Digital lit.

It strikes me that digital literacy is becoming more and more important, as more and more of the things we do in life are digitalised.

It helps to understand how computers work if you want to buy some music these days, or watch a film, or read a book.

Not just the physcial act of downloading, and paying, and pressing the buttons to get it to display. But also some kind of knowledge of the companies providing the service, on what terms, and with what motivations.

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Howard Rheingold in his book Net Smart outlines five key skills needed for digital success:

  • Attention
  • Crap detection
  • Participation
  • Collaboration
  • Network smarts

I dare say all those five are required for existing at all in the digital world we are increasingly finding ourselves in, and not just when we are doing what is apparently digital stuff. Even when you’re offline, you need to be thinking through these things.

Jaron_lanier

I’ve been reading a bit of Jaron Lanier‘s stuff lately, which resonate with a few of the folk that read here. He’s a digital visionary, who these days isn’t sure we are headed in the right direction… This from a recent interview with John Naughton (who himself has some interesting perspectives on these issues):

The thing to remember about HTML, though, is that Tim [Berners-Lee] was not trying to redesign the world. He was trying to do a quick thing for a very particular context – a physics lab. The beauty of HTML was that one-way linking made it very simple to spread because you could put something up and take no responsibility whatsoever. And that creates a society in which people display no responsibility whatsoever. That’s the problem…

Societies and cultures become locked on to ideas. The “open culture” idea – which was really just an experimental thought in the 1980s – has now become an orthodoxy with its cadres of adherents. I dearly wish I could make them realise how experimental it was and how we should not treat it as anything sacrosanct.

The idea that there is philosophy behind the tools we are using in an interesting one, and that those philosophies may come to define and change our behaviour because of the tools we decide to use. I do believe that the ability we all have to publish the things we create is incredibly affirming and powerful, and a good thing. But other stuff worries me, such as the fragmentation of culture and identity into tiny pieces, and the way our culture is being handed over to Silicon Valley companies that don’t necessarily have our or society’s best interests at the forefront of their priorities.

Currently this most affects those that create and publish content, although in the near future, as gardens get walls built around them, it will become a bigger and bigger issue for those that consume culture: whether text, books, music, video, whatever. Oftentimes it is making a value judgement between convenience and control – which often correlates to closed and open, respectively.

However, we are where we are. If we are to shape where we will go next, we need the skills and understanding to make the right choices, to protect ourselves both as individuals and as communities. We need to keep our wits about us and our eyes open. But how many people can we really say do, right now?

Far from the maddening cloud

Reading some of the coverage of Instagram’s change in their terms of service, you’d have thought a murder had been committed. Or maybe that the world was about to end.

A few years down what might once have been called the Web 2.0 road, well funded companies are finding that they have built their networks, grown their user bases, and now shareholders are looking for some return on their investment. We should not, therefore, be surprised that the rules are changing, that the digital ground we’ve been standing on is shifting beneath our feet.

Nothing at the end of the day is free. Somewhere down the line, somebody is paying – whether it is you with a subscription, a VC’s investment money or an advertiser taking advantage of your online data.

The cloud brings with it incredible advantages – access to your digital assets wherever you are, no matter what device you are using. The ability to share with others, to collaborate with them, to enable people to remix your work and share it on.

Thanks to the cloud – and whatever it was called before it was the cloud – we are all writers, photographers  film makers, publishers, producers, networkers, community organisers. It gives us access to unimaginably large groups of people who will have an interest in what we are doing, and the tools to spark a conversation with all those people.

It also has its downsides though. As ever, there’s a tradeoff. Sometimes that tradeoff will be worthwhile. Lots of Instagram users obviously thought that it wasn’t – and that’s fine. Services and products will live and die as a result of how they manage their service, and balance the needs of the users and the needs of their balance sheet.

What’s important I think, to consider, is that part of the shift towards cloud, with all the advantages mentioned above, also is putting control over our cultural assets into the hands of corporations whose only mission is to generate a profit. Amazon is not your local library. Apple isn’t the British Museum.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this – I’m not making a political or economic point here. But if all your books aren’t in fact your own, and in fact are merely rented from Amazon on your Kindle; or those music tracks you thought were yours can be taken away from you without you being in control – then that’s a worrying thing and everyone need to approach this carefully.

Likewise with your social media content. If you don’t want your photos popping up in adverts for pile cream, then don’t put them on Instagram (or indeed probably anywhere on the internet).

So what to do? I think just be aware. When people say to you, “use this site, it’s free!”, remember that it isn’t. If you store content you created yourself online, make sure you have a copy of your own. If any of your content matters so much to you that you don’t want anyone re-using it in ways you can’t control, don’t put it on the internet.

In effect, don’t trust anyone, particularly tech startup companies, or indeed giant corporations. They won’t be around forever and they won’t always keep their word. Most of the time that’s fine, and the trade-off between control and convenience works out for everyone.

But we all have content, assets, that matter to us – and don’t entrust those to anyone you don’t know, no matter how slick their user interface.

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.

When clouds don’t taste so delicious

There appears to be a considerable amount of uncertainty about the future of Delicious, the web’s preeminent social bookmarking service.

Not sure what social bookmarking is? Here’s a video:

It seems a shame that Yahoo! have been unable to find a way to make a service with plenty of active and dedicated users pay for itself. I know I would pay a few quid a month to keep it going.

Either way, the service will be sold on or shut down in the nearish future. Users are looking for alternatives, with the likelihood being that if everyone leaves, who cares what happens? It’s easy enough to export your data from Delicious, and I would recommend you do it right away.

The two options at the moment seem to be Diigo or Pinboard. The former is much more polished than the latter, so it’s a case of choosing what matters to you. There are other options discussed in this post on SearchEngineLand.

Personally, I use Delicious mainly as a publishing tool – to get the links posts published every so often here on DavePress. Most things that I save to read later go into Evernote.

Flickr?

The potentially more worrying issue here is that Yahoo! also own Flickr, the photo sharing site. Bookmarks and links are one thing, but photos entirely another. I’d always advise users of cloud services to back up your stuff locally just in case something goes wrong – it’s good practice anyway.

That’s fine for those of us who have PCs or laptops at home where you can store media locally. But what of the future of low-cost computing – like the ChromeOS netbooks I wrote about the other day, where the machines themselves have virtually no storage and everything is held on the servers of companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and, er, Yahoo!.

This is one of the implications of cloud culture, where increasingly our cultural artefacts – books, music, films, photos, art – are being stored and curated by tech companies rather than traditional publishers, museums, libraries etc. The medium is also changing of course, from physical objects to digital ones.

The book won’t disappear anytime soon, of course, nor will painting on canvas. But the everyday access and storage of this stuff will be moving online, and we all need to have a proper think about how we deal with that.

Clouds and culture

CloudsLloyd Davis is a lovely man, and a very clever one at that. He founded the Tuttle Club, a weekly networkingy sort of meetup for people who like the internet and other people, which is at the same time very simple but also rather ingenious.

He also sports an even more ludicrous job title than mine, for at least a part of his time – he is Social Artist in Residence at the University of London’s Centre for Creative Collaboration. What does that mean? Mary has a go at explaining here. I’ve written a bit about social artists, as has David Wilcox.

Lloyd ran a couple of sessions at last week’s Likeminds conference – he facilitated a panel session; and hosted a lunchtime discussion, which I attended, on ‘cloud culture’. This is a topic he has written about on his blog, and which has been the focus of quite a bit of attention from such luminaries as Charles Leadbeater.

I found it a really interesting topic for discussion, and I’m grateful to Lloyd – and the organisers of the conference – for creating a space where I was made to think about it properly. There are, of course, many aspects of our culture that are affected by the internet, and use of the cloud in particular.

There is the issue of cultural ‘stuff’ or products, like stories, music, films, art etc. Traditionally hosted by museums or galleries, or publishers; what effect will be had by this hosting now being performed by Amazon, or Apple, or Google?

The case of the music industry is particularly interesting, of course. People have been making music for thousands of years. Record labels have existed for a handful of decades. You don’t need the latter to make the former possible. Artists don’t need bigorgs to distribute their work any more – get over it.

There are other types of culture too. What about national culture, in the age of the internet and globilisation? If all our culture is online, in the cloud, what effect does that have on who we think we are?

One of my main interests is organisational culture, classically defined as ‘the way we do things around here’. This is an area where the effect of the internet is probably most measurable. It’s also true of course that the internet itself has a culture. What lessons can organisations learn from this internet culture?

This goes back to my constantly repeated point that the interesting thing about the use of online technology is not the technology but the implications of using it. Internet culture is open, it’s cooperative, it’s funny, it’s transparent. These are the things we should be pushing our government to be.

What I like are examples of offline activity that wouldn’t be possible without the internet. Tuttle is one of those. On the face of it, it’s an old school networking meetup. The truth is, though, is that it’s an old school networking meetup that’s been filtered through the internet and its culture. Most of those who attend know each other virtually, introductions tend to go along the lines of “oh, so you’re [insert twitter username]”.

GovCamp is another example. So we met in real life, and the agenda was put together with post its on a big blank bit of paper. But how was it that so many people were convinced to give up their Saturday’s to come and talk about government? It’s because of the internet culture of openness, transparency, collaboration and the democratisation of publishing. Just as anyone can publish online, whether with a blog or whatever, anyone can speak at an unconference.

As I mentioned earlier today, I’m hoping to run a session at this week’s London LocalGovCamp about what lessons internet culture can teach local authorities, and other public sector organisations. Anyone who is coming to the event, please do come along and join in. Those that aren’t, I’d appreciate any comments.

Here’s a video where Lloyd talks about his stuff: