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:


Silly linking terms

Its nothing new that procrastination while attempting to write leads me off in some very strange surfing directions. In my desperation to avoid producing text I clicked on the Legal Issues link on a website and came across this

Links to our site

In creating a link to this site please indicate that we are the source of the information by including an acknowledgement near to/in the link. We would be grateful if you could notify us about the link. Please also ensure that we are not brought into disrepute by the creation of the link; in such cases, we will request the link’s removal (and, if necessary, may bring legal proceedings to seek its removal). Please note that we may move pages on this site or change their address without prior notice.

First off I was interested in their requests (1) Indicate we are the source, (2) Notify us of the link & (3) Don’t bring us into disrepute. While none of these are particularly difficult in any way they seem to indicate a lack of understanding about what a link is.

These are absolutely nowhere near the worst examples: FastCompany wanted you to fax them for permission before creating a link again in 2007 we blogged about a site that absolutely prohibited linking without permission. Here at least you don’t need to ask permission!

Yet, the best part above, is the unfortunate idea that they will take legal actions against any links that bring them into disrepute. Again this is not without precedent: the best must still be the 2001 KPMG song link row.

Finally I enjoyed their informative notice that they may “move pages on this site or change their address without prior notice”. I would really enjoy seeing any site attempt to give prior notice before moving (or removing) a webpage. Would this be considered to be adequate prior notice: “Dear Internet: On the 31 May we intend to delete this page. We are sorry for making you a bit smaller or for any confusion this may create.”?

Linking terms, such as these are odd. They are generally ignored by most users (and most probably unenforceable), if noticed they are definitely bad PR.

The web was never built, and probably never would have been built, if everyone asked and awaited permission. And since the advent of sharing via social media texts like these make even less sens.

The question is why they persist?


TJ McIntyre trumped me via twitter with the news that the Irish always have to be worse 🙂 Irish Charity Told It Needs To Pay A License Fee To Link To A Newspaper Article. Should we laugh or cry?

Things I shall miss

Saudade is a wonderful concept, its difficult to translate from Portugese but here is Aubrey Bell’s explanation from the book In Portugal (1912).

Vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.

So lets start with the obvious. I am a web person, my work, research and many of my interests would not have been relevant, or even possible, prior to the internet. Despite this I reserve the right to miss things that are slowly fading away – in a large part due to this technology we crave, admire and rely on.

Bookstores with more than bestsellers. The bookstore was dying for a time. It was hit hard from its monopolistic stance by the webstores and has transformed itself into a pop experience. Unfortunately with less knowledge and stock. Now for those of you lucky enough to live in cities in English speaking nations there is the mega store that gives the illusion of width (and they are gorgeous). But seen from the perspective of a small language state like Sweden it is easy to see first hand the decline of the book & store.

Some of the naive believe that if the market wants a book it will be published. The problem with this is that the large market required wants bestsellers. And historical works will be lost, they have been before but not on this scale. I used to think that second-hand stores would pick up the slack but they will eventually end up with what the market produces.

Languages are dying out at an alarming rate. They are small odd languages which most of us will never hear and now never get a chance to. With them dies there cultural significance and potential impact on the world. So this is sad, in the same way as the death of any culture. It’s sad, but that’s life. Obviously the smaller languages are doomed. Eventually Swedish will be a thing of the past. Swedish, Danish & Norwegian can almost be seen as dialects of each other but even then we are talking about a population of less than 20 million. But the question I have not seen posed is how many languages can a globalized world support?

Newspapers! Eventually the concept of sitting at breakfast with a thick, well written, argumentative, educational, cultural artifact of sheets of paper filled with the world will be gone the way of family dinners and the dodo. Can’t help it, I am a dead tree junky. The news I can get elsewhere but, ah, the format, the format.

Real old fashioned unnecessarily large, tackily decorated movie theaters. What am I saying? These are long gone.

Being able to read the collected letter of someone dead is a form of voyeurism which will be gone forever. In its place is the text message or tweet novel. Who wants that crap? Help me? Seriously it must be novelty value? Or is this just an unappreciated art form that I am too dumb to get?

Dead time This is straight from the Telegraph’s list of 50 things the Internet will kill. “When was the last time you spent an hour mulling the world out a window, or rereading a favourite book? The internet’s draw on our attention is relentless and increasingly difficult to resist.”

Traveling to Local culture even before the web major stores were everywhere. The same stores appear all over and create an ubiquitous sense of style and culture. This is an old complaint but it ain’t getting any better. Mind you the “local” items I miss are probably made in China anyway.

Pens, pencils & notebooks. Sure these are still around. Quality notebooks were almost killed by the moleskine but a whole new generation of cool stuff is appearing. Unfortunately the good stuff will not survive. They will become unfashionable quality gifts given on serious occasions and never used. They will be back for short revivals as fashion accessories.

Snail mail. I am old enough to have sent and received actual letters. Hand written content about people I had actually met. Now its only marketing, bills and magazines that come through the letterbox.

For those of you with a theoretical slant. The inevitable I speak of is not a technological determinism in the sense that we are slaves to technology and cannot make human choices. But I adhere to the thoughts of Langford Winner (Autonomous Technology) that the thousands/millions of individual human decisions are all in the power of humans but together like a shoal of fish we move inevitably forward together. Only rarely can an individual alone change the course of technology and therefore we may seen technology as a whole as deterministic.

The end of free

Rupert Murdoch’s media empire News Corp reported a huge financial loss ($3.4bn). Naturally this cannot go un-commented so in today’s Guardian Murdoch is quoted as saying that quality journalism* is not cheap and the era of a free-for-all in online news was over.

So what to do? Well Murdoch’s response is to start charging for online news:

“The digital revolution has opened many new and inexpensive distribution channels but it has not made content free. We intend to charge for all our news websites.”

There may have been a time in history when newspapers could have gone the way of pay-per-view but today the free has spread. One of the reasons for the increasing losses in the print industry is not the traditional web but rather the growth of user-produced content (web2.0). Even if many of these user-producers leech of print media (as does this article since it is a reaction of what I read in the Guardian) it would be very difficult to lock down the news.

The news (whatever that term means) is spread in a number of different sources. Official, unofficial, personal, impersonal, gossip, fact, free, costly etc. But few news sources are so powerful that they can be enclosed and charge money for their content when they once have been provided for free. A pre-internet truth has always been: Any news source can be adequately filled by other news sources. The internet aggravates this by provided a seemingly infinite amount of news sources.

Even though the newspaper business is struggling with their adaption to new technology, charging readers to read their material online will fail. Any attempt by a newspaper to end free will only result in the end of that newspaper. For better or worse – free is here to stay.

* Cannot resist reminding people that “quality journalism” provided by News Corp includes trashy tabloids like The Sun and News of the World as well as quality like The Times and Wall Street Journal.

Short definition of Web2.0

Short definitions are the most difficult. Being put under duress I finally completed this one on web2.0. What do you think?

The standardized open communications platform allowed for the development of a diverse range of web-based applications that have been collectively defined as Web2.0 applications. The concept of Web2.0 focuses on the changing role of the user from a ‘passive’ consumer of information to a more active role as information contributor.

The main change between Web1.0 and 2.0 in relation to this is the growth of alternative information sources outside the control of traditional media. With an increasing simplification in web applications ordinary users increasingly have the ability to make, store and communicate their content online. This contributory culture may take many forms from the sharing of copyrightable material to writing and collecting of product and service reviews.

Many of the most popular Web2.0 sites have in a relatively short period of time become some of the most important online sites. Since its conception in 1999 the World Wide Web has been a platform for communication and collaboration. However the main period of Web2.0 development came after the new millennium.

In addition to the changing role of the user into information contributor the Web2.0 umbrella has come to include the increasingly popular social networking applications that allow users to easily connect and communicate with each other.

The use of the web as a platform for simplified personal communication can be said to originate with blogging (the term was first used around 1997). The next big steps in user production came with the launch of Wikipedia in 2001, the Flickr photo sharing site in 2004 and the video-sharing site YouTube in 2005. Social networking milestones include the launch of Facebook in 2004 and Twitter in 2006.

This form of social networking focuses on building online communities of people with commons interests, the advantage of these new sites lies in the simplicity of their web-based applications made available to the users at no cost. Concerns about privacy have been raised due to the practice of social networking sites to store and use information (Grimmelmann 2009).

Web2.0 has been criticized, by among others Tim Berners Lee, as being only a piece of jargon not really adding anything to the concept of the web (Laningham 2006). While others (e.g. Keen 2007) have criticized it for being amateurish productions, narcissistic in focus and leading in the long run to the demise of traditional professional media.

However despite the criticism of the terminology the practice of user generated content and social networking is here to stay.

Secure Connection Failed

Clicked on a link and ended up here! Been online for a long time now – never seen this one before…

I have erased the name of the site to protect those involved 🙂