Sunday, October 29, 2006

Informaticiens sans frontieres

I am doing a paper on Media and its role on the digital divide and its clear that in recent years, the connection between the media and internet have had an enormous effect social and economic development in urban area but more noticeably in rural communities.

On the other hand, considering the complexity of the technology and the time and money involved in the deployment of the technology, it is highly desirable for economic development practitioners and policy makers to review various aspects of broadband technology deployment in these communities.

To make development sustainable, we have to give people a voice and then help them to make that voice heard.

It’s our responsibility to steer the course for our industry.

Take any group of people from any developing country - demonstrate how the Internet can bring the world to their fingertips, make online computers available to them, and watch what happens.

Cynics will question if online shopping, anonymous access to pornography or computer gaming (the big 3 western uses) are worth all the fundraising to bring the Internet to everyone, but one has to pay attention to the obvious positive evidence.

Developers are finally starting to think about open source differently.

Internet access, software and hardware are all big, profitable businesses that will charge what a market can bear – and if it can't bear much, the businesses will go somewhere else. We know that.

But from day one, the Internet has been pioneered by hackers and crackers (let's called them mission-driven volunteers) who continue to pursue a course parallel to the commercial exploitation of cyberspace through the free software or ‘Open Source’ movement.

It costs a huge amount of money to operate off a Windows or Mac platform; it costs nothing to use Linux.

Source codes - standardized and shared - allow all sorts of innovative software can be developed and re-circulated to anyone who can use it.

Finally, the Open Source movement is turning into a sorta 'Informaticiens sans frontières' - this is good but more need to get onboard.

The term ‘Information Society’ has been coined to refer to communities in which there is ready access to information and knowledge, leading to sustainable and equitable opportunities for growth and progress.

In an Information Society, there is free flow of two-way communication between governments and their people and among the people themselves.

It’s not happening.

In this fictional society, everyone is informed of current affairs, especially those affecting them directly; and everyone has the ability to make his or her voice heard. That means that everyone has a say in shaping socio-economic plans and strategies of national relevance.

Some people even profess to say that we have achieved this ... but there is a thorn in this argument - the media. What do the media have to do with such our brand new Information Society?

Without exaggeration, pretty well everything.

In an Information Society, communication HAS to reach the masses. It has to seep down to the grass-roots level – to fishing villages by the sea, hamlets on mountainsides and even to remote nomadic settlements wherever they may exist.

But Web 2.0 is pushing the one-way transfer - us to them. That's wrong.

Community needs and aspirations, culture and values, indigenous wisdom and experience have to filter up to policy makers and other stakeholders in order for communication to truly improve people’s quality of life.

The most cost-effective way of achieving such widespread communication is through the mass media and especially the radio. As I have said before - the internet of developing nations IS radio.

Of all forms of media – both traditional and new – radio has by far the most pervasive reach. People living in rural areas in many countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, depend heavily on the radio to connect them to the bigger world ‘outside’.

The potential of newer forms of media – such as the Internet – in non-urban areas is also there. However, these forms of media have not as yet made their way to a large enough area beyond major towns and cities to have significant mass impact.

The concentration of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in urban enclaves, as we all know, has led to the digital divide which neatly splices the world into its haves and have-nots.

Another typical side-effect of Web 2.0.

Once again, given the proper incentives (money, naturally), traditional mass media can make a difference.

Radio, television and newspaper journalists can make a bigger effort to educate those on ‘the other’ side of the digital divide about ICTs and how they can be used to improve standards and quality of living in up-to-now neglected areas.

There is as yet very little reporting on ICTs and their long-term potential and consequences in the traditional media. Yes, superficial news on the launch of an updated version of some hot technology will make the pages of newspapers, but in-depth, analytical and thought-provoking pieces on the impact of ICTs on development do not often appear.

Why is that?

As a purveyor of information and change, the mass media has a duty to shine the spotlight on this potent tool and agent for global change.

However, ICTs on their own are not enough.

ICTs depend, for the time being anyway, on the mass media to create greater awareness of the potential benefits that can be derived from it.

There are admittedly certain challenges that the mass media has to overcome if it is to fulfill its grass-roots duty. Over the last decade and a half, western media around the world has grown in number and acquired greater freedom with regard to content. In developing nations, mass media is owned by national governments.

Financial independence of the media is a positive move towards liberalization BUT this also means greater reliance on advertising which has tended to concentrate media houses in urban areas where there is an obligation to cater to urbanites’ demands. In terms of radio, this has resulted in higher entertainment content and ‘hip’ programs imported from developed nations.

Mass media - radio stations in particular - needs to break from the commercial groove and focus more intensely on rural folk as well as other marginalized groups. The ultimate aim is to create what has been termed ‘media pluralism’, namely media that reflects the needs of all members of society, and especially those whose voices have till now been ignored.

We should all do our part to help media pluralism materialize by pushing for policies and regulatory frame-works that will facilitate free, plural and inclusive media.

We also need to become involved. Make decisions. Act.

Get off the Web 2.0 bandwagon that Reilly is pushing - listen to the heart! (Wow - a bit sappy but hey, give it a try)

Support locally produced content created by local people – become your own version of an 'Informaticiens sans frontières'.

Be a mentor.

Be a volunteer.

Give your knowledge away to benefit someone.

Do it.


Friday, October 13, 2006

Designing common sense

Well, the easy goal is to build a ‘thinking’ system resourceful enough to combine the advantages of many different ways to think about things, by making use of many types of mechanisms for reasoning, representation and reflection.

But there are two questions; how can we build a machine with the intelligence of a person but more importantly, why would we want to?

The world is getting very complex and quite seriously, we need help to decipher the information overload to decide the proper scenario that we would want to follow.

Read: our common sense is becoming useless with so much stimulation. We need help – cognitive help – to redefine our human common sense.

There is no shortage of ways to recognizing faces, parsing the syntactic structure of sentences, or planning paths through cluttered spaces but these all fail miserably in comparison to people when it comes to common sense.

It’s simple to focus on solutions that can be captured in the form of single, simple method, algorithms and representations, but the world is becoming so varied and complicated that any single such solution fails when presented with problems even slightly different from those they were programmed to handle.

Deep Blue, a massively parallel, RS/6000 SP-based computer system that was designed to beat the grandmaster Kasparov, has the IQ of a Stanley 7 oz. light duty hammer. Not more.

Minsky’s Society of Mind theory started it all but it looks like this …

OK – that’s inelegant – so we were discussing something simpler, based on some new mathematical principle or universal method of learning or reasoning but can we realistically expect something comparable to the human mind to be reduced to some simple algorithm or principle given the range of things it must be able do?


So for this digital persona, we’re going to try to design a computational model of attitudes - investigating how a persona can be supported by the support of other personas or social agents

Read: mashing non-first-person non-deterministic algorithms using a simulated annealing approach.

Get the mix? If you can - lend us a hand.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Thing/thing society

I've been hit with the 'Postmodernism vs. Marxism' virus. It's in my email - lots of email - people are sending me articles - stop already - you are missing the point of what I am saying.

It’s not about political definitions – the world has already passed that stage – open a door and look at what’s happening in the world today. There are no more political movements, we are only being distracted by religion, race and gender inequalities.

What I really think people are discovering is that they are confused by all the communication that we receive - all the differences of opinion and all the technology that is being introduced into equation.

Communication is being defined by the current relationship between people and their gadgets. People are becoming concerned that their lives are being forced to play by cyberspace rules. No more beneficial government shepherds directing the sheep - no more beneficial corporate leaders providing a working class with opportunity. What we have is an ever growing menu of choices. we are being forced to make our own decisions.

For western society - this is new.

OK - that's sounds hack but I'm talking about the combination of ubiquitous communication and the ever increasing pace of change combined with 'what am I suppose to do today?' complex.

We are not living in Multi User Domains (MUDs) but some people are starting to consider our virtual live as real. Others are even considering our real lives as just one more window in a multidimensional social space - a mixnet of on and offline lives.

Like Herz in 'Joystick Nation', we are starting to comprehend the increasing importance of simulation (not stimulation) in our daily lives. More and more, we are starting to make decisions using 'what if' scenarios.

Clearly, society can not be understood in terms of any systematic theory but if we accept society’s opacity we can learn at least to navigate its contours more effectively.

A sociologist would suggest that the rise of postmodernism is associated with the defeat of the revolutionary movement. A mass movement of the working class was derailed by the 'western leadership' who sought to turn the mass movement into legalistic and parliamentary channels.

In place of a battle against the ideology of the ruling class we are manipulating a kaleidoscope of competing social ideologies - not political parties.

At the same time, on top of the battle to define the global society, we are starting to see a continual struggle to decompile and reconstitute the 'self'.

Us. But more than us. Not 'thems' but 'its'.

There is a clear linear movement from family/family to place/place to people/people to our current situation of people/thing.

In the near future, we will be entertained by the fascinating developments of artificial intelligence and the shifting ground of the debate around the ability of computers to have intellectual ability and display emotions. It's just a matter of time, dear readers, just a matter of time.

Humans and machines will occupy the same social and intellectual space - it just not clear whether the machine will be forced to pass a social Turing test .... or we will be distracted by the hype and fail.

Our failure to come to grips with the current societal trends will be the defining mark in history and the start of the thing/thing society.

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Oversocialization - where's the value

We now know we have literally tens if not hundreds of digital identities out there in the world for each one of us – some of them constructed by us and some of them constructed by others.

As more and more of our sense of self beings to come from these digital identities it suggests that we as human beings are becoming the ghosts in the machine.

In the future our work and social lives, our intimate relationships, our perspective of the world, our complete identities may emanate from the digital realm. This isn’t a question of Echelon or DCS1000 (commonly called Carnivore) – these two projects will corrupt the trust of the common man but for the youth coming up through the system – enough is starting to be enough.

This is not a movement towards de-socialization or more mainstream definitions like querkyalone. This is also not a deep shift like Nietzsche was predicting by naming the opposite of slave morality as master morality.

But this is definitely a trend that will continue. Why?

Long term studies (several are here) show that there are two conflicting political movements in the world today - Socialism and Authoritarianism (the slow but steady drift to the right seen in several countries today). Simply defined, the defining characteristic of each is one distrusts the masters and wants the slaves to rise and the other distrusts the slaves and wants the masters to retain and expand their control.

Let’s face it; there is a strong correlation between ‘being connected’ and ‘being controlled’ – an even stronger correlation between self identity and public identity. We are becoming more transparent – ghosts in the machine – and that opens up opportunities for the two political deities to get their hooks in.

Think about it.

Both political positions are based on the tendency to think about other people and the consequent desire to influence their behavior and interact with them and the consequent desire to control them.

Connected - most people are inflicted with this desire, it's psychologically repellant to most people that others should be independent from them, that they should do their own thing and not be codependent with everyone else.

There is already the sense in a small way that meeting people face to face is a bit odd, especially for people like yourselves whose lives are deeply embedded in technology.

Meeting someone face to face – that is, really meeting them for a purpose - may someday be a very rare, unfamiliar and awkward event. We may begin to lose the ability to effectively communicate in a face to face world by losing the ability to interpret the verbal and non- verbal cues.

Moreover, the growth in the number of digital identities associated with us as individuals may lead ultimately to the fragmentation of the self – the inability to formulate and retain an integrated sense of ourselves.

This fragmentation of our identity into so many different pieces is obviously going to have consequences both for our psychological well- being and it is going to be interesting to see just how it affects our quality of life.

Learning more about how people construct and manage identities may provide some valuable insights in the information security arena. This suggests that concepts like Kim Cameron's 'Seven Laws of Identity' are an important advancement in identity management, there may indeed be a long way to go before we can apply some of the lessons to be learned.

This is coupled with the concept of ‘over-socialization’. Wired has just started to talk about the backlash of over-socialization but I think the trend has already started. Predicted in the ‘Unibombers Manuscript’ nearly 10 years ago, we are now starting to see the effects of constantly being accessible.

But being connected is not the whole story. Why aren’t we talking about the value of the connection – the impact of the connection? I think that if we were to consider these two variables into the equation – disconnected would be a great alternative.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Global media bias?

It’s worth repeating here the metanews of Newsweek’s most recent cover as it appears around the world:

Here's the worldwide cover story “Losing Afghanistan” ... except in U.S.

Believe it.

Freedom of the press? Self-censorship? Just plain scared of the public opinion?


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Quality of experience

I was recently at SHiFT and was discussing usability and user experience. My concern was that usability (UA) and 'quality of experience' (QoE) experts focus too much on the application/browser - to much on the 'user' and not enough on the 'non-user'.

Remember, decision making process are not unique to the online experience. Users often go between the online and offline worlds while deciding their actions.

IF we want to modify behavior, we need to look at both worlds of the user.

Here's an article that touches on these points (somewhat dry but interesting) from the Journal of Digital Information (JoDI) hosted at the Texas Digital Library.

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Political fall-in

Increasingly, states are adopting practices aimed at regulating and controlling the Internet as it passes through their borders. Seeking to assert information sovereignty over their cyber–territory, governments are implementing Internet content filtering (read: sniffing) technology at the national level.

The implementation of national filtering is most often conducted in secrecy and lacks openness, transparency, and accountability but policy–makers are seemingly (hmmm...) unaware of significant unintended consequences, such as the blocking of content that was never intended to be blocked.

But hey, guess what? Once a national filtering system is in place, governments may be tempted to use it as a tool of political censorship or as a technological 'quick fix' to problems that stem from larger social and political issues.

As non–transparent filtering practices meld into forms of censorship the effect on democratic practices and the open character of the Internet are discernible. States are increasingly using Internet filtering to control the environment of political speech in fundamental opposition to civil liberties, freedom of speech and free expression. The consequences of political filtering directly impact democratic practices and can be considered a violation of human rights.

Listen clearly now.

The most commonly used circumvention technology is a Web–based circumventor. Essentially, a Web–based circumventor is a Web site that has a standard Web form through which users can submit requests for filtered URLs. This Web site has a specially designed script that fetches the request page for the user and re–writes all the links in the page to point back through the Web–based circumventor. Using this technology a user (you) can seamlessly browse the Internet without being subjected to any kinds of filtering.

This type of circumvention technology is being used by Internet users in China to bypass the filtering restrictions in that country. The U.S. government has sponsored similar technology, albeit poorly designed, for use by Iranian Internet users. While many of you may be unwilling to use this technology for fear of ... reprisal - the determined users (you again) will always be able to use this type of technology to bypass filtering restrictions.

Although governments and commercial filtering manufacturers actively target public anonymity and circumvention sites, they are unable to effectively counter distributed, private circumvention strategy.

I can't list the sites here BUT google around - they're easy to find.

Oh, and btw, here is a new study about online social networks and user generated content to be released September 15th, 2006 by the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet (IPDI) called, 'Person-to-Person-to-Person'.

Typically, it's a pay-2-read but the summary is here (pdf, 183 kb). I'll try to get this online for you soon but here's a primer for non-partisan website best practices until I do ... just do the opposite and you'll get a 'partisan' best practice ... get it?

Very american, I know, BUT these practices can be applied to most web sites. Basic but good.