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.

British-Museum-Google-Doodle

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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News of revolution (part II): Voice of the Arabs or Nasserist mouthpiece?

 
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By Osama Diab

The Voice of the Arabs steered Egypt from isolationism and towards a pan-Arabist vision in which Nasser was the anointed leader of the Arab world.

Friday 5 October 2012

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser utilised Voice of the Arabs to reach the masses, such as this crowd in Syria, across the region. Photo: al-Ahram.

A few waves of unrest followed the British Occupation of Egypt with two important milestones: 1906 and 1919. In 1906, unrest erupted when five British officers accidentally injured an Egyptian villager and killed home-grown pigeons while pigeon shooting in the village of Denshwai. Villagers’ anger and the death of one of the British officers due to heatstroke during the dispute resulted in death sentence for four of the villagers, including the owners of the pigeons, and dozens more received varying sentences in a court dominated by British officers and their Egyptian allies.

It is believed that this incident fuelled a rapid grown Egyptian national sentiment and was a key landmark in the development of Egypt’s modern national identity.

The other major milestone was when nationwide demonstration in March and April of 1919 led to the declaration of Egypt’s independence in 1922 followed by the writing of a ‘liberal constitution’ in 1923. The emphasis in Egyptian national identity in the 1920s was culturally and territorially linked to its Pharaonic and pre-Islamic past which established the basis for a separate Egyptian sense of nationalism. Charles Smith, the American professor of Middle Eastern studies, writes that it was inspired by a foreign elites’ vision of indigenous nationalism and then further reinforced by the historic discovery of Tut-Ankh-Amon’s tomb in 1922. “This separate identity, and distinctiveness as Muslims from other Muslims, caused Egyptians to refuse to become involved in non-Egyptian issues, or to do so only in situations where Egyptian paramouncy would be assured,” he wrote.

The 1920s was a decade of consensus over this liberal and secular version of nationalism before the emergence of Islamic and Arab nationalism a decade later. In Redefining the Egyptian nation, the 1930s and the 1940s, some scholars argue, were an era of “supra-Egyptianism”, when a younger generation became more interested in the Arab, Muslim and Eastern worlds and presupposed the existence of a larger community to which Egypt belongs while not totally rejecting the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the Egyptian state and culture.

Up until the late 1940s, Egyptian national identity, these scholars assert, could be divided into two systems: a territorial imagining and a Western-influenced image of Egypt where a myth of common descent was created and modern Egyptians started to link themselves to ancient Egyptians. The dominant brand for at least a decade after the 1919 revolution advocated the culture and values of Mediterranean civilisation and the modern West. Politically, it assumed a necessary linkage between the state and the nation, whereas the supra-Egyptian nationalism that emerged in the 1930s and the 1940s situated Egypt in its wider Arab, Islamic and Eastern context and vis-a-vis the West.

Despite being the product of the imaginings of Western orientalists on Egypt and despite being driven mainly by a newly emerged middle class and educated elite, these nationalist movements seem to have appealed to the vast majority of Egyptians who suffered from foreign occupation. The struggle against the remnants of British rule and the privileged class of Turks remained in the 1930s and in the 1940s. In 1952, a secret movement within the army called the Free Officers Association brought this long struggle against the monarchy and British rule almost to an end when they carried out a coup against King Farouq and forced him into exile.

The rise of Egyptian military officers to power caused tragic changes in the development of Egyptian nationalism. For the first time, national sentiments were propagated by the official government and the new ruling elite instead of being directed against them. Also for the first time, the mass media’s potential in building national consensus was exploited by the state. It was a brand of nationalism that capitalised on the ‘supra-Egyptianism’ that had been building over the preceding two decades; one that centred on Arab nationalism, anti-imperialism and socialism. However, the new leadership developed an authoritarian single-party regime and cracked down on all the democratic, or rather semi-democratic, institutions the country had built up during its struggle against imperialism and the monarchy, such as the parliament and political parties.

Despite developing socialist policies, such as the wide-scale redistribution of land, the nationalisation of most key industries and enterprises, the new leadership heavily cracked down on protests, labour strikes and any form of dissidence or opposition. Less than three weeks after the Armed Forces took over power, two teenage labour activists were sentenced to death, for taking part in a strike in the Delta city of Kafr al-Dawar before a military court. In 1953, they made the decision to dissolve all political parties including al-Wafd, which was the major political party at the time which had emerged from the nationalist anti-colonial movement of 1919.

For obvious reasons, these political change took a heavy toll on the media scene. The relatively pluralistic and vibrant media scene that had prevailed before the 1952 revolution and was defined by the dynamism of the political scene and the struggle for independence was replaced by a much more monolithic and strictly monitored media environment after 1952. Newspapers which existed before the 1952 revolution started to be closed by the government, one after the other, and many journalists were jailed in the process.

In short, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser performed a process of institutionalising national identity through the dissolution of parliament and all political parties, instead establishing a single-party political system to facilitate the process of political and social engineering he was about to initiate. Nasser realised the importance of mass media and once he began to establish his power as the uncontested ruler of the country, he started to propagate his new doctrines of social transformation through the radio to convey the government’s new plans and policies to the masses.

Nasser’s most significant media project was the powerful megaphone of Sout al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) station, which employed the latest in radio technology to shape and influence larger communities in the Egyptian president’s ideological war against his opponents, both within Egypt and in the wider Arab world. “Like no other Egyptian or Arab leader before him, or among his contemporaries, Nasser recognised the immense power of radio, a power which, as a dazzling orator, he had used vigorously and effectively,” writes Adeed Dawisha, the Iraqi professor of political science.

Voice of the Arabs started life in 1953 with a transmission of only half an hour a day. However, in 1963, Nasser’s radio completed a new 1,000 kilowatt medium-wave transmitting station that was considered to be the most powerful radio transmitter in the world at the time. It extended Voice of the Arabs’ transmission time to 24-hours a day and helped convey its anti-imperialist and pan-Arab message to the whole of the Middle East, which further established its position as the flagship station of the Arab renaissance.

The Jordanian scholar and media personality Mahmoud Shalabieh argues that before the revolution of 1952, broadcasting had no national goals, and that it was Nasser who was the first to harness its power to develop Egypt and the rest of the world culturally and politically. Even though television was introduced in 1960, its growth was relatively slow in the beginning. It was confined to urban and rich audiences and was, hence, an ineffective tool of mass persuasion compared to radio, which had already been around for a few decades, reached Egypt’s most remote areas and was heard across the Arab world.

The late Wilton Wynn, described as a “dean of foreign correspondents” who was reporting for AP from Egypt during the Nasser years, observed, in his Nasser of Egypt: The Search for Dignity, the phenomenal popularity ofVoice of the Arabs: “A Saudi Arabian merchant buying a radio stipulated that he wanted a set ‘that picks up the ‘Voice of the Arabs’. The Palestinian refugees in camps in Gaza and Jericho gathered in vast throngs at public places daily to hear the fiery broadcasts of the ‘Voice’.”

Nasser banked on Egypt’s existing regional cultural superiority which was due to what Dawisha describes as a “post-Napoleonic renaissance in Egypt, which opened the country and its population to Western civilisation a full century before the rest of the Arab world”. In describing Egypt’s intellectual pre-eminence, he notes that: “In 1947, for example, Cairo boasted 14 daily newspapers and 23 weeklies . . . Egypt was the only Arab country with a viable film industry, and Egyptian movies in the 1940s and the 1950s competed vigorously with their Western counterparts in Arab movie theatres. Kamal al-Shenawy was as beloved a heartthrob as Clark Gable or Tyrone Power; Isma’il Yassin was a bigger comedic name than Bob Hope or Danny Kaye, and Fatin Hamama and Layla Murad were far more popular leading ladies than Vivien Lay or Doris Day.”

The same applied to music. “Egyptian singers and musicians were household names throughout the region, the most revered and beloved of whom was the majestic Umm Kulthum, an Arab icon, whose legendary five-hour concerts on the first Thursday gathered people around the radio sets in Baghdad, Damascus, Casablanca, Amman, and other cities throughout the Arab world,” Dawisha describes.

The Voice of the Arabs station was deployed to propagate the image of Egypt within its three circles: the Arab, African and Islamic worlds (probably in that order of importance). In his book, The Philosophy of the Revolution, Nasser stated that “there can be no doubt that the Arab circle is the most important, and the one with which we are most closely linked.” The station’s motto was that “the Voice of the Arabs speaks for the Arabs, struggles for them and expresses their unity” and it defined Egypt as “in the service of the Arab nation and its struggle against Western imperialism and its lackeys in the Arab world”.

With no rivals allowed to emerge, the state-run radio’s main theme was that the Arabs should unite under Nasser’s leadership, a theme that was used on every possible occasion and through all possible channels, with variations to suit the medium and the audience. At times, a religious tone was even employed. “This decisive turning point in the Arab world was the creation of Arab unity. Almighty Allah wanted this unification and nobody can change God’s will. Nasser has been ordained by the will of God to lead this unity,” one broadcast claimed.

Unlike most of his predecessors, Nasser was a charismatic leader with massive popular support due to his being perceived as the culmination of Egypt’s nationalist struggle for independence and a symbol of the country finally falling back into the hands of its rightful owners. He realised the importance of the media and he banked well on anti-imperialist sentiments and a strong desire for national sovereignty that had been gradually welling up over at least the preceding seven decades.

Charles Smith argue that the new military leadership managed to combine Egyptian nationalism and the more regional Arab nationalism through a supra-national identity in which Egypt was perceived as the leader of the Arab and Islamic world, rather than merely an equal member of it. This notion seems to have made distinct Egyptian and Arab brands of nationalism conflate rather than conflict for a period of time – at least up until the Nasserist brand of pan-Arabism began to crumble following the 1967 defeat, during which Voice of the Arabs broadcasted outrageous claims of victory, and until Egypt was suspended from the Arab league in 1979 for its peace treaty with Israel.

 

This is the second part in a series of articles exploring the role of the media in shaping Egypt’s modern national consciousness and Egyptian nationalism, as well as fomenting revolution. Part I focused on the role of the nascent print media in shaping Egyptian nationalism and national identity in the 19th century. Part III will deal with the reawakening of Egypto-centric nationalism during the Sadat era.

Follow Osama Diab on Twitter

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Basque Country: In the eye of the financial storm

 
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By Eric Bienefeld

Although many Europeans associate it with political turmoil, the Basque Country is the only Spanish region where the economic outlooks is mild.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

In the summer months, the beachside cafés in the Sagües quarter of San Sebastián (Basque Country, Spain) are bustling. The surfers take their morning session, while tourists, local youth and middle-aged clientele take their mid-afternoon cañas, or small beers. Walking through the parte vieja – old quarter of the city – a sign reads: “Tourists beware you are not in Spain, nor France, you are in the Basque Country”. Something seems very different here.

You get the impression that the financial crisis has not taken hold here. Nevertheless, the winter months are hard for the service sector. Juan Ramon, a local taxi driver, confirms the difficulties of keeping one’s head above water in the ‘off-season’. Elena, one of the owners of La Consentida, a pintxos bar along the normally thriving coastal avenue, La Zurriola, notes the effects of the now four-year crisis. “Every day we are worried about business, but winter is always especially difficult,” she says.

Although things may be bad in the Basque Country, the situation is worse in the rest of Spain, especially in the south where mass tourism plays a huge role. But the Basque Country has a different background. Its research centres and traditional industries are still fairing well in the financial storm.

Amid soaring unemployment and fears of a double-dip recession in Spain, the Basque Country offers a contrasting picture. The Spanish situation is grim, with 5.3 million unemployed at the end of 2011, the Bank of Spain predicts that the country’s economy will fall into another recession, contracting by 1.5% in 2012, which would exacerbate the 22.9% unemployment rate reported at the end of 2011, according to the Spanish National Institute of Statistics (INE).

Meanwhile, the Basque Country has the lowest unemployment rate of all the Spanish regions, known as Autonomous Communities, and has maintained comparatively lower levels for decades. With a population of 2.16 million, the Basque Country’s unemployed is 159,667. That’s just 7.4% unemployment, way below the Spanish average.

But why is the Basque country weathering the financial storm better than the rest of Spain? It goes back to basic economic drivers… industry and production. Iron mining and steel manufacturing helped build this region and, unlike the UK and other struggling European economies, the Basque Country is not letting go of them without a fight.

Heavy mining at the turn of the 19th and well into the 20th century gave the Basque region a solid economic base and provided steady employment for skilled and unskilled workers, including economic migrants. Today, the Basque Country’s level of industrialisation is greater than the EU average.

The Basques have also been able to reinvent themselves, with EU backing and opportunities. Through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the EU has €241 million in co-funding destined for the Basque Country under the Regional Competitiveness and Employment programme (2007-2013). The funds are devoted to areas that are already highly developed in the Basque Country, including science and technology, research and development, environment, energy resources, and transport.

The tiny Basque Country punches above its weight politically as well, offering its expertise to the EU in such fields as taxation policy, health, the environment, transportation, e-democracy, agriculture, language and culture, and even fishing policy. According to one MEP from the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), “The Basque Government is in continual contact with the European Commission in formal and informal settings.”

But does all this direct contact between the EU and the Basque region create greater tension with Madrid? Yes and no.

In considering the absence of a Spanish central state-sponsored representation mechanism, an official from the Spanish Permanent representation to the EU notes, “It is a weakness of the system that the Autonomous Communities do not have the capacity to be able to negotiate and be represented here in Brussels,” at least through the central state.

As an autonomous region you would expect some, well, ‘autonomy’ in its dealings with the EU, but Spain can’t help but be envious of the Basque Country’s clout and strong ties to the EU. For the Basques, though, it is pure logic: why wait for Madrid – or negotiate a shared position with the other Autonomous Communities – when you can act directly at the EU level?

This thinking applies on many levels, including how the Basques fund their research. Tortuero Martin, a government expert, explains that funding is arranged through an agreement between the management agency or authority and those in charge of employment policy in the Autonomous Communities. “There is regional source of funding, and it doesn’t come from the budget of the state in Spain,” he stresses.

Moreover, the Basques have the means and institutions in place to lobby the EU directly, which is arguably a more robust form of negotiating than the sclerotic traditional power structures. This nimble, somewhat informal, approach could well be the Basques regions secret weapon, helping it weather the financial storm and defy the dire predictions for the Spanish economy.

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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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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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EU: from soft to soft power on Israel

 
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Rather than quietly walking down the aisle with Israel, the EU should harness its formidable ‘soft power’ to promote peace.

3 December 2010

In Israel, the European Union is often regarded as too pro-Palestinian. And when compared with the United States’ usually uncritical cheerleading, the European position can seem more hostile. But it would be a mistake to see the occasional criticisms of Israel delivered by European politicians as a sign of anti-Israeli sentiment.

It may come as a surprise, for instance, to learn that the EU – not the United States – is Israel’s main trading partner, with a relationship worth a handsome €20bn (£17bn) per year.

Not only that, but Israel enjoys the status of a “privileged partner”. Recent years have witnessed the EU and Israel walk down the aisle towards a kind of urfi marriage in which the two discreet lovers have been striving to “develop an increasingly close relationship, going beyond co-operation, to involve a significant measure of economic integration and a deepening of political co-operation”.

When it comes to the Eurovision song contest and football, Israel is counted as part of Europe. But it doesn’t stop there. Israel “is a member of the European Union without being a member of its institutions,” as the EU’s former foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, put it succinctly.

In a new book, Europe’s Alliance with Israel, Brussels-based journalist David Cronin reveals just how cosy the EU institutions in Brussels and the capitals of numerous member states have become with Israel, although not comprehensively nor monolithically so, but without any democratic mandate to do so.

Despite the book’s occasional resorting to polemic and hyperbole, which sometimes weaken the case it is making, it is a welcome study of a reality that is under-reported and under-scrutinised. “The European Union has allowed itself to become a fig leaf for an illegal occupation,” Cronin writes.

Although he might have done more to set the relationship in a historical context, Cronin chronicles the depths of EU-Israel ties in all spheres, from the economic and scientific to the cultural. Among the most shocking revelations is how funding under EU programmes – such as the Seventh Framework Programme and the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme – is being awarded to Israeli defence and security firms and companies which profit from Israeli settlements.

These include Israel Aerospace Industries – a developer of both military and commercial aviation technology – which is leading more than 50 EU-funded projects, according to Cronin’s research.

Even European aid to the Palestinians can benefit Israel and help sustain its occupation. An estimated 45% of European aid to the Palestinians finds its way into the Israeli economy, Cronin says, citing unnamed UN sources.

A perversely destructive triangle has emerged in which the US provides Israel with military aid which it uses to destroy Palestinian infrastructure, while the EU foots the bill for cleaning up the mess. “Are EU taxpayers really happy to pay to reconstruct what US taxpayers have paid to destroy?” the progressive Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti asked MEPs.

So, what can be done? Although Cronin does a decent job of describing the status quo, he dedicates a mere seven pages, almost as an afterthought, to outlining a course of action. Obviously disenchanted and disillusioned with Europe’s political elites, many of whom do not seem to share their electorates’ concern with the plight of the Palestinians and the festering conflict which is damaging also to Israel, he advocates vigorous and robust grassroots action, namely the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“A campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions helped end white minority rule in South Africa,” he argues. “Supporting this boycott is a practical act of international solidarity.”

Although I personally do not buy Israeli products because I do not know how much of my money will go to propping up the occupation or violating the human rights of Palestinians, any BDS campaign should tread very carefully. In order to be fair and just, it should be carefully targeted, as much as is possible, towards activities that directly fuel or profit from the occupation, so as to minimise the harm to ordinary Israelis and to avoid the further entrenching of a “bunker mentality” in Israel.

I also have major misgivings about a blanket cultural boycott. Instead, I favour a selective boycott of known extremists, apologists for the occupation and Israeli militarism, and those who advocate discrimination and stoke up hatred against Palestinians. But dialogue with moderates and ordinary citizens is crucial if we are ever to achieve the level of understanding and trust upon which a sustainable peace can be constructed.

In terms of policy, Cronin advocates that the EU should suspend its association agreement with Israel because Israel has violated the human rights conditions set out in the accord. Although Israel is in no moral position to criticise the potential application of sanctions against it, given its suffocating embargo on Gaza, suspending the EU’s trade and other ties with Israel opens up a huge can of worms.

One difficulty it raises is that if Europe starts applying the human rights clauses in its association agreements more strictly, then it would probably have to suspend or downgrade its relationship with much of the Mediterranean and other neighbouring regions, not to mention a couple of its own members. If Israel, why not Turkey because of the Kurds or Morocco because of Western Sahara? Another complication is that sanctions have proven so ineffective in the past and have often created public solidarity amid adversity and suffering even for vile dictators.

Nevertheless, Israel’s increasingly harsh treatment of the Palestinians and its policy of imprisoning them in ever-smaller enclaves needs a robust response, and certainly should not be rewarded.

For the first time, European leaders have, with the Lisbon treaty, the tools at their disposal, given enough political will and courage, to forge a common foreign policy on key issues like the Israeli-Palestinian question, whose resolution is not only in the interests of the parties to the conflict but also of Europe’s own security and safety.

This common policy would focus on a gradual, but systematic, downgrading of Europe’s relationship with Israel for as long as no progress is made to resolve the conflict. As a reward for a comprehensive and fair peace, the EU can provide Israel (and a future Palestinian state, for that matter) with the prospect of becoming a real, bona fide member of the union.

As European leaders are unlikely to make hard decisions on their own, public pressure will be essential. The Lisbon treaty also provides ordinary people with a tool to petition the EU, namely the European Citizens Initiative. If a broad civil society coalition can collect a million signatures from concerned citizens on a blueprint for change, then we stand a chance of redefining the EU’s role in this interminable conflict.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 26 November 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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From numbers to narratives

 
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Nikolaj Nielsen

Most journalists dread crunching data. But finding narratives among the numbers is part of journalism’s mandate. Luckily, there are tools to help.

27 August 2010

Mirko Lorenz, who organised a recent data-driven journalism event through the European Journalism Centre (ECJ), believes data-driven journalism may be the future. Lorenz explained that being able to visualise filtered data alongside a good story could provide an invaluable service to the public good.

Is this really the next big thing or is it just hubris? Another miracle fix to the glum outlook of journalism? Perhaps saving journalism (and the public’s trust in the profession) requires going back to the basics of a good, well thought out, and structured story telling based on compelling research.  Take Florence Nightingale. In 1858, she produced a coxcomb graph showing how more soldiers died of sickness in the Crimean War than on the battlefield. The UK Sanitary Commission subsequently improved hygiene in both military camps and hospitals. In other words, data-driven journalism is not new. And neither is good storytelling.

Nonetheless, we are faced with an information overload that makes it almost impossible to single-handedly understand what is happening. What if Wikileaks had sent you its 75 000 + documents? Both The New York Times and The Guardian had three weeks to sift through files. The Guardian’s datablog was then able to create a graphical representation of the war logs. These were then linked to the articles. It’s great stuff. But not everyone is so lucky.

Wikileaks is an exceptional case. Most often journalists have to deal with one or several unstructured excel spreadsheets, text files and pdfs. Sensitive information on budgets are, for instance, often wrangled from some official who will then typically present the data in an unstructured manner. Trying to sift through hundreds of thousands of  data sets is an exercise that taxes limited resources and takes too much time. How can one possibly make sense of a text file with millions of figures? And what exactly is one looking for?

“Always question government stats,” says Financial Times investigative journalist, Cynthia O’Murchu, adding that data is rarely user friendly. Ms O’Murchu, who was present at the EJC conference, expressed her frustration at having first to clean data before any attempt to decipher it.   Even getting access is a quest. She demonstrated how her request to obtain UK government data through the Freedom of Information Act would come with a GBP3,400 price tag and months of delay. Information is not so free, after all.

Another tactic used by government officials is to dump massive amounts of unstructured raw data. This is known as data dumping, an exercise that New York Times interactive news technology whiz, Alan McLean, said not only fails to inform but is also distracting. Thankfully, there exist a number of free online tools that claim to make reading and finding narratives in data much easier:

Lippmannian device

Richard Rogers, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, compiled a list of 35 different online tools to help you make sense of data. He demonstrated one tool called the Lippmannian device – named after Walter Lippman.

This tool does two things: it can generate source clouds or issue clouds. Source clouds enable one, for instance, to find out which sites most often quote a particular source. So if you enter the terms ‘climate change sceptics’ you can visualise which sites source sceptics the most. Issue clouds enable you to establish quickly what a particular organisation actually does as opposed to what it says it does. For instance, you can find out the main issues of the top 50 human rights organisations and quickly visualise their relative differences.  The Lippmannian device is a nifty little tool. Incidentally, Google is not too keen about it and is beginning to muscle-in on the operation.

The Guardian database

Simon Rogers is the editor of the Guardian’s Datablog and Datastore. This online data resource publishes hundreds of raw datasets and encourages users to visualise and analyse them. There are around 800 datasets currently available and they add three or four every day.

OUseful.info

Tony Hirst runs this blog. He’s a lecturer at the Open University.  The blog is pretty detailed but provides how-tos on taking data from a website and visualising it in Google Map without having to code anything. You can then send your Google Map URL to anyone.  This is a great feature if you want to locate poverty indexes using Eurostat datasets. You could, for instance, see the relative differences and intensity of poverty in Google Maps.  Note, I haven’t tried doing this but he does provide a step-by-step guide.

Many-eyes.com

Frank van Ham was one of the developers of this useful tool that was quickly bought up by Google. His two partners now work there.  Many-eyes allows you to visualise data and place it online for all to see and comment on. It’s interactive and enables others to manipulate and analyse it. Yes, there are people who actually do this for fun.  Your graphic gets a direct URL that you can then share as well. Or you can also embed the graph into your own website.

Hackhackers and Storify.com

I’d also like to make short mention of this one. Hackhackers is developed by the former AP foreign desk bureau chief Burt Herman. Burt describes his tool as combining computer science with journalism – a still distant concept here in Europe but common in the United States. He took the concept and applied it to tool he calls storify.com.  Storify will allow you (still in development)  to make sense of twitter feeds and may be even find a story. Anyway, the guy was super interesting.

Qgis.org

This tool wasn’t  presented at the conference. But I found out about it from a German journalist who uses it to better analyse Eurostat data. Quantum GIS allows you to visualise, manage, edit, analyse data, and compose printable maps.  Sounds good.

Nikolaj Nielsen is a Brussels-based independent journalist. Published here with the author’s permission. ©Nikolaj Nielsen.

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Dumbfounded by smart-arse software

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Constant popup reminders telling you to update software,or even to scrub your fingernails… Why have computers become such smart-arses?

7 July 2010

I yearn for the days of dumber software – when it just did what it said on the box. That’s probably why I love Microsoft Works. It’s got all the functions I need and none of the fancy new stuff introduced in recent years that force you to relearn the programs time and again. And it often comes pre-installed on netbooks and their ilk.

Why burden your flash-memory speedster with unnecessary, sometimes costly software?

This rather banal conclusion was reached during a recent purging of C-drive content on my moaning Asus – it would tell me every time I booted up that it needed a spring clean. I ignored its pleas for weeks and then decided to investigate what could be burdening this little beast so much after less than a year’s work.

Going back a step, I’ll confess that I have not been using Asus’ purported 32Gb of ‘hybrid’ memory to its fullest. Three-quarters of that is provided through its so-called ‘Eee storage’ facility in the cloud. I steered clear of that because I just can’t see how Asus, or any other storage platform (Facebook, flickr, etc.) can be relied upon to keep our records as safe as a shoebox in the attic for ever.

So, my cyber doubts left me saving most of the heavy stuff on memory sticks and a separate media unit cum hard drive that was supposed to be my TV-mediated home entertainment solution for the next decade. But it was so painfully slow (apparently no optic cable or something) that I was forced to resuscitate  my DVD/CD player, much to my wife’s relief. Sure, I saved the odd article, some downloads here and there and sundry dreaded software updates and add-ons that you can no longer ignore on the 12Gb of flash memory available in the Asus, but that shouldn’t have amounted to a chastising message from the operating system every time I switched it on, should it?

Rarely used, clueless why

Eventually, I tired of reading the start-up message, along with all the others popping up nowadays every minute or so to tell me I’ve got some unfinished business that didn’t seem to bother me five years ago. Why is it so flipping urgent now that I fix, update or abrade it? So, I caved in and clicked on the solution offered to try and get back some speed and clear some of the C-drive memory. It gave me several options to do this and I was told after performing a couple of them that I’d almost recuperated enough memory to restore my Asus’ faith in me as a user.

What else could I do to please the machine? I went manual and searched in all my work folders for Excel sheets, documents and the like that I didn’t need. I deleted them all. I deleted all the old Chronikler blog docs, too, figuring they’re securely stored in the cloud, hahem. But my Asus friend was still not perfectly satisfied.

I felt like I was a boy back home trying to please the teacher. A cheeky upstart, granted, but a friend that had held my hand back into the world of impressive gadgetry and a fast, cheap, mobile geezer at that (See Psion of things to come ). So when I’m clearly displeasing this friend, the scolding is real.

Again, I follow Asus’ instructions for more options to lighten the load and I’m ushered into a software backroom with apparently every program sluicing the popups, beeps, graphics, firewalls that drive me to distraction. And here I am with the keys to the shop on what I can delete to free up space. An immediate candidate is a ‘rarely used’ program – sorry to say it – called Firefox/Mozilla. Deleted. I admit it, I’m not trendy enough to use Mozilla or drive a Mac.

Next, I see all these extra security features I have like Adaware and some search and destroy bot that Christian Bale’s Terminator Salvation would happily rail against. The IT guy who removed an embarrassing VD from Asus in January said I had to get those two if I wanted to be safe-cracker protected.

At triple digit Mb weight, Adaware had to go. The S&D bot was lighter but I’ll just have to practise more safe memory stick sex and I should never need that. The catch-all cyber security solution I have, called Kapersky, sold itself as one of the best for netbooks and I’ve come across no evidence to the contrary.

Going down the list of other programs I could remove, I see some Adobe software and, though I’d love to do without it, I know too well I’d regret removing it, despite rarely using it at home. There’s also some compatibility software for the professional MS tools which mean I can open Excel sheets Powerpoint presentations, and such.

The temptation to delete that compatibility software, or what ever it was called, was very high. But I’ve been blasé about such ’uninstalls’ in the past and found my computers didn’t have sound afterwards, or were missing some other function that I failed to note when it warned me that my action would have catastrophic consequences.

I passed further down the uninstall hit-list, and a sudden wave of fondness crept over me when I reached the Works icon. Trying to understand where this sentiment could have welled up from, I decided that this sub-professional software that you seem to increasingly get preinstalled – because the companies want to avoid being called cheap and ungrateful by their new customer – is probably the best thing for the job. And just so you know, it is a fallacy that anything saved in these MS-lite programs can’t be opened or used by their high-priced cousins. Just ‘save as’ in the relevant format you need at work or where ever to open it.

There you have it, if you want to keep your netbook friend happy, don’t go inviting all these foul-weather friends like Adaware, to your party, or MS Work’s snobby relatives, for that matter. It’s software dumb-arses all the way for me, thanks!

Published with the author’s permission. © Christian Nielsen. 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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