Follow in the footsteps of geeks

[As ever, this is on the BBC News website too]

About ten years ago I went on a family holiday to Cornwall, and one day I dragged my unwilling kids to a delightful but otherwise undistinguished beach so I could point out to them the spot where the world’s first undersea telegraph cable came ashore in 1870.

They were about as impressed by Porthcurno beach as they had been on our trip to the fabled Saxon burial site of Sutton Hoo, which my son memorably recalls as ‘mounds in a field’, but I felt a moment of geek joy that has stayed with me since.

That first cable linked Britain to India, and helped create a communications revolution that transformed the world. The telegraph, as Tom Standage makes clear in his excellent book, was ‘The Victorian Internet’, and undersea cables were vital to its development. The cable at Porthcurno was the precursor of the Seacom cable that has just gone live in Kenya, and is a direct antecedent of the complex web of fibre-optic cables that make today’s Internet possible.

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Learning to live offline

[This was on the BBC News website last week, but I’ve only just got round to posting it here… lazy, I know]

I have just endured a week of limited connectivity and it has given me a salutory lesson in what life is like for the digitally dispossed here in the UK and around the world.  I have been driven to searching for open wireless access points so that I can download my email, sometimes wandering the beach looking for elusive 3G signals just to get my Facebook status updated.

It was my own fault, of course. I spent a few days on the Norfolk coast with my son and some of his friends in a wifi-less cottage in an area that had poor 3G coverage, though I was probably less frustrated with lack of connectivity than he was, as he wanted to keep in touch with his mates back home while I was mostly on holiday.

Then I spent the weekend at the lovely Latitude Festival in deepest Suffolk, there to represent Writers’ Centre Norwich as we had supported some of the poets in the Poetry Tent. No wireless there, at least none that I could get connected to – there did seem to be a private network for the tech crew to use – and the phone networks were clearly swamped as text messages were taking two or three hours to be delivered while my 3G dongle repeatedly failed to connect.

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I Needed Music ‘cos I Had None…

The latest report on young people’s online music-finding habits from consumer research company The Leading Question has attracted a fair amount of coverage for its headline finding that UK teenagers use of filesharing services has dropped by a third.

‘Speakerbox’ polls a thousand young people, so it’s a reasonable survey although of course there’s a margin of error in any survey and a significant likelihood that the interpretation of the results will be driven by the predispositions of those reading them, demonstrating yet again what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn calls ‘theory-dependent observation’.
Music industry pollsters will inevitably look for a silver lining in the cloud of consumer behaviour, and a focus on the growth of legal services is to be expected.

But even with that caveat in mind, there has clearly been a shift in behaviour as more young people find licensed ways to listen to the music they want, watching YouTube videos, streaming songs through MySpace and Spotify and generally using legal avenues to find and enjoy the music of new bands like Florence and the Machine.

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Being Open About Secrecy

[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News website too]

It must be tricky to be an advocate of transparency when your job involves selling serious encryption tools to government departments, large and small companies, hospitals and people who are concerned about having their bank account details hijacked from a home PC.

After all, the point about good encryption software and the systems that surround it is that they provide a way to keep your secrets secret, while open government and the effective regulation of financial services would seem to require the widest possible dissemination of all sorts of operational data, from MPs expenses to bank investment portfolios.

And once something is on a website, in an email or available for inspection through a published program interface then it is no longer secret, however well the copy on your internal network might be protected. Continue reading “Being Open About Secrecy”

Giving Life a Shape

[This is also available to read on the BBC News website, as always]

One of the more interesting shifts in the technology world over the last quarter century has been the way that cultural organisations have gone from being the late adopters, inheriting office-oriented computer systems from business and making do with them, to being those leading the digital revolution in many areas.

When I worked with the Community Computing Network in the late 80s it was hard work persuading charities and voluntary organisations that having a computer to handle their member databases and print letters was worthwhile.

But now that there really is a computer on every desk and word processing, spreadsheets and databases are standard, arts organisations seem to be far more willing to engage and experiment with the latest tools, especially online.

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