Lisa Bu's J676 Blog

Monday, September 25, 2006

Response to Part 3 of the Reader Book

In his introduction to the Information age, Manuel Castells said that "identity-based social movements aimed at changing the cultural foundations of society to be the essential sources of social change in the Information Age." (p149) I found that a very interesting and thought-provoking argument. It also leads me to ask if the information technology has played or can play a similar role in changing worker's identity in economy and cultural foundations of society. I'm not sure. In the agricultural society, worker tends to be the master of his own work and knows the whole process. In the industrial age, worker becomes just one part of an assembly line and knows only his part of the work process. If the information age is a valid term and very different from the industrial age, should worker have a different identity of his relationship to his work? Have we seen any change? I haven't.

In his second article, Manuel Castells suggests that "the development of cities as cultural centers is the best information technology strategy for a city. Technoparks are finished."(p162) I can't help remembering many failed high tech parks in China. During the heydays of economic reforms in 1980s and 1990s, almost every town set up or planned to set up a high tech park and gave generous economic incentives to attract outside investment. But usually it's the parks in cosmopolitan cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen that actually see money flowing in. Those government officials in city planning departments should have read Castells' article.

Nicholas Garnham's critical article of Castells is a bit disorganized thus hard to follow for me. One part I understand and agree is the one about the network enterprise. He argues that "networks are essentially collaborative rather than competitive systems. ... Markets on the other hand need barriers ... Using a network for the mutual exchange of information with seamless interconnection of all with all is inherently incompatible with using the network as a technical infrastructure for competitive market relations." (p175)

Response to Part 2 of the Reader Book

In his article, Daniel Bell thinks that the "post-industrial society is a 'communal' society in which the social unit is the community rather than individual." (p88) First of all, what does he mean by "community?" I wish he had given a more concrete definition and example. By his definition of post-industrial society, we are living in one right now. But I don't think we are a communal society or going that way.

As a former computer programmer, I agree with Krishan Kuman that "the application of the new technology has continued the 'dynamic of de-skilling' intrinsic to Taylorian principles."(p110) In the world of computer professionals, the position of "webmaster," for example, has disappeared and been replaced by user interface designer, web programmer, database administrator and network administrator. Few people know all aspects of computer, but their special area. As Kumar said, "computer work has followed the familiar pattern of the separation and splitting of tasks."(p111)

John Urry argues in his article that "the problem about the distinction between industrial and PI (post-industrial) societies is that too much emphasis is placed upon one aspect of economic change minimising other aspects of the social structure of Western countries."(p127) What's really happening is not a transition from industrial to PI society but one from organized to disorganized capitalism. I agree with him. The new technology has allowed more variety in many aspects of society. But we haven't leapt to a different economic or social structure yet.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Response to the Second Half of "Code" Book

The cyberspace has become an extension of our physical space. Almost every aspect of life in the real world has a counterpart in the virtual one now including crimes. One major news story today is about attorney general's lobby for a federal law that requires Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to keep a log of customers' online activities so that the government can use it to fight crimes such as terrorism or child pornography. Concerned about potential abuse of the data, critics of the data retention legislation said that "civil rights could be put on endangered species list."

Lessig's book outlined the structure of regulation constraints in the cyberspace. But he also points out that how we choose the structure depends on what kind of cyberspace we want to build, and what values we want to promote there. That point gives his book a "heart," making it much more than a technical discussion. "We should relate to cyberspace as members rather than as customers. In an odd but wholly familiar sense, we need to take responsibility for what cyberspace is; we must become citizens of cyberspace just as we are simultaneously citizens of, say, the United States and Massachusetts." (p203)

Back to the story about the data retention legislation, I can understand why the government wants it, but agree with critics' concern given this administration's past track record of its use of data. In order to erect an effective and fair law, the government and citizens must have an honest dialogue about what is the real intention and purpose of that law and what values we want it to protect. Then we can discuss technical details: what to put in that law in order to achieve that purpose and protect those values. The two sides may not come to complete agreement. Compromise may be necessary. But it's essential to have that dialogue. I have serious doubt that such an honest dialogue will happen. But as members of a democratic society, we should always try, don't we?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Response to the First Half of "Code" Book

The author argues that the Internet is regulable and four constraints can do the job: the law, social norms, the market, and architecture (i.e. code). I found the argument convincing. Just by accident, yesterday's "60 Minutes" program aired a story about Internet gambling and whether or not it should be regulated. How timely for our discussion!

Internet gambling is illegal in the United States, but millions of American do it on hundreds of web sites, often from the comfort of their homes. Usually those web sites are served from computers somewhere overseas. Because there's so much profit to make online, American gaming industry is crying for legalizing yet regulating Internet gambling. And it's definitely regulable using the constraints described in the "Code" book:
  • Law: punishment (e.g. fine, jail term) for illegal Internet gambling providers, licensing legal providers. Technology makes it easy for law enforcement to tell if a online gambling site's server sits in U.S. or overseas.
  • Norms: this is a bit hard to do because people can gamble online from their privacy of home, and keep their activity a secret. But at workplace, employer can post a warning that employees' online activities will be monitored. That will deter some people from visiting gambling sites.
  • Market: online gambling sites usually use credit card as transaction method. To control access to online gambling, credit card companies can be asked to refuse transaction if cardholder is American. If online gambling becomes legal, credit card companies can be asked to charge extra fee or tax for online gambling transactions, thus to discourage gamblers.
  • Architecture: online gambling sites can build in its code to deny access to people who are underage or from the United States. American Internet service providers can add a filter to block out online gambling sites to their subcribers. Families can set up filters and blocker on their computers to restrict their children's access to online gambling sites.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Response to Cyberspace Con Readings

This group of articles, written also before the dot com bust, sounds soberer and more grounded in perspectives than the pro group.

Langdon Winner is concerned that "if we limit our attention to powerful technical applications, their uses and market prospects, we tend to ignore ... the shaping of the conditions that affect people's sense of who they are and why they live together." Theodore Roszak points out that "this is not the first time people have projected their hope for happiness and their image of perfection upon the latest magic gadget to come along." Tracing the history of the information revolution, Kevin Robins and Frank Webster argue that the current information revolution is "no more -- and no less -- than the extension and intensification of processes set under way some seventy or so years ago." They believe that "the scale and complexity of the modern nation state has made communications and information resources (and technologies) central to the maintenance of political and administrative cohesion."

Technologies, from fire making to metal weapons to computers, are tools that bring changes to societies through the application of them by human beings. They are not magic pills that can cure a society's problems automatically. Put in different people's hands, they bring positive or negative change to the society. It's very important for us not to be carried away by their power in the technical sense, but to examine their role and impact in the context of human application and history.

Response to Cyberspace Pro Readings

I find it worth noting that all three articles in the pro group were written before year 2000, before the dot com bust.

In Masuda and Dyson et al's articles, one can sense authors' excitement even zealot about the new technologies. It reminds me of the unrealistic expectation and optimism of stock market investors during the dot com boom years. Just read these statements:

"The information society will be a new type of human society, completely different from the present industrial society." (Yoneji Masuda)

"It also spells the death of the central institutional paradigm of modern life, the bureaucratic organization." (Esther Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth and Alvin Toffler)

Since the dot com crash people have cooled down and become more realistic about the promise and limitation of information technologies. The information society is not completely different from industrial one. Easier access to and collection of information have, in many cases, enabled central institutions and bureaucratic organizations to have tighter control over citizens' public and private life. I find those two articles outdated.

Charles Leadbeater's article is more clear-headed. He acknowledges the downsides of information technologies (e.g. "Innovation threatens familiar routines, institutions and occupations"). But he is more encouraged by the opportunities they bring to reforming and reinventing social and economic institutions. "The task is to combine finance, knowledge and social capital in a cirtuous circle of innovation, growth and social progress." I agree with him that information technologies can (1) make financial market more efficient and transparent; (2) accelerate the generation of new ideas and translation from ideas to products; and (3) promote social collaboration and understanding.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

What's So Unique About Information?

In the introduction of "The Information Society Reader," Frank Webster argues that information has become central to current way of life whether or not people agree that "information society" should be the label. I agree with him.

In my mind, information has become so important and, sometimes, overwhelming for many of us because of its two unique features. First, it's non-physical. Usually it has to be attached to a physical medium (e.g. stone tablet, paper) to be passed around among people. Whoever controls the medium can control information. The Internet has cut away that attachment. Information can almost fly by itself. Freedom at last. No wonder it runs happily and wildly everywhere. Even when someone tries to control information's medium, it's a hard job because there are so many kinds of medium that information can sit on.

Second, unlike most commodities, when you sell or give away information to somebody else, you still have it. Maybe that's why so much of it is available for free. How do we value it?