Lines of Light: a book review

Dan Nott’s brilliant graphic novel

Lines of Light is a graphic novel by Dan Nott, which examines the “history and geography of the internet.” I was fortunate enough to meet the author at the Massachusetts Independent Comic Expo, which was held at Lesley University. This quarter I am teaching two courses on related topics (Digital Globalization as well as CyberWar and Espionage), so I was curious to view this work. This graphic novel is exceptional not only because it is visually engaging, but also because it takes a completely unexpected view of something that we all assume we understand. With his clear, concise prose to describe a physical world that we all rely upon, this book is filled with unexpected facts and insights.

One of the approaches that Nott takes is too look at how we use metaphors to talk about the internet, which can sometimes be misleading. The book starts with Senator Ted Stephens at the net neutrality hearing of 2006, where he tried too use a failed metaphor to describe the internet. From this moment, the work moves to consider more broadly how we all talk about the internet, and how accurate that language may be. While it might be easy to mock Senator Stephens, most of us also wrestle to describe something so abstract. Nott’s brilliance is being able to take these metaphors and place them into both a historical and a physical context, which is grounded by the detailed maps and imagery of the infrastructure that supports the internet. …

The Great Firewall of China

Card in a Shenzhen hotel, which explains to guests what are the internet restrictions. Photo by Shawn Smallman

In the summer of 2017 I traveled in Hong Kong and Macau, and visited Shenzhen. During my time in Hong Kong I was able to use the internet, and relied on Google Maps to find street markets when I became lost. Of course I’d heard about the Great Firewall of China, which is also called the “Golden Shield Project” within the country. I hadn’t, however, quite realized how comprehensive it was until I checked into my hotel in Shenzhen and saw this card.

I apologize for the poor lighting in these images. I’ve taken pictures of both the front and back of the card. As you can see, the hotel explains that many websites are blocked and that “foreign VPN connections are unstable in China.” The latter is certainly true, as the Chinese government began a concerted effort to block all Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) about two weeks before I arrived in August 2017. A VPN is one of the best security tools that anyone can use on the internet. About two years ago my work Google Account was hacked. This meant that the hacker had access to not only my email, but also Google Docs, and all the work sites that contained my personal information. Ever since that time, I have used VPNs on public wifi (coffee shops, airports, etc.) to make it more difficult for a hacker to discover sensitive information. In Hong Kong my VPN worked without any difficulty. In Shenzhen, I did not even try, as such networks are completely unstable, if they function at all. …


Mack DeGeurin has an interesting article in NY Magazine on cyberwar titled “U.S. Silently Enters a New Age of Cyberwarfare.” As DeGuerin notes, the first kinetic use of cyberwarfare (kinetic being a term used to describe the physical destruction or harm of an item or person) was the United States and Israel’s use of Stuxnet, a sophisticated piece of malware intended to damage the centrifuges that Iran was using to enrich uranium. Since that time, cyberwar has expanded. Still, the fundamental problems remains the same, amongst which is the possibility of blowback, sometimes with the same tools that the attacker originally developed. …

Digital Nomads

An Opte Project visualization of routing paths through a portion of the Internet. ( via Wikimedia Commons.

One thing that I have noticed teaching entirely online is that some of my students are digital nomads, which are sometimes also called digital wanderers. These are people who live their lives and careers in multiple countries, typically while self-employed. I believe that two different phenomenon served to drive this trend. First, the financial crisis of 2008 was followed by a boom that left out many younger workers, who faced student debts, jobs with poor wages and pensions, as well as rising real estate costs. At the same time, improvements in software and digital connectivity made it increasingly easy to work from outside the country. People realized that they could live well in Thailand, and make their living online doing everything from building websites to data entry in health care. As my department has created an online track, there are always a few of these students in my classes, and they bring an interesting perspective when they discuss global issues. These people build their entire lives outside of a particular place or nation.

It’s not always easy to be a Digital Nomad. One needs to deal with visas, health care, local regulations, taxes and broadband access. For that reason, one great resource is Nomad List, which is a website that allows people to search for the best city in the world for them to work. One can search cities using headings such as clean air, near a beach, nightlife, female safe, and fast internet. Of course when you do a search for cities and city icons come up, they always prominently display the typical broadband speed. Once you click on the city’s icon, a plethora of rankings appear. Right now, it looks like it’s hard to beat Budapest, Hungary and Chiang Mai, Thailand. But who knew that Richmond, Virginia would also score so high?

Aveiro, Portugal. By Gabriel González from Pontevedra, España (Aveiro – Portugal) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Anyone who truly wishes to be a Digital Nomad should also investigate the subreddit r/digitalnomad. The discussions may bring a touch of reality to the romance. I do sometimes wonder if the barriers to becoming a digital nomad haven’t increased over the last five years. How many people can really make a living marketing items on Amazon, or working as a web designer?

If you are intrigued by the idea the website Nomadic Notes might be helpful. The Remote Year site is getting attention for its idea of bringing people together in 12 difference cities for one year. Mike Elgin has an article titled The Digital Nomad’s Guide To Working From Anywhere On Earth, which has some practical tips. Lastly, travel blogger Aileen Adalid has a blog post titled The Ultimate Guide on how to become a digital nomad, which is well done. If nothing else, it might be fun to fantasize about life in Portugal or Cambodia for a while. Aveiro anyone?

Are you you interested in teaching about all things digital? Check out my syllabus for an online class on Digital Globalization.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Can you trust Wikileaks?

“Gun camera footage of the airstrike of 12 July 2007 in Baghdad, showing the slaying of Namir Noor-Eldeen and a dozen other civilians by an US helicopter.” Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons at

During the last U.S. presidential election campaign Wikileaks drew extensive news coverage, as it released data from the Democratic National Committee shortly before the election took place. In March Wikileaks released a massive amount of data regarding CIA’s espionage capabilities. But how does Wikileaks fact-check its data? Can you trust that what it posts is real and not a hoax? If you’ve ever wondered about this, then you might want to listen the BBC World Service podcast, the Inquiry, which has an episode titled “Can you believe what you read on Wikileaks?” You can also find the episode on Stitcher here. What’s fascinating about this podcast is that the journalist interviewed disillusioned members of Wikileaks itself. The bottom line is that the data released to date has been very reliable. At the same time, Assange has nearly total control over what is released, and so his agenda determines Wikileak’s decisions.

There has recently been a great deal of discussion regarding whether Wikileaks has released information obtained from the Russian state. Assange has denied this. Still, it’s also perfectly possible that the Russian state may be running a false-flag operation -an idea as old as espionage itself- in order to pass on information to Wikileaks. More important, however, is the fact that Wikileaks is very much defined by the decisions of a single individual. The podcast discusses Assange’s history, motivations and relationships, to try put Wikileaks into context as a political actor.

Shawn Smallman

Digital Surveillance and Privacy

NORFOLK, Va. (Dec. 3, 2008) Sailors on the watch-floor of the Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command monitor, analyze, detect and defensively respond to unauthorized activity within U.S. Navy information systems and computer networks. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Corey Lewis/Released) via Wikimedia Commons.

I am currently teaching an online class on Digital Globalization, and we have just finished the section of the course that deals with surveillance and privacy. For a recent discussion question I asked students if they were more concerned about surveillance by the government or by corporations. Last year, my students were much more worried about how corporations tracked their activities. This year, however, many of my students say that they are not overly worried about both, but they are also ambivalent. After students say that they they think that they live relatively boring lives, so that the government would have no interest in their activities, they’ll often point to one event or issue that concerns them. What I realized after reading their posts was that I may have asked the wrong question. It’s not that students are worried about their online activities being tracked. Instead, they are much more concerned about the Internet of Things, and how a hacker might use the camera in their security system to observe them, or a device with a microphone to record their conversations. They worry less about who might be watching their internet searches, than the possibility that their devices might record their speech or images.

One of my students also shared an article on Bloomberg with me, “Microsoft Allowed to Sue U.S. Government Over E-mail Surveillance,” by Kartikay Mehrotra. At issue was whether Microsoft had the right to tell people when the government may have accessed their emails. …

The Danger to you of Bitcoin

One of the great mysteries of the 21st century is the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin. While his creation of the blockchain and a new cryptocurrency was an immense achievement, Bitcoin itself is only one of a diverse array of emerging currencies. Still, when I taught my Digital Globalization course last winter, I learned from my students that in my city (Portland, Oregon) there was an ATM at the local mall (Pioneer Place) where you could convert Bitcoins to cash, bars where you could buy your drinks in Bitcoin, and even apartments were you could use it to pay your rent. The reason for this rapid adoption has been the many promises that Bitcoin makes. Need to send money? There is no need for Western Union. Are you concerned about the security of banks? Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are not a fiat currency (created by a sovereign government) and hence beyond the reach of the Federal Reserve or the banks. …

Wikileaks needs to make a moral case

After a military faction recently sought to overthrow the Turkish government by a coup, Turkey’s President Erdogan launched a massive and extreme purge of the nation’s military, academia, and judiciary. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, or been arrested. The government even created a separate cemetery for dead coup plotters. While the United States and European governments had condemned the coup, they were deeply disturbed by the extremism of Erdogan’s response. For European governments, the question was particularly difficult because they had relied on a deal with Turkey to end the flood of Middle Eastern migrants to Europe. The country is currently under a three month state of emergency. Amnesty International has denounced the climate of fear endured by journalists. The International Studies Association has denounced the attack on academic freedom in Turkey. …

ISIS and encryption

One of my favorite podcasts is Reply All, which covers cyber issues in a creative and clever manner. The hosts recently had an interview (“Decoders,” episode #62) with New York Times’ journalist Rukmini Callimachi, as well as Runa Sandvik, the director of bureau security at this newspaper. In essence, Callimachi discovered a new means that ISIS had adopted to communicate, called Truecrypt. Messages are written in this code, then uploaded to files on a website. For all their sophistication and technical knowledge, however, ISIS also proved to be vulnerable to basic errors, such as failing to check the location of the server by examining its web address. …

Syllabus for an online course on Digital Globalization

This winter quarter I taught a fully-online class on Digital Globalization, which I greatly enjoyed. I believe that Digital Globalization is a form of globalization that is every bit as powerful as economic, political and cultural globalization. Of course, it is also inextricably linked to all these other forms of globalization. It’s strange, therefore, that has remained largely invisible in the literature in the field.

One point that struck me from the class is that the media gives a great deal of attention to the question of surveillance by governments, but my students are every bit as concerned about surveillance by corporations such as Facebook. I had also assumed that my students would be digital natives. Many of them, however, felt a great digital gap between themselves and younger siblings, who spend a great deal of time on social media, such as Instagram and Snapchat. They appreciated the chance to learn about topics such as Bitcoin that they had heard about in the media, but knew little about. From my students, I learned that there was a Bitcoin ATM in Portland, as well as bars and apartment buildings that accepted Bitcoin.

A few notes about the syllabus that follows. The majority of the content, including almost all of the videos, were obtained from my library’s Streaming Video and Music database. For this reason, I haven’t included the links here, because they would only work for people with accounts at my university. As you can see, I’m also beginning to use modules for online courses. In this particular case, I began with two weeks focusing on the individual (social media, the generation gap, music and art); two weeks focusing on institutions and the economy (Uber, Airbnb, the sharing economy, Bitcoin, 3D printers); and two weeks focused on the nation-state level (surveillance, privacy, encryption). For the fourth module of the course, students do three weeks of independent study on of the topics that they’ve explored in the class, to answer a key question. The goal of this module is to develop learner agency.

The final week of the course content students share a digital artifact, which is typically a Google Slideshow. I’ve done this in previous online classes, and it’s always very popular with the students, who take a great deal of pride in their work. I like the assignment because it in a sense it creates a co-constructed syllabus, in which students are responsible for their own learning. Lastly, for multiple reasons I did not allow students to do any research for this course on the Dark Web; that is, they could not research in areas of the Web that they could only access via a TOR, ITP or Freenet browser.

Shawn Smallman, 2016 …

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