Friday, 3 April 2015

Cuttings February 2015

The Internet is Not the Answer, by Andrew Keen - review by Steven Poole in The Guardian. "Andrew Keen, noted gadfly of the tech world, is in this sardonic treatise concentrating his rhetorical fire on a class of people who really do think that the internet is the answer to all our current problems: not only in, say, getting a taxi or a sex partner, but also in education and politics. These are the techno-utopians of Silicon Valley, the wealthy or wannabe-wealthy libertarians with a fetish for 'disruption'. It is to their brand of what another critic, Evgeny Morozov, calls 'solutionism' that Keen is eager to retort in the negative.... What happened? Keen reminds us that, as is often forgotten, the internet was privatised. In the early 1990s, the US government 'handed over the running of the internet backbone to commercial internet service providers'. One super-wealthy tech investor called this moment, with a degree of smugness that it is tricky to gauge, 'the largest creation of legal wealth in the history of the planet'. Keen himself offers a trenchant geopolitical analogy: 'Just as the end of the cold war led to the scramble by Russian financial oligarchs to buy up state-owned assets, so the privatisation of the internet at the end of the cold war triggered the rush by a new class of technological oligarchs in the United States to acquire prime online real estate.'”

The Internet is Not the Answer, by Andrew Keen - review by John Naughton in The Guardian. "Andrew Keen – like many who were involved in the net in the early days – started out as an internet evangelist.... But he saw the light before many of us, and rapidly established himself as one of the net’s early contrarians. His first book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, was a lacerating critique of the obsession with user-generated content which characterised the early days of web 2.0... The Internet Is Not the Answer joins a number of recent books by critics such as Jaron Lanier, Doc Searls, Astra Taylor, Ethan Zuckerman and Nicholas Carr, who are also trying to wake us from the nightmare into which we have been sleepwalking. Like these other critics, Keen challenges the dominant narrative about the internet – that it’s a technology that liberates, informs and empowers people. The problem with this narrative, he points out, is not that it’s wrong – the network does indeed have the potential to do all of these marvellous things, and much more besides. The problem is that it’s not the whole story, and perhaps it will turn out to be the least important part of it."

The theatre of terror, by Yuval Noah Harari - article in The Guardian. "People turn to terrorism because they know they cannot wage war, so they opt instead to produce a theatrical spectacle. Terrorists don’t think like army generals; they think like theatre producers.... Like terrorists, those combating terrorism should also think more like theatre producers and less like army generals. Above all, if we want to fight terrorism effectively we must realise that nothing the terrorists do can defeat us. We are the only ones who can defeat ourselves, if we overreact in a misguided way to terrorist provocations.... During the modern era, centralised states have gradually reduced the level of political violence within their territories, and in the last few decades western countries have managed to achieve almost zero political violence.... People have quickly got used to this, and consider it their natural right. Consequently, even sporadic acts of political violence that kill a few dozen people are seen as a deadly threat to the legitimacy and even survival of the state. A small coin in a big empty jar can make a lot of noise. This is what makes the theatre of terrorism so successful.... Killing 17 people in Paris draws far more attention than killing hundreds in Nigeria or Iraq. Paradoxically, then, the very success of modern states in preventing political violence make them particularly vulnerable to terrorism. An act of terror that would have gone unnoticed in a medieval kingdom can rattle much stronger modern states to their very core."

The golden age of Peter and Jane: how Ladybird took flight - article by Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. "If you need reminding – or persuading – of the brilliance of Ladybird illustration, then head to Bexhill, East Sussex, where Ladybird By Design opens at the De La Warr pavilion on 24 January.... Whether it was Things to Make, Florence Nightingale or The Story of Oil, the layout was always the same. On the left-hand side was text in a font and vocabulary appropriate to your reading age, and on the opposite side was a full-page illustration of near-photographic accuracy, packed with such colour and exuberance that, decades later, it is still possible to close your eyes and recall every detail.... Although Wills & Hepworth jobbing Loughborough printers, had been churning out mediocre children’s story books for decades, the classic Ladybird formula emerged from war‑time exigencies. In order to keep their presses rolling and make the most of their much reduced paper ration, Wills & Hepworth began to produce 56‑page books that could, ingeniously, be printed on just one large sheet measuring 30 inches by 40. This allowed them to keep the price to a very reasonable 2s 6d for an extraordinary 30 years. Ladybird books were cheap enough for a child to buy with her own pocket money, or for a grandparent to give as a stocking filler, or for schools to award as prizes (that’s how I got my Story of Clothes and Costume). And the fact that the books increasingly dealt only with factual subjects allowed parents and teachers to reassure themselves that they were spending money on building a better child. Buying a Ladybird book became a kind of public service."

Paper bank statements make it easier to manage finances, study says - article by Rebecca Smithers in The Guardian. "Consumers are able to better manage and improve their finances when they receive paper bank statements sent through the post rather than just accessing their accounts online, according to the results of a behavioural study... For the study, 3,600 adults were initially invited to participate, and half then sent a mock bank statement and a notice of changes to overdraft fees by post, while the other half were sent the same information by email. In the end 2,399 consumers took part in the entire exercise, answering detailed questions about the mock account. Respondents were told they would be entered into a cash prize draw if they answered the questions correctly, creating a setting where they had to undertake tasks that were in their own financial interest. The research found that consumers who received statements and other financial information by post were better able to understand the information given, act on it and then make better financial decisions as a result than those receiving the same information electronically."

We need an internet that leaves space in our heads to enjoy creative peace - article by Jemima Kiss in The Guardian. "The internet is not made for us. It’s not made for the benefit of us. All those sites we use, that pull us in – none of them has our creative health or our wellbeing at heart. The mechanics of the internet – the bright lights and dopamine rewards – are deadly in combination with social expectations and instincts, and make it so hard to resist. It feels the norm. But this haphazard attention war is not the norm. ... these companies need to build sites and services that better work for us, true. But we owe it to ourselves to be acutely aware of what we lose in all this noise.... If my journey offline has taught me anything it is balance; that this aspirational, hyperconnected life we see all around us is not normal. Life is all around us already, beautiful in its imperfections and its normalness, under our feet and under our noses, in the room with us, if only we would put our smartphones down for long enough to experience it."

The MOOC Hype Fades, in 3 Charts - article by Steve Kolowich in The Chronicle of Higher Education. "Few people would now be willing to argue that massive open online courses are the future of higher education. The percentage of institutions offering a MOOC seems to be leveling off, at around 14 percent, while suspicions persist that MOOCs will not generate money or reduce costs for universities—and are not, in fact, sustainable. The latest figures come from the Babson Survey Research Group’s annual survey, which was based on a 2014 survey of more than 2,800 academic leaders and was released on Thursday. The survey, which has tracked opinions about online education for more than a decade, started asking academic leaders about MOOCs in 2012, when free online courses seemed poised to disrupt the walled gardens of elite college instruction. Back then, 28 percent of respondents believed MOOCs were sustainable, while 26 percent thought they were not. In this year’s survey, 16 percent believe MOOCs are sustainable, while 51 percent think they are not."

Students used to take drugs to get high. Now they take them to get higher grades - article by Carol Cadwalladr in The Guardian. "This year’s final students are the first to graduate into a brave new world of massive debt.... This is at a time when stories about graduate unemployment and exploited interns are never far from the news pages... And in this scenario, if you were offered a small white pill that held the promise of enhanced productivity, greater focus, more hours in the library, and, ultimately, the potential of a better degree, well… it’s not hard to see the attraction.... Modafinil: a prescription-only medication for narcolepsy that the NHS’s website describes as 'a central nervous system stimulant' that prevents 'excessive sleepiness during daytime hours'. 'It’s not that it makes you more intelligent,' says Phoebe, a history student. 'It’s just that it helps you work. You can study for longer. You don’t get distracted. You’re actually happy to go to the library and you don’t even want to stop for lunch. And then it’s like 7pm, and you’re still, "Actually, you know what? I could do another hour."'... You do have to be to be careful though, says Johnny. 'It gives you this amazing concentration but you have to make sure you’re actually in front of your books. I spent five hours in my room rearranging my iTunes library on it once.'"

The fascinating truth behind all those ‘great firewall of China’ headlines - article by John Naughton in The Guardian. On research by King et al on corpus of Chinese social media posts, published in Science in August 2014. "It confirmed what other researchers had found, namely that, contrary to neoliberal fantasy, speech on the Chinese internet is remarkably free, vibrant and raucous. But this unruly discourse is watched by a veritable army (maybe as many as 250,000-strong) of censors. And what they are looking for is only certain kinds of free speech, specifically, speech that has the potential for engendering collective action – mobilising folks to do something together in the offline world. 'Criticisms of the government in social media (even vitriolic ones) are not censored, ... whereas any attempt to physically move people in ways not sanctioned by the government is censored.'... The fact that an authoritarian regime allows vitriolic criticism of it in social media may seem paradoxical, but in fact it provides the most vivid confirmation of the subtlety of the Chinese approach to managing the net. 'After all,' observes King, 'the knowledge that a local leader or government bureaucrat is engendering severe criticism – perhaps because of corruption or incompetence – is valuable information. That leader can then be replaced with someone more effective at maintaining stability and the system can then be seen as responsive.' The internet, in other words, is the information system that enables the system to keep a lid on things."

Angela Brazil: dorm feasts and red-hot pashes - article by Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. "Until the 1880s middle-class girls had been mostly educated at home under the watchful eye of mothers, governesses and elder sisters. But with the coming of academic boarding schools and high schools, young women’s bonds were increasingly with other girls of their own age. [Angela] Brazil’s books glory in this new complicity, showing loud, boisterous teenagers forming themselves into self-policing groups, untroubled by the distant rumble of prefects and teachers. ... In 1944, when Brazil was coming to the end of her life, the new Education Act furnished able girls from the middling middle classes with a free education at either a direct-grant or grammar school, leaving boarding public schools such as Benenden, the model for Malory Towers, to a financial and social elite. That didn’t stop girls wanting to read about such schools – Blyton and Brent‑Dyer sold extremely well right up to the early 1990s – but there was a sense that what was being described was a kind of education that had happened a long time ago and far away. Until 1997, that is, when JK Rowling, the comprehensive-educated girl who had grown up with a passion for boarding school fiction, sat down to reimagine Brazil’s universe for a new generation of girls – and boys."

David Carr: Advice to Students - from his online course materials, referenced in John Naughton's Memex 1.1 blog. (David Carr, New York Times media journalist, joined Boston University Communications School in Autumn 2014 and died from cancer in February 2015.) "I grade based on where you start and where you end. Don’t work on me for a better grade—work on your work and making the work of those around you better. Show industriousness and seriousness and produce surpassing work if you want an exceptional grade.... * Don’t raise your hand in class. This isn’t Montessori, I expect people to speak up when they like, but don’t speak over anyone. Respect the opinions of others. * This is an intense, once-a-week immersion on the waterfront of modern media-making. If you don’t show up for class, you will flounder. If you show up late or unprepared, you will stick out in unpleasant ways. If you aren’t putting effort into your work, I will suggest that you might be more comfortable elsewhere. * If you text or email during class, I will ignore you as you ignore me. It won’t go well. * I expect you to behave as an adult and will treat you like one. I don’t want to parent you—I want to teach you."

Fifty tips for success - Dilbert cartoon. Young guy: "A 27-year-old tech millionaire published his list of fifty things you need to do to succeed." Dilbert: "In other words, he has no idea why he succeeded." Young guy: "Sure he does. He even has a list of his top thirty... priorities." (Pause) "Okay, I hear it now."

Google and tech’s elite are living in a parallel universe - article by John Naughton in The Guardian. "Our world is bifurcating into parallel universes. In one – that populated by technology companies, investment banks, hedge funds and other elite institutions – people are over-stimulated, appreciated, overworked (but in a 'good way', of course) and richly rewarded. Meanwhile, in the other universe, people are under-stimulated, overworked and poorly rewarded. And the gap between the two universes appears to be widening, not narrowing every time Moore’s Law ratchets up another notch in computing power.... The digital revolution is driving inequality, not reducing it. That’s because the technology has certain characteristics (zero marginal returns, network effects and technological lock-in, to name just three) which confer colossal power on corporations that have mastered the technology. In the process it confers vast wealth on those who own them. But that wealth isn’t shared with the users of the platforms operated by those corporations: most of the work that generates revenues for Facebook or Google is done by unpaid workers – you and me. And folks who work in paid occupations powered by those platforms – Uber drivers, Amazon warehouse workers, to name just two – are not sharing in the wealth it generates for their owners either. Like Google’s smart creatives, these people are also overworked. But not in that 'good way' advocated by Dr Schmidt."

Why do people ignore security warnings when browsing the web? - article by Danny Bradbury in The Guardian. "Why is it so difficult for users to follow simple security and privacy messages? Maybe it’s because they’re not that simple. Often, warnings describe what the problem is ('this site’s SSL certificate has expired!') rather than what the consequences of continuing might be ('if you visit this site, it might infect your computer with malware that steals your bank details!'). Lujo [Bauer, Carnegie Mellon University's Cylab security research centre] co-authored a paper on effective warning design that featured several key guidelines. They included describing the risk comprehensively, being concise, and offering meaningful choices about how to proceed. Google’s team reached similar conclusions. They stripped out the technical terms (most users don’t know what a certificate is, they found), and reduced the reading level by simplifying the text. That included making the text as brief as possible, even if it meant sacrificing detail. The Chrome developers also added illustrations to suggest danger, and started using background colours to represent different kinds and severity of threat."

The internet shaming of Lindsey Stone  - article in The Guardian by Jon Ronson, extracted from his book So you've Been Publicly Shamed. "[Lindsay] and Jamie had a running joke: taking stupid photographs, 'smoking in front of a no-smoking sign or posing in front of statues, mimicking the pose. We took dumb pictures all the time. And so at Arlington [the national cemetery] we saw the Silence And Respect sign… and inspiration struck.'... By the time she went to bed that night, at 4am, a Fire Lindsey Stone Facebook page had been created. It attracted 12,000 likes.... The next day, camera crews had gathered outside her front door.... [Her employer] was inundated with emails demanding [her sacking], so Lindsey was called into work. But she wasn’t allowed inside the building. Her boss met her in the car park and told her to hand over her keys. 'Literally overnight, everything I knew and loved was gone,' Lindsey said. And that’s when she fell into a depression, became an insomniac, and barely left home for a year. ... I had recently discovered the world of digital reputation management – companies that 'game' Google to hide negative stories stored online.... 'I have no idea what you actually do,' I had told Michael on the telephone before we met. 'Maybe I could follow someone though the process?' And so we planned it out. We’d just need to find a willing client."

Inside the food industry: the surprising truth about what you eat - article by Joanna Blythman in The Guardian, based on her book Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry's Darkest Secrets. "Contacts within the industry provided me with a cover that allowed me to gain unprecedented access to manufacturing facilities, as well as to subscriber-only areas of company sites, private spaces where the chemical industry tells manufacturers how our food can be engineered. Even with 25 years of food chain investigations under my belt, it was an eye-opener. ... Over the past few years, the food industry has embarked on an operation it dubs 'clean label', with the goal of removing the most glaring industrial ingredients and additives, replacing them with substitutes that sound altogether more benign. Some companies have reformulated their products in a genuine, wholehearted way, replacing ingredients with substitutes that are less problematic. Others, unconvinced that they can pass the cost on to retailers and consumers, have turned to a novel range of cheaper substances that allow them to present a scrubbed and rosy face to the public."

‘Pics or it didn’t happen’: how sharing our every moment on social media became the new living - article by Jacob Silverman in The Guardian. "Social media can resemble traditional, pre-literate societies, where communication is purely oral and everything – culture, news, gossip, history – is communicated through speech. When we retweet someone, we are just speaking their words again – ensuring that they are passed on and do not get lost in the flurry of communication. Media theorists refer to these eruptions of oral culture within literate culture as examples of 'secondary orality'. Social media’s culture of sharing and storytelling, its lack of a long-term memory, and the use of news and information to build social capital are examples of this phenomenon. While records of our activities exist to varying extents, secondary orality shows us how social media exists largely in a kind of eternal present, upon which the past rarely intrudes. Twitter is a meaningful example. It is evanescent: posts are preserved, but in practice, they are lost in one’s rapidly self-refreshing timeline – read it now or not at all. Twitter is also reminiscent of oral storytelling, in which one person is speaking to a larger assembled group and receiving feedback in return, which helps to shape the story. One of the digital twists here is that many storyteller-like figures are speaking simultaneously, jockeying for attention and for some form of recognition. The point is not that social media is atavistically traditional but that it returns elements of oral societies to us. Our fancy new digital media is in fact not entirely new, but a hybrid of elements we have seen in past forms of communication. The outbursts of tribalism we sometimes see online – a group of anonymous trolls launching misogynist attacks on a female journalist; the ecstatic social media groupies of Justin Bieber; the way one’s Twitter timeline can, for a short while, become centred around parsing one major event, as if gathered in a village square – are evidence of a very old-fashioned, even preliterate communitarianism, reified for the digital world."

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