Category: General Suff


It’s ironic isn’t it.

Newspaper journalist criticises a major corporation (NBC over their coverage of the Olympics) and their Twitter account is suspended.

Meanwhile other Twitter users can fall victim to abuse and bullying to levels where the police need to get involved, and nothing is done.

There is a freedom of speech issue here. Possibly. But freedom of speech doesn’t give you the right to abuse and bully people.

What to do about it? Well, I could probably fill you an hour of discussion about it. Suffice to say that social networking sites need to wake up and realise they are no longer back-bedroom cottage industries but multi-million pound enterprises with influence and power. And with influence and power comes responsibility. And with responsibility comes some form of ‘policing’ and custodianship of what goes on.

An initiative has started at work aimed at making the organisation “simpler”. One is invited to submit ideas as to how, and I suppose it is an initiative to be encouraged.

Having said that, I’ve come across these sorts of initiatives before and they always make me smile somewhat. The implication tends to be that what we have “now” (assumed to be the nightmarish non-simple “complex” organisation) somehow came about on its own. It just “grew” like weeds and brambles taking over your otherwise perfect and well designed garden. No-one was responsible for the complexity building up. It just happened somehow, by itself, right?

This is nonsense of the highest order. Complex organisations don’t just happen: they are designed that way. We made them. So it’s a bit rich that we now complain about what we’ve done and want to undo it, but without acknowledging how we got into the complexity in the first place. It wasn’t some random serendipitous event that brought it about.

I recently saw a television interview where a politician was complaining that police officers do too much desk-based office work and they need to reduce it.

I don’t think it occurred to him that the desk-based office work was there because politicians like him had told the police to do it. People don’t create administration and beaurocracy themselves. It has to be as a response to some stimulus or instruction. You might also want to ask him why the admin tasks were brought in at all if lots of time and effort will be spent removing it all again later…

Then there was the UK government department that for years was called the Department of Trade and Industry. Then for a while it was bizzarly renamed Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The ‘Regulatory Reform’ bit seemingly also coming from the ‘simplicity’ agenda. Again, it seemed to have escaped politicians notice that the very ‘regulations’ in need of ‘reform’ (i.e. were supposedly ‘bad’) were the very ones created and passed by the politicians. Yet they were again behaving as if it was a case of taking a flame thrower to the stinging nettles.

Life is not a series of chance events: It is the product of decisions that people
consciously make. These decisions might not always be good ones, but they nonetheless exist. We can’t deny them and pretend everything around us is random. It is important to learn WHY our environment is the way it is and what led us there. Only then can we make meaningful decisions about change – simplicity or no simplicity.

A few years ago part of my organisation conducted a big (and no doubt very expensive) survey. From what I can recall, it was aimed at gaining Insight into the UK population’s use of technology and the media and what sorts of individuals and households they were.

The results were published in a blaze of publicity and I have to say it was all very interesting. But some of the findings were surprising (to me at any rate). It seemed to be portraying an incredibly positive and techno-savvy view of society that didn’t quite tally with my experiences: most people were using the Internet for everything, and those that weren’t soon would be. Furthermore most people had the latest gadgets, and those that didn’t indicated they soon would have, and people were drifting away from ‘traditional’ technologies and ‘traditional’ media and moving on to new alternatives – inevitably on demand and internet based. And you guessed it: those that weren’t, indicated they soon would be.

Here are a few more findings:

  • 97% Are concerned about the impact their purchasing decisions have on the rest of the world
  • 84% Are willing to volunteer their time to good causes
  • 78% Are optimisitic for the future
  • 77% Like to get involved in helping out the local community
  • 60% Have shopped online in the last 12 months


Whilst this is encouraging, it all seems a bit too utopian to me. Too perfect. Almost contrived, somehow.

I am not for one moment disputing the accuracy or presentation of the data collected. I have no doubt this reflected what people genuinely said. Also, I think surveys can be useful.

But surveys have a simple and quite glaring deficiency that seems to get overlooked. That is that you can’t force people to participate in them. If I go out on the street and ask people to complete my survey about how much they like the Harry Potter books, I will quite likely return with a very high “yes I like them” result. But this is because the people that don’t like Harry Potter are unlikely to participate in my survey. I will likely only get the ‘like them’ population participating. Furthermore you have to have a certain mindset to participate in surveys at all- many people avoid them at all costs or out of principle. Regardless of the subject matter. And why not? That’s their right.

But it means the results are skewed right from the start.

Participating in a survey and saying ‘no’ isn’t the same as not participating at all. Further, the people that don’t participate probably have something interesting and enlightening to say, if only we can get them to tell us. But how? To go back to our Harry Potter example, it would be all to easy to extrapolate my results to mean “most people like Harry Potter”. Well, how do we know? We don’t.

So I have nothing against surveys. The problem I have is that people all too often try to use them to make ‘fact’ and empiracle ‘truth’ where there is none. Surveys are just a tool in their delusion. The world is still a complicated place, and it is what people don’t say that is often the most interesting.

Once upon a time there was a service called Prestel The idea was that by connecting a computer to the telephone line, you could access a remote central computer containing a database of information. A kind of much expanded and turbo-charged Teletext service. Further, and unlike Teletext, you could interact: You could send messages to other users, order goods and services, make reservations, and take part in various multi-user facilities such as chat rooms.

Sounds a bit like something we have today?

.

Nowadays, Prestel has long since disappeared and is virtually forgotten. IT, never an industry to have much regard for it’s own history and heritage, doesn’t celebrate past advances much. Even important historical figures such as Alan Turing (who is becoming regarded as something of a father of computing) are almost unknown today. It is left to volunteers and enthusiasts to raise the profile of the past. (A tip of the hat to Jason Gorman and others who are doing this).

In one of my less successful predictions (though to be fair, I was still at school when I made it), I thought at the time that Prestel was the future. I thought people would embrace it with open arms. Instead it was pretty much written off as expensive and pointless by most and never achieved more than 90000 subscribers. In a weird twist of fate, the point at which It may have started really breaking through into the mainstream coincided with the internet and World Wide Web taking off. It is perhaps Ironic that one of the reasons for Prestel’s unpopularity was the fact that to connect to it involved the cost of a local telephone call. Yet when the web took off (in the era of dial-up modems – no broadband yet) people seemed to forget that that was exactly what they had to do.

The rest is history. Prestel was dead and buried before it even got properly started.

Should we feel nostalgic or emotional about such things? I do – though I’m not entirely sure why. In a way, you could just dismiss the whole thing as a failure. After all, many printed magazines had more subscribers than Prestel ever did. But it did do one important thing: By planting the seeds of an online world, people could at least see the possibilities for real. It wasn’t just research lab theory – It worked. Technology could deliver instant information and interaction into your home. People hopefully would (and did) get enthused and strive for a bigger, better and more ubiquitous online world. And we all know where that led.

….the World Wide Web, since you ask.

Well soon anyway.

By my reckoning, the web is coming up to it’s 18th birthday. I daresay people will challenge the dates, but as far as I am concerned, it all started in 1994 when one of my university lecturers handed us all copies of an article from The Guardian newspaper. It explained all about this new fangled addition to the Internet that would enable pages of information to be created and distributed.

The reason I mention this isn’t just because I was wondering whether anyone will be doing a collection, organising a card, or maybe baking a cake (though doesn’t seem much to ask for, all things considered). What I was thinking about was just how much of an impact the web has had, and I thought I would get in before the self-appointed ‘experts’ start wading in.

About a year after the Guardian article, I was writing web sites commercially. This was a pioneering time, and exciting, rewarding and frustrating all at the same time. The ‘frustrating’ part was because the tools and technologies were so limited and it was very time consuming to do – by today’s standards – some fairly basic things.

In 1994, the web was mostly seen as a publishing medium. Interactivity was limited and confined to fairly basic facilities like message boards, feedback forms and the like. ‘Getting a company on the web’ tended to start with people asking to have their company brochures and promo materials converted into a web version. and that was it.

Not everyone shared the vision of the World Wide Web – if ‘vision’ is what it was. One of the directors of the company I was working for at the time said on several occasions that he wasn’t sold on the web, and wasn’t sure we should be dedicating time to it. Not, perhaps, the best decision he ever made. But myself and my manager and anyone else we could rope in, got on with it anyway. I started working on more and more web sites, I visited Telehouse Docklands to help installing the first hardware, I enlisted a university friend to help select and configure routers and bridges and to get involved with more of the hardware stuff I didn’t know about. I did a series of presentations and training sessions to educate the senior staff of a major London department store group of the benefits and potential of the web and Internet generally. I assisted with the launch of a chain of Internet cafes. I attended the annual conference of one of the UK teaching unions and organised and ran a series of sessions demonstrating the web and show it might be used in the learning sector. Interestingly, whilst I encountered many web-sceptical companies then and later, the teachers got it straight away: They could see how the world was moving and embraced it instantly.

And that is just what I can remember off the top of my head. All in about 9 months. Not bad if I say so myself.

Today, much of the web is almost unrecognisable from what what happening in 1994 but some things have stayed the same. In particular the pioneering spirit hasn’t been totally knocked out of us. Not yet at any rate.

But not everything the Web has brought about has been good. The ability to exchange and share almost anything quickly and easily – a miracle in so many ways – causes a problem when applied to properties other people own and are trying to make money from. This isn’t about enriching megastars already living in castles and driving gold plated BMWs. It is about a new recording artist trying to make a living, impossible if their latest music appears for free on file sharing web sites. Does this mean that over time people will stop making music as they can’t survive by doing it? Newspaper sales continue to decline but web based equivalents don’t generate enough money to pay for the journalism and reporting, yet we need journalism and reporting to tell us what is happening. Comment and opinion can be interesting, but as we know, talk is cheap. Information on the other hand (the journalism and reporting itself) is expensive. Will this eventually disappear? Even online shopping, the aspect of the web that has perhaps touched the greatest number of people young and old – seems to be having a negative effect on high streets and traditional shops. Book sales aren’t declining as some of the ‘experts’ predicted they would as a result of the web, but they are certainly not being bought in shops in the volumes they were. Will high streets – which perform a social function as much as anything – continue to decline and become irrelevant? Or even disappear?

Of course none of this is scientific fact. A degree of copying of content has always happened, newspaper sales may well be declining simply because people are less interested in the world around them, and high street decline might be due to out of town superstores. But the Web is undoubtedly playing a significant part. It is fashionable (and a very easy option) to just dismiss all of this as ‘one of those things’, ‘progress’, ‘inevitable’ or even, bizarrely, ‘a good thing’ but I’m not so sure.

Conclusions

There is something in history or philosophy which states to the effect that the most important advances and developments are the ones people never requested. They somehow come about anyway. I have to say I don’t really agree with this – after all, putting a man on the moon didn’t just happen, it happened because of the concerted efforts of a large number of people coupled with the political will in the first place. But in the case of the World Wide Web, there might perhaps be something in it. It did come about without any real request, and crept in unnoticed on the back of enthusiasm and willpower as much as anything. Nowadays when IT projects seem to have have less and less money subjected to greater and greater scrutiny and evaluation (and people often seem oblivious to the fact that the scrutiny and evaluation itself costs money that could otherwise be spent building something), it is a refreshing and heartening story that the Web even came about at all.

Happy Birthday.

There is no doubt that shopping – especially around christmas, and more especially in electrical stores is like coming into contact with a pack of rabid dogs. I refer of course to the shop assistants who – fulled by commission – seem to behave as if they are acting out scenes from ‘Wall Street’.

“Oh you have an iPod, Sir?” said one particularly agressive specimin while I was looking at iPod Cases (Yes. I would hardly be looking at iPod cases if I didn’t have an iPod now would I?). “Yes – I have an 80GB classic”. In an instant he grabbed the case I had been looking at and started walking to the pay desk. “Well that one will be fine sir. Now if you’ll just follow me is it cash or debit card sir? Will there be anything else?” “Errr well, actually, I haven’t finished looking yet…” “Oh sorry sir – well just give me a call if you need any more assistance”.

I have now discovered that the way to keep them at bay is to just pick something up – anything – any walk around with it. It could be a packet of replacement vacume cleaner dust bags. It doesnt matter. What matters is that they see that you are going to buy something and then they leave you alone. More importantly you get spared the dangers of their “assistance”.

A classic example of this “assistance” came – amazingly – shortly afterwards in the same store. Another customer was looking at portable PC hard drives (actually a good christmas gift idea).”You might be better off looking at Trillobyte drives sir”..

Trillobyte drives??? Hummm.. (For the non-technical among you, well. Trillobyte drives don’t actually exist). Trillobytes (or more accurately, Trillobites) did exist of course, a while back. So presumably the assistant was talking about a disk drive where data isn’t stored on magnetic media but on fossilised arthropods from 540 million years ago (seehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trilobite for more..)… Terrabyte drives on the other hand are definately worth looking at.. They even have a USB port these days.

We have our Christmas party soon, so I did what I am forced to do for it every year – I bought a new shirt. It’s the least my colleagues deserve. When I went to pay, I saw a notice on the pay desk (in fact 4 notices) saying along the lines of “Product recall – Trousers”…. You expect Product Recalls in a Ford dealership or on dodgy washing machines, or of course – on Trillobyte drives. You don’t normally associate ‘Product Recalls’ in Next, though. Apparently certain types of trousers have unusally high levels of a particular type of dye which is toxic and dangerous to the skin.

So there you have it. An official recall on dangerous trousers. Just as well I only bought a shirt for the Christmas party or heaven knows what else might happen.

A couple of hours shopping – and with mobile phone shops (previous post refers), Trillobyte drives and dangerous trousers, it makes you realise the world is going mad.

Oh, and by the way. If you think you are getting away with it through the smug safety of shopping online, forget it. I think it was Polly Toynbee in the Guardian a while back that said along the lines of “You know the world is collapsing when you order Lemons and get Lemon-scented rubber gloves delivered instead”.

Going into Mobile Phone shops, since you ask. I am looking again at getting an iPhone and also trying to find out what happens after your 1-year of free internet access runs out. No-one seems to know (or nobody I know anyway, since they have all ‘just got them’). Although the concerns about mobile phone safety seem to have died away, its quite clear that what gives you brain damage isn’t the phone itself, but the act of trying to understand the various tariffs and offers…