Behind the Scenes of the Internet: Julian Oliver & Danja Vasiliev

The Networkshop

The Networkshop

This week I was in the fortunate position to be able to attend a five day workshop at de Waag in Amsterdam. Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev hosted Behind The Scenes of the Internet.

The workshop opened with a presentation on the influence of engineering on society. Julian and Danja refer to themselves as critical engineers and have a clear understanding of the deep influence of technology on how we relate to each other (“Look at what Easyjet has done to the shape of Europe.”).

According to them we have more and more black boxes (often locked down) which place a rich interface (a marketing, business or political decision) between the person and the device while at the same time being very intimate to us: think about the iPod Nano in your pocket (and compare it to the old grammophone). Opening these blackboxes (essentially hacking) should then be considered research. The right to open the things we own, if only for study, is increasingly contested. This is problematic because they think technology you depend upon should be understood.

They define the Internet as a deeply misunderstood technology that we have become deeply dependent on. Somebody does own (parts of) the Internet. When they did a workshop in Peru they found out that all of the Internet traffic in that country was routed through Telefonica, giving Spain the hypothetical power to turn off Peru’s Internet when they want to. The question of geography is interesting on the Internet. Where are you on the Internet? Can you access your data and get to it? What will they say when you show up at a data center and request your files? Olver and Vasiliev consider the cloud to be a dangerous form of reductionism.

McLuhan writes in one of his introductions for Understanding Media:

The power of the arts to anticipate future social and technological developments, by a generation and more, has long been recognized. In this century Ezra Pound called the artist “the antennae of the race”. Art as radar acts as “an early alarm system,” as it were, enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them. This concept of the arts as prophetic, contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression. [..] Art as a radar environment takes on the function of indispensable perceptual training rather than the role of a privileged diet for the elite.

Julian and Danja showed their abilities as a radar by talking about some of their artistic projects that they are working on to try and problematize these topics. Julian has just made something he calls the Transparency Grenade, a little computer wrapped in a grenade shaped holder which start snooping on the wireless netwerks around it whenever you pull out the pin. Danja is working on Netless which tries to be a network of nodes that connect to each other independently from the net. Both of them showed worked in a recent exhibit for which the Weise7 book was created. It is a box shaped like an old-fashioned book with a computer inside. When you open the book it becomes a Wifi access point that allows you to read all the information about the exhibit. When you close the book, the computer turns itself off. They also created a project that plays with what they call the “browser-defined reality”: NewsTweek which used the faux sloga: “Behind every mind is a network. Own it. Fixing the facts. One hotspot at a time”. I’ve written about this project before. It allows you to change news sites in your local wifi network. You can check what people are changning on the NewsTweek Twitter account.

All workshop participants then got a specially designed virtual machine full of networking tools that we could run in VirtualBox. Everybody had to get up to speed with the command line which got a wondeful ode by Julian: Knowing the command line is great because it is a shared language across many machines. You are talking to the computer and it is talking straight back to you. You ask and the computer responds. You can take the output of one program and make it the input of the next program. It allows you to automate the operating system (rather than the computer turning you into a proletarian clicking machine). The command line is far from going away. As computers get smaller, the command line interaction becomes a dominant model.

The artists gave us a crash course on how to use the command line interface. I love how they desribed moving between the directories as moving inside the spatial landscape of your computer. We quickly moved on to commands like netcat (or nc), ifconfig, arp arp-scan, ssh and scp. We discussed what a network packet consists of, the header (SRC, DEST, LEN, SWQ) and the body with its payload.

On the fourth day we got a short lecture on routing and how to set your default gateway on the command line. At that point in time we had created and configured our own little network and were able to ping eachother, log into each others machines and go online using the “base” computer as the gateway and our local DNS server.

In the afternoon we explored the inherent vulnerabilities in using open Wifi networks. By using Aircrack and Driftnet we were able to see images scrolling by from sites that people were browsing on a public Wifi network in a local bar. Driftnet’s manual says the following:

Driftnet watches network traffic, and picks out and displays JPEG and GIF images for display. It is an horrific invasion of privacy and shouldn’t be used by anyone anywhere.

This blog is very much my notebook too. I therefore want to make sure I keep the following three commands (in this order):

[code language=”bash”]
sudo ifconfig wlan0 down
sudo airmon-ng check kill
sudo airmon-ng start wlan0
sudo airodump-ng mon0
[/code]

The final day was about how to protect yourself a bit better online (a lot of the participants had started to feel “naked” after the Wifi snooping sessions of a day earlier. We discussed how encryption helps you with your basic human right to privacy while in the public space called the network and looked at the difference between anonimity and encryption. They explained HTTPS and Tor with this live diagram from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF):

Tor and HTTPS

Tor and HTTPS

They also made us download the the Tor Browser Bundle and discussed a few handy Firefox addons:

  • GoogleSharing to anonimize your Google searches.
  • User Agent Switcher allows you to change your browser user agent so that the webpage thinks you are using a different device.
  • HTTPS everywhere to force your browser to use HTTPS whenever it is available.
  • DoNotTrackMe helps to protect you against companies tracking you online (they want to do sentiment-analysis and try to pre-empt your behaviour.

We looked at setting up a VPN which is great tool to protect you against Wifi sniffing and to quickly . They showed us ipredator and OpenVPN and have inspired me to finally turn on the VPN capabilities of my VPN server.

Finally they shared a link to their Cryptoparty Handbook. This 400 page book was written in four day sprint and provides a comprehensive overview of everything that we learned (and much more).

For many participants this workshop was a truly transforming experience, hopefully changing their relationship to technology forever. I need to thank Dorien Zandbergen for masterminding this and making it possible!

Brewster Kahle on “Universal Access to All Knowledge”

Brewster Kahle

Brewster Kahle

This afternoon I attended a session at info.nl in Amsterdam with Brewster Kahle who wants to create “Universal Access to All Knowledge”. He has founded The Internet Archive, a non-profit library with about 150 people. It is best known for its Wayback Machine (collecting about 5 billion web pages a month, amazingly still fitting in a container).

They are convinced that it is feasible to store all the world’s knowledge. Texts are being digitized (i.e. scanned) for representation on the screen (see Open Library for examples) and are openly available. The Internet Archive have made their own scanners pushing the costs per scanned page (mostly labour) down to about 10 cents per page. Their scanning centers now have 3,000,000 free ebooks available online (incl. 500,000 for the blind/dyslexic and 250,000 modern books available for lending) and they have about 8 million more to go. They have made a book mobile that can download and print a book for about one dollar.

Book Mobile

Book Mobile

They are also focusing on archiving all audio, offering unlimited storage and unlimited bandwidth for free and for ever to bands who want to store their tapes online. They have over 1 million audio items in over 100 collections. They are doing similar things to moving images, making permanent archives of video sites that have gone out of business, home movies and even television (do check that one out, it makes TV news quotable and even includes a lending model for physical DVDs of TV news).

They store their 10 Petabytes of data in a redundant fashion and also store 600,000 books in a physical archive (growing fast of course).

Brewster also talked a little bit about his case against the US government when he received a national security letter from the FBI which was deemed unconstitutional with a bit of help from the EFF and from the fact that he is a library.

Daniel Erasmus from Digital Thinking Network (DTN) did a short presentation on NewsConsole which uses a big data approach and aims to collect all the world’s news and put it in an interface that allows for easy interacting with it. I’ve been using it for a while to find news in the field of learning technology. I particularly liked his key lessons from working with big data, like:

  • SQL won’t cut it
  • Big data is messy, a lot of effort goes into cleaning it up
  • Moving a petabyte of data is very expensive and difficult, store it correctly the first time
  • Testing on small subsets doesn’t work, because you get unexpected bottlenecks when you scale
  • It is a humbling problem

The Future State of Capability Building in Organizations: Inspirations

CC-licenced photo by Flickr user kevindooley

CC-licenced photo by Flickr user kevindooley

I have been involved in organizing a workshop on capability building in organizations hosted on my employer‘s premises (to be held on October 20th). We have tried to get together an interesting group of professionals who will think about the future state of capability building and how to get there. All participants have done a little bit of pre-work by using a single page to answer the following question:

What/who inspires you in your vision/ideas for the future state of capability building in organizations?

Unfortunately I cannot publish the one-pagers (I haven’t asked their permission yet), but I have disaggregated all their input into a list of Delicious links, a YouTube playlist and a GoodReads list (for which your votes are welcome). My input was as follows:

Humanistic design
We don’t understand ourselves well enough. If we did, the world would not be populated with bad design (and everything might look like Disney World). The principles that we use for designing our learning interventions are not derived from a deep understanding of the humand mind and its behavioural tendencies, instead it is often based on simplistic and unscientific methodologies. How can we change this? First, everybody should read Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. Next, we can look at Hans Monderman (accessible through the book Traffic) to understand the influence of our surroundings on our behaviour. Then we have to try and understand ourselves better by reading Medina’s Brain Rules (or check out the excellent site) and books on evolutionary psychology (maybe start with Pinker’s How the Mind Works). Finally we must never underestimate what we are capable of. Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiment is a great reminder of this fact.

Learning theory
The mental model that 99% of the people in this world have for how people learn is still informed by an implied behaviourist learning theory. I like contrasting this with George Siemens’ connectivism and Papert’s constructionism (I love this definition). These theories are actually put into practice (the proof of the pudding is in the eating): Siemens and Stephen Downes (prime sense-maker and a must-read in the educational technology world) have been running multiple massive online distributed courses with fascinating results, whereas Papert’s thinking has inspired the work on Sugarlabs (a spinoff of the One Laptop per Child project).

Open and transparent
Through my work for Moodle I have come to deeply appreciate the free software philosophy. Richard Stallman‘s four freedoms are still relevant in this world of tethered appliances. Closely aligned to this thinking is the hacker mentality currently defended by organizations like the Free Software Foundation, the EFF, Xs4all and Bits of Freedom. Some of the open source work is truly inspirational. My favourite example is the Linux based operating system Ubuntu, which was started by Mark Shuttleworth and built on top of the giant Debian project. “Open” thinking is now spilling over into other domains (e.g. open content and open access). One of the core values in this thinking is transparency. I actually see huge potential for this concept as a business strategy.

Working smarter
Jay Cross knows how to adapt his personal business models on the basis of what technology can deliver. I love his concept of the unbook and think the way that the Internet Time Alliance is set up should enable him to have a sustainable portfolio lifestyle (see The Age of Unreason by the visionary Charles Handy). The people in the Internet Time Alliance keep amplifying each other and keep on tightening their thinking on Informal Learning, now mainly through their work on The Working Smarter Fieldbook.

Games for learning
We are starting to use games to change our lives. “Game mechanics” are showing up in Silicon Valley startups and will enter mainstream soon too. World Without Oil made me understand that playing a game can truly be a transformational experience and Metal Gear Solid showed me that you can be more engaged with a game than with any other medium. If you are interested to know more I would start by reading Jesse Schell’s wonderful The Art of Game Design, I would keep following Nintendo to be amazed by their creative take on the world and I would follow the work that Jane McConigal is doing.

The web as a driver of change
Yes, I am believer. I see that the web is fundamentally changing the way that people work and live together. Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody is the best introduction to this new world that I have found so far. Benkler says that “technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice“. Projects like Wikipedia and Kiva would not be feasible without the current technology. Wired magazine is a great way to keep up with these developments and Kevin Kelly (incidentally one of Wired’s cofounders) is my go-to technology philosopher: Out of Control was an amazingly prescient book and I can’t wait for What Technology Wants to appear in my mailbox.

I would of course be interested in the things that I (we?) have missed. Your thoughts?