Lately, Google trashed my life. I could be exaggerating slightly, given that all they went and did was redesign and tweak Google Reader, one of their many services that I use daily and for which I pay nothing. But Reader, an admittedly niche product that will let you read articles from many internet sites in one place, has become my online home. It is the thing that organizes and sounds right of the disorganized, incoherent mass of the internet and collects it on one familiar light-blue page.
So when Google swooped in and changed things, I felt as if somebody had rearranged all my furniture like some undergraduate practical joke. Making matters worse, the ability to share things with other Reader users was now gonesacrificed to the firm’s need to bump their new social network, Google+. Not only had they redecorated the place, they’d gone and redone all of the wiring, tooand I was stranded in this recently alien environment that used to seem like home.
There were nonetheless , people who had the tools and wherewithal to reply. Peoplepeople much more tech-savvy than meused a browser plug-in called Greasemonkey to scribble pieces of code that magically restored the old Google Reader to me. Greasemonkey, as its auto mechanic-derived name counsels, allows you to pop open the hood of your browser and mess around, and there’s about no end to what can be done with it.
It’s not something just anyone can pick up, however. To create your own customized experience of the web, you have got to know the correct way to code or, at the very least, wait for someone else to do it for you. And that obligation highlights a simple fact about the web world : if you are not literate in the languages of digital technology, your ability to control your personal experience is constricted. From the latest outrageous Facebook redesign that millions of men and women wig out over, to subtle tweaks to the ways Twitter operates, many of useven those like me who actually care about this stufffind ourselves helpless to match the web to our own wishes.
It’s a problem which will need immensely complicated solutions, primarily in how we conceive of education. If today we teach kids language and language so that one day they’d pick apart politician’s speeches or learn how to recognize a sting (and let’s admit it, we aren’t even doing that very well) we may soon have to do something equivalent for programming abilities or how that in Bosnian has a name web programiranje. Much as “freedom of the press” was only ever true for those who owned one, protecting our liberties online is going to require millions more people to better understand just how it operates. Even those “digital natives” you hear aboutthe frightening Tweeting, texting tweensseldom have even the foggiest idea of how their favourite websites work. They can update their Facebook status without breaking stride, but could they code even a rudimentary equivalent? Vanishingly few could.
It isn’t quite idiot-proof. Yet it’s also miles away from Greasemonkey and other programming-based tools as it asks you to concentrate on the idea you actually know, rather than sophisticated newer ones you have to learn. And in a sense, this is the bizarre enigma of access and control on the web. On one hand, you are liable to the companies who become the default ways of connecting online, making you subject to their interests. On the other, the freer, less corporate versions of the web offer you tools to change how you use those services and to what end. It isuntil coding literacy becomes the normalmost akin to economics of the 1920s or the 2000s : with the tools of power centralized among a tiny few, the public is left at the beck and call of those in control.
To get a feeling of what’s at stake, though, one need only turn to the ambivalent story of Diaspora*. In 2010, a four-person team of young programmers from New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences set out to build an alternative choice to Facebook that would address privacy concerns and protect user info. Their statement hit , however , amidst heightened worries over Facebook’s record on privacy, and the team was thrown into a tough spotlight, particularly after a fundraising campaign suddenly netted them $200,000. Their plan was to make a Facebook without any of the flaws of Facebook, a task even Google can’t manage somehow to do. Unluckily, in late 2011 one of the 4 founders, 22 years old Ilya Zhitomirskiy, was found dead, apparently after committing suicide.
No one knows, naturally, if the pressure of making an attempt to build an alternative to an all-powerful site contributed to Zhitomirskiy’s decision to take his life. But it’s a disturbing symbol of somethingof how troublesome it is for even young, brilliant programmers to take control of their and our online experience from multi-billion greenback entities. And, truthfully, a redesign of an internet site is but a minor annoyance. But the capacity of web firms to “rewire” entire swathes of our daily lives is however ominous. It is also an indicator that, in future, freeing oneself from their grasp will come from seizing their tools and strategies as our own, and learning the way to code, writes tagza.