A Dying Language Finds Hope on the Internet

al-Jazeera did a story just a few days ago about a group of Native Americans, the Ktunaxa (pronounced toon-ah-ha), whose ancient language may be in danger of extinction.

The Ktunaxa believe that if their language, a vital part of the makeup of their culture and traditions, fell into disuse, it would be a great loss. By storing hundreds of hours of conversation and language materials on the Internet, they seem to be making the most of new technology in their struggle to preserve their language.

The Internet is making tapes of conversations and only useful cultural materials available to many people who might be interested in studying the Ktunaxa language. Before the Internet, only one person at a time could listen to recordings, and they had to be in the Ktunaxa language facility. No longer is this the case; through the Internet, the language is and will (for as long as the Ktunaxa desire) be available to curious minds far and wide. Its a great way to let the rest of the world know what their culture is all about.

The language learning programs also take advantage of the latest in digital learning technology, using video games to help teach people Ktunaxa. This is a great way to reach out to the younger generation, who will be the future torchbearers of Ktunaxa language and culture. In Now You See it, Cathy Davidson writes of how education in this day and age needs to be revamped to take advantage of the youth’s affinity for and proficiency with technology; the Ktunaxa have done exactly that. Jane McGonical would also agree that video games are a powerful way to train and educate, and that they will only get more effective in the future.

The story of the Ktunaxa people and their quest to keep their language alive is a story of people using technology in a new, innovative way that may not have been anticipated when the Internet was created. It is a prime example of the social shaping of technology. As one elder says in the video, “The Ktunaxa have always made use of new technologies that became available.” This tactic served them well enough so far, helping them live through many a harsh winter in the American Northwest. Hopefully, technology will continue to be a blessing to the Ktunaxa and provide their language with the boost it needs to stay alive.

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Commercialization of the Internet

In his latest blog post, Nicholas Carr writes about how commercialized the Internet has become over the last five years. For example: if you look at the online music and video industries, you find that YouTube and iTunes dominate. Both these systems are quite commercialized. All the most popular YouTube videos are made my professionals, who are using the site as a way to advertise. iTunes sells all of its songs for around $0.99. Even social networks like Facebook and Twitter are for-profit ventures, bound by a legal obligation to maximize profits for their investors.

With one big exception, Wikipedia, the Internet is trending towards a system where fewer, larger, commercial players dominate the information economy. This could concentrate so much power is so few companies that they may be able to censor the information we are exposed to. This process, as Carr notes, is right in line with Tim Wu’s warnings in The Master Switch. In his book, Tim Wu shows how this exact process occurred within the phone and television industries in the 20th century.

However, these changes also have implications for generativity. As commercial information sources become more and more popular, they will crowd out and overshadow the little guys, removing all of their potentially great ideas from the conversation. This could prevent small time producers from getting their information out there and severely hamper creative collaborative projects online. Also, paid journalists and bloggers might not always be able to write what exactly what’s on their mind when they have one eye on job security. Freelance writers tend to be more unbiased. The commercialization of the Internet must be managed if we want to keep the generatively of the Internet, the quality that makes it such a great medium, alive. If it dies, the Internet will have gone down the same unfortunate road that its information technology predecessors did.

#UgandaSpeaks out in Response to KONY2012

In response to the KONY2012 viral video, people all around the world are speaking out, enabled by digital media. A group in Uganda has even started a blog, Uganda Speaks, to voice their concerns and perspectives. Heres a video summarizing their raison d’être and reaction to KONY2012:

The blog was started as a direct result of the KONY2012 campaign, and will help publicize the opinions of the Ugandan blogosphere, on issues of genocide as well as other social problems. While many aspects of KONY2012 have been heavily criticized from all sides this is one unequivocally, if indirect, positive consequence of the campaign. KONY2012 very effectively inspired an international interest in Ugandan affairs and encouraged bloggers to start sites like Uganda Speaks. The online conversation that this generates helps everyone understand the situation in Uganda and the intricacies of genocide everywhere.

SkypeMorph Makes Subversive Communication Look Like Harmless Video Chat

The Tor network has long been used by web-surfers around the globe in countries where the Internet is less than free. Tor employs packet encryption techniques and randomized routing in order to secure the information along the way and to protect the location of its originator. This means that the recipient (such as a blog, or a leaks site) cannot locate the source. Tor has been a powerful way to ensure Internet anonymity. In fact, no one was able to crack Tor communications until recently, when the Chinese government began to discover that Tor packets were unique and could be traced.

In order to combat this, Tor developer Ian Goldberg has created something he calls SkypeMorph. According to an ars technica artice by Dan Goodin published on April 3, 2012 this new software provides a lot more security to those wishing to use the Tor network. Check out the article, it’s what I’ve based most of this post on.

An overview of how SkypeMorph works

Essentially, this program alters the nature of Tor packets and makes them appear, to the outside observer, as packets carrying a Skype call. SkypeMorph works hard to make them very, very similar. At the moment it is impossible for China’s Internet monitors to single these packets out for censorship. One option for the government is to heavy-handedly block all Skype traffic. According to Goodin, repressive governments will be reluctant to take such measures because it will anger newly Skype-less citizens.

After reading Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion, I’m not so sure that this new SkypeMorph will be as powerful as we may think. If the government creates a viable video-chat alternative and makes it available to its citizens, the backlash from blocking all Skype traffic will be severely mitigated. And, it’s just a matter of time before the government figures out a way to single out SkypeMorph packets from full-blooded Skype ones. In fact, any Chinese government official with Google can look up the Goodin article and figure out exactly where they need to start poking around in order to crack the system.

Some Things You Can’t Google…

Google’s company slogan is “Do No Evil.”  Yet, an article on Salem-News.com from March 18, 2012 accuses Google of “aiding war criminals.”

The article describes an interesting issue with Google Earth’s satellite images over certain areas of Sri Lanka where a genocide is believed to have taken place.  The photos of the area in question (the location of supposed killing “fields”) are from 2005, before the genocide began, whereas all the images of the surrounding areas are from 2009.  Additionally, there is a curious haze over this area, obscuring the ground in the area.

 

Screenshot from Google Maps March 19, 2012

In his book, The Master Switch, Tim Wu warns that Google possesses too much power because their services are the lens through which most web users locate and access information on the web.  With this power to deliver vast amounts of information to the computers of millions of people worldwide also comes to power to restrict the dissemination of certain information.  Could Google be hiding something from us? It’s certainly possible.

While accusations of accepting bribes from the Sri Lankan government and dishonest journalism may materialize, it’s important to remember that there very well could be a reasonable explanation for this curious, coincidental phenomenon.  However, it’s equally important to recognize this as an example of how powerful Google has become.

KONY Copycat?

A recent humanitarian movement hoping to get the word out about human suffering is using a Youtube video, and celebrity and policymaker endorsements in an attempt to consolidate public opinion behind them to incite government intervention. And no, I’m not talking about Invisible Children’s KONY2012. This is a different (although eerily similar) movement, #UniteForSyria, that launched 22 hours ago, just 10 days after KONY2012. While KONY2012 aims to help those in Central Africa suffering due to the Lord’s Resistance Army through US military aid, #UniteForSyria is about ending the past year’s violence accompanying the revolution in Syria through a UN Security Council resolution.

Both involving NGOs, Twitter, celebrities, policymakers, and a keystone Youtube video, one can only wonder how closely the #UniteForSyria is modeled after its predecessor. They are, indeed, quite similar. However, there is a crucial difference. #UniteForSyria has garnered the endorsement of an international group of celebrities and policymakers, and targets a global audience, as opposed to KONY2012’s narrow, stateside focus. According to a Global Voices news bulletin dated March 13, 2012, the movement to “Unite for Syria and Stop One Year of bloodshed” has the backing of 50 global leaders. Additionally, their video contains endorsements from Indonesian, British, German, Egyptian, and, most crucially, Syrian celebrities.

The most salient criticism of KONY2012 has been their failure to consider and present the views of actual Central Africans. Many locals in Uganda and the surrounding countries who have seen the KONY2012 video have taken serious offense with its approach and its rhetoric. With the support of native Syrians behind them, #UniteForSyria demonstrates a deeper, more pure understanding of the conflict.

Generations and Technology

What is considered humorous in a given society can be very telling about attitudes and thought processes in that culture. One of the best places to look for humor nowadays is in television programming. Take a moment to watch this clip (original air date November 4, 2010) from the NBC sitcom Community. It shows an old man, Pierce, and his struggle with new, digital technology in an attempt to spy on his friends.

The viewer expects Pierce and his friend to be looking at images from the spy camera, but it turns out that they are strugling just to read the instructions about how to access the photos. The show is poking fun at the elderly’s incompetence with computers.

In a 2008 article in The Chronicle, Siva Vaidhyanathan posits that there is no such thing as a “digital generation.” And, of course, there is no date of birth around which we can segment society so that one side is digitally proficient and the other side completely incompetent.

Even though there may not be a clean dividing line between generations, young people who have grown up around technology often have a better grasp on technology than do their older relatives.  As explained by Ito et al. in their White Paper, kids in many families act as a “broker” or “technology expert,” helping their parents with web surfing and other digital activities. The Community clip confirms that this is, at the very least, a common enough stereotype to warrant jokes.

If a similar scene were to air 40 years in the future, it would not be nearly as funny to nearly as many people.  By that time, even the elderly would have grow up around computers. And computer struggles would be the problem of a past generation.