Ghost in the machine

 
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By Christian Nielsen

As we spent so much of our life online, what happens to our virtual selves when we die? Do they disappear too, or do we become ghosts in the machine?

Tuesday 18 September 2012 / Updated 31 October 2014

Last year, a journalist colleague-cum-friend stopped answering e-mails. At first, I thought he was miffed because a few of the stories he had written came back with critical comments and the client was breathing down my neck to take him off the job.

I knew he was having some kind of difficulty at home and perhaps even financial problems, so I persevered for his sake. A couple of weeks later, I gave the green light for another batch of stories from him.

No response to the e-mail on the first day. This was  out of character for this guy because he usually picks up a new commission in a flash. Two, three, four days passed without word. I still thought he was smarting from the client’s rebuke so let it pass. But after two weeks or so something was clearly wrong.

First I tried to call him on his mobile. No answer. I tried his old number – his mother’s I believe. Again nothing. This was not the sort of guy to pass up work, I decided, and definitely not the type to sulk for weeks, so something was definitely going on.  It was time to start investigating.

I checked his website, Facebook and LinkedIn. Nothing unusual there – some relatively recent activity. I then did the only other thing I could think of to nip a nagging worry in the bud … Yep, I Googled his name + ‘obituary’. I know it sounds morbid, but if I haven’t communicated the circumstances well enough here, take my word for it that this search was not done flippantly.

Sure enough, the first or second hit was a note in a local newspaper that my colleague-friend of five years had passed away. No mention of how, only that the family expressed its gratitude to a certain hospice which may or may not suggest he had been ill for some time. And when I think about the declining standard of his work, it would make sense.

But the way this happened, or at least the way his ‘virtual’ community (me and perhaps other colleagues and employers) had to learn of his death is what concerns me the most about relationships online. Concern that we build up friendships or professional closeness over the years without any physical foundations or recourse, if that is the right way to express it.

I didn’t know his family, or even if he had one. I had an old landline when he first started working for me but that was superseded by email/LinkedIn and so on. So, once his mobile phone apparently expired or the battery ran out, that was it. His mother, wife, son, or whoever was close to him probably didn’t know his PIN to open it again and answer the worried calls.

What’s more, they probably didn’t know his passwords and access codes to the various social networking tools he used. When I say ‘probably’ I’m just trying to be careful because the guy passed away nearly a year ago and just last week I got a ‘recent activity’ notification from him on LinkedIn.

It’s especially creepy because I still don’t know 100% that he’s dead. Sure, all the evidence indicates it, but with just 0.01% doubt, when you get a nudge from someone online, it makes you wonder. So much so that I had to see what the recent activity was. It appeared to be someone he had invited to join his network had finally got round to accepting it X months later.

Of course this is possible. I opened a LinkedIn account some 10 years ago and conscientiously ignored any and all invitations for nine years, until the system got so insistent that it became easier to accept them all than go through the rigmarole of rejecting and worrying that I’d offended someone (yes, I’m not a digital native … these things worry us ‘physical world’ people).

Post-game plans?

It also makes me wonder if we are overlooking our responsibilities to family and friends (virtual and physical) by not having a … well … post-game plan in case we get knocked over by a bus tomorrow. At least when we owned CDs and other real physical assets it was pretty simple, with or without a will and last testament, your stuff usually just went to the nearest and dearest. But with ‘digital assets’ we’re not even sure we own them, let alone whether we have a plan for how to pass them down to our family or friends.

Take the recent Bruce Willis and Apple story, which may have been false but that’s beside the point because it highlighted the issue of intellectual property rights and digital assets like music downloads, and that we may be only buying listening rights during our tenure on this world. How does that encourage legal downloading and the sustainability of the music/entertainment industry?

Perhaps the smart, discrete, respectful thing to do is to prepare your exit plan from the virtual world as much as you are primed to do so for the physical world. For example, write down the main platforms you engage in and how your family or friend can access them to take possession of any so-called digital assets bequeathed.

Make sure the executor or trusted person has instructions or enough information to shut down the online accounts which otherwise, very disturbingly, live on as ghosts in the machine. And, of course, put all this information somewhere safe from prying eyes, but not so safe that it won’t be found if that bus does have your number on it.

UPDATE

What happens to your Facebook account when you die? (30 Oct 2014) This story echoes the need to “think ahead” about your digital last will and testimony and introduces a feature now available on Facebook, at least, allowing those left behind to ‘delete’ or ‘memorialise’ the account. Here is what The Guardian’s ‘AskJack’ blog has to say on these options:

“If you choose to delete the account, then all the comments, photos etc. will also be deleted, unless you take legal steps to preserve them. This is a privacy issue. Facebook says: “The application to obtain account content is a lengthy process and will require you to obtain a court order.

“If you choose memorialisation, Facebook changes a number of things: No one is allowed to log in to the account; You can’t change, add to or delete existing content, which includes adding or removing friends; Automated activities, such as daily quotes or horoscopes, are stopped; Memorialised accounts don’t appear in “public spaces” such as birthday reminders, People You May Know, or searches; Memorialised accounts can only be accessed by the user’s confirmed friends.”

Hope this little addition helps those faced with the unpleasant decisions on what to do with the ‘ghost in the machine’.

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The power of Palestinian ingenuity

 
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By Khaled Diab

Outsiders are more likely to associate Palestine with statehood-pending than patent-pending, but innovation is crucial to building a better future.

Monday 16 January 2012

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

An integrated ‘smart’ system that manages all the devices in your home and business seamlessly. A robot that automatically turns the soil in your garden and waters the plants. Low-cost retinal scanners. Although these innovations may sound run-of-the-mill in Tokyo or Silicon Valley, in tiny, remote Ramallah, they represent the cutting-edge in Palestine’s emerging knowledge sector.

Now into its sixth edition, the ‘Made in Palestine’ fair seeks to change all this by putting Palestine on the global innovation map, before it even makes it on to the world’s political map. The annual exhibition and conference is organised by al-Nayzak, an NGO that works to nurture and incubate the creative and innovative potential of Palestinians from a young age.

But can Palestinian innovators match the success scored by their neighbour, rival and occupier, Israel, which has risen to become the region’s scientific and innovation powerhouse?

Many of the exhibitors and innovators I spoke to in Ramallah were hopeful. Some pointed out that the bumpy road to Palestinian and Arab innovation was already paved with a fair number of good inventions and ideas, but these often did not see the light of day, due to bureaucracy, a shortage of financing, and the absence of a strong industrial and research base.

“The state of Palestinian innovation is similar to that of the Arab world in general,” believes Ahmed Maani, who developed the Tsunami which, despite its destructive name, uses ultrasound to repel insects rather than kill them. “We have thousands of Arab innovators, and tens of thousands of innovations, but they remain neglected and marginalised.”

The situation Maani describes was well summed up in the UN’s sobering Arab Human Development Report, which stated that Arab countries only invested 0.4% of their collective GDP in R&D, compared to 2-3% in the industrialised world.

“But above all, Arab societies and peoples still live with the mentality of the defeated and do not trust any Arab technology,” notes Maani who, despite dedicating six years of his life to developing his latest product, often sees it marketed among Palestinians as being made in Israel because Palestinians do not believe that they can produce any quality products.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

The Palestinians have a number of specific factors in their favour and challenges which hinder them. To its advantage, the Palestinian population is among the best-educated in the Arab world. In addition, its large, diverse and extensive diaspora can, as the Jewish diaspora has demonstrated next door, play a pivotal role in both fuelling innovation and financing it. Moreover, if the conflict is ever resolved, the Israelis and Palestinians could become natural partners in business and innovation.

However, for the time being, the Israeli occupation is possibly the biggest single inhibitor of Palestinian innovation and economic development in general. Noting that investing in Palestinian innovation requires “a certain type of intrepid and foolhardy investor”, Maani points to the additional challenges of the restrictions on Palestinian movement, the small size of the Palestinian market and the difficulties and associated high costs involved in exporting.

That said, the circumstances of the occupation can also stimulate the creativity of the ingenious Palestinians. For example, the young innovator Ibrahim Nassar from Hebron, inspired by the movement restrictions Palestinians face, came up with a device which can be used by doctors to diagnose and monitor, via the mobile phone network, heart patients remotely with complete accuracy and reliability.

More generally, Palestinians are planning to wean themselves off their expensive and unreliable dependence on Israel for their energy needs through green investment and innovation. This preoccupation was reflected in many of the Made in Palestine innovations: compressed-air and solar-powered cars, a wind turbine made of recycled material, recycled car oil and solar-powered water desalination.

In the broader context, the Palestinian authority views economic development, partly founded on innovation, as a top priority and a prerequisite for statehood. What has become known as “Fayyadism”, after the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, posits that the first step on the path to statehood is through changing the Palestinians own state of being and building a de facto state-in-waiting.

“Creativity, innovation and excellence are vital tools in the hands of young people building the future of Palestine,” Fayyad said at Made in Palestine’s award ceremony, where an automated potato planter rolled away with the top prize.

But Fayyad admitted that this required wide ranging reforms, including greater support for innovators, the creation of a culture which values innovation, and narrowing the skills gap between the education system and the job market.

This article first appeared in The National on 12 January 2012.

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Mobile revolution in the Middle East

 
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By Christian Nielsen

“You won’t fool the children of the revolution.” Especially not if they’re Twittering away on their mobile phones.

Friday 18 March 2011

What started as a mobile-mediated youth movement has evolved into revolution and probably even war. The revolutionary wave hitting the Middle East and North Africa comes as no huge surprise to some scholars who predicted that the power of new media and instant communications would catch out unwary dictators and undemocratic governments everywhere.

In an article entitled ‘The blog versus big brother: new and old information technology and political repression (1980-2006)’, which recently appeared in the International Journal of Human Rights, the authors suggest that new technology features prominently in the current wave of globalisation which appears to be manifesting in widespread discontent, particularly among tech-savvy youth.

The authors, Indra de Soysa, director of globalisation research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and his colleague Lucia Liste Muoz, suggest that reliable information and free communication are something of a lifeline for fledgling opposition movements.

The authors note: “Sceptics of globalisation suggest that the new technology will hamstring governments from acting in the interests of ordinary people and for furthering communitarian values, leading to demobilisation of reform movements and empowering powerful capitalistic elites.”

Yet others, the authors continue, suggest that new technologies empower people at the expense of states, paving the way “for diversity of opinions and constraining the repressive tendencies of states and bureaucracies”.

Their December 2010 article – appearing rather forebodingly just weeks before the Middle-East/North Africa winter of discontent kicked off – appears to build on a 2009 paper by the same authors under the title ‘The blog versus big brother: information and communication technologies and human rights (1980-2005)’.

“TV is especially bad for human rights,” declares de Soysa in a statement, “because the government can feed propaganda to the population.” Evidence of which can be plainly seen in Libya today, as the world media are being harassed, obstructed and, according to some reports, even abducted by pro-government henchmen. Meanwhile Colonel Muammar Gaddafi maintains his defiant – many would argue delusional (see the Chronikler’s Defiantly delusional) – stand using traditional media like TV to misinform citizens.

Last week, as the country seemed to the rest of the world to be in the grips of full-scale civil war, a Libyan army captain said on Libyan state TV that security in rebel areas is at about 95%. “There are some rats that could be lying in some alleys and inside some flats. We are capturing them one group after the other,” he said. See Gaddafi in action on Turkish TV (BBC).

Young, sceptical and not into TV

That younger generations are turning away from traditional media (or “old technology”) like television in its basic form is well documented (check out the Nielsen report ‘Young people don’t watch TV on TV’). But what we are seeing, anecdotally at least, is that they are also increasingly sceptical about the one-way, lecturing approach to traditional media like TV. This is particularly true of countries where the media is state dominated, censored, or in dictatorships like Libya, just plain mouthpieces for the corrupt state to keep its people down.

So, this is really where the new technologies, especially mobiles and social media platforms, really shake the cage of dictators and questionable democracies. The internet and mobile phones make it harder for despotic leadership to feed the whole population with the necessary propaganda to prop it up. And social media also gives people access to information which might otherwise be censored or blocked on the internet (think China).

Technology as freedom fighter

In Egypt, for example, where a Google employee mobilised so many people in such a short time, social media really showed its potential as a political tool – a force for participatory democracy in some pure form.

Indra de Soysa points to the many eyewitnesses who sent pictures from mobile phones to media organisations like al-Jazeera, the BBC and CNN. “The authorities can no longer get away with attacking their own people. In Burma, the authorities can still shoot a man in the street, and get away with it. But there are beginning to be fewer and fewer countries where that is still the case,” he notes.

In Africa, mobile phones are spreading rapidly which also means that Africans will be connected to the world in a completely different way than before. “The world is becoming flatter because people communicate horizontally,” he adds.

Saddam first

De Soysa puts the current wave of enthusiasm for democracy and freedom in the context of globalisation and the way communications have changed in just a decade. The youth today, he suggests, perceive themselves as citizens of the world – no longer believing that old men should dictate how they should live. De Soysa suggests Tunisia and Egypt were not freak events: the start of the latest wave of revolutionary unrest in the Middle East and North Africa began with the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, he believes.

“The human cost was high, and many died. But it was an important symbol that encouraged people in other repressive regimes to believe that it is possible to get rid of a dictator,” he notes.

“I would not say that George Bush should get the Peace Prize, but in retrospect this was a very important event in initiating the change that is now rolling across the Middle East.”

That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is to take Marc Bolan’s advice: “you won’t fool the children of the revolution”… not anymore that is! If Bush helped at all, it was showing younger generations how wrong the old boys with their old technology got it.

 

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

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On a ring and a prayer

 
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By Khaled Diab

God now has a number. Sadly, it goes straight to voicemail, but I’ve got my messages ready. What about you?

March 2009

God, they say, moves in mysterious ways. But he seems to have fallen surprisingly quiet in recent times, after hectic centuries anointing prophets, parting seas, sacrificing his son, writing books on stone tablets in heaven which he then had faxed down to humanity by an angelic PA, and appearing in saintly visions.

In a sign of the changing times, God has gone from voices in the head to voicemail. For the next six months, people can call God in the Netherlands. You could say the Book of Numbers is being brought up to date with a telephone directory in annex. Look out for listings of all the major prophets and angels in the coming months – although the ‘Beast’ has revealed no plans to activate the number 666.

Unfortunately, given God’s busy schedule, (s)he does not actually have time to take your call, but (s)he does invite callers to leave a voicemail message. This irked one of my friends, Stef, who urged the Lord in no uncertain terms to “answer the phone, God damn it”. Meanwhile, Nikolai is worried that, inundated with calls, God may decide to employ an irritating automated call centre which would announce: “For ritual sacrifice, press one…”

As you’d expect from God, who always seems to carry out his divine mission on earth through mediums, the telephone number was set up by a human agent. The Dutch artist Johan van der Dong hopes the mobile phone number can help reconcile an ancient ritual, prayer, with a modern one, mobile telephony. “This will help people to order their thoughts and that is also a form of prayers,” believes van der Dong.

While I appreciate that the faithful may welcome this new channel for their prayers, if I could have a direct line to God, I would use it to ask him about all the things that just don’t add up about religion.

Despite all the questions in my head, I’ll limit myself to ten questions (please feel free to add your own):

  1. Do you really exist? If so and given that you are the All Mighty, could you please prove it definitively to dispel the controversy once and for all? On behalf of the Guardian, I’d invite you to write a column about it.
  2. Which religion is yours? Most religions believe that they have the inside track on you and that you have chosen the followers of that faith and blessed them above the rest of humanity. Is the Quran equivalent to the Bible? Are you the only god for the three big monotheistic faiths or do you have a couple of competitors out there? Which fundis are your favourites?
  3. If you created all humans as equals, why do many of your scriptures condone slavery, class and caste, and the inferior status of women? You’ve sent us your son. Now, in the spirit of equal opportunities, when can we expect to receive your daughter?
  4. Why does it seem that, in your book (or books), ritual is held above substance? Surely, people do not need to pray, go to a temple, embark on pilgrimages or fast, etc., to prove that they are good human beings. Conversely, people can be bad and also do all that you ask. Why do you demand blind obedience? I mean that’s not what I would expect from my kind of supreme and supremely confident being.
  5. Why are you so fixated on sex and sexuality? Why does religion seem to regard sex out of wedlock or between people of the same gender as more of a risk to society than war and climate change? Where do you stand on AIDS? Should people really not wear condoms even if it ends up killing them?
  6. Why is it that in the toss up between faith and reason, you expect us to choose faith? Surely, you should respect your creations enough to allow them to exercise their minds and reject your commands if they conflict with rationality.
  7. How do you explain the contradictions between scientific fact and religion? One example is ‘creationism v evolution’. Although some believers have managed to reconcile the two, there will always remain the conflict between our religious nature as God’s chosen creature and our biological nature as little more than smart apes who aren’t as clever as they think. And if there is no contradiction between science and religion, why have religious establishments often been the most vociferous opponents of scientific progress (note: I do realise that religion has also historically acted as a catalyst for science)?
  8. If you are merciful and loving, why did you create hell? Are you really in the habit of choosing one group of humans over another and, if so, how merciful and loving is it of you to condemn untold billions of people to eternal damnation for accidents of birth (i.e. being born into another religion) or choice?
  9. Is everything written or do we have free will? If You created us, are omniscient and know everything we are going to do before we do it, how the hell can you hold us accountable for our actions? Surely, they are, by implication, your actions.
  10. Why do you refuse to democratise faith? Presuming you’re as omnipotent as the descriptions, I’m sure you’d have no trouble in finding a way to talk to us all directly without the need for prophets and clergy to get in the way.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 4 March 2009. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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