The Internet is Made of Demons

The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is is not what you think it is.

Sam Kriss has written a longish review essay on Justin E.H. Smith’s The Internet is Not What You Think It Is with the title The Internet is Made of Demons. In the first part Kriss writes about how the internet is possessing us and training us,

Everything you say online is subject to an instant system of rewards. Every platform comes with metrics; you can precisely quantify how well-received your thoughts are by how many likes or shares or retweets they receive. For almost everyone, the game is difficult to resist: they end up trying to say the things that the machine will like. For all the panic over online censorship, this stuff is far more destructive. You have no free speech—not because someone might ban your account, but because there’s a vast incentive structure in place that constantly channels your speech in certain directions. And unlike overt censorship, it’s not a policy that could ever be changed, but a pure function of the connectivity of the internet itself. This might be why so much writing that comes out of the internet is so unbearably dull, cycling between outrage and mockery, begging for clicks, speaking the machine back into its own bowels.

Then Kriss makes the case that the Internet is made of demons – not in a paranoid conspiracy sort of way, but in a historical sense that ideas like the internet often involve demons,

Trithemius invented the internet in a flight of mystical fancy to cover up what he was really doing, which was inventing the internet. Demons disguise themselves as technology, technology disguises itself as demons; both end up being one and the same thing.

In the last section Kriss turns to Justin E.H. Smith’s book and reflects on how the book (unlike the preceding essay “It’s All Over”) are not what the internet expects. The internet, for Smith, likes critical essays that present the internet as a “rupture” – something like the industrial revolution, but for language – while in fact the internet in some form (like demons) has been with us all along. Kriss doesn’t agree. For him the idea of the internet might be old, but what we have now is still a transformation of an old nightmare.

If there are intimations of the internet running throughout history, it might be because it’s a nightmare that has haunted all societies. People have always been aware of the internet: once, it was the loneliness lurking around the edge of the camp, the terrible possibility of a system of signs that doesn’t link people together, but wrenches them apart instead. In the end, what I can’t get away from are the demons. Whenever people imagined the internet, demons were always there.

People Make Games

From a CGSA/ACÉV Statement Against Exploitation and Oppression in Games Education and Industry a link to a video report People Make Games. The report documents emotional abuse in the education and indie game space. It deals with how leaders can create a toxic environment and how they can fail to take criticism seriously. A myth of the “auteur” in game design then protects the superstar leaders. Which is why they called the video “people make games” (not single auteurs.) Watch it.

Masayuki Uemura, Famicom creator, passes

I just got news that Masayuki Uemura just passed. Professor Nakamura, Director of the Ritsumeikan Center for Game Studies, sent around this sad announcement.

As it has been announced in various media, we regretfully announce the passing of our beloved former Director and founder of Ritsumeikan Center for Game Studies, and a father of NES and SNES- Professor Masayuki Uemura.We were caught by surprise at the sudden and unfortunate news .

Even after he retired as the director of RCGS and became an advisor, he was always concerned about each researcher and the future of game research.

 We would like to extend the deepest condolences to his families and relatives, and May God bless his soul.

As a scholar in video game studies and history, we would like to follow his example and continue to excel in our endeavors. 

(from Akinori Nakamura, Director, Ritsumeikan Center for Game Studies)

Donald Trump to launch social media platform called Truth Social

The former president, who remains banned from Facebook and Twitter, has a goal to rival those tech giants

The Guardian and other sources are covering the news that  Donald Trump to launch social media platform called Truth Social. It is typical that he calls the platform the very thing he is accused of not providing … “truth”. Trump has no shame and routinely turns whatever is believed about him, from fake news to being a loser, into an accusation against others. The king of fake news called any story he didn’t like fake news and when he lost the 2020 election he turned that upside down making belief that the election was stolen (and he therefore is not a loser) into a touchstone of Republican belief. How does this end? Do sane Republicans just stop mentioning him at some point? He can’t be disproved or disagreed with; all that can happen is that he gets cancelled. And that is why he wants us to Follow the Truth.

Facial Recognition: What Happens When We’re Tracked Everywhere We Go?

When a secretive start-up scraped the internet to build a facial-recognition tool, it tested a legal and ethical limit — and blew the future of privacy in America wide open.

The New York Times has an in depth story about Clearview AI titled, Facial Recognition: What Happens When We’re Tracked Everywhere We Go? The story tracks the various lawsuits attempting to stop Clearview and suggests that Clearview may well win. They are gambling that scraping the web’s faces for their application, even if it violated terms of service, may be protected as free speech.

The story talks about the dangers of face recognition and how many of the algorithms can’t recognize people of colour as accurately which leads to more false positives where police end up arresting the wrong person. A broader worry is that this could unleash tracking at another scale.

There’s also a broader reason that critics fear a court decision favoring Clearview: It could let companies track us as pervasively in the real world as they already do online.

The arguments in favour of Clearview include the challenge that they are essentially doing to images what Google does to text searches. Another argument is that stopping face recognition enterprises would stifle innovation.

The story then moves on to talk about the founding of Clearview and the political connections of the founders (Thiel invested in Clearview too). Finally it talks about how widely available face recognition could affect our lives. The story quotes Alvaro Bedoya who started a privacy centre,

“When we interact with people on the street, there’s a certain level of respect accorded to strangers,” Bedoya told me. “That’s partly because we don’t know if people are powerful or influential or we could get in trouble for treating them poorly. I don’t know what happens in a world where you see someone in the street and immediately know where they work, where they went to school, if they have a criminal record, what their credit score is. I don’t know how society changes, but I don’t think it changes for the better.”

It is interesting to think about how face recognition and other technologies may change how we deal with strangers. Too much knowledge could be alienating.

The story closes by describing how Clearview AI helped identify some of the Capitol rioters. Of course it wasn’t just Clearview, but also a citizen investigators who named and shamed people based on photos released.

Replaying Japan 2020

Replaying Japan is an international conference dedicated to the study of Japanese video games. For the first time this year, the conference is held online and will combine various types of research contents (videos, texts, livestreams) on the theme of esport and competitive gaming in Japan.

This year the Replaying Japan conference was held online. The conference was originally going to be in Liège, Belgium at the Liège Game Lab. We were going to get to try Belgian fries and beer and learn more about the Game Lab. Alas, with the pandemic, the organizers had to pivot and organize an online conference. They did a great job using technologies like Twitch and Minecraft.

Keiji Amano, Tsugumi (Mimi) Okabe, and I had a paper on Ethics and Gaming: A Content Analysis of Annual Reports of the Japanese Game Industry presented by Prof. Amano. (To read the longer conferencer paper you need to have access to the conference materials, but they will be opening that up.) We looked at how major Japanese game companies frame ethical or CSR (corporate social responsibility) issues which is not how ethics is being discussed in the academy.

The two keynotes were both excellent in different ways. Florent Georges talked about First Steps of Japanese ESports. His talk introduced a number of important early video game competitions. 

Susana Tosca gave the closing keynote. She presented a nuanced and fascinating talk on Mediating the Promised Gameland (see video). She looked at how game tourists visit Japan and interviewed people about this phenomenon of content tourism. This was wrapped in reflections on methodology and tourism. Very interesting, though it raised some ethical issues about how we watch tourists. She was sensitive to the way that ethnographers are tourists of a sort and we need to be careful not to mock our subjects as we watch them. As someone who loves to travel and is therefore often a tourist, I’m probably sensitive on this issue.

Sean Gouglas Remembers Stéfan Sinclair

Sean Gouglas shared these memories of Stéfan Sinclair with me and asked me to post them. They are from when they started the Humanities Computing programme at the University of Alberta where I am lucky to now teach.

In the summer of 2001, two newly-minted PhDs started planning how they were going to build and then teach a new graduate program in Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta. This was the first such program in North America. To be absolutely honest, Stéfan Sinclair and I really had no idea what we were doing. The next few months were both exhausting and exhilarating. Working with Stéfan was a professional and personal treat, especially considering that he had an almost infinite capacity for hard work. I remember him coding up the first Humanities Computing website in about seven minutes — the first HuCo logo appearing like a rising sun on a dark blue background. It also had an unfortunate typo that neither of us noticed for years. 

It was an inspiration to work with Stéfan. He was kind and patient with students, demanding a lot from them but giving even more back. He promoted the program passionately at every conference, workshop, and seminar. Over the next three years, there was a lot of coffee, a lot of spicy food, a beer or two, some volleyball, some squash, and then he and Stephanie were off to McMaster for their next adventure. 

Our Digital Humanities program has changed a lot since then — new courses, new programs, new faculty, and even a new name. Through that change, the soul of the program remained the same and it was shaped and molded by the vision and hard work of Stéfan Sinclair. 

On the 6th of August, Stéfan died of cancer. The Canadian Society for Digital Humanities has a lovely tribute, which can be found here: https://csdh-schn.org/stefan-sinclair-in-memoriam/. It was written in part by Geoffrey Rockwell, who worked closely with Stéfan for more than two decades. 

Celebrating Stéfan Sinclair: A Dialogue from 2007

Sadly, last Thursday Stéfan Sinclair passed away. A group of us posted an obituary for CSDH-SCHN here,  Stéfan Sinclair, In Memoriam and boy do I miss him already. While the obituary describes the arc of his career I’ve been trying to think of how to celebrate how he loved to play with ideas and code. The obituary tells the what of his life but doesn’t show the how.

You see, Stéfan loved to toy with ideas of text through the development of software toys. The hermeneuti.ca project started with a one day text analysis vacation/hackathon. We decided to leave all the busy work of being an academic in our offices, and spend a day in the TAPoR lab at McMaster. We decided to mess around and try the analytical equivalent of extreme programming. That included a version of “pair programming” where we alternated one at the keyboard doing the analysis while the other would take notes and direct. We told ourselves we would just devote one day without interruptions to this folly and see if together we could take a project from conception to some sort of finished result in a day.

Little did we know we would still be at play right until a few weeks ago. We failed to finish that day, but we got far enough to know we enjoyed the fooling around enough to do it again and again. Those escapes into what we later called agile hermeneutics, to give it a serious name, eventually led to a monster of a project that reflected back on the play. The project culminated in the jointly authored book Hermeneutica (MIT Press, 2016) and Voyant 2.0, both of which tried to not only think-through some of the potential of the play, but also give others a way of making their own interpretative toys (which we called hermeneutica). But these too are perhaps too serious to commemorate Stéfan’s presence.

Which brings me to the dialogue we wrote and performed on “Reading Tools.” Thanks to Susan I was reminded of this script that we acted out at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in June of 2007. May it honour how Stéfan would want to be remembered. Imagine him smiling at the front of the room as he starts,

Sinclair: Why do we care so much for the opinions of other humanists? Why do we care so much whether they use computing in the humanities?

Rockwell: Let me tell you an old story. There was once a titan who invented an interpretative technology for his colleagues. No, … he wasn’t chained to a rock to have his liver chewed out daily. … Instead he did the smart thing and brought it to his dean, convinced the technology would free his colleagues from having to interpret texts and let them get back to the real work of thinking.

Sinclair: I imagine his dean told him that in the academy those who develop tools are not the best judges of their inventions and that he had to get his technology reviewed as if it were a book.

Rockwell: Exactly, and the dean said, “And in this instance, you who are the father of a text technology, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not study the old ways; they will trust to the external tools and not interpret for themselves. The technology which you have discovered is an aid not to interpretation, but to online publishing.”

Sinclair: Yes, Geoffrey, you can easily tell jokes about the academy, paraphrasing Socrates, but we aren’t outside the city walls of Athens, but in the middle of Urbana at a conference. We have a problem of audience – we are slavishly trying to please the other – that undigitized humanist – why don’t we build just for ourselves? …

Enjoy the full dialogue here: Reading Tools Script (PDF).

The Man Behind Trump’s Facebook Juggernaut

Brad Parscale used social media to sway the 2016 election. He’s poised to do it again.

I just finished reading important reporting about The Man Behind Trump’s Facebook Juggernaut in the March 9th, 2020 issue of the New Yorker. The long article suggests that it wasn’t Cambridge Analytica or the Russians who swung the 2016 election. If anything had an impact it was the extensive use of social media, especially Facebook, by the Trump digital campaign under the leadership of Brad Parscale. The Clinton campaign focused on TV spots and believed they were going to win. The Trump campaign gathered lots of data, constantly tried new things, and drew on their Facebook “embed” to improve their game.

If each variation is counted as a distinct ad, then the Trump campaign, all told, ran 5.9 million Facebook ads. The Clinton campaign ran sixty-six thousand. “The Hillary campaign thought they had it in the bag, so they tried to play it safe, which meant not doing much that was new or unorthodox, especially online,” a progressive digital strategist told me. “Trump’s people knew they didn’t have it in the bag, and they never gave a shit about being safe anyway.” (p. 49)

One interesting service Facebook offered was “Lookalike Audiences” where you could upload a spotty list of information about people and Facebook would first fill it out from their data and then find you more people who are similar. This lets you expand your list of people to microtarget (and Facebook gets you paying for more targeted ads.)

The end of the article gets depressing as it recounts how little the Democrats are doing to counter or match the social media campaign for Trump which was essentially underway right after the 2016 election. One worries, by the end, that we will see a repeat.

Marantz, Andrew. (2020, March 9). “#WINNING: Brad Parscale used social media to sway the 2016 election. He’s posed to do it again.” New Yorker. Pages 44-55.

260,000 Words, Full of Self-Praise, From Trump on the Virus

The New York Times has a nice content analysis study of Trump’s Coronavirus briefings, 260,000 Words, Full of Self-Praise, From Trump on the Virus. They tagged the corpus for different types of utterances including:

  • Self-congratulations
  • Exaggerations and falsehoods
  • Displays of empathy or appeals to national unity
  • Blaming others
  • Credits others

Needless to say they found he spent a fair amount of time congratulating himself.

They then created a neat visualizations with colour coded sections showing where he shows empathy or congratulates himself.

According to the article they looked at 42 briefings or other remarks from March 9 to April 17, 2020 giving them a total of 260,000 words.

I decided to replicate their study with Voyant and I gathered 29 Coronavirus Task Force Briefings (and one Press Conference) from February 29 to April 17. These are all the Task Force Briefings I could find at the White House web site. The corpus has 418,775 words, but those include remarks by people other than Trump, questions, and metadata.

Some of the things that struck me are the absence of medical terminology in the high frequency words. I was also intrigued by the prominence of “going to”. Trump spends a fair amount of time talking about what he and others are going to be doing rather than what is done. Here you have a Contexts panel from Voyant.