The Brussels connection: Turning the tide on radicalisation

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By Christian Nielsen

Belgium says it is working to combat radicalisation in Brussels. But is it doing enough to counter jihadist narratives and address exclusion?

A man stands in front of mural in inner-city Brussels. Photo: ©Simon Blackley

A man stands in front of mural in inner-city Brussels.
Photo: ©Simon Blackley

Tuesday 17 November 2015

I almost felt sorry for Jan Jambon, Belgium’s Interior Minister, as he tried not to stand out too much during a joint press conference on 16 November with his French counterpart, Bernard Cazeneuve, in the wake of the Paris terror attacks last week.

But even if he could shrink by 30cm, there would be no hiding from the evidence that Belgium’s intelligence community may have dropped the ball… or were perhaps never in the game.

Belgium stands accused of being a “hotbed” for terrorists, or more euphemistically, disenfranchised Muslim youth, mostly in and around the poorer inner suburbs of Brussels, and that this is apparently not news to anyone in the intelligence community.

Only a few days before the Paris attacks, on 9 November, the Belgian interior minister claimed during POLITICO’s What Works event that Belgium was making some headway, citing its actions to shut down a terror cell in Vervier last January, and its awareness-raising efforts or “counter-narratives” for would-be youth thinking of, for example, joining ISIS. He said a tailored, one-to-one approach is more successful than top-down narratives like ads and internet campaigns.

He spoke to POLITICO’s Matt Kominski about the challenges he and the Belgian authorities face in dealing with ISIS fighters returning from Syria. Many don’t come back more hardened and angry, but rather feel “disgusted” at what they experienced. This, he suggested, is a useful counter-narrative weapon.

But the audience wasn’t buying it, asking why Belgium hadn’t put these young people on television or in internet ads as powerful, personal testimonials, or tried more mainstream approaches to stopping the momentum towards radicalisation, such as investing more in rejuvenating poor neighbourhoods and helping to integrate immigrant families better.

By his own admission, Mr Jambon said: “People think that mosques are the places of recruitment, but I think that today, most of the recruitment is done by the internet… The mosques were too moderate and they find their ‘truth’ on the internet.”

Then, as the saying goes, shouldn’t you fight fire with fire?  If the internet is the medium of choice for young people – and it clearly is – then well-meaning teachers and social workers are only going to have so much impact. The problem is, governments (not just in Belgium) are playing catch-up as they grapple to deal with the growth in online propaganda and extremism.

“Modern terrorists have embraced social media and ‘weaponised the internet’ to achieve their goals,” Mark Wallace, former US ambassador to the UN, told journalists at the Brussels launch of the European arm to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) in July this year.

Yet Mr Jambon argued targeted messaging like that might lack credibility or come across as government propaganda. Maybe this is true, but it would at least send ‘a’ message, rather than leaving everything in the hands of overworked social workers in Brussels communes like Molenbeek, which has been identified as something of a ground zero for several incidents, including the recent Paris attacks and possibly the Jewish Museum murders in 2014 and the Thalys attempt last August.

Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel said his government’s efforts until now have focused on prevention but that they now realise tougher measures are needed against jihadists returning from the battlefields in Syria and Iraq to Belgium.

But in Belgium sometimes it takes a shock event like the Paris attacks – and the extra heat Belgium is now getting from its neighbours who will no longer accept excuses – to galvanise its people and the authorities into action.

Mr Jambon acknowledged during the POLITICO event before the Paris attacks that Brussels was a hotspot for trouble (and it is reported at one point to have had more foreign fighters in Syria than any other European country per inhabitant). He said information-sharing between federal, regional and communal police forces is complicated, and that terrorism is a cross-border issue which only exacerbates matters. Indeed.

The Daily Beast confirms this fragmentation problem: “Security services in the city of Brussels have another significant issue: for a population of 1.3 million inhabitants, the local police force is divided up in six police corps spread over 19 boroughs. Sharing security information in that setting could only be complicated.”

In a piece about the role of the internet in dealing with terrorist extremism (‘Defusing the social media time bomb’), I wrote: “At some point, probably at the lowest ebb, enough people (digital natives presumably) will have had enough of their youthful innocence being stolen from them by radicals and extremists… murderers hiding behind a perverted cause. But have we reached the lowest ebb?”

That was back in July and I wrote that it already seemed like we had reached that point. But I was wrong. A new low water mark has been reached. Can we turn the tide before it gets any lower? I certainly hope so.

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Defusing the social media timebomb

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By Christian Nielsen

Countering the “weaponisation of the internet” with top-down initiatives is unlikely to succeed. What we need are true grassroots efforts.

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Governments are playing catch-up as they grapple to deal with the growth in online propaganda and extremism.

Modern terrorists have embraced social media and “weaponised the internet” to achieve their goals, Mark Wallace, former US ambassador to the UN, told journalists at the Brussels launch of the European arm to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) last week.

The timing, though tragic in light of the latest extremist attacks in Tunisia, France and the United States, has never been better to band together in the global struggle against extremism, he suggested.

Founded in the United States just nine months ago, CEP is rallying public support for programmes to counter the narrative of extremists, expose the sources of funding and inspiration for such discourse, and advocate for effective laws and policies that promote “freedom, security and tolerance”.

The US branch of CEP has the backing of some big names in diplomacy, law enforcement and community-based support aimed at identifying and changing the narrative of hatred that feeds radicalism, violence and terrorism.

What has gone so wrong that a youth from a comfortable suburban home in, say, Birmingham feels compelled to take up with murderers? This is the key question that an organisation like CEP seeks to tackle.

US Senator Joseph Lieberman, who lent his support to the European launch of CEP, said the world is awash in blood spilt in brutal acts of violence. And it is not state versus state, he said, but the acts of lone wolves, disenfranchised individuals and extremist organisations so often inspired by the internet.

The intensity of this crisis cannot be solved by governments alone, he continued, it needs counter-narratives from a range of voices – non-government actors, educators, local and religious leaders – to “break down the stereotypes that inculcate violence”, to stop and help people before they “go bad”.

CEP revealed two of its own weapons in this battle: what it calls its counter-narrative programme and digital disruption campaign. The former identifies vulnerable “at-risk populations” and employs influencers – people with an “out-sized” ability to reach and influence such as social workers, community leaders – to engage especially young people, listen to their concerns and address them with better narratives. The digital disruption, though sinister-sounding, is largely aimed at urging social media like Twitter to be more vigilant of the content on their platforms, and to urge the removal of extremist, threatening language.

This has been likened, the experts conceded, to “whack-a-mole” – the game where you hit a mole on the head when it emerges as more keep popping up around it – but it has already proved successful, CEP’s team confirmed.

The power of social media is in the network of connections; every time you take out nodes (sources), the spread of extremist diatribe is weakened and takes time to reconnect or find its critical mass again.

As it seeks to deepen and widen the programme, CEP is under no illusions that countering extremism and terrorist acts everywhere will be easy, especially as modern information flow tends to flout borders. There is no single answer and the challenge most definitely cannot be tackled by states alone.

The lone wolf threat, an extremist who remains off the radar, still “keeps everyone awake at night”, stressed Senator Lieberman. “People reach into your neighbourhood from the other side of the planet.”

So the idea is to work from the ground up and provide the mechanisms and messages to raise awareness and negate the extreme voices that have won the early ground in this battle of our time.

At some point, like an AK 47 or any other weapon supplied to a terrorist, social media that don’t help in the campaign being waged against the weaponised words can be deemed to be providing material support. “We have to degrade [the extremists’] ability to spread cyber-jihad,” the senator stressed.

Somehow, you wonder

Though well-intended, most probably well-funded – CEP prefers not to reveal information about its backers – and definitely able to recruit big political names to the cause, I can’t help but doubt that even a trans-Atlantic organisation like CEP can really build a grassroots counter-movement, an Occupy Wall Street or Tiananmen Square moment. Pressure on social media outlets to crack down on the content is still a top-down measure. Yet it’s the bubble-up action at local level that stands the best chance.

At some point, probably at the lowest ebb, enough people (digital natives presumably) will have had enough of their youthful innocence being stolen from them by radicals and extremists… murderers hiding behind a perverted cause.

But have we reached the lowest ebb? It certainly seems like it, as more and more copycat killers pop up to grandstand in full view of the world’s internet denizens by killing innocent people, and claiming some spurious connection to one or another vying cult of death and destruction.

Yes, the time, tragically, is right but do the masses realise this? Will they raise their voices in protest and in their own way – with their own words and stories – counter extremism when and where it pops up? And do we need a project or programme to run such a movement? That’s to be seen.

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An ode to Google doodles

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By Christian Nielsen

Google doodles must be the most fleeting yet highly visited exhibition on the planet honouring both the famous and the quirky.


Tuesday 24 June 2014

This year is the 255th anniversary of the British Museum. It’s not exactly a milestone year in the grand scheme of things, but clearly grand enough to be honoured with a Google doodle in January.

Any excuse for a great doodle is a good one in my book. And if I hadn’t tried the ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ search option on Google I would never have learned about it.

Ever since Google first entered our computer screens – quickly followed by our lexicon and now our consciousness – I’ve been tempted but never acted out on the urge to press the ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button.

Until today, I’d never given this reticence much thought. But as I warm up to a day of work and I open my explorer with the default Google screen whirring to life, only to see yet another fascinating interpretation of the World Cup 2014, I begin to wonder what creative machinery must be behind this constant output by the search giant.

Do they sit down once a year or once a month and map out a calendar of milestones and lesser, sometimes quirky, events to honour with possibly the most fleeting but highly visited exhibition on the planet? I’d like to think, yes. One day and XX millions of online denizens are treated to a lesson in history or culture or the banal. And it’s all fine by me. The more obscure the better.

I’ve also never really explored why I haven’t tried my luck on this odd little feature, which I dare say is a legacy of the first designs of Google, where the developers were not sure if people would know what they were looking for on this big bad web, let alone how to enter the search words in the simple little field they provided. So a bright spark says, “Let’s give them a sample or a demo but we can make it like a roll of the dice … to get them hooked on our tool!”

Well, if that were true, they needn’t have worried. We’re hooked. Not by the idea of ‘feeling lucky’ but by the sheer unchanging simplicity and, indeed, beauty and form of this tool. Sure, Google is much more than a simple search screen now. We’re waiting for driverless Google taxis and enjoy a whole host of other ‘Drive’ related tools through the cloud.

But it is the search – the deep calling for knowledge now literally at our fingertips – that keeps us coming back. And in that there is a degree of excitement still. It’s not so much down to luck any more as we’ve learned how to trick the big machine into delivering pretty much what we want in the first few listed results. We do all sorts of Boolean mind tricks (I looked that up on Google!) on it and it probably reluctantly coughs up what we’re looking for with a couple of paid-for gems on top.

And yet that little ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button stays in-situ as some kind of ode – to what I’m not really certain. Maybe it’s an ode to simpler times, or an ode to the randomness of life, or to the copywriter who first thought of this funny little phrase. Maybe it’s an ode to philosophy or to modern mantras that challenge our grasp of reality. Maybe it’s a tacit ode to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness: The hidden role of chance in life and in the markets. Or maybe it’s just a case of dumb luck, a whim that stuck.

Just doodling

I don’t know – I’m not on Google’s board or anyone else’s – but I do know that today I decided to try my hand. Maybe I was bored, maybe I was overcome with wonder at the fresh doodle every day for the World Cup, or maybe because it’s a Tuesday and that’s a lucky day, if there ever was one. So, I hovered for a second and then pressed I’m Feeling Lucky. It felt good.

And you know what I got? The back-catalogue of doodles in one beautiful long list with the dates and event being immortalised by this Google feature.

I’m not sure what role luck played in this result, but I’m pretty happy with it. I scrolled down a few screens, learned about Mary Anning, a struggling English palaeontologist. I discovered the Columbian painter/sculptor Alejandro Obregón and the obscure Japanese ‘Go’ (a board game I think) champion Honinbo Shusaku. I caught up on recent national days and the European elections. And I realised my family missed Father’s Day!

But the doodle that took my eye, if not my fancy, was the anniversary of the British Museum. Every time I visit the great city of London, I try to take an hour or so to stroll through a couple of the rooms in this national treasure trove. I love that it’s still free, when very little else is these days. It reminds me of my back-packing days where anything free that involved warmth and comfort was worth seeking out.

Two decades ago I wrote a cheesy little story (I was young) in a scrappy notebook while propped in front of a figurine of Anubis in the Egyptian chamber. I’ll share it with if you ask nicely. I know the museum has some detractors and some explaining to do about how it obtained – and, well, chooses to keep – some of the treasures, but as a casual seeker of knowledge, a visitor who likes to try his luck every now and then, the British Museum is truly a worthy find. Thanks Google. You’ve made my day.


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Social responsibility goes digital

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By Ray O’Reilly

Information technology is being hailed as the new face of socially responsible business.

Friday 10 February 2012

Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is getting a makeover thanks to the emergence of ultra-fast, ultra-smart, ubiquitous information and communications technologies (ICT). This match-up is the beginning of an unexpected but somehow quintessential relationship explored in a refreshing exhibition hosted this week in Brussels.

Companies are embracing cutting-edge technology to save on costs and deliver competitive advantage in these tough economic times. But what many may not appreciate is that this economically rational decision can have profound social benefits, too. ICTs can boost an organisation’s CSR activities, which has a cascading effect along whole value chains, from stakeholders and staff to suppliers and service providers.

The five dimensions of ICT4CSR

Political … giving people a voice

Geographical … bringing people together virtually

Economic … bringing markets closer to home

Societal … providing access to education, knowledge and opportunities

Environmental … green technology helping to tackle climate change


 The term ‘corporate social responsibility’ dates back to the late 1960s and 1970s but has entered more mainstream use since the publication of R Edward Freeman’s book, Strategic management: a stakeholder approach, in 1984. Through CSR activities – donations, community work, ‘green’ operations, etc. – organisations look beyond shareholder value alone in search of positive outcomes for all stakeholders (consumers, employees, communities, the environment).

Providing technology is only part of the contribution that ICT companies can make, experts suggest. The industry is uniquely placed to help local communities around the world, to nurture talented people, and to help developing countries find innovative solutions to the pressing challenges they face.

In 2010 alone, the ICT industry contributed betwen 30% and 40% to the economic growth of developed countries.

Hosted at the European Parliament from 6 to 9 February, the exhbition, entitled ‘ICT4CSR: Enriching life through communications’ tells a story of how ICT provides fertile ground for companies to nurture ideas, talents and people which eventually come to fruition in the form of better (digital) working conditions, safeguards for the environment, and myriad ways for enriching society.

Thus, in the right hands, CSR is much more than a company’s way of easing its conscience, the fair suggests. To organisations that embrace it fully, it becomes a way of life, a way of operating with integrity and a way to promote the harmonious and sustainable development of the economy, society, and environment.

Unusual digital dividend

Governments worldwide are investing in the huge potential of digital communications technology to connect people, transcending boundaries and bringing communities together to benefit one another. Europe is no exception.

“It’s my dream to get every European digital,” wrote Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, on her blog. “And that means everyone needs to be covered by fast broadband connections.”

The Digital Agenda for Europe focuses on ICTs’ capability to reduce energy consumption, support ageing citizens’ lives, revolutionise health services and deliver better public services. Its targets include broadband of at least 30Mbps for everyone by 2020 with half of European households subscribing to connections of 100Mbps or higher.

The widespread rollout of very fast, ‘always on’ internet provides solutions to a number of local, regional and global challenges. For instance, access to education in remote villages. With satellite broadband solutions and advances in e-learning, village children can benefit from home schooling using interactive, multimedia lesson plans.

“Having access to the internet and other ICTs will not just be the privilege of the few,” commented MEP Robert Sturdy during the opening of the exhibition. “I truly believe that smarter, greener, targeted ICT can change the way we work and live, for the better, no matter which corner of the world you are from.”

A 10% increase in broadband penetration will improve GDP by 1.3%. And high-speed internet also enables businesses, especially small ones, to remain competitive and allows consumers to take advantage of advanced online services that improve their quality of life, from e-commerce to e-government services.


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Papa’s got a secondhand car…

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By Christian Nielsen

Is buying a secondhand car after nine months of contemplation akin to becoming a father or a lover?

Tuesday 7 February 2012

I had to call my wife with the great news. “Congratulations, we are now the proud ‘parents’ of a sprightly little Volvo,” I announced as I tickled the latch to the bonnet of the V40 I’d been planning to buy for nearly nine months.

She was pleased of course (mostly for me) but admitted she wished it was a real baby. I laughed nervously, muttering “for guys this is probably as good as it gets”. But the notion of buying cars being akin to second-hand birthing – the trepidation, the anticipation, the happy arrival – started to take form.

The internet has made the whole process so much easier. The ability to filter online searches by price, make, model, colour, engine and a dashboard of other options are like eugenics for prospective car-owners.

I spent hours scouring car photos – close-ups of the mileage, the service books, the tyres, or that little ding the seller wants you to see so you know he’s ‘not hiding anything’. I add dozens to my favourites, in case I want to contact them.

It’s around this time that the worries, like pending fatherhood, really kick in. I’m afraid to take the plunge.

I tell myself that ‘new’ is just ‘old’ with more scary parts, but for a digital non-native like myself  the internet is like the toss of a coin. It has two sides: the cornucopian side and the dodgy side made up of people looking to con you or use your details to cheat someone else.

I make some enquiries and perhaps an appointment or two. And then I mull things over: why did the seller black out his registration plate and photograph the car in a field?

I arrange to meet in a dodgy suburb and think, do I need to put the cricket bat in the boot? From there, I drift further into the waiting room of doubt. But then I’ll need to put in a ball or the police will think the bat is a weapon? Do I have it there as a weapon? And that’s not even considering the true state of the car itself, and the money I’m about to part with.

Deeper into the delivery suite of nagging thoughts I shuffle. Should I bring the whole sum asked for or just a deposit? What assurances will I get, what documents should I take with me, do I have to haggle, should I put a few hundred in a different pocket?

Or the Hagelian reversal: will he trust me?

I get to the meeting point (not his house!) early. The seller is on time. Does that mean something? He’s wearing a tracksuit. Is it a tracky-with-matching-gold-chain look or keen-jogger-on-Sunday look? He opens the boot and moves a pair of expensive trainers to show me the spare. So he is a jogger, or went to the trouble to seem so …

The car is a little dirtier than the picture. He apologises for this straight off: “I washed it for the photos, but it’s been raining … sorry.” I want him to like me, too. I say: “It’s not a showroom, I’m not expecting perfection. So long as everything that should work works, I’ll be happy.”

We wander around the car. I pretend to know something about engines, taking a torch with me to inspect the fan-belt thing, for effect. I tickle switches and bounce the suspension. “Can I take her for a spin?”

Mental notes while driving:  soggy clutch, strange smell (perhaps not), oil temperature is okay (I guess), brakes are good … “What do you do?” I ask in order to be conversational, but perhaps a bit more. “I teach philosophy,” he says. I want to believe him despite the unlikelihood such professions still exist.

Next, he tells me lots of traders have seen it but they keep trying to haggle and pick faults in his little baby. I can see this upsets him and tell him that’s not my style. If I take it, it will be as God intended. Truth be known, it’s everything I’d hoped for, everything I’d been thinking of.

“Let’s do this,” I say. He is palpably relieved.

So now the whole documentation dance starts. What papers go to who for the deposit? When to meet for the final exchange, and so on? But by this time, I’m feeling confident, a sense that I can’t possibly lose on this – what psychologists might call ‘rational utility’, the urge to justify my decision for consistency sake. Or it’s ‘invincible gambler’ hour, that time between making a bet and when the horses leave the gate … I can’t lose!

The invincibility passes by the time I’m heading home and the doubts return – my money is probably long gone and the whole jogging philosopher persona is an elegant ruse.

Of course, life is never that intriguing, and the seller and his wife deliver the car to my house three days later, as promised, on their way to picking up the Volvo V50 they bought nearby. Nice people.

So the big day finally arrives. All the months spent searching, wondering, hoping and now she’s all mine. I hold the keys gently in my hand, sit in the driver seat, then the passenger seat, then the back seat, for good measure. I kick her over a few times, look under the bonnet again, put in my New Order CD, and Love Will Tear Us Apart sounds better than ever.

I put her in a cozy corner of the garage that I cleared. I make excuses to go into the garage and there she is. Peaceful. Waiting to be taken out. All the worries now gone. She’s mine now, and I’ll accept what ever comes with that.


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Egypt’s middle-class cyberheroes

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By Osama Diab

Social networking and blogging voices the dreams and aspirations of the young and middle-class in Egypt, leaving other underrepresented groups as marginalised as ever.

Friday 25 November 2011

News of the prominent and outspoken Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy’s arrest and assault, which left her with two broken wrists, spread around the twittersphere at something approaching the speed of light, and then was picked up and covered by most major news outlets. Of course, this level of attention is unsurprising as Eltahawy is not only a brave journalist and campaigner, she is also well-known and admired both among Arab secularists and among liberals in the West.

When Alaa Abdel-Fattah, the Egyptian political activist and blogger, was arrested, my Facebook newsfeed, in a matter of minutes, was dominated by posts condemning his arrest. Profile pictures were changed to a Guevara-style silhouette version of his picture in solidarity with the young activist. He was quickly portrayed as the ultimate freedom fighter and the symbol of resistance. He indeed is. Abdel-Fattah comes from a family of political activists and has been an active force of resistance against Mubarak’s tyrannical rule for nearly a decade. He extensively blogged and participated in numerous protests against the ousted and the current regimes.

Despite my empathy with Alaa Abdel-Fattah as a fellow blogger who fell victim to his opinions, he is neither the only nor the most vulnerable victim of Egypt’s successive ruthless regimes, including the current transitional military junta. Khaled Said, Mina Daniel, Maikel Nabil Sanad, and now Abdel-Fatah, have all caused online uproars following their arrest or killing. They are most definitely and without doubt victims, but so are tens of thousands of others whose cases go unreported because Egypt’s middle-class, educated online activists fail to identify with them.
Egypt’s internet demographics explain the selectivity of victims, heroes and symbolic figures in the country’s online struggle for democracy. The internet penetration rate is still a low 20%, which means that if you are a member of Egypt’s online population, you are most likely a member of an educated middle-class in a big metropolis, mainly Cairo and Alexandria.
There is also about a 65% chance that you’re a male, and about a 90% chance you’re aged between 13 and 34. In order to be an active contributor in cyberspace, you also require a certain level of technological expertise, such as video-editing and blog-managing skills, which again would probably be higher among educated, male and young users.
Even among active internet users, there are still different levels and shades of contribution – not everyone contributes equally or has the same impact. In 2006, a study carried out by Forrestry Survey found that only 13% of internet users are active creators or users generating, rather than just viewing, content, while the majority of users were described as ‘passive spectators’ (33%) and ‘inactive’ users (52%). In other words, the majority of internet users are there to view content with a very minimal contribution of opinion, information, etc.
What this means is that people who play an active role online are a tiny percentage, not just of the population at large but even of internet users. They are mainly young, middle-class, urban and predominantly male. Looking at these figures, it is no surprise that the revolution’s cyberheroes match the profile of the typical Egyptian Facebook user.

The background of the majority of social networkers dictates the narratives and views you find in Egyptian cyberspace.  This explains why it is very hard to find accounts of  other victims from different backgrounds in Egypt’s shanty towns and rural areasAge, gender, residence and social status are all factors that confine online participation and lobbying power to certain groups.
Online activism did undoubtedly play a big role in educating, raising awareness and mobilising people in the build-up to the Arab revolts of earlier this year. But if we have more men than women, urban  than rural people, young than old online, then these groups are better-positioned than others to mobilise, express their opinion and lobby policy-makers, even if young people have yet to make it in large numbers into mainstream politics. This poses a challenge to the whole idea that new social media are more empowering compared to traditional media outlets.
If empowerment is restricted to certain groups of people, then social media kind of loses its perceived altruistic nature. Even the very idea of media empowerment was also introduced in cyberspace by those very people empowered by the media. This participatory media was  utilised by educated online communities to make up for the lack of democracy in the real world. Being unable to vote or affect public policy for decades has made the internet a haven for those who long for political rights and desire to play an active part in shaping their own future and the public policy of their country. Therefore, an old, illiterate farmer’s wife in a Nile Delta village will probably be a lot more sceptical about how Facebook can empower her.
In a way, this is reminiscent to when only white male Protestants were allowed to vote in the United States – a strategy employed to shape public policy in favour of a certain privileged group. Even though it is logistically and practically impossible to connect every Egyptian to the internet and get them to participate equally, especially when the illiteracy rate is still as high as 30% and nearly half the population lives below the poverty line. However, we can still find some consolation in the fact that more and more people are coming online every day. The number of internet users is expected to rise exponentially by 2012, which will enable more people to learn some of the 21st century’s tricks of grassroots, bottom-up campaigning.

This article is published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Sexual harassment: No online way out

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Blogging won’t raise awareness about sexual harassment more than it already has. We must focus our efforts on lobbying the government to do more.

 Monday 20 June 2011

Today is a day dedicated to blogging about sexual harassment. The idea is for all the bloggers in Egypt and outside it to raise awareness about the issue by writing about it – all on the same day. However, I always ask myself, does the average sexual harasser who would hiss at and follow a high school girl in Dokki or grope a tourist walking down Tala’at Harb Street read these blogs (many of which are written in English) or even hear about them? The answer is an obvious ‘no’.

Internet usage in Egypt is still largely confined to educated circles. If you surf the web for knowledge (other than pornographic knowledge) in Egypt, read blogs and have a Facebook account, then you are most likely a university student/graduate and probably a member of at least the middle class and most likely wouldn’t around groping that high school girl around the corner. 

So how could we avoid turning this event into ‘people who think sexual harassment is bad’ writing for ‘other people who also think sexual harassment is bad’ in an infinite loop, where everyone is exchanging similar information, knowledge and opinions in our beloved political blogospheric circle, instead of trying to think and act outside this circle.

At the end of today, we will all feel quite good about our contributions and think we must be on the right track, but even though I hate to be the bearer of bad news, we really aren’t. In fact, sexual harassment is just so ingrained that even the toughest stain-removal blogging won’t be able to wash it off.

In order to combat sexual harassment, a consensus among those who blog about it today needs to be reached that there are a complicated and inextricably intertwined mix of social, economic and political reasons behind it.

Let’s take a quick look at the economic factor. It’s not only extreme poverty and inhumane living conditions that lead people to sexual harassment; many poor societies don’t suffer from this social cancer the same way Egypt does, after all.

It is this weird urban mix of dire poverty and extreme wealth which creates this immense feeling of social frustrations and anger at rich people. The victims of this kind of poverty-driven sexual harassment are usually the wealthy western-dressed girls driving around the city in their luxury cars, who embody, in the eyes of their tormentors, the lack of social justice, while their perceived physical and social vulnerabilitymakes them easy prey to these economic and social frustrations. So here, the magic ingredients of this distasteful dish of sexual harassment are poverty and social injustice, mixed in with a potent dose of misogyny. 

Part of being a ‘Man’ in our patriarchal society is to be sexually explicit by showing sexual interest in everything that even hints at femininity. If a group of teenagers hanging around a street corner see a girl passing by and one of them refrains from oogling her out or making a remark about her, let alone ask the other guys to stop it, he would probably end up on the receiving end of their derision and mockery. Victims of this type of harassment are usually the less fortunate girls who are forced into commuting their way around the city and rubbing shoulders with hundreds, if not thousands of men, on a daily basis.

This kind of male peer pressure also increases the chance of sexual harassment. This again is combined with economic reasons; a high unemployment rate and poor economic conditions increase the number of young guys wandering aimlessly around the streets of Egypt. They have endless hours on their hands, due to the lack of work, and little financial ability to do anything meaningful to kill time.

The conservative solution of enforcing gender segregation is not working either but could be possibly increasing sexual harassment. Gender segregation would only widen the communication gap between men and women, creating more gender-based social problems, such as sexual harassment and domestic violence. We should not give up on trying to solve a long-term problem through short-term ‘comfort ‘ measures, such as women-only metro cars and beaches.

As for the political aspect of the problem, it is simply the political system that allowed for these economic and social misfortunes to flourish and control our lifestyle. Additionally, it is the authoritarian political system that stripped many citizens off their dignity to the extent that they see no problem in infringing on someone’s privacy and personal space without invitation. The slightest sense of self-respect would stop any individual from doing that out of embarrassment, even if they continue to harbour misogynistic beliefs.

Even though I see the nobility of the intentions behind calling the 20 June a day for blogging about sexual harassment, this unedifying phenomenon cannot be blogged away as long as the reasons behind it are not tackled. Even if we reach a million blog entries today, there will still be a zillion sexual harassment incidents tomorrow.

A more holistic approach is needed when combating sexual harassment, and the only entity that has the ability to address this inter-connected complex situation comprehensively and put a framework for solving it on the political, social, economic, legal and security levels is the government. Therefore, the Egyptian blogosphere’s main duty should be to lobby the government to do more through its education programmes, media apparatus, poverty alleviation schemes and the establishment of a more socially just atmosphere, rather than trying to address the harassers because they are simply not listening.

This article is part of a special series on sexual harassment. Published here with the author’s consent. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Arab spring and Turkish autumn?

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By Andrew Eatwell

Is Turkey truly a role model for the Arab Spring or is it actually a secular democracy in its autumn years?

Wednesday 8 June 2011

In the midst of the Arab Spring, Turkey is being looked to as a role model for post-revolutionary Arab states: a large, mostly Muslim country that has moved from military domination to civilian rule, led by a popular democratically elected government. Surely, conventional thinking goes, the so-called ‘Turkish model’ is a template for countries like Tunisia, Egypt and a post-Gaddafi Libya or a post-Saleh Yemen.

But as people in many Arab countries look forward to a new democratic dawn, many Turks are wondering if their secular democracy is not moving into its autumn years.

In recent months, as Tunisians and Egyptians celebrated the overthrow of their authoritarian regimes, Turks watched as police rounded up journalists, bloggers and military officers. As Arab revolutionaries coordinated anti-government protests over the internet, the Turkish government announced new internet regulations that critics say will increase censorship and restrict freedom of expression.

Many secular Turks worry that opposition to years of authoritarian rule in the Arab world is running parallel to rising authoritarianism at home. And they fear what will be next if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wins the upcoming general election on June 12, as is widely expected.

Since coming to power in 2002, Erdoğan has sought to curtail the power of the meddlesome military – long the guardian of Turkish secularism – and the country’s militantly secular judges. A former radical Islamist who was once jailed for inciting religious hatred and whose party was previously banned, Erdoğan has reincarnated himself and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), publicly espousing a moderate, democratic brand of political Islam. As such, he has framed his efforts to trim the influence of the secular military as a step toward full-blooded Western-style democracy rather than a step away from secularism.

Outside Turkey, Erdoğan, in his new incarnation, has been widely applauded. A constitutional reform package that was approved in a referendum last September won praise from Western officials and the European Union, which Turkey is trying to join (though obstacles on both sides have recently cast shadows over the membership process). The reforms, which Erdoğan will seek to implement should he win the 12 June election, allow for previously untouchable army officers to be tried in civilian courts – in line with EU norms – and put an end to the legal immunity of top military officials implicated in a 1980 coup. It also increases the number of judges on the Constitutional Court – Turkey’s highest – and on the powerful Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.

Inside Turkey, Erdoğan, who grew up in a poor Istanbul neighbourhood, became a semi-professional football player and went on to serve as mayor of the city in the 1990s, remains popular in low-income urban areas and in the country’s conservative rural Anatolian heartland. He is credited with bringing jobs and economic growth, taming formerly rampant inflation and doing more than any previous leader to move Turkey along the road to EU membership.

But in fast-modernising areas of major cities and coastal towns, many secular Turks question his aims.
They see the army, which has had a hand in the overthrow of four governments in the last 50 years, not as a threat to democracy per se but rather as the guardian of Turkey’s secular political order, a role it has played since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, himself a senior army commander, established the modern republic in 1923 following the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

For them, Erdoğan’s efforts to curtail the military’s power risks opening the door to Islamisation. And they worry that the independence of the courts, which have strictly upheld the secular Constitution, will be undermined by the increase in the number of judges, more of whom will be appointed by the president and parliament, currently under the control of Erdoğan’s AKP.

Opinion polls suggest the AKP will easily win the 12 June election, picking up around 45% of the votes, a similar percentage to in the last election in 2007. The main opposition centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) with its new leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, meanwhile, is on track to garner around 30% of votes, 10 percentage points more than in 2007. Despite that, the AKP stands a chance to increase its strength considerably and win an absolute majority in the 550-seat parliament if the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) drops below the 10% threshold needed to enter the chamber. Hit by a series of sex scandals – made public in videotapes distributed over the internet that have so far led to the resignation of four party members – the MHP currently looks likely to win 13% of votes, opinion polls suggest.

If the MHP fails to maintain sufficient support to enter parliament come election day, the AKP will all but certainly pick up enough seats to push its constitutional reform package – and many other laws – through parliament unchallenged. That has put secularists on edge in light of the events that have followed the constitutional referendum.

In February and again in April, dozens of military officers – among them 30 serving generals – were arrested for allegedly plotting a coup in the so-called Balyoz (Sledgehammer) case. And, over the same period, journalists were detained and blogs closed down for allegedly supporting another group of similarly likeminded coup-mongers in a separate case known as Ergenekon. Critics, among them law professors, political analysts and rights groups, say that the evidence in both cases looks flimsy and, in some instances, may have even been fabricated. Some have likened the investigations to a witch-hunt against opponents of the AKP.

“The Ergenekon investigation became a political witch-hunt tinged with obtuse paranoia in which a single, centrally coordinated – and manifestly fictional – clandestine organisation was accused of responsibility for every act of political violence in Turkey in the last 25 years,” writes Istanbul-based political analyst Gareth Jenkins. “Those who questioned the prosecutors’ claims – and the numerous breaches of due process, including the apparent fabrication of evidence – were subjected to public smear campaigns; in several cases they were arrested and charged with being members of Ergenekon themselves.”

Having already tamed the country’s largest media conglomerate, Doğan, with draconian fines for alleged tax fraud, the arrest of journalists, bloggers and the closure of an internet portal, Oda tv, which was critical of the AKP, are increasingly being seen as attempts to silence dissent and muzzle free speech.

With more than 50 journalists taken into custody in recent months, Turkey has imprisoned more journalists than any other country, ahead of China and Iran, according to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.
“Journalists and editors remained targets for prosecution. Legitimate news reporting on trials was deemed ‘attempting to influence a judicial process’ (and) reporting on criminal investigations was judged as ‘violating the secrecy of a criminal investigation’,” Human Rights Watch noted in its most recent World Report.

Members of the European Parliament pressed the issue in April when Erdoğan visited Brussels. Specifically, he defended the arrest of several journalists, a raid on the offices of leftist-liberal daily Radikal and the seizure of a book (banned by the government but widely circulated over the internet), all linked to the Ergenekon affair.

The book, titled The Imam’s Army and written by arrested investigative journalist Ahmet Şık, could be explosive, Erdoğan appeared to suggest: “It is a crime to use a bomb but it is also a crime to use materials from which a bomb is made. If informed that all materials needed to construct a bomb have been placed in a certain location, wouldn’t the security forces collect these materials?”

The government’s attacks on press freedom, combined with Erdoğan’s increasing hostility to Israel and warming relations with Iran, have undoubtedly tarnished relations between the NATO ally and Europe and the United States. Turkey’s chances of joining the EU anytime soon are looking increasingly slim and are likely to only get slimmer if the Erdoğan government continues down its current path.

Confiscating books, closing websites and blocking internet content is not new in Turkey: the government barred access to YouTube in 2008 over a video that was deemed to be insulting to Ataturk, a criminal offense under Turkish law. It lifted the ban two years later when the content was removed.

Previously, US officials had complained about the “absurd” trial of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk for writing about the death of up to one million Armenians in 1915, a deeply neuralgic issue in Turkey.  “It will take much work to convince the Turks that freedom should cover the right to criticise and open guarantees to protect that right,” wrote former US Ambassador Ross Wilson of the Pamuk affair in a 2005 cable made public last year by WikiLeaks.

In the latest – though not entirely surprising – twist, the Turkish government has refocused its attention on the internet, announcing plans to implement new regulations that will effectively give it even more control over what content Turkish surfers can see. Under a regulation entitled “Procedures and Principles Regarding the Safe Use of the Internet” that is due to go into effect on 22 August, internet users will be given four filtering options to choose from: “family,” “child,” “domestic” and “standard”, each of which will give them access to a certain set of websites. The government claims that it is taking the step in order to protect children from pornography and uphold “family values” but it has not made clear which websites will be blocked and the most open “standard” package is still expected to maintain the restrictions Turkey already imposes.

“There is no time in Turkey when we do not face new censures and pressures. There are many barriers put in front of the right of people to be informed in Turkey,” the main opposition CHP said in an online statement, comparing the internet restrictions to the censoring and imprisonment of journalists. “You close websites, we will open them,” the party said, promising the change if it wins the forthcoming election.

In 2009, the government stopped releasing figures on the number of blocked sites (most of which are restricted arbitrarily by government officials without court orders), but it is now believed to be in excess of 8,000. Most of them contain pornographic material, though websites linked to Kurdish rights groups, blogs critical of the government and even some foreign media sites are also blocked.

“Depending on the government, depending on the ministers, you can be put on the blacklist,” says Nadire Mater, the head of the Turkish human-rights website Bianet. “This is not a democracy.”

Under the new measures, attempting to access restricted sites – using proxy servers abroad, for example, as many Turks previously did to watch YouTube – could lead to arrest and hefty fines. Erdoğan’s government has tried to persuade Turks that the filtering system is similar to that offered in some European countries, while failing to point out that no Western democracy bans websites to the extent that Turkey already does.

Internet campaigners and human rights groups say the move will put Turkey on a par with China and is inconsistent with the provisions on freedom of expression in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which Turkey has signed.  “We will be behind censorship software just like in China. We will not have the chance to stay out of it,” warns Serdar Kuzuloğlu, an IT reporter for the Radikal daily.

The planned restrictions on the internet drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Turkish cities in protest on May 15. They carried banners warning that the new regulations portend the “death of the internet” in Turkey. Many may well worry that they are also witnessing the death throes of their secular democracy.

©Andrew Eatwell. All rights reserved. Published here with the author’s consent.

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Egyptian government fears a Facebook revolution

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By Osama Diab

Talk of banning Facebook is only the surface of a greater crackdown on independent media by an insecure government.

2 November 2010

Many Egyptians, in what is still a police state, regard Facebook as a safe haven where they can campaign and express their opinions freely. But that could soon change following a crackdown by the authorities against various types of media.

In Egypt, many opposition movements have either started or grown significantly on Facebook, most notably the 6th April Youth Movement and the national campaign to support Nobel peace prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei as a presidential candidate.

Understanding the impact Facebook now has on Egypt’s political life, the Egyptian TV’s most popular talk show, Masr el-Nahrda (Egypt Today), suggested banning Facebook or passing a law to regulate Facebook activities in Egypt.

The show’s host, Mona el-Sharkawy, and her two guests heavily criticised Facebook and warned viewers against its evil and how it can be used by intelligence apparatuses all over the world to gather secret information about target countries.

Gamal Mokhtar, a technology expert and a guest on the show, said that Facebook has definitely revealed itself as a political tool used by foreign powers to obtain secret information about certain countries.

“We need to prevent problems, strikes and vandalism in the country by regulating it,” said the technology expert. el-Sharkawy also cited the 6 April Youth Movement as an example of how Facebook can be used destructively. She claimed (on no factual basis) that members of the group, which started on Facebook, had destroyed Tahrir Square in Cairo during one of their protests.

This comes at a time when a crackdown on independent media is under way in Egypt ahead of both parliamentary and presidential elections. Ibrahim Eissa, the former editor of the al-Dustour independent newspaper, predicted a crackdown on the internet following the attack on many other media outlets.

“Perhaps soon we’ll see urgent legislation to snuff out Egyptians’ freedom of expression on the internet. And several understandings will be arrived at with representatives of the western media in Egypt,” Eissa wrote two days before he was dismissed from his post as al-Dostour‘s editor-in-chief.

Many other notable figures critical of the regime’s violations were also recently stopped from doing their jobs. Prominent political analyst Hamdi Qandeel and the internationally renowned novelist Alaa ElAswany have both had their columns in al-Shorouk newspaper removed.

Other pre-election measures have included stopping the broadcasting of four independent satellite channels and putting restrictions on the mass sending of mobile text messages (a practice widely used for campaigning by opposition movements in Egypt).

The recent media crackdown – and the talk of “regulating” Facebook in Egypt – is an indicator that the regime does not have the slightest intention of playing the political game fairly and freely. The crackdown is fed by the regime’s insecurity as it loses public support. With such lack of popularity, the regime has to choose between losing and cheating – and losing doesn’t sound like a viable option.

It won’t be surprising if the government tries to link some criminal incidents with the use of Facebook in order to gain support for regulation – for example, by making it a crime to start a political group on Facebook.

Worried by the fact that the state TV is only a tool for delivering the government’s message and that criticism of Facebook was probably not an arbitrarily chosen topic, a Facebook group entitled “together to stop the ban of Facebook in Egypt” has started campaigning and attracted more than 10,000 members in just a few days.

The suggestion of a ban on Facebook shows the regime is worried of any medium that shows real trends and statistics in Egypt, which they have no control over. It’s also because the regime is definitely losing the Facebook numbers game; it’s hard to imagine that Mokhtar would have still suggested control over the social network if it was President Hosni Mubarak who got a quarter of a million fans on his page rather than ElBaradei.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 21 October 2010. Read the related discussion. Reprinted here with the author’s permission. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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The internet of everything and nothing?

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By Ray O’Reilly

Jerry Michalski, the founder of the ‘Relationship economy expedition’ (REX), shares his insights on the future of the internet.

Monday 25 May 2010

From 1987 to 1998, Jerry Michalski was a technology analyst, focusing not on quarterly earnings but rather on which technologies would be useful and which would be distractions, what trends and forces create new potential, and where all these forces might take us over a 20-year timeframe. For the last five years of that period, he was the managing editor of Esther Dyson’s monthly tech newsletter Release 1.0, as well as co-host of her annual conference, ‘PC Forum’. He was fortunate to be on duty when the internet crept up on us all.

Since 1998, he has been an independent consultant, doing business as Sociate, a name he coined because he is skilled at associating ideas and people, and also because he believes that the social changes that we are going through as a result of all the new connectivity (e.g. internet, mobiles, inexpensive cameras, video sharing, tweeting) will be more profound than the structural and economic changes we have already seen.

What do you understand by the term ‘future internet’? Isn’t it a misnomer ― aren’t we already seeing it?

The internet as we know it is maybe 15 years old. It’s very young. From my perspective, we are pretty early in a longer process that may take 30 or 50 years to complete. This is one of those moments of punctuated equilibrium, the kinds of moments it’s really nice to be alive during.

Because there’s so much change going on, the internet is always evolving. Right now, it’s quite plastic. The cost of experimenting with it is very, very low, and there are practically no barriers to entry.

The internet crept up on us. It was designed out of a defence project by engineers who didn’t have a stake in the game. They hardly cared whether their companies could turn the internet into a profitable new channel or platform. My belief is that no commercial venture could have invented the internet. If you play this idea out, it is possible that attempts to ‘improve’ the internet may well end up ruining it. After all, television was going to revolutionise education. It hasn’t.

Technologies tend to run far ahead of our ability to understand them or their effects. The telephone, for example, was a century ahead of our understanding of its effects. I can whisper into a telephone, and I will seem to be closer to the person I’m speaking with that I could be in person. The telephone is incredibly intimate.

Now multiply this a thousand-fold. People are divulging their favourite music, their location and far more information than is healthy for them. We have very little idea where this all might go. Unfortunately, there are many forces who would like to privatise the internet, to rope off certain parts for them, or to create ways of charging extraordinary rents for their services (read Jonathan Zittrain on this). Once a technology has gotten business’s attention, bad things can easily happen.

There’s another problem: a ‘better’ internet may not be what engineers and scientists envision it to be. It may not be giga-fast, semantically smart, sensor driven or otherwise more fully featured. It may be that the best internet is the simplest internet that reaches the most people, and allows the greatest range of creative responses and experiments.

What got you involved in technology and the ‘futurist’ business (if we can call it that)? What advice would you give to anyone setting off in a career in IT or related sciences?

Years ago, I would introduce myself as the accidental technology analyst. Without a degree in computer science or journalism, I ended up writing about technology for a largely business audience.

In 1981, I bought an Apple as a hobby. Later, I discovered a passion for history and the future, which complement one another very well, the latter turning into the former in a very messy way. I’ve always followed my instincts about what to learn and what to write about, which has served me wonderfully and terribly.

I say wonderfully, because today I feel that all the strange little grottoes of knowledge I stumbled into, like neurolinguistic programming or pattern languages, inform my world view in fabulous ways. I say terribly because I’ve sacrificed a more ‘normal’ career path to my curiosity.

My advice would be to avoid the well-worn path and dive deep into a few interesting areas. Develop a broader thesis about what is going on than Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law. Learn about sociology and history, then fold that into technology. Don’t overdose on engineering or management practices. Both are valuable, but in isolation, they’re part of the problem. Learn about spirituality and eco-feminism, for example. Some of the solution is in those worlds.

The future internet is being touted as something of a panacea for all that dogs Western society, from ageing populations to ailing economies and financial sectors. Can you help our readers sort the happening from the hype? What’s really possible and how can people benefit from it?

The internet pierces or tears down many walls that existed before, like the walls that separated the CEO from everyone else (now you can email him/her), your employees from the outside world (they’re all on LinkedIn and Facebook! or they’re Tweeting!), your ideas from everyone else (they’re wafting in the info-breeze, openly).

Many of those walls were the premises of business models based on scarcity. Many things that were once scarce are now abundant. We’re going to see a very messy few decades ahead as everyone adjusts to these changes. Businesses need to figure out how to make profits while nurturing the Commons, instead of roping off their part of it and damaging it.

So the internet is both a big opening/opportunity and a great danger (to incumbents, mostly). We’re likely to see far more chaos than we’ve seen so far. But in the long run, we’re correcting many errors that came about when market society was born, back in the 17th and 18th centuries, and we may end up rebalancing those errors over time.

When you start to see today’s progress from this perspective, all sorts of new ideas pop into your head. Some are business ideas, some are simply things that ought to exist, which some small group of motivated individuals could do for free over several months, if they were inspired to do so.

It’s a wonderful (and even scary) time to be alive.

The ancient Greeks believed that the universe was filled with a mysterious element called ether ― the substance that filled all space. We know better now but perhaps the sort of pervasive, ubiquitous computing touted as part of the future internet will revive the power of the ether. Care to comment?

I fear the sensor-filled future that many tout. If car-makers can’t make the software in their high-end cars run properly, how are we supposed to live in a world filled with connected devices too small to see, all chattering with one another and talking about us? I fear we’re opening Pandora’s Box even further in such a world.

I love that the net allows people who have never had a voice to find one online, and to connect with other people. That is one of the Net’s great virtues. But one of the casualties of this progress will be our privacy, and with it, our autonomy. Get a government that’s a shade or two more devious than recent ones we’ve had, and we’ll be spinning towards one of several dystopian science fiction futures.

Software is today what hardware was in IT’s halcyon days, say 30 years ago. But the critical systems running everything from vacuum-sealing machines to train networks are getting too complex for mere beings to maintain, let alone upgrade. Is there a place for self-healing machines, networks and applications?

I believe a few disciplines will figure out how to field self-healing devices and applications, but it will be the exception, not the norm. On the whole, broken devices and systems will be typical. Complexity overwhelms, then we could see collapse.

How far are we prepared to let an ‘internet of machines’ run themselves?

I think we’re blithely confident that whatever bad things that show up can be controlled, and that we believe the emerging internet of things will be generally benign. That is misplaced optimism. Hackers can easily be able to take over most of those sensors and devices, and who knows what they will do.

Smart cars? I don’t think so. That’s merely an invitation for the driver to nap, and if the car can’t handle 100% of the task of driving, we’re asking for trouble. And on from there into other domains.

The big issues of today are climate change, poverty, sustainable economies and energy… To what extent do you see the internet of tomorrow shaping up to help solve or tackle these sorts of global issues?

I’m constantly inspired by smart initiatives fuelled or lubricated by the internet, from the Extraordinaries to Open Source Ecology, Khan Academy and Kickstarter, to name just a few. The cost of launching an initiative has fallen through the floor, to almost nothing. That is terrific. The danger is that we try to tackle all these problems with a centralised, “we have the right answer” mentality, rather than look for local wisdom and help amplify that.

And all the data centres needed for this internet thing to happen cause a great deal of pollution and energy waste themselves. Just look at the externalities of semiconductor manufacturing.

We see more and more little robots that act like rats or ants or other natural phenomena. How do you see the work on bio-inspired computing, such as neural networks, panning out in the future?

Interestingly, neural networks is the technology that pulled me from general-purpose (non-tech) consulting into the tech world, back in 1987.

I’m ambivalent about these technologies. On one hand, as I mentioned, I fear the unconstrained use of micro-sensors and bots that will litter our landscape and invade our privacy. I’m not sure how many useful things they can actually do for us to offset those forces.

On the other hand, I believe we are weaving a global brain, and that this is a very positive accomplishment in human evolution. Every time someone forwards an interesting e-mail to someone else, or friends them on Facebook (believe it or not), or tweets into the ether, or blogs ― they are creating small, weak dendritic connections with other people.

We don’t know ahead of time what might happen over those connections, but later they might determine whom you trust in a national emergency, or what products you trust and purchase. These relationships are crucial, even (maybe even especially!) when they are weak.

I’ve been weaving a small brain of my own, using a commercial product called PersonalBrain. You can view mine online. Here’s a link to a good starting point, which expresses my personal beliefs.

As more business and activity moves to the net, security, data protection and privacy issues are reaching a critical stage. What is your prediction on how this will evolve, and on the subject of eTrust?

Several parallel forces and outcomes come to mind: security is an arms race, though it is more biological than military (and thus more complex). We are likely to be very surprised by cyber-attacks in the next five to ten years. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a country’s power grid taken down for a week or more in this way, which would be devastating to the economy and social structure in its current high-consumption state.

Privacy seems to be in the process of shifting. Millennials [the net generation] not only make much more information available publicly, it could be that they won’t trust anyone who doesn’t have such information (say, embarrassing photos from an out-of-hand party) available online. If you left no electronic footprints, maybe you didn’t even exist? So I think privacy will shift markedly from what 45-year-olds would hope today, towards the Facebook generation. But I think it’ll pull back from the extreme of everyone knowing everything.

Companies are furiously harvesting all the data they can now reach easily, and they’re trying to analyse it in order to influence us. That sort of behaviour works, but is not trustworthy. My hope is that trust and authenticity trump all those efforts at data mining, and that companies which spend very little money trying to manipulate us but fulfil our needs really well will do better than those whose costs are higher because they’re busy figuring out how to make us buy things we don’t really need.

That may be a bit Utopian of me.

Find out more about Jerry Michalski’s REXpedition.

Published with the author’s permission.  © Ray O’Reilly. All rights reserved.

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