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Archive for the ‘Internet’ Category

Gerrymandering the Internet, Continued

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 17, 2008

Further to my last post, Doc Searls expands on the fragmentation of the web in Splinternet.  In World-Wide Regions, James Robertson relates the absurdities of geographic coding of DVDs.  As an additional absurdity, I quote below the well-meaning and obviously pained text of a webpage that popped up when I tried to log-on to the music service Pandora from my desk in Sofia, Bulgaria:

Dear Pandora Visitor,

We are deeply, deeply sorry to say that due to licensing constraints, we can no longer allow access to Pandora for listeners located outside of the U.S. We will continue to work diligently to realize the vision of a truly global Pandora, but for the time being we are required to restrict its use. We are very sad to have to do this, but there is no other alternative.

We believe that you are in Bulgaria (your IP address appears to be 87.126.21.115). If you believe we have made a mistake, we apologize and ask that you please contact us at pandora-support@pandora.com

If you are a paid subscriber, please contact us at pandora-support@pandora.com and we will issue a pro-rated refund to the credit card you used to sign up. If you have been using Pandora, we will keep a record of your existing stations and bookmarked artists and songs, so that when we are able to launch in your country, they will be waiting for you.

We will be notifying listeners as licensing agreements are established in individual countries. If you would like to be notified by email when Pandora is available in your country, please enter your email address below. The pace of global licensing is hard to predict, but we have the ultimate goal of being able to offer our service everywhere.

We share your disappointment and greatly appreciate your understanding.

Sincerely,

Tim Westergren
Founder

Readers not familiar with the word “gerrymander,” its etymology, history, and effects might find it worthwhile to click here.  How we chart geopolitical boundaries shapes legal jurisdictions, national identities, and the very “non-rationalized” emplacement of infrastructure.  It also interprets how we interpret the significance political mandates (see this past post on the mapping of the recent US presidential election).  New and old forms of gerrymandering, apparently, affect how we use and envision the internet, are served by it, and structure and control its services and infrastructure.

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Posted in Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Music, National Identity | Leave a Comment »

Apple’s iTunes, NPR, Barriers to Giving, and the “Appliancing” of National Boundaries

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 10, 2008

A central element of the ethos and significance – or at least the rhetoric – of the Internet Age is the transcendence of the arbitrary geographic and political boundaries we have inherited from the past and the liberation of the exchange of information, the conduct of commerce, and the formation of communities from the constraints of physical locations and boundaries.  Consider the following case to the contrary …

“This American Life”

I am – or rather was – a regular listener to Ira Glass’s wonderful eclectic radio program This American Life, broadcast over non-commercial, listener-donation-supported National Public Radio (NPR) in the USA and available courtesy of NPR worldwide over the internet.  The ubiquity of the internet had given me the luxury of listening to the program “on demand” during my long periods of work and residency abroad –  that is, if and when I can find an internet connection with sufficient bandwidth to stream the show.  To ensure enjoying This American Life without being tethered to my computer, whenever I stumbled upon suitable signals I took to downloading current and back episodes as podcasts via iTunes for later on my iPod and Blackberry.

Paid Podcasts

A few weeks ago, this system “crashed,” so to speak, and fatally at that.  While downloading podcasts to my computer in preparation for a long flight from New York to Istanbul and a few internet-less weeks thereafter, I discovered that I could gain access only the most recent episode of This American Life.  Podcasts of past episodes were only available for sale from Apple’s iTunes store at a price of $0.99.  This sounded very reasonable. By paying $0.99 for each one-hour-long weekly episode, I could  both obtain the programs and conveniently make regular donations to its support – an excellent alternative to the disruption of writing out a check or calling in a credit card number donating during National Public Radio’s seasonal on-the-air and over-the-internet fund raising drives.

Reinforcing Artificial Boundaries

Excellent, or so it seemed, until I read the fine print.  As it does with its iPhone, Apple “appliances” its services to geopolitical strictures inherited from the pre-Internet age and to a jingoistic concept of national identity quite contrary to the expansive spirit of This American Life and to the “worldwide” as in Worldwide Web.  Podcasts of This American Life are available for purchase and download via iTunes only from IP addresses within the boundaries of the United States.  Also, even within the US, Apple does not accept for payment credit cards issued by overseas banks.  Last, even when listeners from within the US attempts a purchase a credit card issued by a US bank, Apple will not sell them podcasts if their iTunes Stores accounts were originally registered from abroad.

By jigsawing its services to fit national boundaries, Apple fragments the efficacy and global scope of the internet and denies NPR broader listenership, international impact, and potential revenues.  By outsourcing  exclusive sales of podcasts of the This American Life to Apple’s iTunes Store, NPR denies the benefits and insights of listenership and the pleasure of contributing to the support of Public Radio to Americans living and working abroad, not to mention citizens of all other countries.

The Internet and Its Infrastructure

Those who participate with me off-line in the examination of the future of  infrastructure and the Internet will recognize in the above case a familiar conundrum.  The Internet — in its role as prime infrastructure for the formation of community and conveyance of the information, entertainment, knowledge and transactions — is intangible and without physical location.  However, the infrastructure that supports it is quite physical, an ad hoc non-purpose-built amalgam of fiber, copper, and wireless  strung together, enabled, and animated by protocols.  By resting on a “borrowed” infrastructure, the Internet has inherited the “gatekeepers” that own and control, charge for, and regulate these legacy elements – telecom operators and service providers, cable TV companies, governmental authorities, etc.).  Such organizations still carve up the world according to geopolitical entities and borders defined between the late-eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth and gerrymander services and access accordingly.  Apparently, so does Apple.  Apple’s method of “appliancing” country-by-country reinforces anachronistic borders and undermines the potential of the internet to transcend past divisions.

Apple and AK

Last month, a chance glace at Freedom Against Censorship Thailand led me to this report from the Christian Science Monitor re: Turkey’s current blockage of YouTube and Blogger, a reprise of its blockage of WordPress a year ago.  The present affair stems in part from a YouTube video posted by Greek football fans cast aspersions on the sexuality of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the iconic father of the modern Turkish state. Turkish law forbids the insulting of Turkishness and of the Republic, its founders, and symbols. Last year’s ban on all weblogs containing the name “wordpress” in their URL’s derived from a order issued by the local court of a religious neighborhood in Istanbul in response to a law suit filed by a Turkish “creationist” who claimed to have been libelled by an entry in a weblog hosted by WordPress.Com – an Internet Age case of “killing the messenger.”  The AK Party is Turkey’s ruling political party; the question of whether and how its incumbency prompts or facilitates such bans is a matter for discussion in another context.  For the moment, let’s leave it at saying that the heading to the present paragraph is a matter  of alliteration.  As to Apple, its geopolitical-entity-based approach to distribution of and access to podcast material is similar to Turkey’s operation of a “Great Firewall” congruent with its national boundaries and in accordance with its whims.  Opinions to the contrary?

Afterthoughts:

1. No More Newsprint, No More Disk(c)s

The Christian Science Monitor is America’s first venerable mainstream newspaper to end its print edition and become an exclusively online publication.  For details on the Monitor’s shedding of  its corporeality click here.  Not long after the Monitor gave up newsprint, Atlantic Records reported that for the first time its sales of music in mp3 format surpassed its sale of Compact Disc recording.  Music is by its very nature ephemeral and incorporeal and, in the scheme of things, the mere 100 or so years over which music has been distributed in the physical embodiments of phonograph cylinders and records, tape and CDs has been but a curious aberration.  A sad farewell to album cover art and liner notes, thus … and to slyly shaped invitations for guests to come over to look at one’s record collection.

2. Google and “The Great Game”

The Emergence of Google as the world’s prime search engine and the proprietary of Gmail, YouTube, and Blogger has given the “Company that Does No Evil” unparalleled knowledge of what is on the Web as well the ability to control how to find it. It also has given Google an unparalleled knowledge of who uses the web and how.  This has turned Google, a private company with no accountability to any constituency, into a negotiating partner of national governments whose laws or policies do not  reflect or respect the ethical stance claimed in Google’s own slogan.  Thus, Google now functions on a diplomatic level with the ability and clout to forge country-by-country compromises affecting internet activity and the free flow of information and opinion, Turkey’s YouTube and Blogger ban not least among them.  Click here for a journalistic portrait of Google’s emergence as a party to “The Great Game” of diplomacy via the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Posted in Censorship, Commentary, Content, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Music, Podcasting, Politics | 2 Comments »

Viktor Klemperer, Values-Based Identity, German and Dutch Perspectives Online, and Two Glorious Mistranslations

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 19, 2008

Links to my recent piece on The Language of the Third Reich and the Politics of Middle Names led me to two articles in the English-language online edition of the German news magazine Der Spiegel treating German-Jewish wartime diarist and analyst of totalitarian language, Viktor Klemperer.  The first article contains an excerpt from an entry in Klemperer’s diary written in the aftermath of the firebombing of Dresden.  The second article refers to a diary entry written earlier in the war in which Klemperer poses the conundrum that, based on enlightenment values, it is he who is German and the Nazis and their supporters — the very people who exclude him from German identity and, in the end, the very right to live — who are un-German and destroyers of all that is German.  Klemperer’s entry poses the opposition of values-based communities to contrived 19th and 20th century concepts of race-, ethnicity-, and language-based nation states having exclusive title to present and promised geographic territories.

Both articles appeared in Spiegel Online International which, despite its somewhat Time magazine-like style, is an excellent window though which monolingual Anglophones can observe European affairs and opinions up close, as well as US affairs through European eyes.  Americans often hold forth about the arrogance and condescension of Europeans towards them but, quite oddly, few if any Americans ever read the European press.

Spiegel Online International appears on the web in association with nrc.nl, the English-language web presence of the NRC Handelsblad, the erudite albeit sometimes pompous paper-of-record of the Netherlands.  The realization of a combined Dutch-German news presence online says much about the efforts Western Europe has made to transcend national differences and wartime scars.  It also says much about the power of the internet to erode artificial distinctions of national mindsets. (Note to Blackberry and iPhone users: Spiegel Online is also available in a mobile edition).

Glorious Mistranslations

Among the features of nrc.nl is its Denglish blog, a regularly updated compendium of malapropism-like mistranslations.  The editor of Denglish asks readers to submit their favorite Dutch-English linguistic confusions.  Here, thus, are two of mine:

1. Supporting the Undertaker

At a meeting of the World Economic Forum during the 1970s, Joop Den Uyl, leader of the Netherlands’ Labor Party (PvdA) spoke on the role of labor-private sector rapprochement in strengthening his country’s economy.  Den Uyl proudly announced: “In Holland we social-democrats always support the undertaker!” (The Dutch word for entrepreneur is ondernemer, literally under-taker.)

2. Equine Sex

Some years later, the Netherlands’ conservative Christian Democrat Premier Dries van Agt, when asked by Margeret Thatcher what he planned to do in his upcoming retirement, confided: “Madame, I plan to fuck horses.”  (Fokken is the Dutch verb meaning  “to breed.”)  Legend has it that the Iron Lady replied without missing a beat: “I wish you success!”

Posted in History, Identity, Internet, Language, Links, Media, National Identity | 5 Comments »

Infrastructural Convergence: Broadband over Power Lines

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 13, 2008

From the Wall Street Journal (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122644998675019183.html):

International Business Machines Corp. said it has been hired to work with rural electricity cooperatives to provide high-speed Internet service over power lines.

The project is a sign that using the electricity grid for communication — a technology utilities have long been interested in — has finally matured.

IBM said it signed a contract with closely held International Broadband Electric Communications Inc., Huntsville, Ala., to manage the installation of broadband systems at 13 cooperatives in seven states. The initial contract is for $9.6 million, but an IBM official said the company anticipates getting more business from some of the nation’s 900 other rural electricity cooperatives. IBM said it is also working with electric utilities overseas.

The system works by using standard power lines to carry a radio-frequency signal in the magnetic field that surrounds the wires. The signal is continuously amplified by low-priced repeater boxes clamped to the lines. When an electricity customer signs up for broadband services, the supplier mails out a special modem that is plugged into the wall outlet where the computer is plugged in. Pricing starts at $29.95 a month, International Broadband says.

Electricity providers have for some time seen the Web communications potential in their wires, but, until recently, the necessary signal-transmission devices have been too slow for high-speed connections and too expensive to compete with existing telephone wires. More recently, the technology has improved, but big utilities couldn’t see a way to compete with established cable and telecom carriers in urban and suburban areas.

But rural areas, which account for most of the 30 million U.S. homes that don’t have broadband access, provide an opportunity. Internet providers have avoided these locales because the population is too sparse for cable or phone companies to lay fiber or coaxial cable profitably, and hills and trees disrupt wireless networks.

Posted in Infrastructure, Internet | Leave a Comment »

Transportation, SUV’s, Jingoism … and Chickens

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 3, 2008

In issues of infrastructure, as in much of life, causality is often far more complex than we initially perceive.  While going through recent newspaper clippings this morning I came across this article which links the rise and fall of America’s petrol-guzzling, pollution-spewing “Sport Utility Vehicles” not to fluctuations in the prices of motor fuel but to Detroit auto makers’ decades-long successful but ultimately backfiring exploitation of a US  backlash against European tariffs on … American chickens!

Footnote: Agglomerations, Internet, and Mansions

Agglomeration was once the essence of the economies of cities.  In the internet age, agglomerations are functions of simulatneity and virtual availability more than physical proximity.  The movement of the heart of America’s house-of-cards financial sector from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to the mansions of Greenwich, Connecticut is a sub-theme of Tom Wolfe’s Greenwich Time.

Posted in Cities, Economy, Environment, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Politics | Leave a Comment »

“Selamat Hari Raya” Indeed!: Eid and Roshashoneh and the Infrastructure of the Internet

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 30, 2008

In a post this morning, Doc Searls pointed to the number-four-ranking thread on Twitter being Selamat Hari Raya.  My comment on Doc’s post:

Selamat Hari Raya, indeed! If my memory serves me well: “A great good morning (dawn?),” somewhat ala have-a-nice-day, but far less banal.* It is nostalgic for me to read Malay/”Indonesian”. Lovely sentiments on a day that is both Eid and Roshashoneh. To Muslim and Jewish friends both, a sweet holiday and healthy year. To Christian friends similar wishes and the hope that they — as peoples of all religious backgrounds — will grow in their knowledge and appreciation of the “others” in their midst.

PS. Bravo for showing this small but important bit of proof that the net and web and social networking are no longer exclusively American or Western.

To add a few more words: Allow me to be possibly the only person on the entire Web to offer appropriate, albeit secularized, Muslim and Jewish holiday wishes to all in the the unlikely combination of Turkish and Yiddish.  Thus, from my heart: “Iyi Bayramlar!” and “Ah Gezunt Yohr!”  (Note: This seemingly odd linguistic mix will make sense to those familiar with the name and subject matter of my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org)

To clarify my above-mentioned nostalgia, Malay and “Bahasa Indonesia” (the language of the Republic of Indonesia) are important to me for several reasons.  When I worked in Israel almost four decades ago, amongst my dearest friends were Dutch Jews with family connections to Surabaya.  During the 1970s, I worked on-and-off in Indonesia and spent months at a time in Jakarta and in rural Sumatra, as well as in Kalimantan (Borneo) and out on the Java Sea.  Most important, my dear step-daughter Floor has roots in Java, her mother having been born and raised in Surabaya.  And, not to forget, Floor’s grandmother and plethora of widowed great-aunts regularly fed me with excellent Javanese home cooking during a number of the years I lived in the The Hague.

The Infrastructure of the Internet

As I frequently mention on this site, Doc Searls and I are involved in a number of initiatives pertaining to “framing” the nature of — and influencing the future of — the infrastructure of the Internet.  As Doc regularly points out, many people confuse the Web with the Internet, the non-physical infrastructure that enables the Web.  The Internet, Doc notes, is an incorporeal aggregation of protocols and agreements and, as such, is fundamentally different from all past forms of infrastructure.  I invariably chime in that the Internet and its ability to host an emergent “giant brain” of information and processes are carried in turn by an underlying infrastructure that is indeed physical and quite traditional.  And, increasingly, this infrastructure is located outside of the US, thus raising issues of security, use, and governance that are not identical with issues faced or perceived by Americans.  For the latest addition to world’s internet/telephony infrastructure see Six Telecom Firms Finish Cable Across the Pacific in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. (Disclaimer: My apologies if the link to this article expires after seven days.  The Wall Street Journal not only charges a substantial fee for subscriptions to its on-line edition, it is also niggardly to the extreme in its provision of permalinks.  As solid and professional as the Journal’s news content may be, its commercial policies reflect the mercenary profit-oriented and conservative stance of its editorial page.)

Footnote: Friends have let me know that my translation is too literal.  In use, Selamat Hari Raya is the traditional salutation used at Eid.

Posted in Food, Infrastructure, Internet, Language, Religion, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »

The Etymology of Infrastructure and the Infrastructure of the Internet

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 22, 2008

Last week, I received a query from Doc Searls, who was working on an article on the infrastructure of the internet for the Publius Papers, a series of short internet-related think-pieces published by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law.

Doc’s question: What did I know about the etymology and history of the word: “infrastructure”?  — a simple matter on the surface but one that cuts to the heart, not only of Doc’s subject, i.e. how the internet functions and what is required to sustain it, but also to the core of how polities enable their economies and serve their citizens, a matter at the crux of the present financial disasters and economic instability in the US.

Dictionary

A quick internet search (Merriam-Webster online) brought this crisp, near-tautological definition plus tantalizing reference to the word’s relatively recent origin:

Pronunciation: \ˈin-frə-ˌstrək-chər, -(ˌ)frä-\ Function: noun. Date:1927

1: the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization)
2: the permanent installations required for military purposes
3: the system of public works of a country, state, or region ; also : the resources (as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity
— in·fra·struc·tur·al -ˌstrək-chə-rəl, -ˌstrək-shrəl\ adjective

Americanism?

A look at my bookshelves brought more surprising results.  “Infrastructure” does not appear in my 1970s Concise Oxford Dictionary and in my Oxford Thesaurus of the same period it is listed only as a synonym for “base.”  But, “infrastructure” is listed in a run-of-the-mill American dictionary of the time (Grollier) which defines it as a “foundation” and as “… the permanent structures of a military organization, esp. those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

The absence of “infrastructure” in the Oxford and its presence in the Grollier suggest that the word had been an Americanism at the time.  But what about the tantalizing reference in Merriam Webster to the 1927 debut of the word?  A trip to the New York Public Library and some rummaging within the microfilm collection of the Library’s business division (located in the magnificent neo-Renaissance pallace-like building on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue that once housed B. Altman’s department store, a mainstay of New York’s 19th- and 20th-century retail sector) began to bring clarity.

From French Railroads to NATO and the Cold War

Infrastructure indeed entered the English language as a loan word from French in which it had been a railroad engineering term.  A 1927 edition of the Oxford indeed mentioned the word in the context of “… the tunnels, bridges, culverts, and ‘infrastructure work’ of the French railroads.”  After World War II, “infrastructure” reemerged as in-house jargon within NATO, this time referring to fixed installations necessary for the operations of armed forces and to capital investments considered necessary to secure the security of Europe.

From Socially-Financed Prerequisites to Ideological Weapon

Within my own memory the use of the word “infrastructure” had spilled into the contexts of urban management and regions national development and into the private sector.  During my stint as a graduate student at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School for Social Research during the early 1970s, “infrastructure” was used to refer to those massive capital investments (water, subways, roads, bridges, tunnels, schools, hospitals, etc.) necessary to city’s economy and the lives of its inhabitants and businesses enterprises but too massive and too critical to be conceived, implemented, and run at a profit or to be trusted to the private sector.

Around the same time, the word had spread to the world of international development agencies where it took on a distinctly cold war ideological slant.  The best way to fight the spread of communism, it was argued, was to ensure local prosperity and economic stability (but, sadly, not the equitable distribution of wealth!) which could most quickly and effectively take place if all underlying necessities (water, power, roads, public transportation, etc.) were put in place through massive capital development projects whether financed by donations or by loans that would ensure the fealty of recipient nations for decades.

From Engineering to Abandonment

By the mid1970s, the word “infrastructure” took yet another turn, this time within the private sector.  From 1974-1982 I worked in Europe and Asia for one of the larger engineering and construction companies of the time.  At the time, in the world of oil refining, petrochemicals, and “process” plants, “infrastructure,” referred to those social or governmental capital investments — roads, sewerage, water sources, electrical power, and other “utilities” — that were necessary for manufacturing but the provision of which did not fall within the scope of a single project, the “battery limits” of an industrial facility, or the commercial “feedstocks” that were are the raw materials for industrial processes.

During the 1990’s, I worked on a number of investment attraction agencies and local projects in the Netherlands in which the provision of infrastructure was used both as a chip and bargaining point in the Dutch government’s and local authorities’ repeatably successful attempts to lure companies to locate their European operations in the country.

In recent years, in the United States at least, infrastructure is a word widely used but an aspect of economic life and social cohesion known more by its collapse and abandonment and raffling off to the private sector than by its implementation, well-functioning, and expansion.

Further Investigation

At the moment, I am involved in research in a number of aspects of what infrastructure is and what its provision entails.

With Doc Searls and Kevin Barron (Institute for Theoritcal Physics, University of California at Santa Barbara), JP Rangaswami (British Telecom) and others, I am investigating what the infrastructure of the internet now is, could/should be, and how to best implement this.

Within the concept of urban studies and the contemporary home ownership and loan flim-flam, defaults, and financial disaster in the US, I am looking at the tension between two historical approaches, i.e. housing as infrastructure and housing as commodity.  As an analogue, I am also looking at the paradigmatic abandonment of socially financed public transport to privately-owned automobiles.

Further afield but surprisingly germane, I am digging into the effects of infrastructural change on the fabric of historical cities (Istanbul specifically) and the means and institutions that enabled the former Ottoman Empire to maintain the infrastructure of cities and trade for the better part of a millennium.

More to follow on each of these subjects …

Posted in Cities, Economy, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Language, Libraries | 3 Comments »

Infrastructure and Orthography: Hawaii/Havaii, A Charlie Parker Tune, a Giant Brain and a Collection of Strands

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 17, 2008

I’ll begin with a 1930s New York joke.  An immigrant couple from New York takes a boat cruise to Hawaii.  They argue: Is Hawaii pronounced “ha-wah-yee” or “ha-vah-yee”?  To settle their dispute, they approach the first passerby they see after docking.  “Is it “hah-way-yee” or “hah-vay-yee,” they ask.  Hah-vay-yee” the passerby tells them.  “Thank you” says the couple.  “You’re velcome!” replies the passerby.

A Charlie Parker Tune and a California town

My own take on choosing pronunciations is to use those appropriate to the language in which I am speaking rather than to the language from which a word or name originates.  Thus, while I indeed say “Par-ee” when speaking French, I say “Paris” in English and “Parijs” when speaking Dutch. This week, I’ve been caught out twice while improperly pronouncing the name of the southern California town Camarillo.  Despite my long-ago near-mastery of Spanish, a maybe because of my Anglophone literalism, I habitually make audible the double-“l” in Camarillo, thus causing offended Californians to firmly interject  “No, it is ‘Camariyo’.”

I am not alone in my offending pronunciation.  Generations of jazz fans know that saxophone great Charlie Parker called the tune he wrote in memory of a stay at a California drug detox facility “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” and not “Relaxing at Camariyo”  I’ve got air check recordings of Parker and the sonorous-voiced 1940s-50s New York radio and club announcer Symphony Sid to prove it.  Also, in Caribbean Spanish as spoken here in New York, Camarillo would be pronounced “Camarijo.”

A Giant Brain and a Collection of Strands

The offended Californians mentioned above are two very pleasant and erudite colleagues: Kevin Barron, communications theorist and IT-director at the Institute of Theoretic Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara and Arrie Bachrach, Camarillo-based veteran environmental affairs specialist and senior program manager at the enviromental consultancy firm ENSR.  Kevin is a new acquaintance.  He and I are working together — under the lead of Doc Searls of the Berkman Institute for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and JP Rangaswami of British Telecom — to define and see to establishment an institute for the study ofthe infrastructure of connectivity, this including the infrastructure of the internet.

Kevin Barron sees the internet in part as an emergent decentralized  “giant brain” that grows in infinitismal increments and enables us to think beyond and transcend ourselves, not least in terms of the cultural differences that divide us.  Along with Kevin, I am fascinated by the concept of infinite accumulation and interrelation of knowledge and of the internet as a means for transcending the artificial distinctions goups of human beings erect between themselves and for neutralizing the potential of this for generating carnage, suffering, and material waste.  (In a future post I hope to present a summary of my research these past two years into the origins, artificiality and consequences of national identities, a sub-theme in many of my recent postings).

To fulfill its promise as a “giant brain,” however, the internet is dependant on open, gentlemen’s-agreement”-like nature of the protocols that facilitate it and on the vulnerable physicality of the dispersed servers strands of  fiber and cable that comprise its corporeal infrastructure.  The irony: from the great firewall of China to Russia’s recent cyber attack on the Republic of Georgia, the same divisive forces that the internet has the potential to transcend conspire to compromise the internet’s potential universality and to turn an open Net into closed and carefully controlled national and imperial Nets

Arrie Bachrach is presently working on a number of projects weighing the potentials of decentralized vs. centralized power production.  For the efficiencies of decentralized power to be realized, a “giant brain” must emerge to continuously guage production to need and to facilitate and fine-tune import and export of power amongst an eventual plethora of micro-scale local facilities worldwide.  Such a brain would be dependent on the internet as its infrastructure and thus in turn be dependent on the the elemental physical components that compose the substrructure of the internet.

Footnote: Life as Internet, Coincidence as Infrastructure

Although Kevin Barron and Arrie Bachrach have never met both are connected by a web of coincidences.  At the most obvious level, Arrie’s employer, ENSR, is a corporate sponsor of the Bren School of Environmental Management at the University of California at Santa Barbara.  On a more tangental level, I know Kevin through Doc Searls, who I met while I was a part-time philosophy undergraduate in Greensboro, NC four decades ago.  My friendship with Arrie dates back to earlier in the 1960s when we were both denizens of the Student Cooperative Housing in the Westwood section of Los Angeles near UCLA, a home to Black, Jewish, and Asian students in the days of “restricted” student fraternities and a poud bastion of anti-surfer-ism and premature support of the civil rights movement and opposition to the war in Vietnam as well as premature dope smoking (yes, we inhaled).  The main building of the “Coop” was a sparse Bauhaus-like glass and concrete interwar aparment building designed by the emigre architect Richard Neutra.  In the early 1990s, Doc and Joyce Searls introduced me to one of their friends, Dion Neutra, son of Richard Neutra and an architect in his own right.  In the years that followed, Dion and I managed to get together for architectural walks in New York and in the Netherlands, my one-time European base and the site of a number of works associated with Richard Neutra.

Posted in Architecture, Environment, Infrastructure, Internet, National Identity | Leave a Comment »

The Infrastructure of the Internet and the View Across the Bering Straits

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 15, 2008

For some months this spring and summer, as part of a work-related project, I took part in an email-list “discussion” on issues pertaining to the infrastructure of the Internet.  Participants were mostly from the US with a sprinkling of others from as far away as New Zealand.

As the list took on a life of its own, I noticed a trend.  The more vocal of the US participants held forth rather than discussed and in doing so sounded oddly like the blustering right-wing American radio commentator Rush Limbaugh.  This was not only a matter of their tone and propensity toward ad homonym argument but also of their preoccupations.  Like Limbaugh, they were vituperative about America’s “regulators” and “regulations” and also seemingly blind to the achievements and problems of the rest of the world and the approaches of other countries to the issues they face.

The current economic woes in the US — e.g. the mortgage and housing market collapses, the folding of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, the bankruptcy of major banking/investment houses — appear to be functions of inadequate regulation and ineffectual government involvement.  The same goes for the messes that attend to the country’s power grid, transportation infrastructure, and health care and educational systems.  Imaginary “markets” as exalted by the US right-wing are no substitute for responsive and effective governance.  (For an interesting take — by no means identical to my own — on the importance of quality rather than quantity of regulation and the across-the-board failure of regulation under the Bush administration click here)

After the Second World War, the US economy comprised roughly four-fifths of the total world economy — but that was 60 years ago.  Today, the worldviews of many Americans appear stuck in post-WWII self-congratulation. Oddly, despite the phrase “world wide web,” such US-centrism seems to effect many local internet types as well.  But there is more to the internet than the US alone. An item in the Times this August (click here) pointed out that the majority of the physical infrastructure of the internet is now located outside of the US as is most of the net’s traffic.

The Russian invasion of the Republic of Georgia this summer highlighted other issues related to internet infrastructure and the fragmentation and vulnerability of the web.  That Georgia’s internet access ran through Russia made the country vulnerable to cyber-attacks and to potential isolation financially and communications-wise.  A new cable now being strung under the Black Sea will, in the future, route Georgia’s internet traffic via Bulgaria rather than Russia.  But, physical links via the Black Sea are by no means immune from compromise and Bulgaria, although now a member of NATO and of the EU, is a notoriously corrupt country with deep financial ties to Russia’s “black” economy and with absolutely no culture of adherence contractual obligations.

The US is now faced with the chilling possibility that the governor of the state of Alaska — who claims that the physical proximity of her state to Russia and the vistas of Russian as seen from Alaska across the Bering Straits give her requistite background in foreign affaris — has a fair shot at becoming the successor to the US presidency.  I hope my colleagues in future debates on the infrastructure of the internet will take a less myopic view of the rest of the world than the Alaska governor does.

Posted in Infrastructure, Internet, Media | Leave a Comment »

A Zittrain Dilemma: Appliances, the iPhone, and the Solidification of National Boundaries

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 12, 2008

I just finished reading Jonathan Zittrain’s book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It” (click here for Zittrain’s weblog of the same name)  … and now wish we could turn back the clock.

Zittrain’s thesis is that the internet has come to a turning point at which the collaborative and open and “generative” nature of the Net is being undermined by bad code, increasing complexities, and greater and lesser cyber-crime.   Fear of all three drives many of us to turn towards “applianced” devices in which a  trusted vendor controls hardware, software, and … content.  In the “generative” world we are threatened by malevolent outlaws, in the “applianced” world by monopolists and potential dictators.

Apple’s iPhone is a paradigmatic  “appliance.”  Apple ensures that the  iPhone’s physical form and the software that animates it unite into an powerful, capable, and aesthetically pleasing whole.  Apple also ensures and protects the safety of the device … albeit by controlling sources of content and deciding which applications can run on an iPhone and which cannot.

Apple also controls the iPhone’s connectivity.  In each national market in which the iPhone is sold it is permanently “SIM-locked” to the network and policies of a single “telco” thus depriving users of the possibility of switching SIM cards (i.e. the very “souls” of their phones) and, as a result, their carriers. To those who rarely travel or who live in large countries this is no tragedy.  Within each country, carriers’ price plans, coverage, and quality balance out more or less.  But in an international context, chaining users to a single provider prevents them from switching cards and carriers when crossing borders, thus holding them captive to roaming charges that are astronomical for voice calls and cataclysmic for data traffic.

The effect on monthly phone bills of overseas data roaming and push email is so extreme that even Apple’s US iPhone partner AT&T now posts on its website a warning advising customers to turn off the data and email capabilities of their iPhones when traveling abroad.  This spares customers the shock of outlandish bills but it also defeats the integration of capabilities and seamless connectivity that is the supposed hallmark and benefit of the iPhone.  The only alternative for loyal or compulsive iPhone users is the purchase of additional iPhones for each and every one of the countries they visit or work in.

Thus, the iPhone (and the manner in which it is brought to market and made connective) is so “applianced” that its forces users to conform to the arbitrary national boundaries we inherit from the 19th and early-20th centuries.  The irony: Within national markets the iPhone is a device that optimizes connectivity; seen internationally, however, the distibution and connectivity of the iPhone lead us on a retreat from the universality and border-transcending interconnectedness that many of assumed the merger of telecommunications and the internet would enable.

Posted in Books, Infrastructure, Innovation, Internet, National Identity, Telecommunications | 2 Comments »

Infrastructure and the Artificiality of Nations: The Internet, Balkan Crossings, and Border Radio

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 10, 2008

Over the last few years I have been involved part-time in the study of the origins and consequences of national identities and nation states.  Countries organized around homogeneous “peoples” united by common religions and languages and sharing common histories, destinies and exclusive title to geographic entities are artifices that came to the fore during the Romantic Age, that solidified during the 19th century, and occassioned wars and genocides in the 20th.

On the work front, I am now involved in a project to create an institute for the study of the history and future of infrastructure — especially the infrastructure of “connectivity” as manifested in the Internet.  Issues of internet infrastructure, national identity, and nation states overlap.   On the surface, the Internet appears to transcend geographic boundaries that delineate nation states and also has provided a platform for enabling individuals to shape their identities and live their lives according to self-defined clusters of interests and allegiances separate from the nationalities stamped on their passports. But, the cables and fibers that comprise the infrastructure on which the Internet rests remain divided and clustered according to national boundaries and regulated and controlled within the contexts of nation states — just as are water, energy, and telephony.

Balkan Crossings

The absurdities of dividing infrastructure — traditional and new — along nationally-defined lines becomes palpable as one moves from the centers of nation states to their edges.  I often travel by night train from Sofia in Bulgaria (once a part of the Soviet Bloc and now a member state of the European Union)  and Istanbul in Turkey (a country that, in its post-1923 incarnation, developed its economy and infrastructure largely on its own).  Trains in both directions between Sofia and Istanbul approach the Bulgarian-Turkish border at 3 a.m.  State-railway-owned electric locomotives are removed from the trains just before they enter the infrastructure-less strip of no-man’s land that parallels the border itself. The trains are then shuttled from one country to the other by jointly-maintained diesel-powered locomotives. Passengers’ passports and baggage are checked once at the Bulgarian checkpoint and again on the Turkish side.  The glowing lights of towns visible from stations on both sides of the border are lit by separate nationally-defined power grids and their residents drink from separate nationally-defined water supply systems.  Telephoning or checking email from the border can be shockingly expensive, a glance at the screen of one’s mobile phone shows that signals switch back-and-forth between those of Bulgarian, Turkish, and Greek service providers (Greece’s northeastern border with Bulgaria and Turkey is only a few kilometers away).

Border Radio

Last month, US National Public Radio’s On the Media program broadcast The X Factor, a piece on the history and phenomenon of Border Radio.  Border Radio refers to the radio stations whose immense towers sprouted on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border during the 1920s and 1930s.  Most of these stations were “fugitives” on the run from US broadcasting and truth-in-advertising regulations and were welcome in regulation-free Mexico in part due to the revenues they produced.  The first of the Border Stations was set up by a patent medicine peddling Kansan with an MD degree from a diploma mill in Chicago and a thriving practice in curing male impotence through goat gonad transplant operations. The station was established as the doctor’s own proprietary advertising and marketing device for gonad transplants and associated medicines but soon became a thriving business in its own right.

As more such stations were founded, other flamboyant figures flocked to Border Radio including faith healing preachers who talked in tongues and announcers who moved beds into their broadcasting booths so they could have sex while speaking on the air.  More profoundly, as Border Radio grew it came to reflect the mood and tastes of the American heartland.  East and West Coast based  mainstream radio with its big-band music, movie-star guests, and limp comedies and soap-operas fared well in New York and Los Angeles but the rural states of the former Confederacy and the dust-bowl stricken plains needed a voice of their own.

From its physical location just outside of the US, Border Radio came to mirror rural America and also to reshape it.  Border Radio played a role in solidified and promoting commercial country music and, through the legendary Brooklyn-born disk-jockey The Wolfman, spread rock ‘n roll through the American heartland.  On the political front, Border Radio’s religious programs brought the worldview of rural pentecostal Christianity into the age of broadcasting, feeding the creation of what ultimately became America’s powerful religious right.

Central to the influence of Border Radio was its infrastructure– million-watt clear-channel frequencies whose waves were said to be strong enough to fry flocks of birds in mid-flight and whose signals not only blanketed  America’s heartland but also caromed off the stratosphere to listeners in the South Pacific and in KGB listening posts in Moscow.  Like the Internet, national boundaries were superfluous to Border Radio and, also like the internet, by creating an alternative to the mainstream of its time, Border Radio shaped a new mainstream in its own image.

More on this theme in subsequent entries …

Posted in Bulgaria, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, National Identity, Popular Culture | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructure of Commerce and Manufacturing: It’s All in the Heavy Lifting

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 4, 2008

Often it is the most traditional infrastructure and the oldest technology that underlies and determines the fates of seeming innovations.

Nine years ago, at the height of millennial enthusiasm occasioned by the “Dot Com Boom” and the financial sector’s disposal of billions of dollars of other people’s hard-earned money floating  “IPOs” of  internet-related start-ups without viable business plans, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a seemingly wet-blanket piece in The New Yorker that presented the then sacred-cow of e-commerce as a mere twist on the mail-order business and as nothing more than a new front-end to the US Postal Service.  In Clicks and Mortars, Gladwell proposed that the real innovation behind e-commerce was the 19th-century invention of the road-grading machine that made possible government-sponsored Rural Free Delivery of post which in turn lead to the giant mail-order houses of Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward (Neckermann would be Europe’s closest equivalent) the success of which led to mass manufacturing of ready-to-wear clothing.  The computer on the front-end of e-commerce was little more than a neat twist on the cataloger and payment sides of an old formula.  In the end, goods remain goods and delivery remains delivery.

The same goes for globalization.  Smart last-minute inventory systems, clever financial management, flouting of labor laws, and cozy arrangements with corrupt third-world heavies made globalized manufacturing possible but, in the end, goods need to be moved and delivered.  A summary take on the effects of rising oil prices on the house of cards that is globalization can be found in this recent report in the New York Times.

Footnotes

In keeping with the proud eccentricity of the New Yorker, the full text of the Gladwell article is not available online.  To find it, stop by your local bricks-and-mortar library or invest in the New Yorker’s proprietary full-archives-on-a-single-USB-hard-drive, a solution worthy of Eustace Tilley (the magazine’s emblematic 1920s dandy) in the internet age.

Neckermann, by the way, is the current incarnation of what was once the family business of the forebearers of pop singer Billy Joel.  The Joel family’s Berlin-based mail order house, which grew from their original dry-goods store in Munich, was “Aryanized” (read: stolen and plundered) by the Nazis and their hangers-on during the 1930s.

Posted in Economy, Infrastructure, Internet, Media | Leave a Comment »

Links: Confused of Calcutta Considers YouTube; Brian Lehrer Interviews “Internets Celebrities”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 12, 2008

On Confused of Calcutta, JP Rangaswami writes of an upcoming lecture on the anthropology of YouTube and muses on YouTube’s volume of programming having surpassed that of network television. JP’s words lead me to refer again to the work of my favorite YouTube contributors, the self-created “Internets Celebrities” Dallas Penn and Rafi Kam (for links to their blogs and their films go to the next-to-last paragraph of my post of May 25). The Internets Celebrities’s combination of humor and economic and social insight have created a new genre of commentary-meets-comedy-meets-NYC-street-sensibilities and of making young (and old — witness this writer) people aware of the workings of the systems and situations in which they live — this while bypassing television broadcasting and movie-houses. Via YouTube, each of the Internets Celebrities short videos have logged up to 1,000,000 views each. For insight into what they’ve done, how they do it, and the place of YouTube in the process, view this recent broadcast (“Ghetto Economics”) on New York’s Brian Lehrer Live.

Posted in Communications, Economy, Internet, Media, Popular Culture | Leave a Comment »

The Costs of Bandwidth and an Appeal to Help Meet Them, Anti-Fascists and Proto-Fascists, Blues and Lenya

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 3, 2008

Costs of Bandwidth and an Appeal

This week’s podcast (The Prosecutor) from listener-supported Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life begins with a soft-spoken and cogent fundraising appeal from the program’s chief commentator, Ira Glass. Glass reports that ever since the station began its experimental podcasting of weekly episodes of This American Life a year-and-a-half ago, weekly downloads of the program have risen to 400,000,, and in some weeks have even exceeded a half-million.

This successful podcasting service, Glass continues, is free to the program’s listeners but not to the station. In Glass’s words: “… the bandwidth itself to do that much internet traffic costs our home radio station $152,000 this year.” His appeal is for each subscriber to the program’s podcasts to donate a single dollar per year to offset these costs. Such a minuscule donation would cover the program’s bandwidth bill three-fold. Of course, Glass acknowledges the sad fact that most internet users are unwilling to pay for the value they receive and, so, he suggests that responsible listeners give $5.00 each thereby making up for the unfulfilled donations of four slackers.

I plan to respond to Glass’s appeal by putting my money where my podcast-listening ear is and donating $5.00 to support the free distribution of Glass and colleagues’ excellent show. I challenge all those involved with me in debates on the future of internet infrastructure and fellow followers of Doc Searls’s worthy Project VRM (an attempt to gear “markets” to the wants and needs of individuals) at Harvard Law to do the same. Dare to join me?

Anti-Fascists and Proto-Fascists

Recently, during a walk through the Garden of Tsar Boris III (in communist times the Garden of Freedom) in Sofia, Bulgaria. I encountered a gathering of “anti-fascists” commemorating the anniversary of the denouement of the Second War World in Europe. Bulgaria had been an enthusiastic ally of Nazi Germany during the Second World War but switched to the side of the Allies following the Soviet occupation of the country in September, 1944. Those Bulgarians who fought against the Nazis after the country changed sides have been relegated to a historical purgatory in the post-communist era in which the rhetoric of anti-communism has come to outweigh the memory of anti-fascism. There were fewer than 200 people, most of them quite old, at the anti-fascist gathering. On the other hand, rallies of Bulgaria’s antisemitic, anti-Gypsy, anti-Muslim Ataka party (which won 25% of the votes in Bulgaria’s last presidential election) still attract thousands.

Only hours before the stumbling across the gathering in the Sofia garden, I had heard the word “fascist” used in a more contemporary context. In an interview on the weekly podcast of the BBC’s Front Row, the 82-year-old American literary doyen (and eternal curmudgeon) Gore Vidal responded to a request to forecast the outcome of the upcoming US presidential election by saying that “… the likeliest outcome is that the Republican party, which is not a political party in any sense that Britain might know, (but which) is a mind set of crypto-fascists, will steal it from any Democrat who wins it, as they did with Albert Gore … they are quick to steal, look at the mess they’ve made.” And this is only the beginning of Vidal’s take on the party of Bush and McCain! The Front Line interview also includes Vidal’s recollections of fellow post-war literary giants Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. Bravo to Gore Vidal on all accounts!

Blues and Lenya

As an antidote to exposures to fascism, or to an excess of radio talk shows, two musical podcast suggestions: For a regular doses of the blues, try The Blues File. For background and anecdotes covering the all types of music and musical personalities, subscribe to Sarah Fishko’s excellent Fishko Files with, as a delightful, haunting, and anti-fascist starting point, this broadcast treating the great Lotte Lenya, wife of Kurt Weill and iconic interpreter of the music and lyrics of Weill, Bertolt Brecht, and others.

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Infrastructure, Internet, Links, Literature, Media, Music, Podcasting, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Neglected Infrastructure: On the Wrong Side of the Broadband Gap and Four Humorous Takes on Why Broadband is Important and How

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 31, 2008

In Cities Start Own Efforts To Speed Up Broadband on the front page of the May 19, 2008 edition of the Wall Street Journal (full article available to WSJ subscribers only), Christopher Rhoads reports how many smaller cities in the US have fallen on the wrong side of a domestic broadband gap and how some are taking on huge financial risks to vault themselves onto the right side. He also details how the US at large is slipping to the bottom rungs of a growing international broadband gap. The essence of the story:

“Some 60 towns and small cities, including Bristol, Va., Barnsville, Minn., and Sallisaw, Okla., have built state-of-the-art fiber networks, capable of speeds many times faster than most existing connections from cable and telecom companies. An additional two dozen municipalities, including Chattanooga, have launched or are considering similar initiatives.

The efforts highlight a battle over Internet policy in the U.S. Once the undisputed leader in the technological revolution, the U.S. now lags a growing number of countries in the speed, cost and availability of high-speed Internet. While cable and telecom companies are spending billions to upgrade their service, they’re focusing their efforts mostly on larger U.S. cities for now.

Smaller ones such as Chattanooga say they need to fill the vacuum themselves or risk falling further behind and losing highly-paid jobs. Chattanooga’s city-owned electric utility began offering ultrafast Internet service to downtown business customers five years ago. Now it plans to roll out a fiber network to deliver TV, high-speed Internet and phone service to some 170,000 customers. The city has no choice but to foot the bill itself for a high-speed network — expected to cost $230 million — if it wants to remain competitive in today’s global economy, says Harold DePriest, the utility’s chief executive officer.

It’s a risky bet. Some municipal Internet efforts, including wireless projects known as Wi-Fi, have failed in recent months. EarthLink Inc. confirmed last week it was pulling the plug on its wireless partnership with Philadelphia. A number of towns have abandoned a municipal fiber initiative in Utah, called Utopia, amid financial difficulties.

The latest efforts have aroused intense opposition from private-sector providers… “

As to the situation in the US compared with that in other developed countries: Charts in the WSJ article show to US to rank “…10th amongst the top 30 industrialized countries in terms of broadband penetration and 11th in terms of affordability.” The US also ranks well below the international average in terms of download speed.

My take: The domestic and international broadband gaps are further evidence of the inability of “markets,” and the unwillingness of profit-based private companies, to provide essential infrastructure on which economic competitiveness and security on based. In the past, great leaps forward in US domestic infrastructure were made through massive public sector investments and programs that bridged distance and disparities and enabled high capacity flows of goods and services: rural free postal delivery, rural electrification, WWII Liberty Ships, and even the post-war federal highways programs (despite their disastrous consequences ecologically and in terms of fossil-fuel and “SUV” dependence). The same goes for the infrastructure required for the US to ensure its competitiveness and integration into the global economy.

Don’t understand broadband and its importance? These four magnificent short advertising clips provide a thorough and humorous first lesson:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOceE7j–Oc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNzesOW2QG8

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iT0T4N-Hagk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaCNvONAlzs

Posted in Cities, Communications, Digitization, Economy, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »