Lest there be any confusion, yes, indeed, you’re reading The Late Age of Print blog, still authored by me, Ted Striphas. The last time you visited, the site was probably red, white, black, and gray. Now it’s not. I imagine you’re wondering what prompted the change.
The short answer is: a hack. The longer answer is: algorithmic culture.
At some point in the recent past, and unbeknownst to me, The Late Age of Print got hacked. Since then I’ve been receiving sporadic reports from readers telling me that their safe browsing software was alerting them to a potential issue with the site. Responsible digital citizen that I am, I ran numerous malware scans using multiple scanning services. Only one out of twenty-three of those services ever returned a “suspicious” result, and so I figured, with those odds, that the one positive must be an anomaly. It was the same service that the readers who’d contacted me also happened to be using.
Well, last week, Facebook implemented a new partnership with an internet security company called Websense. The latter checks links shared on the social networking site for malware and the like. A friend alerted me that an update I’d posted linking to Late Age came up as “abusive.” That was enough; I knew something must be wrong. I contacted my web hosting service and asked them to scan my site. Sure enough, they found some malicious code hiding in the back-end.
Here’s the good news: as far as my host and I can tell, the code — which, rest assured, I’ve cleaned — had no effect on readers of Late Age or your computers. (Having said that, it never hurts to run an anti-virus/malware scan.) It was intended only for Google and other search engines, and its effects were visible only to them. The screen capture, below, shows how Google was “seeing” Late Age before the cleanup. Neither you nor I ever saw anything out of the ordinary around here.
Essentially the code grafted invisible links to specious online pharmacies onto the legitimate links appearing in many of my posts. The point of the attack, when implemented widely enough, is to game the system of search. The victim sites all look as if they’re pointing to whatever website the hacker is trying to promote. And with thousands of incoming links, that site is almost guaranteed to come out as a top result whenever someone runs a search query for popular pharma terms.
So, in case you were wondering, I haven’t given up writing and teaching for a career hocking drugs to combat male-pattern baldness and E.D.
This experience has been something of an object lesson for me in the seedier side of algorithmic culture. I’ve been critical of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other such sites for the opacity of the systems by which they determine the relevance of products, services, knowledge, and associations. Those criticisms remain, but now I’m beginning to see another layer of the problem. The hack has shown me just how vulnerable those systems are to manipulation, and how, then, the frameworks of trust, reputation, and relevance that exist online are deeply — maybe even fundamentally — flawed.
In a more philosophical vein, the algorithms about which I’ve blogged over the last several weeks and months attempt to model “the real.” They leverage crowd wisdom — information coming in the form of feedback — in an attempt to determine what the world thinks or how it feels about x. The problem is, the digital real doesn’t exist “out there” waiting to be discovered; it is a work in progress, and much like The Matrix, there are those who understand far better than most how to twist, bend, and mold it to suit their own ends. They’re out in front of the digital real, as it were, and their actions demonstrate how the results we see on Google, Amazon, Facebook, and elsewhere suffer from what Meaghan Morris has called, in another context, “reality lag.” They’re not the real; they’re an afterimage.
The other, related issue here concerns the fact that, increasingly, we’re placing the job of determining the digital real in the hands of a small group of authorities. The irony is that the internet has long been understood to be a decentralized network and lauded, then, for its capacity to endure even when parts of it get compromised. What the hack of my site has underscored for me, however, is the extent to which the internet has become territorialized of late and thus subject to many of the same types of vulnerabilities it was once thought to have thwarted. Algorithmic culture is the new mass culture.
Moving on, I’d rather not have spent a good chunk of my week cleaning up after another person’s mischief, but at least the attack gave me an excuse to do something I’d wanted to do for a while now: give Late Age a makeover. For awhile I’ve been feeling as if the site looked dated, and so I’m happy to give it a fresher look. I’m not yet used to it, admittedly, but of course feeling comfortable in new style of anything takes time.
The other major change I made was to optimize Late Age for viewing on mobile devices. Now, if you’re visiting using your smart phone or tablet computer, you’ll see the same content but in significantly streamlined form. I’m not one to believe that the PC is dead — at least, not yet — but for better or for worse it’s clear that mobile is very much at the center of the internet’s future. In any case, if you’re using a mobile device and want to see the normal Late Age site, there’s a link at the bottom of the screen allowing you to switch back.
I’d be delighted to hear your feedback about the new Late Age of Print. Drop me a line, and thanks to all of you who wrote in to let me know something was up with the old site.