All reviews in alphabetical order by title
"Being Digital" "Communications: The Next Decade" "Consent Of The Networked" "The Death Of Distance" "The Filter Bubble" "The Future Of The Internet" "The Internet:// A Philosophical Inquiry" "The Internet: Brave New World?" "The Mobile Revolution" "The New Digital Age" "The Road Ahead" "The Shallows" "64 Things You Need To Know Now For Then" "Tips For Time Travellers" "Untanging The Web" "Weaving The Web" "The Weightless World" "Who Controls The Internet?"
What do people mean when they talk about the new information age? CWU Head of Research Roger Darlington reviews an exciting new book which explains how our world will never be the same.
"Being Digital" (1995)
Nicholas Negroponte is director the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a guru of the information age. He tells us that he has dyslexia, but he has managed to write the clearest guide that I have yet seen to the nature and the implications of the information revolution.
At the heart of his message is the explanation that we are moving from a physical world based on atoms to a digital world based on bits - that is, binary digits or the 0s and 1s of computer language. As Negroponte points out : “A bit has no colour, size or weight, and it can travel at the speed of light”.
What are the implications of a world based on bits?
Well, to start with, a bit can be a telephone call, an e-mail message, a radio channel, a television picture, or virtually any form of information or communication. As far as the computer or the communications network is concerned, once something is in digital form the precise nature or content of the message is irrelevant.
As Negroponte puts it : “Bits are bits”.
What are the advantages of expressing information as bits?
Digital signals can reproduce information perfectly, which is why CDs sound so good; digital messages can be broken up and reconfigured easily which is why the Internet is so effective; and digital data can be compressed, enabling television pictures, for instance, to be sent down telephone lines.
What are the other consequences of putting information into digital form?
First, bits can - to use Negroponte’s words - “commingle effortlessly”. This means that we can mix audio, video and data to create new multimedia products and services. Second, a new kind of bit is born - a bit that tells you about other bits (enabling you, for example, to select particular tracks on a CD).
The implications of all this are truly global. Negroponte insists : “bits will be borderless, stored and manipulated with absolutely no respect to geopolitical boundaries”. When information can travel round the globe is a matter of seconds, distance has little meaning and it is literally a whole new world.
What does all this mean for a company like British Telecom?
Negroponte argues that such organisations need to move into “the bit business” in the broadest sense: “If the management of a telecommunications company limits its long-term strategy to carrying bits, it will not be acting in its shareholders’ best interest. Owning the bits or rights to the bits, or adding significant value to the bits, must be a part of the equation”.
And what about the Post Office?
Negroponte is a big fan of e-mail and sees an explosion in its use. But this need not mean the end of postal services. Many of the messages sent by e-mail would never have been sent by conventional mail and new services like electronic shopping create opportunities for the home delivery of the goods purchased.
In the course of a fascinating and very readable book, Negroponte looks at many different aspects of digital life: how the changes will affect our home, our car, our work, our education, our entertainment, our social life. It is clear that nothing will ever be the same.
Towards the end of the book, he writes tellingly: “The information superhighway may be mostly hype today, but it is an understatement about tomorrow”.
“Being Digital” by Nicholas Negroponte is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available in hardback price £12.99 and in paperback price £5.99. It is essential reading for anyone remotely interested in computing or communications.
Note 1: This review was published in the October/November 1995 issue of "Focus", the magazine of the Communication Workers Union.
Note 2: On 2 June 2000, I met Nicholas Negroponte in London at the launch of a dot com company called Ihavemoved.com and he was kind enough to autograph my copy of his book.
Roger Darlington is a Connected columnist who is also a member of the Ofcom Consumer Panel, so we asked him to review a new book from the communications regulator.
“Communications: The Next Decade” (2006)
Ever since its creation in December 2003, Ofcom – a merger of five previous regulators in broadcasting and telecommunications – has sought to be a different kind of regulator: open, accountable, and engaging with all stakeholders. In this, I believe that it has largely succeeded.
Even for Ofcom though, new ground was broken in November 2006 when the regulator convened a major international conference and, to coincide with the event, published a book of essays entitled “Communications: The Next Decade”.
This is a heavy work in every respect: price (£25 from The Stationary Office), weight ( 1.25 kilos or almost 3 lb), and content (22 essays totalling 321 pages). But it is a fascinating exposition of the latest trends in both telecommunications and broadcasting and an insightful glimpse at the likely implications for regulation.
Half the international cast of contributors are academics (almost all professors) and most of the rest are regulators, lawyers or economists, so this is not “The Da Vinci Code”. The thrust of the arguments is overwhelmingly deregulatory (especially as regards spectrum allocation and use) with no real countervailing voice from representatives of civil society such as consumer groups and unions.
The one contribution from a specifically consumer viewpoint comes from Ed Mayo & Philip Cullum, respectively chief executive and deputy at the National Consumer Council. This is an excellent piece, but addresses the economy as a whole rather than the particularities of the communications sector.
They argue that “regulators increasingly act in the name of consumers but all too often fail to understand them” and “the truth is that active consumers do far more to regulate markets than any government or regulatory institution”.
They want to see “a strong signal from government that the consumer interest should sit at the heart of much regulatory decision-making” and “regulators doing far more to engage consumers in decision-making”.
The piece from Reed Hundt is especially interesting, since he was chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – the American equivalent of Ofcom - for four years. He points out that: “For any country, its communications policy is one of the most important aspects of its overall economic policy”.
He is not afraid to advocate an interventionist approach: “It is quite acceptable for any nation to stimulate network build-out by providing taxpayers' money, whether by letting contracts for networking rural areas or granting tax breaks to network builders”.
He even makes the political argument that: “The cost of a few months in Iraq, for an actual example, would suffice to close the gap between what consumers are willing to pay, and what network builders have to invest, to fund broadband networks to most of the United States”.
The same, of course, applies to the UK – and it is not just public investment but private investment that needs to be encouraged.
This is why Leonard Waverman of the London Business School argues “the need for a new regulatory paradigm”. He insists: “My central thesis is that we need to examine all bases of existing regulation including its most central tenet – non-discrimination”.
More specifically, he raises the need to incentivise network providers – especially the incumbent – to invest in next generation access in the knowledge that the regulator will not immediately require access to such networks by any and all competitors.
Damian Tambini of the London School of Economics goes as far as to assert that “electronic communications are becoming ever-more central to exercising citizenship rights” and insists that “these rights cannot be given a cash value”.
In his view: “A notion of rights, and one that sees information citizenship as a relative poverty issue, is the best long-term framework to ensure that communications in the UK perform their integrative, democratic role”.
This implies the continued need for a regulator with power and influence that balances consumer and citizen interests.
According to Carolyn Fairbairn of McKinsey, “two of the most compelling reasons for regulation of the traditional broadcast markets are likely to continue into the new media era” (a reference to high quality programming and concentration of media control). Therefore she argues: “Now is not the time to throw away the broadcast rulebook”.
However, Eli M. Noam (a professor at Columbia University) points out that “most next generation media applications will run over the internet, loosely defined”. As a result, “television regulation will become telecom regulation. And this is not a happy conclusion”.
Note: This review was published in the March 2007 issue of "Connected", the magazine of the Connect, the union for professionals in communications.
"Consent Of The Networked" by Rebecca MacKinnon (2012)
MacKinnon, a former journalist in Asia with CNN, is an Internet policy expert at the New America Foundation. She is both well-informed and insightful and has written an excellent examination of what is - in the words of the book's sub-title - "the worldwide struggle for Internet freedom".
She explains clearly how governments like Burma, Syria and Egypt have managed to close down the Internet locally for short periods and how governments like China and Russia exercise what she calls respectively "networked authoritarianism" and "digital bonapartism". She sets out how even democratic governments are increasingly wanting to exercise more control over the Net with her native USA opposing the WikiLeaks material going online and having some 50 Internet-related Bills in Congress. She assesses the power and responsibility of what she calls the "sovereigns of cyberspace" such as "Googledom" and "Facebookistan" and highlights how discretonary are their terms of service and how opaque are their processes for removing content.Like so many books critiquing uses and abuses of the Internet, however, the solutions proposed are very partial and lack detail. The problem is that there are fundamental contradictions in our attitudes to the Internet, even if we broadly share the same 'Western' values of individualism and liberty.
MacKinnion understands how the Internet works and how political activism operates, so she is sober and realistic in her assessments, writing that "If the events of 2011 taught the world anything, it is that although the Internet empowers dissent and activism, it is not an instant freedom tonic that, when applied in sufficient quantities, automatically results in freedom". Her central thesis is that "the corporations and governments that build, operate and govern cyberspace are not being held sufficiently accountable for the exercise of their power over the lives and identities of people who use digital networks". Yet - perhaps inevitably - the models she examines and supports for strengthening accountability of the Internet are very limited in reach and effectiveness. She admits that "The potential answers are daunting in their complexity".
She explains the role of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and she describes the work of organisations like the Global Network Initiative (which only Yahoo, Google and Microsoft have joined) and Global Voices and political movements like the Pirate Party (especially in Sweden). She looks briefly at initiatives such as Britain's Internet Watch Foundation (which I chaired for six years) and mentions things like the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement between the USA and 34 other countries and British and French legislation on online copyright enforcement. She outlines the provisions of a Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet which is both very broad-brush and unrealistically ambitious.
MacKinnon asserts: "It is imperative that voters, politicians, and companies of the world's democracies gain greater awareness of the need to find innovative ways of addressing problems that will not require citizens to pay for security with their freedom". I could not agree more. Maybe "Consent Of The Networked" will help a little in raising such awareness but sadly it does little to advance innovative solutions.
Link: book's web site click here
CWU Head of Research Roger Darlington reviews a new, accessible work on the communications revolution that is changing all our lives.
"The Death Of Distance" (1997)
It may be a coincidence, but there have recently been published two books on the same sort of subject by the same kind of author. “The Death of Distance” is by Frances Cairncross (Orion Business Books, £18.99), while “The Weightless World” is by Diane Coyle (Capstone, £18.99).
Both books are about the information technology revolution. Both authors are British, female, social scientists and journalists on quality publications - Cairncross is a senior editor on “The Economist” and Coyle is the economics editor of “The Independent”.
It was “The Death of Distance” that was on the top of my reading pile.
This book is structured in a tree and branch style, somewhat like a site on the world wide web. So it opens with a statement of the 30 main themes - a brilliant idea that ought to be adopted for most works of non-fiction.
The other notable feature is the complete absence of any technical terminology. The most specialised terms used are “switched”, “interactive” and “broadband” and these are explained in almost child-like terms.
The first third of the book has chapters devoted to the three engines of the communications revolution: the telephone, the television and the computer.
At the core of the analysis by Cairncross is the assumption that the price of telephone calls will fall so far and so fast that such calls will become a commodity and distance will become virtually an irrelevance.
She writes : “The distance premium is being undermined by a number of factors : the end of government protection; the growth of new capacity built by companies outside the club; the resale of the telephone companies’ spare capacity; the Internet; and, in the near future, mobile and satellite carriers”.
However, Cairncross is more sober and sensible than many commentators about the likelihood of the Internet carrying large volumes of telephone traffic.
She believes: “Instead, telephone calls may increasingly be carried using the Internet standard or ‘protocol’ but using networks separate from those used by public Internet”.
Rightly in my view, she believes that the current charging mechanism for use of the Internet cannot be sustained. Equally the Internet will have a major impact on the tariff structure of telephone networks.
Cairncross believes that in the communications revolution: “The most powerful corporate role will be played by the telephone companies. Largely free from debt, with powerful national brands, the telephone companies have the muscle and ubiquity to exert enormous influence over the future of communications, at least in the short term”.
The last two-thirds of the book examine how these new technologies will transform the activities of individuals, companies and government and looks at a wide range of social issues including employment, commerce, privacy and intellectual property rights.
Like the magazine for which she works, Cairncross is very pro-competitive and very pro-technology.
So she is dismissive of worries about jobs: “When old jobs go, everyone notices. When new industries spring up, they often do so unannounced. Many new jobs will emerge through the export opportunities opened up by low-cost communications”.
But she accepts that the death of distance will affect income distribution: “Between countries, incomes will become more equal; within countries, incomes will become more unequal. Everywhere the premium on skill, creativity, and intelligence will rise”.
Cairncross sees great prospects for electronic commerce provided two requirements can be achieved: an adequate level of security and mechanisms for micro payments.
One of the key tools of electronic commerce will be toll-free telephone calling. In the USA alone, this now generates some $160 billion work of business annually.
In Cairncross's analysis, there is virtually no field of human endeavour - including peace and war - that will not be affected beneficially by the new technology.
She writes : “...the death of distance means that the countries of the world will be tied together by innumerable commercial bonds... Countries that invest in one another are much less likely to fight one another”.
If war does break out, however, the combination of a mobile operating room and tele-medicine should reduce the battle casualties.
There is only one sentence in the book on trade unions and no discussion whatsoever about the role of organised labour. However, this is true of most books on information technology.
Overall the strengths of the book are many: it is immensely readable, extremely informative, and very thoughtful. As an introduction to the subject, it would be hard to beat.
"The Filter Bubble" by Eli Pariser (2011)
When reading this important and impressive book, I was constantly reminded of another rather pessimistic analysis of Internet trends: "The Future Of The Internet And How To Stop It" by Jonathan Zittrain published in 2008. Both works argue powerfully that our experience of the Net is becoming less open and less inclusive – one through the use of limiting devices and the other through the use of limiting software.
In Zittrain's case, he is especially concerned at the move away from generative PCs attached to a generative network to a world of sterile appliances tethered to what he sees as a network of control – such as the iPhone and its app store. 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 – such as the tailoring of search results on Google. I found Zittrain's book worthy but dull, whereas Pariser's work is immensely readable.
Pariser helped start Avaaz.org, one of the world's largest citizen organisation, and he is now president of the 5 million-member MoveOn.org, so he approaches his subject from the point of view of a Left-leaning web activist rather the rather academic and legalistic approach of Zittrain. For Pariser, 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 boxI
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. In what Pariser calls "the race for relevance" when "the user is the content", we lose serendipity and we diminish learning. As he puts it: "Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another's point of view, but instead we're more and more enclosed in our own bubbles".
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. Some of this personalisation even happens when you are off-line: Google knows where you live and shapes content accordingly and Facebook is tracking your friends' behaviour which in turn is shaping your experience. And the biggest data mining companies are ones you have never heard of – like Acxiom and BlueKai.
What is driving this process of personalisation is the value that information about us has to those who make money out of the Net, so "The race to know as much as possible about you has become the central battle of the era for Internet giants like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft".
But, what can one do about it? Pariser recommends that individuals 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. He urges companies to be more transparent about what information they collect on users and how they use it and he floats some specific ideas for giving users a sliding-scale choice between "only stuff I like" to "stuff other people like but I'll probably hate".
Pariser recognises that these sorts of solutions are not easy. "So to rescue our digital environment from itself, we'll ultimately need a new constituency of digital environmentalists - citizens of this new space we're all building who band together to protect what's great about it".
Link: official web site click here
"The Future Of The Internet And How To Stop It" by Jonathan Zittrain (2008)
Jonathan Zittrain is an American lawyer and academic currently based at the Oxford Internet Institute. I have heard him speak several times and he is a really lively and witty presenter, but sadly his book is a dull read due to its legalistic style. The 246 pages of main text are dotted with no less than 835 footnotes gathered into 80 pages at the back. This is a man who, when he mentions a web page, records not just the date but the time that he last visited it.
His main theme – which he repeats endlessly – can be simply stated. In his words: “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” all the time) 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 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.
To stop this undesired future, we need to find ways of tapping into the co-operativeness and ingenuity of users themselves to find flexible solutions that may not be perfect but work – such as the controls that make Wikipedia operate so well.
Zittrain is incredibly knowledgeable and immensely insightful (his chapter on privacy is especially challenging), but his basic message is repeated and reworked so often, his solutions are so varied and diffuse, and the language is so opaque and legalistic than ultimately the book is a disappointment to the general reader (as opposed perhaps to a law student or IT geek). In any event, it is not clear that what Zittrain calls generativity is overall on the decline or that we have to chose between generative and tethered devices as opposed to selecting a mixture of items for different purposes and roles.
"The Internet:// A Philosophical Inquiry" by Gordon Graham (1999)
First published in 1999, the title of this work appears to promise so much but, in the end, it delivers so little and does it in a dull (if elegantly written) style. Gordon Graham is Regius Professor of Moral Philosphy at the University of Aberdeen and Director of the Aberdeen Centre for Philosophy, Technology and Society. However, he clearly knows a lot more about philosophy than about the Internet.
The paucity of content in this book is made plain by the concluding chapher in which Graham manages to summarize his bland arguments in just one lengthy paragraph:
"The truth about the Internet lies somewhere between the fears of the Neo-Luddites and the hopes of the Technophiles; technological inovation cannot and should not be regarded merely as an improved means to a pre-selected end because, while some technology merely modifies, other technology transforms and, with respect to a number of areas of existence, we can expect the Internet to be transforming. It will not, however, transform political life along more truly democratic lines or rather, in so far as it does, it will strengthen the downside of democracy which has a tendency to favour consumer politics over rational decision-making. In all probability, it will strengthen rather than weaken the atomizing character of individualism because it encourages moral fragmentation, and neither externalist attempts to police it nor the internal formation of virtual communities is likely to counter such a tendency effectively. At the same time, it does does not have a very great deal to offer by way of compensating virtual reality, if we remember the similar advantages that we can derive from much older forms of make-believe."
In my view, Graham seriously under-estimates the transformative and the empowering nature of the Internet. Furthermore, as Chair of the Internet Watch Foundation - which combats illegal content on the UK Internet - I was especially disappointed by his chapter on 'Policing The Internet'.
Graham fails to distinguish adequately between illegal and offensive content and at all between adult and child pornography. Indeed he manages to reach the simplistic conclusion that "the case against policing the Internet appears to be as conclusive as arguments of this sort can be".
Is the Internet really making a profound difference to our society and, if so, what are the benefits and the risks? These are the issues underlying a new book reviewed by Roger Darlington, Strategy Adviser to the Communication Workers Union and Chair of the Internet Watch Foundation.
"The Internet: Brave New World?" (2002)
So much writing about the Internet is either too technical for most users to understand or so banal that one wonders if the writer uses the Net for more than the odd e-mail. The five authors who have contributed the four essays that make up "The Internet: Brave New World?" know a good deal about the Internet, but write about it in an accessible and challenging manner. The Institute of Ideas [click here] is to be commended for selecting the commentators and publishing this short (90 pages) but stimulating monograph.
The first essay - entitled "Cyber Schmyber: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Net" - is the weakest. It is authored by Peter Watts, lecturer in Applied Social Sciences at Canterbury Christ Church University College, and both the language and the approach are too academic for my taste. He describes his position as "positive scepticism" which involves asking not how but whether the Internet will change the world. He takes the view that "the Internet, it seems, is not transforming society" and "these new technologies have not engendered something radically new".
This overly down-beat assessment is contradicted by the writers of the fourth essay, Helene Guldberg and Sandy Starr, Managing Editor and Press Officer respectively at the online publication spiked [click here]. They quote an industry insider as insisting that "IT stands alongside the telegraph, the internal combustion engine, electricity, air travel and nuclear energy as a society-transforming technological breakthrough" and they themselves rightly point out that "it takes time for the potential gains of a technology to be both recognized and realized".
The second essay is the most focussed in that it examines a very real problem - "Copyright On The Net" - in an informative manner that brings out clearly that so many issues of Internet content are about balancing conflicting rights and interests. In this case, how should one protect the rights of creators in an era when technologies like MP3 and peer to peer have made it so easy and so cheap to copy and transmit copyrighted material. Chris Evans, lecturer in Multimedia Computing and the founder of Internet Freedom [click here], is stronger on the analysis than on solutions, but he does call for "new business models and legislative approaches that allow the unfettered development of the Internet in ways we may never have thought possible". [For a discussion of copyright in the digital age click here].
The author of the third essay, entitled "The Internet: A Menace To Society?", is Ruth Dixon who at the time was Deputy Chief Executive of the Internet Watch Foundation [click here] but is now working for the National Hi-Tech Crime Training Centre. She explains and defends the self-regulatory model in the UK (based on the IWF) for dealing with illegal content such as child pornography and offensive content such as race hate material. [For a discussion of Internet regulation click here]. In spite of this, she offers the most positive endorsement in the book for the benefits of the Internet, arguing that "it is the most powerful communications tool in history" and pointing out that "Above all, it offers every user the unprecedented opportunity to be a publisher".
The final essay, by the aforementioned Guldberg and Starr, is both the best and the worst.
It is at its best when it attempts to counter the over-pessimism around the whole IT industry, following the absurd hype which led to the dot.com bubble. They proclaim: "today's political and economic culture is inimical to the long-term investment in time and resources needed for IT to develop".
It is at its worst in not accepting the need for some limitations on absolute freedom for anyone to access anything on the Net. It is farcical to talk of the IWF as having "powers that according to some studies outstrip those of the British state 400-fold" and of responsible parents using filtering software creating "a chilling effect on free speech online".
Note: This review was published in the October 2002 issue of "Review", the magazine of the Connect, the union for professionals in communications.
Roger Darlington reviews a new book on the making of mobile services worldwide.
"The Mobile Revolution" (2005)
One of my first uses of a mobile phone was almost two decades ago. I was a negotiating officer for the then National Communications Union at a meeting at the Cwmcarn factory of BT Consumer Electronics and I borrowed the mobile of the Adrian Askew, my opposite number for the more tech-savvy Society of Telecom Executives. I was so unfamiliar with the block-like device that he had to show me how to use it and I pressed against a window thinking that I would receive a better signal.
Flash forward to 2005. Adrian is now General Secretary of Connect; I am now a member of the Ofcom Consumer Panel; BT long ago disposed of all its manufacturing and repair work; and the light-weight, multi-functional mobile has become ubiquitous. How did all this happen?
The fascinating story is told in "The Mobile Revolution", a new work by Dr Dan Steinbock who is based in New York where he is director of the Finnish Centre of International Business Education and Research. Full of charts, diagrams and pictures, this is a comprehensive review of the markets and services now being addressed by the mobile giants led by the British-owned Vodafone.
Steinbock tells us that in 1998 there were some 200 million mobile customers worldwide. Towards the end of 2004, this figure had climbed to some 1.6 billion. But, by 2006, it is expected to be close to 2.6 billion. Already in the UK, there are almost as many mobiles as people.
The theme of the book - which is aimed at managers and marketers - is that this explosive growth has been driven not just by technological innovation but also by marketing innovation. Pre-pay has been a massive stimulant everywhere; SMS was "not designed, but discovered"; and the promotion of i-mode in Japan has deliberately avoided technical jargon and emphasized customer services.
Furthermore, whereas until the early 1990s, both technology innovation and marketing innovation in the mobile business were led by the United States, today mobile innovation is spread around the world. The first advanced mobile marketing campaigns were initiated in Europe and Scandinavia, then Japan and Korea, and now increasingly in the growth markets of China and India.
Of course, this is just the start. Technologically we can look forward to 3G, 4G, WiFi, WiMax, and lots more innovation. Ultimately, however, it is services and content that will drive the mobile revolution to new heights, as every successful business puts mobile and the Internet at the heart of their strategy.
"The New Digital Age" by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen (2013)
Schmidt is Executive Chairman of Google and Cohen is Director Google Ideas, but this is not a book about Google or about search. It is a much more general work about the impact of communications technologies over the next few decades. Whereas most such books concentrate on the consequences of these technologies for individuals and companies, this one largely - five of the seven chapters - examines the role that these developments are likely to have on states and interactional actors. Schmidt is an active member of the US Council on Foreigh Affairs and Cohen, as well as being an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council, formerly served as a member of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff where he focused on the development of '21st century statecraft'.
The authors are well-connected, extremely knowledgeable, and backed by research resources and they are immensely thoughtful, balanced and nuanced in their plentiful pronouncements on the future, so this is quite a pedestrian read but well worth the effort. The tone is set immediately when they assert: "The Internet is among the few things humans have built that they don't truly understand" and "It is a source for tremendous good and potentially dreadful evil".
Chapter 1 is entitled "Our Future Selves" and runs through all sorts of new technologies that will make the Net something very different for different people, such as voice and gesture recognition technologies, thought-controlled motion technology, instant language translation, customisation of devices, ingestible health technology, pharmacogenetics, 3D printing, and self-driving cars. Chapter 2 is headed "The Future Of Indentity, Citizenship And Reporting". They write that "This will be the first generation of humans to have an indeligible record" and explore the conflicting forces seeking to protect and access digital information.
The rest of the book studies the likely behaviours of states towards their citizens and each other.
In Chapter 3, they argue that "Perhaps the most important question in ten years' time won't be if a society uses the Internet, but which version of it they use". They fear "the Balkanization of the Internet" and "the upcoming Code War", and, having written about the extensive filtering today in countries like China and North Korea, they speculate about the possibilities of a "Sunni Web", a "halal Internet", or a "Kurdish web". Chapter 4 is about "The Future Of Revolution". They look at how the Net has been used in recent revolutions like those of the Arab Spring and how in the future revolutionaries and the states that they seek to overthrow will use the different digital tools at their command and conclude: "despite seeing more revolutionary movements, we'll see fewer revolutionary outcomes".
Chapters 5 and 6 deal with two subjects not often addressed in general books on information technology: terrorism and warfare respectively.
On the former, the authors opine that "We believe terrorists will increasingly shift their operations into the virtual space, in combination with physical-world attacks", but that "The silver lining of cyber terrorism is that, in almost every way, its practioners will have less room for error". On the latter, they believe that "The modern automation of warfare, through developments in robotics, artificial intelligence and unmanned aerial vehiclea (UAVs), constitutes the most significant shift in human combat since the invention of the gun" and argue that "in the future, massacres on a genocidal scale will be harder to conduct [because of the availability of digital evidence], but discrimination will likely worsen and become more personal [because of the ability of networks to target individuals]".
The book finishes on a relatively optimistic note with Chapter 7 on "The Future Of Reconstruction" after a conflict or a natural disaster. They underline the vital importance of telecommunicatons networks and examine how such networks, especially mobile networks, can assist with problems like aid distribution, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes.
Schmidt and Cohen draw four general conclusions about our future world:
We have been warned.
Bill Gates founded Microsoft, the world’s largest software group, so his views on the coming information society are well worth noting. Head of Research Roger Darlington reviews Gates’ new book on the information superhighway.
"The Road Ahead" (1995)
Bill Gates was just 19 when he read an article in a magazine called “Popular Electronics” describing the first truly personal computer. Convinced that this was the future, he dropped out of Harvard University to form his own company in order to design appropriate software for this revolutionary new device.
Twenty years later, he is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft Corporation - a company with more than $6 billion a year in sales and overwhelmingly the world’s largest supplier of computer software. If you have not heard of his latest product, Windows ‘95, you must have been off the planet in the last year.
Gates made his fortune by correctly anticipating the future, so it makes sense to pay attention when he describes his vision of the information superhighway in a new book entitled “The Road Ahead”.
Although the subject is technical, he writes in clear and accessible language.
Whether he is explaining the binary language of computers utilising the image of a row of light bulbs, or the exponential growth of transistors on a silicon chip using the story in an Indian fable, or the use of prime numbers to create unbreakable encryption of messages, one can understand it all.
But this is not a book about technology as such; instead it is a fascinating examination - with example after example - of how the coming information age will change every human activity: communication, education, entertainment, leisure, business, finance.
If one is tempted to think that all this is way in the future, one only has to read the chapter on how the technology will change the home. Gates described the state-of-the-art house he is constructing on the shores of Lake Washington looking over to Seattle, the site of Microsoft’s headquarters.
Gates is enormously optimistic about the future: “Despite the problems posed by the information highway, my enthusiasm for it remains boundless”. But he warns : “... people and companies will have to be open to reinventing themselves - possibly more than once”.
What does it mean for you?
Gates admits : “Entire professions and industries will fade”. But he insists “... a myriad of new opportunities for employment will be created”.
The first step to adaptability is “to come to terms with computers”. More than 50 million personal computers are now sold every year worldwide. So, if you do not already have one, maybe now is the time to buy one or at least know how to use one at work.
What does it mean for BT?
A key message in Gates’ book is that, in the same way that the cost of computing has fallen and fallen, so will the cost of communications. Therefore the basic transmission of bits - that is, the binary digits of computer language - will no longer generate sufficient revenues for telephone companies.
Companies like BT will need to increase the value of the bits they carry by providing a wide variety of new interactive and broadband services. Also, many of them will want to obtain a financial interest in high-value bits by acquiring stakes in companies which own films, television and digital data in all its forms.
Just how big is all this?
Let Gates have the last word : “We are watching something historic happen, and it will affect the world seismically, rocking us the same way the discovery of the scientific method, the invention of printing, and the arrival of the Industrial Age did”.
"The Shallows" by Nicholas Carr (2010)
The unilluminating title is fortunately followed by a helpful sub-title: "How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember". American writer Nicholas Carr's proposition is simply stated: intensive use of the Internet is literally reconecting our brains in ways which make it harder for such users to concentrate on linear text for a sustained period as a result of which (although he never explains the main title) our thinking is presumably in the shallows because of "the switch from paper to pixels".
The case is made with much reference to the history of text. The arrival of printing enabled a vast expansion of books, stimulated a much larger vocabulary, and made our thinking more contemplative. Also there is much discussion 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. As a result of all these changes, he asserts that we are reading less newspapers, magazines and books and becoming less attentive and contemplative.
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".
Carr's argument is a fascinating one but rather overstated in several respects.
First, for all the references to neurological studies, the thesis is inspired by his own personal reaction to intense use of the Internet: "what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation". Many people - myself included - are capable of using the web all the time but still enjoy reading newspapers and books.
Second, 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 that "one of the greatest dangers we face" is "a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity".
Third, the case could be put perfectly adequately in a considered article rather than a full-length book - and indeed it was. The original of the work is an article in the July/August 2008 edition of the "Atlantic Monthly" and it is not obvious that it merits the full-book treatment.
In so far as Carr's argument is persuavive, it could be suggested that the de-construction of linear text in the standard format of the book is, after five centuries of printed texts, a reversion to the situation prior to the invention of printing when humans relied on forms of information transfer that were essentially oral, fluid, short and temporary. Carr suggests that: "We will, in other words, revert to the historical norm". 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. The book would have been strengthened by more material on how one can mitigate the problems identified.
The very fact that Carr has written a book of over 250 pages shows that he is still capable of thinking and writing in forms which preceded the Internet, but he argues: "It wasn't easy. When I began writing ...I struggled in vain to keep my mind fixed on the task". Equally the very fact that he expects us to read this book demonstrates that he knows that linear text and sustained reading are still widely available phenomena.
official web site click here
the original article click here
"64 Things You Need To Know Now For Then" by Ben Hammersley (2012)
The luxuriantly-mustachioed Hammersley is Editor-at-Large of "Wired" mazagine and mostly writes about the digital society with special emphasis on the Internet. As the title suggests, the structure of the book is 64 mini essays - typically just four pages - and this format, plus Hammersely's clear and lively style, make this a very easy read. On the other hand, the inclusion of two blank pages between each chapter makes the book a third thicker than it needs to be and there is no overarching analysis or theme. But Hammersley knows the Internet and quotes lots of actual instances or developments.
Since the focus is on the Net, most of the chapters are about being online with contributions on such themes as social networks, the online disinhibition effect, crowd sourcing, algorithmic trading, group buying, shanzhai (fake) goods, online copyright, digital rights management, digital currencies, collaborative learning, open government data, real-time mapping, gamification, anonymity, cryptography, hacktivism, personalisation of web experience (the echo chamber), online surveillance, the Cloud, Net Neutrality, the Semantic Web, the Internet of Things, cyber warfare, and the Dark Net.
Other chapters address different technological developments including Moore's Law (computers double in power every two years), Kryder's Law (the amount of data that can be fitted onto a disk of a given size doubles every year), cognitive improvement drugs, personal genetic testing, biohacking, space travel, 3D printing, fractional artificial intelligence, war robots, nanotechnolgy and geoengineering. And a few chapters are not really about technology as such but wider social and political issues such as the return to craft, the notion of charter cities, the nature of contemporary diplomacy, and what he calls Multiple Axis Politics.
Hammersley introduces the reader to such concepts as memes (the most basic form of idea), spimes (objects that gather information on their usage), doxing (matching of an individual's pseudonymous online identity with their real world one), and The Singularity (the creation of an artificial intelligence that is smart enough to design its smarter descendent) as well as what he calls Technomadism (remote working), The Impossibity of Forgetting (the permanence of personal data online), The Quantified Self (the ability to generate and share personal behaviour online), and The Long Now (the need for incremental and sustainable businesses and projects).
If all this seems a very broad range of subjects, it is - and inevitably the treatment is broad-brush, but Hammersley is informed, thoughtful and balanced while being unfailingly optimistic. In so far as such a discursive set of short essays can have major themes, they are: the tendency of our digitised lives to generate vast amounts of data, the conflicting pressures for anonymity and identity online, and the the impact of iterative design with nothing ever perfect or finished. He argues: "If I were pushed to name the single most significant thing that the Internet allows us to do, I would probably say the forming of groups".
Link: author's web site click here
CWU Head of Research Roger Darlington reviews a thoughtful new book from BT's foremost technology guru.
"Tips For Time Travellers" (1997)
Peter Cochrane is a remarkable man who has written an unusual book. This is someone who joined what was then the Post Office at age 16 and spent six years installing cables and maintaining exchanges until he went to polytechnic to obtain an electrical engineering degree. Today he has four degrees and heads a team of 660 at BT's world-famous Research Laboratories.
He is one of Britain's most original thinkers and effective communicators on information technology.
This book has an unusual format. Based on his weekly column in the "Daily Telegraph" and other articles and interviews, it is a set of 60 think pieces, each just around 600 words (about the length of this review). It is written for "ultra-busy people" - whom Cochrane calls "time travellers" - and the self-contained monologues are intended as thoughts or tips. Hence the title.
Cochrane is well aware of the limits of today's technology and today's knowledge. He describes the Internet as "the Information Super Cart Track" and he writes: "It is as if all human knowledge is a thin layer of ice (understanding) on a vast sea of the unknown, waiting to be discovered".
Cochrane is the kind of man who asks himself - and us - questions that simply do not occur to ordinary mortals obsessed with the minutae of everyday life. When he poses such queries, it makes one think in a way few books do.
Cochrane is able to envisage some incredible technological devices such as:
Cochrane is a rare individual who operates at the cutting edge of information technology and yet refreshingly wants the technology to be much simpler and user-friendly.
On the one hand, he claims to live in a 100% electronic environment, returning or destroying all internally generated snail mail that could have been sent electronically, but promising to respond to all electronic communications within 12 hours - a 24-hour a day 365-day of the year commitment from a man who travels 150,000 miles a year.
On the other hand, he subscribes to "the old engineering principle of KISS - Keep IT Simple Stupid". He wants new generation television sets with a user interface that "surpasses the dreaded VHS controller". He insists: "It is important to remember that technology is our slave and not the other way round".
Cochrane describes the brain as "carbon-based wetware". This is a book which provides startling insights into what might come from the combination of hardware, software and wetware.
"Untangling The Web" by Aleks Krotoski (2013)
Aleksandra "Aleks" Krotoski is an American academic and journalist who now works in the UK where she lives with Ben Hammersley, another commentator on IT who has recently written "64 Things You Need To Know Now For Then". She is quite unusual in spanning the worlds of both academia and media and the result is that she writes well and bases her material on evidence. I enjoyed her series of columns for the "Observer" newspaper and her BBC series "The Virtual Revolution" and this book is based on her research and her articles and lectures over the previous 13 years. Consequently it covers many aspects of the Internet but has no overarching theme or narrative and it is so sensible in its conclusions that it is not particularly exciting.The first section - the shortest - is titled "Untangling Me" and contains chapters on how one can play with identity online, how our online presence can live on after our death, and how the web may (or may not) be affecting how we think. Krotoski warns that "every technological innovation introduces new behaviours that are pathologised by anxious people" and she points out that the web has only been around for two decades: "It's way too early to really identify any long-term trends, good or bad". The second section is headed "Untangling Us" and features chapters on how online communities confirm our sense of social identity, how the web allows us to explore more freely our sexual identity, how children spend so much time on social networking sites, how friendship is handled online through sites like Facebook, how more and more people are finding partners online, and how the Net facilitates bullying, insults and hate speech. Although technically the web allows us to communicate in new ways with a wider range of people, Krotoski insists that: "online, we're communicating more and more with people like ourselves", a phenomenon she calls "cyberbalkanisation" The third section - the longest - is "Untangling Society" and comprises chapters on how much privacy we do (or do not) have online and the role of 'Big Data', how the web can be used for campaigning and empowerment, how the web can be used to inform and misinform very quickly, how online medical information allows us to self-diagnose and find support groups, how the web is leading to a blurring of the divide between work and home, how the web is being used to tell billions of stories (even if a lot of them are about cats), and how the web is being accessed by the religous and spiritual. Overwhelmingly Krotoski is positive about the Net but she does warn: " Users continue to populate databases with increasingly valuable personal information that, as commercial property, can be transferred to a new company with a different privacy ethos". If there is an overall message, it is that so much of what people say about the effects of the web is not supported by evidence and we can still assert our control over the how the web is used and developed: "we seem to forget that the web is a network that is entirely human-produced and primarily created by people who live in a small area of Northern California".
Link: author's web site click here
The American military may have created the Internet, but it was a British scientist who invented the Web. CWU Head of Research Roger Darlington explains all.
"Weaving The Web" (1999)
For at least 20 years, people have spoken about “the wired society”. Indeed, as long ago as 1982, I wrote a report for the union entitled “The Cabling Of Britain” in response to a Government study called “Cable Systems”.
For along time, we thought that the delivery system would be the telephone network deploying optical fibre in the local loop. Following the introduction of competition in telecommunications, the last Government thought that the route would be local cable television networks.
In the event, for most individuals the connection has come through the Internet – first created in 1969, but only popularised following the invention of the World Wide Web which was first proposed in 1989. It is the Web that has provided a user-friendly graphical interface to the Net and the platform for everything from my simple personal homepage to Amazon’s sophisticated e-commerce site.
The full story of the genesis of the Web has now been told for the first time by its inventor Tim Berners-Lee in a book called “Weaving The Web”.
Berners-Lee came up with the idea while he was working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva. It evolved from his wish to create a system for remembering the connections among all the various people, projects and computers at the lab.
In retrospect, something like the Web seems inevitable.
However, it was the end of March 1989 when Berners-Lee first submitted the proposal and, in his own words: “Nothing happened”. There followed months and years of resubmission, testing, refinement, and ‘hard selling’.
As the inventor puts it: “There was no ‘Eureka!’ moment”. Mixing his metaphors somewhat, he compares the evolution of the Web to push-starting a bob sleigh – it took a lot of effort before any movement was discernible.
The name World Wide Web seems obvious now, being both alliterative and descriptive. Yet other possibilities that Berners-Lee considered included the Information Mesh, the Mine of Information (MOI), and The Information Mine (TIM).
Many Web users today think of it as a finished ‘product’ but, for its inventor, it is very much “a work in progress” and he is centrally involved in that effort through his directorship of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The consortium is responsible for developing and recommending new protocols for the Web.
The ‘next big thing’ is Extensible Markup Language (XML), a powerful successor to the current Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). Then we can expect – although this is so new it is not in the book – VoiceXML, a voice browser specification based on XML which will allow mobile phone users to hear Web pages.
However, the ultimate vision of Berners-Lee is what he calls “the Semantic Web”. This would involve expressing the content of the Web in a format that can be processed by machines, probably using a language being developed by the consortium called the Resource Description Framework (RDF). Then the Web could be intuitive as well as analytical and be capable of making the sort of seemingly random connections that is such an outstanding feature of the human brain.
* "Weaving The Web" by Tim Berners-Lee is published by Orion Business Books, price £12.99
official web site click here
World Wide Web Consortium click here
More recent article on the Semantic Web click here
CWU Head of Research Roger Darlington reviews a new book which examines radical strategies for managing the digital economy.
"The Weightless World" (1997)
Two recent books, both by British female journalists, look at the profound impact of the information technology revolution. Frances Cairncross of “The Economist” has written “The Death Of Distance” (Orion Business Books, £18-99) and Diane Coyle of “The Independent” has produced “The Weightless World” (Capstone, £18-99).
Both titles are, of course, alliterative and absolutist - distance is certainly not dead and much economic activity still has significant weight. However, each authoress is taking one defining characteristic of the information economy so as - to use the words of Coyle - to view “the world through the lens of a different metaphor”.
Cairncross spends some time describing the converging technologies of telephony, television and computing, before exploring primarily the social and business implications. By contrast, Coyle devotes minimal space to technology and concentrates on the economic and political ramifications.
For Coyle, the fundamental point about the information society is that, compared to agriculture and manufacturing where greater output meant more weight, the new industries and services are striving to produce smaller and lighter outputs whether it be a tinier chip or a smaller computer.
In this new so-called weightless world, the vanguard industry is finance where everyday literally trillions of dollars can change hands without being seen or travel round the world at the speed of light. All this happens in the form of binary digits which have no weight or form.
Over a third of this intelligent book is devoted to a measured discussion of the employment implications of such a digital economy.
Coyle examines three of the most frequently offered reasons for mass unemployment - new technology, free trade and deflationary government policies - and dismisses each.
In her view, the real cause of unemployment is the failure of governments to adjust to weightlessness by recognising that markets are the best allocators of resources and the most efficient creators of jobs and therefore government should deregulate markets for capital and labour. In such circumstances, she is confident that new jobs will be created, although she concedes that some of those jobs will be low-paid and insecure.
If this sounds classically Right-wing, Coyle insists that she writes from the perspective of “the radical centre” (very New Labour) and she shows genuine concern about the anxieties created by flexible working.
She writes: “I find myself torn between the conviction that flexibility is essential in the weightless world, and a distaste for the inequality and unhappiness that are its results. I would guess that many other people who would regard themselves as left of centre feel torn by the same dilemma”.
Coyle is equally tough-minded in her other prescriptions.
In a chapter entitled “The End Of Welfare”, she argues the Gordon Brown line. Welfare is not working because there is too much fraud and too much dependency. Health and pension costs are growing, but the electorate is not willing to pay extra taxes, so fundamental reform - including tilting the balance away from means testing towards insurance - is necessary.
Like many writers, Coyle sees a reduced role for national governments. Whereas many commentators expect power to go up to European institutions and down to regional assemblies, she predicts that power will transfer to global financial markets on the one hand and to rejuvenated cities on the other.
She therefore argues: “We do not need a withdrawal of government so much as a redesign”. Instead of government as interventionist, she wants government effectively to be a regulator, promoting fair competition and essential infrastructure such as the information superhighway.
Coyle is a great believer in the importance of what she calls the social economy or third sector. She describes this as somewhere between the public and the private sectors and essentially non-profit. It currently consists largely of education, culture and recreation and involves institutions are varied as charities, co-operatives and trade unions.
She asserts that much of the growth in employment, especially for the least skilled people, in industrialised societies during the next few decades will be in the social economy and more particularly in community, social and personal services.
She points out that, during the UK’s recovery from 1992 to 1997, the fastest growing economic activity was domestic service which expanded by more than a third in real terms - which was more than telecommunications.
Above all, though: “The fundamental natural resource of the weightless world is human creativity and intelligence”.
"Who Controls The Internet?" by Jack Goldsmith & Tim Wu (2006)
In 1996, noted cyber-libertarian John Perry Barlow wrote his famous 16-paragraph "Declaration Of Cyberspace Independence" [for full text click here] which opened: "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. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather." Goldsmith & Wu are both professors of law at American universities and their well-written and informative work is an eloquent, convincing and sobering testimony to how far we have come in a decade and how far governments and lawmakers now effectively can and do 'regulate' the Internet in the broadest sense of the word.
In a preface, the authors helpfully summarize the main three themes of their book. First, even for the Internet, "geography and governmental coercion retain fundamental importance". Second, the Internet is "splitting apart and becoming bordered". Third, contrary to what many expect, "the geographically bordered Internet has so many underappreciated virtues" (the main exception is the great firewall of China).
They make their case by giving example after example of how lawmakers have exercised control over Net activities or - putting it more positively - how a system of laws has promoted activity on the Net: the French court case against Yahoo! for hosting the sale of Nazi memorabilia [for more details on this case click here]; the closure of the Napster music file-sharing system for breaching copyright; the success of e-tradung sites like eBay because of the relevance of a system of supportive laws; a number of court cases in different countries enabling citizens in those countries to exercise libel or privacy laws even when the material in question was not hosted in that country [for some examples click here]; the massive apparatus of state control deployed by the Chinese authorities over Net users in China; and, above all, American government control over the Internet's root server system and the organisation ICANN.
The authors explain the growth of Net geo-identification services which aid both governments who want to control Net usage and companies that want to target e-customers commercially. They make the simple yet crucial point that, to control Net activities, one does not need direct access to the hosting organisation because there are so many 'pinch points' in the chain of intermediaries - such as infrastructure, search and billing companies - so that determined lawmakers can exercise much more influence than is widely understood.
Goldsmith & Wu conclude: "The failure to understand the many faces and facets of territorial governmental coercion is fatal to globalization theory as understood today, and central to understanding the future of the Internet. We have not argued that geographically focused governmental coercion is the only thing that matters. But we have tried to highlight the abiding significance of geography, of individuals whose attitudes and preferences differ sharply by geography, and most importantly of the national governments that use coercion to enforce national laws within their territories."
In reasserting that the Internet is not beyond the control of governments, lawmakers and companies in various parts of the value chain, the authors nevertheless fail to address how such control should be exercised and held to account. On the one hand, we want China, Vietnam, Burma, Iran, Tunisia and other repressive regimes to stop censoring free expression on the Net by their citizens; on the other hand, many countries - above all, the United States and Russia - need to do much more to combat child abuse images and race hate material on servers located in their countries. This is not a simple issue.
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON
Last modified on 21 September 2013
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