Recently the U.S. Secretary of Defense made an ominous prediction: “There is a strong likelihood that the next Pearl Harbor that we confront could very well be a cyberattack.”
Leon Panetta was not alone in his assessment of threats to the United States.
FBI Director Robert Mueller has said, “I do believe that the cyberthreat will equal or surpass the threat from counterterrorism in the foreseeable future.”
A ticking clock
And Mike Rogers, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee in the House of Representatives has warned, “We will suffer a catastrophic cyberattack. The clock is ticking.”
Cyberterrorism is not a new concept, but it is not one widely discussed, understood, or even feared by most Americans. We seem much more concerned – justifiably so – about another massive physical attack like 9/11.
The weapon exists
What’s even more worrisome, is that the virus that could wreak such havoc has already been developed, tried and found successful in another part of the world. Worse yet, that malware can be copied by others, may have already been done so, and could be repurposed and used for just a couple million dollars.
That cost is obviously not a factor by a large terrorist group or a failed country’s regime wanting to exact revenge on America.
The latest and most sophisticated “worm” or malware is called Stuxnet and was discovered accidentally in 2010 as it was attacking the controlling computer in Iran’s nuclear uranium enrichment facility.
That attack had been underway for a year before discovery and had rendered thousands of the plant’s centrifuges – devices used to enrich uranium – useless. Estimates are that Iran’s nuclear production process was set back several years as a result.
A new era
Retired Gen. Mike Hayden told reporter Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes, “We have entered into a new phase of conflict in which we use a cyberweapon to create physical destruction and, in this case, physical destruction in someone else’s critical infrastructure.” That infrastructure could be nuclear plants, massive electrical power grids, water treatment plants, air traffic control facilities, and so on.
As former director of both the CIA and national security, Hayden should know what he’s talking about. He left the CIA in 2009 and refused to speculate to Kroft on any possible CIA involvement.
Although no one has taken responsibility for developing Stuxnet, the only two countries with the capability and motives for damaging Iran’s nuclear efforts in this way seem to be the United States and Israel.
Not surprisingly, neither country’s intelligence agencies are taking responsibility for it.
Stuxnet is unlike the millions of other computer viruses in existence. It is not designed to steal passwords or individual identities, and it isn’t out to unleash its attack on all the computers it infects. Instead, it was designed to target and infect one particular computer and to perform a specific task in that computer.
The computer is the main one at Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment plant, and the task was to cause the plant’s centrifuges to spin much faster than they were designed to do, destroying them in the process. If left unchecked, Stuxnet could totally halt the plant’s ability to enrich uranium.
According to Wired Magazine, Stuxnet uses a rare “zero-day” exploit to spread the virus in a computer.
“Zero-days are the hacking world’s most potent weapons: they exploit vulnerabilities in software that are yet unknown to the software maker or antivirus vendors,” writes Kim Zetter. “They’re also exceedingly rare: it takes considerable skill and persistence to find such vulnerabilities and exploit them. Out of more than 12 million pieces of malware that antivirus researchers discover each year, fewer than a dozen use a zero-day exploit.”
Another difference between Stuxnet and other computer worms is that this one masked the fact that it even existed. Generally, when a virus attacks a computer, the user is the first to realize it. Not so with Stuxnet. It is left free to do its damage without being readily detected.
In the case of Stuxnet, it was doing its work in the Natanz computer for a year before a computer security firm in Belarus discovered it. By then, thousands of the nuclear enrichment plant’s centrifuges had been destroyed and needed to be replaced.
If all the concern over Stuxnet were related to its ability to halt Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, few in the world would be concerned at all. It would be hard to find any Americans, in fact, who wouldn’t cheer its development.
A reusable weapon
The problem is that a cyberweapon – in this case the Stuxnet malware – doesn’t destroy itself when it is used in the way a missile, bomb, or rocket would. A cyberweapon does its damage and continues to live on.
That means the weapon is still available for use by anyone who can access it.
“There are those out there who can take a look at this, study it and maybe even attempt to turn it to their own purposes,” Gen. Hayden said.
The phrase, “unintended consequences” was used more than once by the sources. In short, it could be used against the United States.
A genie named Pandora
So the genie appears to have escaped the bottle, although repurposing and using it would require a lot of intelligence and a lot of work.
Ralph Langner, a German industrial security expert, said, “You don’t need many billions; you just need a couple of millions. And this would buy you a decent cyberattack, for example, against the U.S. power grid. (And you can access it) on the Internet.
Pesky thing, that Pandora’s Box.
“As someone who has dabbled in multiple social networking sites, I have to say, Facebook seems to be losing its allure, at least for me … At the moment, Instagram is my choice for social networking.”
This comment comes from Senior English major Tara Donavanik, writing in the student newspaper The Clause,at California’s Azusa Pacific University.
She is uttering what some are wondering about Facebook and Myspace: Are they losing their allure, at least to young people?
Some 2010 data from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Social Network Site Survey indicates the answer is yes. The answer seems clearer that college students have moved away from MySpace (only 12% of undergraduates and 6% of grad students use it), but the data for Facebook shows declines, too.
For a site that was started by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg as a way for college students to connect, fewer students appear to be using Facebook.
According to the Pew results, only 1 in 5 undergrads regularly uses Facebook, while only 15% of grad students use it.
Data for both MySpace and Facebook seem stronger at the high school level, with more than 1 in 3 (35%) of high school students using MySpace, and 26% using Facebook).
A possible reason
Offering up her own take on the data, Donavanik notes, “Maybe as we get older, time becomes of essence and curiosity about an ex or an acquaintance becomes low on our priority list.”
According to the Pew data, age influences the choice of an individual’s social networking site. For example, Linkedin is a popular network site that people use to develop and maintain career connections, although it is also used to exchange social information as well. But because it is more career-oriented (and even career-enhancing), some 37% of undergrad college students and 38% of grad students were using it in 2010. One would assume those numbers are even higher today.
Twitter accounts for 21% of college student use, while other SNS sites like Instagram, account for another 14% of college usage.
Although Facebook logs a smaller percentage of college students than Linkedin, the Pew study does show FB to have the largest share of daily visits by its users, while LinkedIn users visit the site once a month or even less.
35 and older growth
Indeed, the growth among users of social network sites has been in the post-college generation of older adults. The Pew Center study summarizes this as follows:
“Internet users of all ages are more likely to use a SNS today than they were in 2008. However, the increase in SNS use has been most pronounced among those who are over the age of 35. In 2008 only 18% of internet users 36 and older used a SNS, by 2010 48% of internet users over the age of 35 were using a SNS.
“This is about twice the growth experienced by internet users 18-35; 63% of whom used a SNS in 2008 compared with 80% in 2010. Among other things, this means the average age of adult-SNS users has shifted from 33 in 2008 to 38 in 2010. Over half of all adult SNS users are now over the age of 35.”
Usage still strong
Overall, the Pew Research Center data shows the following about the demographics of all Internet users, as per its August 2011 survey:
* Percent of all adults who use the Internet: 78%.
* Men outnumber women slightly (80 to 76%).
* White, Non-Hispanics outnumber Black, Non-Hispanics, 80-71%. Some 68% of Hispanics use the Web.
* Ninety-four percent of those 18-29 use the Web; 87 percent of those 30-49; 74% of those 50-64, and 41% of those 65 and older.
* For household incomes over $75K, Internet usage is almost 100%; for household incomes less than $30K, usage is at 62%
* For those with no high school diploma, Internet use is at 43%; for high school grads, it is 71%; for college grads, usage is 94%.
The tone of comments
The Pew Center has also studied the overall “tone” or mood of comments on social networking sites (SNS) and has found the following:
* 85% of SNS-using adults say their experience on the sites is that people are mostly kind.
* 68% say they have had an SNS experience that made them feel good about themselves.
* 61% had experiences that made them feel closer to another person.
* 39% say they frequently see acts of generosity by other SNS users.
Nevertheless, Pew says that “notable proportions of SNS users do witness bad behavior on those sites and nearly a third have experienced some negative outcomes from their experiences.”
For example nearly half of SNS-using adults say they have seen mean or cruel behavior displayed by others at least occasionally.
When it comes to teenage SNS-users, Pew discovered that 95% of all teens ages 12-17 are now online, and that 80% of those online teens use social media sites.
Further, the experiences teens have concerning the tone of the comments posted on the site is different from adult experiences. For example, only 69% of teens think their peers are mostly kind to each other on social network sites. Another 20% say peers are mostly unkind. Only 5% of the adult SNS-users reported people to be mostly unkind.
Cruelties on the sites
Further, Pew says 88% of teens using social networks have seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on an SNS, and 12% reported those incidents to be “frequent.” Only 7% of adults reported seeing this kind of treatment frequently.
When it comes to the sensitive subject of bullying, nearly 1 in 5 teens (19%) said they have been bullied in the past year, often online or via text.
According to Pew, teens who use social networks say, “People most often appear to ignore the situation, with a slightly smaller number of teen saying they see others defending someone and telling others to stop their cruel behavior.”
Other Pew studies have revealed the following effects of SNS-sites on users, which go toward balancing the scales some from last week’s post on this site. That post discussed the isolating effects of the social media, but Pew data show there is also a socializing effect as well.
Some of these conclusions are:
* Facebook users are more trusting than others.
* Facebook users have more close relationships.
* Facebook users get more social support than other people.
* Facebook users are much more politically engaged than most people.
* Facebook revives “dormant” relationships. (22% of those are from high school years, in fact.)
Suppose you are one of the diehards spending a couple hours browsing through the stacks of a bookstore and come across the following titles: Life on the Screen, The Second Self, and Alone Together. You might reasonably assume that you have stumbled into a section on movies and, maybe more specifically, what it’s like to be a Hollywood actor.
In some ways, you’d be right if you consider each of us to be actors on the world’s stage as we go about living our lives, interacting with others, and trying to project a self that rings true — or not.
Yet each of these three books is not about movies, but about what has happened to our lives in the age of computers, the Internet, and the Web 2.0 media.
The books are about how we go about defining ourselves, to ourselves and others, in the age where RL meets VR in the MUD.
For the yet-uninitiated, that means Real Life meeting Virtual Reality in the Multi-User Domain.
The books are all written by Sherry Turkle, MIT Professor of Technology and Society, and they span the years of 1997-2011. Taken individually or together, they show how our current age is different from any previous era humankind has ever encountered.
A nicely written excerpt from Publisher’s Weekly presents the gist of Turkle’s latest work, Alone Together, which has the provocative subtitle, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
“Turkle argues that people are increasingly functioning without face-to-face contact. For all the talk of convenience and connection derived from texting, e-mailing, and social networking, Turkle reaffirms that what humans still instinctively need is each other.
“She encounters dissatisfaction and alienation among users: teenagers whose identities are shaped not by self-exploration but by how they are perceived by the online collective, mothers who feel texting makes communicating with their children more frequent yet less substantive, Facebook users who feel shallow status updates devalue the true intimacies of friendships.”
A sobering thought
The disturbing conclusion is, “Turkle ‘s prescient book makes a strong case that what was meant to be a way to facilitate communications has pushed people closer to their machines and further away from each other.”
On several levels, that seems so. Anytime we see two people who are presumably on a date at a restaurant, yet there they sit more engaged in their I-phones or Droids, we get the picture.
Indeed one of the funnier commercials on television depicts two of these individuals. The woman is trying to have a real conversation with her date while suspecting he is more involved in checking game scores on his smart phone. And the reason it is so funny is because it is so true. We’ve all been a part of this scene, no?
Things that aren’t real
Carl Hays, a writer for Booklist, notes the following irony found in Turkle’s examination of the interface between humanity and technology:
“Turkle suggests that we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.
“In her university-sponsored studies surveying everything from text-message usage among teens to the use of robotic baby seals in nursing homes for companionship, Turkle paints a sobering and paradoxical portrait of human disconnectedness in the face of expanding virtual connections in cell-phone, intelligent machine, and Internet usage.”
When we are in the presence of a friend or loved one yet choose to focus our attention on the machine in our hand, we are in fact treating the machine with more respect; treating it as if it is more real than the person sitting next to us.
What makes Turkle’s observation more intriguing is that she has been making them for so long. Life on the Screen was published in 1997. How computer-savvy were you fifteen years ago? Did you even have an Internet connection in your home then?
Still, in that book Turkle posited that the Internet, with its bulletin boards, games, virtual communities, and private domains where people meet, develop relationships or emulate sex, is a microcosm of an emerging “culture of simulation” that substitutes representations of reality for the real world.
What we had in 1997, Turkle said, was a new way of developing an identity. This new pathway was “de-centered and multiple,” meaning it was created outside of our beings; that we used multiple Internet means and models for creating a sense of who we are as unique individuals.
If it was true then, especially for the more malleable minds of the young, how much more true might it be today as the Web has gone through mega-changes since 1997?
As one college student put it, “RL is just one more window, and it’s usually not my best.” The haunting thing here is that he is considering the worlds he inhabits through his computer as real life. He is discussing the time he spends as four different characters – avatars – in three different MUDs. Add in the time he spends doing his homework on his computer, and he lives more of his life there than apart from it.
This kind of life requires people like this student to split themselves into different selves, turning on one self and then morphing into another, as he cycles from window to window on the screen. He believes it allows him to explore different possibilities of who he might be.
Some simply say, “The Internet lets you be who you pretend to be.”
A 2001 flashback
And, in an unsettling flashback to older generations of scenes from Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, we seem to be losing our self-control to computers. As those space travelers did, we no longer give commands to our computers; we have dialogues with them.
And often, the computers seem to have the last word.
In another era, WWF stood for the World Wrestling Federation. Still does, I suppose, although today those initials are more commonly known by online gamers as Word with Friends.
Somewhere around Thanksgiving I got hooked into this addictive game which, along with other games like Hanging with Friends and the (non-interactive) Angry Birds are taking up a lot of people’s times these days.
With its ubiquitous accessibility, via terminal, laptop, notebook, or smart phone, Word with Friends seems, indeed, to be everywhere. And with its links to Facebook, many of the moves you make show up on your wall, thereby advertising its presence to many others and the many others who have befriended those many others.
Who wouldn’t want it known that their best achievement of the day was scoring 131 points by their adroit playing of the word “djebel?”
A domino effect
It’s the well-known domino effect, and it now has more than 3 million Facebook users “liking” this game, and probably wasting a lot of otherwise productive hours playing it.
Those prone to finding their glasses to be half-full as opposed to seriously leaking, would point out that you can increase your vocabulary with such word games as this thinly-veiled version of the classic game of Scrabble.
I suppose my reaction would be, True if you think any of the following kinds of words will be useful for you in the conversations of life:
Qi, qat, xi, vodoun, oedemas, yegg (egg with an extra-large yoke?), quin, jeux, nixe, nae, qua, tael, ratel, eclat, recta (2 rectums?) and quean.
Or how about rec, rem, urd, mae, ecu, kex, kae, and jauk?
All these and many other wonderful words are legitimate parts of the King’s speech, according to your friends at Words with Friends. And of course we use these gems all the time in our everyday chats. These are the words that come tripping off our tongue when we are confronted with six consonants and a vowel (or, worse yet, the opposite). Right?
Well, only right if we are using a handy-dandy word unscrambler. Or is that descrambler? Neither seems to find favor with the text program I’m using now.
These descramblers bring up a serious ethical issue, of course, to players of WWF: Is it cheating to
use a crutch like that? Or is a descrambler really a crutch? Might it merely help you to unclutter all the knowledge of universe you already possess so that you can get right to these words that you already knew so well?
The tree and the thud
And, like the tree no one ever saw or heard falling in the wilderness, does it matter if no one hears it? Would Aristotle or Immanuel Kant insist that you come clean and tell your opponent you’re using a descrambler before starting the match? And if BOTH of you use that aid, does that negate the ethical quandary and create an even and virtuous playing field? Or is it that you are both now cheating?
But if you’re both cheating, why play the game at all?
The game of life
The backers of WWF would say that playing this game allows each of us to come face to face with deep and important ethical principles which can only help us out in the rest of the game of life.
This all, of course, presumes that people are actually playing WWF and not just logging on to use the chat box, which is one great way of getting around paying for a text package on your cell phone, especially since you can access WWF on that very phone and text until your heart’s content — or until you run out of words — for free.
A serious side
Proving once again, however, that there is an upside to everyone wasting time on the Web, consider the following story posted just today by CBS News:
“Beth Legler, of Blue Springs, Missouri, began playing Words with Friends more than two years ago on her cell phone, reports KCTV CBS 5 in Kansas City. That’s when she met an Australian couple named Georgie and Simon Fletcher of Queensland, Australia.
“One day during a game, Georgie told Beth that Simon was feeling under the weather, so Beth asked her to describe his symptoms, since Beth’s own husband, Larry, was a doctor.
“When hearing that Simon was experiencing fatigue so severe that he couldn’t walk to his mailbox and burning in the back of his throat, reports MSNBC, Dr. Legler had some words of advice for his wife’s online friends: get to a doctor immediately.
“Legler thought Simon was experiencing angina, a condition that occurs when your heart doesn’t get enough oxygen-rich blood. That causes pressure or squeezing in the chest, but could cause pain elsewhere in the body like in the shoulders, arms, neck, or back. What usually causes angina? Heart disease.
“Simon was reluctant but went to the doctor, and as it turns out, Dr. Legler was right: Simon had a 99 percent blockage in his artery and was on death’s door.
“Simon had two stents implanted through emergency surgery, and has recovered. ‘I owe Larry everything,’ Simon told KCTV. “I’m really lucky to be here.”
“Said Beth, ‘It’s been a wonderful experience to have had made some great friends and know that Simon is well because of a word game.’”
Wow. I’m speechless. Or is that aphonic?
One of my favorite books of all time is Lonesome Dove, that neo-classic tale of the West by Texan Larry McMurtry.
Although he has a passion for writing westerns of both period and modern vintage, McMurtry explodes the stereotype of what a writer of westerns is all about. That’s one of the reasons I like his books so much.
Books in his saddlebags
I’ve never been in McMurtry’s home but, I bet that in place of a Winchester rifle and crossed branding irons above a massive fireplace, you would find rows of books packed into wall-to-wall shelving.
I get that image because Larry McMurtry is a guy in love with books.
How do I know that? Because the guy owns one of the larger antiquarian bookstores around, called Booked Up, that comprises four buildings and contains some 400,000 books. That’s bigger than a lot of college libraries, and it’s not found in Houston or Dallas but way out in Archer City, Texas. If that town sounds vaguely familiar, go check out McMurtry’s breakthrough novel, The Last Picture Show or its sequel, Texasville.
This is one literate cowboy.
A vexing question
Because I admire McMurtry the author so much, I plopped down $6.95 plus tax for the current issue of Harper’s Magazine at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport the other day. The article catching my eye was one by McMurtry asking the provocative question, “Will Amazon kill the book?”
Since this is one big-time bookseller asking the question about another, I thought McMurtry might just be the right guy to answer that question.
He did, and the answer is no.
This, despite the Amazon CEO’s apparent desire to see books go to the back of the shelf. Keep in mind we’re talking about the kind of printed book that the world has known for the past 500 years or so, ever since Johannes Gutenberg started cranking them with his movable type.
Reviewing Richard L. Brandt’s book, One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com, McMurtry is quick to give credit to Amazon’s founder as a creative genius. In fact, his review begins by noting the following:
“If the late Steve Jobs was the Thomas Edison de nos jours, perhaps the ever-present Jeff Bezos of Amazon is our Henry Ford. Both Bezos and Ford had a single culture-changing idea that they executed doggedly until the culture came round.”
The Kindle: Year 4
McMurtry is referring not only to the creation of the gigantic online flea market we know as Amazon.com, but also to the new kind of electronic book reader that Amazon launched in 2007 that we know as the Kindle.
But McMurtry disagrees with Bezos that the e-book is going to render ink-on-paper books obsolete as we all migrate to the e-screen of Kindle and – although Bezos might not acknowledge it – the Barnes & Noble version called the Nook.
I wrote about these new technologies a couple years ago in this blog, asking the question, “Will the e-book catch on?” Certainly the sales that Amazon is touting of Kindle seem to indicate they are indeed catching on. But my own personal observations, made over the past year on my college campus of 5,200 undergrads, indicate otherwise. I just don’t see that many students sitting under the trees reading e-books.
Doubting the worst
McMurtry, doubts that e-books will wipe out traditional tomes. Keep in mind, however, he has a financial interest in the health of the printed book. He does have to pay the utilities for all that bookstore space out in Archer city. Nevertheless, he writes:
“Less attractive about Bezos is his obvious irritation at the continued existence of the paperbound book, which provides, still, serious competition to sales of his e-book device, the Kindle.
“He has pointed out that the traditional book has had a 500-year run; he clearly thinks it’s time for those relics to sort of shuffle offstage. Then he will no longer be bothered with old-timey objects that have the temerity to flop open and cause one to lose one’s place.”
Bubbles can burst
Acknowledging the opening-weekend kind of success the Kindle is having, McMurtry cautions, “The culture has surged in the direction of e-books, but the surge might not go on forever. It might be a bubble.”
Those of us who have felt the deep satisfaction of taking our time to browse through a bookstore – large or small – and walking out with more than we expected to buy, can appreciate where McMurtry is coming from.
And that kind of customer satisfaction, especially of finding the unexpected volume that had long eluded us elsewhere, is not always such an accident. Again McMurtry writes, “Stirring the curiosity of readers is a vital part of bookselling; skimming a few strange pages is surely as important as making one click.”
Is older better?
Every time I cast my lot with traditionalists who say the older is better than the newer, I know I run the risk of sounding my age. In fact, the older is not always better. As a writer and a college professor, I know what research used to be like in musty old libraries vs. what it is like now with the library sitting on my lap as those needed references appear in seconds rather than hours.
Still I hasten to add that reading from the printed page in a nicely bound book that you can keep as a reminder in plain sight after you’re finished, is nothing to write off so easily.
At least it doesn’t require a battery or a frantic call to the Geek Squad if the e-reader refuses to waken from its zzzzzzz’s.
Remember the “Where’s Waldo?” books, challenging kids to find the not-so-subtly dressed namesake in the midst of an equally colorful and crowded setting? Oddly enough, I was thinking about them last week while talking to my students about the coverage of international news.
What do Waldo and foreign news coverage have in common? It could be that although neither Waldo nor the events and people of the world are easy to find at times, they are both there if we take a little time looking for them.
The traditional lament is that the nation’s news media have cut back drastically on the coverage of international news. That is an accurate statement. There are fewer eyes on the world from the likes of the network news companies and newspapers like The Chicago Tribune, which collapsed all their foreign bureaus and let their sister paper The Los Angeles Times staff them instead. Of course the LA Times is also cutting back, too, as are all newspapers around the country.
The reason, however, is not that journalists don’t believe the world is a pretty good story. In this age of globalization, it is more a story than it ever has been. The problem is that the media exist in the same market-driven economy as every other business. So they will turn their attention to the places and stories that interest readers and viewers.
Local news comes first
And Americans are more interested in America than anywhere else. The international media scholar Jaap vanGinneken writes about the unwritten rule of news priorities in America when he posits that 10,000 deaths on another continent equals 1,000 deaths in another country, equals 100 deaths in another state, equals ten deaths in the capital city, equals one celebrity.
That’s a little paraphrased, but you get the idea. As John Cougar Mellencamp sang, “Ain’t That America?”
Yet there is another side, or I should say sides, of this debate on cutbacks of international news coverage. You could make a strong case that the only cutbacks are in those media we’ve traditionally looked to for world news. In case you haven’t noticed, there are a few other windows to the world and these portals have been mushrooming. Like the following:
* The World Wide Web. Remember it? That’s the portal that features a lot more than Words With Friends and Facebook. Hard to believe, but true. Did you know there is even one site, sponsored by the Newseum in Washington D.C. that allows you to scroll through today’s front pages of 626 newspapers from 60 countries around the world? And did you know you can find virtually any newspaper in the world simply by going to a listing like onlinenewspapers.com and clicking on the paper you want, some of which have English translations available?
* Alternative News Portals. Although they may take you out of your comfort zone in reading about or seeing the world through the prism of Western eyes, some significant alternative news agencies have developed over the past 20 years or so. The most significant of these — by far — is Al Jazeera. This is the independent news agency out of Qatar that offers both a newspaper and video stories of the world’s news, and it offers them through the prism of the Middle East and not the West.
Al Jazeera had the most profound effect on the flow of international news of any news organization in recent memory. Entire regions of the world now feel their story can be told through non-Western eyes, and that’s a big thing for them. We may not agree with the Al Jazeera viewpoint, but it is interesting to have an alternative view of world events.
In looking at world news impact, you could also make a strong case for CNN as well, especially if you’re talking about CNN International and not Domestic. The former has a lot of non-Western correspondents.
* New Models of News Media. Into the hole left by closed foreign news bureaus of traditional media have stepped some new kinds of news media organizations. On the international scene, one hopeful sign is Globalpost.com. It’s mission, straight from its Web page, reads: “The GlobalPost Mission is to provide original international reporting rooted in integrity, accuracy, independence and powerful storytelling that informs, entertains and fills the void created by diminished foreign coverage by American media.”
It is staffed by a network of foreign correspondents who live in the regions of the world they cover and who contribute their reports as freelancers to Globalpost, which has only 18 full-time staffers at its Boston headquarters. The funding comes from a small group of private investors who believe in the importance of international news. Globalpost also accepts advertising and offers subscription services to members who join.
The job is ours
Ultimately, the responsibility for keeping up with world news lies with each of us as individuals who should want to be informed citizens of that world. It’s not that hard to find news of the world; it’s just located largely in places where we aren’t used to looking.
But then, Waldo wasn’t always where he was supposed to be either, was he?
Leave it to a New Yorker cartoon to prod our thinking into reality, fantasy, and the online world of communication.
In this cartoon a terrier is having a conversation with another canine and says: “The thing I like about the Internet is that, online, no one knows you’re a dog.”
Wait for it.
Reality and the Web
Murray Gordon, who has merged the worlds of psychology, philosophy, and computer science in his academic and professional careers, tells us what most of us already know about how the Internet stacks up against what we normally know as reality. BTW, the latter is a fuzzy concept at times, no?
“I have found … that there is a recurrent theme which spontaneously arises concerning the body and mind when people begin reflecting on their experiences in the online world,” Murray writes. “In the everyday world, we can see each other, and make judgements and evaluations of others, consciously or unconsciously, based on their physical appearance.
” What sex are they? What clothes are worn? Neat or messy? Young or old? Am I attracted to her or him? Do I appear attractive to him or her? But online these usual evaluations and judgments are turned on their head. One young woman tells me that what she really likes about internet chat rooms Is that ‘online, you can be whomever you want to be.’”
I have discovered this to be true myself. In my single years I ventured into the world of online dating and actually found Ms. Right waiting there for me. We’ve been married 11 years now, so the experience can definitely work.
However, as most online daters have found, the search is not always an easy one. Sometimes finding your soulmate is more like navigating a maze rather than following a clearly marked trail.
A year before meeting my wife Anne, I struck up an online relationship with a nice woman, half a continent away. Our online conversations seemed to bring out the best of us both as writers. Since our “relationship” was totally text based for several weeks, that was important, plus the fact we could make each other laugh pretty easily. Everything seemed to be clicking. We were both journalists and our love of words and well-turned phrases flourished in our exchanges.
You’ve Got Mail
It was like the scenes in You’ve Got Mail when Joe and Kathleen couldn’t wait to get home to their respective computers to read the other’s e-mail. And when two people who have never met can feel that way, fantasy must be playing a role in those expectations.
Finally, we faced the moment of decision that all online daters face: whether to risk what was a pretty satisfying fantasy, made up of daily online exchanges, to meet face to face and see whether fantasy matched reality. So I hopped on a plane and she met me at her airport.
Within the first five minutes I knew it was a mistake.
The fantasy-sinker was the non-verbals ,which aren’t part of the online experience. She laughed too hard and too quickly at things I said; sometimes even before I said them. The way she physically moved seemed out of synch with the way I thought she would. Something about the eye contact wasn’t quite right. Then there was something else: she just didn’t smell right. I was back on the plane the next morning, headed home alone.
Reminds you of the nitpicking way Seinfeld evaluated his endless parade of dates, right? Maybe so, but all these nonverbals were real to me. And about the smell — what’s up with that? Not as strange as you might think, and I actually have some backup for that assertion. In addition to some recent studies done on how a person can actually sniff out a similar or opposite DNA, there is the following from Psychology Today:
“Psychologists Rachel Herz and Estelle Campenni were just getting to know each other, swapping stories about their lives over coffee, when Campenni confided something unexpected: She was living proof, she said, of love at first smell.
“‘I knew I would marry my husband the minute I smelled him,’ she told Herz. ‘I’ve always been into smell, but this was different; he really smelled good to me. His scent made me feel safe and at the same time turned on—and I’m talking about his real body smell, not cologne or soap. I’d never felt like that from a man’s smell before. We’ve been married for eight years now and have three kids, and his smell is always very sexy to me.”
And about that DNA sniffing? From Discovery Fit & Health, there is word of this study:
“In several studies, researchers have had women smell men’s used T-shirts and rank them according to how attractive the smell is. In the past, women have indicated that the most pleasurable shirts belong to men with different major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes than they do, so scientists believe that women can subconsciously smell a man’s genes. MHC genes, which affect the immune system, have been determined to play a role in everything from sexual attraction to marital happiness.”
When’s the last time you smelled anything or anyone on the Web?
A test will follow
OK, I agree this is starting to sound weird, but my points remain:
1. Fantasy is alive and well in communication exchanges happening in the virtual world.
2. While fantasies provide a welcome escape from a harsh reality at times, they also provide a weak foundation for relationships that must enter — at some point — the world of reality.
3. Nonverbal communication often is the litmus test to measure whether fantasy matches reality for two people considering a relationship together.
And don’t forget the question inherent in that New Yorker cartoon: How do you know the person on the other end is really human at all?
Experts in intercultural communication remind us of the importance that narratives and rituals play in our lives and in orienting us to our own identities, history, the norms and expectations of our society. Each society uses rituals and narratives for this purpose, and they combine to form powerful tools to teach us.
I’m thinking of the opening scenes of the Robert Redford film, A River Runs Through It, where Norman MacLean describes beautifully how he and his brother learned at the feet of their father, a Presbyterian pastor who taught them the value of faith, fluid writing, and fly fishing, in equal measures.
As Norman said:
“We were left to assume, as my younger brother Paul and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John was a dry fly fisherman.”
Learning the values
Hours of painstaking practice, on a daily basis, reinforced their father’s instructions on these three values which had long been central characteristics of this Montana family of the early 20th Century. Norman and Paul learned the lessons well.
When I see that film, I can’t help but think of the times my own grandfather took me trout fishing, and of the times I took my own two sons to hunt for the big bass on Indiana lakes. Then I think about the much greater amount of time the three of us have spent apart, glued to the computers.
The stark truth
Let’s face it: You don’t get much connection to the family or your own identity from the Internet. You may learn about them, but they don’t become ingrained in your DNA as Norman’s and Paul’s lessons did.
Instead, our time spent in the virtual world of the Web provides us with narratives that are snippets or soundbites, constantly interrupted by hyperlinks to “related stories” to which we happily leap, distracting our attention from the main story or narrative that — frankly — was getting a little too long anyway for our short attention spans.
Welcome to the virtual world
And instead of the rituals of the family dinner, learning writing or fly fishing from Dad, we spend hour after hour vicariously living others’ experiences, often with a stand-in avatar for us as we get lost in some online video game or doing armchair traveling around the world.
We already know we have become more splintered as families as everyone heads off to their own laptops to explore their virtual worlds which may not be representative of the corner of the world we inhabit at all. That being so, how do we expect to understand that culture as our parents and grandparents did?
It’s not just family members going their own way, but also members of the same culture or society doing the same thing. The younger we start out exploring the world on the Web instead of the real world in front of us, the more time we spend away from the rituals and narratives that teach us about that culture.
And, since we learn a lot about our own identity from our culture, we make it harder to discover that identity.
No mall directory
Is it surprising that we wake up one day to discover that, like the first-time shopper in a huge shopping mall, we have no idea where we are in relation to the places we want to be or how to get there? There is no mall directory, because there have been no narratives and few real-life rituals to point us to our destinations.
The other day I was watching a TV commercial for one of those online services that helps you track your family tree. Something like Ancestry.com. There was this woman who was talking about her great-grandfather as if he were someone from an alien planet whom she knew absolutely nothing about until she paid this online service to discover his identity.
Then I realized, I don’t even know who my own great-grandfather was. As a child raised on television, I can tell you the name of Tonto’s horse, but not the name of my grandfather’s dad or mom.
A telling sign about how we’re losing our sense of our own culture? Wouldn’t our grandparents chide us for side-stepping the importance of knowing our own family history?
Is our time spent in the virtual world, as opposed to the real one, exacerbating that disconnect from our own culture? At best, it doesn’t help.
I say I don’t want or need love in my life. Truth is, I lie to myself because I’m afraid to end up alone. – Anonymous.
There isn’t a time of day I don’t think about killing myself … I try to be the fun-loving, lighthearted nice guy. But who is it I’m trying to deceive? – Anonymous.
Question: What might happen if we were to use the worldwide public stage of the Web, in all its openness, to expose our deepest, innermost secrets? Would anyone actually do that?
Answer: Yes Many Web users are venting their personal longings, embarrassing moments, quirkiness, complaints, fears, and angst on sites designed especially to reveal secrets. The two comments that begin this blog post are two of those actual secrets posted within the past two weeks on sites set up for this purpose.
Anonymity is key
The caveat is that they are revealed under the promise of anonymity.
It is ironic that the world’s most public forum which can and often does embarrass people by making private facts public, is also the same forum that people are relying on to keep their identity secret.
Among the web sites that are available for bean-spilling is PostSecret, which seems to have started the trend, or which as least is one of the most popular of the public secret sites. How popular? As of today, more than 1,066,000 Facebook users alone have “liked” this site.
It’s mission, simply put: “PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard.”
The site administrators do the rest and post the cards.
An artistic element
Alongside the compelling lure of looking in on other people’s secret lives, the various secret-posting sites also offer the artistic element of seeing how well the secrets match the selected visual elements of the e-cards posted on the site. So these are not just secrets, but expressions of art, as well.
Among the secrets posted on this site’s e-cards are the following:
• I slept with someone so they wouldn’t commit suicide.
• I don’t know how to tell you this, but I can’t become a military wife for fear that you will die.
• I loved giving birth, but I hate being a mother.
• Every time I get into a taxi, I check to see if the driver is the man who killed you … I want to ask him how he didn’t see us.
And the secrets go on and on.
Recently, the concept of posting secrets has moved to Facebook, a site where all wall posts come with names and photos of persons posting them, right? Only partially so when it comes to special “postsecret” Facebook group pages. Like any FB page, you have to ask to become a friend and the person running that page can either accept or reject your request. In the case of a “postsecret” page, the site administrator serves as that gatekeeper.
Postsecret sites on Facebook are catching on at a number of institutions, including college campuses. Earlier this month, for example, some students at California’s Azusa Pacific University set up PostSecret Apu. Within the first two weeks, the site had accepted more than 1,750 friend requests. Some 200 secrets have been sent in already.
The administrator of the site is kept anonymous, along with those who choose to create “postcards” and send them in for posting. However, the identity of those individuals commenting on the secrets, is revealed just like on regular Facebook pages.
College students adapt it
Here is how PostSecret Apu describes itself and its mission:
“This is a student project and in no way reflects the direct values or opinions of any faculty or staff of Azusa Pacific University.
“A place to share. A place to be. A place to express the things holding you back. A place to seek help. A place to help get you to a place of freedom.
“You are invited to anonymously contribute your secrets to Azusa Pacific University’s PostSecret. Secrets can be a regret, hope, funny experience, unseen kindness, fantasy, belief, fear, betrayal, erotic desire, feeling, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything – as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before. This is meant to be an outlet you might not otherwise have.”
Since Azusa Pacific University is a faith-based liberal arts university, the new site is probably more controversial than it would be on a state university campus. There have been some concerns about the kinds of expressions that might come forth and the possible impact these might have on the university and its efforts at creating a community spirit of believers.
Nevertheless, the site administrator has stated that the only caution the school has issued is to not use the APU logo or to state that this is a university-sanctioned site, which it is not. The administrator also advises users not to name any APU employees in their posted secrets.
Wide range of secrets
The secrets posted on this Postsecret Apu page, cover a wide range of personal aspirations, regrets, complaints, and revelations. Some are lighthearted and thankful like the following:
• Not a day goes by that I don’t miss calling you my best friend.
• On most days I’m too lazy to brush my teeth.
• Come friends. It’s not too late to seek a newer world.
But there are many darker secrets, too, like the two at the top of this blog post and the following:
• People assume I dress modestly just because I’m a Christian. The truth is, I’m ashamed of my body.
• I know I’m as worthy of love as anyone else. But after so many years of telling myself otherwise, I don’t know if I’ll ever really believe it.
• I lost 35 pounds in an effort to be healthy and desired. I’ve never felt worse about myself in my entire life. Life was easier when I was fat and guys left me alone. Since then I have been sexually assaulted … Being thin is not worth this hell.
• On most days I feel … so alone.
The poignancy of these secrets is enhanced by the creative visual imagery that serve as the background for these e-cards. The fact there are so many such secrets posted in such a short window of time is an indication of the private world of pain and longing that many college students carry beneath their smiling faces. Happily, others attest to the positive adjustments other students are making in the world as they grow into their early 20s.
Troubled find support
But several of the secrets are dark ones, and the darkest are those that bespeak thoughts of suicide and of those grappling with their own gender identification.
On the up side, most of these expressions garner many comments of support and offers from others to listen and to be friends with those students feeling lost in their pain and confusion.
One of the 16 people who responded to one secret confessing suicidal thoughts said this: I am so sorry you are hurting right now. I’m so sorry that you feel you have to wear a mask when you are in so much pain. Please know that you are not alone in this place, that you are not the only one who has felt this way.
The site administrator has also posted contact information for a local suicide prevention center.
Question: As use of the social media grows among young people in America, do these young folks also become more passionate about the need for the First Amendment?
(You remember: the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees that the nation will have a free press system. The media can pretty much report what it wants without fear of prior restraint.)
Answer: a study released Sept. 16 by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation concludes that the use of the social media is a pretty good thing for that First Amendment.
“Students using their multimedia devices to text, blog, tweet, or post on Facebook are simultaneously finding out more about the world – and freedom of expression,” writes Kaila Ward, editor-in-chief of The Clause, the student newspaper of California’s Azusa Pacific University.
The Knight study discovered that 9 out of 10 students who use the social media to obtain news and information on a daily basis express strong support for guarantees of the news media in general. They think folks should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, along with the popular ones.
On the other hand …
In contrast, only 77 percent of students who don’t use the social media express agreement with the idea of allowing unpopular opinions to be aired or posted.
As the study’s researcher Ken Dautrich puts it: “There is a clear, positive relationship between student usage of social media to get news and information and greater support for free expression rights.”
Chalk up another plus of the not-so-new new media.
One college sophomore put his feelings this way: “I think people are slowly beginning to realize the power (of social media). And because we’re so addicted to it, its absence is making people wake up and realize it’s quite a tool to be able to express ourselves and have an audience of that magnitude.”
The Knight study was unveiled to the public in conjunction with Constitution Day, on Sept. 17. The day commemorates the founding and signing of the Constitution of the United States on Sept. 17, 1787.
Another finding of the study: The percentage of students who think the First Amendment gives too much of a blank check to free speech has dropped from 45 percent in 2006, to 24 percent in 2011.
Media use up
Additionally, the study shows that students’ use of digital media for news and information is up the upswing. In fact, that usage has doubled over the past five years. Today, 75 percent of all students get their news from the social media several times a week.
Ward notes, “Many organizations have increasingly utilized social media as a way to gain popularity. Geenration Opportunity, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization, used the hype of Constitution day to present its latest effort, “The Constitution,” on Facebook.”
The organization’s web site built a platform for users to debate contemporary issues or offer their own expertise. The site has already surpassed half a million active users, according to a press release by Generation Opportunity.
Light from a new source
It may seem ironic, but it has taken a media platform that is less than a decade old to convince 20-somethings that a document more than 200 years old still needs protecting.