Ask Me Anything with Chris Castiglione, Columbia University faculty, Host of the Learn to Code Podcast,Teacher at OneMonth.com and Noonies nominee

Chris Castiglione is Faculty member at Columbia University where he teaches Digital Literacy, a teacher at One Month and host of the Learn to Code Podcast.
He writes about coding, the internet, and social impact and currently working on a book about decentralization and the “new internet” called “The Untold History of the Internet”.

Ask Him Anything on Internet and decentralization now and join for the answers on September 29th, 11 am EST.

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Hi! What do you think went wrong in the history of the Internet that prevented its decentralization? How can we fix it now ?

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How to learn coding with minimal resources but maximal efficiency?

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What is the most decentralized social network in the Internet now? And what might be the most decentralized network in next 5 years?
Thanks!

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Is it possible to eliminate fake news? And what are the best strategies to combat the negative effect of fake news?
Thanks!

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How much of the Internet is socially constructed and how much are determined by technology of it?

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What would you change in the Internet to make it a better place and why?

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Will there still be a need to learn to code in the nearest future, where a lot of apps offer same solution with no code?

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Hi! What amount of decentralization in Internet is too much? How do we keep Internet as a whole unified system yet decentralized?

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What are your favorite examples of positive Internet impact on social development?

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What is the role of Google in Internet development, and specifically freedom of the Internet?

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Hi @jack-maccourtney! Great question. Back in the 1960s, it was the intention of the team working on the ARPANET (the early internet) to build a decentralized internet. They succeeded in developing a wonderful prototype.

In the early 70s this prototype was improved with the addition the TCP/IP protocol. The original internet made it so that data would be fragmented into tiny datagrams (or packets) and then hop through many nodes from point A to point B as it reached it’s destination. I made an animated GIF here that shows on a smaller scale what that decentralization looked like:

The early internet did many things that we’d hope a decentralized network would do, and yet it TCP/IP had some flaws that today make it less decentralized than is desirable:

  1. Your IP address broadcasts your location, and can be used to censor data based on location.

  2. ISPs (Verizon, AT&T here in the states) can also censor data based on type of data.

  3. Meaningful data privacy and security was an after though for the TCP/IP network that is our internet, and today cloud storage (especially for larger companies like Facebook) works against decentralization. These big open databases are silos of privacy data. In short, you don’t own your own data, these companies do.

@jonathan-coder Love it! To learn to code with minimal resources and maximal efficiency I’d suggest you learn the following languages, ideally in this order: HTML/CSS, Python, SQL and JavaScript. Those are the foundational languages and will give you both front-end and back-end skills.

My advice would be:

  1. Build projects. If you’d like, I teach a free html course online at OneMonth.com, you can join here, and you’ll build your first project from scratch in just 7 days:
    https://onemonth.com/courses/html

  2. Immerse yourself in podcasts, YouTube tutorials, videos surrounding those 5 languages I mentioned above.

  3. Put aside at least one hour a day. Set a timer, no phone, no distractions. Just focus on learning to code.

  4. Find a project that exists and hack at it! The way I learned is I would find free and open source projects online that were complete. I would a) Just try to run them and then b) try to customize them. You learn so much just by reading other people’s code. IMHO starting with a black screen, without a teacher, and just typing beep bop beep bop calculator number problems isn’t very inspiring. Make projects, hack other people’s projects.

Here are some more ideas I have for learning to code:

I also have a free podcast for absolute beginners! Especially if you just want to learn to talk the talk of coding in as few weeks as possible. Enjoy!

@lewis Tricky one! I guess I’d ask, what are we judging “most decentralized” by: The technology itself? Or some combination of the technology + the audience and potential of growth?

As I’m writing this in 2020, I think it’s still the early days of decentralized social networks. And so I don’t see a clear leader in this space (but if someone reading knows of some that you’re excited about please share!) The messaging app Signal, while not a “social network” per se, is impressive in how it’s been able to penetrate the mainstream.

In looking at the decentralized networks, I’m a huge fan of BlockStack. I’m very impressed by their technology, and the growth of their community. Ethereum obviously shows promise as well. I know less about Polkadot but I’ve been following the project. In many ways it feels like the early days of the web, in the early 2000s when there were battles between Safari/Chrome/IE/Firefox.

I’d be curious what you all think?

@courtney-delawar Hi! I’ve been thinking about this constantly this year. Fake news (and the war on truth) is in my opinion the issue on which all other political issues rest. If we can’t agree on an answer to “what is the truth?”, then it becomes impossible to make meaningful reform on any other issue: climate crisis, corruption in politics, social equality, etc.

I think there are at least two kinds of fake news popular right now:

  1. Propaganda — Information used to mislead, or promote or publicize a specific point of view.
  2. Disinformation — Intentionally spreading false information with the intention of influencing those who receive it.

Propaganda is what we see on Fox News. They have a conservative agenda. When the NYTimes published Trump tax returns yesterday, Fox News defended the president, and cast doubt on the NyTimes report. If Fox truly cared about the integrity of their journalism, or about serving Americans without an agenda, they would have just reported on the facts as we knew them. Instead they interpret news, add their own spin, and go silent when hard truths come up that they don’t want to address.

I’m not sure of the solution here, but certainly education is important. We as a society need to get better at recognizing bias. We also need to practice critical thinking skills. It is a crucial skill for our survival. (What are some good books on this? I’m not sure. I might suggest with learning the basic Logical Fallacies) We’d also benefit from learning about the history of journalism, and why this institution is so valuable to a democratic society. I’d also suggest everyone read George Orwell’s 1984! Please.

Let’s now turn to disinformation on the internet. The fake news that comes from the bottom-up.

One of the main drivers of disinformation is anonymity. The web was designed with equality in mind. Our protocols TCP/IP and HTTP do not discriminate based on gender, race, age, or religion. The protocols send and receive data, they don’t care who is behind the computer. There is something beautiful anonymity this anonymity when it comes to self-expression, and freedom.

And yet, there also something very dangerous about anonymity. I’ve been rethinking anonymity in terms of social networks, and our news sources in particular.

For example, a large factor in the Russian propaganda campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential election was the IRA’s (the group behind the campaign) ability to spin up hundreds of fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It’s anonymity that allowed them to gain the trust of millions of Americans, and then to abuse that trust while America was none the wiser.

There’s a wonderful talk on Russian propaganda networks by Renée DiResta speaking at The Harriman Institute at Columbia University: (start at 21:00)

So in short:

  1. We need to question our sources (and help other people learn about how to questions where they are getting their news from)
  2. And on the internet, combating anonymity on social networks would help. I think the coming New Internet (blockchain, identify protocols, etc) will be an important factor in cleaning up fake news over the next 10 years.

Hey @castig, thanks for doing the AMA, and contributing to Hacker Noon over the years!

In growing your podcast, what have been the breakthrough moments in terms of gaining an audience?

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@Kyle Could you elaborate on this? Do mean, how much power does the underlying technology have in determining culture? Vs. how much power do we have in crafting our own future? Is it like a nature vs. nurture argument for humans v. machines!?

  1. Reform the online advertising model — Right now this is the primary way companies make money, and it incentivizes a host of bad actors, data privacy issues, and attention manipulation. I’m not sure of the solutions, but I certainly think the current ad model on Facebook, Google, and millions of sites around the web is corrosive. The Brave Browser is doing some interesting work on reforming advertising. [podcast #1][podcast #2]

  2. Everyone should own their own data. Blockstack and Filecoin are doing some wonderful work designing networks whereby you own access to your own data. How it works, is that if you’re an employee of Facebook (hypothetically, or any big tech site) you would see certain information about your users like their email and name, but you would no longer have access to read all his/her photos, messages, and private details. So better data privacy, and data modularity.

@ryan_coder I believe yes! Webflow, Squarespace, WordPress and the like are making it easier to build web sites without needing to touch a line of code. And yet, having the basics of HTML/CSS, JavaScript, SQL, Python etc I believe will be important for at least the next 20+ years. They’re just so foundational, and increasingly being used in ways other than building websites such as data analytics, product manager, and even in the arts. While researching this article on people using Python in their career I was delighted to learn so many non-developers were using Python!

I think the New Internet (what I’m calling Web3, blockchain, and all the next frontier of app development) brings with it some amazing leaps of innovation that I believe will help empower trust, truth, and human rights online. It’s fascinating to me!

And yet, there are some things I’m worried about, and don’t have the answers for at the moment.

Too much decentralization? Here’s two examples:

  1. While I’m a supporter of Monero (the cryptocurrency that is completely anonymous) there are ways in which a payment solution that has total anonymity be used to assist in criminal activity such as money laundering, and human trafficking.

  2. Unbridled free speech also poses its own problems. For example, in 2018 the U.S. Government stepped in to shutdown the site Backpages for enabling prostitution and sex trafficking of minors. I support that. And yet, on a completely decentralized internet it’s possible this type of censorship wouldn’t be possible.

I’m an optimist. We will begin to move to an even more decentralized network over the next decade, and I think that when the time comes, we will also come up with innovative solutions to maintain our system of justice in regards to these issues.