Tuesday, November 1, 2016


I’ve said it before, but it apparently bears repeating: Your computer will never love you.

A corollary: While technology may indeed have a hand in fomenting whatever utopias lie in our future, technology will never be the sole instigator nor sole savior of said enlightenment. 

Technology is a tool. And, as tools go, it can be used for good, evil, or whatever lies in between.
And there are many shapers of tools. Tools meant for one purpose can be used for another. I have used a simple cone-shaped bag both to layer icing on a cake and mortar into the joints between brick and stone.

And try as they might, the creator of a tool and would-be shapers of a tool cannot stop others from re-shaping their re-shapes, or finding new shapes of their own.

Thus it is with the Internet. 

Benjamin Peters writes at aeon.co on the failed Sovietattempts to counter the development of ARPANET in the United States with a networked computer system of their own. His history is interesting to read, but some of what comes after seems a bit dubious.

In particular, I want to know what this means (aside from backhanded positive [maybe; I don’t know] advertising for aeon.co):

Inward-looking gravity wells (such as Facebook and the Chinese firewall) increasingly gobble up sites that link outwards (such as Aeon).

I have to imply a lot here, the author offers no definitions (something I pound into my students a lot as they write). Since he lumps Facebook and the “Chinese firewall” together, I have to assume this is more than the dreaded echo-chamber. An inward-looking gravity well, in light of the Chinese firewall, would imply a limitation, state- or corporate-sponsored, on information coming in from the outside, or the desire to have everything within the system, be it Facebook or a nation, be vetted or approved or controlled by that corporation or nation.

I’m probably way off. And that’s the author’s fault. Leaving concepts undefined leaves concepts open to interpretation.

To his credit, Peters answered the question when I posed it as a comment to the article:

I am not sure these phrases are so much specialist terms as admittedly literary (and perhaps unclear) attempts to describe the difference between platforms and site, where a platform invites users to share content on and continuously to return to it (e.g., via the FB/Twitter icon on the right–they are always sucking us back in) and where a regular site simply links outward to other sites. Linking inwards dovetails with app use, and linking outwards, a browser. Does that help a bit?

I see the point – but it’s based on the assumption (probably correct) that most people are accessing the Internet via mobile apps, rather than through a web browser. The concept sounded foreign to me as I do the vast majority of my Internetting via a desktop computer. (Add to that the fact that I found his article, and, indeed, aeon.co, via a link shared by a friend on Facebook – which seems outward-linking as far as I’m concerned and in how I use Facebook. Your mileage may vary).

Maybe a better term would be a fenced platform. I almost said closed platform, but that would represent the black hat of the Chinese firewall Peters mentions. A closed platform is one, like the Chinese Internet, where links to material outside of what the government wants people to see are cut off. A fenced platform, like Facebook, is one where there are no such restrictions except where users voluntarily limit their use of outside material, preferring instead to consumer material that keeps them on Facebook (or Twitter, or what have you).

But in that vein, ANY website could be considered to be a fenced platform, depending once again on how users use it. The type of platform, the type of use, the type of welling or outward-looking ALWAYS falls back on how the users use the website or app. Designers and writers may have one use in mind, but users have uses as unique as they are individual.

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