Archive for the ‘Jason Poggioli’ Category

The Dangers of SOPA and PIPA

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

By Jason Poggioli
Many Internet sites staged an online demonstration protesting two pieces of legislation currently making their way through Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) authored by Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) by Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont). While these bills have been written with the  intention of protecting people who make a living creating intellectual property, the actual enforcement of these proposed laws can effectively end the concept of free speech on the Internet.

The list of Internet sites opposing these two bills is staggering. Among them are Google, AOL, Ebay, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Yahoo, Wikipedia, Craigslist, Wired, and WordPress, the company behind the software running this blog.

To be clear, the bills are coming from good intentions. It’s understandable that creators of content, whether it be books, movies, music, or anything else, should want to make sure their product isn’t getting passed around for free. However, the way these bills are going about it is not only wrong but have been drafted inside staggering clouds of ignorance regarding how the Internet works. There are many more in-depth writings analyzing these bills such as this one, but here’s a quick summary.

First, the bills aren’t aimed at stopping piracy, but at forcing operators of web sites to stop linking to other sites identified by copyright lawyers as engaging in copyright infringement. At first this sounds like a fine plan, but when you begin to get into the details you start to uncover a myriad of instances where this would be not only unfairly burdensome to sites like this one, but nearly impossible for sites like Google, which operates a search engine in a completely automated fashion. Many sites, such as, are based on the democratic concept of users submitting interesting links while other users vote on those links. The links gathering most votes get seen by more readers. Should a site like Reddit receive a take-down notice it would need to find and remove the offending user-submitted content from its entire site as well as continue to monitor all future submissions. This is only the most basic example.

Secondly, the bills won’t actually stop piracy because the Internet is a worldwide communications system. Sites dedicated to the transmission of copyrighted material can simply set up shop offshore where U.S. authorities can’t get to them. Which means sites left operating in the United States would be instructed not link to them. Then, once an overseas site has been targeted it could easily change domain names and keep its operations going. The end result being that law enforcement spends all its time haranguing legal sites here, trying to play whack-a-mole with links to overseas sites, while being completely ineffectual in stopping piracy.

There are many other reasons why these bills are not only ineffectual, but bad for the Internet. New startup companies would be forced to spend more time, effort, and money covering themselves legally for a useless law. Given the broad wording of the bills as to what constitutes “copyrighted material” and therefore who can bring about these claims, there is a strong potential for abuse. I urge you to read more on this topic.

Finally, there remains the very real issue of piracy. At the core of the problem is anything created that can be digitized into ones and zeros can then be copied millions of times with the simple click of a button. With the rapid spread of technology, virtually any intellectual property (often referred to as IP) is susceptible to this kind of rampant copying. Attempting to require rightful payment to the creators of that intellectual property is going to be the challenge for the foreseeable future. There are very smart people debating this issue daily around the world. At one extreme is the idea that it is absolutely impossible to lock down IP and we have simply entered an age in which paying someone for their IP is now subject to the honor system. At the other extreme is the idea that it’s possible to lock down content and force people to pay, while at the same time not interfering with the normal and legal operations of the Internet.

I’m not certain what the ultimate solution to this problem can be, but I know that these proposed laws are not it. Although at the time of this writing our Senators from New York, Kristen Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, seem to think they are a good idea.

Steve Jobs

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

By Jason Poggioli
Last week an iconic figure of the technological age passed away, sparking dozens upon dozens of articles, memorials, essays, and remembrances. Everyone seems to have an opinion about Steve Jobs, ranging from hate to love, but hate ir love, it’s undeniable that he had a huge impact in the world of computer technology.

It’s difficult to know if Steve Jobs was the kind of man you’d like to have a beer with. Most accounts paint the picture of an extremely arrogant, yet intelligent man, who did not suffer fools easily. He was known for being a micromanager of design details, one time famously returning a newly designed iPod to the drawing board at the last minute because the headphones didn’t make a satisfying “click” when plugging them into the jack. Regardless, he led Apple through its most prosperous times to date, at one point raising it to be the most valuable company in the world, above even the giant among giants, Exxon-Mobil.

His career reads like a ready-made Hollywood success, failure, then success again story – the very essence of the American dream. Steve was an adopted child from a fairly ordinary middle-class family. After co-founding Apple with Steve Wozniak in a garage, his company rose to contend with the likes of IBM until he was ousted by the board of directors in the mid-80’s. Feeling betrayed, Steve founded another technology company, called NeXT, as well as acquiring the computer graphics division of LucasFilm which would become Pixar Animation Studios. After heading up the team that would bring us the classic movie “Toy Story,” the first film entirely in CGI, NeXT was purchased by Apple in 1996 and Steve found himself back where he started.

It’s undeniable that Steve Jobs was obsessed with elevating computer technology and to the status of the “every man’s tool.” Apple was always focused on creating not just a device for businessmen and nerdy hobbyists, but to create a machine that was as simple to use as a toaster and infinitely more versatile – a true computerized appliance. The products of Apple embodied this idea by revolutionizing existing technology rather than inventing them from scratch. There were already MP3 players on the market, but the iPod and iTunes took the concept to an entirely new level. There were already smartphones on the market, but the iPhone made them beautiful and powerful. The idea of a tablet computer was already prevalent, but the iPad was the first to occupy that niche successfully.

Less is known about his personal life although he was married with children including having fathered a child in his early years, out of wedlock, and whom he denied was his for many years. A glimpse into how he thought about life can be found in his Stanford commencement address from 2005, which is a beautiful and heartfelt speech that I strongly encourage you to read. In it, he explains how he learned the importance of bringing together technical science and artistic beauty to make a superior product. He also implores us to find what they love and to chase it unapologetically.

Perhaps the most poignant insight into Steve Jobs’ character can be glimpsed when, just a few weeks before his death, he explained why he had authorized a public biography of himself – to be published in two weeks – after years of leading a private, secluded life.

“I wanted my kids to know me,” Jobs was quoted as telling his biographer. “I wasn’t always there for them and I wanted them to know why, and to understand what I did.”

Google+, The Latest Social Network Craze

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

By Jason Poggioli
If you read the news at all you may know about the term “social networking” and if you’ve read the news at all recently you may have learned that Google has started its own version of social networking called Google+.

Social networking is simply a generic term for using the Internet in a way that allows you to share with friends or strangers whatever you wish. Facebook is the most commonly known social web site with nearly 750 million users sharing things with each other every day. With its user count rapidly approaching one billion people, Facebook is commonly accepted as the behemoth of social networking. In fact, it’s been said Facebook is to social network what Google is to search. This may start to change now that Google has entered the social networking arena.

Companies always look to ensure they have a defining characteristic that distinguishes themselves from the competition. For Google+, that market differentiation is what Google has called “Circles.” The concept is so simple and obvious it’s one of those ideas that has you smacking your forehead and wondering why it hadn’t been invented before.

If I decide to “friend” you in Facebook I send you a request to be your friend and I have to await your approval before we’re then “friends.” Once we’re friends on Facebook we can share things together. For example, I can post a picture and you can see it, you can post a status message like “I’m feeling blue today” and I can see and respond to it. Although there are ways to share things with only some of your Facebook friends it’s not very easy and definitely not intuitive. That’s where Google’s Circles concept comes in.

On Google+ when I want to “friend” you I just add you to one of my Circles. Google starts you off with one Circle called “Friends” and one called “Family,” but you can create as many as you’d like and name them however you please. In my escapades on Google+ these past couple of days I’ve created seven Circles. When adding people to my Circle I don’t need to ask their permission, I just add them. At first this may seem disconcerting, but it’s not.

Now that I’ve added you to my Circle I can see whatever you decide to share, but only if you share it with me (or the public at large). In other words, you have your own set of Circles (just as I do) and when you share something on Google+ you pick which Circles you share it with. If you’ve added me to a Circle and you share something with that Circle I’ll get to see it. But if you want to share something with a different Circle of people I won’t see it. Essentially this brings a level of privacy to social networking that has been sorely lacking for some time. If you want to share something with the world you can, but you can just as easily share something with a single person, too.

This differentiation that Google is bringing to social networking is probably the first feature to get noticed, but it’s not the only one. Google+ also offers a cool feature called “Hangouts” which allows users to create virtual videoconferencing rooms with the same control over sharing that Circles provides. I can create a “room” for a Circle or just two people. Of course, Google already has a slew of products online like its Google Docs and Picasa Web sites. Picasa is already tightly integrated with Google+ and I suspect it won’t be long before others are as well.

In the meantime, I’m on Google+ so feel free to follow me or ask questions in the comments below. I can also send you an invite to sign up if you’re looking for one.

Our So-called “Distracted Society”

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

By Jason Poggioli
I am fed up with, tired of, and even a bit angry over all the various opinions being strewn about how today’s technology and gadgets are diminishing the quality of human interactions in the Western World. Opinion pieces such as this one all imply that because we’re constantly connected to the Internet, posting on Facebook, reading tweets, or talking on our cell phones, we’re somehow missing the kind of personal relationships that we had thirty years ago.

Not only is this baloney, but it’s the kind of BS reminiscing in the style of “things were better when I was a kid” nonsense you heard from your grandparents when you were a kid. First off, for everything you can point to and label as “worse” I can point to something else and label it “better”. Secondly, though, I would go beyond just that and say the quality of life in the world is better, not worse, with the Internet and all the gadgets in our lives. Even with all the distractions.

Disputes with this viewpoint are boundless, so instead I’ll focus on how much better technology and the Internet are making our lives. I would gladly accept an embarrassing, rude, and inconvenient cell phone ring during a funeral wake in exchange for the unimaginable and staggering interconnectedness modern technology has brought to our lives.

Twenty years ago if I wanted to raise money to help cure a disease I could have held a bake sale on my block while today I can put together a website that, with a single click, can be accessed by two billion people in the blink of an eye. Not to mention the disparity between what the bake sale could raise compared with a website to the entire world.

Twenty years ago I could have opened the morning newspaper and read about some horrible genocide that occurred in some distant country while today I can turn on my computer and have a conversation with people experiencing it first hand.

Twenty years ago my circle of friends may have consisted of whatever group of people I happened to cross paths with in my nearby geographic area while today I can join online groups that consist of people from all six continents who have different perspectives about the world.

Twenty years ago if I had a chronic illness I depended on my doctor to diagnose and treat it correctly with perhaps a second opinion from a colleague while today I have the resources of the entire Internet to help with the treatment and I can turn to countless support groups in situations nearly identical to mine.

Along with the argument that our human-to-human interactions aren’t as deep and meaningful as they were before all this gadgetry there also tends to be an expression of fear that today’s kids aren’t learning key skills that are necessary for well adapted living. The possibility that children today might not learn cursive writing or multiplication tables doesn’t bother me in the least. I never learned how to shoe a horse or slaughter a chicken, but the world I grew up in didn’t require those skills of me. Will tomorrow’s children need to even know how to write legibly by hand? Have I somehow lost out on what life has to offer because I never learned how to skin a cow and cure leather?

Neither will tomorrow’s children.

Virtual Currencies

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

By Jason Poggioli

Most purchases today are made using electronic transfers of money that are fast, convenient, and easily tracked transactions.  Imagine a scenario instead where people all over the world could buy and sell goods or services electronically in a completely anonymous and untraceable way.  It would resemble the simplicity of a cash transaction, but with the convenience of an electronic transmission.  A completely anonymous transaction means no taxes, no record of the sale, and perhaps most importantly, no way for any government body to regulate it in any way.  The enormity of the possibilities takes a while to sink in.

This possibility has been evolving as the Internet gained in popularity and is somewhat a marriage of two seemingly unrelated phenomena on the Internet: The first being peer-to-peer file sharing and the second being massive multi-player online games.

You’ve probably heard of peer-to-peer file sharing since it’s in the news a lot as recording studios, movie producers, and all other manner of entertainment companies struggle to prevent the public from wholesale copying and distributing what previously could only be purchased in a store like Tower Records.  That chain of stores and many others like it have gone belly up owing their demise in some part to P2P file sharing.  Laws already exist making copyright violations illegal, but those laws have been proven to be extremely difficult to enforce especially when they are disregarded by so many people.

Essentially, peer-to-peer file sharing allows people to share files anonymously with millions of others simultaneously.  The ease of copying and downloading is so simple that you could have a copy of virtually any song you want before you finish reading this article.  Legalities and ethics aside, the fact is that intellectual property of any kind is in the midst of the largest transformation since the invention of the printing press.

The second, and lesser known, phenomenon is the rise of virtual currencies in online games.  Things only have value if there are people willing to buy them and purchasing power is dictated by an abstract concept called currency.  Money isn’t often thought of this way, but the value of the dollar is only what it is because everyone on the planet agrees to its value.  Throughout history currency has always been an abstract value that people could use to represent some tangible production.  I make you a pair of shoes and you pay me in some form that I can use to buy a shirt.  As long as we all agree on a common currency the economy works.

In a virtual gaming world, known as massive multi-player online role playing games, millions of people place real value on goods that can be obtained within the game. Often these virtual goods (like armor, swords, potions, and other items you’d typically find in an online fantasy game) are so coveted, people are willing to spend real-world currency to purchase them from other players.  As soon as you have a regular exchange of real-world dollars with a virtual currency in an online game you have created an exchange rate between the two currencies and an entire economy is born.

As fantastical as it may seem, economists have studied these virtual economies and even ranked them against real countries’ economies.  While it may seem bizarre it’s no joke.  In some countries it’s even led to the creation of sweatshops where workers are paid very low real-world wages to “create” wealth within the online games.  The sweatshop owners then go on to profit from this virtual wealth by selling it to online gamers willing to pay.

Which leads us to the new Internet phenomenon this article is about – the creation of a virtual currency that is specifically designed for use in the real world and is used via untraceable peer-to-peer sharing technology.

Currency is an abstract concept that assigns value to a given object for the purpose of driving an economy.  The U.S. dollar is already essentially virtual, but the supply is regulated and taxed by the government.  In addition, nearly all transactions are tracked by institutions such as banks or credit card companies.  That all could change, though, as more and more people start using new virtual currencies that are issued by no government, controlled by no banks, and can be used in completely anonymous and untraceable ways.

One such currency is called Bitcoin, and was created in 2009.  It’s still very new and this may not be the currency that catches on, but the genie is out of the bottle now and it will be near impossible to put it back.  All it requires is a certain critical mass of acceptance – enough merchants and customers need to be willing to pay and accept the currency in question.  And once that happens – once a growing portion of the world economy is occurring outside the control of existing governments and institutions – what then?

Watson & the Future

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

By Jason Poggioli

At times it can be difficult to remember just how blazingly fast technological progress is moving. But then there are times it just leaps up and screams, “You’re living in the future right now and you’d better pay attention!” That’s how I felt this week watching a computer compete on Jeopardy against arguably the two best Jeopardy contestants ever, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate the importance of this milestone. A machine has been created that is capable of parsing Jeopardy clues and giving correct answers. Clues that often have double meanings which cannot be easily understood by a computer. No special accommodations were made other than that clues were fed the machine via a text file rather than verbally. The machine, named Watson by its IBM creators, even had to mechanically press the button, just like Jennings and Rutter.

Successfully deciphering the clues is IBM’s giant accomplishment because it’s not like you can take a Jeopardy clue, type it into the Google search engine, and get an answer. Although the power of Google may seem at times like the ancient Greek Oracle, it’s only an indexed database of raw information. Typing in the actual Jeopardy clue would yield nonsensical results because it would simply look up web pages that contain the words you typed. Taking the entire clue and correctly surmising its meaning has been the stuff of science fiction until now. Besides, Watson wasn’t even connected to the Internet for this competition.

When faced with a question, Watson pulls apart the words to understand how they relate to one another within the clue. Ordinarily a computer must be fed a strict list of instructions – a program – written by people. Watson’s great leap forward is that, although it still requires instructions, the resulting program allows it to be fed naturally worded clues that can be understood well enough for it to find correct answers in its database. Put another way: Instead of people needing to learn the computer’s language, the computer has been taught to understand ours. The entire process is called “natural language understanding,” a specific field of computer science in which programs are written to successfully understand human language. It also happens to be the field of computer science the company I work for specializes in.

The practical application for Watson is its ability to digest large quantities of information and find relationships or patterns buried within the data that – due either to its complexity or immensity – escapes human notice. For example, patterns of disease cross referenced with geographic location could unearth an unknown toxic environment. Similarly, astronomical data could be fed into it and out would pop a newly discovered stellar phenomenon. Maybe the underlying cause of the cicadas’ 13-year swarm patterns could be found.

To be fair, it’s probable that Watson’s program has been specifically written for understanding the short succinct clue styles found on Jeopardy rather than entire sentences. So it’s not as if we have to worry about computers taking over the world – yet. Additionally, Watson doesn’t have a context for the clue – it doesn’t understand the clue like you or I would. It may be able to sweep the category of “Characters found in Beatles songs.” but the clues it reads aren’t going to get it humming “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”

Although… When a computer becomes so good at understanding human language that you can’t tell if it’s a computer or a person, isn’t that a clear definition of artificial intelligence?

Alan Turing, a computer scientist, thought so, and the definition I just described is actually a test that’s named after him. If a computer can pass what is known as the Turing Test it’s said that you could be typing at a terminal having a conversation with either a computer or real person on the other end and not know the difference. It’s a popular competition among computer scientists to create the program that could successfully have an open ended conversation that passes as a human. With Watson that goal has become much more achievable.

The future is now.

Egyptian Uprisings & the Internet

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

By Jason Poggioli

Much of the recent coverage of Egypt’s uprising has been spent discussing the impact of the Internet on the people living under repressive governments. Clearly, talking head pundits haven’t been the only ones recognizing the influence of social media as the Egyptian government took the significant step of effectively disconnecting its entire country from the Internet in an attempt to stall the power of Facebook and Twitter.

“Pulling the plug” on the Internet during populist uprisings has been a tactic used before in places such as Myanmar in 2007 and Nepal in 2005, while Iran and China have chosen instead to take the less drastic approach of selectively blocking websites they determine to be a threat. Imagine yourself as a tyrannical dictator for a moment. The impact of the Internet and its social media creations like Facebook and Twitter certainly appear to require careful consideration regarding your future ability to maintain power, but how much would you really need to be concerned?

At first glance, social media, with its ability to bring millions of people together without centralized leadership or complex organizing seems perfectly designed for inciting populist revolts. The Internet breathes to life fads that effortlessly sweep around the world infecting millions of minds only to see them dissipate just as quickly as they were born. Videos, jokes, images all get passed around by email as people ask their friends and families, “Hey, have you seen this yet?”  Flash mobs, although benign and relatively harmless, are perfect examples of how a few people can quickly organize large groups to gather and act as one. The parallels to political protests are clear — if ordinary folks can pull together hundreds of people to dance at Grand Central Terminal then what could hard-charging politically motivated activists accomplish?

There is another side to this story, though, that isn’t discussed quite as often as how the Internet can contribute to democratic revolutions. In what ways can the Internet slow or limit the sweep of democracy around the world?

George Orwell’s classic “1984” has been referred to so often by those discussing the evils of a pervasively spied-upon citizenry that the term “Big Brother” is cliche. As overused as the term is, the cold fact is that it can be applied to the Internet for a pretty frightening comparison in countries like China. Worse still, the same Internet that enables productivity and economic gains can simultaneously be used for carefully targeted suppression of only a few (e.g. the trouble makers) within the same country.

While economic reforms roll through places like China, and their businesses take advantage of all the benefits the Internet brings, the Chinese government can use it to effectively quell social disorder before it begins and be more efficient maintaining power. China, and other similarly non-democratic governments, can use the Internet to target a minority of its citizens, like troublesome students, while allowing its faithful unfettered access to all the communication wonders the Internet holds. With centralized control of the Internet the government can allow state-owned corporations unfettered access while heavily restricting access in educational institutions and public cafes.

The fewer people a repressive government is forced to confront, the lower the chances of a popular uprising resulting in growth and change economically, but repression and stagnation politically — all on the back of the most sophisticated and widespread communication tool the world has ever seen.

So, if you were a dictator, how threatening would you find the Internet?

Jason can be reached at

Self-driving Cars

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

By Jason Poggioli

Wouldn’t it be nice to hop into your car, choose a destination, and just let your wheels take you away knowing that you’d arrive safely – carefully ferried by an awe-inspiring computer intelligence?  What once sounded like the stuff of far distant science fiction took a big step closer to reality two weeks ago.  Google, that ultra-hip and seemingly omniscient technology company, announced it was not only working on exactly that kind of future tech, but that it had quietly been test driving autonomous cars on busy California highways and streets for months.  That’s right, self-driving cars on the open roads of California navigating the Pacific Highway and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Of course, a human was always in the driver’s seat if it became necessary to take control of the car and apparently it was on many of the 140,000 miles Google’s fleet of modified Toyota Priuses racked up.  However, Google has stated that a whopping 1,000 of those miles were logged without a single instance of human intervention.  In fact, the worst mishap reported was a mild fender bender when a human driven car (perhaps with a mildly distracted driver?) rear-ended one of the Google cars stopped at a traffic light.

Needless to say, this news has lit the blogosphere up with speculation as to when driving a car will be relegated to join the ranks of 8 tracks and rotary phones.  The futurists are all waiting with bated breath to be able to climb into their “personal transports” to be whisked away while finishing their coffee, bagel and makeup.  Google, being most familiar with the technology, has stated for the record that it’s at least eight years away from mass production and most technologists think it’s further off than that.  What I don’t understand is why all the bloggers and tech reporters are talking about 100% automation instead of what huge benefits even partial automation would bring.

In some respects the auto industry has been taking baby steps when it comes to automating the driving experience.  Traction control and anti-lock brakes are a couple examples of technology assisted driving while most of the responsibility is still left to the human operator.  A number of car models are even offering the ability to parallel park themselves, although you still have to feed the meter.  If Google is already making prototype cars that can completely drive themselves what kinds of driving assistance can we expect to see in just a few more years?

Driver distractions are multiplying faster than a teenager’s thumbs bouncing around the keys of his cell phone.  Once upon a time (actually, just a little more than ten years ago) the car radio and morning cup of coffee were the most dangerous distractions a driver had to carefully manage.  Now we have cell phones, GPS devices, and text messages adding to a growing list of things competing with the road for our attention.  Even the cars themselves, with full computer screens in the dashboard feeding you readouts on real-time gas mileage, battery consumption, and other miscellaneous car vitals conspire to take your eyes off the road.  Something needs to step in and solve this rapidly growing danger.

I’m a big fan of technology and an even bigger fan of the idea that technology can solve the very problems it creates.  While passing laws on cell phone usage and making public service announcements about texting while driving are laudable attempts to get drivers to pay more attention I see the ultimate solution being a car that can take over when necessary.

People love to be in control and love the illusion of being in control even more.  When a driver is fully paying attention hauling down a highway at 65 miles per hour he really only has the slightest control over their vehicle and that’s why driving remains the most dangerous form of travel.  As long as drivers have their hands on the wheel, though, the illusion of control is maintained which is why so many people intuitively feel more comfortable driving rather than flying.  Giving up that imaginary control willingly and openly isn’t going to happen any time soon.

My prediction is that self-driving cars will begin as silent guardians watching over the road as you juggle that breakfast sandwich and Blackberry. Just as ABS brakes and traction control only step in when danger is inevitable so will our computerized co-pilots.  Human drivers will be content maintaining their illusion of control long after they’ve given over navigation responsibilities to their autonomous automobiles.  It can’t happen too soon.

The Power of Crowdsourcing

Monday, September 20th, 2010

By Jason Poggioli

Have you ever asked a friend a question because you thought he might know the answer? Ever ask a group of friends? How about asking a million people? That’s what the Internet is enabling people to do and in the process is transforming how we share knowledge and solve problems in the 21st century.

It’s called crowdsourcing and it refers to the idea of turning whatever question or problem you may have over to millions of people around the world to let them resolve it. The website is probably the most well known example of crowdsourcing. The notion that allowing just anyone to contribute to an online encyclopedia, and its resulting in a reasonably accurate compendium of knowledge seems strange and counterintuitive to most.

Here’s how it works: A web site is put together to provide the infrastructure and formatting guidelines to allow the general public to log in and contribute reference articles on pretty much any topic. Maybe you’re a high school teacher with an above average knowledge of American history and would like to write something on the causes of the War of 1812. Of course, anyone can edit any article, or create whole new ones that anyone else could edit. Go ahead and try it. It’s completely open to anyone willing to contribute.

Typically, the immediate reaction is skepticism since such information is so clearly susceptible to vandalism. However, the formula cuts both ways. As easy as it is for one person to vandalize, it is equally easy for the vandalism to be wiped clean. And there are many, many more people cleaning up than people messing up. All edits are kept and there are armies of volunteers who can reverse a change with the click of a mouse. Vandals quickly get bored and move on. Errors of a more subtle nature can take longer to correct. For example, if the history teacher inadvertently documents an incorrect fact it may not be immediately noticeable, but ultimately crowdsourcing wins out because other contributors are constantly reviewing and checking for references on all work. It’s peer review on steroids.

Wikipedia is merely one expression of the mind-boggling phenomenon of crowdsourcing. When the Internet enabled millions to effortlessly communicate with one another it tapped into what could be called the “cognitive surplus” of the human race. Modern society leaves all of us naturally evolved problem solvers with unprecedented levels of free time and a strong desire to contribute. For the past 60 years the popularity of television has been a powerful testament to our levels of free time despite frequent lamenting to the contrary. Time we previously sunk into watching television is now being spent on the Internet. Instead of passively absorbing information and viewpoints from a handful of producers, the populous is now able to answer back and we have just begun to witness the ramifications of this change.

Admittedly, a large percentage of the content created by the masses is trite and silly, but the sheer volume of output allows for even 2 percent of it to be a staggering amount of material. Clay Shirky, a professor of new media at NYU, has written several fascinating books on the topic. According to his research,, represents with every line of code, every article, and every discussion approximately 100 million man-hours of effort. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Until you learn that that is the equivalent time this country spends watching television commercials. In a single weekend.

One company, Innocentive, uses crowdsourcing as the basis of its business model. Other companies with thorny problems in need of solving go to Innocentive offering a big cash reward for the answer. Right now Innocentive has offers ranging from $10,000 to $50,000. Innocentive signs up hundreds of thousands of people willing to take a stab at the problem for a cash prize. One clever fellow gets the cash, Innocentive skims from the other company’s reward, and the company with the problem now has a relatively inexpensive solution. Everyone wins and the collective human race takes another innovative step forward.

The Internet is, by most popular accounts, less then 20 years old and crowdsourcing on the Internet is far newer than that. We have only just begun to see the results of enabling millions of people to broadcast their contributions to the world. What kind of future can you imagine when billions of brains are harnessed to solve mankind’s problems?

Pornography and the Internet

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

By Jason Poggioli

Nothing is new about pornography being available on the Internet, but its segregation from more innocent subject matter may be. The organization responsible for determining the end portion of domain names on the Internet, such as .com, .edu, .gov, and all the others, voted in June to approve a new one – .xxx, and it’s likely that this will be used chiefly by purveyors of pornography. Predictably this resulted in contentious debate, but the corners from which the proponents and detractors were from may surprise you.

The last parts of domain names are known as the “top level domain” and the organziation responsible for, among other things, determing what they are is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This past June ICANN voted to approve the addition of .xxx to the stable of possible top level domains a web site could use.

Ever since the first image of a naked body was posted there have been people trying to block such displays. As a result there are dozens upon dozens of different means available to sanitize the Internet and make it safe for kids. The problem with most, if not all, of these solutions is that they aren’t flawless. Almost all can be easily circumvented, but equally frustrating is how imperfect they are at doing what they are supposed to do. Often times they filter legitimate web sites while simultaneously failing to block something that they should. Anyone using a computer in school or at a public library can encounter this firsthand.

The plethora of existing filtering programs and their authors really aren’t to blame for these shortcomings. It’s pretty understandable why writing a program to automatically block unacceptable content is challenging without an artificially intelligent HAL 9000 capable of making off-the-cuff decisions. How exactly can a program be written to distinguish between a helpful sex-ed site and a Penthouse posting when similar words can be found in each? Perhaps you’re fine with blocking both, but the complex algorithms in these programs have been known to be triggered by even the most innocuous content.

The purpose of having a new .xxx top level domain is to reserve a corner of the Internet exclusively for adult content. The first, most obvious, result of this is that adult material can now be easily identified and filtered by automated software. However, usage of the new .xxx designation is voluntary so lack of adoption could bring us back to where we started. It’s voluntary because even the adult industry is divided over the issue. Not because anyone is saying kids should have unfettered access, but because mandatory application could make censorship that much easier.

Once all adult content is easily identifiable it would be a minor effort for a local service provider to shut down access for everyone – whether they asked for it or not. This might lead you to believe anti-pornography groups and parental watchdogs would be in favor of this new top level domain, but that’s not universally the case. Their concern is that by creating a domain dedicated for adult entertainment it becomes legitimized, popularized, and makes it easier for kids to find. It’s also been said, perhaps in jest, that some of the most outspoken morality crusaders may not want their surfing habits to be so easily recognizable in log files.

Along with censorship fears associated with mandatory usage there is also a very real dilemma of how to determine a site should designate itself with the .xxx ending. If usage of the .xxx domain suffix is required then someone or some group will need to create the rules. The Internet is a big world where one man’s art is another man’s smut – writing regulation would be no easy task.

In the end, of course, successful monitoring of children on the Internet can not be fully automated in a fool-proof way and parents will need to have a hand in their kids’ Internet usage. Parents can’t always be there every second, though, and a big step in making it easier for automated filtering to work is to first make it easily identifiable.

Jason can be reached at