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.

Some recent dead tree reading

Now and again I find time to read books about work-related stuff. Here are three I have been tucking into recently.

John Naughton is a hero of mine. His weekly column in The Observer is required reading, and A Brief History of the Future is a wonderful primer on the origins of the internet. His latest book is a treasure trove of information which works just as well for the net newbie as it does the veteran of the interwebs.

Another book, another hero. Now at innovation software firm Spigit, James Gardner was once of the DWP where he implemented the ‘Idea Street’ innovation prediction market. His Little Innovation Book is a marvellously concise introduction to innovating in big organisations, and in Sidestep and Twist he outline how the big, game-changing breakthroughs tend to be adaptations of existing ideas rather than anything genuinely new.

Euan Semple is one of the best bloggers on social software, and following from his work with the BBC a few years ago, he understands the frustrations of trying to implement new ways of working within corporate structures. Organisations Don’t Tweet… is a great introductory work, in which nonetheless I found loads of nuggets of inspiration and learning – as well as a few reminders of things I ought to know but had forgotten. Buy this book for your boss!

“Kids today need a licence to tinker”

Nice article by John Naughton on the state of IT education in schools:

What is happening is that the national curriculum’s worthy aspirations to educate pupils about ICT are transmuted at the chalkface into teaching kids to use Microsoft software. Our children are mostly getting ICT training rather than ICT education.

And if you can’t see the difference, try this simple thought-experiment: replace “ICT” with “sex” and see which you’d prefer in that context: education or training?

How we got to this ridiculous state of affairs is a long story. It’s partly about how education departments, like generals, are always preparing for the last war. Thus, while we’re moving into a post-PC age, our ICT curriculum is firmly rooted in the desktop computer running Microsoft Windows. It’s also partly about the technophobia of teachers, local councillors and officials. But it’s mainly about the chronic mismatch between the glacial pace of curriculum change in a print-based culture, and the rate of change in the technology.

Electric wok syndrome

In an acerbic review of Google+, John Naughton explains electric wok syndrome, which is always worth having in the back of your mind:

A spectre is haunting the technology industry. It is called “electric wok syndrome” and it mainly afflicts engineers and those who invest in their fantasies. The condition takes its name from the fact that nobody in his or her right mind would want an electric wok. But because it is possible to make such things, they are manufactured, regardless of whether or not there is a need for them. The syndrome is thus characterised by the mantra: “Technology is the answer; now what was that question again?”

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.

John Naughton on the iPad

John Naughton‘s Observer piece on the iPad is well worth reading in full:

It’s when one tries to use the iPad for generating content that its deficiencies become obvious. The biggest flaw is the absence of multitasking, so you have to close one app to open another, which is a bit like going back to the world of MS-DOS. Email, using the on-screen virtual keyboard, works fine, and if you buy Apple’s text-processing app, Pages, then you can create documents. But the hoops one has to go through to pull existing documents in for editing are ludicrously convoluted and there’s no way one can easily print from the device.

Further, his week long diary is also a great bit of writing about what this device is actually for:

  • The week has reminded me of how much I value my laptops (MacBook Air and Hackintosh netbook)
  • The iPad is primarily a consumption device — and is very good for that. But it’s hopeless for originating or editing existing stuff. It doesn’t fit into my personal workflow. At the moment, it can’t handle digital cameras (though Quentin tells me there’s an optional USB-type connector available) and doesn’t have an onboard camera, so much inferior to iPhone in that respect.
  • The huge sales of the iPad suggest that Apple has discovered another profitable market niche — between laptop and smartphone. If so, then it isn’t the elderly, PC-less folks of this world. To make use of the iPad you need (a) access to a machine running iTunes; and (b) access to a wi-fi network.
  • For me, the iPad turns out to belong to the category “nice to have but not essential”. It’s beautifully made, but overpriced (esp in UK) and heavy.
  • I can see that I might find it useful in some circcumstances — e.g. a day spent travelling away from base when all I need is email, web browsing and small amounts of writing. For some people, that may be all they need.
  • Finally, I can’t see it making big inroads as an eBook reader, somehow. Of course the big screen is an advantage. But it’s offset by the increased weight, and the poor performance in bright sunlight. And it’s too bulky to carry around. When I compare it with the Eucalyptus App on my iPod Touch — which enables me to carry, for example, the entire text of Ulysses in my pocket. Given that the iPad is only marginally heavier than my hardback Everyman edition of Joyce’s novel — and I don’t carry that around — well, you can see that the Pad is no competition for the Touch.

This pretty much matches my experience. The iPad is wonderful for informal consumption of content quick browsing whilst sat on the sofa, scanning through PDFs and other documents, chatting on Twitter etc. But trying to create anything significant on it is presently a nightmare, and it’s not a Kindle-killer for me.

Update: Andrea Di Maio has posted his thoughts too:

What the iPad has turned into is a compelling professional device. I use it to take notes during meetings, to show slides to small groups around the table, as well as to do formal presentations (I bought the dongle to connect to VGA projectors). Most of my blog posts are now drafted on the iPad, an so are my research notes. When I find a wifi hotspot I just send those as attachments to my Gartner email, where I import into the relevant tool.

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.

Cultural agoraphobia

John Naughton’s Observer piece this morning is a good one:

The cultural agoraphobia from which most of us suffer leads us always to overemphasise the downsides of openness and lack of central control, and to overvalue the virtues of order and authority. And that is what is rendering us incapable of harnessing the potential benefits of networked technology. Industries and governments are wasting incalculable amounts of money and energy in Canute-like resistance to the oncoming wave when what they should be doing is figuring out ways to ride it.

Well worth checking out in full.

Rewriting the rules

John Naughton‘s Observer column on ten years of blogging is a delightful read:

This openness to immediate criticism and/or rebuttal is another revolutionary aspect of blogging. What we are seeing, wrote Clay Shirky some years ago (available online at http://bit.ly/fkxik), is nothing less than the ‘mass amateurisation of publishing’. What’s happening is a radical shift from the old ecosystem in which publications (newspapers, magazines and books) are filtered and edited before being published, into a world in which anything can be (and is) published.

All that remains is for English departments in universities to start studying blogging styles, for example the way in which accomplished online writers use hyperlinks. If you read the work of established bloggers or contributors to slick online publications such as Salon or Slate what you see is a move from having hyperlinks clumsily embedded in a document to the use of links to provide an ironic counterpoint to the main line of the piece. It’s all very, er, postmodern. But what do you expect? It is 2008.