Oct 042011

Here’s an interesting idea:

We use the internet for everything – from dating and gossip to hobbies and work. We also, crucially and increasingly, use it to form our most basic and closely held views about the world. And there is a huge amount of bad, wrong, misleading and malicious information, often masquerading as the genuine article.

Teachers are worried that young people are not being equipped to tell the difference. The 500 teachers polled rated their pupils’ ability to recognise bias, apply fact checks and verify sources to be below average.

Other surveys indicate that around one in four 12-15 year olds make no checks at all when visiting a new website.

Some form of ‘digital fluency’, encompassing both traditional critical thinking skills and specific knowledge about how the online world (say, how search engines operate) works needs to be put at the heart of education.

This issue reminds me a little of when I first started studying film at uni.  We were grandly – and, in the event, quite rightly – informed we would learn not how to “watch” a film but how to “read” a film.  And yet what was most interesting was how much film language we already knew.  You try and imagine now what it would be like to see a Hollywood film for the first time – and if you can properly imagine it, you’d know how lost you would feel.  Film is so ever-present that – as a language and medium – it has entered our very souls; to such an extent we may even dream in its cross-cutting, close-up and cutaway techniques.

I know I certainly do.

It does occur to me, however, that perhaps this call to digital literacy – similar in appearance and apparent sensibility to the industrially spoonfed and popcorned moviegoers of the 20th century, with their film schools, film studies and film festivals – is not a little misplaced.  Most young people, I would imagine, studies and surveys notwithstanding, are much better positioned to understand and sense Internet falsehoods than their elders who still read the Daily Mail and the Sun.  And if they aren’t, then it’s precisely what they’ve experienced in the home through their parents use of mainstream media which has led them to uncritically take as read the stories they come across when surfing the Internet with their smartphones.

The real problem isn’t a virtual digital literacy, then – but, rather, a far longer and deeper tradition than that: knowing how to count on ten offline and real-world fingers.

And those who really need the kind of digital literacy I am talking about are those voters in that section of society who believe every supporting prejudice their cosy columnists choose to write about.

Oct 042011

Right now, I get the feeling that Facebook is more an environment whilst Twitter is more a tool.  Each to his own of course – but I am always going to prefer tools.  Tangible and discrete objects I can pick up and manage as I wish – without necessarily referring to anyone or anything else.

The rapidly encroaching integration of Facebook with other Internet spaces – first we had Skype and now it’s Spotify’s turn – shows the long-term aim of Facebook’s founders is to suck all utility out of the open web and deposit it in the walled garden (more here and here) that is Facebook’s real estate.  It may remain “free” to those of us who play ball – inasmuch as anyone who is the product and not the customer is ever going to be free – but even its current level of osmosis is clearly dropping substantially.

If things carry on as they are, the open web will become that medium of basic text communication it once started out as – and perhaps there will be many developer-types on the block who will be happy with such a result.  And maybe, in the light of such a supposition, we can understand better what is happening out there: what is happening out there to what I might be inclined to be calling tools rather than environments.

Twitter and Quora are just two examples of the former: not environments which distract but tools which empower.

Both are text-based systems which laudably focus – and tightly – on how they communicate.  Not for them – or, at least, not for the moment – an all-encompassing replacement for the whole web.  Utility is probably their byword – and it is something I do appreciate.  They wish to add to the world we currently enjoy – not substitute it.  They are, in that sense, more like art than industrial endeavour.  For theirs is not a subtraction or a plan for global domination – and we should remember and value this difference.


As part of the many streams of income I am currently working on generating for my brand new and still mainly untested life as self-employed, I am looking at a company called CloudCrowd, which operates out of San Francisco – and, coincidentally uses the aforementioned Facebook to marshal its crowdsourced workforce.  Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been um-ing and ah-ing whether to try it or not: partly, what I find resistible is the fact that a) it uses Facebook; and b) it uses Facebook in insecure http:// mode.  Why my resistance?  I guess for exactly the same reason I’m really not impressed by the latter’s desire to integrate into what I see as a leaky bin of privacy rules the kind of chat services which work perfectly fine all by themselves; the kind of video-conferencing services which work perfectly fine all by themselves; and the kind of music services which work perfectly fine all by themselves …

That is to say, I can’t see how anyone can justify using Facebook – in its current manifestation, anyhow – for enterprise-related missions such as communication or workflow.

If any of you have positive experiences of this what at first sight appears to be – at the very least –  a non-secure integration, I’d be very grateful to receive them, either online or via email.  In the meantime, I find myself bemoaning the ever-widening loss of a useful open web – as this behemoth of social media that we find ourselves dealing with appears to continue its unstoppable march across our computer and mobile-phone screens.

Oct 042011

One of the most read pieces on this blog recently was this post, framing Ed Miliband’s recent speech in terms of the reception Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” received on its first showings.  I then suggested that our Red Ed might be turning himself into Ready Eddy.  Meanwhile, Eoin analyses data which suggests voters are happy – where the commentariat huff and puff – for Miliband to turn his back on Blair.  Then, going against the Labour grain perhaps but in line with the aforementioned commentariat, Dan Hodges, over at Labour Uncut, had this to say of Miliband’s week:

We have to understand. We need to grasp what has just happened to the Labour party.

Ed Miliband did not have a bad week. He had a grotesque, cataclysm of a week.

The conundrum gets more involved, though, with this latest research highlighted by Liberal Conspiracy, worth reading in full – and the conclusion to which runs as follows (the bold is mine):

There are two lessons here I think. First, bland centrism doesn’t necessarily mean you get elected. Second, the press is out of touch with public perception of where Ed Miliband and David Cameron politically stand.

As a tangential idea to keep up in the forefront of our erstwhile triangulating political minds, I also like this observation from the same article:

So does this all mean being centrist gets you elected? Not necessarily. The Libdems are placed broadly in the centre by voters, and yet they languish at 11-15% in the polls.
Why? Kellner says:
When we delve into the figures more closely, we see why. Conservative voters dislike him because they think he is left-of-centre – while Labour voters reject him as too far to the right for their taste. These attitudes cancel each other out in Clegg’s overall average.

And so we come to a final re-evaluation of what Ed Miliband might be up to – if, that is, he’s as intelligent and intentioned a politician as I believe he may be becoming.  Again from Labour Uncut – this time, from within the most inner place of Miliband’s own inner circle:

By contrast, and by coincidence, as I made my way out of the hall in Liverpool, I bumped into two very senior business figures. One is a longstanding Labour supporter, who has made millions in private industry. The other has only recently joined the party, having retired from business after decades of running multi-million pound commercial enterprises. Both thought the speech was very good. They enthused about not only its thoughtfulness, but in particular its emphasis on the importance of business as a “wealth creator”, a line used repeatedly in Ed Miliband’s speech.

The author of this latter post – Michael Dugher, Ed Miliband’s own parliamentary private secretary – goes on to argue that:

The truth is it is not “anti-business” to criticise Fred Goodwin or to condemn what a private equity firm did to Southern Cross care homes. Neither is it “anti-business” to say a future Labour government should challenge the big vested interests like the energy companies ripping off consumers. It is the right thing to do.

There is, then, I think sufficient evidence laid out in my post this morning to suggest that:

  1. we are, as in Thatcher’s time, seeing the definitive political downsides of the fearsomely amoral act of triangulation;
  2. Ed Miliband perhaps realises this – and perhaps better than the rest of us right now;
  3. Ed Miliband is getting to the point where we need to seriously re-evaluate his potential as diviner of political dynamics;
  4. the mainstream press and their hangers-on are not necessarily best placed to catch the fluctuating public mood;

For the last point, after all, is precisely why we have politicians in the first place – to capture that public mood accurately and, in the end, democratically.

Politicians can only make their way and their reputations in that fragile conjoining of events and personal actions that is the body politic as a whole.

Which, essentially, means we can only wait and see.

Even as we do our very best to do so with what should be a generous as well as inquiring intelligence.