Orwell and the terra incognita

Came across this passage in George Orwell’s little-commented-on novel The Clergyman’s Daughter:

The fact is that people who live in small country towns have only a very dim conception of anything that happens more than ten miles from their own front door. The world outside is a terra incognita, inhabited, no doubt, by dragons and anthropophagi, but not particularly interesting.

The book was written in 1934, but even some eighty years later in the age of the Internet, it still commands a certain resonance. Geographical boundaries have been smashed; in theory, today, there is no reason why the country folk Orwell speaks of should be so disconnected from the grander proceedings of the world around them. For many all over the world, however, global events may as well be taking place in some distant and mostly-irrelevant other world. Philosophically, with the rise of individualism and our tendency to self-conceitedly focus on the minutiae of our own personal lives from day-to-day, one could certainly argue that humans are more atomised creatures than they have ever been.

Perhaps technology has allowed us to be “closer to the action” than in generations past – but somehow, through an unfortunate combination of enlightened self-interest and a “one in six billion” sense of powerlessness, we care less? I am sure the author would have appreciated the irony.

Larvatus Prodeo and the state of the blogosphere

Larvatus Prodeo, which can reasonably claim to have been just about the most popular and most compelling independent blogging community in the Australian blogosphere, has post its last. LP was a trailblazer in the Australian context in its early life; in its later life, much less so, but it always offered a dependably warm and learned whirlpool of debate and opinion. Founded initially as a personal blog by Mark Bahnisch back in 2005, LP swelled in numbers over the years to include contributions from many interesting and different voices, both “above the line” (including my own recent minor contributions) and indeed “below the line”. Long, often wide-ranging comment threads were peppered with interactions both fierce and friendly, and predictable skirmishes between right and left were – whilst not civil in the strict sense of the word – more civil than could be expected in the blogosphere generally. A certain camaraderie between adversaries was encouraged because the tone of debate was just that crucial bit higher than your average.

LP emerged in an era when newspapers and mainstream media (MSM) organisations were only just starting to engage with the challenges and opportunities offered by the Internet, and will exit stage left in 2012 with those same organisations having progressed and professionalised their online offerings. Anybody who involved themselves in any way with blogs since 2000 will know that that independent blogs stole a march on the MSM in the early noughties; the tide has now turned. Comment threads on articles and opinion columns have emerged as an MSM standard, supported by often ruthless paid moderators and a growing legion of willing participants. Sites like The Drum and initiatives like the Guardian’s popular if light touch Comment is Free have semi-successfully reached out to new, mainstream news-consuming audiences to an extent that independent blogs have failed to match.

So is the independent political blogosphere as we used to conceive of it dead, or dying? Certainly not everywhere; in the United States, political blogs seem to be enjoying a continuing stretch of success and influence. In the Australian context however, it does seem to be heading down that path, at least in the prevailing political, technological and economic climate. The perfect storm of rage and frustration that built up throughout the broader left in response to the continuing political success of the Howard Government has dissipated, as the fortunes of Federal Labor have waxed and waned, and then waned (and waned) some more. State governments across the country have by and large failed to engage people’s interest, and failed to inspire punters of any political stripe. Political parties by and large have failed to effectively engage with the potential that blogs offer for interaction with voters and likeminded activists.

Economically speaking – running and administering a timely and responsive blog with quality content is a considerable challenge. Just about all bloggers (shock, horror!) have busy lives: partners, friends, families, jobs, study commitments and plain old recreation time tend to impinge on one’s 24×7 content production and news processing time. The “street cred” that independent blogs initially enjoyed has slowly but steadily been overrun, overpowered by the mainstream media’s wilful use of their comparatively massive financial resources. Operating and maintaining a thriving political blog-driven community really does require not just the part-time contributions of many, but the full-time attention of at least a dedicated few.

As an IT consultant, I also find the technological aspect to the equation quite a fascinating topic. Is it possible to conduct deep and meaningful discussions on blogs? Of course it is, but in general, the presentation layer doesn’t always make it easy. As comment threads get longer and longer, on most commonly used blogging platforms, it becomes more and more difficult (and less attractive as a contributor) to maintain a serious, multi-way conversation. It’s not very nice in user experience terms to have to scroll through pages and pages of comments or down an interminably long page of comments to find the ones that interest you. Responses to comments get lost in the mix, particularly when people’s lives get in the way of the conversation, and the discussion changes course (or ebbs away) in the meantime. I do feel as though there could be some rich rewards to be found in hacking away at a WordPress or Drupal base to produce a community political blogging platform that transcends many of the limitations of the bog-standard blog platforms doing the rounds. Some of the underlying concepts that have make Facebook and Twitter such fun applications to use for millions could be brought to bear to encourage interactions between contributors to the site and produce a richer level of conversation. The barrier between posters and commenters could and should be made considerably looser. The forums in which debate occurs could be extended to offer more than the one-dimensional post-comment-comment-comment model. The community could extend beyond a site and more thoroughly into the “real”, social world.

The future for online political debate remains bright, but innovation, collaboration and luck are all going to be required in order to unlock the potential that is out there.

Be kind, rewind, rollback, dissemble….

In the years immediately after the 1998 Federal Election, at which John Howard’s Coalition successfully won a mandate for introducing the GST, Federal Labor got stuck in a real policy communication rut. Sure, there was quite a bit of popular opposition to the new tax, and there were some very good reasons for Labor to continue to fight against it. Unfortunately for Labor supporters and indeed Kim Beazley’s political aspirations, as the years ticked by and Australia headed towards the 2001 election, the catch-cry of “rollback” started sounding regressive, tired, and somewhat unappealing to the average punter. One started to get the sense that the core premise of Labor’s economic platform was to take the country back in time three years, chronologically if not literally. Not really a good look, unless you’re Marty McFly.

And so it seems to be with Tony Abbott and the NBN. His mumblings are starting to sound like his policy on our telecommunications future is “rollback”; to regress, to move backwards. His latest hysterical suggestion to drop the NBN like a hot potato because of the floods seems patronising and misguided; a cry and a gasp for a headline. What right-minded government, having secured a mandate for an infrastructure project at two separate federal elections, and having already signed numerous contracts binding the nation to agreements to the tune of billions of dollars, would dump the project at the first sign of unexpected external financial issues, or at the suggestion of their political opponents?

One wonders what Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull really thinks about the National Broadband Network, and his leader’s cock-eyed approach to opposing it. What one doesn’t wonder is what Julia Gillard thinks about the Coalition’s “duh….rollBACK!?!!” broadband policy for the years heading toward 2013. Two thumbs up?

Crossposted at Larvatus Prodeo.

The Social Network

David Fincher’s “Facebook film” The Social Network is that unique kind of film that is unashamedly populist in tone, whilst still remaining intellectually and philosophically challenging. I suppose given that West Wing wunderscribe Aaron Sorkin is behind the screenplay, we shouldn’t be surprised. There are no explosions in this film. Apart from the CGI involved in cloning Armie Hammer as a twin, there are no special effects. The special effects in this film are the cutting, often amusing dialogue between the main characters, the keenly believable portrayals delivered by the young cast, and the sense that this film says really quite a bit about life for young and youngish folk in the noughties.

There are reports that Facebook creator/evangelist Mark Zuckerberg takes issue with the vast majority of the film’s depictions of real events, but that all in all, he kind of liked the film. That tells you a little something about the movie’s charm. I don’t think anybody is really under any illusion that this film tells the story of the genesis of Facebook with its foundations in absolute fact. This is “a story” of the creation of Facebook, with enough of the emotional and psychological look and feel of how things actually played out to make you buy into it. Jesse Eisenberg may or may not be anything much like Mark Zuckerberg, but he is utterly believable in the role as Facebook’s founder. You empathise with Jesse’s Zuckerberg, and yet you feel that he is of course a complete twat. Andrew Garfield portrays Zuckerberg’s ex-best friend Eduardo Saverin with the kind of honest earnestness that somehow feels just right. Armie Hammer, playing the Winklevoss twins with a little help from body-double Josh Pence, is a complete crack-up. And then, on top of all that, you have Justin Timberlake, of all people, doing frankly more than a decent job playing Sean Parker, founder of Napster before it was legal and today, a part-owner of Facebook. It’s an incredible collision of characters and personalities, proving perhaps once and for all that truth is actually much stranger than fiction.

The other thing this film does is celebrate entrepreneurship; it celebrates invention. The story of Facebook is not just a story of greed, it is a story of “building things”, as Zuckerberg has pointed out. Despite all of its flaws, ethical issues, and annoying ubiquity, Facebook has without a doubt become a lasting fixture on the social landscape of the 21st Century. Zuckerberg might be a billionaire brat, but he’s a billionaire brat who has changed the world and – for the most part at least, and for most people – just a little bit for the better.

Please Senator Conroy, make it stop…

Asher Moses had a good report in the Sydney Morning Herald a couple of days confirming to everyone what most of us have already realised; Federal Labor’s policy on ISP-level internet content filtering is in desperate need of abolition. Lots of questions remain unanswered at this stage, almost a year after Federal Labor took office. One would expect that at least some of these will be “answered” with respect to the results of the live testing that the government hopes to conduct shortly.

Here’s a list of just a few of the serious points that I think the government really needs to think about in relation to this policy:

1) Asher Moses suggests in his article that the proposed filtering would be unable to block content transferred through peer-to-peer file sharing networks. How will the Rudd Government work around this fairly fundamental problem?

2) What is the process for flagging internet content as “illegal”? What lag time can we expect between the time a site appears on the internet and the time that it is black listed?

3) What controls will be in place for determining whether a particular site or web page is considered worthy to be black listed? Can we expect, for example, that the online work of Bill Henson would be blacklisted?

4) Many search engines provide image search technology. How will the service enforced by the Rudd Government here prevent image searches from turning up dubious results? What constitutes a “clean” image file, and is technically feasible to accurately determine this on a real-time basis?

5) Is it really worthwhile to reduce the performance of the Internet for everyone just in order to block what realistically is a handful of sites in the greater scheme of things online? Have the costs of the resulting efficiency losses for Australian business been roughly quantified at this stage, given that every action on the Internet will effectively pass through a filtering layer?

Over the fold is an entertaining exchange from a recent estimates hearing of the Senate Standing Committee on the Environment, Communications and the Arts, which offers some insight into the sorts of problems that Senator Conroy needs to deal with.

I am not sure if this blog fits into the “wild and enthusiastic” category of blogs that Senator Conroy alludes to in the exchange, but he is of course kidding himself if he thinks there are not enormous (in my view – intractable) problems blocking the successful implementation of this scheme as intended.

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Twitter and global interconnectivity

Perchance if you are tech savvy or pretend to be you may have heard of a neat service called Twitter. The official website gives quite a concise description to what the application was originally intended to be all about:

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

Basically the idea is that you can subscribe to the twitter feeds of people you know, and whenever they post a message (e.g. via instant messaging, online or SMS), you receive the message on your medium(s) of choice. The service is currently free, although the most dynamic and pervasive medium (SMS) does of course cost you for the messages you send and potentially depending on your carrier and the prevailing conditions, the messages you receive. Depending on the mobile phone plan you happen to be on, the net cost to you of twittering all day long ranges from next to nothing, to being quite prohibitively expensive for obsessive twitterers (e.g. particularly if like me you are on a bare bones pay as you go plan). On the other hand, sending one message (and paying for that single message send) and then having it distributed by Twitter to a cast of thousands represents a massive cost saving waiting to be exploited for those who are addicted to texting.

Of course the rather naïve “what are you doing?” question that is supposedly at the philosophical core of Twitter has been superceded by what is essentially a “what do you want to say?” question. Like so much of what we consider to be “Web 2.0” technology, the Twitter service has above all become a tool for expressing one’s self and observing the self-expressions of others. Charles Arthur, writing in The Guardian today, does a neat job of summarising the power that this form of communication can have, particularly when coupled with a wireless and borderless transmission mechanism:

An American student is arrested in Egypt, and manages to send a brief text with a single word – “ARRESTED” – which is picked up around the world, and leads quickly to his release, helped by a lawyer hired by his university back in the US. In Britain, the prime minister’s office decides people should be able to find out what their premier is doing; as of today, more than 2,000 people do. During an interview at the SXSW festival in March, audience dissatisfaction with Sarah Lacy’s interviewing style with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spills over into silent but powerful discourse among the audience: one calls it a “train wreck”. People fleeing from fires in California say where they are; that proves more useful and timely than official goverment information.

The possibilities in a political sense are worth considering for a moment. Arthur mentions above the use of Twitter by Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s staff; already the technology is being used by some of the most important people and in some of the most important organisations in the world. Twitter also provides an additional real-time avenue for social and political discourse, apart from the ubiquitous buzzing of Blackberries, which for the time being at least, remain primarily a plaything for young corporate foot soldiers. Although discussions are of course by necessity going to be abbreviated by the limitations of the SMS and also Twitter platforms (e.g. messages are limited to 140 characters), one can already envisage the node-to-node interactive power that could be leveraged to enhance our experience of the world.

Consider for example a televised political debate between two leaders. Active and co-ordinated users of Twitter would hardly need the infamous studio audience “worm” to get a feeling for how both leaders are faring amongst people whose opinion they respect; the stream of comments flooding in to their mobile phone via SMS would do that for them. It would almost certainly be more entertaining and enlightening than the crusty old “worm” to boot!

In short, Twitter is a service that does not really break new ground in a technological sense – we already have powerful means of communicating with each other in our increasingly wireless and borderless world. What this service does provide, however, is an intelligent and welcoming wrapper for the technologies that many of us are familiar with, but have not yet educated ourselves on or bothered to fully exploit. Twitter is arguably set to do for mobile communications what Blogger did for blogging.

Microsoft pans top-down content filtering

It is disappointing to read that the Rudd Government’s practically universally criticised Internet content filtering plan is slowly trundling onwards. Some controlled testing of ISP-level content filtering is reportedly set to take place in Tasmania, with tests scheduled to complete in July 2008. This is despite the ACMA’s own advice that filtering social networking sites (and indeed, blogs) is likely to prove a challenge for any content filtering system, and that education is likely a better method for modulating access to questionable material.

If the government needed any more persuading that its internet content filtering plan needs to be buried in a hurry, it doesn’t need to look much further than this story from Mark Sweney in The Guardian today. Matt Lambert, Microsoft’s Head of Corporate Affairs, had this to say about top-down online content filtering such as the scheme being progressed by Federal Labor:

But Lambert rejected the idea of a mandatory setting of content filters to a high security level, arguing that it would block too much content that posed no risk to children.Lambert said a better solution would be for parents to be better educated about what their children are looking at online and what content filters are available.

“Setting [filtering controls] at a high level is the equivalent to blocking the internet … it would be living in the dark ages in my view.” 

I would be interested to know just how many dollars are being wasted pursuing this sensationalist, curiously backward initiative each day. If the Federal Opposition are looking for a dud policy from Labor to score some easy points on, it is quite unlikely to find one more useful than this. The whole concept seems to only continue to survive on the scent of an oily rag; namely pandering to social conservatives who wouldn’t know what the Internet was if it bit them on the arse. Or what top-down content filtering really means until they can’t find websites describing certain anatomical body parts or “swear words” without calling Telstra and having the rest of the Internet turned back on.

Different people will want different levels of restrictions on content, and the government’s universalist approach on this issue is bound to please just about nobody. Some will be upset that the content filtering does not go far enough. Some will be upset that it goes too far. The numbers of people who are happy with what content is being filtered out are likely to be quite small at the end of the day.