of modern life. The ‘chip’, an object that is getting a lot of attention lately, is also on display. The microcomputer can be built in a variety of machines and is able to significantly increase the the automatization of the industry. It is said that the chip will drastically change our lives and will cause unemployment to rise. In spite of this, the little device has as much possibilities as a room full of machinery.

At the exhibition children, aided by a large console, learn how the computer processes a program. On a small computer a spellchecker is demonstrated. The computer recalls every entered letter and lets the user know if the word has been spelled correctly. The young visitors can also practice with real computers. This way they learn the significance of input, processing and output of data. The output is often done with the use of a ‘regeldrukker’ (i.e. a printer, ed.). In a playful manner the use of computer in aeronautics is made clear. The children can reenact their own lunar landing. An erronous landing is noticed directly on the screen. The composite parts of a computer are shown systematically and the children are anxious to see the magnetic memory. Of course so-called printed circuit boards, on which the various computer components are put, are also on exhibition. And it is such a printed circuit board that can be seen in the classroom of this interesting ‘Man and Computer’ exhibition.

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The History of Hacking: Stories from the outlaws of network culture

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phone hackThe History of Hacking is an interesting documentary by Discovery Channel which shows interviews and stories of some of the early hackers. It features the must-see story of John Draper, aka Captain Crunch after a whistle found in the cereal box to hack into telephone networks, who is one of the pioneers of hacking.

As Michel Foucault mentioned: “We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth.” (See: Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings) The counter-discourse of hacking provides the ability to use the existing networks in ways they were not supposed to by the reigning power. Nowadays phone tapping, a way of hacking someones phone line, is legal for the only institution that also has the monopoly of violence, namely the government. Besides the monopoly of violence, there is thus also the monopoly of surveillance through networks.

androidsThe cyberpunk movement of the 80s shows a glorification of the hacker as an outlaw: A modern day cowboy who challenges the system and is always one step ahead of it. Swift and uncatchable, almost like a liquid substance seeping through the cracks of the networks. The stories of Philip K. Dick often feature characters that have abilities to unravel mysteries of computer networks. Rick Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is one such outlaw. A grim person who has an extraordinary ability to recognize humanoid cyborgs.

A real-life outlaw story was experienced by Kevin Mitnick, who was wanted by the FBI from 1992-1995, however shows the criminalization of the art of hacking into networks. He was sent to prison in 1995 for five years and was released in January 2000. The story told in this documentary shows the duality of hacking. It is a kind of voyeurism, but it is also a heroic way to challenge networks and lay bare their vulnerabilities. No wonder many hackers also work as security advisers, Kevin Mitnick is no exception.

Hacking remains popular nowadays, but is no longer restricted to the outlaws. Simple tools to hack Hotmail or Myspace are provided by organized hacking troupes. This poses the question if hacking has lost its romance and has been degraded to a horrible nuisance, or even a nightmare for the everyday user of a network.

The documentary provides a really good basis for everyone interested in the early days of hacking. To see the whole documentary, which also includes an interesting interview with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak on hacking and the early Apple days, check out the embedded video below.

Plato’s Republic: The decline of the state and the history of the World Wide Web

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PlatoWhile reading through Plato’s conversation with Socrates in his classic writings of the Republic, I noticed an almost utopian allegory in Book VIII in which they discuss the decline of the state. The decline discussed by the ancient Greek philosophers resembles the history of the web untill now very precisely. I will give you my view of how I see this -maybe unorthodox- allegory. You can download it in a PDF here: Plato’s Republic: The decline of the state and the history of the World Wide Web.

Aristocracy
According to Plato’s writings, the essence of the state lies in the aristocracy (aristos meaning “best,” and krateîn meaning “to rule”). The principle of this state is the capability of reason of the philosophers. Because they possess this ability of reason, they are the best to rule. From this point on the state can only decline.

Since children of the philosophers might not be philosophers but commoners, other interests will tear the group apart. When they eventually cease to be philosophers nobody will listen to them anymore, and there will be no more respect for them from the warriors and commoners.

Looking at the early days of the Internet, which would later make possible the foundation for the Internet, we see the philosopical intentions and thoughts of the first users about what is perhaps to come. One of the early online communities called The WELL, which is still online today, is an example of early discussion of what was to come and become of the internet.

The very early Internet was used by scientists, engineers, librarians and of course the computer experts. There was no user-friendly, uniform interface and you had to learn a very complex system to actually participate in the first place.

There was a threshold for the participation, but once that threshold lowered it became widely available for the masses mainly by the introduction of the HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and the World Wide Web. The early Internet aristocrats saw their ideals and what they had built up suddenly exploited by the Internet providers.

To me they can be seen as the warriors, they merely use the technology and ideas provided to construct an infrastructure. The base of a state like the military. And the users are the commoners of Plato’s days. The Internet became user-friendly, and therefore the users noticed that they could work with the Internet all by themselves without having to learn any complex computer system. All was equal and the threshold was gone.

Timocracy
[We take] the State first and then proceeding to the individual, and begin with the government of honour? –I know of no name for such a government other than timocracy, or perhaps timarchy. -–Republic, Book VIII

The result of the decline of the aristrocracy is the timocracy according to Plato and Socrates. The warriors are now the rulers. They have a monopoly of force, so why not use it? Timocracy means the rule of honor. But how does this decline into the next state? When the code of honor is broken and the children of the warriors will start to use their military powers to obtain wealth.

The Internet providers had a monopoly on the division of the Internet. They had the servers and the capabilities to bring the Internet and the World Wide Web in the living room of thousands of families. While at first this was an ideal, to bring Internet to every household and every desk at the office, this soon became a bloody battle for wealth with . With examples of AOL booming to immense heights and wealth in the late 90’s –but also other national providers all over the world- the companies obtained wealth.

Oligarchy
I believe that oligarchy follows next in order.
And what manner of government do you term oligarchy?
A government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it. –Republic, Book VIII

And so we arrive at the next state which is dominated by wealth, value and property: The oligarchy. The desire of the rich is one of the main principles, but there is still quite some discipline involved because no one can simply live a luxurious life of pleasure and continue to be rich. But in the end, the lack of discipline of the children of the rich will be the downfall. Spending money that isn’t really there anymore.

With the Internet we still face the problem of the digital divide, where the rich have the power (of the Internet) and the poor are deprived of it. The words of Plato can be copied and pasted directly on the problem of the digital divide, which still haunts the Internet today. This problem arose in the time that the Internet was distributed by the Internet providers, the time when Internet was available for the public, but only the public that could pay.

The wealth of the Internet providers, and the newly found dot-com companies who all wanted a piece of the pie, continued to boom in the second half of the 90’s. The dot-com companies can be seen as the children of the Internet providers, sprouting from the new abilities of the available networks.

But when everyone discovered that he pie was actually not so big as expected, and the companies were spending money that wasn’t really there (yet), the bubble burst resulting in the infamous dot-com bubble.This caused a time of economic recession in a lot of Western countries. Dot-com companies fell hard, and also some providers like the Dutch World Online went down with the bubble.

Most of the dot-com companies were static websites, not the read-write web. The “poor people” wanted to be able to speak up about their own lives, and they wanted their share of the Internet. Being a watchdog for the bigger companies –and the jurassic big media- who failed in the dot-com bubble. After the burst of the bubble, the people took their chance to speak up resulting in Web 2.0.

Democracy
Next comes democracy; of this the origin and nature have still to be considered by us; and then we will enquire into the ways of the democratic man, and bring him up for judgement. –Republic, Book VIII

Now we have arrived in the state of democracy, the rule of the people. Plato sees the democracy as the most fair, or most beautiful of the constitutions. It represents the desire of the many, and anyone can have his or her say in what is going on. Every voice is equal, so this means that anything goes. What Plato talks about is that this equality will be the downfall for the democracy, sinced they will become increasingly undisciplined and therefore chaotic. This chaotic nature will result in the people wanting someone to give them laws, order and guidelines to quiet things down and stop the chaos.

With the rise of Web 2.0 and social media some bloggers, like journalist Dan Gillmor in his book We The Media, see this as a revolution in media and Internet. Finally the people have the power, no more top-down hiërarchies but grassroots is the way to go. This is the current situation we are in, a democratic World Wide Web, or the read-write web. The people have a way of speaking their hearts out and this results in an incredible stream of information, mostly about personal thoughts, views and experiences.

What is needed, is guidance, laws and order for anyone to make sense of this massive amount of information. Someone, or something has to step up to stop the chaos. What Plato says in the Republic is this: “The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.”

Tyranny
And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty? –Republic Book VIII

The tyrant will be the one that succeeds in quieting down the situation. After that, and when the people have faith in him, he establishes a new kind of government, and that is the tyranny. The state is still about desires (freedom, wealth), but these are now only the desires of the tyrant himself. In European history when can point out recent examples like Hitler and Mussolini, who made a democracy decline into a tyrrany.

I am not going to fill in all the dots here on what will happen. But I think this process is something we are working towards. Not a tyranny in the old sense of the word, with war and bloody battles, but a monopoly we help set up because we all like to use it. I will give a hint: There is more than one website that can help you order the chaos, and if we don’t start supporting other alternatives on ordering the World Wide Web we might be blinded by a single view of the World Wide Web and also of the world.

We need multiple perspectives on the world, and because of a person’s inevitable way of following the masses the freedom is now in danger. This might sound worse than I really mean it, but I hope this makes you wake up and see that there are so many lenses through which you can view the World Wide Web and we only tend to use just one. Isn’t that a shame? A waste of opportunity?

I would like to end my thoughts with one last quote from the Republic: “The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness. […] This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector.”

Further reading and sources used
Plato. The Republic (translated by Jowett, Benjamin). Project Gutenberg Etext no. 1497. Website visited 10-16-2006, http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1497
Ross, Kelley L. Plato’s Republic. Website visited 10-17-2006, http://www.friesian.com/plato.htm
Plato’s Complete Works. Website visited 10-16-2006, http://www.geocities.com/pharsea/Dialogues.html