Monthly Archives: July 2009

Broadband on the Beach

Mauritius Beach

I think I found the perfect vacation place for all managers, geeks, and internet addicts. It’s called Mauritius. Mauritius is a tiny little island off the coast of Madagascar, which is itself just off the coast of Southern Africa. 1.2 million people and “almost 11 times the size of Washington, DC” according to the CIA World Factbook – lovely comparison. Anyways. Why is it the perfect spot for managers, geeks, and internet addicts? Because in 2005, it became the “Cyper Island“, or the first country worldwide to have complete nationwide broadband wireless access, on the beach and everywhere. Isn’t that awesome?!

I found out about this little paradise in the India Ocean when I interviewed a Mauritian student in London for my dissertation on online content sharing. She proudly reported that since the broadband was installed on the island, internet use has really taken off. Her mom is crazy about it. So this might not only help the managers, geeks, and internet addicts from abroad, but also the local population and their businesses. Isn’t that awesome?!

Under the sea

Indeed, according to some more recent report by the BBC, Mauritius is well equipped in terms of technology. It had the first 3G network in Africa, “making possible services like streaming mobile TV and remote video camera surveillance” (is the latter a big thing in Mauritius?). Now they are even upgrading to HSDPA (like really fast stuff).

There’s a bit of a problem though with having high-speed wireless technology on an island somewhere off the coast of some other island off some other coast. You somehow need to get the signal onto the island in the first place. Allegedly, the fiber optic cable linking Mauritius with the rest of the world has delivered only slow speeds so far, seriously inhibiting the potential of Mauritian connectivity.

Apparently, according to this account, there’s also a problem with the subscription fee, which has continuously increased. Mauritius Telecom/Orange holds a monopoly as an Internet Service Provider on the island.

What to do with it?

Obviously, managers, geeks, and internet addicts wouldn’t have any trouble putting their island internet connection to good use. And those 1.2 million already living on Mauritius? Unlike the parents of the student I interviewed, not all of them quite know how to use a computer yet. Should managers, geeks and internet addicts pay for their holidays by teaching some courses on online literacy (I would love that, actually)?

The government had a better idea. They sent out “cyber caravans” – buses converted into mobile internet cafes – to teach everyone from housewives to agricultural laborers about the use of computers and the internet. I am not sure how successful they were but it’s definitely something worth following up on. I have also heard of similar initiatives in India… anyone got some information on that?

So yes, given the prospect of sitting on the beach with my laptop, well connected to some 3G network, sipping on some cocktail… who wants to go?

Dude, where’s my camera?

This morning, I’m happy to post the first contribution by a guest writer on this blog. She previously blogged under the name “Chamique”. Her post is a follow-up to a number of discussions we had about this whole uploading, tagging, de-tagging pictures business on Facebook. This includes not only the obvious issue of self-promotion and reputation management. The real concern is about this obsession of having to document one’s life, every second of it – as if things didn’t happen unless you see them in some Facebook album. Thanks, “Chamique”, for this post!

Create Album

Of late, we’ve been discussing this sudden and constant need to document everything we experience and see. To make others believe we were there. Or maybe to make ourselves believe it sometimes. Was I really lounging around on a beach somewhere just a few weeks ago? My tan and memories might be fading, but all the photographs say yes, this did indeed happen.
I’ve always considered myself to be someone who writes to remember. I’ll make to-do lists just so the list stays in my head. I remember my handwriting on Post Its and journals and lecture notes. I guess my memory is visual. Does that mean my photograph taking is meaningless, given that I’ve already seen what I’m capturing on the lens?

On a recent trip to Oxford, I whipped out my camera and took several pictures of the owner of this ‘blog just because I knew it would piss him off. (I’m controversial like that.) The results were so ridiculous – even by my flimsy standards – that those pictures will remain relegated to a lowly subfolder somewhere on my computer. But I know I can still get a giggle out of looking at them in the near or distant future. If ever I choose to do so. The point is – I am comforted that I have large portions of my life in pictures. Like somehow this knowledge lets me clear up more brain space for all the new things I must learn over the course of my life.

Can I claim copyright over my crazy night?

The better part of my Sunday morning last weekend was spent in the frantic un-tagging of some *ahem* unflattering photographs of myself on Facebook. While I’m unapologetic about the clothes I wear and faces I make at a camera when it’s pointed at me, I do take into consideration that the 600 people that are called ‘friends’ of mine include those whom I do not particularly want to share my momentary lapses of reason with. It must also be pointed out that I seem to have far too much faith in my friends and their taste(lessness). It appears that not many of them are as discerning as my gentle self whilst uploading photographs to the internets. My grandchildren would be horrified. (It ruins the glamourous image I’m trying to build up for myself over the years, you see.)

Then again, all I have of my own grandparents is a selection of elegant black and whites. I haven’t ever seen them sticking out a cheeky tongue during a group photo. Did previous generations live their lives less fully than us now?
At home, we have a charcoal sketch of my grandmother, which guests are quick to comment on. Where’s that from, they’ll ask. And there’s the romantic story of how Ruiz Pipo, a young Parisian artist, approached my stunning grandmother and asked if he might sketch her, right there, on a paper napkin at the café, circa 1954.

Facebook Tag

Cut to Paris, 2009. I, instead, have an album of a hundred or so digital photographs of me making a fool of myself in front of the several places of interest. Have we become so accustomed to the abundance of cameras and recording devices that we allow ourselves to be at ease or even careless when accosted by a lens? Are photographs not sacred anymore?

Things become even more complicated if we entertain stuffy respectable ambitions for ourselves as professionals. The aspiring political candidate can’t be seen sleeping on the sidewalk with her head next to a trash can. (The quirky artist, however, causes no scandal when carelessly displaying a profile pic of himself rolling a spliff.) So many people are quick to restrict viewing of their personal photographs and weblogs, pre-empting controversies at the workplace or amongst family. Are we no longer expected to let our guard down – ever? Or does it mean that we must all acknowledge how public our social, professional and personal lives have now become? Foucault would have had a field day with the panoptic discipline we’re exercising. We’re self-censoring like never before whilst simultaneously being led to believe that we have every freedom of expression.

Depth of field

There have been so many times that I wish I had my camera, afraid that I might forget what was in front of me. But strangely, those moments are the ones that stay with me longest.

If a picture tells a thousand words, personal memories make photographs seem like Shakespeare on acid.

The pictures might show me sitting under a watermelon pink sunset, but it doesn’t tell you how tart and minty my cold mojito was that evening. They might show a group of us at our high school graduation, but it won’t show the purple hickey I was hiding under my sari. My parents don’t know that the boyfriend they hated so much was the one making me smile when he took the picture of me that’s framed in their bedroom. You can’t smell the grass from my pictures in the park.

I think my relationship with photographs is becoming increasingly distant. They’ve come to represent a moment, but not the experience of it. Pictures trigger memories and anecdotes. Like my grandmother’s portrait. Maybe not quite as graceful, but nonetheless real. Like the music that was playing at the time you looked into the camera, that nobody heard but you.

When Jack Bauer is using a computer…

Watching the TV series 24 is good fun. At least for me it is. One thing that always cracks me up is the way Jack Bauer and all the other good and bad guys are using computers. I have two questions: Why don’t they ever just use some Windows/Linux/Mac OS application? And if you’re working for the FBI, what operating systems are they running? Does anybody know?

The first thing you have to notice about the stuff on their screens is how flashy and shiny it is. Objects are flying all over the place, numbers and other symbols are steadily moving up and down in the background, everything is at least 3-D. No developer would ever do this to the system’s resources, especially when it’s purpose is to search through millions of fingerprint records as fast as possible. Such an interface is also highly distracting. They must all be dizzy at the end of the day.

The second thing that’s so fantastic about their interfaces is how they depict the operations that are carried out. Let’s say somebody has to crack some crazy file encryption. The screen then shows a billion symbols or so that are supposed to look like something is being matched up or calculated, much like the Matrix code. The same with database searches, for example for fingerprints. What database would visually fly through all its records until returning the correct entry? My favorite is deleting stuff. Files are actually really wiped off the hard drive in front of the user and the audience, illustrated by some fading icon…

I’m sure there’s tons of information out there about the way computers (and technology in general) are shown in pop culture. The big question is where the people making these movies and series get their ideas from and how their ideas shape the way computers actually develop.

Anyways, this is a nice list of computer usability bloopers in TV/cinema. And here’s an interesting interview with some industry people who actually design these fake interfaces. Any other information is highly appreciated!

40 years after the moon landing: what’s the point?

Apollo 11, 1969

I just came across this beautiful and brilliant op-ed in the New York Times by Tom Wolfe about the deeper meaning and purpose of the Apollo moon landing missions – and indeed everything NASA has accomplished since then.

I highly recommend reading the entire article, but here’s his argument in a nutshell. The idea to put a man on the moon, as we all know, was fundamentally driven by the ideological and military contest between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Once this contest had been won (with Apollo 11, 40 years ago)… it had been won. Now what? NASA engineers, politicians, and citizens started to wonder what the point of all of this was.

Wolfe argues that human space travel has been going through an existential crisis ever since (with the exception of the Chinese, perhaps, who still try to boost their national ego). Why spend all this money on a space station, not to mention a 10 billion dollars a year mission to mars program?

And this business of sending a man to Mars and whatnot? Just more of the same, when you got right down to it. How laudable … how far-seeing … but why don’t we just do a Scarlett O’Hara and think about it tomorrow?

The problem for Wolfe is that NASA never hired enough philosophers to inject legitimacy and meaning into space travel (the last one they had was Wernher von Braun, a “former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent”). And so with nobody telling us that space travel is there to migrate all of human kind away from this slowly (or not so slowly) degenerating planet, we just remain puzzled why on earth (no pun intended) it’s so important to have some dude from Florida (or whereever) walk around on the surface of Mars.

May I add to this that something else has changed since the late 1960s. I think we’re also not as crazy anymore about human progress based on technological inventions (i.e. machines). When everyone’s talking about organic food, energy efficiency, and climate change, it’s just not fun to think about shooting rockets into orbit, is it?

Learning and Technology – Give a voice to those who learn!

Oxford

Together with a bunch of LSE Media & Communication students, I attended the “one-day international conference” on “Maximizing Opportunities for Young Learners in the Digital Age” in Oxford today.

As young learners that we consider ourselves to be, we had hoped to get an overview of the latest research regarding technology and learning. Our hopes were not entirely disappointed, but it turned out that the debate was about some bigger questions that go way beyond the role of technology. In fact, what was really at stake was the (power) relationship between teacher and student, as mediated by technology.

After writing the post, I decided to go straight into my thoughts on what was said at that conference, moving a summary of the presentations to the end.

What it was all about

To be critical, all of the presentations raised more questions than they answered. One of the reasons for this is that the research is not specific enough about what is meant by “young learners”, by “technologies”, and (most crucially) by “learning”. Just these three variables can be configured in so many different ways that generalizations seem very problematic.

The conference also left some people in the audience wondering what the debate was actually about. If you didn’t know that it was about technology and learning, you could have assumed at times that it was the entire schooling system that was up for discussion.

All arguments quickly led to questions about the nature and purpose of learning, the role of schools in learning, and even about the nature of knowledge itself. What is it that we want our children to learn and know?

What was really at stake at this debate was something that no speaker at the conference explicitly talked about: the relationship between the teacher and the student. The teacher is supposed to have the ultimate authority over knowledge. That defines his identity and professional self-understanding as a teacher.

If technology enables students to go out and discover (possible more recent or conflicting) information by themselves, the position of the teacher is undermined. Her role would have to change from preaching knowledge to guiding students in finding it themselves. Teachers would have to be accountable for what they teach and their teaching would be more transparent. Do they like that? Most of them probably wouldn’t.

I couldn’t help the feeling that some of the researchers in this field also don’t fully embrace such a change in the way the teacher-student relationship works. If we think about the many interviews they conduct with young people as a discourse (as Foucault would like it), then the patronizing undertone in their questions and the way they frame their studies possibly reinforces the powerful position of teachers and lecturers (that they are) as the ultimate source of knowledge. Those who this research is about – the young learners – are not given a loud enough voice in this discourse.

What was said

Justine Cassell, Northwestern University in Chicago, opened the conference with an intriguing presentation of the Junior Summit project, which she was involved in. In short, the Junior Summit was a global online community that was set up to be run by teenagers themselves. Given this opportunity, the young participants actually managed to establish a strong sense of community and activism. One of her findings was that adults should stay away as much as possible. “We need to build communities, not classrooms.”

Ole Erstad, University of Oslo, continued from there by questioning the notion of a “digital generation”. Teens and their media habits are in many ways quite “normal”, he suggests. He also questions any distinction between “formal” or “informal” ways of learning. To understand how young people use technology for learning, we should adopt a “learning lives” approach that focuses on learning in everyday life, across many different contexts and places.

Sonia Livingstone, LSE, gave a concise summary of current empirical research on technology and learning. Does technology improve students performance in the usual school subjects? Yes, no, maybe. There is no conclusive empirical evidence for this relationship. Maybe technology allows for new ways of learning, like experimentation, tinkering, social learning, and so on? Yes, no, maybe. The problem with empirical research in this area, she suggests, is that we don’t seem to know what to look for. “The pedagogy of the Internet has not been worked out yet.”

Finally, John Furlong and Chris Davis, University of Oxford, asked “Do young people need help in using technologies to maximize their learning out-of-school?” They made the distinction between formal, quasi-formal, and informal learning settings (that Ole Erstad had rejected), providing quotes for each of them, taken from their interview research. They suggest that adults need to better understand young people and technology in order to guide the youth.

Computer-based examinations – Writing exams my marker can read

I found it very paradoxical that after a year of taking electronic notes and handing in neatly typed essays, I had to take handwritten exams. We’ve complained a bit, as students do, with no real hope that this anachronism would disappear anytime soon. Turns out, there is some hope – although it’s a bit down the line. According to the Guardian

Simon Lebus, chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, said that traditional examinations are likely to disappear within 10 to 15 years, to be replaced by computerised testing.

Really? That would be a huge relief for all of us, for a number of reasons. First, it would spare us the pain of having to write for three hours straight. Every time after 15 minutes may hand would be suffering from cramps, looking like some alien claw.

Second, it would mean that markers and students themselves can actually enjoy reading exam answers without having to decipher what it might say in between those two crossed-out paragraphs and the scribbles on the margin.

Third, and most importantly, it would improve exam answers because computers allow students to write them in a way that reflects the way they think – non-linear, in creative outbursts, at first incoherent, and always wanting to change it around.

A global thing

Interestingly enough, this seems to be some kind of global trend in the “examination industry’, if you want to call it that (it actually is an industry, by the way).

The moves are part of a global shift towards computerised assessments. The US is leading the way with multiple choice and computer marking, while South Korea is rapidly developing new e-assessment models. Denmark is piloting the use of the internet during some essay-based exams, seen as the equivalent of the move to allow calculators in maths exams.

Are there problems with this shift to computer-based examinations? Of course, as always there are. I will not mention again the skill requirements for operating a computer comfortably (not just operating it, but feeling at ease with it) and how they are far from equally distributed.

What I might find more disturbing is that computer-based exams are a temptation to introduce computer-based grading. I am a firm believer in the argument that when people have data available, they will want to analyze it – even if it’s just because they can. And then the question becomes whether we can program computers to grade something as complex as an essay. Most of the markers I’ve ever encountered wouldn’t be able to tell you how they do it…

Manuel Castells at LSE – Mass Self-Communication

Manuel Castells (Flickr user uscpublicdiplomacy)

Manuel Castells (Flickr user uscpublicdiplomacy)

What do the MP expenses scandal and the protests in Iran have in common? Both of them reflect how communication power can change the world – or rather, change the way we see it – says Manuel Castells.

I had the opportunity to listen to most of Manuel Castells’ public lecture at the LSE tonight. Manuel Castells has recently been the most influential scholar on the subject of communication and technology, announcing the arrival of the “network society” (one of his strengths is finding sticky labels for what he studies, as tonight’s lecture proved again).

Here’s his argument in a nutshell.

For the masses, by the masses

Power is one of the most important topics in any society, as we might all agree. For Castells, one of the most important powers is to “control human minds” and to shape meanings.

The media immediately come to mind as probably the most powerful institution to shape the way we see the world. And we need to understand that the media are mainly big business, says Castells. Globalized, decentralized, but actually highly concentrated business.

And then we got “mass self-communication” nowadays (one of those new sticky labels you should watch out for). Horizontal, many-to-many forms of communication such as Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, you name them.

As you can imagine, big media and mass self-communication don’t just peacefully coexist. They interact – somehow, sometimes, somewhere. Castells left it at that during his lecture.

Scandal politics

So far, Castells didn’t really say anything new (although he once again managed to present these points more clearly than you will find them anywhere). The real question was, how does mass self-communication change the distribution of communication power?

To answer this, he first went on to criticize big media for their focus on scandals when reporting politics. In fact, he argues that the media are running a “scandal industry” based on leaked, remixed, half-true information and semi-legal but definitely unethical investigation methods (see phone tapping case in today’s papers). Politicians must play along because they see undermining the opponent’s character as the only reliable political weapon.

Interestingly, there is no conclusive evidence, says Castells, that discrediting your political opponent always pays off. To the contrary, in several cases, it had a negative effect.

More importantly, scandal politics cause massive damage for the entire political system by undermining it’s legitimacy. That is why the vast majority of people around the world believes that democracy is failing and that they are not governed by “the people” (always an exception: Scandinavia). And when mistrust in the political system is met by mistrust in the economic system, we’re in big trouble.

The way out

So too much communication power in the hands of big media is really bad. But can mass self-communication make a difference?

Castells believes it can and it already does. His arguments are pretty well-known though, I must say. The services and technologies facilitating mass self-communication are much harder to control from top down, offer a much wider spectrum of opinion and information, by-pass any corporate or editorial control, and feature close to no entry costs. In other words, mass self-communication is autonomous.

This has already made a huge difference in politics, argues Castells. The success of social movements over the last 15 years would not have been possible without mass self-communication.When these movements go online, they form “instant political communities of practice” (another of those sticky labels).

For example, we don’t know much more about climate change than we did some 30 years ago. However, the Internet has spread the word so that 85% of the world population has now joined the global environmental movement. Another case in point would be the protests in Iran.

Early exit

Unfortunately, I had to leave at this point. Until then, Castells had argued that mass self-communication offers an alternative way through which we can see the world and make sense of it – outside any big media with all its scandals.

I had two major problems with his argument up until this point. (Maybe they were mentioned in the Q&A session?)

First, I really question the autonomy of mass self-communication. It has to rely on services which cost billions a year and which are operated by equally big business (News Corp. owns MySpace, etc.). There’s a lot to say about concentration and commercialization on the internet.

Second, I don’t quite see why mass self-communication should be any less susceptible to scandals. In fact, doesn’t it allow them to spread even fast, even more uncontrollably, possibly even more unethical?

I would love to hear your comments and maybe some notes on the last few minutes of Castells’s lecture. Thank you!