Progress in Regress

Progress is not always about learning how to use technology in more advanced ways.  Progress can also be learning how to reject those technologies when they are no longer beneficial.  To wit:

Some people have decided to either leave Twitter or simply stop participating in the discussions.  See: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ feud with Cornel West

Many people intentionally disconnect from social media – they have decided to get “off the grid”.  See: Dave Rubin’s direct message for August 2nd

Several books critical of Silicon Valley culture and its products have been published within the last few years.  Three that I have read most recently are:

I see this rejection of social media and these critiques of Silicon Valley as a sign of a clear-eyed population observing technology with a healthy skepticism, ready to so “no” when they need to.  Rejection of technology, we can even say the rejection of progress, need not mean ignorance.  There is progress in regress, so to speak.

We are more critical of how these technologies impact our lives.  We are not as enamored with social media companies as we used to be.  There was a time when society saw them as a completely benign force that “does no evil”.  It doesn’t mean they are inherently bad either.  It just means that they are companies, pure and simple.  Their bottom line is not to create a just world, but to increase profits.

We have become much more critical of the way in which new technologies organize and engineer human thought.

For instance, it has become something of a given now that you should not hold conversations via e-mail unless you absolutely have to.  E-mail is instrumental – for relaying information and logistics.  People have rejected e-mail for everyday communication and prefer to call or speak in person.

Another example is the increasing demand for flip phones and other retro cell phones.   Some of this increase could be because of people wishing to adopt a hip, retro pose.  But I suspect that there are a large number of people who have no desire to mired in the Android or the iOS world.

This is not luddism.  This is wisdom.


Humanizing the Debate on Campus Free Speech

Over the past several years there have been numerous instances on college campuses of speakers being shouted down, not allowed to give talks, or otherwise “deplatformed”.  These incidents are then bandied about conservative or alternate media spaces as examples of the decline of Western universities.  The latest incident involves Lindsay Shepherd.  Shepherd, a 22-year-old graduate student and teaching assistant at Wilfred Laurier University, was called into the university’s Gendered Violence Prevention and Support office for a meeting with her supervising professor and two administrators.

Ms. Shepherd had shown a segment of a Canadian television show debating the use of gender pronouns.  The video featured well-known University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson as one of the debaters.  Peterson has been arguing that there are only two genders and he would not be forced to call someone by a gender pronoun other than he or she.  A student in Ms. Shepherd’s class reported to her supervising professor that a toxic class climate for transgendered students had been created because of the video.

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The difference between cybersecurity and cybercrime, and why it matters

A Texas woman in her 50s, let’s call her “Amy,” met a man online calling himself “Charlie.” Amy, who lived in Texas, was in a bad marriage. Charlie said he was a businessman and a Christian, and wooed her. “He was saying all the right things,” Amy later told the FBI. “He was interested in me. He was interested in getting to know me better. He was very positive, and I felt like there was a real connection there.” Early on, Charlie told her he was having some problems with his business and needed money. She wanted to help.

From 2014 to 2016, she sent him US$2 million – often in installments of a few thousand dollars at a time, always hoping and expecting to get paid back. After she alerted the FBI, two Nigerian citizens were arrested near Houston – both pleaded guilty to wire fraud charges in connection with Amy’s relationship with Charlie. The person who played the character of Charlie has not been identified.

This story is a cautionary example of a crime that happens online. But most advice for avoiding online dangers – like having long passwords, using two-factor authentication and encrypting data – wouldn’t have helped Amy.

The crime that befell her has nothing to do with cybersecurity. It’s cybercrime, a human-centered crime committed in a digital environment. There are more of these each year: In the U.S. in 2016, 298,728 complainants reported losing more than $1.3 billion in various types of cybercrimes, including romance scams but also involving fraudulent online sales, extortion, violent harassment and impersonation scams, among others. As a social scientist who studies online behavior and as the program coordinator for one of the few cybercrime undergraduate programs in the United States, I find it unfortunate that problems like Amy’s get relatively little national attention, especially compared to cybersecurity.

Understanding the differences

Cybersecurity is not merely a set of guidelines and actions intended to prevent cybercrime. The two types of problems differ substantially in terms of what happens and who the victims are, as well as the academic areas that study them.

Cybersecurity is ultimately about protecting government and corporate networks, seeking to make it difficult for hackers to find and exploit vulnerabilities. Cybercrime, on the other hand, tends to focus more on protecting individuals and families as they navigate online life.

The U.S. has created several initiatives to improve its cybersecurity, including investments in cybersecurity education and expanding efforts of government agencies.

Unfortunately, upgrading official networks and training future generations of cybersecurity professionals will not necessarily benefit people like Amy. Technical solutions won’t solve her problems. Social science research into human behavior online is how to help millions like her learn to protect themselves.

Little research

One of the few studies on romance scams like the one that ensnared Amy suggests that there are three stages to these types of cons. It starts with the criminal engaging in intense online communications with the victim. In Amy’s case, Charlie undoubtedly contacted her repeatedly as their relationship began. That built her trust and lowered her defenses – and commanded much of the time and energy she had for social interaction.

Once the victim is isolated from other interpersonal social experiences, the illusion of connection and interdependence can deepen. Charlie no doubt kept this illusion alive any way he could, taking as much of Amy’s money as he could. In the third and final stage, the target finally sees through the veil and learns that it’s all been a scam. That’s when Amy, urged by her financial advisor, suspected fraud and called the FBI.

More research on cybercrime could help deepen scholars’ and investigators’ understandings of how these social science problems play out online. To my knowledge there are just four cybercrime programs at residential four-year colleges. With more effort and investment, academics and law enforcement could learn more and work better together to identify and protect the real people who are at risk from these online criminals.

Race, Cyberbullying and Intimate Partner Violence

(Originally published in The Conversation)

Over the past two decades, cyberbullying has become a major focus for parents, educators and researchers. lists several effects of cyberbullying, including depression, anxiety and decreased academic achievement.

Judging from popular culture, the narratives surrounding cyberbullying tend to have at least one of two themes. One, cyberbullying is a mob-like phenomenon: Television shows such as “American Crime” depict a group of teens preying on a vulnerable individual by using social media and text messaging. Second, the face associated with cyberbullying is often a white one. Both in the aforementioned “American Crime,” for example, and in the television movie “Cyberbu//y,” the victim is white.

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Far Beyond Crime-ridden Depravity, Darknets are Key Strongholds of Freedom of Expression Online

(originally published in The Conversation)

The internet is much more than just the publicly available, Google-able web services most online users frequent – and that’s good for free expression. Companies frequently create private networks to enable employees to use secure corporate servers, for example. And free software allows individuals to create what are called “peer-to-peer” networks, connecting directly from one machine to another.

Unable to be indexed by current search engines, and therefore less visible to the general public, subnetworks like these are often called “darknets,” or collective as the singular “darknet.” These networks typically use software, such as Tor, that anonymizes the machines connecting to them, and encrypts the data traveling through their connections.

Some of what’s on the darknet is alarming. A 2015 story from Fox News reads:

“Perusing the darknet offers a jarring jaunt through jaw-dropping depravity: Galleries of child pornography, videos of humans having sex with animals, offers for sale of illegal drugs, weapons, stolen credit card numbers and fake identifications for sale. Even human organs reportedly from Chinese execution victims are up for sale on the darknet.”

But that’s not the whole story – nor the whole content and context of the darknet.

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