Monthly Archives: September 2009

Net Neutrality – Is all data created equal?

net_neutrality2

In principal, the bits of information required to display this blog should reach you as fast as any other information accessed on the Internet. It shouldn’t have to wait in line while your Skype call is coming through and it also shouldn’t be privileged over, let’s say, other (not so interesting) blogs. That’s what they call “net neutrality”. Continue reading

Election reporting – Turning bar charts into a multimedia show

Elefantenrunde

It was federal election time in Germany yesterday. Since this blog isn’t primarily about political commentary, I shall refer you here for a more detailed summary of the results, if you’re interested. In a nutshell, Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrat party (CDU) will form a new centre-right alliance with the pro-business Free Democrats Party (FDP). Since this blog is primarily concerned with communication and all its related matters, I took a closer look at how the election night was reported by mainstream and social media. Continue reading

Teachers, students, technology – New and shifting boundaries

classroom

I just quickly want to advertise a brilliant article I found in yesterday’s Guardian supplement about how new communication technologies change the relationship between teachers and students. The starting point is the most recent moral scandal in the UK which saw a female teacher being jailed for having an affair with a 15-year-old girl. A large number of the text messages they had exchanged were used as evidence in the case.

The Guardian article by John Henley offers a very balanced and nuanced perspective on how teachers and students have started to interact through new technologies. It’s all about boundaries that were once clearly established and now seem to become permeable. It’s about questions such as “Should I be friends with my students on Facebook?” or “Is it okay to send them emails?”.

When teachers and students suddenly meet in some virtual space, there are risks for both parties. So far, most public attention has focused on teachers who find themselves ridiculed on some video website or photo blog. Germany recently witnessed a court case in which a teacher had sued against an online portal which allows students to grade their teachers. The case was lost, but sparked a controversial discussion about any kind of rating websites, from doctors to travel companies.

As several cases cited in the Guardian article illustrate, students are also at risk when teachers use these new media to approach them in an indecent fashion. Oftentimes, social networking sites and other virtual spaces cannot offer enough control over the interactions they enable. This problem clearly extends beyond the teacher-student relationship into online child pornography in general.

What does it mean to be a teacher?

The bigger picture here is not so much about being ridiculed or indecent contact with minors. It’s about the changing role and self-understanding of teachers in an age of free-flowing information. It will no longer be possible for them to guard their classroom as a little island where they enjoy unchallenged authority over what knowledge gets circulated and how students learn. Teachers and schools will need to adjust to a new information environment in which they provide guidance on how to deal with these massive amounts of information.

That includes opening themselves up to new communication technologies (social networking sites, email, etc.) and figuring out a way in which they engage with their students while maintaining important boundaries.

Alan and Marvin – When machines talk

I’m a bit behind with my commentary on current news. But that’s okay, I think. Some days or weeks ago, the news was that Gordon Brown had issued an official apology to Alan Turing, a genius computer scientist, who was heavily discriminated against and “treated” for being gay until he committed suicide in 1954. Previously, Turing had helped crack the Germans’ encryption code during World War 2.

The story of how Brown’s apology came about is in itself noteworthy, for it came out of an e-petition on the UK government’s website. I must admit, I didn’t even know such thing existed in this country and I will certainly have a look at how e-petitions work. In this case, more than 30,000 signatures were collected and Alan Turing rightfully received his posthumous apology.

Turing Test of human “intelligence”

I guess Alan Turing was mostly known for his Turing Test. The Turing Test is an assessment of a computer’s ability to mimic human intelligence to such perfection that a human judge can no longer tell the difference between the computer and another human. It’s important to mention that the computer and his human counterpart are placed in separate rooms and they both talk to the human judge via some sort of text-based interface so that voice or handwriting don’t influence the verdict. The human judge can ask all sorts of questions through that interface to figure out who’s human and who’s not.

Every so often, some bright minds actually have a real competition based on the Turing Test. The contestant with the best human-intelligence-mimicking computer wins. Don’t know what though. Probably money and three levels up on the geek scale.

Of course, you may ask, “Wait a minute… you call being able to communicate through some text-based interface ‘intelligence’?” The philosophical debate about this is as old as the Turing Test itself and if you expect an authoritative answer in the next few paragraphs, I’m afraid I must disappoint you.

My humble opinion would be that simply being able to carry a nice conversation through some chat program doesn’t mean the computer in the other room is “intelligent”. Intelligence means relating the words and sentences of the conversation to the situation and the context in which it takes place, to everything that happened before and everything that is likely to happen later, and finally, relating the words and sentences to a “being” (don’t make me define “being”…). The conversation only makes sense when you interpret the words and sentences in relation to the unique “being” who expressed them.

The author JD Peters put forward the argument that Turing reduced intelligence to communication without the presence or interference of human bodies because he (subconsciously) wanted to escape the stigma of being homosexual. He may have hoped for a form of interaction and communication that is not distorted by any human “flaws”.

Speaking of talking machines…

While writing this, I remembered that the science fiction literature has already created a number of intelligent machines or robots that would not only ace the Turing Test but also live up to the standards of intelligence that I tried to describe just now (R2D2, etc.).

My most famous example is Marvin, the paranoid android from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He’s an incredibly intelligent robot, but he’s also incredibly depressed. Here are just three little quotes…

Marvin: “I am at a rough estimate thirty billion times more intelligent than you. Let me give you an example. Think of a number, any number.”
Zem: “Er, five.”
Marvin: “Wrong. You see?”

“I’d give you advice, but you wouldn’t listen. No one ever does.”

“I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed,” Marvin said.

Behind the screens – Broadcasters going digital

videotape

These days, I’m working with a small company that basically helps TV stations to adopt the latest technology. The latest technology in broadcasting is digital and “tapeless”. Gone will be the days when films, shows, and commercials were recorded onto video tapes and ultimately stored as such on endless shelves in the basement (see picture). Tapes will be replaced by computer files and the basement shelves by a few fancy hard drives. Of course, this doesn’t happen over night and not all tapes and basement shelves will disappear, but that’s pretty much the direction the industry is going in.

Will the average TV viewer notice the difference? I doubt it. In fact, when I told friends and family about what I’m up to these days and how TV stations are only now beginning to abandon their video cassettes, most of them were surprised. They would ask, “I thought they’re all already doing it that way?” But they are not. Little does the average TV viewer know about how those films, shows, and commercials on his screen come about. A whole new world opens up for me these days, as I discover what goes on behind the screen.

Ordinary people

I will spare you any intriguing discussion of how to build “tapeless” broadcasting systems or how it may completely change TV stations as organizations. I’m just trying to come to terms with this separation between those who make television and those who watch it. It’s the same with stage performances, for example musicals. As somebody in the audience, I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes or “how they do it”. Maybe I don’t want to know. Maybe I shouldn’t know, because if I did, the show wouldn’t be the same.

That’s the magic of television (and other media as well) – the separation between “ordinary people” and those who make it. Nick Couldry, a leading media professor, has said that without this separation the whole media world as we know it wouldn’t work. We only trust the news and feel entertained by the latest sitcom because we have no clue how they’ve done it. He’s pretty critical of this because only those who do know how it’s done have the power to do it again and to produce the films, shows, and commercials they like. The ordinary viewer is confined to being an ordinary viewer.

Everything like Youtube

At this point you may like to point out that millions of Youtube users are making their own little clips and broadcast them to the world (if anybody cares to watch it). It’s almost boring to mention citizen journalism and user generated content now (where did web 2.0 go?). And indeed, some of the technologies that TV stations are now implementing seem a bit more democratic because they use the same standards and follow similar concepts like those that an ordinary person would use. For example, the TV station and the ordinary viewer will both have a hard drive with digital video files in very similar formats – only that the TV station’s hard drive is slightly bigger and surrounded by a bunch of other supporting hardware. But the idea is the same.

What this means for television and the media as a whole remains to be seen. One obvious consequence to me is that it will be easier for content to flow from the viewer/user to professional TV stations, at least from a technological point of view. This doesn’t mean that content will actually flow once we take all legal and organizational barriers into account. But at least there’s now the option of my Youtube video being easily transmitted to the BBC.

However, more democratic technology doesn’t mean that the separation between ordinary viewers and media makers will become permeable. A TV station will remain a little world of its own, a mystery to anybody outside of it. Technology is by no means the only way by which the viewer-producer separation is maintained. Professional conduct of people working in the television industry is another important one. So is the geographical split between places of media production (e.g. the news studio) and media consumption (the living room).

Ultimately, I think many viewers don’t care to know how their program gets to them as long as it does and as long as it keeps them happy and nicely amused.