Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Private eyes are watching you: The year in tech

Published in the Portland Phoenix; co-written with Nicholas Schroeder

This year saw some tech wins (public information), some losses (privacy), and many more questions for the future of an increasingly wired world. (Example: Is anything secret anymore?) And there was the appearance of yet another grassroots David, and, as if a warning to future Davids, the epic collapse of a bloated Goliath.

Rise of Kickstarter
The arts just don't pay like they used to. What to do, then, when the ideas keep coming? In 2010, the people turned to Kickstarter, a user-friendly, low-risk database of not-for-profit projects seeking financial backing. The trick is simple: grant-hungry innovators provide a clear mission statement, project outline, and timeline for their projects. Like a virtual gallery of ideas, Kickstarter organizes projects and tallies pledges, freeing the project organizer to promote the fundraising effort.
Locally, it's been a minor revelation. In 2010, private pledgers funded Didn't Die Young Yet, a book of fiction by Jacob Cholak (who wrote one short story for each $1-and-up pledge received), the mastering of Theodore Treehouse's much-lauded debut album, and a $1500 steamroller rental for public printmaking demonstration by local art collective Pickwick Independent Press during September's Block Party.

Death of MySpace
Where Kickstarter represented the virtual vox populi, the web still produced its share of audible groans. Once a teeming online metropolis, Rupert Murdoch's MySpace is now a truly disgusting city, reduced to a collection of flashy billboards pasted onto blocks of empty housing units. 2010 witnessed a public resignation (some say firing) of Owen Van Natta, the company's CEO, and by July, operating losses for the year had passed $575 million. MySpace is still most convenient way to sample low-quality selections of fledgling rock bands, but individual accounts — the lungs of a social network — are inert.
Say what you will about Facebook, but they did get one thing right. Like the majority of humans (and most primates), it can differentiate between a person and a thing. According to Facebook's logic, both have presence, but only people have agency. Things — and this includes Malaysian sexbots — do not.

A free press, and the associated power of the Internet, to disrupt governments and expose secrets is trumpeted by the US in its policy toward China. Not so in its ongoing investigation — and threatened prosecution — of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. In addition to its April release of classified video footage of a US Army helicopter crew shooting and killing a group of men (including two journalists) in Baghdad in 2007, WikiLeaks struck fear into the hearts of American policymakers when it began releasing as many as 250,000 State Department documents in November. The real significance, however, was the populist rise of the computer-hacking community to defend Assange by attacking sites that caved to government pressure and ended business dealings with WikiLeaks (Amazon, Visa, Mastercard, PayPal). This response showed that there are many more people willing to defy the US government than officials would like — and that the feds can't catch them.

Privacy kickback
While studies show that younger people are less worried about loss of online privacy (in part because they're better at self-editing and using privacy tools that are available), Facebook and Google both spent big chunks of time under government microscopes this year. Facebook drew negative press and congressional concern for its ever-changing privacy policy and continued tweaks to both refine self-protection ability and encourage people to release just — a — little — more to those advertisers who keep FB in the black. Google faces increasing inquiries worldwide, particularly for its Google Street View service, which often ends up showing private citizens going about their daily lives — it shows a baby being born on a German street, for example — and has also been found to have collected data on private wi-fi networks in the areas its cars have mapped, leading to concerns about not just one-time privacy violation, but ongoing e-surveillance.

The Kindle, the Nook, the Sony Reader — books really began to go mobile in 2010. The biggest boost, though, was from Apple's iPad, the small tablet computer that is effectively a large, powerful iPhone, without the ability to make calls or send texts. While many of the commercial e-book readers can access data in several e-book formats, only the iPad's system allows a private company complete control over software and the content that software delivers. If the iPad proves as dominant in its niche as the iPhone in its, this could give Apple a serious stranglehold on the marketplace of ideas.