Conceptual Research & Reflection Project

May 23, 2009

Concept 9: Permanent ephemerality

Advanced Internet users do not confuse the electronically generated ‘ephemerality’ of their communication with a real emphemerality: they take seriously the requirement to communicate with clear vision of the consequences of what they are doing.

From here to eternity: issues of permanence and privacy on the World Wide Web

On the Eastern Serengeti plains in Northern Tanzania lies the Olduvai Gorge, one of the most important known prehistoric sites in the world that has contributed to the understanding of human evolution. Over millions of years, successive layers of volcanic ash have covered the shores of a former lake. Further seismic activity diverted a stream that has eroded through the ash revealing seven distinct layers embedded with various artifacts and in some instances, hominid bones (“Olduvai Gorge,” 2009). John Battelle suggests that the trail of searches and emails we leave when surfing the web may be the Olduvian ashes of our generation (Battelle, 2004).

Before the advent of the World Wide Web (WWW), issues of ephemerality and permanence of information were relatively simple. Most of us assumed that no records remained of our digital experiences. Our reference point was the telephone, where calls were fleeting, passing and unrecorded (Battelle, 2004).  The traces of our digital ramblings, which Battele terms our “clickstream exhaust”, were only useful as the means to finding a file or passing along information; they were of no other value (Battelle, 2004). We assumed ownership of our emails, just as we “owned” our telephone conversations, even though we knew our emails passed through the hands of ISPs and sometimes resided on their servers. This assumption was reinforced by statute in the USA with the passage of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 1986 (Battelle, 2004). Similar provisions already existed in Australia under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 (Cth) (Mallam, 2009).

WWW complicated things and our digital ramblings traversed from ephemerality into eternity. Innovative companies realised that our clickstreams were rivers of gold. Like gypsies reading tealeaves, they soon began divining clickstream patterns (Battelle, 2004). Some uses were underlying such as Google’s PageRank while others were more direct such as Google’s Adsense and Amazon’s Recommendations (Battelle, 2004). Users of these services traded privacy considerations for other benefits such as ease of use, speed and convenience.

However, there were even greater trade-offs in the offing. When Google launched Gmail in 2004, it offered users of its new webmail service, free of charge, one gigabyte of data storage. The catch, Google would display ads based upon keywords appearing in the email (Templeton, 2004). Few gave any thought to how this would occur, blinded by the astonishing offer of free data storage and the improved search facilities in the new webmail product. If they had, they would have discovered it was necessary for Google to “read” their private emails to identify keywords that determine which particular ads to display. Google asserts that robots and not individuals “read” the mail (Templeton, 2004). Templeton (2004 ) expresses suprise people blindly accept this claim and argues that we would be unlikely to allow robots to read the mail in our letterbox and then place junk mail in the letterbox based on what was read.

Templeton has other privacy concerns with Gmail. He suggests that the protections afforded to email users by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 1986 may not extend to emails stored on Google’s servers. He posits that emails cease to be communications once received and stored on the server and that the relationship then becomes a contract for the provision of database services, which he argues are not covered by the Act (Templeton, 2004). These emails may be accessed without warrant or authority. It is also doubtful whether protection exists under the Australian Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act for email stored on Google’s server. The Australian Act was amended in 2006 to cover storage of information by telecommunication carriers, which definition includes ISPs (Mallam, 2009). However, Google is not a carrier as defined under the Act.

Should we be troubled about the loss of privacy as we shift from the ephemeral to the eternal, since “life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal” (Jean-Paul Sartre).

Site 1: John Battelle’s Searchblog – (Battelle, 2004)

John Battelle is a journalist as well as founder and chairman of Federated Media Publishing. He has been a visiting professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.  Searchblog has been manitaned by Battale for more than eight years. From the Ephemeral to the Eternal is the first part of an incomplete conversation that Battele has continued to blog about since 2004. Battalle explores the the passage of clickstreams (the paths our mice lead us on whne we surf the net or send email) from apparent ephemerality to apparent eternity. He observes the chnages became apparent with the exponential growth of the WWW. Battalle also provides links to useful sources on associated concepts.

Site 2: Brad Templeton’s Home Page – (Templeton, 2004)

Brad Templeton founded ClariNet Communications Corp (the world’s first “dot-com.”) He is current chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a leading cyberspace civil rights foundation, and involved with the Foresight Institute and BitTorrent, Inc. He wote and posted the article Private Subtleties of Google before the public release of Gmail. His predictions of privacy issues proved prescient. After lobbying by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the US Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 1986 was amended in 2005 to provide additional protection for stored documents.


Concept 15: Metaphors of use and communication differentiation

Internet communication technologies draw for their appeal and legibility (ie how they care understood) on metaphors and practices from non-internet communication. We use them, we understand them as versions of the latter, finding or creating differences between them that are not actually technically there since the net reduces all information flows to an identical format (with small variations) as it actually works

Without metaphor, life could not be a bed of roses

Since time immemorial, man has used metaphor to help him understand the meaning of concepts, ideas and things. The Bible is full of metaphors. The Gospels long ago proclaimed that man is “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) and “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). Metaphors have been especially useful when describing new scientific discoveries or concepts. Rutherford used a planetary metaphor to describe molecular structures, clockwork metaphors were used to define the solar system while English physician William Harvey explained how the heart functioned by reference to a metaphorical pump (Eaton, nd).

The design of the first cars driven by the internal combustion engine resembled “horse drawn carriages” (Thorburn, 1998). Nothing was inherent in the concept the internal combustion engine that demanded this. The metaphor of a horseless carriage, which had been chosen to explain the invention drove the design (Thorburn, 1998). Thorburn recounts that his father drove an “early Ford whose elaborate leather dashboard was fitted with a pocket for the handle of a buggy whip” (Thorburn, 1998).

Koolmees suggests that Western cultures tend to develop an understanding of concepts and ideas by imagining them as things or “stuff” (Koolmees, 2007). In Western society we understand knowledge by viewing it as a “thing or substance” (Koolmees, 2007). We use these “stuff” metaphors to communicate concepts such as knowledge transfer or sharing and information storage or flow (Koolmees, 2007). Eastern cultures use different metaphors to understand knowledge (Koolmees, 2007). Rather than seeing knowledge as “stuff”, Eastern cultures tend to view knowledge through concepts of “spirit and wisdom, as unfolding truth, as illumination, or as enlightenment” (Koolmees, 2007).

Koolmees argues that metaphors are especially useful “to conceptualise abstract phenomena like information and knowledge” (Koolmees, 2007). It is not surprising then that metaphor has played a powerful part in developing our understanding of the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW). Indeed, the name selected by Tim Berners-Lee for the WWW is a metaphor in itself, referring as it does to an interconnected network of computers encircling the globe like a spiders web.

There are a number of dominant metaphorical mnemonics used when attempting to describe the Internet. Jacobs identifies two apparently contradictory concepts; “the Internet as an ocean” and “the Internet as a highway system” (Jacobs, 1999). The first analogy conjures images of a nature, vastness and water with expressions such as “surfing the net”, a “virtual ocean … overflowing with useless cyber trash”, “navigating the net” and web ”piracy”. The second relies on images that are man made denoting transport such as “information highway”, the net “crashing”, “old browsers as roadblocks” and “slowing traffic” (Jacobs, 1999).

There are many other metaphors outside these dominant paradigms. Surfers use “gophers” to “tunnel through cyberspace”. “Flames” are “incendiary” comments posted on a discussion board. Users “bookmark” favourite pages, they “launch” programs, they “finger” sites, use the “paintbrush” visit the “network neighborhood, install applications via the “bus”. They “freeze”, “boot” and “re-boot” their computers. They may accept “cookies” while at other time they only allow “handshakes” (Jacobs, 1999).

The history of the Internet and the WWW is comparatively brief. In a short space of time a rich language has evolved, through metaphor, that enables us to know and understand these previously unknown concepts.

Site 3: European Centre for Digital Communication – (Koolmees, 2007)

Hans Koolmees is a director of the European Centre for Digital Communication, a research unit based at Zuyd University, Maastricht, the Netherlands. His article, The power of metaphors, considers how metaphor is used to map our understanding of ideas, particularly “abstract phenomena like information and knowledge”. Koolmees distinguishes between the use of metaphor in Western cultures and Eastern cultures. He notes that Eastern metaphors “emphasise the subjective, dynamic, independent and emerging nature of knowledge” compared to the Western metaphors of “stuff” which “stress objectification and controllability of knowledge”. He reports the results of an experiment to determine whether different cultural metaphorical concepts influence organisational structures. He concludes that applying Western metaphorical concepts produced more formal and structured results that were generally proposed by managers and opposed by employees. Whereas, those applying the Eastern concepts developed solutions “aimed at humanising the organisation instead of formalising it”. Both managers and employees proposed these solutions.

Site 4: James Q. Jacobs on the web – (Jacobs, 1999)

James Q. Jacobs is an anthropologist and archeologist. His website features a number of scholarly articles, including Cyberspace is a parallel world: a metaphor analysis. Jacobs examines how our language has been shaped by metaphor to enable us to understand computer technologies, the Internet and the WWW. He observes that “rather than creating novel new words … various existing domains have been mapped onto computeers and cyberspace”. He cites examples from the domain of “computer as an office” such as “desktop”, “clipboard”, “scrapbook”, “mail box”, “trash can” and “folders”. The cyberspace world is mapped in cartesian space with examples like “drag and drop”, “bring up, bring forward”, “shut down” “background”, and “running”. He also considers the contradictory metaphors of the internet as an ocean and a highway.


Concept 28: The paradox of the World Wide Web

Advanced Internet users recognise the character of the Web, seek to utilise its advantages, ameliorate its deficiencies and understand that not all users have the same abilities as themselves in reconciling the paradox of the WWW.

Together yet apart: a paradox of the World Wide Web

In 1998 a group of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania carried out research into “the social and psychological impact of the lnternet” on “community life and social relationships” (Kraut, 1998). In their opening remarks Kraut (1998) and his colleagues predicted that the Internet had the same potential to alter peoples’ lives as the telephone and television had in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century. However, their research identified a paradox. The greater the use of the internet for social interaction the greater the degree of isolation from family and community taht was experienced by the users (Kraut, 1998).

Thorburn (1998) identified this paradox, which he termed the “contradiction of dissonance”. He demonstrated the paradox by comparing physical and heroic metaphorical images, such as surfing or navigating the superhighway or cyberspace, typically used to describe the perceived internet experience, with images of actuality founded in morality and intellect of computer users who were timid and isolated (Thorburn, 1998).

Thorburn observes that a sense of the social is developed through expressions such as “support group, interest group, news group, chat room, market, subculture, community [and] society” (Thorburn, 1998). Paradoxically, this sense of the social is diminished by use of the qualifier “virtual” such as “virtual community, virtual reality” etc (Thorburn, 1998). It remains a paradox that promises of bold new relationships, experiences and communities can be diminished by use of just one word. These communities and experiences are not real they are simulated or, at best, almost real.

Much is promised to the users of the World Wide Web such as world travel, participation in multiple causes and a multitude of public and private conversations. Yet to achieve this we must “sit, solitary, at the keyboard, interfacing deeply not with a human other, but with Windows 95” (Thorburn, 1998). While the internet encourages our participation in the cyberspace community at the same time it panders to less attractive human traits such as isolation (Thorburn, 1998). Anonymity affords the opportunity to scandalise, seek revenge, defame, stalk and indulge in pornography (Thorburn, 1998). Thorburn (1998) draws on Dickens to express this paradox as “the best of Webs, the worst of Webs”. The late Pope John II (2002) shared this view and described the World Wide Web as “full of the interplay of danger and promise”.

Thorburn (1998) argues that the paradox of the internet threatens “vital conceptual and psychological boundaries such as ‘near’ and ‘far’, ‘presence’ and ‘absence’, ‘body’ and ‘self’, ‘real’ and ‘artificial’”. The paradox is not unique to the internet; it has many precursors. The apparent truncation of time and space allowed by the telegraph and the telephone is one early example (Thorburn, 1998). Thornton (1998) notes that our experiences with books, movies and television also feature elements of virtual reality “by blurring of  ‘real’ and ‘false’, of  ‘connection’ yet ‘isolation’, ‘public’ yet ‘private’.  Thorburn (1998) suggests that the concept of the virtual site dates back as far as the early dramatists. Plays are an early form of a virtual site by which belief may be suspended through dramatic conventions such as scene changes and ellipses of time.

Site 5: Internet paradox: a social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? – (Kraut, 1998)

Robert Kraut is the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. With his research colleagues Michael Patterson, Vicki Lundmark, Sara Kiesler, Tridas Mukopadhyay, and William Scherlis, he researched and wrote on the paradox of the internet on “the social and psychological impact of the lnternet … on social involvement and psychological well-being”. He considers the argument that “the Internet is causing people to become socially isolated and cut off from genuine social relationships, as they hunker alone over their terminals or communicate with anonymous strangers through a socially impoverished medium. He then examines the competing argument “that the Internet leads to more and better social relationships by freeing people from the constraints of geography or isolation brought on by stigma, illness, or schedule. According to them, the Internet allows people to join groups on the basis of common interests rather than convenience”.

Site 6: Web of Paradox – (Thorburn, 1998)

David Thorburn is Professor of Literature and Director of the Communications Forum at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Conrad’s Romanticism and many articles on media and culture and was the general editor of the book series Media and Popular Culture. Thorburn views the World Wide Web as “more than a technology, more than modems, bandwidth and computers”. Instead, he sees it as “a thing made of language and history, a Web of Metaphor”. However, the metaphor of adventure, heroism and physicality that typically defines the WWW is a paradox when compared to the real world experience. Thorburn also observes the paradox of interaction with a virtual community achieved through isolated solitary interaction with a computer terminal. Thorburn does not regard the concept of the virtual world as new or particularly connected to the WWW. He argues that earlier communication systems including the telegraph, telephone, movies and television, and even books and plays, were all a form of a virtual site.


Concept 33: Information and attention

In the era of the ‘attention economy’, readers and users of Internet information must be carefully craft, in their own minds, the kind of metadata which will – almost instinctively – ‘fit’ with the metadata of the information sources they want, so that – in the few brief moments of initial exchange, when a seeker of information encounters information being sought, rapid, effective judgments are made that ‘pay off’ in terms of further reading, accessing and saving.

You can pay attention, but you cannot pay for it.

American psychologist Herbert Simon created the concept of the “attention economy” when he wrote:

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it (Simon, 1971).

Goldhaber (1997) suggests that the attention economy has come about through changes to the underlying tenets of the economies of industrialised nations, shifting as they have from reliance on workers producing, transporting and distributing material goods to “managing or dealing with information in some form”. Goldhaber (1997) rejects the tendency to describe this phenomenon as the “information economy”. Goldhaber (1997) bases his theory on an understanding of economics, which is the “study of how society uses its scarce resources”. Information, particularly on the internet, is abundant observes Goldhaber (1997). What is in short supply? What drives people to place information on the interne? Goldhaber (1997) answers “attention”.

The language of the attention economy is widespread.  Phrases such as “pay attention”, “do I have your attention” or “I can’t give that my attention at the moment” are commonplace and metaphorically indicative of the commoditisation of the concept of attention (Goldhaber, 1997). Commercialisation follows commoditisation. Mandel and Van der Leun describe “attention” as “the hard currency of cyberspace” (Mandel, 1996).

Modern production techniques mean that many commodities, which were previously scarce, are now plentiful. There is more of a problem with overeating in countries like Australia than there is a scarcity of food. While it is possible to mass produce quantities of an item to satisfy demand, a person’s attention is limited. Even in this age of multi-tasking, it is still difficult to direct one’s attention to more than one thing at a time. It is important for information providers to recognise this scarcity and to develop their offerings accordingly.

According to Goldhaber (1997) the “attention economy is a star system, where Elvis has an advantage”. Known celebrities, brands, blockbuster movies etc will always draw more attention than less well-known equivalents.  Individuals can attract attention to themselves by hitching a ride on a star. By associating themselves with “stars” they will achieve some attention as “micro stars” (Goldhaber, 1997). Goldhaber (1997) emphasises how attention not only flows from fan to star, but is hyperlinked from star to star and fan to fan.

A significant factor that differentiates the commodity of “attention” from other commodities is money. Goldhaber (1997) argues that money cannot buy attention. More radically perhaps, Goldhaber predicts a dramatic change in the advertising model. Goldhaber (1997) claims that advertisements will have as their dominant purpose the attraction and direction of attention, “because money will be obsolete”. Goldhaber sustains this argument on the premise that “cyberspace is not that hospitable to monetary transactions [and] … requires a complex set of codes, passwords, firewalls, etc”. Conversely, Goldhaber (1997) notes: “Attention requires no encryption. It flows naturally across the Web.”

Goldhaber (1997) turns to history as justification for his argument. In feudal Europe it was unimaginable that occupations such as “tilling the soil for food” or the then unchallengeable rights of nobility to land, title and wealth could be usurpe (Goldhaber, 1997). However, the industrial revolution changed that, and money became the central focus of the econom (Goldhaber, 1997). Only time will tell whether “attention” can take the place of money.

Site 7: Designing organisations for an information rich world – (Simon 1971)

Dr Herbert Simon was the  winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics. Simon earned an international reputation as one of the founders of artificial intelligence. Dr. Simon’s research extended from computer science to such areas as cognitive psychology, administration and economics.His seminal work, Designing organisations for an information rich world, was published in 1971 and is attributed with establishing the concept of the “attention economy”. Simon raises his concept of  “the scarcity of attention” as a consequence of an abundance of information. He suggests “the scarcity of attention in an information rich world can be  measured in terms of a human executive’s time”. He argues that “the cost to recieve information” (the cost of attention) is more important than the cost to produce information. He provides three examples of his theory under the subheading: “information overload”, “the need to know” and “technology assessment”.

Site 8:The currency of the New Economy won’t be money, but attention – A radical theory of value – (Goldhaber, 1997)

Michael H. Goldhaber  is the author of Reinventing Technology and a visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California at Berkeley. He has written extensively on the “attention economy” and his prediction, first made in 1997, that the “attention economy” will replace the “money economy” in time. He regards “attention” as  “a truly limited resource”. He observes that the “star system” need not limit opportunities for “micro stars” from gaining attention via hyperlinking of fan to fan, star to star. he predicts that the “attention economy” spells the “end of money”. He turns to history, feudalism through to indistrialisation, as proof of his theories.


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