Dear Google, there is no such location as “Washington, D.C., DC”
|| 10/25/2010 || 5:42 pm || + Render A Comment || ||
Above is a series of screen grabs showing Google’s webcrawler traversing my blog. From this robot’s data collection, the harvested content makes its way into Google’s servers, and ultimately into your search results.
About a month ago I was contacted by AJ Turner about giving a short talk at an upcoming meeting of GeoDC. After some tweets & e-mails back & forth, I confirmed that I would present at this month’s Meetup at the FortiusOne office in Arlington, Virginia. AJ suggested that I bring the 2010 Cartographic Calendars and speak for a few minutes on the type of maps that I’ve been working on. Before I arrived I didn’t really have much of an idea of the format or the location of the meeting, so I didn’t prepare very much and decided to wing the presentation. Since I was able to use my website for the talk, similar to what I did when I gave a lecture at the New York Public Library in 2008, when I got home I was able to see everything I clicked on while giving the talk. The result, judging by my IP Logs above, was that I spoke for just over an hour— far longer than I anticipated! Regardless, I had a great time, met some very nice people, and I hope to attend another GeoDC Meetup in the future.
A dérive is defined as an attempt at analyze the totality of everyday life, through the passive movement through space. In the late 1950’s French writer Guy Debord first theorized this concept in his studies of architecture. Combined with another Debord term, psychogeography, which is “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals,” the dérive is a means for people to haphazardly explore and learn about their environment through random or pseudo-random methods. Examples of a dérives include exploring the urban environment with a predefined set of arbitrary rules, such as strolling down the street (a Flâneur) and taking only right turns when you see someone a walking a dog or making left hand turns only when you pass by houses that are painted white.
As Guy DeBord wrote in “Theory of the Dérive” in 1958, “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” In essence, the dérive is both an objective and subjective means to view the urban environment.
Fast forward to the present day. The urban environments still exist, and in most cases, these cities have grown substantially over the last 50 years, but there is also a new type of environment that exists today that did not fully exist in DeBord’s time: the digital environment.
Today computer users conduct their own strolls on the internet. They are loosely guided by search strings and mouse clicks. They surf through webpage after webpage seeking knowledge, entertainment, and connections through a medium that is not defined or limited to the physical space in which they live. Buildings become blogs and flâneurs become link lemmings, following the hyperlinks of their blind curiosity.
While some still myopically place the dérive as a strictly urban activity, the digital environment, both manifesting itself on the internet and in computer games, are akin to megalopolises, cities, towns, and villages in their own right. Examples would be the vast digital expanse of games like The Sims, World of Warcraft, or Second Life, which feature digital environments where thousands upon thousands of people from around the world interact within the constructs of the respective games, while never needing to physically meet each other in person. Another example would be those that comment on blog posts or message boards, where the website itself becomes the city, and the articles, blog postings and forum topics become the streets, and the users are the flâneurs, strolling and trolling through ever-increasing content.
However, combined together these participants do not always take part in a de-facto dérive, but rather are merely present within this complex digital environment and may take it upon themselves to conduct a dérive. And that is what I am writing about today.
For quite a few years I eschewed the presence of advertisements on websites. I found them to be visual clutter, like an architectural eye sore of a blighted city. Over time, however, I grew bored of my blog’s layout and I felt that my little digital city (errr, scrapbook) needed some urban planning and ideally, more citizens (visitors, errr, I guess they’d technically be immigrants?). So on a whim, I decided to start serving Google AdSense ads on my website. At first I reverted back to my original reaction, where I thought that my new urban design was tacky and had failed, but then something changed.
As a god of this alternative reality, I was only seeing that which I had coded and created myself. Like looking at a vast sea of sameness, day in & day out, I began to warm up towards these visual invasions that were created in someone else’s digital environment. I began to see that they offered a welcomed distraction. In fact, it is this very type of distraction from the spectacle of reality that first Debord spoke of many years ago. Why does this spectacle exist? What website lies beyond that ad? What is at this animated exit on my digital highway? And why was it so important that someone is actually paying money for the ad to be shown?
Thus began my own digital dérive into on-line advertising.
Since I cannot legally click on my own ads (Google considers that fraud), I went to my friend’s blog, which has a small text ad at the top. Out of genuine curiosity, I clicked on that ad. The resulting page also had an advertisement on it. I clicked on that ad, whereupon I discovered that the resulting page also had ads on it. So click on that ad as well…
The premise of this digital dérive through on-line advertising is quite simple. Explore the internet only through pages with advertisements. Where do you end up? How many ads do you click on before you hit the dead end of the digital alley? Before you jackknife on the information superhighway? What observations can be made through this type of stroll through the internet? Do you end up in digital city or a dark alley of get-rich-quick schemes?
To many people, time is money. But to many others, so are clicks on ads. Depending on where this digital dérive begins and ends someone is making money and someone is also theoretically losing money (unless of course, the act of taking part in the dérive benefits the person paying for the ad, as in, you discover something meaningful on the website of the ad you clicked on). Like the construction costs of the buildings (not to mention their monthly rent) in Paris that Debord strolled through, few things are really free. It takes time to click on ads, just like it takes time to walk down the street looking for houses that are painted white. But unlike construction costs or rent in a building, a digital dérive can be conducted in the comfort of one’s own home and with minimal resources- without the need for shoes or even clothes- only a computer connected to the internet, which over the last decade has become extremely inexpensive. Or completely free if you go to the library.
In essence, a digital dérive can be done in private, while the dérive of Debord’s day was done in public. But if no one sees you walking down the street and you don’t write about it or share the experience with others, did the dérive actually take place? Paradoxically, while a digital dérive can be experienced in private, where no one sees you in person, your journey does leave a trace– in the form of the websites logs. Your IP address will show up on each of your stops in your digital dérive and while it does not leave an exact size 10 shoe footprint, it contains its own geographic markers of where your IP address resolves to. But its a footprint that is scattered across the internet instead of sequentially left in the dust & mud of city streets. It’s a solitary footprint that webmasters cannot immediately tell that a dérive had even taken place. Similarly, people walking down the street participating in a dérive do not nessesarilly have signs saying “we are conducting a dérive,” but they can be see by others in the urban environment.
On-line advertisers want you to see them. They want you to purchase their product & services or be influenced by their very existence. But the digital dérive outlined in this entry is not for them to exploit. It’s for you. Its a means of self-discovery through external stimulation. A method to understand the vastness of the digital environment through a single conduit: advertisements. It doesn’t have to be solitary- two people can sit in front of a computer and choose which ads they think will beget more ads. Moreover, this dérive doesn’t have to be as I directed above, instead you can take turns clicking on ads and clicking on regular links simply to see where the path leads you. The rules are not hard and fast, but rather they are up to the flâneur. Its merely a form of digital exploration that might yield it’s own rewards for you, while paradoxically adding a couple cents to someone’s coffers and removing a couple cents from someone else’s coffers. In essence its a postmodern example of psychogeographical exploration, but without predefined borders; where the environment is wholly located on your computer screen, at a specific location on the surface of the earth, and you are the flâneur strolling from one disparate location to another, without a passport or a map, just strolling, strolling, strolling.
A Response to Doug Feaver’s “Listening to the Dot-Commenters”
|| 4/10/2009 || 8:01 am || 1 Comment Rendered || ||
In yesterday’s Opinions section in the Washington Post I came across Doug Feaver’s article called “Listening to the Dot-Commenters” and felt compelled to write this missive concerning his incomplete analysis of anonymous commenters on the Washington Post website.
But the bigger problem with The Post’s comment policy, many in the newsroom have told me, is that the comments are anonymous. Anonymity is what gives cover to racists, sexists and others to say inappropriate things without having to say who they are.
He goes on to defend the commenters because they add dynamic content to an article, can be entertaining, act as a non-scientific survey on the topic de jour, and oftentimes show that the readers do not necessarily agree with the journalist who wrote the article. While these are all factual points, Feaver misses the larger issue. Comments are not completely anonymous.
Of the 330 comments that were generated by the article at the time of this posting, only one commenter addresses the larger point that I am attempting to make.
dlpetersdc wrote: Posts here are only anonymous to readers of these posts, not the WaPo’s staff. When you post, likely your IP address is recorded with the entry…[snip]… But anyone who thinks that you can remain anonymous on the Internet is fooling themselves.
Lets take this commenter’s summarized point one step further. Since all traffic on all websites leave a digital footprint that can be tracked back, in real time, to a unique IP address or Internet Service Provider, why does the Washington Post continue to shield it’s readers from one of the most important & least invasive aspects of this harvested data: the commenter’s geographic location??
Unlike the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or USA Today, as a newspaper of record that does not have nationwide circulation, the Washington Post’s existence and continued success is contingent upon a large local subscriber base and those living outside of the current distribution area reading articles on-line. Each month I pay to have the paper delivered to my house, but am essentially given no extra privileges when reading or commenting on an on-line article. Alternatively, each on-line article that non-subscribers read also helps the Washington Post’s bottom line through on-line advertising. Yet all commenters, paying subscribers and non-paying readers, are given the exact same treatment in the comments section of the Washington Post website. I feel this is unfair, unwise, and only perpetuates ignorant, racist, and bigoted remarks.
The incorporation of the geographic location of commenters might not seem significant, but the implications are quite important to the general discourse. When I read an article about the unconstitutional D.C. voting rights bill (aka the 1/3 Compromise), I sometimes like to see what comments are being left on-line or if someone expresses a legal opinion that I have not read yet. However after I have read what the different commenters have written, I am generally saddened that local opinions are sometimes lost in the clutter of non-local opinions. While the Washington Post knows the approximate location of each “anonymous” commenter, this information is not disclosed to other commenters, and it creates & perpetuates a vacuum of ignorance.
Moreover, sometimes the Washington Post will have a poll about an issue and many times I’ve found that the results are unbelievably skewed by those who do not live in the region. Why not add some basic geoscience to the poll by disclosing the difference between how readers from the Washington metropolitan region voted versus those who live in the rest of the world? This geographic data is already there waiting to be used, but sadly it is not.
But its not just an issue of liking or disliking comments; I can always choose not to read them. The root of the issue is that the Washington Post is perpetuating this type of ignorance by shielding their on-line readers from where a comment is originating. This data is collected the moment a user begins loading content from the website and it does not personally identify any readers. While an IP address can be spoofed, most people are not going to take the time to put forth the extra effort just so they can prevent their approximate location from being revealed.
Commenters can still be anonymous and have a geographic location attached to them. For example, my current IP address only shows that I am a Comcast subscriber based in Washington, DC. With thousands of other Comcast subscribers, I still retain a level of anonymity by creating an “anonymous” account using a different e-mail address and creating a screen name that only I know of.
Imagine for a moment that immediately after the commenters screen name there was the text “from [LOCATION]” or as it would read on the screen: ANONYMOUS COMMENTER from Memphis, Tennessee or Nik Schiller from Washington, DC. Who would you be more likely to read if the article was about something in Washington, DC? Or Memphis, Tennessee? Esssentially, what comments have more credibility? Those comments originating from the geographic location of the subject of the article? Or those that do not?
Well, of course, it depends on the context of their comments. If they were bashing the residents of Washington, DC and do not live here, I would most likely ignore them. But as it is now, even though the Washington Post knows where the commenter is from, all other commenters are denied this basic level of geographic understanding and it alienates readers who actually pay for the newspaper.
In conclusion, I believe a more civilized level of discourse can be established if the level of anonymity is slightly altered by providing the geographic location of all commenters. Its not so much about WHO the commenter is, but WHERE the commenter is from that is at the core my logic. Locals commenting about local affairs will be treated with more respect, while people who don’t pay for the paper, leave absurd, racist, or sexist comments, can & will be ignored more easily. As a paying subscriber, I feel it’s the least the Washington Post can do to encourage my on-line participation. The current model is a free for all that can be more civil, if, and only if, the Washington Post chooses to bring more sunshine to their paying & non-paying readers through the visible disclosure of the geographic information that each on-line reader already provides.
Experimenting with infrequent blogging
|| 1/22/2009 || 4:31 pm || Comments Off on Experimenting with infrequent blogging || ||
At the beginning of January I decided that I was going to take a break from blogging daily to see the traffic that my archives receive. I got bored of this experiment and decided to add a bunch of entries that covered the middle of the month up until the inauguration. However, the experiment did prove that each day I receive hundreds of visitors to my blog’s archives and very few daily visitors to my blog’s front page.
When I released the contents of my website last year I was not expecting this to happen. Rather I expected my archives to be read as much as my fresh content, but through these experiments I’ve found that I was completely wrong in my assumption. Now I feel compelled to simply write for the archives through back dating blog entries instead of trying to write for the present. I see myself not maintaining a “Daily Render” but an “infrequent render” simply because I don’t have to worry about doing timely entries anymore. This discovery is somewhat liberating.
Below are the stats from January 1st to January 21st, 2009:
You can see that even without any new entries, this website still received 9,000 pageviews by 6,500 viewers. A different test would be to see what the total would be if I were blogging everyday. I have a feeling that it wouldn’t change very much….
The Geospatial Art FAIL Landing Page
|| 12/14/2008 || 2:20 pm || Comments Off on The Geospatial Art FAIL Landing Page || ||
In continuance of my previous entry related to finding and exploiting a flaw in search engine aggregation algorithms, I decided to modify the landing page slightly. So instead of displaying a random foreground graphic, like my splash page, it only displays the text FAIL. Its an attempt to poke fun at the humorous FAIL Blog by extending the meme to failed search results. The title of the page says “Nikolas Schiller thinks you should try searching again,” and when you hover your mouse over the FAIL text the title text says “You clicked on a bogus search result.”
The Singapore 18
|| 11/7/2008 || 11:56 am || Comments Off on The Singapore 18 || ||
This morning I received an e-mail from Timothy Cooper announcing that his Op-Ed was published today in the Washington Times (below).
After I read the article, I went on to do my morning IP analysis, and guess who visited my website looking for more information? None other than the Singaporean government. The very same government the Op-Ed was written to agitate. Examples like this prove that we really do live in a small world, while at the same time showing that human rights transcend borders.
COOPER: The Singapore 18
Prosecution or persecution?
Op-Ed by Timothy Cooper
Friday, November 7, 2008
The names Gandhi Ambalam, Chia Ti Lik, Chong Kai Xiong, Jeffrey George, Jaslyn Go, Chee Siok Chin, Govindan Rajan, Chee Soon Juan, Jufrie Mahmood, Jufri Salim, Surayah Akbar, Ng E-Jay, Seelan Palay, Shafi’ie, Carl Lang, John Tan, Francis Yong and Sylvester Lim aren’t exactly household names — but they should be. This week 18 Singaporeans — the Singapore 18 — are standing trial for purported crimes against America’s 11th largest trading partner — Singapore.
Indicted for violating the Miscellaneous Offences Act for assembling peacefully without a permit to register their concerns over escalating housing costs, they claim that they’re innocent by virtue of their right under the Singapore constitution to enjoy the guarantees of freedom of assembly and expression. Historically, however, Singapore has viewed political dissent through a lens darkly, treating protest as a threat to social tranquility and economic prosperity, rather than what it is — a fundamental right and necessity in any democracy.
While Singapore claims to be a constitutional democracy, it nevertheless routinely arrests Singaporeans for attempting to assert those rights articulated under the constitution in the open light of day. A democracy, it’s not quite.
Ironically, while their trial is about their right to public assembly in numbers more than four without a permit, and to free speech, they view it as a test about whether Singapore’s judiciary is independent enough to interpret the country’s constitution objectively. In effect, Judge Chia Wee Kiat, who’s presiding magistrate over the case, is on trial, too. Many Singaporeans will be watching how he rules. Americans should be watching, too.
That’s because Singapore’s Minister for Home Affairs, Wong Kan Seng, appears to refuse to be bound by the affirmative rights guaranteed under the country’s basic law. Last February, he stated that “[w]e have stopped short of allowing outdoor and street demonstration â€¦ Our experiences in the past have taught us to be very circumspect about outdoor and street protests.” His reference is to the race riots in Singapore during the 1960s — almost 50 years ago. Which is like saying that because Washington, D.C. experienced race riots in the 1960s, the residents of Washington must be denied the right to protest government policies. That argument simply doesn’t wash.
But the judge in the case will likely rule accordingly, regardless of the plain language of the constitution.
The late Singaporean politician, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, stated in an interview shortly before his death that his main concern was that the public had the “perception that its judiciary was not independent.” He himself had been made a bankrupt by defamation lawsuits filed against him by his political opponents and the high damages awarded them by Singapore courts. After paying off his debts, he’d recently committed to heading a new political party, whose primary agenda was calling for the independence of the judiciary.
He was not alone. In July, the International Bar Association (ABA) issued a 72-page report on the state of Singapore’s judiciary noting that “there are concerns about the objective and subjective independence and impartiality of Singapore judges.” The report’s final recommendations advocate tenure be granted Singapore judges and that the transfer of judges between “executive and judicial roles” be banned. They also call on the government to prohibit defamation as a criminal offense, and forbid public officials from initiating criminal defamation suits, which detractors claim are used by government to silence its critics.
One of those critics is Chee Soon Juan. He’s been jailed seven times on a potpourri of politically-related charges, including speaking without a permit, contempt of court, and even for attempting to depart Singapore in order to attend an international rights conference. He’s been fined nearly $1 million to date and made bankrupt by defamation suits brought against him by former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, and Singapore’s current Minister Mentor, Lee Hsein Loong. In the next few months, he faces six more trials and an indeterminate amount of jail time. Yet all he wants is for the courts to properly enforce the spirit and letter of the Singapore constitution. Barred from leaving the country, he’s been put under country arrest and is a prisoner of conscience.
Were the Singapore 18 living in China or Russia, they’d be enjoying considerable support from the U.S. Instead, they’re victims of a sad neglect. They’ve been cut loose by a nation otherwise preoccupied. But the next Congress and administration should take up the cause of freedom in Singapore. They should exert their influences on Singapore to open up its political space to peaceful dissent and to embrace the benefits of political pluralism. Economic prosperity and political freedoms are not mutually exclusive in Singapore or anywhere else.
Above all, this country should call for judicial reform in Singapore because as J.B. Jeyaretnam would no doubt agree without independence there can be no rule of law.
Timothy Cooper is executive director of the human-rights group Worldrights.