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.


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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Is Facebook sinking or swimming?

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By Ray O’Reilly

Like an ocean predator, if Facebook is not moving forward, it is dying. So is this big fish drowning or can it continue to swim with the tide?

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Thanks for everything, Zuckers! Photo: Guillaume Paumier,

Some shark species have to keep moving to wash fresh water over their gills to stay alive. So, too, the common Facebook shark which has preyed on the world’s online waders for nearly a decade now. But like many shark populations, Facebook shark may also soon find itself on the red list of endangered species. Reasons?

I’d love to be able to carry on the simile further and simply say it’s down to … ahem … ‘over-phishing’ but strictly speaking that isn’t Facebook’s typical modus operandi… at least not yet. Alas, there are a few mitigating factors, and I’m pleased to say none are related to climate change, unless you count the recent so-so debut on the stock market as a sign of global cooling towards this online colossus.

No, there are other factors which portend the ultimate demise of this ‘big fish’. To date, the social media giant has fed on its denizens – their data and privacy at least – with all the table manners you’d expect of a cold-blooded killer. So it’s perhaps only a matter of time before Facebook gets ugly once its lifeblood, you and I, realise the social media wave pool is more like a fish farm dominated by corporate ‘story tellers’ – or is it advertisers? – feeding you meal made from other fish.

Think about it!

And don’t get me started on the FB Timeline – a new way for you to document the milestones of your life for millions of others to see. Timeline’s creators achieved something quite remarkable with this new data-gathering tool, somehow stripping the ‘logical’ part from what should be a straight-forward reverse chronological display of your life.

Since Timeline’s introduction earlier this year the fanfare has garnered no fans in my world. Now the haters in your FB community are given prominence for evermore and without the simple ‘Wall’, the all-so-important conversations are stilted and lack cogency because no one can fathom where the hell the conversation starts and stops.

Meanwhile, the new prominence of ads – sorry, I mean stories – crowd out the people, casting a glaring spotlight on this most recent of Facebook’s cynical commercial ploys to monetise your data.

So, if the forecast for Facebook is gradual ‘MySpace’ decline with a chance of total ‘Yahoo!’ collapse as shareholders head for the lifeboats, the big question is what’s next? You could well imagine a big buyout by the likes of Amazon who’d love to get their hands on FB’s ‘intelligence’, which is basically your data that you’re increasingly signing over.  This could be followed by a raft of embarrassing moves to justify the sale price… new stuff and apps but nothing substantial … in fact, more of the same.

Real people will defriend Facebook real fast and the corporations will carry on for a while until they realise there’s something else better out there that real people are into and where the commercial potential has been built-in rather than clumsily tacked on over the years. Pinterest comes to mind here.

Pinterest is being pitched as the hottest company on the web right now, “what Google+ should be”, according to It’s a modern and refreshingly simple (compared to Facebook nowadays) feed of images and catchy news headlines.

“What makes Pinterest the most interesting of the social networking sites is that it is actually oriented around the merchants. The pins [like a pin-up board] are mostly links to cool products that the person likes. It’s meant for this almost exclusively,” says PCMags’ John Dvorak.

Biggest problem for most people who want to migrate out of Facebook’s dragnet will be extricating their virtual lives – photos, friends, ‘stories’ – out of this platform and into whatever new medium is topping the ‘social media’ charts in five or so years’ time.

Actually, maybe Timeline will come in handy by documenting your hasty exit, which could go something like:

Andy read EU introduces new law on the “right to be forgotten online”

Andy just read How to export data from Facebook to XXX

And the trending story of 5 January 201X:

Andy commented ten times on story Thanks for everything Zuckers!

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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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Hungary for a better future?

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By Swaan van Iterson

Faced with soaring unemployment and the lack of prospects, many educated young Hungarians are being drawn to the radical right. But will it give them the better future they seek?

Friday 5 August 2011

The Turul bird is the national symbol of Hungary. Jobbik voters often wear it on T-shirts, necklaces, bracelets and other accessories. Photo: Swaan van Iterson

Until last year, the international media paid little attention to Hungary. This changed when the nationalist and conservative Fidesz party, under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, won a two-thirds majority in the elections of April 2010, thereby gaining the power to push through radical changes. 

Orbán moved quickly to nationalise private pension funds. In addition, he pushed through a controversial media law, which stipulates that a government-appointed media authority should monitor whether journalists provide “moral” and “objective” reporting.

More recently, in July of this year, his government passed a new church law, which officially recognises only 14 religions, and hence strips the others of the right to receive state subsidies. The Institute on Religion and Public Policy (IRPP) called the legislation the “worst religion law in Europe”.

And Orbán and his party are not finished yet. His latest idea is to allow secondary school children to study “basic military science” starting from the coming academic year.

But it is not just the Fidesz party that is making news in Hungary. Further to the right on the political spectrum the radical Jobbik party, which won 16.7% of the vote in the 2010 elections to become the third largest party in Hungary, is drawing attention.  The Movement for a Better Hungary’s (A Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom) manifesto is mainly based on, among other things, nationalism and the combating of so-called “gypsy criminality” (cigánybűnözés). Many believe that the party was closely linked to the Magyar Gárda (the Hungarian Guard that is now dissolved, but still active under different names), which was established to protect the population against this “gypsy crime”.

Jobbik’s main support base is not only found in the ranks of the poor and poorly educated workers in the northeast of the country, but increasingly amongst the urban young. In early 2010, some 15% of under-25s said they would vote for Jobbik – the party was particularly popular among university students specialising in the humanities or history.

This raises the question of why Jobbik is attractive to more highly educated students in Budapest. Most narratives paint a picture of a faceless crowd of “societal losers” who vote for the radical right. Can the same terminology be used to describe these students? I travelled to Budapest to find out. During a month of extensively interviewing students and hearing their story, while trying not to judge and to remain objective, I learned that radical right voters can be far from being the indistinguishable mass of victims they are often taken to be.

 Of multinationals and gypsies

A Jobbik student attends class with pen and bracelet in the colours of the Hungarian flag. Photo: Swaan van Iterson.

Farkas Gergely (25), a recent graduate in economics and sociology, is a Jobbik member and one of the youngest members of parliament. According to Gergely, the lack of prospects many students face leads them to vote for his party: “Many students in Hungary cannot find work once they graduate… For 20 years, no party stood up for young people and so they looked for something new. We have filled that gap.”

A lot of the students I have spoken to indicate that having a university degree in Hungary is no guarantee for a secure future. According to Marcell, a 25-year-old public administration student, the bad socio-economic situation is a result of, amongst other things, foreign interference: “Multinationals, transnational companies and foreign banks have come to the country in droves since 1989. They were able to operate here without paying any taxes while local firms had to pick up the tab – they got no special perks,” he says. “The result is that the multinationals have devoured our economy. They became the rulers of our homeland. Every Hungarian government over the past 20 years has been their unquestioning servant.”

Szuszanna (21), a medical student in Budapest, believes that it is mainly Jewish enterprises that have received this beneficial treatment: “We’re not happy with the Israeli companies which buy up everything here – they ruin everything. They take a lot of money out of the country and invest very little,” she argues.

In Szuszanna’s view, the trouble is that if you want to do something about the situation, you’re immediately labelled as an anti-Semite. According to her, the same problem arises around the “gypsy question”. The Jobbik introduced the term “gypsy criminality” into Hungary’s political discourse, which finally made it, in Szuszanna’s view, possible to talk about the situation – something that is very urgent, she believes: “During communist times, everybody was obliged to work, but that changed with the advent of capitalism,” Szuszanna tells. “Now that you can get benefits, a lot of gypsies don’t work anymore. They spend their benefits on alcohol and cigarettes and when this runs out, they often steal.”

Radical change

Student supporters of Jobbik greet one another by saying “Szebb Jövőt”, meaning “A better future”. They would like to see change not only in the socio-economic conditions but also in the political situation. János (26), who studies IT, believes that students vote for Jobbik because they want radical change. According to him, Hungary never underwent a change of the regime (rendszerváltás). He thinks that many communists continue to be in power under the guise of socialism and that communism actually never went away in Hungary. Moreover, like János, a lot of students view the socialists as being corrupt.

For a lot of the students, 2006 was the time they decided to join the Jobbik party. That year, an audio recording surfaced from a closed-door meeting, featuring the then socialist president Ferenc Gyurcsány. On the recording, Gyurcsány admitted that “we have been lying for the last one and a half to two years” about the economic situation in Hungary. The leak led to public outrage and mass demonstrations, including the occupation of the state television building by football hooligans and radical-right students.

Many of the Jobbik supporters believe that socialist “indoctrination” does not only occur in the political sphere, but also in the education system. Jószef, a PhD student in political science who is researching euroscepticism, would like to build an academic career but, in his view, it is very difficult to earn money as an independent political scientist in Hungary: “You need to have a political colour, otherwise you’ll get nowhere in this field,” he says. “Personally I have had no problems but I have heard others say that it is difficult to get a good position if you’re not a socialist.”

And it’s not just academia. In Katalin’s opinion the media is also dominated by “liberal leftists” (referring to the socialists). The “simplistic and oversexualised” American programming on television annoys her: “The Hungarian media is extremely prejudiced and, above all, extremely liberal,” she complains. “People watch MTV, use drugs, find it normal to be gay and encourage others to become so too. That’s just ridiculous.”

The “bias” of the Hungarian media does not stop Jobbik from reaching the public, János stresses. He says that the party bypasses the mainstream media by being very active on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Moreover, this helps the party to connect better with young people.

Eszter, a master’s student in public administration, thinks that Jobbik is a party for the young generation in a country where there is an intergenerational divide in politics: “Older people lived through communism and miss the security and stability of those times. In those days, there was still work for everyone. This means that older people vote more frequently for the socialists. Young people don’t have the same experiences and sympathies.”

Hungary’s Young Turks?

Badges worn by a Jobbik supporter. Photo: Swaan van Iterson.

Péter is a university lecturer at both ELTE and Corvinus University. He says that students who vote for Jobbik regularly voice their political views in their essays and assignments. According to him, history students in particular are drawn to the party – a phenomenon that does not surprise him in the least: “Hungarians have a history of lost wars and lost independence. This gives you a reason to become nationalistic. Young people are convinced that, given all they’ve lost, Hungarians can only count on themselves.”

Many of the students I spoke to integrate their political views not only into their studies but also their plans for the future. Ákos (21) describes knowledge as his “weapon” with which he can build his future and change the world. Towards that end, he is studying history and Turkish. He believes that Hungarians must have more control over their country, and the only way to achieve this is to become more independent from the West.

Surprisingly for all those right-wing Europeans who oppose Turkish membership of the EU because of the supposed civilisational differences, Ákos wishes to strengthen ties between Hungary and Turkey, as he believes the two countries share a common history: “Most people believe that the Hungarians are descendants of the Finno-Ugric tribes, but this is untrue. The Turks and Hungarians are brothers and there is a lot of research which shows that Hungarians are related to tribes in Kazakhstan.”

For other students, Jobbik is more a part of their daily reality than their future dreams. Barnabás (20), also a history student, wears black jeans and a leather jacket bearing Hungarian nationalist iconography, as well as an armband in the colours of the Hungarian flag. His interest in the Hungarista subculture began when he turned 16 and started listening to nationalist rock bands like Kárpátia and Romantikus Erőszak, whose songs include 100% Magyar (100% Hungarian) and Lesz még Erdély (Transylvania will be ours).

“It is very, very important for me to be part of the Jobbik movement. It is an integral part of my Hungarian identity,” Barnabás admits. “You really get the feeling that you belong to a group. Jobbik helps people who feel out of place but have a strong bond with Hungary to find a community. Before I joined Jobbik, I often felt alone, like I didn’t belong anywhere.”

According to Ákos, this sense of loneliness is common among young Hungarians who have few extracurricular activities to engage in or groups to join. For him, Jobbik is almost more like a family than a party: “At Jobbik, you feel that you’re at home. You are surrounded by people who think just like you and who want to reach the same goals.” He ended our conversation with the following words: “We’re there for each other. We fight for each other. Also for you, a better future!”

The students I talked to are trying to change their future through the Jobbik party. The way they actively engage their political ideas in their daily activities, studies and career plans, and use modern utilities like social media, makes it impossible to label them as ‘losers of the modern world’ or the modernisation process. But despite the solidarity and belonging that Jobbik inspires in its young members, the question is whether the radical right path they are treading is the way to achieve their dreams of independence, pride and well-being.

This article is part of a special Chronikler series on far-right extremism. It is published here with the author’s consent. ©Swaan van Iterson.

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Diversity without adversity

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By Khaled Diab

Can Israelis and Palestinians learn something about building bridges between divided communities from the Egyptian revolution?

Wednesday 22 June 2011

It was not a good start to 2011. The massive explosion during midnight mass that tore through the al-Qidiseen church in Alexandria, killing 21 worshippers and injuring dozens, marked a turn for the worse in the situation surrounding Egypt’s Coptic minority.

However, my despair was replaced with measured hope when a massive solidarity campaign was born online soon after the attacks and quickly spread to the real world. Drawing on an old symbol of national unity, many even changed their Facebook profile pictures to the crescent and cross banner of the 1919 revolution.

I recently moved to Jerusalem and the question, “Can Israelis and Palestinians draw lessons about building bridges between divided communities from the Egyptian experience?” is one that I have pondered, despite the fact that the divisions here are much starker and more bitter than in Egypt.

In Egypt, the virtual solidarity and activism between Muslims and Copts kick-started an even more impressive real-world equivalent when thousands of Muslims volunteered to form human shields around churches to protect worshippers celebrating the Coptic Christmas on the eve of 6-7 January, under the slogan: “We either live together or we die together.”

This was a small foretaste of the rebirth of national unity that would accompany the Egyptian revolution later that same month during which tens of millions of Muslims and Christians stood shoulder to shoulder to brave the wrath and brutality of the dying monstrosity of the Mubarak regime.

Although Egypt is not yet out of the woods in terms of intercommunal relations, as demonstrated by the recent burning down of a Cairo church and the clashes it provoked, I and many other Egyptians are hopeful that a more democratic Egypt will be a better Egypt, for all Egyptians.

By contrast, in the Israeli-Palestinian context, although people on both sides may live in close physical proximity to one another, there is very little contact between them, at least of the positive variety. This situation creates, reinforces and perpetuates the mutual fear and distrust which fuel the conflict.

Deprived of venues where they could meet physically and agitate for change, Arab youth, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, used the power of social media to meet virtually before taking their actions to the streets. Likewise, new technologies offer a virtual and non-threatening world in which to meet, and are being used accordingly by some young Palestinians and Israelis (albeit on a small scale so far), where they can discover common causes and even organise for collective action.

On a personal level, I have experienced the potential of new technologies to bridge divides. Before I visited here, Israelis and Palestinians I met online helped deepen my understanding of the essential human aspect of the conflict.

But despite the unprecedented reach of today’s communication technologies, nothing beats direct human contact, as I learnt during my first visit to Jerusalem in 2007.

Older people recall a time, despite some tensions, when national identities had not yet hardened and when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side as friends and neighbours, as two octogenarians – a Palestinian and an Israeli – I met recounted.

The Israeli is a member of what is known as the ‘pioneer’ generation of left-wing kibbutzniks. He remembers the cordial ties his kibbutz enjoyed with the local Palestinian community and, as a teacher, he has taught thousands of Jewish and Arab children over the years.

The Palestinian, a sharp and lucid great-grandmother from a prominent Jerusalem family, reminisces fondly of a time in her former home in what is now Jewish West Jerusalem when they counted Jews not only as neighbours but also as good family friends.

Both Israelis and Palestinians have their own proud history of successful integration to draw upon.

For centuries, Palestine was a small land where a broad array of different religious and ethnic communities – Arabs, Jews, Turks, Europeans, Armenians, Persians, Assyrians and even Africans – lived together in relative tolerance, amid a dominant Islamic culture.

Long before Zionism ever reached Palestine, its status as the Holy Land attracted – with the encouragement of the Ottomans and some earlier rulers – Muslim, Christian and Jewish migrants of all stripes and colours into its melting pot of myriad sects and communities.

Israel has also been successful, despite the dominance of Ashkenazi culture, in integrating Jews from around the globe, as well as granting Palestinian Israelis equal legal and civil rights, at least in theory.

It is only one short logical step, albeit one giant leap of faith, to extend Palestinian and Israeli traditions of acceptance to the other side in this bitter conflict.

Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs should dare to gaze across ”enemy lines”, both online and, more importantly, in the real world and look towards an alternative future in which everyone living on this land can do so in dignity, equality and freedom.

This article was written for The Common Ground News Service. It was originally published on 21 June 2011.

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iPhony reality

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By Christian Nielsen

We’re entering a world of augmented reality (AR) which might sound scary to rational-thinking grown-ups but perfectly natural to iPhone-savvy toddlers.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Augmented reality is the place between virtual reality – where you can walk, talk, or act out in alternate worlds, like Avatar – and, well, reality. Reality, to those struggling with the concept, is the place where unpaid electricity bills mean no more computer games, or where kids get up at 6am every Sunday.

While this augmented world might seem a little way out to anyone born in the 1970s or earlier, the millennium generation has no beef with it. They’ve grown up with the sort of hand-held wizardry that their elders only read about in sci-fi books.

Teens and pre-teens nowadays can fire off sweet nothing messages to ‘tweople’, or ‘twits’ if you prefer, just round the corner or on the other side of the world while riding their bike or walking through the mall. Though multitasking mayhem can ensue – watch this twit fall into a fountain while texting. The woman in the video was later quoted as saying, “texting and walking at the same time is dangerous.” She says she could have been walking in front of a bus!

I guess in the augmented world, the tweet or text would go something like … “Bus coming straight for me! LOL” If you don’t want to take her testimony then it’s probably a good idea to become a better multitasker and learn to be tweet smart –sorry about that one!

Of toddlers and birds

Two-year-olds who’ve been allowed to play Angry Bird or other popular apps on their dad’s iPhone or who have become familiar with touch-screen technology now toddle up to the television and start sweeping their sticky little fingers across the screen like the rated G version of Minority Report. When nothing happens they look at you, the Fat Controller, raise their chubby hands and shrug, as if to say “what kind of low-tech rubbish is this?”

Meanwhile, the Facebook generation are signing up – in some cases not, but that’s a potential legal story – to ‘Locate me’ with gusto, like it is perfectly natural that your every move should be documented, that this phenomenal invasion of privacy is kinda cool because you can meet your friends, like, spontaneously.

And this is where AR picks up an existential tinge. How spontaneity could even exist in a world where every utterance and physical expulsion is scrupulously documented by the world’s best documentary maker – you – is beyond me and beyond anyone who still watches TV at night.

The iPhone is ground zero for the growing class of ‘augmented realtors’. According to the fans at iPhoneNess: “Augmented reality is one of the most exciting technologies around. If you have watched some of those modern Hollywood movies, you have probably seen how our world would look 20-30 years from now. Who knows when augmented applications become mainstream but they are already making their way to the iPhone platform. Augmented reality is the future but thanks to these augmented reality apps for iPhone, you can experience the future today.”

These guys offer up a long list of current apps to prove their point. Everything from golf range-finding gadgets and trekking tools to experimental solutions for colour-blindness. And the thing that strikes this old-school technophile is that a lot of these apps and mashups combining, for instance, satellite geo-location technology which pinpoints your exact location and mobile navigation devices, are not (or perhaps should not be) kids stuff. They are practical applications for grown-ups like me who took up golf when real sports got too hard.

But like the first-wave attempt to make a success of e-commerce and the dot-com bomb of the 1990s, the grown-ups today are just not clued-up or interested enough to fully appreciate what’s out there in the AR sphere. But toddlers to teenagers have no preconceptions about technology. It just is what it is, like milk is quite good on cereal.

Every day new apps are created. Some are very innovative and might one day save your life, some like Angry Birds are simple and a bit of fun for young and old. Others, which combine geo-location technology and social networking, tell us a bit about our society and in particular younger people’s willingness or need to commune in the virtual world. And their disregard for privacy and even safety.

But maybe this notion of privacy and identity is what augmented reality is all about. It brings into question age-old beliefs and many a good philosophical theory. Philosophers tell us identity is what ever makes an entity definable and recognisable. It comes from the Latin identitas or ‘sameness’. Leibniz supposed that two things sharing every attribute are not merely similar but must indeed be the same thing.

So if in this augmented world, whether Second Life or just sophisticated apps on iPhones, if we accept this world without question, and represent ourselves as our avatars or other personas, are we losing or gaining identity? Are we similar or the same? Are we cool or another banal member of the commune?

Perhaps it won’t matter in the end. Perhaps these are ponderings of a generation that is trying to hold fast to two-dimensional formats like terrestrial TV. Of course our kids don’t ask the questions and perhaps don’t need to. All they want to know is why they can’t sweep across to Sesame Street from Dora the Explorer on that thing in the corner of the living room.

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

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Egypt’s other Mubaraks

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By Khaled Diab

The imminent fall of Egypt’s dictator should embolden Egyptians, especially young ones, to deal with the mini-Mubaraks that hold Egyptian society back.

1 February 2011

As someone who has striven to get his head around Egypt’s apparent political apathy, the ongoing Egyptian revolution has been like a breath of fresh air. At first, it seemed like it wasn’t going to happen, that this would be yet another of the false dawns of recent years. Even as late as the morning of Tuesday 25 January, the police – during their national holiday – were out in such great force that Cairo was almost in lockdown, instead of the usual gridlock, and the streets were deserted of protesters.

Many Egyptians, nervously and excitedly following the situation, feared that the promised “day of wrath” would deflate into a day of mild frustration; that the police would, as they normally do, outnumber protesters, as if it were the regime that was the aggrieved party demonstrating against an “ungrateful” population.

But Tunisia has provided Egyptians with the necessary spark of hope that the oppositions’ rallying cry of  “Kefaya” (“Enough”) could truly be enough. And Egyptians from across the country and all walks of life have displayed courage, determination, camaraderie, solidarity and even humour in the face of adversity.

For a sceptic like me whose political rebellion has more often been in written words than in collective deeds, the drama and poignancy of the situation have been truly gripping, and I have caught myself fighting back tears: a weary-looking lone man holding up a sign which reads “kefaya” with a line of riot police behind him; protesters braving tear gas and beatings; ordinary, hard-pressed folk refusing to compromise with a figure they once feared, not to mention the solidarity and new sense of civic duty demonstrated in the volunteers securing law and order after the police abandoned their duties and melted into the night.

What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall in Hosni Mubarak’s office right now, to learn how a man can live with himself when 80 million people hate him, and to try to fathom why he still clings on to power while the game is clearly up.

“Yesterday we were all Tunisian. Today we are all Egyptian. Tomorrow we’ll all be free,” said Amira Mohsen, a young Egyptian journalist, summing up the heady public mood. But democracy, if it comes, will not be the end but just the beginning of a very long and difficult process of change.

To their credit, the protesters have proven to be politically deft and in no mood for compromise, thereby avoiding the risk of lobbing off the head of the regime only for the body to sprout a new one before returning to business as usual.  Mubarak’s appointment of a vice-president Omar Suleiman (whose intended role may be to hold the fort until Mubarak’s son, Gamal, can mount a comeback) has backfired spectacularly as the million-strong march gathers pace as I type.

Nevertheless, even if full democracy is born on the banks of the Nile, this will not necessarily mean an end to authoritarianism in the country, because a legion of “mini-Mubaraks” are waiting in the wings.

Many of the opposition parties are possibly no better than the ruling National Democratic Party in terms of their attitudes to dissent. For example,  Mohammed Badie, the new leader of the Muslim Brotherhood is the embodiment of the conservative old guard that is completely detached from the party’s younger, more open and reform-minded members. This has resulted in the Brotherhood’s senior leadership becoming increasingly out of touch with the popular mood, as was reflected in their refusal to sanction or officially take part in the current protests, a position they were forced by events to revise.

In addition to dictatorships in political circles, Egypt is also burdened with a fair measure of social, professional and intellectual authoritarianism, with mini-Mubaraks running families, businesses and universities through the kind of deferential patronage made unpopular by the big man himself (I should, of course, point out that there are plenty of Egyptians who do not practise nor approve of authoritarianism).

But there are signs of hope that Egyptians will succeed in gradually breaking loose of this more ingrained authoritarianism. Sick and tired of how they’ve been messed around by their elders and supposedbetters, the disenfranchised young generation is increasingly making its presence felt. In fact, the current wave of protests was instigated by young people, who have managed to deploy social networking technologies and low-tech resourcefulness to powerful effect. And now that they’ve found their voice, perhaps they will no longer be silenced or sidelined, although, in a worrying sign, the emerging “national salvation” government is mainly made up of greying men.

I hope Egyptians will discover a new sense of self-confidence and self-esteem and never allow themselves to be cowed by authority again and that those in power will realise that tolerance of difference and dissent actually makes a society stronger.

Nevertheless, the sad fact remains that, in a world where little democracy exists between nations, even if Egyptians cast off the yoke of domestic tyranny in all its forms, the battle will not be entirely over if their choices and wishes are not respected by the dictatorship of mighty nations and corporations.

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Why doesn’t God use Faithbook?

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By Khaled Diab

If God wants to reach out to humanity, why rely on prophets and scripture when he presumably has the power to connect with each of us directly?

3 September 2010

An article I recently read posits that, even if we were able to create a foolproof experiment to prove the existence of God, it would not only spell the end of atheism, but also of Christianity (and I presume the same applies to the other monotheistic religions), because without faith there can be no religion.

But do we really need to wait for God to rear his divine face to lay to rest the spectre of religion? For the sceptics among us, this is figuratively a doomsday scenario, as we would have to live with our doubts until the Day of Reckoning comes, which we, of course, highly suspect won’t arrive, leaving us stuck in a sort of secular purgatory for all eternity.

But it strikes me that we’re asking the wrong question here. God may prove to be an impossible hypothesis to (dis)prove, but the same does not apply to faith itself. I believe we can test the veracity of religion, especially religious scripture which claims to be divinely inspired or even revealed.  So, here is my own modest attempt to test run religion and show that it is not worthy of our faith.

God, the author, or humanity, the ghost writer?

The holy books of the three Abrahamic faiths all claim divine authorship, or at the very least, divine inspiration. But if scripture contains the word of God (or his son), why do the monotheistic religious texts show such clear signs of human authorship and contain a recycled mix of older, often polytheistic, myths and legends (Sumerian, Persian, Egyptian, etc.)?

Moreover, if the message in scripture, like the Supreme Being, is timeless and for all time, why do they teach us values and standards that we would, otherwise, find reprehensible and unacceptable, such as slavery (in Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the subjugation of women, the slaughtering of your (read God’s) enemies?

In defending religion, many believers will argue that scripture appeared in the context of a different time and place and, so, not all of it is binding in the modern context. But if we go down the road of selectively choosing which articles of faith to hold on it, what’s to stop us from ditching it all and starting from scratch to create something more appropriate?

Similarly, scripture contradicts so many scientifically proven facts – and contradicts itself, such as in the case of the creation of the world in Genesis I and Genesis II – that it would cast serious doubt on God’s knowledge of the Universe he reportedly created.

Scripture v Faithbook

The Abrahamic tradition of religion is founded on the dual pillars of message (in the form of scripture) and messenger (in the form of prophets and even the son of God). The most fundamental question this raises is: what is the point of this?

If God is omnipotent and omnipresent, surely he could conjure up more imaginative and effective ways to communicate with his creations. As any good communicator knows, messages are often distorted or corrupted in their transmission. So, what better way to avoid confusion than to drop outdated and outmoded scriptures and communicate with each of us directly?

After all, we humble humans already possess the technology, if it were universally distributed, to communicate with everyone on the planet, and social networking sites already boast hundreds of millions of users. So, why can’t God use his omni-powers to create some sort of interactive interface, a sort of Faithbook, to talk to every human? I’m sure he’d have billions of friends (or should that be worshippers?) if he did.

Some might say that God doesn’t have the time to waste on this, but I thought he had all the time in the Universe. Others might argue that this world is a test of our faith and, by revealing himself to each of us, God would be making it too easy. Well, Adam and Eve lived by God’s side and still they disobeyed him – that’s the beauty of free will.

Besides, as they stand, the Abrahamic religions are exclusive clubs that only save those who belong to them. If God is as just and loving as they say he is, then surely he would want to offer all humanity an equal shot at salvation. By addressing us individually, God would be doing the ultimate to empower and enfranchise his creations – not to mention, hold us accountable – and to democratise religion.

Raise prophets by cutting out the middlemen

As purportedly the ultimate proponent of equality, God should not be elevating some humans above others. Yet, between us and him, he has elevated prophets and clergy. If God’s prophets are meant to be role models to us all, why are so many of them such unpleasant characters or commit acts which would otherwise be regarded as reprehensible, or at the very least unacceptable: stealing from neighbours, committing war crimes, sexually coercing women and killing their husbands, committing incest, marrying children, murdering siblings, and much more.

And even though many prophets had commendable attributes, they were human and are, hence, fallible, so it is best that God cut out these middlemen – and they are always men.

Humanity’s forgotten half

The human race is, more or less, evenly divided between men and women. Despite the insistence of religious modernisers and reformers that God is an equal opportunities creator, scripture seems to place men consistently a cut above women, and demands that women obey men.

Right from the word go, Genesis informs us that Adam was created first and Eve was fashioned out of his rib (or simply created after him, according to the Islamic version). Not only is this creation myth totally unscientific, it also makes no symbolic sense. With the human reproductive functions being what they are, one would expect that, if anyone were to come second, Adam would follow Eve. Even at the molecular level, we see that two X chromosomes result in a female, while an X and a Y chromosome result in a male, which might suggest that the male gender is more ambiguous than the female.

To add insult to injury, Eve leads Adam astray by convincing him to eat from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. In the Islamic version, they are both blamed equally but, still, there are numerous passages in the Qur’an which stress the inferior status of women. For example, Surat al-Nisa (Verse on Women) informs us quite explicitly that: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore, the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what God would have them guard.”

This raises the question of why God is such a macho, especially considering that there’s little actual difference between the two genders, and women have consistently proven themselves men’s equals in all walks of life. If, as scripture seems to suggest, women are so much more imperfect and fallible than men, why on earth did the Supreme Being bother to create them? Couldn’t he have just made humanity asexual? Or could it be because it was man who created God in his image, rather than the other way around?

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Facebook: consider yourself de-friended

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By Christian Nielsen

Facebook, Sellaband, Twitter… social networking is like the classics with the clap. And a bloody waste of time to boot.

22 December 2009

I’ve just read an article in a Flemish newspaper about this year’s candidates for word of the year in Dutch. Two of the top ten proposals – ontvrienden and Twitterazzo – come straight out of the social networking (SN) annals, the part of the internet dedicated to wasting loads of time keeping in touch with friends, relatives and basically anyone who shares your interest in wasting time.

I think my favourite is ontvrienden or the act of de-friending someone from Facebook or other online social networks. The subject came up recently at work  – purely on a linguistic level – when a colleague asked if ‘un-friending’ sounded like a reasonable expression for removing people from your social databases.

Discussion followed and the final conclusion was that, if a new word had to be created, then de-friend is better because it has a stronger sense of performing an action – leaving un-friend as the passive result of de-friending. You are an un-friend once de-friended, sort of thing.

Acquiring virtual friends is a tragic social inflation – your online credibility measured by the number of ‘friends’ you can be linked to via these web-based platforms. It’s like a twisted class of asset or Madoff scheme, and it spikes when you friend up with an A-class social networker or better still a real-world celebrity.

[A mate of mine has Jaimie Oliver as a Facebook friend which is pure SN gold.]

It’s become obvious to me that, like the trade floor, investing in the social networking business is not for dabblers. To get good dividends, you have to put in the time, do the numbers and agree to every new app and service pushed down your throat. If you don’t play the game, you get left behind – you become that little known Flemish painter, Ascot Nofriends.

This is where the virtual social world tends to mimic the real social world. If you play at networking too eagerly, you get shunned. If you were always a social leper in the school canteen and think this virtual world will be your chance to finally sit at the in-crowd table, you could be in for more rejection – 20 years later.

The problem with rejection this time is you now realise you’ve thrown good money at post-adolescent therapy. And all the confidence you’ve gained, the respect you’ve earned as a dentist, the proud family parked next to the new Audi… it’s all undermined by a stupid technology whim. A whim that is desperate to prove it is not a whim by dreaming up a never-ending stream of trinkets and whistles to mesmerise the home-dead.

That’s where this de-friending and un-friending business raises some thorny questions. A colleague commented recently that he didn’t know how to de-friend someone who he used to go to school with and who kept badgering to join his Facebook. When I say badger, I probably mean stalk.

“I just gave in and agreed to friend this guy, but now I want to de-friend him,” he said.

It’s straight out of the classics. The rejected lover, the scorned friend, the seat of power and the unquenched ambition of the underling. Shakespeare no doubt already covered this.

[Google check].

I knew I’d find a match: the comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost. Wikipedia says the title comes from a poem written by the Greek Theognis: “To do good to one’s enemies is love’s labours lost.”  It’s got the schoolmaster (all proper on the surface but cyber-grooming by night), the clown (the office joker who secretly covets virtual world credibility), kings, princes and ladies (the in-crowd swearing oaths to each other but all secretly cyber bullies), the wench (the emo-chick making alt-porn)… okay so it’s getting weird. I’ll move on.

No time to waste

As social creatures, we crave the contact and yet we spend more and more time behind a computer or digiting a smart phone. We Tweet our every waking thought and keep forensic-quality data on our movements, from the banal to the carnal. We photo caption our lives and our loves like an episode of another B-grade reality TV show.

Our families – the ones who live within close enough proximity to actually physically visit – are missing the real us. Our bosses who haven’t already blocked the Web 2.0 (the social internet) functions and sites are losing money in lost efficiencies.

So, here we are with this so-called social tool, which is supposed to connect us with the world, but just seems to disconnect us from those who should matter the most. We are drawn to the cyber-friends, the friends of cyber-friends, friends long gone, and friends longed for but never real.

It’s a bloody shame. So, as I de-friend Facebook, sell off my Sellaband credits, and ignore yet another Linkedin invitation, I’ll be drawing a virtual circle round one of the stranger chapters in social evolution. Friends are not junk bonds, not a tradable asset, and definitely not worthy of a cold, uncaring new piece of argot.

Published with the author’s permission. © Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Ambient stupidity?

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By Andrew Eatwell

Is technology designed to monitor and report on our every move a sign of ambient intelligence or stupidity?

6 October 2009

Sticking sensors and computers in everyday objects and having them communicate what we are doing to other people and machines promises to save time, raise productivity and improve our health and personal safety. But this always on, interconnected future could be more a world of ambient stupidity than ambient intelligence.

At first glance, the expansion of sensor-based systems to homes, offices, cars and coffee cups seems like a good thing. Who would argue against the benefits of a vehicle that instantly alerts emergency services if the driver wraps it around a tree. Or a home that automatically turns on the lights when the owner pulls into the drive, adjusts them for watching TV and turns them off again when they go to bed. Add a few sensors to monitor occupants’ vital signs and the whole family – and the family doctor – can rest assured that granddad’s heart is still ticking while they are busy elsewhere. Of course, let’s just hope someone thought to ask grampa if he wanted other people to know how many times his heart beats per minute.

But, as with any emerging technology, alongside such ostensibly useful and beneficial applications come a whole boatload of more dubious ones. Take, for example, the almost inevitable impending marriage of ambient intelligence systems with online social networking.

Imagine how much more “productive” your average Facebook, Twitter or MySpace whore would be if they didn’t have to write their own status updates but instead could have their smart phone, home or coffee cup do it for them. “Fred has arrived home,” “Susan is watching TV,” “Mike has just drunk a dark, mocha frappe,” Facebook feeds would bleat even more regularly and mindlessly than they do now.

Proponents of the idea inevitably argue that privacy would be safeguarded because users would be able to set their own criteria for how much information the ubiquitous sensor systems around them share. But, just as few people bother to delve into the labyrinthine privacy settings on their Facebook page until a friend posts an embarrassing picture or their name pops up in an advert, how many users of sensor-enhanced social networking would consider the implications until it is too late?

That early departure from work to catch a football game on TV may seem harmless until your phone bleats out to your circle of friends and coworkers (and boss?) that you are in the pub and would they care to join you for a drink? Your plans for a restful evening are dashed when your home tells your mother that you’re in to take her calls. Or you start to be hounded by advertisers urging you to purchase a new soft drink because your fridge told the supermarket that you just drank your last can of cola.

After all, if Facebook’s use of personal data to boost its advertising revenue is anything to go by, you can be certain that Mike’s automated message to friends about that dark, mocha frappe will also be shared with any coffee company willing to pay for it.

This article is published with the author’s permission. ©Andrew Eatwell. All rights reserved.

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