Posts about Internet

Rewired youth?

Pew and Elon University surveyed a bunch of blatherers, including me, about the impact of the internet on youth, asking us to respond to a number of contrary scenarios about the year 2020. Lots of interesting responses here. I saved mine. Snippets:

* Survey on rewired youth: In 2020 the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are “wired” differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields helpful results. They do not suffer notable cognitive shortcomings as they multitask and cycle quickly through personal- and work-related tasks. Rather, they are learning more and they are more adept at finding answers to deep questions, in part because they can search effectively and access collective intelligence via the Internet. In sum, the changes in learning behavior and cognition among the young generally produce positive outcomes.

In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are “wired” differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields baleful results. They do not retain information; they spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained, and being distracted away from deep engagement with people and knowledge. They lack deep-thinking capabilities; they lack face-to-face social skills; they depend in unhealthy ways on the Internet and mobile devices to function. In sum, the changes in behavior and cognition among the young are generally negative outcomes.

* Me: I don’t buy the punchline but I do buy the joke. I do not believe technology will change our brains and how we are “wired.” But it can change how we cognate and navigate our world. We will adapt and find the benefits in this change.

Hark back to Gutenberg. Elizabeth Eisenstein, our leading Gutenberg scholar, says that after the press, people no longer needed to use rhyme as a tool to memorize recipes and other such information. Instead, we now relied on text printed on paper. I have no doubt that curmudgeons at the time lamented lost skills. Text became our new collective memory. Sound familiar? Google is simply an even more effective cultural memory machine. I think it has already made us a more fact-based; when in doubt about a fact, we no longer have to trudge to the library but can expect to find the answer in seconds.

Scholars at the University of Southern Denmark have coined the wonderful phrase “the Gutenberg Parenthesis” to examine the shift into and now out of a textually based society. Before the press, information was passed mouth-to-ear, scribe-to-scribe; it was changed in the process; there was little sense of ownership and authorship. In the five-century-long Gutenberg era, text did set how we see our world: serially with a neat beginning and a defined end; permanent; authored. Now, we are passing out of this textual era and that may well affect how we *look* at our world. That may appear to change how we think. But it won’t change our wires.

* Survey on education: In 2020, higher education will not be much different from the way it is today. While people will be accessing more resources in classrooms through the use of large screens, teleconferencing, and personal wireless smart devices, most universities will mostly require in-person, on-campus attendance of students most of the time at courses featuring a lot of traditional lectures. Most universities’ assessment of learning and their requirements for graduation will be about the same as they are now.

By 2020, higher education will be quite different from the way it is today. There will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources. Significant numbers of learning activities will move to individualized, just-in-time learning approaches. There will be a transition to “hybrid” classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings. Most universities’ assessment of learning will take into account more individually-oriented outcomes and capacities that are relevant to subject mastery. Requirements for graduation will be significantly shifted to customized outcomes.

Me: The disruption that has overtaken media will next take on education.

It simply does not make sense for thousands of educators around the world to write and deliver the same lecture on, say, capillary action — most of them bad. The best can be shared and found. Then, I believe, in-person education becomes more a matter of tutoring. Think of the Oxbridge lecturer/tutor structure distributed via the net. This quickly changes the economics of education: The marginal cost of another student learning from the finest lecturers in the world is zero. Teachers will need to see how they are needed and how they add value.

In my book, What Would Google Do?, I looked at separating the functions of a university: teaching, certification, research, socialization. These need not be accomplished all in the same space. Will there still be universities? Likely, but not certain. I also discussed the idea that our current educational system, start to end, is built for an industrial era, churning out students like widgets who are taught to churn our widgets themselves. This is a world where there is one right answer: we spew it from a lecturn; we exepct it to be spewed back in a test. That kind of education does not produce the innovators who would invent Google.

The real need for education in the economy will be re-education. As industries go through disruption and jobs are lost forever, people will need to be retrained for new roles. Our present educational structure is not built for that but in that I see great entrepreneurial opportunity.

* Survey on commerce: By 2020, most people will have embraced and fully adopted the use of smart-device swiping for purchases they make, nearly eliminating the need for cash or credit cards. People will come to trust and rely on personal hardware and software for handling monetary transactions over the Internet and in stores. Cash and credit cards will have mostly disappeared from many of the transactions that occur in advanced countries.

People will not trust the use of near-field communications devices and there will not be major conversion of money to an all-digital-all-the-time format. By 2020, payments through the use of mobile devices will not have gained a lot of traction as a method for transactions. The security implications raise too many concerns among consumers about the safety of their money. And people are resistant to letting technology companies learn even more about their personal purchasing habits. Cash and credit cards will still be the dominant method of carrying out transactions in advanced countries.

Me: Not only will our notion of currency change as it becomes electronic and (even more) virtual, but I see the possibility for new currencies measuring new value. We could, for example, award and trade in points for responsible environmental behavior. I also see the possibility to create new currencies that cut across national borders, independent of governments. We have already seen the first nascent attempts to do this. It won’t be easy but it is theoretically possible.

Survey on apps: In 2020, most people will prefer to use specific applications (apps) accessible by Internet connection to accomplish most online work, play, communication, and content creation. The ease of use and perceived security and quality-assurance characteristics of apps will be seen as superior when compared with the open Web. Most industry innovation and activity will be devoted to apps development and updates, and use of apps will occupy the majority of technology-users’ time. There will be a widespread belief that the World Wide Web is less important and useful than in the past and apps are the dominant factor in people’s lives.

In 2020, the World Wide Web is stronger than ever in users’ lives. The open Web continues to thrive and grow as a vibrant place where most people do most of their work, play, communication, and content creation. Apps accessed through iPads, Kindles, Nooks, smartphones, Droid devices, and their progeny – the online tools GigaOM referred to as “the anti-Internet” –  will be useful as specialized options for a finite number of information and entertainment functions. There will be a widespread belief that, compared to apps, the Web is more important and useful and is the dominant factor in people’s lives.

Me: Oh, I have downloaded lots of apps. But I use only a small number of them and I have seen research showing that this is typical. This survey showed that people use apps for certain obvious activities — such as games — but use their browsers for content, mail, and other functions. Since that data was gathered, Ugly Birds was ported to HTML5 and the browser.

The browser — or its future equivalent — will continue to have key advantages over apps: they are connected to the entire net; they offer full interoperability; they give the user more power than the developer or publisher. Yes, publishers have dreamed that apps would return to them the control of content, experience, business model, and pricing that the net took from them, but they are merely deluding themselves. The value is not in their control of content but in the ability to become platforms for users to do what they want to do.

* Survey on big data: Thanks to many changes, including the building of “the Internet of Things,” human and machine analysis of large data sets will improve social, political, and economic intelligence by 2020. The rise of what is known as “Big Data” will facilitate things like  “nowcasting” (real-time “forecasting” of events); the development of “inferential software” that assesses data patterns to project outcomes; and the creation of algorithms for advanced correlations that enable new understanding of the world. Overall, the rise of Big Data is a huge positive for society in nearly all respects.

Thanks to many changes, including the building of “the Internet of Things,” human and machine analysis of Big Data will cause more problems than it solves by 2020. The existence of huge data sets for analysis will engender false confidence in our predictive powers and will lead many to make significant and hurtful mistakes. Moreover, analysis of Big Data will be misused by powerful people and institutions with selfish agendas who manipulate findings to make the case for what they want. And the advent of Big Data has a harmful impact because it serves the majority (at times inaccurately) while diminishing the minority and ignoring important outliers. Overall, the rise of Big Data is a big negative for society in nearly all respects.

Me: Media and regulators are demonizing Big Data and its supposed threat to privacy. Such moral panics have occurred often thanks to changes in technology. I examine this in Public Parts. With the advent of the press, authors feared having their ideas attached to their names, stored permanently and distributed widely. The invention of the Kodak portable camera caused the first serious discussion of a legal right to privacy in 1890. Now the internet and its ability to gather, store, spread, and analyze data is causing similar fears — witness the Wall Street Journal’s effort to whip up a moral manic over cookies and “what *they* know.” That’s not to say that we should not guard against untoward outcomes; technology itself is neutral and can be used for good ends and bad. But the wise will look for and exploit the new opportunities technology provides.

Case in point: the researchers who found that by analyzing the mood of twitter — a set of six emotions and their opposites — they could, with stunning reliability, predict daily ups and downs in the Dow index. Not surprisingly, their formulae are now the basis of a hedge fund. Someone found value in the supposedly worthless blathering about our lives. I would not be surprised if others find the same value and neutralize the researchers’ advantage or even if clever spammers find ways to game the mood on Twitter. But the moral of the story remains: there is value to be found in this data, value in our newfound publicness.

Google’s founders have urged government regulators not to require them to quickly delete searches because, in their patterns and anomalies, they have found the ability to track the outbreak of the flu before health officials could and they believe that by similarly tracking a pandemic, millions of lives could be saved.

Demonizing data, big or small, is demonizing knowledge and that is never wise.

* Survey on games: By 2020, gamification (the use of game mechanics, feedback loops, and rewards to spur interaction and boost engagement, loyalty, fun and/or learning) will not be implemented in most everyday digital activities for most people. While game use and game-like structures will remain an important segment of the communications scene and will have been adopted in new ways, the gamification of other aspects of communications will not really have advanced much beyond being an interesting development implemented occasionally by some segments of the population in some circumstances.

By 2020, there will have been significant advances in the adoption and use of gamification. It will be making waves on the communications scene and will have been implemented in many new ways for education, health, work, and other aspects of human connection and it will play a role in the everyday activities of many of the people who are actively using communications networks in their daily lives.

Me: I think gamification is overblown, but that could simply be because I am not a gamer. Angry Birds was fun while it lasted, but it didn’t change my life.

* Survey on connected homes: By 2020, the connected household has become a model of efficiency, as people are able to manage consumption of resources (electricity, water, food, even bandwidth) in ways that place less of a burden on the environment while saving households money. Thanks to what is known as “Smart Systems,” the “Home of the Future” that has often been foretold is coming closer and closer to becoming a reality.

By 2020, most initiatives to embed IP-enabled devices in the home have failed due to difficulties in gaining consumer trust and because of the complexities in using new services. As a result, the home of 2020 looks about the same as the home of 2011 in terms of resource consumption and management.Once again, the “Home of the Future” does not come to resemble the future projected in the recent past.

Me: Complexity is a solvable problem in the right hands. We should wish for the iHome from Apple. Connectivity will lead to efficiency when economics dictate: when we save a lot of money with our air-conditioning or when we are penalized for not doing so or when we penalize cable companies for the power-hogging boxes.

Survey on freedom: In 2020, technology firms with their headquarters in democratic countries will be expected to abide by a set of norms – for instance, the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) citizens being attacked or challenged by their governments. In this world, for instance, a Western telecommunications firm would not be able to selectively monitor or block the Internet activity of protestors at the behest of an authoritarian government without significant penalties in other markets.

In 2020, technology firms headquartered in democratic countries will have taken steps to minimize their usefulness as tools for political organizing by dissidents. They will reason that too much association with sensitive activities will put them in disfavor with autocratic governments. Indeed, in this world, commercial firms derive significant income from filtering and editing their services on behalf of the world’s authoritarian regimes.

Me: Pardon me for the plug, but this is in the end the point of my next book, Public Parts: It is a call for us to protect our tools of publicness. At the e-G8, I urged President Sarkozy to join with the national leaders he was about to meet and take a Hippocratic oath for the internet: first do no harm. His reflex and that of governments is to control and regulate. We, the citizens of the net, must resist and I believe the way to do that is to discuss the principles of the network. In the book, I propose a set of principles. They are wrong. Indeed, in our distributed internet, we will never — we should never — end up with one set of principles from one governance. The fact that no one can control the net is what makes the net free. But we do need to discuss the principles that underly our net so we can point to them when governments and companies violate them and so we can give cover to good actors who try to resist control from bad governments.

Leave our net alone*

The internet’s not broken.

So then why are there so many attempts to regulate it? Under the guises of piracy, privacy, pornography, predators, indecency, and security, not to mention censorship, tyranny, and civilization, governments from the U.S. to France to Germany to China to Iran to Canada — as well as the European Union and the United Nations — are trying to exert control over the internet.

Why? Is it not working? Is it presenting some new danger to society? Is it fundamentally operating any differently today than it was five or ten years ago? No, no, and no.

So why are governments so eager to claim authority over it? Why would legacy corporations, industries, and institutions egg them on? Because the net is working better than ever. Because they finally recognize how powerful it is and how disruptive it is to their power.

And that is precisely why we must fight against their attempts to regulate it, to change it, to throttle it, to oversee it, to insert controls into it, to grant them sovereignty over it. We also must resist the temptation to compromise, to accept the lesser of evils. Last week, Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell warned of the danger of the U.N. asserting governance over the net, but then he turned around and argued that “merely saying ‘no’ to any changes to the current structure of Internet governance is likely to be a losing proposition.”

Why? I repeat: It’s not broken. This is why I urged French President Nicolas Sarkozy to take a Hippocratic oath for the net. This is why I have come to side with Sen. Al Franken on at least this: Net neutrality is not regulation; it is protecting the net from companies trying to change it. This is why the Reddit community is writing the Free Internet Act.

This is why I argued in Public Parts that we must have a discussion of the principles of an open society and the tools of publicness that enable it. This is why I wrote Public Parts. And that is why I’m posting the last chapter of the book, which argues that governments and companies are not protectors of the net and that we must be.

It’s not broken. Don’t fix it. Leave our net alone.

*Sung to the tune of….

We don’t need no regulation.
We dont need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the network
Government: Leave our net alone
Hey! Government! Leave our net alone!
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.

Public Parts on Reding’s four pillars

Since European Commission VP Viviane Reding’s proposal for internet regulation — under her four pillars — are the topic of discussion this week at DLD in Munich and in Europe, here is what I wrote about them in Public Parts:

* * *

I fear the unintended consequences that may come from regulation. Take, for example, European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding’s four pillars of data protection, which she proposed in 2011. I have no argument with one of them: transparency. Companies that collect data should be open about when that is done and how information will be used.

Another pillar sounds attractive: “the right to be forgotten.” But how far does that go? If I post something about you on my blog or write about you in a news story—a quote I heard, the fact that I saw you somewhere, the fact that you did something in the open—can I be forced to erase—to forget—that? What then of my freedom of speech?

Another pillar is rhetorically appealing: “privacy by default.” But is that how we wish society to operate—closing in by reflex when we have so many new ways to open up? Flickr became a success, as I said earlier, because it was set to public by default. On a service designed for ­sharing—Facebook—what does complete privacy mean? Isn’t completely closed communication just email?

Reding’s last pillar would require EU-level protection no matter where a service operates or where data are held. That sets a dangerous precedent. It could mean that we would all be ruled by the most stringent controls in place anywhere in the world—the high-water mark of control. Can we bear China claiming the same right as the EU? We see a related problem today with so-called libel tourism in the U.K. Because its libel laws are unfriendly to defendants, targets of published criticism go there to file suit against writers and publishers. In a global internet, the EU’s effort to become privacy’s sanctum could affect us all.

On the one hand, I argue against regulation. On the other hand, I argue that the government should enforce net neutrality, and that is a form of regulation. Am I hypocritical? At South by Southwest in 2011, Senator Al Franken delivered a ringing endorsement of net neutrality. He argued that proponents of net neutrality are not trying to change the internet but to keep corporations from changing it, from making the net less free than it has been since its birth. “This is a First Amendment issue,” he said. “The internet is small-d democratic. Everyone has the same say.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, too, delivered a rousing defense of internet freedom in two speeches in 2010 and 2011. “In the last year, we’ve seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information. China, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet,” she said in Washington just as the Tunisian revolt was brewing. “On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas…. The internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them.”

The following year, in 2011, she delivered another speech extolling transparency and attacking censorship. But in the same speech, she also condemned WikiLeaks for its release of cables from her agency. “Let’s be clear,” she said, “this disclosure is not just an attack on America—it’s an attack on the international community.” The leaks “tear at the fabric” of government, she argued. Indeed, they soon tore at the fabric of Tunisia’s corrupt government.

We are the lobbyists

The internet has helped untold publics to form. Yesterday, the internet became a public.

Or rather, millions of people who care about internet freedom used the net to organize and defend it against efforts to control and harm it.

The SOPA-PIPA blackout got attention in media that previously all but ignored the issue, whether out of conflict of interest or negligence. More important, it got political action as legislators — especially Republicans — tripped over themselves to back away from the Hollywood bailout.

In the discussion about the movement yesterday, I heard someone in Washington quoted, saying that these geeks should hire lobbyists like everyone else.

No, we’re all lobbyists now, and that’s just as it should be. This movement didn’t need influence peddlers. It didn’t need political commercials. It didn’t need media. It needed only citizens who give a shit. Democracy.

I’m delighted that the discussion rose to the level of principles, a discussion I’ve argued has to take place if we, the internet public, are to protect our tool of publicness.

There’s much more going on under this battle: the disruption of media business models, a fundamental change in our view of the value of content, the undercutting of institutions’ power, the lowering of national boundaries. But for now, nevermind that and concentrate on what was born yesterday: a political movement, a movement whose cause is freedom.

What else can this movement do? Can it elect candidates? Should it? Or should it continue to hold politicians’ feet to the fire? I don’t think I want to see the formation of an internet party. I don’t want this movement to mimic the way power used to be traded. I don’t want it to become an institution. I also don’t think it’s possible. I prefer to see it continuing to mimic #OccupyWallStreet, organizing without organizations (pace Shirky), discerning through interaction its principles and goals.

After yesterday, the powerful are on warning that a public can rise up out of nowhere to protest and pressure, to fight and win. Dell Hell taught companies to behave, to respect and listen to their customers, and better yet to collaborate with them. The SOPA blackout taught politicians to hear citizens directly, without mediators. Now we’ll see whether they can learn to collaborate as well.

Network knowledge

I’m a bit late in blogging about and urging you to read David Weinberger’s new book, Too Big to Know. That’s because I couldn’t find my oft-underlined, much-dogeared galley, which I soaked in as soon as I got it.

David is an intellectual hero of mine. He is a coauthor of the seminal work of net culture, The Cluetrain Manifesto. His subsequent books, Small Pieces, Loosely Joined and Everything is Miscellaneous taught me to look at the world differently (yes, it’s partly his fault) and to understand the changing architecture of relationships, information, and now knowledge. He is generous with his thoughts. He challenges me (when I presented Public Parts at Harvard, where David moderated, he pushed me to consider what I was saying about the relationship of ethics and norms and he likely influenced me to consider that as a next project … his fault, again). He is open and curious. He does this with charm and unwarranted but sincere self-deprecation. All that comes across in his books.

Knowledge is an awfully big topic, the biggest. As he started this project, I heard David fret over that. But he succeeded in bringing new perspective even to this. The nut of it:

As knowledge becomes networked, the smartest person in the room isn’t the person standing at the front lecturing us, and isn’t the collective wisdom of those in the room. The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it. It’s not that the network is becoming a conscious super-brain. Rather, knowledge is becoming inextricable from — literally unthinkable witout — the network that enables it. Our task is to learn how to build smart rooms — that is, how to build networks that make us smarter, especially since, when done badly, networks can make us distressingly stupider.

I interpreted that through one of my favorite (and, sorry, oft-repeated) memes these days: the Gutenberg parenthesis. Among other things, it argues that before Gutenberg, knowledge was about preserving the wisdom of the ancients. In the Gutenberg parenthesis, knowledge sprung from contemporary authors, experts, and institutions. After the parenthesis, as I see Weinberger’s thesis, knowledge becomes province of the network. It isn’t resident only in single facts or artifacts (that is, books) but is a much more complex prism that can be seen from many angles and changes its appearance across them. Knowledge becomes less static, more living. David says it better:

Knowledge now lives not just in the skulls of individuals. Our skulls and our institutions are simply not big enough to contain knowledge. Knowledge is now a property of the network, and the network embraces businesses, governments, media, museums, curated collections, and minds in communication.

Knowledge until now was about creating and controlling scarcity. Up to now, says David, “[w]e’ve managed the fire hose by reducing the flow. We’ve done this through an elaborate system of editorial filters that have prevented most of what’s written from being published . . . Knowledge has been about reducing what we need to know.” But now, of course, information is abundant and only growing — multiplying — as we invent more ways to create and discover and capture and analyze and question. That’s what freaks the old — pardon my choice of word — sphincters of information, the controllers and owners of it. This conflict erupted when Gutenberg invented the printed book and scholars feared we’d end up with too many of them. It emerges again now that Berners-Lee has invented the web.

David grapples with the history of our perception of facts, then wrestles with the idea that we “are losing knowledge’s body: a comprehensible, masterable collection of ideas and works that together reflect the truth about the world. . . . We’ll still have facts. We’ll still have experts. We’ll still have academic journals. We’ll have everything except knowledge as a body. That is, we’ll have everything except what we’ve thought of as knowledge.”

Knowledge, he says, “has been an accident of paper.” We convinced ourselves that a set and knowable worldview was possible because the media into which we put our information created that comforting expectation. Same goes for news: “All the news that’s fit to print” is the greatest conceit imaginable: that everything that matters happens to fit in what we can afford to produce. We know so much better now.

These are profoundly disruptive ideas about ideas. It helps that they come from someone who presents them via doubt rather than dogma. David is, like me, essentially an optimist, but he sees the choices we have and the dangers that present themselves if we chose the wrong paths.

At the end, he examines the characteristics of the net and its knowledge: abundance (“The new abundance makes the old abundance look like scarcity”); links (“Links are subverting not just knowledge as a system of stopping points but also the credentialing mechanism that supported that system”); no need to get permission (“Let anyone publish whatever they want … and the Knowledge Club loses its value”); publicness (somebody ought to write a book about that); and the unresolved nature of questions (“The old enlightenment ideal was far more plausible when what we saw of the nattering world came through filters that hid the vast, disagreeable bulk of disagreement”). “What we have in common,” he concludes, “is not knowledge about which we agree but a shared world about which we will always disagree.”

So the idea that things will settle down and opinions will coalesce around shared facts once we get through this maelstrom of change is a fantasy born of experience but blown apart by the network. So will the future sound like the Fox-News-and-comment-snark present? It needn’t if we adapt our norms to a new reality and if, as David says, we build our networks well. That means building them around new opportunities, for example: “The solution to the information overload problem is to create more information: metadata.” We don’t need more filters, more gatekeepers, more mediators. We need smarter, bigger brains digging through more and better information. Don’t recreate old models. Disrupt them.

David concludes: “We thought that knowledge was scarce, when in fact it was just our shelves that were small. Our new knowledge is not even a set of works. It is an infrastructure of connection.”

Chew on those wires for a while.