Monthly Archives: November 2010

Are you worried about education?

The technology-enhanced age of disrespect dawns upon us.

Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or a manager, you will know that your role demands leading by example. However, the dangers of being exposed as what we are, fallible humans, are now omni-present, be it through webcams at parties, or all-too relaxed twitter posts by friends. This has existed for some time, and we need not go into the dangers of the unforgetting and unforgiving Web, or Google unearthing some of our disreputable past. With companies taking advantage of real-time postings of audio-visuals, the dangers are not only about the future past, but more about the present.

Am I worried about education? Yes! Here is why:

Room110 posting

Stephen Downes in reaction to a post by Tony Bates argues against rules of conduct for social networks. Instead, he says, teachers should stop behaving badly, and viewers should be critical of what they view. AS IF!!!

I disagree for a number of reasons: For one thing, teachers do have a right to fun and enjoyment too. Why demand self-censorship of the potential victims? It’s like the old accusation that the sexy-dressed woman invited the rapist. Keeping a low profile isn’t necessarily protecting you from being accused of something. Secondly, people love voyeuristic news – reality TV shows prove this day-in day-out. In a small number of cases they might be even critical of what they see, but can they avoid being influenced by it? Would places like Facebook even exist if people were critical and discerning? Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, let’s not forget the intention behind posting: causing harm and embarrassment.

It’s not about the reputation of teachers alone, but students and teachers alike. It’s about a solid basis for mutual respect and trust. Very often, posting gossip-stories, sleazy photos and candid revelations follow an agenda. Remember the old school days when class-mates deliberately spread nasty rumours to suit their own purpose or to make themselves more popular. Remember the dichotomy of teachers vs students – they are not on the same side! Similar intrigues happen regularly in the work place. Forming alliances, thoughts of revenge, and bringing fellow humans into disrepute has tradition.

Room110_1This is only becoming easier now! Sites like Room 110 even build a business model around it. What is often misjudged in the warnings is that it is not so much about losing the respect of some potential, but as yet unknown, future employer and therefore maybe losing a job opportunity. It is about irreparable damage to your current social fabric. Be it teacher or student, a spotless life cannot defend you if you are rightly or wrongly publically outed or ridiculed of being homosexual, impotent, a two-timer, drunkard, nazi, pedophile or other. And it is done on purpose!

The issue is:
– it reaches a much wider audience than f2f rumours
– it can’t be deleted
– it’s impossible to defend against
– the likelihood of the perpetrator being found out is less than with illegal music downloads
– intelligent software (face recognition) increases outreach and damage further
– it re-enforces simple stereotypes: girls = bitches, boys = piss-heads (see pictures)

Once a person is victim to an attack, it’s virtually irreversible. The damage is hard to contain, “not-true” statements won’t be heard.


Where is free knowledge going?

During the Iraq war, the US blocked access to Iraqi Internet domains and websites. We were never told what other censorship methods were applied then, but it rattled my confidence in the free information flow on the web. More recently, Google are reported to manipulate results in their own favour, and, in the UK, ministers are about to abandon the principles of net neutrality and allowing for two-speed traffic solutions. This means that information from some sources will be prioritised over others. It is not foreseeable yet, what impact this will have on knowledge sharing and the knowledge economy in the wider sense. What may happen is that you may have to pay your way to the beneficiaries, consumers, citizens, etc. who you want to reach.

Equally bad, China was supposedly hijacking US web traffic, although this is denied in Beijing. Where will this all lead us? Firstly, I think, the propaganda claim that web content in the West is freely available and uncensored is quite untrue. Censorship comes in different forms, like Apple not allowing sexually explicit content, or bosses watching and sacking employees for their facebook or blog entries, and companies blocking access to websites. It’s industrially motivated instead of state-owned oppression.

More importantly, we see the battle for dominance in the knowledge economy arena gathering pace. IPR and patent wars are already on the go everywhere. This is somewhat limited to companies suing each other on a big scale, but we may soon see an escalation of this in emerging protectionism of knowledge and IPR between countries. This is nothing absurd or new. During the Cold War, the export of high-tech goods to Second World countries was much restricted for the same reason, to protect know-how from leaking to the other side. It is easily imaginable that countries and companies won’t want to give away advances in an economic stand-off with other nations. After the manufacturing industries have more or less left the Western nations, knowledge maybe the next battleground.

Knowledge is a social pattern

This blog post by Stephen Downes stimulated some reflection on my part. I concur with most of what he says in the text, but think that things are in fact much simpler. ‘Knowledge’ – in the same way as ‘truth’ – is an illusion. We should speak of shared social patterns instead, hence knowledge is culture. The patterns are based on conventions that are firmly rooted in time and location as well as in information flow. Conventions like dividing days into 24 hours, or the use of a decimal/non-decimal system.

Memories and experiences are interpretations of such patterns using (additional) sensory information data, which can lead to new patterns that again maybe shared. Stephen refers to ‘words’ not being enough to describe knowledge. Indeed, our sensory experiences are more than just our eyes and ears, and much of the unconscious part of the social patterns or experience we accumulate with other senses than by reading or writing.

Knowledge is most interesting and revealing where there is conflicts, contradictions, and boundaries, or when e.g. religious beliefs, dogmas, or political correctness influence us. As a demonstration of this ask yourself the question: “are narcotic drugs good for you?” Most people would have to admit they cannot answer this question unbiased. We read and hear that they are bad for your health, at the same time a large sub-culture uses drugs for entertainment purposes, and in Medicine they are sometimes hailed as cures. In case of conflict, we tend to use a probabilistic method, or, if logic would lead to a “not enough data” error, to value-based conclusions, like gut feeling or spiritual explanations. Imitation is another strategy.

That the world is flat isn’t wrong, after all even though we don’t share this view in text books we still experience much of it in two dimensions, e.g. On maps, describing routes, etc.

Once you look at knowledge as social patterns it can no longer be reduced to a functionality of the brain or be divided into internal and external. We become dependents of a type of swarm intelligence, and knowledge exists outside the individual who becomes nothing more than a data sensor and processor to feed it.

Facebook's communication revolution

Maybe Facebook can do what Google Wave failed to do: revolutionise the way we communicate with others.

Yesterday, Facebook announced how seamless communication works by bringing different media together in one place, Facebook. Generally, this sounds like a common-sense idea and I wonder why Google has not thought about this a long time ago.

Starting from the social perspective rather than the technical tool, FB says people don’t care much about the software or device they use to send sms or instant messages or e-mails to each other. What matters is the message traveling from one person to the next and the connection it builds up between them. I think that’s spot on right.

Bringing together different communication media and leaving the choice of sending or receiving to the users instead of the system is a big step forward. After all, it’s a nuisance that in order to receive e-mails from a person you need to go to your inbox, while for an sms or wall post you need to open the respective messaging or social application. In this new approach, you can send mails and others can choose how they want to receive them.

So far so good. The downside is entrusting more of your personal data to Facebook. It’s the conversation history that worries me:

I’m intensely jealous of the next generation who will have something like Facebook for their whole lives. They will have the conversational history with the people in their lives all the way back to the beginning: From “hey nice to meet you” to “do you want to get coffee sometime” to “our kids have soccer practice at 6 pm tonight.” That’s a really cool idea.

Arggh, how naive are they! Coffee doesn’t necessarily lead to children, and what about all those “bugger off” and “leave me alone” messages?

How naive do they think users are? Life is not a romantic movie, and I certainly don’t want to see all conversations recorded for eternity. Ever thought of your children looking at the quarrels and struggles you perhaps had when going through a divorce with your ex and discovering what a fool their parents have made of themselves?! They best remain burried in history rather than Facebook.

Do you follow the herd?

This article by the BBC says it all. The herd is mooing again. Twitter users are seemingly outraged by a man being convicted for threatening to blow up an airport. They claim, hum, freedom of speech. It’s the same old argument used so often by neonazis, holocaust deniers, anti-democratic movements, and other similar crowds.

Despite the perceived and constantly embattled “freedom” of the Internet, this cannot take away the fact that we live in a society. And bad jokes are sometimes not jokes at all, and cannot be justified retrospectively.

Knowledge experience

Here’s a new and very nice place to visit:! Enter a search term and it creates a short multi-media audio presentation aggregated from different sources on the Web.

qwiki interface

It creates an animated knowledge experience which is fun to learn from. It is fast and uses search prediction when entering a term. Currently, it’s running in private alpha, but with 2.2m terms I can see it being released to the public very shortly.

Big Data isn't big knowledge – it's big business!

We no longer speak of the Knowledge Economy or the Information Society. It’s all data now: Data Economy and Data Society. This, in part at least, is a confession that we are no longer in control of the knowledge contained in the data our systems collect. Application of real-time sensors leads to a data explosion, but very little knowledge is actually harvested from it. What is more, this knowledge is not shared and distributed! Hence Big Data does not make the World a better more equal place, but merely creates a 21st century division of exploited versus exploiters.

The Big Data revolution is happening and education shortly will jump on the bandwagon too.

What are the issues with Big Data? Clearly, it offers enormous opportunities: to third parties, to service providers, companies, data giants, to education, as well as to all kinds of unscrupulous organisations who aim to profit from it. But where is the deal? What’s in it for us consumers who we provide that data they are thriving on? The standard answer is “free” “better” “more personal” services. But is it any different if you pay for your service? What does “better” mean – better for the company? And how about “personal” – should it not rather be called “patronising”: offering only the choices that a computer algorithm selects for you?

It is noteworthy, that resistence is mounting, but, as always in such situations, it may be too little and too late. With governments happily supporting and actively promoting commercial exploit of people’s data, data protection has long ago turned into a farce and maybe we should give up the idea of privacy all together.

Part of what is wrong in the Big Data world is that we require the help of automated systems to make sense of the data produced by other systems. Humans can no longer do this. However, these technologies produce again – data! Its a vicious circle.

The other big issue is “personalisation”. I am not generally opposed to targeted advertisements, in fact the idea that I get offers that I might find interesting instead of not, maybe quite appealing. What I feel uncomfortable with is people monetizing what they believe is “me”. It raises a strange question on who owns your life, such as who you socialise with, where you spend your time, and what you are doing.

The driver being financial gain also endangers the protection a consumer can expect from such e-capitalist systems. How would you feel to receive targeted porn ads while showing your boss and colleagues your Google TV set at the dinner party or sitting with your kids to watch an afternoon movie?

Big Data is about human behaviour. Digital stalkers follow our every move logging it and adapting their response. While there are benefits for the stalker and data collector, the users’ behaviour is changed too. The vision of the world becomes blurred because you only see what others think you should see. Perceived freedom of choice may conceal the truth of becoming puppets – Matrix here we come!