Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Are We Becoming Too Reliant on the Internet?

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As our reliance on technology grows, a number of questions get asked. Do search engines such as Google actually contribute to a “dumbing-down” of people since nearly any information is so readily available, and so quickly? Perhaps this causes people to put less effort into retaining the information gathered from such searches, as it can quickly be searched again. Are our quick searches and use of sites such as Wikipedia just giving us false information in record time? Surely we've all seen cases where at best Wikipedia is incorrect, and at worst contains blatantly false information in an effort spread that false information. And finally, are we just relying on the Internet too much? Libraries across the globe served us well for thousands of years. While on-line digital media does have its disadvantages, it's insane to think that the wealth of information available on-line could possibly be a bad thing. And based on my own personal experience, I contend that the wealth of information available from all over the world is nothing short of a miracle.

The first question I asked, does Google make us stupid, has been asked a number of different ways and different times. Is fast access really turning us into a look it up and then throw it away society? Many people feel that this is indeed the case. But a recent paper by Pew Research summarizes two articles featured inThe Atlantic which present both sides of the argument and a poll conducted amongst people whom they believe to be experts. A resounding 76% of these experts go as far as to say that the use of the Internet has, in fact, enhanced human intelligence. Many of the comments of these experts centered around a common theme. With a single Internet search, one is able to find answers quickly, and find them from multiple sources. And by verifying these facts from multiple sources, one is armed with much better information. Finally, with this better information, one is therefore able to make better decisions and come to better conclusions based on that information.

While it may be true that having so much access to information leads to less retention, one will still retain the information on subsequent searches. It's no different than reading a book. The first time through a chapter in a text book, how much of the information does the average reader retain? Of course this depends on the material and the reader, but it's safe to say that it's rarely 100%. In fact, research shows that on average, we retain only 10% of what we read for the first time. So how does one retain more of the information then? By reading it again, of course. Through the act of repetition, a very simple thing that we have all learned quite early in our academic careers, you retain more of the information. The same goes with searching on the Internet. You may not remember each fact that you've looked up the first time, but through subsequent searches, your retention increases. If we're only expected to retain 10% of what we read the first time, why should we expect to retain a significantly higher percentage of what we search? I don't think we should, it just doesn't appear to be a fair comparison.

The next question centers on the accuracy of the information gathered from an on-line search. The website Wikipedia comes up near the top of the list for nearly every search I type into Google. When discussing an issue on a forum or other discussion medium, I'm often given links to information on Wikipedia. This leads me to believe that a great number of people rely quite heavily on the content on Wikipedia. So what is this site? Wikipedia derives its name and model from a very basic type of web site, the wiki. This type of site creates a database of information contributed and edited by its user base. The accuracy of this information relies on peer review, and the integrity of those peers. While most wikis are more narrow in their scope, Wikipedia aspires to contain all known information. But, as earlier stated, it's all user contributed content. Sometimes those users can be wrong, and sometimes they may even be malicious.

So just how accurate are Wikipedia and other similar sites? Should I take it at face value that all Detroit Lions fans are eagerly awaiting the death of William Clay Ford, Jr? Like anything that relies on user contribution, there's a lot of good information, and there's a lot of bad information. However, there is a common phrase used on Wikipedia, “citation needed.” The good contributors to Wikipedia cite their sources, and provide links to those sources where applicable. If the article you are reading cites credible sources, then the information is most likely accurate, and you can check those sources for yourself to be sure. Does this invalidate Internet research to some extent? I say absolutely not. There are plenty of books and newspapers on the shelf of your local library right now that contain inaccurate or malicious information. And I shouldn't have to mention anything beyond Stephen Glass when it comes to the integrity of magazines. Much like with print media, if you use multiple sources and double check anything that appears inaccurate, you're information base will be correct.

The final question, are we relying on the Internet too much, is one that is harder to answer. There are libraries in nearly every city across the country, full of books, magazines, microfiche and many other resources containing the answers to every question one can imagine. If you can't find what you need at your local library, they'll find it for you at a neighboring library and borrow it for you. You can even take your library card and use it at many neighboring libraries yourself. But how many of us today know how to use the Dewey Decimal System to find what they're looking for? How many people can use a microfiche? Or even worse yet, how many people even know where their local library is? I don't have actual numbers for these questions, but it shouldn't be hard to imagine an example of someone who doesn't off of the top of your head.

This is one point where the detractors get it right. We should all still have a library card for our local library. We should still know what the resources available at the library are, and know how to use them. What happens if the Internet kill switch is invoked? Or what happens when the only sources of the information that you need require a significant fee to access? And one more possibility, what happens when you just can't find a credible source for what you're looking for? Yes, believe it or not, the possibility exists that there is information that is not yet available on the Internet, and many experts believe that quite a bit doesn't. In any of these cases, the answer is a trip to the local library. And for the most animate on-line proponents, many libraries have very extensive on-line resources to search the materials that they have available. And they have one thing that the Internet doesn't offer. Knowledgeable librarians who are able to answer all your questions and help you find what you're looking for.

The world is a much different place than it was when I was in High School just sixteen years ago. Gathering sources once cost us an entire day at the library walking from shelf to shelf only to find that someone already took the book we need. Today, an equal number of credible sources can be gathered in just minutes with a well crafted Internet search. Does this cause us to retain less because it can be so easily found again? My personal experience says the complete opposite. I can read about any topic I'm interested in, often times reading more than what I was originally looking for. If I don't understand the explanation of one source, I can use a different source. This is true of any topic, and can be accomplished any time of day. So no, I don't believe that Google is causing any type of “dumbing down” of society. Are web sites such as Wikipedia giving us false information in record time? Perhaps this is the case if we look at one source and accept their explanation. But the same is true when it comes to off-line media as well. There are plenty of books, magazines and newspapers which contain inaccuracies and out-right lies supporting their author's agenda. By sticking to credible sources and verifying facts, there is no reason to believe that the Internet is any less accurate than information in print. And finally, do we rely too heavily on the Internet? This is the one question that I agree with the opponents of on-line research. While I agree that we should still know how to utilize all the resources available at the library, that doesn't lessen the value of the Internet. When we stop looking at the Internet as a competitor to print, and instead embrace it as an additional resource, then we can truly see its value.

Monday, December 1, 2014

No Online Privacy

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In today's wired world, our privacy is at jeopardy more now than ever.  Our web browsers track our every move online.  GPS capability is built into our laptop computers, cell phones, PDAs, automobiles, and what we wear.  Our shopping habits can be tracked easily if we use credit cards instead of cash.  And all of this data is not just stored in a database and forgotten, these databases are being sold and combined.  There are companies whose only purpose is to search this data to combine facts in usable ways.

While surfing the web, if we're not careful to cover our tracks, our web browser can tell quite a story.  The web browser tracks our complete browsing history.  Browser cookies potentially link personally identifying information such as user names, real names and credit card numbers to that history.  Shopping sites such as eBay and Amazon track our purchases and even items that we have looked at.  Even more disturbing, a recent study from the Electronic Frontier Foundation says that over 80% of our web browsers have an “instantaneously unique fingerprint.”  How long will it be before someone is able to exploit that?  Also of concern is just how much personal information and private photos that we give to social networking sites such as Facebook without a second thought.

Our ever move can be tracked by GPS even easier than it is with RFID.  Global Positioning Devices use satellites to pinpoint our exact location at any given second.  We all know about GPS devices that sit on the dash board in our cars, but there are many more places that they can be located that may surprise you.  GPS is often built into the chip sets that power countless consumer electronic devices such as cell phones, digital cameras, PDAs, and laptop computers.  Normally there is no way to completely disable the GPS functionality, even if you are not paying to use the service.  Even if your particular cell phone does not feature built in GPS, your location can still be determined by triangulation performed by the cell towers.  More surprisingly, like RFID, GPS can be even be embedded into our clothes.  Targeted towards concerned fathers, the Brazilian company Lindelucy is marketing lingerie with built in GPS.

Every time that you make a payment with your credit card, you can be tracked.  As more and more commerce moves online where only plastic is taken, this becomes more of a concern.  Each purchase you make with your card is seen and recorded by the card issuer.  The major card issuers decline to discuss how this data is used, which alone should raise a flag.  Have you ever noticed how your bank or card issuer can break down your transactions by any number of criteria on their web site?  And credit cards are constantly getting smaller and easier to use. The “Fast Pass” devices fit on a keychain, attach to the window in your car, and a company called VeriChip Corporation can even embed one into your skin that can be used the same way.

All of the previous examples alone are bad enough, but all of these seemingly unrelated tidbits about you are being tied together by data brokers.  Data brokers are individuals or companies that use all the information about you that is available and ties it together to paint a more accurate picture.  All of the information collected about you and stored in databases by Amazon, Google, MasterCard, and everywhere else is being bought by these data brokers and combined.  And if you search for the term “data broker” in Google, you will no doubt see just how big the latest embarrassment for Facebook is.  An unnamed application used in conjunction with Facebook has been harvesting a yet unknown amount of information from people who use the application and sold to a data broker.  How many of us either use these applications ourselves or are Facebook friends with others who do?  Your friends applications can often see your information as well.

As we conduct more of our business online, and more services become available to use online, our hope for privacy dwindles.  Everywhere we visit online can be tracked.  Every where we go can be monitored and our exact location at any given moment recorded by cell phones, laptops, and even our clothes.  Every purchase we make with credit cards is recorded and that data can even be manipulated by you via the card issuer's web page.  And there are companies out there that do nothing but collect all of this data to paint a more useful picture of you to sell to the highest bidder.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Moral Machines

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This is an assignment calling for a reaction to an article presented and discussed in class regarding driver-less cars.  The article was called "Moral Machines" and was written by Gary Marcus.  It was published on The New Yorker website November 24, 2012.  In it, the author looks to a time when autonomous vehicles are the norm, and asks at such a time, will driving yourself be though of as immoral?

The idea of driver-less cars being the future, and that driving a car yourself would someday become uncommon or possibly illegal, is a frightening prospect.  As someone who works in Information Technology, I have seen first-hand multiple examples of a piece of software or an update to a piece of software failing to perform as expected overall, or in specific cases not anticipated by the manufacturer.  But yet in the article, Marcus claims that driver-less cars will someday become “able to drive better, and more safely than you can.”

Many of us who have come to rely on computers in our day to day work know about Microsoft Patch Tuesday very well. According to the Search Security web site, Patch Tuesday “is the second Tuesday of each month, when Microsoft releases the newest fixes for its Windows operating system and related software applications."  Anyone with a Windows computer who pays attention to the Windows Update function is well aware of the number of updates that are released by Microsoft every month.  While the process is mostly unobtrusive and does increase the security and reliability of your computer, I’ve personally seen applications that stop working correctly with new versions of Windows and updates that go as far as causing an entire company’s machines to reboot over and over again until an administrator intervenes.

Microsoft is not alone in these embarrassing flaws in the software engineering process. As discussed by Thomson, a flaw in Apple Maps left users as far as 40 miles from their intended destination. Police in one affected area called it a “potentially life-threatening issue.”  Imagine for a second your driver-less car being navigated by flawed software such as this.  Your car would be driving you to the wrong destination, and even if you realized what was happening you may be powerless to do anything about it.

Driver-less cars may well be the future of travel, and most would agree that this is a promising and exciting technology.  But the idea that driving your car yourself would ever be considered illegal or immoral as proposed by Marcus is laughable at best and irresponsible at worst. Trusting your well being to a piece of software should never be a mandatory decision and anyone who uses a computer today should understand why.