Tag Archives: digital divide

Some Thoughts On The Wikipedia Black-Out

Ever since I discovered Wikipedia, the site has been on my Favourites list. For all some like to criticise it for it accuracy issues or its ability to be edited by anyone, including those with agendas or with vandalism on their mind, I’ve found it to be an invaluable resource. Sure it’s not the be all and end all of human knowledge, but it’s a pretty good place to start looking. Anyone who only uses Wikipedia to research something is being lazy, but it offers initial overviews of most subjects, and there is such a thing as cutting your nose off to spite your face.

So the news that Wikipedia is going to black itself out for 24 hours tomorrow came as a bit of a shock. What am I going to do?! It’ll be like cold turkey for information junkies. It’s the curse of the internet – we’re so used to information being freely and readily available that it’s almost scary when it’s not.

Of course, that’s pretty much the point of the black-out.

Those keeping an eye on internet freedom have been spurred into action in recent months thanks to a couple of controversial pieces of US legislation, SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the Protect IP Act). Their supporters argue that they’re necessary to protect copyright; opponents point to their impact on freedom of speech, where an infringement by one user could, technically, bring down an entire domain. Worst case scenario – the internet as we know it mutates into something else, something less capable of changing the world.

(This is alongside things like the NDAA and moves for the Department of Homeland Security to spy on journalists – including bloggers. This is part of a wider, worrying trend.)

So Wikipedia and other sites shutting down for the day may be something of a nuclear option, but it’s may be something that ends up happening more often and for less voluntary reasons. The question then becomes “What’s the back-up?”

I’m not talking about increased digital storage or the Cloud or whatever. We’re now structured around an information rich society, so what do we do when that information becomes scarce? A crippled internet would be devastating, but it has wider impact too.

I got thinking about this thanks to a church meeting we held last night. Most churches nowadays have electronic facilities to aid worship – song words projected onto a screen from a lyrics database, Powerpoint to enhance a sermon, that sort of thing. The question arises, however, what happens if the power goes out? Or if the one or two people with the skills to operate all this kit happen to be sick or on holiday? Now, the almost-so-simple-it’s-facetious answer is that the back-up is, well, hymnbooks, but that raises two follow-up issues:

  1. There’s a digital divide when it comes to accessing data. We think it’s easy, but that’s because someone has built a website or database and made it accessible for the public. I may be able to cook, but that doesn’t mean I can start a fire without matches (the wider implications for this is why it’s good that the UK government are going to scrap their ICT curriculum to put a greater emphasis on programming rather).
  2. The digital divide is enough of a problem on its own, but it can have real knock-on effects – if a community is set up around the assumption that access to information and technology is always going to be available, then that community is in something of a mess when that ceases to be available.

I’ve been thinking about this in terms of churches and their demographics, but it’s the same problem that faces society as a whole. There’s a digital divide within society – it’ll be interesting to see how Apple’s rumoured revolution in school textbooks will play into that – and our ‘back-ups’ are being eroded. Internet freedom is a back-up for when the news is censored or under-reported – well, now citizen journalists can be spied upon by the Department of Homeland Security. Need access to information when the internet is down? Use a library – oh wait.

I don’t want to suggest that bookstores and libraries are just back-up for online data sources, of course, because they have their own beauty and eccentricities, and the encapsulate the skills necessary to curate the vast about of information made public by the internet. But when internet freedom is one of the western world’s push-button issues, it’s hard not to worry when you can see all our informational eggs being put in one big online basket. If Wikipedia’s online black-out makes this point, then great. The flipside is that online companies providing access to a lot of data become increasingly powerful – what’s stopping them holding it for ransom?

Access to information has become a guiding principle of the 21st Century, but maybe we’ve become blind to just how vulnerable this is – Not everyone in power has the same views on Net freedom as, say, Anonymous. The internet isn’t indestructible. Data isn’t just digital. And the world may change once more – just not necessarily in a good way.

 

What’s Going On? Protests, Riots, the Internet and a Changing Civilisation

When the winners write their history books, the one thing they’ll agree on is that 2011 was a really weird year.

It’s been a whirlwind of revolutions and crumbling authority, and while it’s way too early to try and get some perspective on the events that started with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi and seem, somehow, to have resulted in the peaceful Occupation of Wall Street, Boston, LA and other US cities, that’s never stopped me before!

I can’t help thinking that all this isn’t (just) about rich verses poor; after all, if you can use an iPhone to Tweet about the protests then you’re not poor, at least not globally speaking, not when 1,345 million people in the developing world live on less than $1.25 a day. However, let’s not kid ourselves; the same corruption that forces the American middle class onto the streets to protest the potential loss of their homes also contributes towards poverty in the third world. And the developed, western nations aren’t exactly utopias – 80% of NHS hospitals face severe financial difficulties, rising food prices in Scotland are forcing Scotland’s poorest to miss meals, and youth unemployment has reached 21.3%. Similar issues affect America and Europe, and at times it feels like the giants have lost their golden goose and are waiting for the beanstalk to fall. Add to that issues like the closure of libraries and the bread and circuses of mainstream media and it’s starting to feel like one of those years, like 1914, 1939, 1968, 1989, years when everything shifted and changed.

I suspect a lot of this is about people being disenfranchised. The Arab Spring was largely about people rising up against corruption amongst their rulers; the Occupy movement sweeping the States is a reaction against corporate corruption. Heck, even the UK riots, which didn’t really have a criminal component, kicked off in areas where prospects are limited, to say the least. Keep denying people a voice, either deliberately or as the default outcome of political ideology, and things will start to happen.

It’s interesting that all this is happening in the age of social media; the beauty of the Internet is that everyone can contribute to it, and that’s why, when those historians are writing about 2011, they’ll need to dig out Twitter archives rather than film from the mainstream media (and why fears of a Digital Dark Age should be heightened during all this – these are historical records, not digital emphemera). It’s interesting that the mainstream media has been lagging behind when it comes to coverage of Occupy Wall Street and its sister movements, but perhaps not surprising. After all, it’s part of the same corporate culture that people are reacting to – the phone hacking scandal and the resulting can of worms showed that human diginity and privacy are expendable when it comes to profit.

And yet if this is about people needing a voice, the rise of social media and citizen journalism raises questions for its most enthusiastic proponents; there’s still a Digital Divide, both globally and within individual nations, and that’s only going to get worse with sweeping cuts to library services (and don’t forget, those and other public service cuts arose from a global recession caused by corporate malpractice). I love Twitter, but I bet my mom’s never heard of it, and if social media is going to be the new grassroots ‘mainstream’ then don’t forget that you’re not going to get a lot of political insight from the Top 100 Most Followed Tweeters.

That’s a key point in other ways – the battlelines have been drawn, but the opposition doesn’t understand what’s going on. David Cameron described the UK riots as “criminality, pure and simple”; Veterans for Peace were beaten by police describing them as “anarchists”; Libyan rebels were said to be on “hallucinogenic drugs”. The response from authority figures to the protests has ranged from disingenuous to deranged conspiracy theories; I guarantee none of them are avidly following the Occupy Together hashtag. And that’s a problem with the Internet as a source – search engine technology has progressed to the point where it can now pretty much tell you what you want to hear. Things are becoming more and more filtered in an age when what we really need is to be challenged, to hear opposing voices, to enter into rational and constructive dialogue. It’s difficult to do that if everything we read backs up our existing prejudices, and while the mainstream media do that anyway (hello Daily Mail! Hello Fox News!), the mosaic nature of the Net may well exacerbate things.

But in the end it does feel as though things are changing. People are more willing and more able to let their voices be heard, and the leaders that dismiss those voices are actually starting to look irrelevant. Heck, maybe the institutions we’ve relied on for so long are starting to crumble and/or evolve – the general assemblies of the Occupy movements would seem to be more truly democratic and representative than Cabinets made up of millionaires – and the onus is on us, all of us, not just those who are protesting on the streets, to make something good and positive as a result. Something good and positive that brings in the disenfranchised and treats them as friends, not enemies.

After all, wouldn’t it be nice if the 99% could one day become the 100%?

Like Tears in Rain

And so it came to pass that, in 2001, UNESCO established the Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, a project aimed at recognising and preserving ‘intangible cultural heritage. On this list are festivals, puppet theatres, folk music, human towers, cuisine and the whistled language of the island of La Gomera.

All of these are transitory – a performance, a meal, a dance, a prayer, a conversation, and while my area doesn’t have anything as evocative as the Mosque at the End of the World, we have Aynuk and Ali and faggots and peas (don’t laugh). All those quirky expressions of culture that don’t make it on to Britain’s Got Talent but that are somehow an intrinsic part of our humanity.

I’ve been thinking about things like this since I read MaggieCakes’s blog, specifically the articles on the evolution of storytelling in the digital age. The blog has featured pieces on microfiction and whether or not Twitter and Facebook will develop a native storytelling tradition, and I guess that’s what’s prompted my interest in the subject; that and a post I wrote a few days ago about the BBC’s Domesday Book project almost falling prey to the digital dark age.

There are examples of Twitter being used as a storytelling medium, and it will be interesting to see how they develop, but despite how they exist within an infrastructure of computers, smartphones and PDAs there’s still a sense that they lack permanence; this may be my prejudice coming out, but although I love the Kindle app on my iPhone, there’s something fragile about the books I read on it – one wrong sync or copyright screw-up and they disappear and yes, they can be retrieved but…

(There’s a great line from Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Giles, the technophobic fount of all knowledge, weighs in on the books vs computers debate: “Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is”, he says, “A certain flower or a whiff of smoke can bring up memories long forgotten. Books smell, musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is…it has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last then the getting of knowledge should be tangible, it should be smelly.”)

I’m not getting into whether or not I agree with Giles, but I know that the funniest things I’ve ever read on the internet have seemingly vanished without trace (a review of All Star Batman and Robin and the Hulk getting emotional in his reviews of DC Comics). Does this lack of permanence mean that stories born out of social media face an uphill struggle to take hold on the popular imagination? Internet memes are all very well, but I’m not convinced they’re particularly mainstream yet – my mom’s heard of Superman but not Dramatic Rodent, and that’s before we get onto how strongly a story can take hold in a world where the majority of internet users are concentrated in certain geographic areas. That said, Twitter’s use in mobilising Middle Eastern protests may be a precursor to net-based storytelling taking off globally.

And even if this new storytelling fails to become a global thing, who cares? The traditions listed by UNESCO are the products of specific communities, formed by culture, language, resources and geography. We in the West may have a tendancy to see our pop culture as mass media, but my experience of the internet is that it’s formed of thousands of interactive communities, defined by forum membership, blogrolls and friends lists. Even forums I read every day have their own acronyms and in-jokes I don’t get – I’m not part of the in-crowd, not there 24/7, a lurker on the edge of community listening to secret languages, not meant for outsiders.

And if all these emerging cultures are, by their nature, transitory and intangible, should we be thinking about preserving them? It feels like it’s early days for that question, but the internet moves quickly – heck, it hasn’t been that long since Myspace was bigger than Facebook. Do we look at archiving (asks the man with a back-up blog), or do we let the jokes and the flame wars fade away, moments in time that it would be pointless to capture; if the internet is formed by its users, democratisation and a little bit of anarchy, would trying to capture and preserve it end up with a zoo-dwelling tiger in too small a cage?

 

Domesday

No, I’m not talking about the guy who thinks the Rapture’s going to happen on May 21st (Matthew Paul Turner has written the best response to that particular situation, although the 21st isn’t looking good for Mississippi for other reasons), nor am I talking about the latest Superman storyline ‘Reign of the Doomsdays’ (Paul Cornell is one of my favourite writers but I can’t help thinking that Doomsday should have stayed a one-off villain back in 1992). My spelling isn’t that bad.

William the Conqueror did his conquering in 1066; twenty years later he ordered the compilation of the Domesday Book (so called because, like God’s book of the damned and the saved on the Day of Judgement, the contents of the Domesday Book would be unalterable). This was a survey of England and Wales, effectively a census to ascertain how much money William could make through taxes.

Skip forward 900 years and the BBC decided to commemorate Domesday’s anniversary by developing their own version. This consisted of maps, videos, photographs and information submitted by the public, and was stored on, gasp, laserdisc.

That lead to a bit of a problem, because one of the ironies of the Information Age is that is probably now easier to look at the data from the 900 year old Domesday Book than its eighties equivalent. A few versions were converted to more up-to-date formats, but… Would Domesday fall prey to the Digital Dark Age?

I’ve got personal memories of the eighties version. I was on a day trip somewhere, certainly a seaside town but don’t ask me which one, and I poked my head into a camper van hosting a demonstration of The project. It was fascinating watching pictures of Dudley and Gornal appear on the screen, so much so that I ran out and dragged my mom in. I guess it’s the same fascination I get with Google Earth and the Street View – familiar places look a little different when the unexpectedly appear on a computer screen.

Anyway, I was 9 then and I’m 34 now and the BBC has grasped the nettle; Domesday Reloaded has been launched online (there’s a nice article on the development of the project here). The idea is that, by going online, the modern Domesday will survive for at least as long as we’re internetting, and for an information junkie like me, that’s kinda cool – I’ll be contributing when I get the chance.

Catch That Pigeon

In an attempt to show that rural broadband speeds in the UK aren’t really up to much, a race has been held between a flock of carrier pigeons armed with USB sticks and a five-minute video upload. The file had to cover 120 miles, with the prize going to whichever medium first delivered the information in its entirity.

It’s probably not much of a surprise that the pigeons won.

Okay, so it’s a bit of a stunt, but it proves that the much talked about Digital Divide still exists, and that’s just within the UK. Globally things are obviously much worse, to the extent that Tim Berners-Lee has called for everyone to get basic internet connections for free – in a world where the wheels of power are increasingly online, and where the internet is a relatively free forum for information sharing and citizen activism, the fact that only a fifith of the world’s population has access is a concern. Sure, you could argue that it’s less important than essentials such as food, water, sanitation and housing, but it’s not necessarily an either/or thing – the internet is a pretty good way of getting information about health and education to the population.

I guess that kinda relies on access to some sort of computer, but that’s something that some smart people will be able to tackle, surely?

(Incidentally, 32 carrier pigeons were awarded the Dickin Medal for service during the Second World War…)