Category Archives: The Internet

Closing the Digital Lid

I began teaching a new course last week, as so many other teachers everywhere did, and, as is my wont, I asked my students for ‘lids down’ on the laptops which inevitably appear on their desks as they first arrive and sit down. The rationale of course is that their computers are open in order for them to “take notes,” but we can all be rightly skeptical of that practice. The online distractions are simply too many and varied for that to be consistently true, given the perfect visual block that the flipped-up lids present to we instructors stranded on the back side of that web portal.

It’s interesting to note that recent research indicates that students who take notes longhand, as compared to on their laptops, fare better in recalling the substance of the course material than do their keyboarding counterparts. And the longhanders score better not only in factual recall; conceptually they also respond more accurately and substantively to after-class questions, avoiding what the researchers refer to as the keyboarders’ “shallower processing.”

It’s a contentious issue among educators of course. Some suggest that we instructors should ‘embrace’ the digital realm in our classrooms, allowing students to tweet as we speak, ask questions anonymously, fact check, all that. A richer, more vibrant educational environment is the result, say these internet enthusiasts.

It depends upon class size, and certainly I wouldn’t object to laptops or handhelds open and operating during any kind of educational ‘field trip,’ but I came to the lids down position long before I heard about the recent research I’ve just mentioned, and I did so out of what may be seen as an old-school notion: common courtesy.

My classes are small—as writing classes they need to be—and I am always looking for what I refer to as ‘engagement in the process.’ Regardless of the quality of the writing produced, I’m looking for students to listen carefully at all times, to me as well as to their fellow students, to think, process, and respond with ideas that may or may not be helpful to the group process. That just isn’t happening, or at least not as well as it could be happening, if students are in two places at once. Except of course they are not two places at once; their attention is simply bouncing rapidly back and forth between those two places. What we describe as multitasking.

In that sense I’m looking for more than just common courtesy, but respectful attention is nevertheless at the heart of what I’m asking for in a classroom. Anything less is simply rude.

We’re all familiar with moments like this:

 

babycakes romero photo
babycakes romero photo

Where the so-called ‘digital divide’ has nothing to do with separate generations or genders; it’s the sad loss of a potential conversation, and I very much consider my classroom process a group conversation.

Or how about this image, taken from the CNN election night coverage:

CNN laptops

This is more precisely what I’m on about. These folks are gathered as pundits to discuss and enlighten the audience on the events of the evening, and clearly, as part of that endeavor, they can be expected to listen to one another, with their varied insights and political leanings, and we in the audience can be expected to profit by that exchange. But, with lids up, we may be sure that each pundit is periodically checking the screen while their fellow analyst is speaking. Why? I’m assuming it’s because they wish to check in on the very latest election data as it flows in. But this is CNN headquarters, where the data flowing all around them couldn’t be more up-to-the minute!

If you’re going to engage in a conversation with someone, group or otherwise, then do that, engage: listen carefully and respond thoughtfully. Not with just your own talking points, but with a reasoned response to what has just been said by your conversational partner.

Online addiction continues to engulf us. My own personal survey indicates that more than half of those of us walking outside are either staring into the virtual void or at least carrying the tool which connects us to that space. At a bus stop or in the subway car the great majority of us are guilty. And so it becomes increasingly difficult for us to unplug when we find ourselves a member of a group meant to communicate face to face.

When it comes to conversation and common courtesy, I guess it’s like what an old professor once said to me about common sense: ‘Not so common.’

Television’s Last Stand

I nearly cut the cord last week. I wanted to do it earlier, when the hockey and basketball playoffs ended, but some members of my household wanted to watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup, then it was the Pan Am Games…

Which is to say that, in our home at least, live sports is the last remaining reason to pay for cable TV.

It’s a good one, mind you. A hard-fought elite-level sports contest is simply the best entertainment around, involving strong characters, intense pressure, great achievements, profound loss, and far less predictability than 98% of the dramatic storytelling currently out there.

It’s also an incredibly lucrative business, especially for the pro players (not that I don’t think the money should go to those who play the game, as opposed to those who own the teams). Our appetite for professional sports continues to grow—the industry in the aggregate is now said to be worth more than $500 billion globally—and so the scope of the salaries earned by [mostly] men to play games has become patently absurd. The average salary of a Major League Baseball player, for instance, will exceed $4 million this year (That’s the average salary mind you; ‘A Rod,’ the New York Yankees star third baseman, may earn as much as $50 million this year, including marketing bonuses). If Joe Average Baseball Player were to play every minute of every game this summer (and he won’t), he will earn $8230 per hour of playing time. Patently absurd, given the utter lack of intrinsic social value attached to the work he does. Incidentally, Joe is also allotted $100 a day in meal money when he is on the road. Wouldn’t want him to feel the pinch in those expensive hotel restaurants.

But we fans have only ourselves to blame. We’re the ones who fill the stadiums, tune into the games, and yes, pay those cable TV fees, regardless of the cost. We’re the ones who seem to think that our team winning or losing somehow reflects well or poorly on us as individuals. In fact we use terms like “WE won” when a team of players whom we will never meet, and who are only rarely from our home town, never mind our home country, outscores another team that we don’t label ours. It’s more than a little odd.

What’s interesting though, is where the video marketing of big league sports is going. Surely with broadband expanding steadily, and video streaming gaining popularity by the day, it is only a matter of time before these sports franchises begin to control and market their games online, in high quality imagery. Forget ESPN or Rogers Sportsnet. These teams will find ways to make even more money by charging you directly to watch their games via their own internet channels, say in packages featuring certain opposing teams, maybe all home games, or of course with ‘tickets’ for individual games. How can it possibly not go this way?

Well, one possible way is for government agencies to prevent this sort of ‘vertical integration’ of the marketplace, akin to the 1948 antitrust case which prevented Hollywood studios from owning and operating their own theatres, to which they would grant exclusive rights to their movies. Like that case, will we see governments move to forestall undivided control of the production and distribution of sports entertainment?

It remains to be seen; the conventional TV networks have proven to be more resilient than many believed they would be in finding new revenue models (like money from Netflix), but the trends are there. TV viewing declined roughly 10% in the last year, and it’s not like the major sports franchises have to go out and build their brand. It’s there now for them, bigger and better than ever, primed for exploitation via a new medium.

5805107962_48e85060aa_zI’ll likely simply try, at some point, to renegotiate my deal with my cable TV provider. I’ll do my damndest to cherry pick just those channels which carry the games of the teams I like to follow, and my cable provider will do their damndest to ensure that I’m obliged to pick up as many channels as possible in order to do that. Shaw Cable, my provider, for instance and in most obnoxious fashion, spreads the Vancouver Canucks games over four or five of their various channels, then places those various channels in different packages, each of which costs more.

My desire for big league sports entertainment may be a passion which adds meaning to my life, or it may be a pathetic identification with a bunch of rich strangers. Either way, and even if the medium changes, one thing is certain: meeting that desire is not likely to get any cheaper.

Full Circle

There’s some interesting reading to be found in a paper released by the Canadian Media Production Association last week. It’s titled, Content Everywhere: Securing Canada’s Place in the Digital Future, and it offers up an effective survey of the current media landscape. At first glance, suffice it to say that recent trends continue:

* Video progressively rules on the internet—YouTube now has more than one billion unique viewers every month, with 100 hours of video uploaded every minute.

* ‘Cord cutting’, that is escaping the tyranny of cable ‘bundling,’ continues for consumers—an American who owns an iPad now has a 65% likelihood of being a member of the cord cutter tribe.

* As the market penetration of the so-called OTTs (‘Over The Top’ online streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu) continues to grow—one of the OTTs now reaches almost half of all American households; over 60% of the 18 – 24 demographic—they are moving increasingly into the financing of original content.

The ‘old boys’, the established television networks, know all about these trends of course, and so they have, in recent years, moved actively, if still hesitantly into the digital realm. In Canada, Bell Media launched Crave TV in 2014, Rogers and Shaw finally birthed Shomi, and CBC now has an online comedy channel called Punchline. (Conventional TV’s great strength increasingly remains of course in the provision of live events, mostly sports, but also news, and of course the odd award show, although it’s interesting to note that ratings for the Oscars this year were down about 15%.)

Ben Templesmith photo
Ben Templesmith photo

Overall, the evolving picture is of the online media industry maturing, in all the good and bad that that entails. Perhaps most disconcerting is a subtitle within the paper which reads: “Many things about OTT look like TV.” AOL greenlit 16 original series in 2014, all of them featuring major celebrities or movie stars. Pitch meetings with the big-league OTTs are usually booked through agents or entertainment lawyers these days. And we can all be sure that when David Fincher, after House of Cards, pitches his new series, he’ll be strolling into the Netflix offices past a long line of waiting, lesser-known producers who once hoped that the web would provide them with new and different opportunities. Sigh.

And of course, as the paper, points out, creators for the web face a unique set of additional challenges, even as the process morphs into something distressingly familiar. Chief among them are ‘discoverability,’ and an overcrowded marketplace. The gatekeepers for the online game may no longer be the same, but the smaller players still face a huge disadvantage when it comes to putting bums in the seats. They simply don’t have the resources to compete with the big guys at marketing, or at perhaps hiring the talent which comes with a built-in audience.

And finally, if you’re a Canadian hoping to succeed with online content, you face an added problem with financing, because as slow as the big broadcasters have been to move into the online space, the established ‘legacy’ funders, like Telefilm Canada and the tax credit programs, have been even more lead-footed. Because online revenues have been so difficult to realize, these agencies have been extra adept at shuffling their feet and avoiding eye contact whenever, for instance, documentary filmmakers with an online-only audience in mind have come calling.

I’m reminded of the final scenes in George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, when the pigs move into the farmhouse, begin to walk upright and wear clothes. Or of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s incisive explanation of Why Nations Fail, describing how it is that, following revolutions, tyrants like Robert Mugabe replace tyrants like Ian Smith, how Joseph Stalin replaces Csar Nicolas II. The digital revolution may not have yet completed itself, not yet come right round in what Acemoglu and Robinson term “the vicious circle,” but the streets have gone quiet again. It may be that no one has been sent off to a “knacker” or to the gulag, but if you were among those who dreamed of a better world, or maybe even who manned an online barricade, well, purchase a ticket and get in line. It seems that all along, the digital revolution was for sale, to the highest bidder.

Dark Matter

“The internet as we once knew it is officially dead.”                                                                                 Ronald Deibert, in Black Code

Although born of the military (see Origins, from the archives of this blog), in its infancy, the internet was seen as a force for democracy, transparency and the empowerment of individual citizens. The whole open source, ‘information wants to be free,’ advocacy ethos emerged and was optimistically seen by many as heralding a new age of increased ‘bottom up’ power.

Mike Licht photo
Mike Licht photo

And to a considerable extent this has proven to be the case. Political and economic authority has been undermined, greater public transparency has been achieved, and activist groups everywhere have found it easier to organize and exert influence. In more recent years, however, the dark, countervailing side of the internet has also become increasingly apparent, and all of us should be aware of its presence, and perhaps we should all be afraid.

Certainly Ronald Diebert’s 2013 book Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace should be required reading for anyone who still thinks the internet is a safe and free environment in which to privately gather information, exchange ideas, and find community. Diebert is Director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, and in that role he has had ample opportunity to peer into the frightening world of what he terms the “cyber-security industrial complex.” In an economy still operating under the shadow of the great recession, this complex is a growth industry that is estimated to now be worth as much as $150 billion annually.

It consists of firms like UK-based Gamma International, Endgame, headquartered in Atlanta, and Stockholm-based Ericsson, makers of Nokia phones. What these companies offer are software products that of course will bypass nearly all existing anti-virus systems to:

  • Monitor and record your emails, chats and IP communications, including Skype, once thought to be the most secure form of online communication.
  • Extract files from your hard drive and send them to the owners of the product, without you ever knowing it’s happened.
  • Activate the microphone or camera in your computer for surveillance of the room your computer sits in.
  • Pinpoint the geographic location of your wireless device.

These products can do all this and more, and they can do it in real time. Other software packages offered for sale by these companies will monitor social media networks, on a massive scale. As reported by the London Review of Books, one such company, ThorpeGlen, recently mined a week’s worth of call data from 50 million internet users in Indonesia. They did this as a kind of sales demo of their services.

The clients for these companies include, not surprisingly, oppressive regimes in countries like China, Iran and Egypt. And to offer some sense of why this market is so lucrative, The Wall Street Journal reported that a security hacking package was offered for sale in Egypt by Gamma for $559,279 US. Apparently the system also comes with a training staff of four.

Some of these services would be illegal if employed within Canada, but, for instance, if you are an Iranian émigré living in Canada who is active in opposition to the current Iranian regime, this legal restriction is of very little comfort. Those people interested in whom you’re corresponding with do not reside in Canada.

And even in countries like the US and Canada, as Edward Snowden has shown us, the national security agencies are not to be trusted to steer clear of our personal affairs. As Michael Hayden, former Director of the CIA, told documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, “We steal secrets,” and none of us should be naïve enough to believe that the CIA, if they should have even the remotest interest, won’t steal our personal secrets.

All of us have to get over our collective fear of terrorist attacks and push back on the invasion of our privacy currently underway on the web. The justification for this invasion simply isn’t there. You are about as likely to die in a terrorist attack as you are as the result of a piano falling on your head.

Neither should any of us assume that, as we have ‘done nothing wrong,’ we need not be concerned with the vulnerability to surveillance that exists for all the information about us stored online. Twenty years ago, if we had thought that any agency, government or private, was looking to secretly tap our phone line, we would have been outraged, and then demanded an end to it. That sort of intervention took a search warrant, justified in court. It should be no different on the web.

The Age of Surveillance

“Today’s world would have disturbed and astonished George Orwell.”                                        —David Lyon, Director, Surveillance Studies Centre, Queen’s University

When Orwell wrote 1984, he imagined a world where pervasive surveillance was visual, achieved by camera. Today’s surveillance is of course much more about gathering information, but it is every bit as all-encompassing as that depicted by Orwell in his dystopian novel. Whereas individual monitoring in 1984 was at the behest of a superstate personified as ‘Big Brother,’ today’s omnipresent watching comes via an unholy alliance of business and the state.

Most of it occurs when we are online. In 2011, Max Schrems, an Austrian studying law in Silicon Valley, asked Facebook to send him all the data the company had collected on him. (Facebook was by no means keen to meet his request; as a European, Schrems was able to take advantage of the fact that Facebook’s European headquarters are in Dublin, and Ireland has far stricter privacy laws than we have on this side of the Atlantic.) He was shocked to receive a CD containing more than 1200 individual PDFs. The information tracked every login, chat message, ‘poke’ and post Schram had ever made on Facebook, including those he had deleted. Additionally, a map showed the precise locations of all the photos tagging Schrem that a friend had posted from her iPhone while they were on vacation together.

Facebook accumulates this dossier of information in order to sell your digital persona to advertisers, as does Google, Skype, Youtube, Yahoo! and just about every other major corporate entity operating online. If ever there was a time when we wondered how and if the web would become monetized, we now know the answer. The web is an advertising medium, just as are the television and radio; it’s just that the advertising is ‘targeted’ at you via a comprehensive individual profile that these companies have collected and happily offered to their advertising clients, in exchange for their money.

How did our governments become involved? Well, the 9/11 terrorist attacks kicked off their participation most definitively. Those horrific events provided rationale for governments everywhere to begin monitoring online communication, and to pass laws making it legal wherever necessary. And now it seems they routinely ask the Googles and Facebooks of the world to hand over the information they’re interested in, and the Googles and Facebooks comply, without ever telling us they have. In one infamous incidence, Yahoo! complied with a Chinese government request to provide information on two dissidents, Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao, and this complicity led directly to the imprisonment of both men. Sprint has now actually automated a system to handle requests from government agencies for information, one that charges a fee of course!

It’s all quite incredible, and we consent to it every time we toggle that “I agree” box under the “terms and conditions” of privacy policies we will never read. The terms of service you agree to on Skype, for instance, allow Skype to change those terms any time they wish to, without your notification or permission.

And here’s the real rub on today’s ‘culture of surveillance:’ we have no choice in the matter. Use of the internet is, for almost all of us, no longer a matter of socializing, or of seeking entertainment; it is where we work, where we carry out the myriad of tasks necessary to maintain the functioning of our daily life. The choice to not create an online profile that can then be sold by the corporations which happen to own the sites we operate within is about as realistic as is the choice to never leave home. Because here’s the other truly disturbing thing about surveillance in the coming days: it’s not going to remain within the digital domain.

Coming to a tree near you? BlackyShimSham photo
Coming to a tree near you?
BlackyShimSham photo

In May of this year Canadian Federal authorities used facial recognition software to bust a phony passport scheme being operated out of Quebec and BC by organized crime figures. It seems Passport Canada has been using the software since 2009, but it’s only become truly effective in the last few years. It’s not at all difficult to imagine that further advances in this software will soon have security cameras everywhere able to recognize you wherever you go. Already such cameras can read your car’s license plate number as you speed over a bridge, enabling the toll to be sent to your residence, for payment at your convenience. Thousands of these cameras continue to be installed in urban, suburban and yes, even rural areas every year.

Soon enough, evading surveillance will be nearly impossible, whether you’re online or walking in the woods. Big Brother meets Big Data.

Storytelling 3.0 – Part 2

We tend to forget—at least I do—that, in the history of storytelling, movies came before radio. By about 15 years. The first theatre devoted exclusively to showing motion picture entertainment opened in Pittsburgh in 1905. It was called The Nickelodeon. The name became generic, and by 1910, about 26 million Americans visited a nickelodeon every week. It was a veritable techno-entertainment explosion.

The thing is, anyone at all—if they could either buy or create the product—could rent a hall, then charge admission to see a movie. To this very day, you are free to do this.

When radio rolled around—about 1920—this arrangement was obviously not on. It’s a challenge to charge admission to a radio broadcast. In fact, the first radio broadcasts were intended to sell radios; this was their original economic raison d’être.

Sadly, very quickly it became illegal to broadcast without a government granted license. (Oddly enough, the first licensed radio broadcast again originated from Pittsburgh.) And almost as quickly, sponsorship became a part of radio broadcasting. The price of admission was the passive audio receipt of an advertisement for a product or service.

An exhibit in the Henry Ford Museum, furnished as a 1930s living room, commemorating the radio broadcast by Orson Welles of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Maia C photo
An exhibit in the Henry Ford Museum, furnished as a 1930s living room, commemorating the radio broadcast by Orson Welles of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
Maia C photo

Radio shows were much easier and cheaper to produce than movies, and they weren’t always communal in the way movies were, that is they were not always a shared experience. (Although they could be—many a family sat around the radio in the mid part of the 20th century, engrossed in stories about Superman or The Black Museum.)

More importantly, as with book publishing, the gatekeepers were back with radio, and they were both public and private. No one could operate a radio station without a government license, and no one could gain access to a radio studio without permission from the station owner.

Then came television with the same deal in place, only more so. TV shows were more expensive to produce, but like radio, they lent themselves to a more private viewing, and access to the medium for storytellers was fully restricted, from the outset. As with radio, and until recently, TV was ‘free;’ the only charge was willing exposure to an interruptive ‘commercial.’

With the advent of each of these storytelling mediums, the experience has changed, for both storyteller and audience member. Live theatre has retained some of the immediate connection with an audience that began back in the caves (For my purposes, the storyteller in theatre is the playwright.), and radio too has kept some of that immediacy, given that so much of it is still produced live. But the true face-to-face storytelling connection is gone with electronic media, and whenever the audience member is alone as opposed to in a group, the experience is qualitatively different. The kind of community that is engendered by electronic media—say fans of a particular TV show—is inevitably more isolated, more disparate than that spawned within a theatre.

The first commercial internet providers came into being in the late 1980s, and we have since lived through a revolution as profound as was the Gutenberg. Like reading, the internet consumer experience is almost always private, but like movies, the access to the medium is essentially unrestricted, for both storyteller and story receiver.

And that, in the end, is surprising and wonderful. Economics aside for a moment, I think it’s undeniably true that never, in all our history, has the storyteller been in a more favorable position than today.

What does this mean for you and I? Well, many things, but let me climb onto an advocacy box for a minute to stress what I think is the most significant benefit for all of us. Anyone can now be a storyteller, in the true sense of the word, that is a person with a story to tell and an audience set to receive it. For today’s storyteller, because of the internet, the world is your oyster, ready to shuck.

Everyone has a story to tell, that much is certain. If you’ve been alive long enough to gain control of grunt and gesture, you have a story to tell. If you have learned to set down words, you’re good to go on the internet. And I’m suggesting that all of us should. Specifically what I’m advocating is that you write a blog, a real, regular blog like this one, or something as marvelously simple as my friend Rafi’s. Sure, tweeting or updating your Facebook page is mini-blogging, but no, you can do better than that.

Start a real blog—lots of sites offer free hosting—then keep it up. Tell the stories of your life, past and present; tell them for yourself, your family, your friends. Your family for one will be grateful, later if not right away. If you gain an audience beyond yourself, your family and friends, great, but it doesn’t matter a hoot. Blog because you now can; it’s free and essentially forever. Celebrate the nature of the new storytelling medium by telling a story, your story.

Handprints in the Digital Cave

There are now more than 150 million blogs on the internet. 150 million! That’s as if every second American is writing a blog; every single Russian is blogging in this imaginary measure, plus about another seven million.

The explosion seems to have come back in 2003, when, according to Technorati, there were just 100, 000 “web-logs.” Six months later there were a million. A year later there were more than four million. And on it has gone. Today, according to Blogging.com, more than half a million new blog posts go up everyday.

doozle photo
doozle photo

Why do bloggers blog? Well, it’s not for the money. I’ve written on numerous occasions in this blog about how the digital revolution has undermined the monetization of all manner of modern practices, whether it be medicine, or music or car mechanics. And writing, as we all know, is no different. Over the last year or so, I slightly revised several of my blog posts to submit them to Digital Journal, a Toronto-based online news service which prides itself on being  “a pioneer” in revenue-sharing with its contributors. I’ve submitted six articles thus far and seen them all published. My earnings to date: $4.14.

It ain’t a living. In fact, Blogging.com tells us that only eight per cent of bloggers make enough from their blogs to feed their family, and that more than 80% of bloggers never make as much as $100 from their blogging.

Lawrence Lessig, Harvard Law Professor and regular blogger since 2002, writes in his book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in a Hybrid Economy, that, “much of the time, I have no idea why I [blog].” He goes on to suggest that, when he blogs, it has to do with an “RW’ (ReWrite) ethic made possible by the internet, as opposed to the “RO” (Read Only) media ethic predating the internet. For Lessig, the introduction of the capacity to ‘comment’ was a critical juncture in the historical development of blogs, enabling an exchange between bloggers and their blog readers that, to this day, Lessig finds both captivating and “insanely difficult.”

I’d agree with Lessig that the interactive nature of blog writing is new and important and critical to the growth of blogging, but I’d also narrow the rationale down some. The final click in posting to a blog comes atop the ‘publish’ button. Now some may view that term as slightly pretentious, even a bit of braggadocio, but here’s the thing. It isn’t. That act of posting is very much an act of publishing, now that we live in a digital age. That post goes public, globally so, and likely forever. How often could that be said about a bit of writing ‘published’ in the traditional sense, on paper?

Sure that post is delivered into a sea of online content that likely and immediately floods it with unread information, but nevertheless that post now has a potential readership of billions, and its existence is essentially permanent. If that isn’t publishing, I don’t know what is.

I really don’t care much if any one reads my blog. As many of my friends and family members like to remind me, I suck at promoting my blog, and that’s because, like too many writers, I find the act of self-promotion uncomfortable. Neither do I expect to ever make any amount of money from this blog. I blog as a creative outlet, and in order to press my blackened hand against the wall of the digital cave. And I take comfort in knowing that the chances of my handprint surviving through the ages are far greater than all those of our ancestors who had to employ an actual cave wall, gritty and very soon again enveloped in darkness.

I suspect that there are now more people writing—and a good many of them writing well, if not brilliantly—than at any time in our history. And that is because of the opportunity to publish on the web. No more hidebound gatekeepers to circumvent. No more expensive and difficult distribution systems to navigate. Direct access to a broad audience, at basically no cost, and in a medium that in effect will never deteriorate.

More people writing—expressing themselves in a fully creative manner—than ever before. That’s a flipping wonderful thing.

Exponential End

Computers are now more than a million times faster than they were when the first hand calculator appeared back in the 1960s. (An engineer working at Texas Instruments, Jack Kilby, had invented the first integrated circuit, or semiconductor, in 1957.) This incredible, exponential increase was predicted via ‘Moore’s Law,’ first formulated in 1965: that is that the number of transistors in a semiconductor doubles approximately every two years.

Another way to state this Law (which is not a natural ‘law’ at all, but an observational prediction) is to say that each generation of transistors will be half the size of the last. This is obviously a finite process, with an end in sight.  Well, in our imaginations at least.

The implications of this end are not so small. As we all know, rapidly evolving digital technology has hugely impacted nearly every sector of our economy, and with those changes has come disruptive social change, but also rapid economic growth. The two largest arenas of economic growth in the U.S. in recent years have been Wall Street and Silicon Valley, and Wall Street has prospered on the manipulation of money, via computers, while Silicon Valley (Silicon is the ‘plate’ upon which a semiconductor is usually built.) has prospered upon the growing ubiquity of computers themselves.

Intel has predicted that the end of this exponential innovation will come anywhere between 2013 and 2018. Moore’s Law itself predicts the end at 2020. Gordon Moore himself—he who formulated the Law—said in a 2005 interview that, “In terms of size [of transistors] you can see that we’re approaching the size of atoms, which is a fundamental barrier.” Well, in 2012 a team working at the University of New South Wales announced the development of the first working transistor consisting of a single atom. That sounds a lot like the end of the line.

In November of last year, a group of eminent semiconductor experts met in Washington to discuss the current state of semiconductor innovation, as well as its worrisome future. These men (alas, yes, all men) are worried about the future of semiconductor innovation because it seems that there are a number of basic ideas about how innovation can continue past the coming ‘end,’ but none of these ideas has emerged as more promising than the others, and any one of them is going to be very expensive. We’re talking a kind of paradigm shift, from microelectronics to nanoelectronics, and, as is often the case, the early stages of a fundamentally new technology are much more costly than the later stages, when the new technology has been scaled up.

And of course research dollars are more difficult to secure these days than they have been in the past. Thus the additional worry that the U.S., which has for decades led the world in digital innovation, is going to be eclipsed by countries like China and Korea that are now investing more in R&D than is the U.S. The 2013 budget sequestration cuts have, for instance, directly impacted certain university research budgets, causing programs to be cancelled and researchers to be laid off.

Bell Labs 1934
Bell Labs 1934

One of the ironies of the situation, for all those of us who consider corporate monopoly to be abhorrent, is evident when a speaker at the conference mentioned working at the Bell Labs back in the day when Ma Bell (AT&T) operated as a monopoly and funds at the Labs were virtually unlimited. Among the technologies originating at the Bell Labs are the transistor, the laser, and the UNIX operating system.

It’s going to be interesting, because the need is not going away. The runaway train that is broadband appetite, for instance, is not slowing down; by 2015 it’s estimated that there will be 16 times the amount of video clamoring to get online than there is today.

It’s worth noting that predictions about Moore’s law lasting only about another decade have been made for the last 30 years. And futurists like Ray Kurzweil and Bruce Sterling believe that exponential innovation will continue on past the end of its current course due in large part to a ‘Law of Accelerating Technical Returns,’ leading ultimately to ‘The Singularity,’ where computers surpass human intelligence.

Someone should tell those anxious computer scientists who convened last November in Washington: not to worry. Computers will solve this problem for us.

Clicktivism

I first joined Amnesty International back in the early 80s.  I still have a thickish file containing carbon copies of the letters I wrote and sent back then, thwacked out over the hum of my portable electric typewriter.  Despite my efforts to keep them informed, A.I. didn’t do a particularly good job of tracking me as I moved about from place to place in the following years, but, nevertheless, on and off, I’ve been sending protest messages under their aegis for some 30 years now.

Scott Schrantz photo
Scott Schrantz photo

But these days it’s a whole lot easier.  These days I receive an email from them, outlining another outrage by an oppressive government somewhere, and I’m asked to simply ‘sign’ a petition.  They have my details on hand already, so all I need do is click to the petition page and click one more time.  Done.

It’s called ‘clicktivism,’ and, quite rightly, its comparative value is questionable.  In the 2011 book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), Siva Vaidhyanathan took this somewhat indirect swipe at the practice: “… instead of organizing, lobbying and campaigning… we rely on expressions of disgruntlement as a weak proxy for real political action.  Starting or joining a Facebook protest group suffices for many as political action.”

Writing in The Guardian a year earlier, Micah White made a much more direct attack: “In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal.  It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.”  White points out that clicktivism is largely activism co-opted by the techniques of online marketing.  The greater the emphasis on click-rates, bloated petition numbers and other marketing metrics, the cheaper the value of the message, according to White, resulting in “a race to the bottom of political engagement.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is that organizations like Amnesty pass their contact lists to other like organizations, presumably for compensation, without soliciting consent.  I did sign on with Avaaz, but I’ve never asked to receive emails from SumOfUs, Care2 Action Alerts, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, Plan Canada, the Council of Canadians, All Out, Change.org or Care Canada, but I do.  I will readily admit that many of those emails go unopened.

It’s a difficult phenomenon to come to terms with ethically.  These organizations are undoubtedly staffed by well-meaning people who genuinely believe they are making a difference.  And I’m sure that sometimes they do.  Yet there is also no doubt that the greatly facilitated process that clicktivism represents degrades more on-the-ground forms of political protest, and allows people like myself to make essentially meaningless contributions to worthy causes.  ‘Facilitate’ may be the operative word here, as in facile, meaning, according to Merriam Webster, “too simple; not showing enough thought or effort.”

December 10 is International Human Rights Day, as first proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1950.  Last year Amnesty International organized the sending of more than 1.8 million messages to governments everywhere on that date, asking them to respect the rights of people and communities under threat of persecution.  To their credit, in addition to urging their members to send messages, Amnesty is encouraging its members to organize or attend an event in their community or workplace on December 10.  They have targeted seven different cases of human rights abuse from around the globe for action.  These include Dr. Ten Aung, who was given a 17-year jail sentence in Myanmar last year after attempting to keep the peace between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohinyga Muslims; Ihar Tsikhanyuk, who has faced threats, intimidation and beatings in Belarus for attempting to register a group in support of LGBTI rights, and Badia East, from Nigeria, who, along with many of her neighbours, was left destitute and without compensation after authorities destroyed her home last February.

The problem with my problem with clicktivism is that it pales in comparison to the problems faced by these brave people on a daily basis.  And like so many other new processes made possible by digital technology, the change represented by online activism is not about to reverse itself.  We keep our eyes forward, think critically, and do what we can.  I’ll try to write a letter on December 10.

Brainstorming Becalmed

‘Brainstorming’ originated as a creative process back in the 50s, and it’s still remarkably popular today in both opinion and practice, especially within business circles.  The practice sees a number of people get together to ‘free associate’ and ‘toss out ideas’ in a fast-paced, noncritical context.  The emphasis is on quantity, not quality; the more ideas the better.

The belief behind brainstorming is that the group, once freed from the restraints of collective judgment, will come up with more and better ideas than will an individual working alone.

Except that it isn’t true.

Jessica Gale photo morgueFile
Jessica Gale photo
morgueFile

This is for me perhaps the single most intriguing point made by Susan Cain in her recent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  According to Cain, studies dating as far back as 1963 have quite conclusively shown that, when it comes to either creativity or efficiency, working in groups produces fewer and poorer results than when people work in quiet, concentrated solitude.

Go figure.  I’m reminded of the likewise commonly held misconception that the ‘venting’ of anger or resentment is good for us.  This belief holds that when we suppress feelings like anger, when we ‘bottle it up,’ the effort leads to all sorts of possible afflictions, from ulcers to insomnia.  Women are held to be particularly vulnerable, because of greater societal expectations of ‘ladylike’ behavior.

Well, once again, for quite some time now, science has been definitively showing that venting anger feeds rather than diminishes the flame.  Anger is generally far more destructive—of both our health and our relationships—when it is expressed than when it is suppressed, when it is allowed to diffuse over time.

The implications of the ‘brainstorming doesn’t work’ finding are especially significant when it comes to matters like the physical layout of the workplace.  Most of us know that when we take on a creative challenge, any form of distraction or interruption, whether it be background noise or a phone call, can be an impediment to our best work.  Thus if employers wish to get the best results from their employees, it follows that those employees should be provided with an environment where quiet concentration is possible.  Chocker block cubicles in a noisy workspace fall far short of this mark, I would suggest, never mind the kind of collective open-space chaos that one often sees in the high-tech working world.

There is, however, one equally interesting corollary to the fallacy of face-to-face brainstorming.  Electronic brainstorming does seem to work.  The so-called ‘hive mind’ has validity.  When academics work together on research projects, the results tend to be more influential than when they work in greater isolation or face-to-face.  Wikis are after all a kind of electronic brainstorming, and they have been shown to produce outcomes that no individual could hope to.

The key here is of course that such online collaboration is essentially ‘brainstorming in solitude.’  Online teamwork can be accomplished from individual places supporting both silence and focus.  It also tends to happen at a much slower pace than the classic brainstorming session.  Online brainstorming (if we can even properly call it that) may be the optimum balance between individual and group work.

Multitasking is a related practice that may also be the norm in the contemporary workplace, almost an admired skill.  We can proudly perform numerous tasks at once, keep various undertakings moving forward simultaneously.  It’s worth remembering however, that we can never in fact pay full attention to two things at once, much less several things.  We have simply learned to switch rapidly from one to the other.  Someone now needs to do a study as to whether multitasking—juggling numerous pieces of fruit at once—does in fact deliver better results than tossing one apple at a time into the air, and thus being able to pay full and close attention to the challenge.  All at once may look flashier than one thing at a time, but is it actually more productive?

The quiet, never mind silence, that allows for focused and full attention is a prized commodity in today’s accelerated world.  The lesson here, it seems to me, is that this precious commodity may not only be good for the soul; it’s good for business.