An inherent value of print is its immutability. What was written online last year or last week, may have disappeared or been drastically modified; there is no record of what was except for what is. Newstweek, a strange little device that intercepts and changes news websites on open public WiFi networks, demonstrates just how tenuous world of digital media can be. The miniature computer was designed to be deployed in coffee shops and similar public spaces. When plugged in, and directed by an administrator over the internet, Newstweek replaces the contents of news websites with whatever the administrator chooses. In the example video above, and the extended video at hackaday, unsuspecting users computers display slightly modified versions of news articles, with headlines or text inserted to reflect the politics of these activists. The creators of the device, Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, want their work to address the issue of trustworthiness as it relates to the gatekeepers of the national and international media conversation. There’s an interview with them at ComputerWorld. There’s also good discussion of the device and its implications at sci-fi author Charlie Stross’ blog.
It’s all very insidious, and I’m frightened to consider the possibilities for these devices in the wrong hands (or anybody’s hands, really). And while the above demonstration of device is eye-opening, there aren’t many degrees of separation between Newstweek and filtering and personalization already performed by most websites. That issue’s been on my mind lately as Eli Pariser’s book, “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You,” has been making the rounds lately. At it’s most innocuous, sites like facebook only show you information from your strongest connections, using algorithms to decide which friends are most important to you. Somewhere up the sinister spectrum a bit, e-commerce sites might change prices of items based on your shopping habits or items that you had viewed previously. Even further along the line, China’s government this week temporarily banned the words “Inner Mongolia” online to stem the spread of protests in the region (this would be like if the Obama administration made it impossible to write “Montana” on any blogs, twitter, or facebook). In each of these cases, as in the Newstweek example, the problem not only lies in the types of changes being made, but also in just how difficult it is to discern that any change has been made.
You can learn how to build your own Newstweek device here.