May 3, 2009
Here’s another feather in entrepreneurship’s cap.
I stumbled upon TOMS Shoes through a recent BusinessWeek Special Report on Social Entrepreneurs in the US. Perfect caricature of the curious consumer, I clicked around – and quite suddenly, the Tufts undergrad, student of our Digital Democracy course in me became engaged. TOMS shoes is the most thorough intersection of entrepreneurship, social activism, technology and social media I’ve yet seen!
TOMS shoes was founded by Blake Mycoskie, on the premise of giving one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes that is purchased – a movement the company terms “One-for-One”. Yes, a movement – that’s what the company explicitly calls it. The shoes themselves are simple, inspired by the aesthetic of a type of traditional Argentine footwear, leaving much creative space for wearers to customize their own pairs. For less creative/inclined to personalization types, there’s a broad selection of colors and patterns to choose from. Most shoes are priced just under $50 – not bad at all, for two pairs of shoes. To date, TOMS Shoes has given 140,000 pairs of shoes to children in need.
Technology kicks in here:
- Mycoskie, whose title is Chief Shoe Giver, maintains a blog, and a twitter account, with details on TOMS’ shoe drops, both locally and abroad. (Previous locations include Argentina and New Orleans.)
- TOMS Shoes has a partner non-profit, Friends of TOMS, whose site acts an avenue for volunteers to sign up for shoe drops and get mobilized to serve their own communities.
- TOMS Shoes actively uses and organizes on twitter and facebook.
- TOMS Shoes and its founder just became the first business featured in an AT & T advertisement (video above), because Mycoskie has been a customer of the phone network since 1997 and relies on it to conduct his business internationally. Originally 30-seconds long, the spot was so popular that AT & T expanded it to a minute-long spot. (There’s a great “the making of” video for the ad as well, that explains the approach of AT & T and Mycoskie to the advertisement.)
TOMS Shoes sells shoes, gives shoes, organizes consumers and volunteers – all through the comprehensive use of social media, mobile technology and the internet. I’m impressed!
Twitter allows information to be passed around quickly, whether that information is right or wrong, and currently, #swineflu is the belle of the ball. I recently came across an article that discussed how people were panicking about the swine flu pandemic on Twitter. It seems to have “infected” the social network itself. The article states that the quick transmission and retransmission of information across the Twitterverse can cause an unnecessary panic.
But my question is, does it really make everything worse? Are people panicking more or less than they would without these websites? There would still be television or radio or newspaper if there were no internet, so people would still hear of the pandemic and talk about it frequently. In the past, word of mouth was an effective way of hearing about many things, and it seems like Twitter is just taking these conversations that would have taken place anyways and putting them out on the public sphere, which allows people to see how much and how often people are actually discussing the issue.
But is the article overreacting? Should we be panicking? One child has died in the United States, about 60 people have died in Mexico, and there are confirmed cases in many countries, and even more suspected cases. However, another article I read said that last winter, 36,000 Americans died of the regular flu, and yet another article I read claims that this outbreak of swine flu will not be as deadly as a normal flu outbreak. Many of the people who have been infected have been treated and have recovered without complications. There is always the threat of mutation and spreading to third world countries, but a web 2.0 induced panic will not do anything to stop the spread and/or possible mutation.
Every time the virus spreads somewhere new, people are tweeting and blogging all about it. I actually saw that @huilim tweeted earlier today that several students at Amherst College have tested positive. A White House aide has also tested positive. This information has all spread quickly due to the internet. There was even one tweet that the first article mentioned, it read “In the pandemic Spanish Flu of 1918-19, my Grandfather said bodies were piled like wood in our local town….SWINE FLU = DANGER”.
I have come across all of the aforementioned articles on ontd_political, an offshoot of the hugely popular “Oh No They Didn’t” livejournal community. One great thing about livejournal is that it’s such a great platform for discussion, and swine flu has been a popular topic in the past couple days. To me, it seems like most if the members are staying pretty level-headed about the virus, which is a good sign. On livejournal, it was a huge fad to photoshop Aretha Franklin’s memorable hat from the Obama inauguration on one’s icon, and the new trend seems to be putting masks on one’s icon. I think that people aren’t TOO concerned, because they’re lightheartedly joking with the icons.
April 21, 2009
Alas, tonight is our last class. To prepare, I was sifting through the fantastic set of student blog posts from throughout the semester. The diversity of topics, opinion and writing style reminded me of Andrew Sullivan’s piece from November 2008 in The Atlantic. Andrew writes:
…as blogging evolves as a literary form, it is generating a new and quintessentially postmodern idiom that’s enabling writers to express themselves in ways that have never been seen or understood before. Its truths are provisional, and its ethos collective and messy. Yet the interaction it enables between writer and reader is unprecedented, visceral and sometimes brutal.
I think assigning blogging in college (or high school) classes helps students develop their voice, not just within the bounds of formal writing, but by encouraging the exploration of the relationship between themselves and the content in question.
The following posts [just a few of the many great posts] are exemplary of the breadth of content we discussed in the class, but perhaps more importantly, they embody the wide range of voices we all take on when blogging.
Matt writes on Nerding Out on Undersea Cables:
The fact that a huge part of Africa relies on satellite to connect to the internet completely blew my mind, and when I found that even our connection to the internet here in Boston tenuously relies on the well-being of a few bottleneck points I decided to do some more research into the history of the backbone of the World Wide Web.
Sam reflects on the role of the Internet in the larger activism narrative:
“Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine; I’m on the pavement thinking about the government.” Bob Dylan said that in 1965. The midpoint of an era that shook, like a withdrawn junkie, with political unrest. And to put it lightly, ain’t shit changed — just the names, faces and places….oh yeah, and now we have this thing called the internet. Once upon a time, the markings of a true activist were physical action and the robust will to stand in harm’s way; bottles broken in streets, sit-ins, Molotov cocktails and marches. Today the political landscape has changed. Concurrently, the weapons we use to fight injustice on this terrain have evolved. After all, who wants to sit in a Humvee with paper thin siding when the freedom fighters* come?
Aaron critiques the DigiActive Introduction to Facebook Activism:
A DigiActive Introduction to Facebook Activism” gives a concise overview of how to best use Facebook to achieve a successful campaign. While I believe the advice given in the guide is fairly helpful, I believe it grossly overestimates the power of digital tools for grassroots movements looking to achieve substantial reform. There are three criticisms of the guide that I have which concern accountability, sustainability, and results.
Hui discusses jailed bloggers:
jailed bloggers = violation of human rights = repressive government = INJUSTICE
The above is a primitive expression of the thought process most individuals seem to take on when the subject of jailed bloggers is broached. Yet, for me, the subject of jailed bloggers immediately brought to mind the two Singaporean bloggers who were jailed for their offensive racist remarks. Here, another formula is proposed:
jailed bloggers = due punishment for action harmful to other persons/society = enforcement of law + maintenance of civil society = JUSTICE
Why this difference? Are they mutually exclusive?
April 19, 2009
I spent the weekend in the University of Chicago Law School where I took note of some of views with regard to internet regulation circulating amongst the legal scholars. I’ll begin this post by parsing some of the opinions of these legal scholars and wrap up by discussing the interaction between the legal movement for regulation and current cybersecurity concerns.
Brian Leiter and Saul Levmore, faculty of U. of Chicago Law School, have been the most vocal of the faculty and have both published views to the effect that the internet anonymity should not be the status quo (or that internet anonymity should be disallowed for certain sites) because of the negative effects produced by such widespread anonymity (flame wars, hate speech, libel). While, like others in this class, I am largely in favor of anonymity on the internet because it allows unpopular opinions to be expressed without the danger of political reprisals or social disapprobation, I don’t think that their opinions should be immediately dismissed.
What Leiter and Levmore both argue for is a limited cessation of internet anonymity in places they call “internet cesspools.” The context is this: in the past year, two Yale Law students were the objects of sexual harassment speech, libel, and sexual threats on a popular law school admissions site, and the perpetrators of the hate speech could not be punished because it was difficult to identify the people who had posted the threats. Their argument, loosely, is this: if people aren’t allowed to slander people in public, than why should people be allowed to publish slander online?
If the internet had some control from the center, Leiter and Levmore argue, there would be an easier way to track down cyber criminals or perpetrators of hate speech. Levmore’s position is that internet anonymity should be regulated so that the “bad” sites where hate speech and libel is being published should be regulated more closely. (Leiter, I think, agrees, but his position is still a bit fuzzy to me.)
In theory, this sounds fine by me–regulate the “bad” sites, but keep the rest of the sites running with full anonymity–but the problem is threefold: first, who should decide which sites are “good” or “bad”; second, with what metrics do we determine the “goodness” or “badness” of the sites; and third, assuming that we’ve given some central authority the powers to make these determinations, how do we ensure that this authority does not abuse its privilege (e.g., by targetting certain sites as “bad” or selling the personally identifiable information (PII) of its internet users to third parties)?
The third problem, I think, has somewhat of a conceivable solution. Given America’s “exceptionalist” suspicion of government oversight and of placing power into the hands of any one monolithic entity, I think the only approach toward selectively managing anonymity of the internet and handling the PII of internet users would be to create a public-private conglomerate (of say, 20 organizations comprised of corporations, human rights organizations, and government groups) that would have “shares” of users’ information. And along those lines, only if, say, 14 of the organizations put together their shares could the PII of an anonymous internet user be divulged under a court subpoena. The fractioning of power in this regulatory system would work like the separation of powers model that the Founding Fathers of the United States constructed for our political system to protect the interests of the populace by pitting the separate interests of different bureaucracies against each other.
And I think what we’d have left, under a model of regulation like this one would still be a great deal of internet anonymity to protect the freedom of political dissent, privacy, and other civil liberties.
That still leaves us with the first two problems to wrestle with, however. As the CSIS Report details, the President (or the Executive Branch, at large) does not have the clear constitutional authority to manage the internet. While I think it’s good that the President can use his office to swoop in and take care of crises that require immediate action (and take care of this sooner than Congress could convene), I think that the increase in Presidential power over the past several decades is a troubling trend that offsets the distribution of power that was meant to be shared equally between the three branches of government. Cybersecurity is one of the latest issues that the Executive Branch has claimed jurisdiction over (see Cybersecurity Act of 2009) and claiming jurisdiction in this arena gives the Executive more unchecked power than I think is healthy for our democracy.
As the intersection between technology and security become increasingly difficult to wrestle with, I am concerned that instead of finding a best solution, we are opting for the quickest solution, a solution that may have devastating unintended consequences for America’s political future.
April 14, 2009
The world is moving ever closer to science fiction. When our parents were children, no one would ever have assumed that their entire record collections and much more would be able to fit inside a device the size of a wallet. When we were children no one could have imagined the impact social networking and web 2.0 would have on American culture. Not ten years ago, very few people could have imagined that a strike on a nation’s Internet connection could cripple it. Nonetheless, these are exactly the developments that took place.
The Estonian example of Cyber-attack is probably the best example of the dangers of cyber-crime. In a country whose government operates primarily through networking services, the crippling of their Prime Minister’s, Foreign Affairs and Justice Ministers’ websites for a period of time, effectively removing the government’s primary ability to interact with its people. Had this censure of communication occurred by traditional means on a less technocratic society, this would have been a declaration of war. The DDOS attacks were coordinated by Russian hackers and carried out by more than 100,000 “Zombie” PCs, which must count for some sort of criminal charge.
The recent Russian attack on the Georgian communications networks is another key example of the effectiveness of cyber-warfare. The attack on the Georgian communications networks was conducted in tandem with a physical military operation, intended to destabilize the nation for the duration of the attack. Using DDOS and SQL based viruses, the Russian hackers shut down the Georgian government websites and media outlets, effectively blinding and silencing the nation’s Internet presence.
Espionage has not been left out of the new cyber-warfare trend, the People’s Republic of China have been honing their cyber-espionage skills for years. In fact, the Peoples Liberation Army have incorporated hackers into their ranks for the purpose of digital espionage. If this is to be the future of intelligence, then countries need to find more secure ways of exchanging information, or lessen their dependence on digital communications a thought that is not attractive to many of the rising technocracies in the world.
April 14, 2009
During our last class, we briefly looked into the SEACOM undersea cable that will finally bring wired internet access to all of eastern Africa. The fact that a huge part of Africa relies on satellite to connect to the internet completely blew my mind, and when I found that even our connection to the internet here in Boston tenuously relies on the well-being of a few bottleneck points I decided to do some more research into the history of the backbone of the World Wide Web.
I spoke to my dad, a professional nerd, about the topic, and he pointed me to one of Wired Magazine’s most famous articles . Admittedly, the article is a bit dated (December 1996), and if you want a nice overview of the infrastructure that supports the internet, this is definitely not it. But if you want to get a fantastic perspective on the business of connecting people to the internet and the history of creating the infrastructure necessary for a global telecommunications network (and have an hour or two to kill), this article is a must-read.
As not everyone has the time to read the article, I’ve pulled out several quotations I thought were particularly interesting. Some are facts, some are general issues that have come up in class, and all definitely inform discussion about the subject. The quotations are listed in the order they appear in the article.
- “There is also the obvious threat of sabotage by a hostile government, but, surprisingly, this almost never happens. When cypherpunk Doug Barnes was researching his Caribbean project, he spent some time looking into this, because it was exactly the kind of threat he was worried about in the case of a data haven. Somewhat to his own surprise and relief, he concluded that it simply wasn’t going to happen. ‘Cutting a submarine cable,’ Barnes says, ‘is like starting a nuclear war. It’s easy to do, the results are devastating, and as soon as one country does it, all of the others will retaliate.’”
- “As little slack as possible is employed, partly because cable costs a lot of money (for the FLAG cable [A cable running from London to Egypt to Thailand to Tokyo constructed in the late 1990's], $16,000 to $28,000 per kilometer, depending on the amount of armoring) and partly because loose coils are just asking for trouble from trawlers and other hazards. In fact, there is so little slack (in the layperson’s sense of the word) in a well-laid cable that it cannot be grappled and hauled to the surface without snapping it.”
- [The following answers a question that seems to come up a lot: "Where do fiber-optic cables come from?"] “The question naturally arises: How does one go about manufacturing a hollow glass tube thinner than a hair? More to the point, how did they do it 100 years ago? After all, as Worrall pointed out, they needed to be able to repair these machines when they were posted out on Ascension Island. The answer is straightforward and technically sweet: you take a much thicker glass tube, heat it over a Bunsen burner until it glows and softens, and then pull sharply on both ends. It forms a long, thin tendril, like a string of melted cheese stretching away from a piece of pizza. Amazingly, it does not close up into a solid glass fiber, but remains a tube no matter how thin it gets.
Exactly the same trick is used to create the glass fibers that run down the center of FLAG and other modern submarine cables: an ingot of very pure glass is heated until it glows, and then it is stretched. The only difference is that these are solid fibers rather than tubes, and, of course, it’s all done using machines that assure a consistent result.”
- “As I started to realize, and as John Worrall and many other cable-industry professionals subsequently told me, there have been new technologies but no new ideas since the turn of the century. Alas for Internet chauvinists who sneer at older, “analog” technology, this rule applies to the transmission of digital bits down wires, across long distances. We’ve been doing it ever since Morse sent “What hath God wrought!” from Washington to Baltimore.”
- [This is potentially one contributing factor to why it has taken so long to run a cable to eastern Africa.] “… The survey team is keeping an eye on the results, watching for any formations through which cable cannot be run. These are found more frequently in the Indian than in the Atlantic Ocean, mostly because the Atlantic has been charted more thoroughly.”
- “This is a big problem for a few different reasons. One is that cables take a few years to build, and, once built, last for a quarter of a century. It’s not a nimble industry in that way. A PTT thinking about investing in a club cable is making a 25-year commitment to a piece of equipment that will almost certainly be obsolete long before it reaches the end of its working life. Not only are they risking lots of money, but they are putting it into an exceptionally long-term investment. Long-term investments are great if you have reliable long-term forecasts, but when your entire forecasting system gets blown out of the water by something like the Internet, the situation gets awfully complicated.”
- “The art of laying a submarine cable is the art of using all the special features of such a ship: the linear engines, the maneuvering thrusters, and the differential GPS equipment, to put the cable exactly where it is supposed to go. Though the survey team has examined a corridor many thousands of meters wide, the target corridor for the cable lay is 200 meters wide, and the masters of these ships take pride in not straying more than 10 meters from the charted route. This must be accomplished through the judicious manipulation of only a few variables: the ship’s position and speed (which are controlled by the engines, thrusters, and rudder) andthe cable’s tension and rate of payout (which are controlled by the cable engine).”
- Matt Nix
The face of Africa has been changed overnight. The recent boom in cell phone use across all nations and regions of Africa in the past ten years has at least partially revitalized its people, allowing them methods of circumventing the oppressive corruption of their native governments. One of the biggest obstacles preventing Africa from reaping the benefits from its rich natural resources and native industry is the phenomenally corrupt governmental system. The government not only warps the political system to fill their own pockets, but they also monitor communications networks for objectionable content and censor it.
Recently, with the phenomenal boom in cell phone use and their permeation throughout all regions of the continent, Africa has entered a communications renaissance of sorts. There are scores of services that have been developed by African companies and programmers that enable a much greater degree of personal autonomy than ever before. With the ability to report information, receive agricultural information, market management, and a censorship free SMS substitute all available from regular mobile phones it is easy to see why the mobile phone is “the default device in Africa.”
The benefits of Africa’s current freeware-lite model of cell technology sharing has afforded many Africans the ability to reap the benefits of the Web 2.0 era communications revolution in a continent where steady unfiltered Internet access is at a premium. The African people have wholly embraced this new technology and are working to spread its influence to as many parts of the continent as possible. There have been freeware updates to support Amharic characters for support in Ethiopia, and even an Amharic specific SMS client.
It is crucial that the new African technocracy fully utilize their advantage in communications before the presiding governments truly grasp their potential. As George Ayittey said in his speech on the future of Africa the Hippos will not change, they like the status quo the way it is, with them rich and powerful of the work of their subjects. The Hippos have enacted some basic digital communications monitoring, but the current generation of African tech elite have plenty of ways around it. This is the time for the Cheetahs to strike against the Hippos.