Texting the Riot Act

In a way, we shouldn’t be surprised at some of the bonkers comments that ministers and members of Parliament are making about mobile phones, social media and the role of the inter-web tubes in the recent unpleasantness in London and some of our other deprived, inner-city areas such as Gloucester. Remember, not only do these people not really understand how any of the technology works, they have no technical or scientific training to help them think any of their ideas through. So an MP will say that RIM should stop looters from communicating with each other, not realising that not only is there no practical way of doing this, but that there is no conceivable reason as to why we should even want to try. We WANT looters to communicate via BBM, Twitter and text, thus providing an excellent forensic trail.

I suspect that some of the comments about social media, masks and so forth all derive from the same confusion about what identity is and what it should be in an online society. The government has no strategy for this, no guiding principles. And I’m convinced that their knee-jerk comments about these issues are wrong. Here’s why. We are all bored with seeing that same old cartoon over and over again: (in cyberspace no one knows you’re a dog). Well, yes. But as I’ve consistently pointed out since the earliest days of the inter web:

In cyberspace, no-one know youre a dog but on the other hand no-one knows you’re with the FBI either.

[From Journal of Internet Banking and Commerce]

On balance, do you want criminals to coordinate their activities using post-it notes, invisible ink and secret signs or do you want them to record all of their activities electronically? Personally, I’m for the latter.

A new Google Group called “London Riots Facial Recognition” has appeared online, in the wake of the riots that rocked the U.K. capital over the weekend. The group’s goal is to use facial recognition technologies to identify the looters who appear in online photos.

[From Google Group Members to Use Facial Recognition to Identify London Rioters | TechCrunch]

I heard somebody on the radio earlier on (I don’t remember who it was) saying that Facebook should find ways to stop looters from uploading pictures of their trophies. Like this one.

article-2023667-0D59940300000578-97_634x604

I disagree! Surely a rational policy would be to exploit the advances in face recognition, pattern matching and network analysis to encourage the looters (a great many of whom are, frankly, not the sharpest tools in the box) to post as much of this stuff is possible to make their automated detection as easy as possible.

There’s a similar argument about the physical world. I think I heard one of the MPs in the Commons debate earlier on say that it’s illegal for people to wear masks in public for the purpose of concealing their identity and therefore the police should have been arresting looters in masks. But this would require huge police manpower and will be very difficult to execute. A much better idea would be for plainclothes policeman to join the crowds wearing masks themselves and capture as much intelligence as possible so that they can work towards arresting the ringleaders instead of expending effort on arresting teenage girls for stealing six bottles of nail polish. A simple scheme would be to carry a can of spray paint and put a mark on the back of ringleaders, a more complex one might be to shine a laser pointer on them to guide in missiles fired by drones.

Anyway, there’s a general problem with technology and the government’s policies and responses. And there are all sorts of reasons: educational standards, funding for research etc etc. I know many people disagree with me, but I think in the British environment there is another factor: class.

Mr Cameron responds that many of the rioters used closed networks, such as Blackberry, to organise their activities and this has to be looked at.

[From BBC News – MPs debate riots]

David Cameron (Eton, Oxford, PPE), Theresa May (grammar school, Oxford, Geography) and George Osborne (St. Pauls, Oxford, History) may not be the best people to comment on the use of BBM, Twitter or Facebook since I’m sure they have no picture of how these work and how they may be “controlled”. I’m not being anti-public school or anti-Oxbridge: I would welcome more public school, Oxbridge scientists into positions of power. The most senior civil servant I have ever met (who was responsible for a huge government programme based on IT) had read English at Oxbridge and hadn’t got a clue about the project. He began one meeting by saying “I don’t understand the technology”. We should have got up and walked out at that point, but of course we didn’t.

PM announces crackdown on gangs and social media

[From Telegraph.co.uk – Telegraph online, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph – Telegraph]

What on Earth is he talking about? A “crackdown” on social media??? This makes no sense – it’s like saying he’s going to have a crackdown on printing or telephones. This something that bothers me about MPs, ministers and and civil servants lacking the mental models necessary to make sense of the technology. I can’t write Objective-C code or debug a Java middle at but I can understand what the twitter client on my mobile phone is doing because I have the framework of understanding. Many years ago CP Snow rather famously said that you couldn’t be a gentleman without understanding the 2nd law of thermodynamics (which is that there is no such thing as a free lunch, essentially). Perhaps updated version of this might be that you shouldn’t be entitled to call yourself a gentleman unless you understand the difference between TCP and IP, or something like that.

As delivered in 1959, Snow’s Rede Lectures specifically condemned the British educational system… This in practice deprived British elites (in politics, administration, and industry) of adequate preparation to manage the modern scientific world.

[From C. P. Snow – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]

Absolutely nothing has changed.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Room for improvement

E-Books are, to me, an emotional topic because I’m so viscerally connected to the book as a physical artefact and the bookshop as a physical place. Yet e-books are undeniably eating away at paper and shelves.

Europe has lagged behind the U.S. in widespread adoption of e-books, but a new report suggests that they are finally taking off. The e-book market in Western Europe grew by 400 percent in 2010, a new report finds. By 2015, e-books should make up 15 percent of total book sales in the region. (By contrast, in the U.S., they were already at 6.4 percent in 2010.)

[From Western Europe Sees Huge Shift Toward E-Books | paidContent]

I find myself using e-books more and more and I think I have developed a reasonable strategy. The thing is, I love books. I can’t stop buying them. I love browsing around bookshops, I love buying books and reading them on the train home, I love ordering off of my Amazon wish list ready for an upcoming business trip. I’m writing this in California. On the plane on the way over I finished the excellent “Forgotten Fatherland” by Ben Macintyre (I enjoyed it so much I’ve added his “Agent Zigzag” to my wish list for my next trip) that had been recommended to me by my brother-in-law and started a new Christopher Priest novel “Inverted World” that I’d picked up in Forbidden Planet the other day (I decided I fancied some Sci-Fi but wasn’t sure what, so I went for a potter about their shelves). Books, all of them.

On the train from San Francisco down to San Jose, though, I was reading Henry Fielding’s “Tom Jones“. I’ve discovered that there are hundreds of classics that I can download to my iPad’s Kindle app for nothing. Free. I read Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol for the first time a couple of weeks ago, using the iPad on the train when I can’t get a seat (which is actually making me think of buying a Kindle because the iPad is a little heavy when you are standing up on South West Trains). Downloading the free classic novels and reading them on my iPad in addition to buying physical books of one form or another is really working for me! I feel as if I’ve discovered an useful balance between the real and physical that is actually “improving” (in the Victorian sense)..

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Which emergency service? Digital Champion please.

Yet more speed camera misery in our house. 50 in a 40 at 12.30pm on a deserted stretch of well-lit road near Guildford. But hurrah! A form arrives saying that as a means to rachet up middle-class motoring taxation a notch further, my good lady wife can opt to go to on speed awareness course and thus get off of the points. We fill out the form — name, address, driving licence number and so on (every single field on the form was something that they already knew) — and send it back.

A couple of weeks later, we get another letter, saying that they have not yet heard from us and that if they don’t hear from us then my good lady wife will be fined and “pointed”. So I set about filling in the same form yet again. Why can’t I do this online? The missive from the “Safety Camera Partnership” has a unique reference number, after all. There’s no phone number on either the form or the covering letter, so they clearly don’t want us to phone up, but there is a URL at the bottom of the letter so, hurrah, I assume I can deal with the issue online.

But, of course, there is nothing remotely transactional about the site. You can’t fill out the form online (and I’ll bet a pound to a penny that on the twentieth anniversary of the founding of Netscape on 4th April 2014, you still won’t be able to) although you can, in a nod to the 21st century, download the forms to fill out. Digital Britain at its finest: a pretty web site that cost zillions to build and but unable to execute any useful work at all. Isn’t this the sort of thing our Digital Champion is supposed to be doing when she’s finished teaching a fifth of the population to read so that they can use websites?

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Mundane indeed

One of the fellow members of my writers’ circle wrote an excellent short story (that really should have been a novella) about the future, in which people met in cyberspace, for reasons that I will not spoil by divulging. In her story, her characters refer to their physical bodies as “mundane”. The use of “mundane” as the opposite to “virtual” struck me as a wonderful and appropriate use of language. Just a reminder: mundane means…

  1. Lacking interest or excitement; dull
  2. Of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one
  3. Of, relating to, or denoting the branch of astrology that deals with political, social, economic, and geophysical events and processes

The use of the word is perfect across all of these meanings. I read a review of the movie Inception — a quick google fails to find it — that mentioned that the shared dream state in the movie is remarkably similar to the virtual world experience. Seeing my teenagers “jack in” to World of Warcraft does indeed seem rather similar to seeing the characters in the movie connect to a shared dream.

As I write this post, my younger son is playing World of Warcraft with a number of his friends. He is wearing a headset and talking to them via Skype while they work co-operatively in the “game”. In the virtual world, his primary loyalty is to the guild, as is his friends’, and they are working together, immersed in the physics, but particularly the economics, of their shared hallucination. When they switch off, they will be back in a world where they are just kids, it’s raining and there’s nothing on telly. Mundane indeed.

Following my friend’s brilliant insight, I shall stop using the word “real” and from now on will only refer to the mundane world as the “opposite” of the virtual world. They’re both “real”.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes… [posted with ecto]