Category Archives: Internet

Convenience vs control

Everything in life is becoming a balance of convenience versus control. Only, it’s not so much of a balance as a mass grab for convenience. Sometimes this doesn’t matter, sometimes it does.

Take food for instance. We love the convenience of ready-made meals! Those microwaveable lasagnes make cooking so easy – you don’t need to know how to make a lasagne, you don’t even need to know the ingredients for lasagne!

Only, such is the great convenience that we lose control of what we are eating. We end up consuming horse meat without knowing it. Horse meat may not technically be bad for us, but not even knowing what we are putting into our mouths is a scary place to be.

So what do we do? Retreat to the fields and only eat what we pluck from the ground, or slaughter ourselves? As delightful as that may be, it’s probably not practical, so some sort of compromise is needed. Some of course are happy to put up with all manner of inconvenience to have total control over their diet. We might laugh at them now and again, but I can’t help but feel that the last laugh will be theirs.

What does this have to do with technology? Well, the convenience versus control thing is happening all the time when we use computers, too. Almost every aspect of our use of technology involves us choosing between these two things.

Cloud computing is a classic example. No software to install or maintain! Access your files from anywhere! Let us worry about viruses and all that stuff – just make sure you have an internet connection and a browser!

We do this all the time, sometimes without knowing it. Letting the easy convenience of having Amazon look after our ebooks, Apple our music collections, Google with pretty much the rest of our lives. A recent example is Adobe making their software subscription only. If you stop paying your subscription, will you ever be able to open your files again?

Most of the time, this is fine. It’s a simple trade off and it’s unlikely anybody will get hurt. The downside of systems built around convenience though is that when they go wrong, they are pretty difficult to fix. They aren’t designed for the user to fix them and often these companies aren’t able to cope, either. Ever tried getting hold of Facebook’s customer support? You’ll know what I mean.

Culture matters too, and perhaps philosophy as well. For computing, who are the equivalents of the Romanian butchers who sold us that horse meat? They are Silicon Valley companies, all funded by VC money, looking for a payout via the stock market or by being bought by a bigger company. Now, I’m not necessarily against this per se, but one does have to bear in mind that all these companies don’t actually care about their users, or their data – or rather they do, but only in relation to how they can make money from it.

So there’s a way in which these companies and the services they provide are ephemeral – they are there to make money rather than for some higher social purpose (in other words, Amazon doesn’t really care about the future of the novel, they just want to sell us – or, technically, rent us – ebooks). When they get swallowed up by another company or just run out of cash, they won’t care too much about the users who rely on the convenience they have seduced us with.

We could claim control of our computing in the same way those seeking control of their diets do, by doing it all ourselves. Use free software, run your own servers, manage your own data. Again, sometimes we laugh at such people, and imagine them wearing hats made from tin foil. But they won’t be the ones left looking daft when the company you entrusted all your stuff to goes bust.

Of course, there’s a middle way, a sensible approach. We don’t all have to learn Linux and bash scripting (although it might be a good idea to at least know what these things mean), but we should understand where our data is, who actually owns it, and grab a copy we can keep safe just in case.

Permission taken

Well worth listening or watching this talk from Dan Gillmor:

Once, personal technology and the Internet meant that we didn’t need permission to compute, communicate and innovate. Now, governments and tech companies are systematically restricting our liberties, and creating an online surveillance state. In many cases, however, we’re letting it happen, by trading freedom for convenience and (often the illusion of) security. Yes, we need better laws and regulations. But what steps can we take as individuals to be more secure and free — to take back the permissions we’re losing?

Our regressive web

Ryan Holiday writes in Our Regressive Web:

We’re regressing because we’re so focused on the new that we forgot the importance of the old. The tech press is too busy chattering about other “innovations” like retargetingpaywallsnative advertising. Except those changes are at the margins—at best. And because of that distraction or lack of understanding of the bigger picture, we’ve watched some of our best products get destroyed—as other services launched bonafide extortion as a business model.

Open or closed – does anything online ever last?

It’s only now, a couple of weeks after the announcement, that I feel I can talk about the demise of Google Reader. Up til now, the whole thing has just been too upsetting. Reader is the site I turn to first in the day, before email or Twitter, and the one I check last as well.

I have about 600 odd feeds pouring into my Reader account which I skim through everyday – some I read in their entirety every time, others I’m happy to just dip into now and again as the fancy takes me. It’s ok – RSS isn’t email, you don’t have to read it all.

Reader is also an important part of my publishing workflow. A lot of people find the links I tweet and the regular posts of links on this blog to be helpful. That’s all driven by Reader and by the stupidly simple act of clicking once to ‘star’ a post. Then, thanks to IFTTT, they get sent to my blog and to Twitter, like magic.

Reader was an app that used RSS feeds, an open standard – excellent! It’s because of this that we can move our subscriptions to one or more of the many possible replacement services that exist or are springing up.

What’s more, Reader was also an API that other apps could hook into. The most used purpose for this was to synchronise the read status of feeds between apps – for example between a desktop and a mobile interface.

For instance, on my laptop I use the Reader web app, but on my phone I use Reeder which always picks up where I left off thanks to Google’s API.

The trouble comes because people came to rely on Google’s Reader API to deliver a service, and development around similar services just stopped. So when Google decided to take their ball home, it meant nobody could play with it any more.

Still, the fact that RSS and OPML are open standards means we have other software options to move our feed lists to, and while they may no longer rely on Google’s vast infastructure and databases, they ought to work well enough to meet most of our needs.

But the point is worth making again – we can only do this because the open standards existed and we all use them – deliberately or not.

The second point is that even when a piece of software like Reader operates using these standards, if people come to rely on them, then control is surrendered in exchange for convenience. That’s fine, as long as we know this is happening and can take steps to regain control when it’s needed.

So, I’m not saying that we should all stop using other people’s services, that we should abandon convenience in favour of control. Just that we should have back ups in place – of our content, sure, but also backup plans so that our activity can carry on even when our favourite tools disappear, as they surely all will do.

We held the latest UKGovCamp at IBM, a venerable old technology company. Will Facebook last as long as IBM? Will Google? Will Amazon?

Best be prepared by assuming probably not.

The dream is fading fast

John Naughton:

Because we’ve all bought into the techno-utopianism of the early Internet, we tend to assume that it’s always going to be open to everyone. But as more and more of the world goes online, it’s clear that we’re heading in a very different direction — towards an online world dominated by huge, primarily foreign-owned, corporations which are creating walled gardens in which internet users will be corralled and treated like captive consumers, much as travellers are in UK airports now. The dream that the Internet would make everything available to everyone on equal terms is fading fast.

Themes for 2011

2010 has been an interesting year for the internet. Where will 2011 take us? Here’s a slightly apocalyptic set of thoughts.

Wikileaks, privacy and security

Anybody who has thought for even a moment about the implications of the internet and the web will have known that something like Wikileaks was always going to happen. It was a case of when, not if.

What Wikileaks tells us is that the internet makes information free – as in speech, not necessarily as in beer. When the tools for publishing content to a worldwide audience are free, and the channels for promoting it as fast and efficient as the likes of Twitter and Facebook, it becomes pretty clear that something significant has changed.

As John Naughton wrote recently,

The only rational attitude to online systems is cautious scepticism about their security.

It forces us to question how we define security and privacy online. My take is to assume you have none, and proceed on that basis.

Culture

A further theme, in addition to questions about security, privacy and identity will be culture and the sociological effects of the information revolution.

There are a couple of elements to this. One is the idea of cloud culture, which Charles Leadbeater explored in his pamphlet. The other is along the lines of Nick Carr’s book The Shallows, based on his idea that Google is making us stupid.

I already outsource an awful lot of my memory to the internet. My dad asked me the other day if I was ok with some plans we’d arranged. I didn’t know what he was talking about. “But I emailed you about it the other day!” he exclaimed. Because I had an email, I’d forgotten all the detail within it.

Is this any different to outsourcing arithmetic to pocket calculators? I’m not sure. But when the cloud could disappear at any time, it’s good to have a backup of your online memory somewhere.

Cloud culture will continue to have an increasing role in our lives, whether we notice or not. Books are moving to the cloud, whether we read them on Kindles, phones or tablets. Services like Spotify mean we don’t even bother downloading music tracks any more.

Where next? Particular set in focus next to the cuts, where do libraries and museums fit into all of this? Can they be moved into the cloud? Sure, seeing a painting or a sculpture in real life is a better experience than seeing it on a screen, but is it so much better that people will pay for it? How do we feel about our cultural heritage being managed and curated by Amazon, Google and Apple rather than governments or charities?

It ties in neatly with one of my favourite, if very short, bits of writing about the internet and culture by the late Gordon Burn, in his book Born Yesterday:

…an aggregation of fragments is the only kind of whole we have now.

(This post gives a little more context.) Are we really only collections of shards of personality and culture? Does it matter? Even if it doesn’t, it’s good to be aware of what is happening to us.

Relevance

The cuts brings me onto my third and final theme. What do the cuts and the internet have in common? They question relevance. In a world of instant publishing, limitless availability of content and always-on connectivity, and where budgets will be cut wherever not cutting them cannot be justified, how do you stay relevant?

The circle closes here, because the Wikileaks story is a great example of how the internet reduces the cost of the distribution of information to zero, which has a significant impact on those organisations which depend on information distribution as their raison d’être.

Think of newspapers, television, and record labels. They thought they made news, programmes and music. Actually, they were in the logistics business.

The same is true of a number of roles and functions within public services, who will see a twinned and overlapping attack as a result of both the internet and the cuts. If the internet can do what you do cheaper, why are you needed?

To stay relevant, in 2011 public servants will need to reassess what they do and why they do it. Learning and Development people, for example, might currently spend a proportion of their time training people – but why, when all the information anyone needs is online? Why do we need communications professionals, when, with the tools at our fingertips, we are all communicators now?

The same could be said for an awful lot of roles within councils and other organisations. It’s going to be up to individuals to start defining their relevance over the next few months, to become facilitators and enablers, not merely doers.

Those that successfully figure this one out will come out on top, I think.

Everything you ever need to know about the internet

John NaughtonJohn Naughton is consistently one of the – if not the – best writers we have about technology. His A Brief History Of The Future is a simply fantastic introduction to the internet: why and how it came about, from Vannevar Bush‘s vision of the Memex through Douglas Englebart‘s ‘Mother of all demos‘ to Arpanet and Tim Berners-Lee‘s use of HTTP and HTML to form the world wide web. It was the first book I thought to lend Breda when she joined my little team at Learning Pool.

His blog and Observer column are well worth regularly checking too. Occasionally I am lucky enough to meet up with John, along with that other titan of technology, Quentin Stafford-Fraser, for lunch in Cambridge. It’s difficult not to feel utterly fraudulent during these conversations, but I do my best.

John’s name has been punted all round Twitter during the last couple of days thanks to a feature article that appeared in the Observer on Sunday, called Everything you ever need to know about the internet. It’s a great context-setting piece, reminding us all how new this stuff is – and yet, at the same time, that many of the issues involved are as old as time.

This ties in with some of what I have been thinking and writing recently about people’s attitudes to the internet – such as the fact that it shouldn’t be viewed as just another channel, and that it is a profoundly creative space. I suspect a lot of this comes down to a lack of real understanding of what the net is about.

So, go read the article. Then print it out and put it in your boss’s in-tray. The world will be a better place.