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MY INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
ARTICLES IN 2011

Since 2003, I have written regular articles on information technology for Connect, which used to be a separate trade union and in January 2010 became a section of the larger union Prospect. Originally the magazine was called "The Review" and then in April 2004 it was renamed "Connected". The text of all these articles, with relevant hyperlinks, are filed on my web site and this page brings together all those from 2011. If you would like to comment on any of them e-mail me.

Feb/March 2011 The Political Power Of Social Media
April 2011 How To Control Your Online Persona
June 2011 Regulating Content In A Converged World
August 2011 Is The Net Changing Your Brain?
Oct/Nov 2011 The Future Of Digital Radio
December 2011 What Sort Of Net Do We Want?


Activists at home and aboard are making increasing use of online tools as explained by our Internet columnist Roger Darlington.

THE POLITICAL POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA

The role of the activist – whether campaigning for a political cause, pressing for a social change, or pursuing a trade union objective - has been changed dramatically by the new communications technologies, most especially the Internet, and most powerfully of all social media.

Consider some very different cases:

These are just a few examples of how political and social activism is increasingly using social media to challenge authority and to promote change.

What are the advantages and strengths of using social media to further activists' causes?

What are the limitations and weaknesses of these online tools? The Net can be used for conversation or control, for protest or propaganda, for reform or repression. The battle has only just begun.


There's more about you on the Net than you realise. Roger Darlington asks whether you should be worried.

HOW TO CONTROL YOUR ONLINE PERSONA

Have you ever Googled your name? Of course you have. You should check from time to time what the web has to say about you so that you know how other Net users see you.

If your Google search revealed no entries, then you are a deeply sad person and need not read the remainder of this column. If the search located a single entry, you have achieved something called Googlewacking (look it up).

The chances are that, depending on how common your name is and how active you are on the web, you found lots of entries. In my case, since my name is not that common and I'm a Net enthusiast with a web site and two blogs, Google offers up 120,000 entries in 0.11 seconds.

Should we be impressed or scared? Of course, it depends on where the information came from and how accurate it is. There are three types of information about you online.

First, information you can see which you put there. This includes any website or blogs that you run, the social networking sites that you've joined such as Facebook or LinkIn, the microblogging sites you use such as Twitter, and any comments that you've posted to other users' blogs or social networking pages.

This might seem fine, but you might have blogged or tweeted when you were misinformed or angry or drunk and subsequently regretted what you wrote .Or a student revealing his university antics might later find that a potential employer is not so amused by the semi-naked frivolities or anti-capitalist tirades.

Second, information you can see which other people put there. Your family and friends might be mentioning you on their blog postings or Twitter tweets or on their social networking pages. If you've given a speech or presentation or attended a seminar or conference, you may well be mentioned on the organisation's web site. Your employer and any social organisation of which you are a member may well have something about you online.

Again, at first this may not seem problematic. But you may not want the world to know a former girlfriend's rating of your sexual prowess or what you said about the boss at the company's Christmas party. Teachers can be the victim of outrageous comments by pupils and politicians and celebrities are often the subject of unsubstantiated rumours or simply outright lies.

Third, there is information you can't see and which you created probably unknowingly. Cookies often record your visits to a website and what you viewed or did there. Data mining techniques collate your online activity and interpret your interests in order to personalise content or target advertisements.

For instance, consider my use of Amazon. When I view information on a book, they know I'm interested in that subject or genre; when I actually buy that book, they know I'm very interested; when I go on to review that book, they know that I'm exceptionally interested. This enables Amazon to target recommendations and offers.

Research commissioned by the Communications Consumer Panel – on which I sit – suggests that most Net users have not really thought through the implications of all this information being so available to so many people and have little understanding of what they should be doing to ensure that their profile online is the one they wish the world to see not just now but in the years to come.

So what can you do to manage your online persona?


As broadcasting and the Internet collide, can we continue to regulate them so differently? Our columnist Roger Darlington explores the options.

REGULATING CONTENT IN A CONVERGED WORLD

Broadly speaking, I would suggest that, in most democratic countries, broadcasting is regulated around some concept or definition of offence. So 'excessive' or 'inappropriate' bad language, violent behaviour, sexual activity, and such anti-social practices as smoking, drinking and drug-taking are prohibited or confined to certain times or certain channels. Therefore essentially the test of acceptability is offence.

I would suggest that, by contrast, in most democratic nations 'regulation' of the Internet simply borrows from general law and that, as far as is practical, what is illegal offline is regarded as illegal online. This would include criminal content such as child abuse images (what many – wrongly, I believe – call child pornography), 'extreme' adult pornography, race hate material, and inducement to violence or other activities which are of themselves illegal such as drug-taking, fraud or robbery. It would also include content such as libel or copyright infringement. Therefore the test of acceptability is domestic law.

Regulation of broadcasting and the Internet cannot be the same. It would both technically impossible and socially unacceptable. The issue is whether the sharp differences in regulation and the fundamentally different tests of what is acceptable should continue. My own view is that, over time and with consumer education, we should move to a less differentiated model. Why?

First, the current broadcasting model is no longer appropriate as the justifications for it are evaporating. Effectively there is no scarcity of spectrum or channels – the volume of content and the range of choice is now enormous. In many countries, there is no longer a real consensus about what constitutes offence – we are much more cosmopolitan and much more variegated in our tastes and values and what would outrage one family would be no problem at all to another.

Second, the current Internet model is no longer adequate. When the Net was used by a few thousand academics and nerds, maybe we did not need to worry too much about its content. But now the Internet is a mass medium – indeed it is the mass medium – with some two billion users. To limit 'regulation' simply to material which is illegal is not facing up to some serious challenges of Internet content – such pro-anorexia, pro-bulimia and pro-suicide sites – or to the wishes of consumers for some more protection and guidance.

Third, convergence now means that regulation based on device – one system for broadcasting because it is delivered on radio and television sets and another system for the Internet because it is delivered on a computer – is wholly inappropriate and unsustainable. Already one can have a split screen with the broadcasting of a television programme as the main picture and a live Twitter feed about the programme on a smaller section of the same screen. Tablet computers (like the iPad) and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) are accelerating the convergence of content delivery.

If we are going to have a more converged approach to content regulation, then essentially we have three broad choices.

First, we could regulate broadcasting the way we regulate the Internet, so that all content would be accessible unless it was illegal. This would throw open what was permissible on television to an extent which I believe would be politically and socially unacceptable. Our screens would be awash with sex and violence and not just when we 'pull' it down from the Net but when it is 'pushed' at us by broadcasters.

Second, we could regulate the Internet the way we regulate broadcasting, so that anything offensive on the Net would have to be blocked or limited in some way. In a global medium where every user has the opportunity to create content, this would be technically impossible (although it is feasible in a particular totalitarian regime like China or Iran). Furthermore it would change the whole concept of the Net and radically diminish the rich and varied content that we currently enjoy.

Third, we could seek some sort of middle way that uses a different test of acceptable content – one that is not so strict and subjective as offence or taste or decency, but one that is not so limited and difficult to enforce as illegality. What could such a test be? I would suggest for debate the test of harm. But, for a full examination of this model, you will have to check out my web site essay [click here].


Our use of the Internet is having invisible consequences that effect how we read and remember, explains our columnist Roger Darlington.

IS THE NET CHANGING YOUR BRAIN?

We often think of the brain as a kind of computer but this is a poor analogy for several reasons. A computer is literally hard-wired and use of it does not change either the location or the intensity of the connections.

The brain is very different. It contains an estimated 100 billion neurons and these neurons are constantly making and remaking synaptic connections as a result of our behaviour. Scientists, therefore, talk of neuroplasticity, the capacity and indeed the inevitability that different types of reading and thinking will result in different synaptic connections which over time become more or less strengthened in our brains.

In his seminal work "The Shallows" (sub-titled "How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember") [for my review click here], American writer Nicholas Carr argues that intensive use of the Internet is literally reconnecting our brains in ways which make it harder for such users to concentrate on linear text for a sustained period because of "the switch from paper to pixels".

Web pages contain short pieces of text dotted with hyperlinks and Web users frequently skim that text and follow these links in ways which, according to Carr, take us into "the shallows".

He insists: "Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning" and that "people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links".

But, in so far as it true that some Net users - perhaps especially younger, more intensive users - find it hard to concentrate and to digest linear text, it is surely overblown to assert – as Carr does - that "one of the greatest dangers we face" is "a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity".

All new media companies are interested in how their customers are using and coping with the explosion of new digital devices and services. BT is one of them and recently sponsored an international study led by the Engineering Design Centre at Cambridge University.

The subsequent report, entitled "Culture, Communication And Change" [for text click here] comes to some balanced conclusions, but still sounds warnings.

The study found that one in three people has felt overwhelmed by communications technology to the point that they feel they need to escape it. Those people who have frequently felt overwhelmed are also more likely to feel less satisfied with their life as a whole.

As a result of these findings, BT has produced a set of 'five-a-day' recommendations for using this technology which it calls "The BT Balanced Communications Diet". This advice is aimed primarily at families with children but more generally might alleviate some of the problems identified in "The Shallows".

The advice can be summarised as: centralise the location of the technology, create rules and awareness, educate all family members about responsible use, and find a good point of balance.

The recommendations are well-intentioned but experts like Professor Sonia Livingston of the London School of Economics [for more information click here] would question how realistic some of them are. Her research highlights how difficult it is for parents to insist on use of a computer in the living room when so many children are accessing the Net over laptops, tablets, and smartphones in their own room and when teenage children especially will want to assert their right to privacy.

For adults, the tyranny of e-mail seems to be a particular problem. The Cambridge University study involved interviews with 12 experts around the world. Dan Ariely of Duke University in the USA [for my review of his book "Predictably Irrational" click here] pointed out that the checking of e-mail can become compulsive. He explains that researchers at Stanford University have found that people who multi-task frequently are usually worse at filtering distractions and remembering information.

However, it may be that we are worrying too much. Every new communications technology has provoked a degree of moral panic. According to Plato, Socrates was even worried at how written text would effect our capacity to remember things.

The truth is that we are all going through a transformative period in history and learning new mechanisms and strategies for coping with different forms of information presentation and therefore different styles of thinking and remembering.


Just when you thought switchover was almost over, along comes a debate on another one, explains our columnist Roger Darlington.

THE FUTURE OF DIGITAL RADIO

Digital switchover of television has much gone much more smoothly than most people expected and the complex and nationwide process is now well on the road to completion. By the end of this year, almost two-thirds of homes will have switched and by the end of 2012 the whole country will have gone over.

Now a debate is running about whether we should do the same thing for radio and put all radio stations except small local and community ones onto a Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) platform. But the arguments are much more finely balanced than in the case of television.

Television switchover will release a large amount of valuable spectrum which will be be auctioned by Ofcom to providers of 4G mobile networks and generate useful capital for the Treasury. A future radio switchover, though, would release only a small segment of spectrum and the value of it is low.

So why is digital switchover for radio being promoted? The industry case is that it would save transmission costs because there would no longer be the need to maintain two transmission platforms. Currently, for commercial radio, the analogue network costs just under £20 million a year to operate, while the digital network costs over £30 million a year to run. The BBC has similar duplicate costs.

Switchover to digital would remove the pressing need to make new investments in analogue transmission infrastructure, much of which is now dated.

So what's in it for the consumer? There are three major benefits of digital radio.

But, from a consumer point of view, there are many downsides. The Government has said that it will announce in mid 2013 whether, and if so when, it will commit the country to digital switchover of radio. The main consumer voice in the debate is the Digital Consumer Expect Group which brings together representatives of groups like Citizens Advice, Consumer Focus & Which? plus organisations of older and disabled citizens.

I have just been appointed Chair of this Group by DCMS Communications Minister Ed Vaizey, so I am in the thick of the debate. For the outcome, stay tuned.

Links:
A short guide to digital switchover for UK radio click here
Digital Radio Action Plan click here
Ofcom consultation on DAB coverage click here
Digital Radio UK click here
Guide to choice of digital radios click here


You might think that you have easy access to all the web, but think again suggests our columnist Roger Darlington.

WHAT SORT OF NET DO WE WANT?

In the beginning, the Internet was seen by the early enthusiasts as a totally open and free space where content could not be controlled and would not be constrained.

In a famous “Declaration Of The Independence Of Cyberspace” issued in 1996 [for text click here], Net guru John Perry Barlow began: "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.”

Boldly he asserted: “I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”

This fantastically ultra-liberal declaration was never true; nor should it have been true. The work I did as Chair of the Internet Watch Foundation for six years to combat child abuse images online is one of many cases where content on the Net does require some form of regulation and control.

But, in recent years, a new concern has emerged that access to the wonderfully wide and wild web is being constrained and shaped by devices and algorithms that are unappreciated and often unseen by the user. Two particular books have highlighted the issue.

The first is "The Future Of The Internet And How To Stop It" by Jonathan Zittrain published in 2008 [for my review click here]. His main theme is that: “The future is not one of generative PCs attached to a generative network. It is instead one of sterile appliances tethered to a network of control”.

The personal computer and the Internet are open and flexible systems (he uses the word “generative” ) which have enabled an incredible flowering of innovative products and services from a multitude of sources. However, the very openness of the PC and the web have exposed them to a whole variety of threats such as hacking, viruses, spam, and a host of malware.

In the face of such threats, the temptation will be to 'lock down' such systems so that they can be controlled more tightly. So, Zittrain argues, devices increasingly will be “tethered” to limit what they can do (for instance, smart phones like the iPhone or PVRs like Sky+) and the Net will attract the attention of governments and regulators who will endeavour to limit what we can access and do on-line.

The second book is "The Filter Bubble" by Eli Pariser published in 2011 [for my review click here]. In Pariser's case, the fear is that personalisation of the web means that we are increasingly accessing only a selected slice of the richness on offer.

A key date was 4 December 2009. Little noticed at the time, from then onwards Google started to personalise its search results based on no less than 57 signals. So what you see is different from what I see when we type in the same words in the search box.

This is merely the most dramatic example of personalisation. Using cookies which note what we look at and what we do when on different web sites, subsequent content – from the delivery of news & information to the offering of products & services – is shaped to our past behaviour and assumed preferences.

Obviously this process has advantages for the user: you tend to see material and advertisements that interest you and, in a world in which we are all overwhelmed by content of all sorts, it can be helpful to have irrelevant material being relegated and information we value being promoted.

The danger – to use Pariser's terms – is that this filtering process places us in a bubble in which we have a limited view of the world that reinforces our prejudices.

And one of the worst things about our enclosure by these bubbles is that the process is overwhelmingly invisible. You do not see the cookies and the algorithms that shape the content that you do see and, of course, you do not know what content you are missing as a result.

But, what can you do about it? Try to understand more how the rules on which algorithms and filters work, to chose web sites that give more visibility and control over use of personal information, and to erase regularly all the cookies on your web browser.


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