Books: Control and Freedom
Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun
Author and Professor at Brown University
Friday, March 10, 2006 2:00 PM

Author Wendy Hui Kyong Chun was online Friday, March 10 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss her new book "Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics." In the book, Chun, an assistant professor of modern culture at Brown University, observes that while the Internet is a good medium to promote freedom of expression it is full of vulnerabilities.

A transcript follows.

Learn more about her book at .


Wendy Hui Kyong Chun: Hi all. Thanks to the Washington Post for inviting me and for you all for posting your questions. I'm looking forward to this hour!


Columbia, Md.: How justified is online paranoia? Is it not true that the only way to really protect yourself from vulnerability is to pull the plug?

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun: That's an interesting question. In one sense, you have to be paranoid to use computers--b/c computers always fail, b/c hard drives crash all the time, you have to be pretty vigilant. As David Dill, the Stanford University computer science professor who launched a petition drive for a paper backup to electronic voting systems (without which, re-counts would be impossible), explained, "what people have learned repeatedly, the hard way, is that the prudent practice-if you want to escape with your data intact-is what other people would perceive as paranoia."

But what you're talking about is slightly different--whether or not you need to be paranoid about other people storing and looking over your materials, but it's related. I'm always surprised by the # of people whose computers crash on a regular basis, whose floppy disks become unreadable, and whose email messages disappear into the netherworld of the global network--how many of these people honestly believe in a worldwide surveillance network in which no piece of data is ever lost.

I would say that networking your computer does not mean that your computer will be surveilled, but that it could be (interestingly, your computer sends and receives messages all the time--messages that you can't read). I think it really productive to think of your computers as public machines. I never put anything into email that I wouldn't mind forwarded.


Anonymous: Computers and fiberoptics along with better search engines merely make it easier for "big brother" to keep tabs on us wherever we are on this planet.

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun: The question I have is, who is "big brother"? Orwell's version of it was the state (and we certainly see this with China), but we also have corporations and hackers--indeed anyone with a packet sniffer on your local network.

What's interesting is that fiber optics also allows for more commmunication and dialogue. It's a question of how we can user insecure communications to our benefit.


Anonymous: Aren't blooggers and writers of private journals in potential trouble if somone sees something they said that they can print out and show to an employer that might get them in trouble?

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun: Yes--and I'm intrigued that more and more employers will do a google search on their prospective employees.

The question is this: how many bloggers care?

I know a lot of them write to generate publicity, and being in public cuts both ways. I know quite a few people who have written things earlier in their careers that they now disagree with--we just need to accept the fact that people can change their minds, that a person can't always be tethered to one text. As more and more people have blogs, maybe we can stop treating them as their "secret" selves.

The question you bring up, though, is an important one, especially in terms of data backup. What does it mean that it's almost impossible now to withdraw something from public circulation?


Falls Church, Va.: Accepting the fact that the Internet makes users and commerce vulnerable, do you foresee government backlash and heavy regulatory legislation? Possibly a user backlash? Perhaps business will change the internet culture by enforcing stricter practices?

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun: The question of government backlash is an excellent one, but also complicated:

1. as I'm sure you already know, the U.S. government funded the development of the Internet. While it was mainly a mainly academic and military tool, routing was "policy-free" and security issues were taken care of at the application level. This was arguably possible b/c the net was pretty small and exclusive.

2. the internet went public by being privatized--if by being made public, we mean more publicly (and commercially) available. at that time, the US govt made its first attempt to regulate internet content (the CDA).

3. now, with policy-based routing (cable companies only letting some traffic through; strategic use of gateways etc.), monitoring is becoming more heavyhanded. importantly, though, the internet was always based on a control protocol--which is not the same as social control--but always enabled the tracking of messages.

i think that the emergence of dark nets and other less public peer to peer networks is really interesting--the reaction seems to be either: 1. we're in public and we know it; or 2. we're going to use networks to create new secret spaces (private is now more and more being equated with secret).


Arlington, Va.: "Chun argues that the relationship between control and freedom in networked contact is experienced and negotiated through sexuality and race." from

If possible can you briefly explain this relationship between sexuality/race, control/freedom and the Internet?

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun: Wow. That's going to be really hard to answer briefly, but let me try.

What i was fascinated by was the ways in which sex and sexuality dominated the ways people talked about networked communications in ways that went beyond the polite discussion of the Internet as a new public sphere (Gore's agora idea). In 1995, everyone all of a sudden discovered cyberporn--something that didn't even count as an open secret to us engineering students. The CDA was the first legislative attempt to regulate the Internet and it was based on dividing the Internet into the good and the bad based on content: good content did not intrude into the home; bad content, like pornography, exposed the home and our children to deviant sexuality. To be clear, I wasn't interested in whether or not this is true, but why is it that sexuality dominated discussions of online "risk."

You see this fascination with sex and sexuality at all layers: in terms of hardware, male-to-female connectors configure all electronic information exchange as electrifying heterosexual intercourse. In terms of software, computer viruses spread like sexually transmitted diseases, contaminating and reproducing uncontrollably; our computers are attacked through their back orifices.

So, in the book, I look at the ways in which this discourse about sex operates--and how it's part of our negotiation of the changes in the boundary b/n public and private brought about by fiber optic networks.

In terms of race, I look at the ways in which the Internet was sold as desirable through narratives of it as the great leveller... more later.


Columbia, Md.: With the use of fiber optics being so widespread it does lend to a little more privacy on the Internent. With the exception of routing policies put in place by backbone networks and ISPs, fiber make it impossible to "tap" into a line, one of the reasons the US government has been using it for so long.

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun: That's a great point, and one I talk about in my book. It's really telling that the US bombed Iraq earlier when they were attempting to complete a fiber optic network. The relative insecurity of wireless networks is interesting--I'm always surprised by my students who, even though they have a really fast ethernet connection in their dorm room (that attaches really quickly to the backbone)--they prefer their wireless. Although wireless does lend itself to warchalking and all sorts of interesting uses.

Although fiber is difficult to tap, the routing policies in place by backbone networks, ISPs (and let's not forget the actions of those in on our networks with packet sniffers) is really important.


Cambridge, Mass.: I think about everything I write in an email, too. For me it seems strange that people perceive email to be more "conversational". If anything, I have only become more acutely aware of how increasingly litigious our daily communications have become as every email potentially exists as a written record, complete with date and time stamp, of information that can potentially be used against you in professional or legal contexts.

It is always surprising to me to see how casual other people seem to be about committing to print. I often wonder if my concern is paranoid or if, as a society, we are simply becoming gradually more accustomed to, and tolerant of, a higher degree of fear around the legal consequence of our daily communications.

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun: I think working with technology to some extent makes us paranoid--like I said earlier, we need to be paranoid to hold onto our data.

Paranoics also tend to think everything has meaning--they may not be sure what the meaning is, but they believe that the meaning regards (looks at, pertains to) them. When you're playing a video game, or evern using a word processing program, you tend to think that every action the computer does has meaning (which is why all design books preach against coincidence).

That's a bit of an aside, but I do think the question of paranoia has a lot of sides to it--where this paranoia becomes really unproductive is when we start treating political problems as if they were technological ones...

I think we're becoming a lot more aware of our communications as public, and for that reason storeable and useable against us.

There's a great story of one of the early software programmers, who used to have everyone write down their resposnes to his questions, and then date/time stamp them.


Columbia, Md.: You mention the use of packet sniffers on networks. Doesn't the use of a purely switched network make sniffing much more difficult? Without packets being broadcasted, how easy is it for packets to be picked up by unintended recipients?

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun: Yes, the use of a purely switched network does make it much more difficult, although i'm surprised by how many locations still use buses--a lot more are moving towards wireless.

A lot of people are now becoming more and more obsessed with "trojan horse" or "magic lantern" attacks as a way to collect personal data.


Munich, Germany: It is often argued that the Internet creates a new public sphere. Would you say that the fact that many activities that in former time were associated with real space (communication, shopping, surveillance, entertainment etc.) do shift to the network has an influence also on the traditional public spaces. Do we adopt "net-behaviours" for everyday activities in real space?

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun: The question of how the Internet functions as a public space and its intersection with "real space" is a really excellent one.

Yes, it's interesting to see how non-networked spaces are affected by net-behavoirs (we see this clearly in how print publications and television has changed its look and feel in responde to the web). On a slightly differnet topic, what I find intriguing is the ways in which cell phones have changed public spaces. People will happily have the most private conversations in public spaces, and this really changes our experience of trains etc.


Ashburn, Va.: I'm curious what your thoughts are regarding today's talk of making scientific research papers freely available for public access. Since some formally published papers require purchasing currently, is it the authors (i.e. researchers) that get compensated or the publishers? I think it's ashame if the publishers that may not have formal agreements with the authors wind up with all the proceeds.

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun: I think that papers should be freely accessible. The publishers mainly get compensated (if your article or book is really successful, you may get some royalties), but academic publishers hardly make a lot of $$--in fact quite of them run deficits.

I think we need to have more peer-reviewed online journals, which can count towards promotion, but also be readily accessible.

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun: Academia needs to change too--a lot of scholars who publish in print journals would probably be comfortable publishing online, but they need to publish in these journals to get tenure etc.

I'm moving towards putting more and more of my work online. we put everything MIT would allow us (btw, MIT is a great press + really open to these ideas) on the website for the book: The website also has different material and we viewed it as an electronic supplement to the book.


Wendy Hui Kyong Chun: Thanks all for your questions--I really enjoyed them and hope to hear from you again.


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