Nine years of everything


I’ve been writing this column for nine years. I was here with you through the dot-com boom and the crash. I made fun of the rise of Web 2.0 when that was called for, and screamed about digital surveillance under the USA-PATRIOT Act when that was required (actually, that’s still required). I’ve ranted about everything from obscenity law to genetic engineering, and I’ve managed to stretch this column’s techie mandate to include meditations on electronic music and sexology. Every week I gave you my latest brain dump, even when I was visiting family in Saskatchewan or taking a year off from regular journalism work to study at MIT.

Three Internet myths that refuse to die


Since I started writing this column in 1999, I’ve seen a thousand Internet businesses rise and die. I’ve watched the Web go from a medium you access via dial-up to the medium you carry around with you on your mobile. Still, there are three myths about the Internet that refuse to kick the bucket. Let’s hope the micro-generation that comes after the Web 2.0 weenies finally puts these misleading ideas to rest.

Myth: The Internet is free.

This is my favorite Internet myth because it has literally never been true. In the very early days of the Net, the only people who went online were university students or military researchers – students got accounts via the price of tuition; the military personnel got them as part of their jobs. Once the Internet was opened to the public, people could only access it by paying fees to their Internet service providers. And let’s not even get into the facts that you have to buy a computer or pay for time on one.

This ain’t the singularity


I’m surrounded by people who think the world is changing because Amazon released an e-book reader called the Kindle and because Apple released a new, cheaper iPhone that supposedly will run faster. Really, just search for “3G iPhone” and you’ll see, like, thousands of articles raving about the Second Coming of iPhone. Are these technologies transforming our lives forever, or has the whole idea of world-changing technology finally become nothing more than an advertising jingle?

photo / John Pastor Creative Commons licensed: Attribution-No Derivatives 2.0 Kindle 

You can get the answer, in part, from a normally staid engineering journal called IEEE Spectrum. This month Spectrum did a special issue on “the singularity,” a term from science fiction that refers to the moment when the technology and culture of the present evolve to the point that they would be incomprehensible to people from the past. Airplanes, for example, would be a singularity technology for people from the 1700s. None of the brainiacs and visionaries writing for Spectrum have much to say about e-book readers or mobile phones that play music.

A space colony in Wisconsin


Every year in late May, several thousand people descend on Madison, Wis., to create an alternate universe. Some want to build a galaxy-size civilization packed with humans and aliens who build massive halo worlds orbiting stars. Others are obsessed with what they’ll do when what remains of humanity is left to survive in the barren landscape left after Earth has been destroyed by nukes, pollution, epidemics, nanotech wipeouts, or some combination of all four. Still others live parts of their lives as if there were a special world for wizards hidden in the folds of our own reality.

photo / Liz Henry Creative Commons licensed: Attribution-No Derivatives 2.0 Annalee at WisCon 

They come to Madison for WisCon, a science-fiction convention unlike most I’ve ever attended. Sure, the participants are all interested in the same alien worlds as the thronging crowds that go to the popular Atlanta event Dragon*Con or the media circus known as Comic-Con. But they rarely carry light sabers or argue about continuity errors in Babylon 5. Instead, they carry armloads of books and want to talk politics.

WisCon is the United States’ only feminist sci-fi convention, but since it was founded more than two decades ago, the event has grown to be much more than that. Feminism is still a strong component of the con, and many panels are devoted to the work of women writers or issues like sexism in comic books. But the con is also devoted to progressive politics, antiracism, and the ways speculative literature can change the future. This year there was a terrific panel about the fake multiculturalism of Star Trek and Heroes, as well as a discussion about geopolitical themes in experimental writer Timmel Duchamp’s five-novel, near-future Marq’ssan series.

Animal-human hybrid clones


I just love saying that scientists are creating “human-animal hybrid clones” because that single phrase pulls together about 15 nightmares from science fiction and religion all at the same time. Although if you think about it, one fear really should cancel out the other one. I mean, if you’re worried about human cloning, then the fact that these are clones created by sticking human DNA inside cow eggs should be comforting. I mean, it’s not really a human anymore at that point, right?

But the real reason I’m gloating over this piece of completely ordinary biological weirdness is that last week the British Parliament began the process of legalizing human-animal hybrid embryo cloning. While not explicitly illegal in the United States, the process has been so criticized (including by former president Bill Clinton) that most researchers have stayed away from it. Now, however, this law could make it easy for Brits to advance their medicine far faster than people in the supposedly high-tech and super-advanced United States.

Wikipedia can’t save us


Last week I wrote about the premise of Oxford professor Jonathan Zittrain’s new book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (Yale University Press). He warns about a future of “tethered” technologies like the digital video recorder and smartphones that often are programmed remotely by the companies that make them rather than being programmed by users, as PCs are. As a partial solution, Zittrain offers up the idea of Wikipedia-style communities, where users create their own services without being “tethered” to a company that can change the rules any time.

Unfortunately, crowds of people running Web services or technologies online cannot save us from the problem of tethered technology. Indeed, Zittrain’s crowds might even unwittingly be tightening the stranglehold of tethering by lulling us into a false sense of freedom.

The Internet dystopia


photo / Pip R. Lagenta Creative Commons licensed: Attribution-No Derivatives 2.0 Maker Faire San Mateo 

A couple of weeks ago I went to the annual Maker Faire in San Mateo, an event where people from all over the world gather for a giant DIY technology show-and-tell extravaganza. There are robots, kinetic sculptures, rockets, remote-controlled battleship contests, music-controlled light shows, home electronics kits, ill-advised science experiments (like the Mentos–Diet Coke explosions), and even a barn full of people who make their own clothing, pillows, bags, and more. Basically, it’s a weekend celebration of how human freedom combined with technology creates a pleasing but cacophonous symphony of coolness.

And yet the Maker Faire takes place against a backdrop of increasing constraints on our freedom to innovate with technology, as Oxford University researcher Jonathan Zittrain points out in his latest book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (Yale University Press). After spending several years investigating the social and political rules that govern the Internet – and spearheading the Net censorship tracking project OpenNet Initiative – Zittrain looks back on the Net’s development and predicts a dystopian future. What’s chilling is that his dystopia is already coming to pass.

Who’s afraid of Grand Theft Auto?


At this point, the outraged response to the latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto series of videogames, Liberty City Stories Grand Theft Auto IV, is pretty much obligatory. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is lobbying to get the videogame rated “adults only” (effectively killing it in the US market, where major console manufacturers won’t support AO games) because there’s one scene in the game where you have the option to drive drunk. Apparently none of the good ladies of MADD have ever played GTA, since if they had they might have discovered that when you try to drive drunk, the video game informs you that you should take a cab. If you do drive, the cops immediately chase you down. Which is exactly the sort of move you’d expect from this sly, fun game, which hit stores last week.

photo / William Hook Creative Commons licensed: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 

GTA, made by edgy Rockstar Games, is basically a driving game franchise packed inside an intriguing, disturbing, elaborate urban world where you become a character whose life options are all connected to the ability to drive around in various cities. Usually you’re some kind of bad guy or shady character. Think of it as the video game equivalent of a TV show like The Wire or an urban gangster flick. What has made GTA so popular among gamers is the way it combines the fun of a driving game with the sprawling possibilities of gamer choice. And I think that’s what nongamers find so confusing – and therefore threatening – about it.

User-generated censorship


There’s a new kind of censorship online, and it’s coming from the grassroots. Thanks to new, collaborative, social media networks, it’s easier than ever for people to get together and destroy freedom of expression. They’re going DIY from the bottom up – instead of the way old-school censors used to do it, from the top down. Call it user-generated censorship.

Now that anyone with access to a computer and a network connection can post almost anything they want online for free, it’s also increasingly the case that anyone with computer access and a few friends can remove anything they want online. And they do it using the same software tools.



For weeks now, analysts and armchair financial nerds have been mulling over what it will mean if software megacorp Microsoft buys Web monkey farm Yahoo! Would Microsoft-Yahoo! (known forevermore as Microhoo!) challenge Google to some kind of Web domination duel and win? Probably not. As much as I would love to see Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, and Jerry Yang in some kind of unholy three-way Jell-O wrestling match, I know it will never come to pass.

Pregnant men


Thomas Beattie is actually not the first man to get pregnant. Almost a decade ago, a San Francisco transgendered man named Matt Rice got pregnant and had a cute son. Several years after that, I met another pregnant transman in San Francisco. He was telling his story, with his wife, at a feminist open mic. So why is Beattie getting all the credit, and why now?

Columnist Annalee Newitz 

Beattie is the first pregnant man most people will ever meet. He’s the guy in People magazine right now looking preggers and hunky, and the guy who was on The Oprah Winfrey Show last week. And it makes sense that he’s the first wonder of tranny obstetrics medical science to hit the spotlight. He’s a nice, small-town Oregon boy, married for five years to a nice, small-town lady, and his full beard and muscles make it quite obvious that he’s a dude. In other words: He’s not a freak from a freaky city like San Francisco. He is, as they say in the mainstream media, relatable.

And he’s playing his poster boy role perfectly. On Oprah, you could tell he was a friendly, shy person (albeit with a black belt in karate). Visibly nervous, obviously proud as hell of his wife and soon-to-be-born daughter, he didn’t try to make a political statement or lecture anybody about gender binaries being stupid. He had a hard time explaining why he had become a man, too. Often when Oprah asked pointed questions he would shrug and say, “It’s hard to explain.” Exactly like a dude to be sort of inarticulate about his own dudeness. So another part of his appeal to the mainstream media is that he fits gender stereotypes.

Plus, he’s the guy every woman wants to marry. Not only is he cute and happy to build things around the house, he’s willing to have your baby for you too. As Beattie’s wife said to Oprah with a grin, “What woman wouldn’t want her husband to get pregnant?”

English is dead


By the time English truly is a dominant language on the planet, it will no longer be English. Instead, say a group of linguists interviewed in a recent article by Michael Erard in New Scientist, the language will fragment into many mutually-unintelligible dialects. Still, some underlying documents will supply the grammatical glue for these diverse Englishes, the way Koranic Arabic does for the world’s diverse Arabic spinoff tongues. English-speakers of the future will be united in their understanding of a standard English supplied by technical manuals and Internet media.

photo / Leithcote Creative Commons licensed: Attribution 2.0 Taken in Hong Kong 

People like me, native English speakers, are heading to the ashcan of history. By 2010, estimates language researcher David Graddol, two billion people on the planet will be communicating in English – but only 350 million will be native speakers. By 2020, native speakers will have diminished to 300 million. My American English, which I grew up speaking in an accent that matched what I heard on National Public Radio and 60 Minutes, is already difficult for many English-speakers to understand.

Hence the rise of Internet English. This is the simple English of technical manuals and message boards – full of slang and technical terminology, but surprisingly free of strange idioms. It’s usually also free of the more cumbersome and weird aspects of English grammar.

Color wars online


Imagine that you had a group of friends and acquaintances you saw every day at school or at work, and one morning instead of saying “How are you?” they suddenly started saying, “Have you joined one of our teams yet?” At first, you would dismiss it as some dumb joke you missed on The Colbert Report the night before. But it keeps going: “I’m on white team. But Bob’s on blue team,” your pal says to you later. “Are you on the puce team?”

At this point, you truthfully believe that everybody has gone fucking crazy and that the people you thought were your friends are actually a bunch of kids living on that island from the movie Battle Royale (2000) where everybody has to kill one another for arbitrary reasons determined by a capricious authority figure who thinks he’s a comedian.

Hey, look. It’s TOP’s Twitter page

This actually happened to me last week on a social network called Twitter, an online service that lets you send short messages to people on your list of friends. As you look at your Twitter “stream,” you’ll see your friends’ names and short “tweets” about what they’re doing or how they’re feeling. When you work at home and don’t have office pals to say hello to in the morning, Twitter is your surrogate office chit-chat zone. In the morning, I see my friends saying things like, “Yawn, I’m drinking coffee” or “Gotta finish this awesome project.” In the evening, people will say, “Going to Sugarlump Café – anyone want to come hang out?” Though I’m home on my computer, Twitter keeps me in touch with the social world.

Hooker science


The outrage over former New York governor Eliot Spitzer hiring an A-list hooker makes me feel like throwing a gigantic, crippling pile of superheavy biology and economics books at everyone in the United States and possibly the world. Are we still so Victorian in our thinking that we think it’s bad for somebody to pay large amounts of money for a few hours of skin-time with a professional? Have we not learned enough at this point about psychology and neuroscience to understand that a roll in the sheets is just a fun, chemical fizz for our brains and that it means nothing about ethics and morality?

The sad fact is that we have learned all that stuff, and yet most people still believe paying money for sex is the equivalent of killing babies on the moral report card. And yet nobody bothers to ask why, or to investigate past the sensational headlines. As far as I’m concerned, the one unethical thing Spitzer did was to hire a sex worker after prosecuting several prostitution rings. That’s hypocritical of him, and undermines my faith in him as a politician.

But let’s say Spitzer hadn’t prosecuted so-called sex crimes before, and all he was doing was hiring a lady for some sex. Here is what I don’t get: why is this bad? On the scale of things politicians can do – from sending huge numbers of young people to be killed in other countries to cutting programs aimed at helping foster kids get lunch money – hiring a sex worker is peanuts. It’s a personal choice! It’s not like Spitzer was issuing a statewide policy of mandatory hookers for everybody.

The users are revolting

Columnist Annalee Newitz 

One of the social traditions that’s carried over quite nicely from communities in the real world to communities online is revolution. You’ve got many kinds of revolt taking place online in places where people gather, from tiny forums devoted to sewing, to massive websites like devoted to sharing news stories.

And while they may be virtual, the protests that break out in these digital communities have much in common with the ones that raise a ruckus in front of government buildings: They range from the deadly serious to the theatrically symbolic.

How can a bunch of people doing something on a website really be as disruptive or revolutionary as those carrying signs, yelling, and storming the gates of power in the real world? By way of an answer, let’s consider three kinds of social protest that have taken place in the vast Digg community.

Your computer is doomed

Your computer is doomed

Ten years from now, surfing the Web won’t require a computer.

War on science


Over the past eight years, the lives of millions of people in the United States and beyond have been endangered by the US government. No, I’m not talking about the war in Iraq. I’m talking about the quiet, systematic war the government has been waging against science.

You cannot afford Mars


Mars used to teem with life, but now it’s a dead world. I’m not referring to actual Martian history, which we still know very little about. I’m talking about the way humans used to think of Mars and how they think about it now. As recently as the 1950s, Mars was packed with scary, incomprehensible creatures and hulking buildings set in a web of gushing canals. But now it’s a cold, dry land full of rocks that are fascinating mainly due to their extraterrestrial nature. We even have two robots who live on Mars, sending us back pictures of mile after mile of beautiful emptiness that looks like the Grand Canyon or some other national park whose ecosystem is so fragile that tourism has already half-destroyed it.

Three reasons to hate Facebook


I know it’s uncharitable of me to say I hate, because, after all, I have a Facebook profile and I log in to the infernal site several times a week. But I do hate it, and I’m not afraid to say why.

photo / avlxyz Creative Commons licensed: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 

1. I don’t want you to know who my friends are.

Facebook is a second-generation social network, which means its developers have learned from the mistakes of early social networks like Friendster and MySpace. Like its predecessors, Facebook will give you a free profile page, where you can list as much information about yourself as you are willing to give up – including what you’ve just bought online. As you make “friends,” you link to their profiles and they link to yours.

Like its predecessors, Facebook is all about showing people who your friends are. And frankly, there are plenty of people I might want to connect with online who don’t need to know about one another. It’s not like I’ve got anything to hide, but even if I did, so the fuck what? Sometimes there are perfectly good reasons not to introduce all of my friends to one another. I realize there are privacy restrictions on Facebook that allow me to hide my friend lists or make them only semivisible to people in networks, blah blah blah. But those are a pain in the ass to set up, and so, like most people on Facebook, I default to letting my friends see one another. I don’t have to go around parties in real life advertising whom else at the party I know or have slept with. Why should I have to do so if I want to socialize online?

Information dystopia

Information dystopia

I was raised on the idea that the information age would usher in a democratic, communication-based utopia, but recently I was offered at least two object lessons in why that particular dream is a lie.