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.

Internet megalomania

John Naughton is spot on about the recent Facebook announcements in his Observer column:

What’s comical about this stuff is not so much its implicit arrogance – the assumption that we all want to share using Facebook – as its historical naivety. The history of the web is littered with the whitened bones of enterprises that once dreamed of total control. So until the cure for megalomania is invented, the only known antidote is a mantra. Repeat after me: the net is bigger than any single enterprise. And nobody owns it.

Well worth reading in full.

The Joys of a Strong Pound

One of the cool things about a single pound being worth more than $2 is that geeks like me can buy domain names on the cheap.

For example, the other week I got a .net domain for less than a fiver. Also, at GoDaddy at the moment, you can buy a .info domain for $0.99, which comes out after taxes and stuff at just over 60p! OK, so the .info domain is the spammers’ favourite, but it’s still worth doing at that price.

Stikipad

Stikipad, which I mentioned in my brief round up of wikis recently, has now made it’s free account have unlimited edits. Thank goodness sanity has prevailed – 5 edits would be nowhere near enough for someone to work out whether the service was worth paying for or not. A good example of a company listening to their users’ views.

Thanks to Matt at Stikipad for the email informing me about the change – I’ll be giving the service another try soon.

Google Page Creator

Google has released another new service: this time a web page editor and host. Not really a competitor to it’s own Blogger service, this system just produces flat sites, so really it should be seen as belonging to the same breed as Yahoo!’s GeoCities (is it still called that?)

Anyway, I have been having a play, and it’s actually quite good. For those who have no problems ethically with using Google, and who have few web skills but nevertheless want a small personal web page, I would genuinely recommend it.

What Google really need to do is integrate this in some way with the Personalised Portal – so that people can have their Google Page with RSS feeds displayed too.

Junk Email

So, I had a quick look last night at the bottom of my Gmail window – where it says how much space my emails are taking up. Was shocked that it was 25% of the 2695 MB available.

I thought this was pretty shocking – there’s no way I have that much email. Then I had a thought – for a long while a friend of mine had been forwarding those joke emails with huge attachments – up to 10 a day sometimes. After about a week of this I set up a filter to shove them all to ‘archive’, so my inbox didn’t get clogged up.

So, I searched for all these messages and deleted them all (now, that was a pain in the arse. Not least because I had to select them, delete them, then remove them from the trash; but because in search view, only 25 messages appear per screen, rather than the 100 per screen I have normally. That’s just idiotic.) And what was the result?

I am now down to 11% of my available space. More than half my quota was filled with these joke chain emails! I changed my filter from ‘straight to archive’ to ‘straight to trash’.

Email and Blogging

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that it is a good idea for a blogger to have his or her email address easily accessible. But what about when that email address isn’t one that a reader would want to use?

I clearly mark the email link under my photo on the right as being a Gmail address. Some people don’t like Gmail, for a variety of reasons. So, really, you should offer an alternative. I try to do this with my Email page.

So far, so good. But what about the people I email? Remember, one of the problems people have with Gmail is that it stores mails more-or-less indefinitely. So, if I email them from my Gmail account, they are being forced into having their reply stored for ever more on a Google server somewhere, being used for God knows what. Now, I personally don’t care what Google do with my emails, and I like the interface so much I want to stick with it. But what about those that do?

So, I have amended my Gmail signature to include a line saying “Don’t want to reply to Gmail? Try me@davebriggs.net instead!”

This way, if people want to reply, but don’t want to have their email sucked into Google’s information empire, they can do. Sorted.

de.icio.us daily post

I have been playing with the daily post setting on del.icio.us and tonight I’ll find out if it is going to work…

Basically, the daily post spits out a post to your blog containing all the sites I linked to on del.icio.us that day, at a set time. You can read up on how to configure it to work with WordPress on the support forum. The url to visit to create this for your own blog is http://del.icio.us/settings/yourdel.icio.ususername/daily.

So, check here after 22:00 GMT to see if mine has worked – it will save me a job creating link blog posts, anyway…

Wikis

I have needed a simple wiki solution for a little problem of mine, and I have found just what I was after.

I just needed a page or two that could be easily edited for the handful of people who are attending the Palimpsest Big Day Out in May – usually this stuff is handled on the forums, but this can be a nightmare when you are hunting through pages of messages. Installing a whole wiki on my webspace would be overkill, so I needed a hosted solution.

Steve Rubel yesterday pointed to StikiPad which I have a go, and it was ok, but the free version only allows for 5 revisions! Rubbish.

In the end I found PBwiki through Google. And it is perfect. Simple to set up, a simple method of user authentication, revision histories and everything else you might need. OK, so the free version has adverts and certain limitations about the number of pages you can have, but it is perfect for almost any simple wiki needs.