William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Technology, History, and Embracing the Unknown

Strange Horizons 22: When Worlds Collide
Original publication: December 1998

Luxor, Egypt – My wife and I opted to spend this holiday season away from the incessant press of Christmas jingles—the ads, not the bells. In particular, I wanted to see what the holiday season would be like at the opposite end of the planet, in a place where loudspeakers blare the call to Muslim prayer five times a day and the average household income is $300 per month. For sure, the experience is an eye-opener. Among the splendor of ancient ruins are wild dogs, fly-blown and starving. Armed guards seem to patrol at random, officially to protect the tourists, but some will seize the chance to illicitly show you an uncommon photo vantage...for 50 cents.

We were extremely lucky to land a guide in Cairo named Mahmoud who was both fluent in English and extremely knowledgeable about Egypt past and present. He even took us into his home so that I could use his PC to email back home and let everyone know there was no danger to us from the attack on Iraq. Mahmoud, with his small but tasteful apartment, eloquent worldliness, and sporty black leather jacket represented everything I had imagined Western influence could achieve in the developing world. As we surfed the Web and fought frequent Windows 95 crashes, it was almost like being back home.

I interviewed Mahmoud briefly over a lunch of kabob and tabouli about what he felt the effects of the Internet are and would be on Egyptian society. I've quickly learned that when talking with Egyptians, reluctance to address an issue usually results in an abrupt, complete change of subject. While Mahmoud was courteous enough not to completely ignore the question, his roundabout, politic answer was uninspiring. Like most things, he said, the Internet will have its positive and negative effects on Egypt. I thought it strange that such an apparently Westernized man, who knew more about how to remotely retrieve POP3 email than I did, should be so elusive.

As the trip has continued, a barrage of images and experiences have jarred me. The Egyptian people, even in desperation, remain generous and humorous. A vendor outside the ancient temple of Hatshepsut held up a figurine of the queen and calls out, "Hot chicken soup!" knowing the two phrases sound similar in English. When a young boy in the market grabbed my wife, she gently told him not to. When the boy repeated the move, an adult grabbed him, threw him against a wall, and several vendors proceeded to slap the boy about. (Remember that without eager tourists, many of these merchants would starve.)

One man in particular, Hamam, captain of the felucca boat Alaska, stands out in my memory. A felucca is an Egyptain sailboat, about 12 feet long, with a distinctive, crescent-shaped sail. According to Hamam, each one costs about US$5,000. (For one hour's sailing, the charge is less than $3 per person, and competition is fierce.) It is both his office and home. In the winter, he sleeps in the few sheltered square feet under the bow, in summer on the craft’s floor. While Hamam greeted us in dress socks, black loafers, and a traditional galibeya long shirt (for the tourists’ sake), it wasn't long into the trip until he had stripped down to black sweats and bare feet. In conversation, Hamam echoed the common propaganda and said he thought Egypt should shoot down any U.N. nation’s aircraft, particularly the U.S.’s, until we ceased bombing innocent civilians in Iraq. However, such a protest would decimate tourism even worse than the 1997 Luxor shootings, and the country’s economy would be crushed. But that was all politics. Floating quietly down the Nile at sunset, we were friends, and he even invited us to join himself and the other felucca captains for dinner on the floor of one vessel.

I draw this man’s picture to illustrate the simple life of an average Egyptian. There are no PCs, no Internet, not even an electrical outlet. While the ruins of Luxor Temple dance in the water’s reflection behind us, Hamam still lives his life based on the same technology his ancestors used 5,000 years ago. I found myself wondering if it was right of me to think that Western technology was the healing panacea to the developing world's woes.

The pharaohs are dead, their monuments now largely dust and rubble. But the ancient lifestyle lives on in the markets, streets, and waters. Most Egyptians dream of the American life and covet the money we so carelessly toss about. But for those who visit America and can afford that lifestyle, there is a certain stigma, a perception of having become something other. It is the eternal Catch-22 of the classes, when an individual aspires to achieve greatness but becomes isolated from his home and heritage in the process.

The clock now strikes noon, and the call of Muslims to prayer rattles out from mosques across the city. In centuries past, the prayers were sang from the tops of minaret towers. Today, they are recordings blared from loudspeakers. Time rolls over Egypt like no other country in the world, save perhaps China. There are so many different Egypts around me, and each of them is priceless. Like kingdoms and dynasties, some are rising, some falling. It is obvious, though, that our technology does not belong in all of them.

Until this week, I had always viewed computers and the Internet as a positive cultural force. The ability to easily communicate and access information far outweighed any puritanical, culture-bound views about online pornography. But now I hesitate. Here in Luxor, along the Nile’s shore, there are palatial hotels, glittering tourist traps, and the cacophony of car horns. But two blocks behind this, there are donkeys pulling carts of sugar cane, flies swarming over butchered snakes for sale, and vast tenements built from mud bricks that will crumble at the slightest earthquake. I came to Luxor wondering if there was a place to check my email. I’m leaving it wanting to give money to carriage drivers so they can feed their haggard horses.

Since you’re reading this, odds are that you, like me, worship at the altar of cyberspace, praying to the gods of connectivity. Caught up in our online frenzy, it’s easy to assume that the technology which has helped us so much will help everyone. But it won’t. In past columns, I have advocated donating much of our cast-off PC equipment to developing countries. But I now see that such charity should be done carefully, given to the right people in the right places who want to follow the Western path. Not all do, and it would be a tremendous loss to the world’s richness if we expected them to.

I don’t know how to preserve Egypt’s ancient lifestyle while still bringing the country successfully into the 21st century. It would seem every step of progress is also a step of destruction. For instance, the use of wood planks in place of mud bricks in urban housing would be a great safety improvement, but mud bricks have been a piece of Egyptian society for millennia.

Likewise, the rise of telecommunications among the Egyptian masses may help educate children far more than has been previously possible and make Egypt a force to be reckoned with in the world economy 10 to 20 years from now. But will it have the same effects on interpersonal communications that it has had in the States? When Egyptian vendors become used to communicating in three-sentence bursts, will the carpet vendors still bring you in from the sun and sit you down with a glass of sweet tea? Will the felucca drivers still offer dinner, or will they, like me, feel the urgent call of email instead?

It is said that the average tourist exhales 20 grams of water during each visit to a tomb. This water, over time, collects on the tomb walls and corrodes the underlying paint and carvings. In effect, the tourists, with their laughter and chatter and flashing cameras, are destroying that which they traveled thousands of miles to see. If our breath is enough to erase Egypt’s past, I’m afraid of what our technology will do to their future.

~   ~   ~


Below is an image I snapped of the Biblioteca Alexandrina under construction. Located in Alexandria near the Mediterranean Sea, the BA is billed as a sort of 21st century reincarnation of the ancient Library of Alexandria. You can check out the finished library here, but for me, this picture encapsulates the feel of Egypt in transition. Already, you can see the theme of pyramids built into the architecture. The towering main reading hall features row after row of columns, thin but flaring into a square at the top—a very modern take on the ancient temple hallmark.

Clearly, the Egypt of today is not the Egypt I visited in 1998. I completely failed to foresee how cellphones would bring the Internet to all but the poorest masses. I couldn’t have guessed at the rise of social media and how it would enable the country’s youth to overthrow President Mubarek, who was in power during my visit and many years before. For all of my worries about how technology and the Internet might harm traditional Egypt, I overlooked the fact that while the past lives on in the present, change never waits. One can’t hold back modernization any more than a sandstorm or time itself.

Looking back on that trip, I remember taking a picture of a giant Cola-Cola billboard in Cairo. I took the shot because it struck me as such an incongruous Western image in the middle of a sea of Arabic. But I also remember having to take the picture very quickly, snapping it from the window of our car. My driver wouldn’t let me get out to take the picture for fear that the police would become suspicious. I my mooning over the beautiful ways of ancient Egypt, I was ignoring the deep problems and needs of the modern country. January 2011 showed us that technology and connectivity have the power to remedy some of those needs.

I have a curmudgeonly friend who often argues with me about technology. He’s the only person I know who still uses dial-up. He perceives, as I do, that technology can have a crippling effect on people and societies when used unwisely. But in looking at America today, is it possible that, like the Egyptians of a decade ago, we actually need more technology to fix our present problems? As we examine the deportation of jobs by the thousands, our falling performance in K-12 education, and impending energy and climate crises, could continuing embracement of our Web-based resources and other technologies by the average citizen actually enable future solutions?

In my home, I’m using the Web to help overcome the deficiencies of our American public school system. If the Internet were snuffed out tomorrow, most of my work would vanish. The Internet was at least partially responsible for Barack Obama winning the White House. Will we see technology continue to give the ordinary person more sway over large events? I hope so, because our old ways are clearly not working effectively in the modern world. Whatever system ultimately replaces the Mubarek regime may over time prove to be no better than the longstanding tyrant. And if we find ways through technology to solve our current problems, I have no doubt that new challenges will rise in their place in part from the technologies we used to remedy the present crises. But forward motion at least keeps us upright through sheer force of momentum. If we don’t push to leverage our technological tools and use them to fix what must be fixed, then our momentum will be lost, balance will fail, and America will suffer immensely.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Strange Horizons Arriving Here -- For Free

Time for a new experiment. I know others have developed books in an episodic fashion on their blogs. I figure, why not? What's to lose? Several months ago, I released Strange Horizons, Volume 1, a collection of some of my old column work, newly edited and updated with a sort of afterword for each piece. Of the 50 Strange Horizons columns I have on file, Volume 1 only covered the first 20. I had Volume 1 listed on Smashwords and Amazon for 99 cents. Well, this morning, I made the book free on Smashwords. (Amazon requires a 99 cent minimum, unfortunately.) My hope is that if I can get people reading Strange Horizons for free, perhaps they'll be inspired to try out some of my other work. Not the most novel of strategies, I know, but...you gotta start somewhere.

In any case, I'll be periodically releasing new Strange Horizons installments here. Eventually, I'll bundle them up and release them as Volume 2.

Without further ado, I give you installment 21 and encourage you to download Volume 1 from Smashwords for free. As always, reviews are greatly appreciated.

Strange Horizons 21: The Star of the 21st Century Peep Show: You
Original publication: December 1998

My first exposure to George Orwell’s 1984 was via Books on Tape. I’d been plowing through the novel in 15-minute increments during my daily commute for about two weeks. Normally, I find audio narration to be soothing, an edifying balm for road rage. But the tale of Winston Smith and his fantasies of freedom was particularly gripping, and I would often sit alone in a parking lot, listening in the winter’s darkness.

I was driving down a busy road one day, about two-thirds into the novel. Winston and his illicit lover, Julia, were reveling in their hope for the future and contemplating their vapid place in society.

“We are the dead,” he said.

“We are the dead,” echoed Julia dutifully.

“You are the dead,” said an iron voice behind them.

And right then, I knew that Winston’s entire life—all his dreams, ambitions, and humanity—were suddenly over. Big Brother had found them. Still cruising at 45MPH, I jammed on the brakes in shocked amazement. Amazingly, no one hit me.

John Hurt as Winston Smith in MGM’s 1984.

Part of what makes this moment so overpowering is that in a world where one’s every move and thought is carefully monitored, Winston stands nearly alone as an icon of personal freedom and rationality. His capture represents the ultimate triumph of intangible authority and the final, heartrending loss of individuality for all time. Because Winston, of course, is us. You, me, Everyman. Each day, we fight to preserve our individuality and intellectual freedom against the onslaught of advertising, mediocrity, and culturally sanctioned “dumbing down.” Without the shield of privacy allowing us the space to pull back, unobserved, and think, we are defenseless targets for Big Brother’s programming, be he governmental, corporate, religious, or otherwise.

The specter of Big Brother looms large in all our minds. Take the recent movie Enemy of the State, which portrays the U.S. government as being able to keep surveillance on virtually any aspect of our private lives. (Will Smith...Winston Smith. Hmm.) But viewers might be hard pressed to identify which is the bigger concern: fear of the Feds or fear of violated privacy. Those who would answer the former are, I think, missing the big picture.

Webcams are on a meteoric rise. With hardly a $100 investment, anyone can take live images and post them to the Internet for global viewing. Practical applications include monitoring of traffic conditions and enhanced footage of breaking news. With additional setup costs and increased bandwidth pipelines, images move from still to live motion. For instance, in high school, had I been able to carry on virtual conferences with a fellow student in Madrid, I might never have given up fourth-year Spanish. Webcams have the power to open our eyes on an unprecedented scale and bring us all closer together.

Perhaps too close. There is a point where utility and benefit give way to intrusion and abuse. Right now, that point is often defined when a host site asks for your credit card number. An illustrative example can be found at Voyeur Dorm (www.voyeurdorm.com), which employs 26 cameras throughout a house (including bathrooms) to bring viewers every detail in the lives of seven female students. Voyeur Dorm insists that these are regular women living their daily lives. (After all, it’s common for “regular” women to say, “One of our favorite things is Chick Night. That's when we sit around in our sexy lingerie and drink wine and talk about boys and sex and what we want for Christmas.”) In exchange for being in the spotlight, Voyeur Dorm pays their academic tuition. Each woman signs a contract, including the agreement that there must be at least two women in the house at all times. Access fees start at $34 per month.

Free tuition is a tempting carrot these days, and the ability to carry on an otherwise normal life is arguably better than alternative, more exploitive professions. But Voyeur Dorm has taken traditional male fascination with “the girl next door” to a new level. Unlike a visit to a strip club, this is a look into seven people’s private lives, from corn flakes to contraceptives to couching out. These are people who have supposedly made peace with the cameras—and behind them countless thousands of potential viewers—thereby sacrificing what we would normally define as their privacy.

Is it possible for humans to live contentedly without privacy? The slick advertising at Voyeur Dorm would have us believe so. The assertion is that after a short while, inhabitants cease to be aware of the camera’s presence, relax, and go on with their lives. Officials at Voyeur Dorm did not reply to my inquiries. Likewise, Jennifer of the similarly slanted JenniCam.org declined to be interviewed.

For those that believe privacy is a personal zone of solitude, essential for psychological health, Voyeur Dorm would have us question whether privacy is a condition in the mind or a shifting area of “my space” about our bodies. If in the mind, then it follows that one could stand naked before a camera and an audience of millions and still preserve a sense of privacy since presumably none of the viewers could see one’s thoughts.

That some of us are capable of living with these conditions while some are not indicates to me that there may be a shifting under way in our cultural perception of privacy. This is not as radical as it may seem. For instance, co-ed public bath houses have been popular in several cultures throughout history, although you must search into esoteric retreats to find them here.

At the same time, it should be stressed that privacy and nudity don’t necessarily coincide. Sites like Voyeur Dorm and JenniCam carry the possibility of observing their hosts engaged in nudity or sexual activity, but the real allure is in simply staring into someone else’s life. The image of a person sleeping quietly may be more intriguing than the removal of lingerie. This is a taboo space that transcends cultural etiquette. But when enough people begin to break the taboo, it ceases to exist, and our definition of privacy must be reexamined.

A visit to Yahoo!’s various sections on webcams reveals over 500 sites, many with adult content, and many more of a totally frivolous nature, including Oregon’s Mystery Hole (see www.europa.com/~edge/hole.html). At present, only a minority of Webcams are designed to peer into people’s lives. But still shots of the great outdoors will only hold interest for so long. Interpersonal communication is what binds the Internet together, and the plethora of online bio pages can be taken as a harbinger of Webcams to come.

As we welcome webcams into our lives, most of us will not jump to leave the gadgets on 24 hours a day (at least not without credit card payment). But familiarity breeds more frequent use. Witness the spread of being “in touch,” from early telephone to cell phone to today’s global satellite paging. We may bring webcams first to the office, then the living room, and then...? What may seem absurd today could become commonplace down the road.

Webcams, like telecommunications in general, have the capacity for much goodness and productivity. But we have a tendency to abuse these little powers and allow them to dominate our lives. Without conscious effort, they can entrap us and make us dependent on them. Try going a week without usinging a phone or cable line if you doubt my point. We are a society which worships being “connected.” My fear is that webcams and other similar technologies have the potential to alter our private boundaries and undermine our psychological fortitude if we let them. Moreover, by replacing physical with virtual contact, our fundamental capacity for interpersonal communication is threatened. It all might begin as a fad and, for some, erotic curiosity.

Students of history may recall that many Native Americans were extremely averse to having their photographs taken, claiming that the camera was stealing their soul. Perhaps now, over 100 years later, with our culture of industry and technology having all but eradicated theirs, we may find that the Indians were right all along.

~   ~   ~


Obviously (and predictably), webcams have gone from being a rare novelty in 1998 to ubiquitous today. We have them embedded into every notebook PC and smartphone. Perhaps more importantly, we have video cameras mounted at highway roadsides, above intersections, and in nearly every place of business. Ostensibly, all of these cameras are for our benefit. We use them to stay in touch, plan our travel, and protect us from the dangers of crime.

At the same time, though, while enjoying all of these benefits we are becoming habituated to the presence of surveillance. Maybe there’s a human watching the other end of that video feed, maybe not. Sometimes, we don’t know. Increasingly often, we don’t care.

Today, Jennifer Ringley of JenniCam.org is sometimes credited with ushering in the age of reality TV. She shut down her site after a nearly eight-year run, citing a shift in PayPal’s policies against vendors dealing with nudity. However, as Ringley herself noted in a VH1 segment (according to Wikipedia), “I really am enjoying my privacy now. I don't have a Web page. I don't have a MySpace page. It's a completely different feeling, and I think I'm enjoying it.”

If Ringley, the godmother of privacy self-invasion, finds that she values having personal boundaries, what does this mean in a time when we are overrunning our lives with social media? I follow people on Twitter who update dozens of times per day. I have Facebook friends who view the site as a sort of multimedia diary, cataloging their activities compulsively.

I find Facebook increasingly disturbing—not because I find the site particularly evil or anything. If Facebook wasn’t serving in the role of Pandora, other companies would (and probably are). Many of us seem to feel this need to project ourselves into the world for everyone to see. Perhaps it’s a form self-expression, a validation that we are unique and significant. I suppose that in writing these words, I’m doing much the same thing. I’m showing you my thinking rather than my face (lucky you) in the egotistical surety that my opinions somehow matter. We all want to matter. It’s the four-year-old in us saying, “Look at me! See what I can do?”

But are we so anxious to have that self-expression that we’re willing to give up our privacy for it? Look at Facebook’s recent trend toward facial recognition and using it to help friends “tag” one another. Google already uses my information searches to fine-tune how marketers access my attention. It’s only a small jump from there to Budweiser targeting ads at me because a friend tagged a photo of me drinking a beer. Would PETA want to know if there’s a picture of me wearing a fur coat or leather jacket? What if a friend, thinking it funny, posted a tagged picture of you disciplining your child? Would the police or government be interested to find shots of me shooting off illegal fireworks? What if fundamentalists or hate groups started sending messaging to those in pictures showing gay/lesbian relationships—and what if the recipients were dangerously depressed teens?

Facebook tagging in action. Not so funny when it’s your name associated with the tag, is it?

In the age of privacy, we had more freedom and ability to moderate how others see us. Increasingly, though, we are giving up that freedom and putting those abilities in the hands of others. Our preconceptions about what privacy is and how it should be applied are starting to fray. I reposted an article on Facebook the other day about how to opt out of face tagging “recommendations,” and a friend good-naturedly chided me. He seemed genuinely bemused by my concerns. After all, it’s all just about fun and sharing.