Jaywalking – who owns the city?

This thoughtful quote comes from the thoughtful essay The End of Walking by Antonia Malchik

Making jaywalking illegal gave the supremacy of mobility to those sitting behind combustion engines. Once upon a time, the public roads belonged to everyone. But since the ingenious invention of jaywalking we’ve battered pedestrianism in one of those silent culture wars where the only losers are ourselves.

After reading this you may enjoy reading The forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of “jaywalking” by . And the great podcast 99% Invisible’s has an episode on jaywalking.

In the end it’s about what our public space is for. Who has the right of way. Of course we need to prevent people from getting killed but how much space should the road take from us?

Regulating Online Public/Private Spaces: Notes from a lecture

The presentation yesterday dealt with moving regulation from the physical world to the digital environment. My goal was to show the ways in which regulation occurs and in particular to go beyond the simplistic “wild west” ideology online – at the same time I wanted to demonstrate that online behavior is controlled by more elements than the technological boundaries.

In order to do this, I wanted to begin by demonstrating that the we have used tools for a long period of time and that these tools enable and support varying elements of control. And since I was going to take a historic approach I could not resist taking the scenic route.

In the beginning was the Abacus. Developed around 2400 BCE in Mesapotamia this amazing tool for extending the power of the brain to calculate large numbers (which is basically what your smartphone does but much much more…). The fascinating thing with the abacus is that despite the wide range of digital devices it remains in use today (but it is in deep decline).

The decline of the Chinese abacus the Suanpan

Suanpan arithmetic was still being taught in school in Hong Kong as recently as the late 1960s, and in Republic of China into the 1990s. However, when hand held calculators became readily available, school children’s willingness to learn the use of the suanpan decreased dramatically. In the early days of hand held calculators, news of suanpan operators beating electronic calculators in arithmetic competitions in both speed and accuracy often appeared in the media. Early electronic calculators could only handle 8 to 10 significant digits, whereas suanpans can be built to virtually limitless precision. But when the functionality of calculators improved beyond simple arithmetic operations, most people realized that the suanpan could never compute higher functions – such as those in trigonometry – faster than a calculator. Nowadays, as calculators have become more affordable, suanpans are not commonly used in Hong Kong or Taiwan, but many parents still send their children to private tutors or school- and government- sponsored after school activities to learn bead arithmetic as a learning aid and a stepping stone to faster and more accurate mental arithmetic, or as a matter of cultural preservation. Speed competitions are still held. Suanpans are still being used elsewhere in China and in Japan, as well as in some few places in Canada and the United States.

Continuing on the story of ancient technology pointed to the Antikythera Mechanism an analogue computer from 100BCE designed to predict astronomical positions and eclipses. The knowledge behind this machinery would be lost for centuries.

In the 17th century Wilhelm Schickard & Blaise Pascal developed mechanical addition and subtraction machines but the more durable development was that of the slide rule

The Reverend William Oughtred and others developed the slide rule in the 17th century based on the emerging work on logarithms by John Napier. Before the advent of the pocket calculator, it was the most commonly used calculation tool in science and engineering. The use of slide rules continued to grow through the 1950s and 1960s even as digital computing devices were being gradually introduced; but around 1974 the electronic scientific calculator made it largely obsolete and most suppliers left the business.

Despite its almost 3 centuries of dominance few of us today even remember the slide rule, let along know how to use one.

While the analogue calculating devices were both useful and durable most of the machines were less so. This is because they were built with a fixed purpose in mind. The early addition and subtraction machines were simply that. Addition and subtraction machines. They could not be used for other tasks without needing to be completely rebuilt.

The first examples of programmable machinery came with the Jacquard loom first demonstrated in 1801. Using a system of punch cards the loom could be programmed to weave patterns. If the pattern needed to be changed then the program was altered. The punch cards were external memory systems which were fed into the machine. The machine did not need to be re-built for changes to occur.

The looms inspired both Charles Babbage and Herman Hollerith to use punch cards as a method for imputing data in their calculating machines. Babbage is naturally the next famous point in our history. His conceptual Difference Engine and Analytical Engine have made him famous as the father of the programmable computer.

But as his devices remained to the largest part theoretical constructs I believe that the more important person of this era is Ada Lovelace who not only saw the potential in these machines but, arguably, saw an even greater potential than Babbage himself envisioned. She was the first computer programmer and a gifted mathematician.

Few scientists understood Babbage’s breakthrough, but Ada wrote explanations of the Analytical Engine’s function, its advantage over the Difference Engine, and included a method for using the machine in calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

The next step in this story Hollerith’s tabulating machine. While the level of computing is not a major step the interesting part is the way it came to be and the solutions that were created. The American census of 1880 took 8 years to conduct and it was predicted that the 1890 census would take 13 years to conduct. This was unacceptable and the census bureau looked for technical solutions. Hollerith built machines under contract for the Census Office, which used them to tabulate the 1890 census in only one year.

Hollerith’s business model was ingenious. He did not sell the machines, he sold his services. The governments and corporations around the world that came to rely on his company had no control but had to pay the price for his technical expertise. Hollerith’s company eventually became the core of IBM.

The point being that Hollerith positioned his company as holding the key role between the user and the data.

The progress in machinery and thoughts around machinery moved forward at a steady pace. Then making rapid progress during the second world war with names like Bletchley Park, the Colossus (the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer) and Alan Turing.

While most people could hardly comprehend the power of a computer, Vannevar Bush wrote his famous article on the Memex As We May Think in 1945. Here were visions of total information digitization and retrieval. Ideas that are now possible after half a century of modern computing history.

And with this we leap into the modern era, first with the Internet, then personal computers, and the advent of the world wide web.

The fascinating thing here is the business model becomes more clearly what Hollerith envisioned it. It was about becoming the interface between the user and the data. This is where the power lay.

When IBM was at it’s height Bill Gates persuaded them to begin using his operating system. He also persuaded them to allow him not to be exclusive to them. The world realized that it wasn’t the hardware that was important – it was what we could do with it that counted. Other manufacturers came in and IBM lost its hold of the computer industry.

When Tim Berners Lee developed the web and the first web browser and released them both freely online he created a system which everyone could use without needing licenses or payment. The web began to grow at an incredible rate.

Windows was late in the game. They still believed in the operating system but the interface between the user and the data was shifting. No matter which operating system or hardware you used it was all about accessing data online.

With Windows95 Microsoft took up the fight for the online world against the then biggest competitor Netscape. Microsoft embedded their browser Internet Explorer in the operating system and made it increasingly difficult for users to remove it. This was the beginning of the browser wars, a fight for control of the interface between the user and the data.

The wars eventually lost their relevance with the development of a new type of company offering a new version of a search engine. When Google came on the scene it had to compete with other search engines but after a relatively quick battle it became the go-to place where Internet users began their online experiences. It had become the interface between the users and the data. It didn’t matter which hardware, software, or browser you used… everyone began with Google.

At this point I introduced the four modalities of regulation used by Lawrence Lessig and presented in his work The Code from 1999.

modalitiesContrary to what many believe, regulation takes many forms. We regulate with social norms, with market solutions and with architecture (as well as laws). Naturally none of these modalities occur in isolation but we often tend to forget that much of our regulation is embedded in social, economic and physical contexts. If any of these contexts change then the law must adapt to encompass this change.

Using the offline problem of slowing down traffic I pointed to the law which hangs out speed signs, the market regulation of the price of a speeding ticket and the time it takes to negotiate its payment. Social attempts to slow traffic occur when people in the neighborhood hang signs warning drivers of children in the area. They are appealing to the drivers better nature.

And the architecture of the road. If we want to slow down cars it is much more efficient to change the road than to hang up a sign. Make it curvy, make it bumpy, change its colors there are an array of things that can be done to limit or slow access. The problem with using technology (or architecture) is that it is absolute. If we put speed bumps in the road then not even someone driving with good cause can speed. Even someone attempting to drive a heart attack victim to the hospital must slow down.

triangle The more we move from the analogue into the digital world the less control that is afforded through the law and the more ability we have to change the realities in which we live. Architecture or technology is more pliable as a form of regulation.

In closing I asked the class to list regulatory examples which occur when attempting to access information online via their smartphones. The complex interface between them and the data included new levels like the apps they use, the apps that their phones allow, their payment plans, social control online, social control offline and a whole host of other regulatory elements.

And here are the slides I used:

Digital Divides & Net Neutrality: Notes from a lecture

As today is the last week before the Scottish referendum which will decide whether Scotland will become an independent country I could not help but begin the lecture with a shout out to this coming monumental date. I find it hard to believe that the world is talking about anything else.

But the real point of today’s class was to talk about digital divides and net neutrality. To begin this I began by explaining how the Internet became this amazing thing it is today. We tend to take it’s coolness for granted because it is so cool (I recognize that this is circular reasoning but that is the way it is often explained).

One of the unexplained reasons the Internet became cool depends on the business model that is used. In the early days we paid for the time we were connected. This pay-as-you-go model is great but it does have a dampening effect. Since you are constantly paying the impetus is to be quick. Being quick means that the content will be light and fast to be usable.

This business model is the same as the telephone model has been for most of it’s history. We paid per minute and by distance. We were taught to be brief and idle chatting was discouraged. This is also because the infrastructure was originally highly wasteful and could only serve one user per line.

If the telephone had developed into a monthly charge instead, we could have seen a great deal more innovation and use of the system we could have created the Internet much much earlier. This counterfactual is not totally strange. The early ideas for the telephone included such oddities as dial-up concerts. Such as the one reported in Scientific American, (February 28, 1891):

In a lecture recently delivered in the Town Hall at Newton, Mass., Mr. Pickernell described the methods employed in the transmission of music by telephone. His remarks were very forcibly illustrated by the reception in the lecture hall of music transmitted over the long distance lines from the telephone building, at No. 18 Cortlandt Street, New York, and our engraving, made from a photograph taken at the time, shows the arrangement of the performers.

Scientific American, February 28, 1891

Scientific American, February 28, 1891

But as we all know this was not the way the telephone evolved. The Internet on the other hand did move in that direction. Rather quickly we moved from dial-up modems to fixed connections. Speed was important – but even more important was the fact that the user never had to worry about the time she was online. Downloading large files, streaming, idle browsing and most all of our online lives stems from the point where we stopped worrying about the cost of access to the Internet.

Another point that needs to be stressed is that we often confuse the Internet, the Web and what we do on our mobile devices. Put very simply the Internet is the cables and servers the infrastructure upon which several applications (such as email, netflix and the Web run upon). What we do on our mobile devices is mostly using apps which run on the Internet (but not necessarily the web).

So while the web which was developed by Tim Berners Lee became huge because he chose to give the system away without trying to patent or close it. It is now shrinking because we are becoming more dependent upon our mobile devices. For the longest time we said “the Internet” when we really meant “the Web” and now we say “the Web” when we really mean “the Internet” (via apps on our devices).

This may seem to be pedantic distinctions but they are important as each of these technologies have different strengths and weaknesses and different affordances and control mechanisms.

Once this was established we looked at this map illustrating:

What you’re looking at is a map of nearly every device that was connected to the internet on August 2. Or, at least, a map of ones that responded to a ping request from John Matherly, an internet cartographer. Motherboard

When we say everybody uses the Internet this is the everybody to which we are referring. The large dark areas are those without this, for us, basic technology. Additionally there are small places with more connectivity than the areas we would normally see as technology dense. The map also raises interesting questions about divisions created by culture and language and the problems of measurement when countries such as China are behind a firewall.

We also looked at an array of charts illustrating OECD statistics on broadband penetration per capita, average monthly subscription price, and average download speeds.

broadbandThe USA has an average broadband penetration among OECD countries but it also has the highest number of total internet subscribers by far seen in absolute numbers.

In order to have some form of consensus for our discussion on the digital divide I put forward this description:

… a gap between those who have ready access to information and communication technology and the skills to make use of those technology and those who do not have the access or skills to use those same technologies within a geographic area, society or community. It is an economic and social inequality between groups of persons.

The factors that are persistently pointed to as being the root causes of the digital divide are

  • Cost (technology and connection)
  • Know-how (how to connect, how to use devices, what to do when something goes wrong, overcoming cultural divides etc)
  • Recognizing the benefit

The latter is very interesting as most users do not need to explain why they benefit but non-users manage to make their lives work without access. It is difficult to demonstrate to non-users that they would benefit from using the technology. Indeed that they would benefit so much that it is worth struggling to overcome the barriers of cost and know-how.

Then we moved the discussion over to the Pew research report African Americans and Technology Use, which showed

African Americans trail whites by seven percentage points when it comes to overall internet use (87% of whites and 80% of blacks are internet users), and by twelve percentage points when it comes to home broadband adoption (74% of whites and 62% of blacks have some sort of broadband connection at home). At the same time, blacks and whites are on more equal footing when it comes to other types of access, especially on mobile platforms.

All things being equal there should be no difference in technology use. And yet there is a gap of seven percentage points. Considering most countries desire to transfer more business and services online this is a worrying number of outsiders. Remember, both groups should have users who don’t see a need for the technology – this gap is not about them.

When it came to smartphone ownership the difference was not significant (53% of whites and 56% of blacks) but I found this interesting taken in conjunction with the earlier numbers. Were some users choosing mobile devices over broadband? What were the consequences of this? Stephanie Chen was interviewed in Salon

“You can’t do your homework on a smartphone; you can’t help your kids with their homework on a smartphone; you can’t write your résumé on a smartphone. You can’t do any of that on a smartphone… As a test, I went through the process and tried to apply for a job at Walmart on a phone. It was an arduous process.”

Once again it is vital to remember that each device has it’s affordances that enable and discourage behavior.

Following this we touched briefly on the concepts of digital natives, digital immigrants and digital tourists. I can only refer back to an earlier rant of mine on the subject:

During the discussions one of the topics that came up was the digital divide which is claimed to exist between young and old (whatever do these epitaphs mean?) and then it was only natural to bring up the horrible term digital natives, digital immigrants and digital turists. All these terms were popularized by Marc Prensky and are completely horrific. And of course very popular. There were voices of reason among the crowd but at the same time the catchy phrase seemed to win over intelligent discussion.

There are several problems with the metaphor, not to mention the built in racism. In most languages, calling someone a native smacks of arrogance, a touch of racism and good old fashioned colonialism.

Who is the native? So who is the native and how does one become one? Obviously the idea here is that the youth of today are all tech-savvy and understand technology while the older generation is good at saying stuff like “I remember when…” and handling analog technology. Seriously what a load of dog doodoo. The fact that we lack common areas of interest is not a digital divide. Young people tend to have different tastes in music, love, hobbies, work, films, books than older people. Even Beethoven’s father probably complained at his sons taste in music.

Are they a group? The young are not a homogeneous group, but then again the question could be put forward if homogeneous groups actually exist at all? Does the Englishman really exist? What is it the natives are supposed to understand? This is the biggest problem with the metaphor. Yes, there are hoards of young folk who can easily send hundreds of text messages per day but does that identify them as digital? Does this mean that they are fundamentally different from those who can hardly use the mobile telephones?

The problem is that the idea of the digital native seems to be that they are (1) comfortable using all digital technology and, (2) understand all digital technology. This is most obviously wrong. The ability to be on Facebook does not prepare you for editing wikipedia, blogging or twitter. The ability to use wikipedia has nothing to do with being popular on twitter. And none of these abilities have anything to do with the ability to use the most of the functions in the simplest word processors.

The understanding of technology, how it works, what it means – in addition to its social, economic and cultural impact is quite often totally lost on these so-called natives. I mean no disrespect (even though saying this usually makes things worse) but being an enthusiastic user has no relation to understanding technology.

Metaphors are supposed to exist to help us understand complex ideas. When they do not fulfill this basic purpose they are useless or worse harmful to our understanding. A misguided metaphor is worse than no metaphor at all. And the concept of digital natives does not aid understanding –  it only creates barriers.

It was then time to deal with net neutrality and in order to do this in a more entertaining manner I showed a part of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Net Neutrality (HBO) 

And finally closed by appealing to them to go and read up on net neutrality, and in particular, check out the website Battle for the Net since there is still time for those who feel it to be important to react and to show politicians that the open net is something ordinary people are passionate about.

Here are the slides I used for this presentation:


Biased Screens and Us

We should always what parts of technology is true and false. In an attempt to identify what should be common knowledge among anybody who uses, or is dependent on, digital technology (this is basically all of us) Alex Krotoski has written a report The Personal (Computer) Is Political: Recommendations for the rest of us for the Nominet Trust. From the presentation

To be able to fully participate in our physical and digital communities requires a range of actions and understanding. The value of the technical skills of coding and programming and the creativity of making and designing digital products are well understood, but at the heart of our ambition to support young people’s digital making is understanding how digital technologies are made. This understanding can come about through the process of digital making, or of tinkering with existing digital products, but it is this understanding that is so important.

We are constantly drawn in by the convenience of our shiny devices but we seldom think about the ways in which our devices are biased. We tend to trust what appears in front of us on our screens despite knowing that the screen is a device capable of extreme manipulation. We need to be critical both to the content that is delivered by our technology and by the technology itself (the focus of Krotoski’s report). She writes:

Becoming a critical consumer of technology isn’t just the responsibility of our teachers, our policy makers or software developers: we need to arm ourselves with the knowledge and the know-how to break out of our technofundamentalist trappings, and to wrestle our lives back from the machines.

On her website she publishes four obvious, but often overlooked, points that we should always be aware of in relation to our technology.

  • Be aware that software developers do not necessarily have your individual wellbeing as their priority.
  • Demand more from developers. You are their customer, and if your interests and needs are not being met, don’t adapt yourself to the system; expect it to adapt to you.
  • Consider how well you are able to express yourself in software, and whether this is adequate. Assess if what you want and need changes in the future, that the software is flexible and responsive enough to allow you to change. Consider the implications of your interactions with the service should that service change its conditions for use.
  • In all of your interactions with technology, consider the assumptions and biases held by the developers.

fry-can-t-tell-meme-generator-can-t-tell-if-truth-or-lie-bf08edThe problem is that the convenience offered by our technology allows us to both know this and simultaneously believe that what appears on our screens is (mostly) true. It is easier for us to doubt the truth of images and facts we find online (because we have been fooled before) but we tend not to question the bias built into our systems.

Also check out Alex’s book Untangling the Web


How to share wifi from wifi (without Ethernet)

If hotel rooms are supposed to become my home away from home then there is one thing that I absolutely hate: the unfriendly wifi.

  1. I dislike paying extra for wifi
  2. I dislike having to log on with superlong codes each time I need to use wifi
  3. I dislike having to buy wifi for each of my devices separately!

The first two are unfortunately not going to go away until hotels come to their senses but the third can be resolved by without relying on the hotels.

This is a guide to creating your own wifi in a room where the only Internet connection is wifi (i.e. no Ethernet). You will need laptop, wireless router, Ethernet cable. I have done this with my Apple equipment. I am sure you can do this in other connections but I have not tried it. I have not done this all too often and remembering these settings are the reason I wrote this guide.

Begin by Logging into the wifi with your laptop.

Go to sharing (Settings->sharing->Internet Sharing) Select from wifi share via Ethernet and turn it on. When troubleshooting turning sharing on/off again has sometimes resolved the problem.

Connect your Wireless router to the computer. I use the new small Airport Express its lightweight for travel. Connect you Ethernet cable from the laptop to the Ethernet WAN port.

Then its time to set up the Wifi

Go to the Airport Utility (Applications -> Utilities -> Airport Utility)

Base Station: pick a name and password for the base station. This is not the wifi net or password but the way to log into the base station to make changes if need be.

Network: You are creating a wireless network. Pick name for that wifi and password. Chose Bridge mode.

Note some situations may not like you doing all this so picking a wifi name that screams out whom you are may be unwise. Obviously be wise about passwords as well.

Internet Connection: This is the hotel wifi that you logged into in the beginning of this guide.

The update and you are away. You should now log all your devices onto the wifi you have created and they are all sharing the internet connection that you are paying for.

Is there an inverse Filter Bubble?

The whole concept of Filter Bubbles is fascinating. It’s the idea that services like Google & Facebook (and many more) live on collecting data about us. In order to do this more efficiently they need to make us happy. Happy customers keep using the service ergo more data. To keep us happy they organize and filter information and present it to us in a pleasing way. Pleasing me requires knowing me. Or as Bernard Shaw put it “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may be different”

Its this organizing that makes creates problems. At its most benign Google attempts to provide me with the right answer for me. So if I search for the word “bar” Google may, based on my previous interests (searches, mail analysis, Youtube views etc), present me with drinking establishments rather than information about pressure. Maybe useful, maybe annoying. The problem occurs when we move on to more difficult concepts. The filter bubble argument is that this organization is in fact a form of censorship as I will not be provided with a full range of information. (Some other terms of interest: echo chamber & daily me & daily you).

Recently I have been experimenting with filter bubbles and have begun to wonder if there is also an “inverse” filter bubble on Facebook. The inverse filter bubble occurs when a social media provider insists on keeping a person or subject in your feed and advertising despite all user attempts to ignore the person or topic.

So far I am working with several hypothesis:

  1. The bubble is not complete
  2. The media provider wants me to include the person/topic into my bubble
  3. The media provider thinks or knows of a connection I do not recognize
  4. The person I am ignoring is associating heavily with me (reading posts, clicking images etc)

This is a fascinating area and I need to set up some ways of testing the ideas. As usual all comments and suggestions appreciated.

Hiding culture: Google Books & Snippets

In May 2006 I was overjoyed with Google books. I retold an anecdote where I was able to find a book after watching a documentary

[It] was mentioned briefly in a documentary tonight and it sparked my curiousity. So I looked for the book, searching the online databases of second hand bookstores. No luck. Then, almost as a joke, I googled it. And there it was on google books. Cool but it was not like I was going to read it online. Then I saw the download button. Within minutes of hearing of the book for the first time I had a pdf of it on my computer – Google books is too cool!

Amazing, fantastic, brilliant… but. There is a tendency to forget that Google is not a neutral infrastructure and therefore has no real desire to preserve and make available books – even when they have scanned them.

Dingodog led me to this problem via the PD-discussion list

Googlebooks has scanned tons of PUBLIC DOMAIN BOOKS, but not all PUBLIC
DOMAIN BOOKS are accessible

there are a tons of PUBLIC DOMAIN BOOKS that Goglebooks non only has
left in snippet view, but that refuses to UNLOCK for full view (and they
are in PUBLIC DOMAIN!!!)

I have a sad story to tell, about these public domain books left in
snippet view:

since 2009 I’m complaining about a same set of PUBLIC DOMAIN BOOKS whose
copyright expired since more than 10-20 years

I sent a mail every month, then every week, and all this during last
three years to report the erroneous classification of public domain
books as snippet view. Now I’m considering to send a mail every day, but
I’m not confident about effects; I think Googlebooks will ignore my
complaints, as it has ignored during these years

it seems, in fact, that Googlebooks has absolutely no will to unlock,
even if user (as I have done) provides well documented biographical info
and cites the laws regulating the status of book in different countries

People complained about public domain books left in snippet view and
googlebooks user forum was full of these complaints with google
employees not only unable to unlock (maybe google not provided this
ability to employees, or it simply ignored requests), but seriously
lacking in knowledge of googlebooks structure

The discussion continues on the list but it is terribly important to know that scanning is not preservation and does not mean access. Additionally when Google makes these choices it is increasingly important to know this.

Another question I find interesting is the question of multiple copies. Will Google care enough to make multiple scanned copies available? Will we be able to see the errors and additions in certain volumes or not?

Sure the originals are still around but the problem is that with the convenience of Google people will forget this and focus on what is available online. Also the availability of Google books will prevent more rigorous projects from being carried out.

Facebook is the box, not the content

A major focus of discussion recently has been about the value of Facebook. This is kind of obvious as they have an ongoing Initial Public Offering, where the company is selling shares to the public based on an estimated value of around one hundred billion dollars.

The first question is whether the company is worth the money? But then again value is just what the market thinks its worth so its basically a consensual hallucination, which is fine if you share it and odd if you don’t. But the more interesting issue is what the value is after the shares have all been sold. This is still part hallucination but it’s also about performance and this is where it gets interesting. Techcrunch has an interesting article with shiny figures and tables but what makes me think is these quotes:

In terms of Facebook’s overall ad pitch, the company’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said that the company’s long-term goal is to be the place where 70 million businesses worldwide go to offer personalized, relevant advertising…She said, “Every day on Facebook is like the season finale of American Idol times two,” in a reference to the home page

The company really needs to sell to advertisers that they are One place, One market with access to billions – this follows the usual rhetoric of “if Facebook were a country”. But the problem with this is that we are not on Facebook for Facebook, we are there for the content. Facebook knows this and tailors the experience for the user. But with this tailoring there is really no Facebook, at least no one version of Facebook. And if there is no one version then the comment that its like the final season of American Idol is pointless. Facebook may be the box, the television we are all staring at – but we are looking at different channels.

The problem is that this makes Facebook less trendy. It turns it into an infrastructure, nobody wants to invest in infrastructure, its too untrendy. That’s why Facebook insists on talking about itself as ONE place were 800 million people meet.

Stallman lecture in Göteborg

Next week its finally time for the annual FSCONS conference. This year is the fifth year running and it keeps getting better all the time. This year brings an additional bonus as  Richard Stallmanwill give  a presentation at Runan in Gothenburg the day before the conference begins “for real”

About the talk: Activities directed at including” more people in the use of digital technology are predicated on the assumption that such inclusion is invariably a good thing. It appears so, when judged solely by immediate practical convenience. However, if we also judge in terms of human rights, whether digital inclusion is good or bad depends on what kind of digital world we are to be included in. If we wish to work towards digital inclusion as a goal, it behooves us to make sure it is the good kind.


Information diets

What happens when we finally reach a point of information saturation? Can we see information in the same way as food? Some food would be healthy, some would be unhealthy, but no matter what food – overeating is never a good thing.

In 2004 Jimmy Wales was quoted saying (“Wikimedia Founder Jimmy Wales Responds,” Slashdot (200407-28)):

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge

This is, in essence, a wonderful idea – but imagine what will happen in a world were the sum of all human knowledge is available? I began to explore this in a presentation called Wikipedia & Dr Faustus? where I discussed the effects all the worlds information being made available.

The problem with wishing for access to information is that we today have an infrastructure that can provide all the information that we desire but the technology will not discriminate between healthy and unhealthy information. As part of summer reading I began The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser and came across an interesting quote from Danah Boyd from her speech at the 2009 Web 2.0 Expo:

Our bodies are programmed to consume fat an sugars because they’re rare in nature… In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole.

Maybe Boyd is making a value judgement on the different forms of information and compares the “gross, violent, or sexual” to fatty foods – which would probably make necessary facts and information (e.g. maps, statistics) high protein or high fiber. In relation to food we are programmed for fats and sugars but in relation to information we are programmed to relationships. Information about which berries are edible varies but information about relations is universal. We are programmed to be wary of precisely the gross, the sexual, the humiliating and the embarrassing – our survival in the group depends upon it.

The problem is that our interests in these areas is related to other people, people who we are not related to or dependent upon they serve only as entertainment or simple diversion. The evolutionary role of diversion is unclear but we certainly do seem to desire it – or at least fear boredom. So in our desire to avoid boredom we overindulge in our consumption of unhealthy information.

There are basically two ways of dealing with over-consumption (1) more exercise, or (2) dieting. The former is not really efficient but is more a method of coping with the effects of over-consumption. The latter is healthier as it reduces the intake and avoids the negative side effects of over-consumption. Exercise is hard work, but dieting is harder still. It goes against all our natural instincts to overindulge in preparation for the next information glut.

We need to learn healthy information habits right from the start and to ensure that we keep away from information binges. Staying information healthy may be important, but it sure sounds boring.