Dream it. Build It.

Dream It. Print It.
[This is also on the BBC News website, athttp://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/10089419.stm ]

Imagine a school where a student could sketch out an idea for new design of bicycle and not only draw it in 3-D using a computer-aided design package but actually create a scale-model and test it out, using inexpensive materials and a special printer that they can build themselves in the classroom.

That’s the vision put forward by Ben O’Steen, a software engineer with a social conscience who is thinking about the implications of a world where 3-D printers are no longer just expensive prototyping systems for large companies but have fallen into the hands of the masses.

He has been inspired by the RepRap, a desktop 3D printer capable of printing plastic parts by extruding a heated thermoplastic polymer under computer control, which then sets as it cools and makes a usable object. The RepRap project was started in 2005 by Adrian Bowyer, who teaches mechanical engineering at Bath University. The schematics and all aspects are freely licensed for anyone to implement or adapt, and the current version, called ‘Mendel’, can be built for around £350. It makes objects from a cheap plastic made from corn starch, so is well within school budgets.

The project has inspired thousands of people around the world, with websites dedicated to helping people make their own RepRap and get it working, and online schematics for objects from coathangers to working whistles to models of Gothic cathedrals – that one is available at a website called the ‘Thingiverse’

Although I’d come across the RepRap before it had always been an abstract idea, but seeing Ben talk with such enthusiasm about its potential in education and elsewhere brought home its transformative potential, and made me realise that the future has already arrived, even if it is not yet widely distributed.
And while a technology that offers people the ability to manufacture complex objects at home or in the office is enormously disruptive, we can at least see this one coming. Some writers of speculative fiction have already started engaging with it, including Bruce Sterling, in his lovely short story ‘Kiosk’, and Cory Doctorow, whose novel ‘Makers’ offers us an imagined world of printed objects and an emergent culture of 3-D makers who directly challenge many of the core assumptions of industrial society.

I heard Ben speak about the RepRap at a recent conference organised by the Open Knowledge Foundation, along with many other programmers, scholars and activists committed to making all kinds of information available to be freely used, reused, and redistributed, from ‘sonnets to statistics, genes to geodata’ as their website puts it.
His talk was the highlight of the day for me, partly because he had brought a collection of props with him but also because his focus on real-world objects bridged the gap between the sometimes dry discussion of open databases and LinkedData and the day-to-day experiences of the vast majority of people whose lives don’t revolve around technology.

As with so many advocates of free and open source solsutions, Ben and his friends are also planning to turn engagement into action by offering to help groups that want their own RepRap get off the ground by printing off the plastic parts needed to build your own.
Because one of the really exciting things about the RepRap is that it can make its own parts, or at least it can make the plastic ones – you can’t yet print circuit boards or metal components – so once someone has one they can help to spread the technology. Just as the easy availability of powerful computers, large hard drives and fast networks has exposed the inadequacies of copyright laws designed in an age when infringement required a printing press or a CD-burning factory, 3-D printing will soon come up against laws made in a world of factories and machine tools, and the battle is likely to be even more intense than that over music and films. Fortunately for those of us who believe in open data and an open society the intellectual ground for a remodelling of old forms of regulation is already being prepared by the Open Knowledge Foundation and others, so I’m slightly optimistic that we won’t be arguing about the provisions of the ‘DigitalModelling Bill’ in ten years time.

Bill’s Links

RepRap: http://reprap.org/wiki/Main_Page
Ben O’Steen’s talk: http://benosteen.wordpress.com/2010/04/25/making-the-physical-from-the-digital/
Get your own RepRap plan:
The Thingiverse: http://www.thingiverse.com/
Open Knowledge Foundation: http://www.okfn.org/
Open Shakespeare: http://www.openshakespeare.org/
Bruce Sterling: Kiosk http://www.wattpad.com/75756-Kiosk-by-Bruce-Sterling
Cory Doctorow: Makers http://craphound.com/makers/download/

Posted via email from billt’s posterous

Facebook Privacy Disaster. Not.

In a shocking development Facebook has yet again stripped away the last veil of privacy from its hundreds of millions of users by exposing their interest in controversial topics, religious affiliation and vampire tendencies to the scrutiny of marketers, potential employers and anyone else who cares to take an interest.

That, at least, would be the impression anyone gained on reading the recent press release from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, ‘Facebook Further Reduces Your Control Over Personal Information‘ [see http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2010/04/facebook-further-reduces-control-over-personal-information], which says that Facebook has ‘removed  its users’ ability to control who can see their own interests and personal information. Certain parts of users’ profiles, ‘including your current city, hometown, education and work, and likes and interests” will now be transformed into “connections,” meaning that they will be shared publicly’, and goes on to note that ‘if you don’t want these parts of your profile to be made public, your only option is to delete them’.

The release complains that this will expose all sorts of information, and worries that turning the list of interests entered in a profile into separate pages with which users are associated will ‘create public lists for controversial issues, such as an interest in abortion rights, gay marriage, marijuana, tea parties and so on.’

Leaving aside the assumption that nobody would want to be publicly associated with a controversial topic, because apparently confessing to political interests is as embarrassing as talking about how you like to squeeze spots onto a mirror, the major problem with the EFF piece is that it completely overstates what Facebook is doing and presents it in the worst possible light.  

Go to the Facebook release announcing the change at http://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=382978412130 and it says quite clearly that the new service is opt-in from the start and that you can disable either the entire feature or just choose which ‘connections’ you want to be part of:

Opt-in to new connections: When you next visit your profile page on Facebook, you’ll see a box appear that recommends Pages based on the interests and affiliations you’d previously added to your profile. You can then either connect to all these Pages—by clicking “Link All to My Profile”—or choose specific Pages. You can opt to only connect to some of those Pages by going to “Choose Pages Individually” and checking or unchecking specific Pages. Once you make your choice, any text you’d previously had for the current city, hometown, education and work, and likes and interests sections of your profile will be replaced by links to these Pages. If you would still like to express yourself with free-form text, you can still use the “Bio” section of your profile. You also can also use features and applications like Notes, status updates or Photos to share more about yourself.

Yes, this service will be useful to marketers and those trying to advertise, but it might also be useful for those of us with interests in obscure topics as it could help us hook up with the dozen other people around the world who really care about the ongoing career of former Clash drummer Terry Chimes. Yes, it changes the way Profiles work and will force people to present their data in a different way, moving some information from the interests section to the bio section. But whatever it is, it is not a privacy disaster and does not merit the scare-mongering headline on the EFF pronouncement.

The danger of this sort of overstatement is that it makes it much harder to draw attention to the real mistakes, like the default settings for Google Buzz when it launched, or Facebook’s Beacon advertising programme.  Arguing that the sky is falling in every time there’s a new service or a change to privacy options doesn’t help at all, and the EFF and other campaigning organisations should realise this. Getting people to care about how these services offer and appreciate the importance of default settings and how what danah boyd calls ‘personally embarrassing information’ can be exposed is a long and slow process, and it is undermined by this sort of misleading over-reaction.  Much as I admire EFF and their work, this was sloppy and needs to be fixed.

Posted via email from billt’s posterous

Power to the People

[This is also on the BBC News website at

With the Digital Economy Act now law, a digital election taking place
around us, and more media coverage of Apple’s latest shiny electronic
toy than anyone could read in a lifetime the sense that the world
belongs to the wired can sometimes seem overwhelming.

One aspect of this digital triumphalism is a disturbing tendency on
the part of the technologically privileged, a group of which I am
clearly a member, to express incomprehension as to why anyone might
choose not to be online, not to have home broadband, not to set up a
Facebook profile or reveal their whereabouts through Rummble and not
to tweet incessantly about their desire for the latest laptop, tablet
or smartphone.

The reason may be that, as with any elite group, membership has its
privileges but exacts a price. For the Inner Party in George Orwell’s
Nineteen Eighty-Four it was the ability to acknowledge that the proles
mattered, while we seem to have lost the ability to “decentre” and see
the world from the viewpoint of another.

The term was coined by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget to
describe something that most of us manage to achieve in early
childhood but evidently lose as soon as we get a smartphone with an
unlimited data plan, at which point we start seeing those who choose
not to go online as ‘digital refuseniks’

I’m not talking here about those who cannot get online either because
they lack the resources or they live in areas of limited connectivity.
Many groups and organisations are working hard to get them connected,
and they do a great job in difficult circumstances.

People like Helen Milner, the dedicated and effective managing
director of the , recently-appointed UK Digital Champion Martha Lane
Fox, Gail Bradbrook at Citizens Online and Gill Adams at Digital
Unite, which specialises in helping people over 50 use IT and
organises Silver Surfer Day each year, are motivated, competent and
effective, and we should all do what we can to support them.

But there are others who could evidently afford a computer and an
internet connection yet choose not to take advantage of the
opportunity to sign up and surf the web, and we should not neglect

If, as I do, you believe in the benefits to society and to the
individual that come from being able to use online services and tools
with confidence then making people aware of these benefits and
changing their mind about what the internet has to offer is as much a
part of the wider campaign for social justice as ensuring that
everyone who is entitled to state benefits receives them in full.

And unless we can persuade them that it is worth going online we will
all suffer, simply because real social change will only come about
when everyone has access and everyone can use online services and

Part of the problem is that “selling” the internet to people who don’t
perceive their lives as lacking requires them to imagine themselves
doing things which seem either trivial, boring or simply unnecessary,
but this is an issue that has faced many technologies throughout the

There is a wonderful parody of a monk having to be taught how to use a
“book” from the Norwegian TV show “Øystein og jeg” in 2001 that is now
all over YouTube. BoingBoing, the group blog that bills itself as a
“directory of wonderful things”, recently featured a pamphlet
published in 1916 by the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company
that tried to explain why it was worth having an electric supply to
your house.

Home electricity was a hard thing to sell because people used to gas
lighting and the domestic equipment of the time simply could not
imagine what electricity might be used for. As a result the focus is
on the transformative power of the electric light, because it is easy
to describe and easy to illustrate.

Of course the power cable that allows you to have light also lets you
do many other things, and a hundred years later we can easily imagine
electric versions of most devices, from toothbrushes to air
conditioning, but those trying to sell electricity at the time faced a
significant challenge.

A lot of the effort being made to promote the internet today relies on
a similar strategy, focusing on the educational value of the net or
the ability to have video chats with your grandchildren. It’s
understandable, but clearly ineffective for a small but significant
proportion of the population.

Unlike 1916 when even the people selling electricity had no clear idea
of how it might be used in the future we can tell much about the shape
of the information society. And we need to start talking about it in
ways that emphasise the ability of the network-connected computers to
improve our lives, help us build a sustainable economy that will not
make the biosphere inhospitable and provide education, healthcare and
a sense of community for all.

I am not blindly optimistic about technology, and I do not think that
these benefits will come about simply because we all get online, but I
do firmly believe that the internet is one of the best tools on offer
to create a better world, and that we need to work harder to get this
point across to those who see Facebook being bullied into adding a
“panic” button to its website and believe that this is all the network
can give us.

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Who is Watching You?

Surveillance and social constructivism: 
or why being watched is dangerous for us all

There is a pervasive myth that each individual human possesses a ‘personality’, a collection of behaviours, instincts, beliefs and other characteristics that persist over time and mark each of us as somehow distinguishable from and separate from each other.

It is a comforting myth, one that hides the more mundane reality that personality is really the product of environment, defined by the brute physical reality of the world and by our interactions with other people.  

Each of us exists only in so far as we are defined by the spaces we create between other people, our personalities abstracted from the day-to-day and moment-to-moment encounters.  If there is consistency across time it is only because we generally find ourselves in situations which are similar to the recent past – the fragmentation and restructuring of personality when a person is transplanted into a wholly new environment is well-attested, and each of us has experienced the sense of anomie and dislocation that comes with a new relationship, a new home or simply a particularly exotic holiday.

This model of personality as abstraction, as a construction rather than a constant or essential aspect of human existence, gives us one of the more philosophical arguments against the growing surveillance society.  

If we define ourselves as the space between the people we encounter, then we must know something about those people in order to have personalities shaped by them.  But surveillance, by cameras or listening devices or web-based monitoring or keylogging, is done by people we do not know, for purposes of which we are often unaware.  

We cannot shape the person we want to be around our understanding of the watchers because we know nothing of them – certainly nothing specific enough to allow us to carry out the daily act of creation which conjures a reasonably coherent personality from the mass of of sensations, perceptions and emotions which make up the raw material of conscious perception in human society.

And as a result our boundaries become more fluid, our outlines less certain, and the nature of our interactions with other people less well-defined.  We become blurred, unable to mark ourselves out clearly, unable adequately to delineate the boundaries of character or personality.  Society loses clarity of purpose as the individuals who make it up lose the power of individuation, and eventually all that can be observed by the all-seeing watchers is a soup of undifferentiated behaviours, attitudes and affect.

Perhaps the watched society is no society at all, but a hive.

Sent from my iPad

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The iPad as a Blogger’s Tool

I am writing this on my iPad, using the WordPress app so I can work on a post offline and then update it when I get latched on to a network. I’m still getting used to the onscreen keyboard, which is decent enough apart from having to search for punctuation and the autocorrect – which I may turn off as it is less useful on a tablet device than a phone, especially when much of my technical vocabulary isn’t in the dictionary.

As someone who has carried a laptop around for most of the last fifteen years simply having a computing device with me is far from a major step forward but the format of the ipad might encourage me to write more often and to work on stuff when I only have a couple of minutes free, a time period to small to justify pulling out even a fast-starting MacBook. We will see.

I’m planning to spend a few days without my laptop to force me to engage with the pad. I’ve acquired a MiFi after John Naughton showed me how useful they are – and am using it to post this. And I will report on my experiences. Should be fun.

The Day the Web Turned Day-Glo

The Day the Web Turned Day-Glo

[This is also on the BBC News website at
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/technology/8598871.stm ]

Anyone with a few minutes to spare online might enjoy visiting
Chatroulette, the finest expression of punk mentality from the
emerging internet generation that I’ve yet come across. It’s not hard
to play, as there are only three rules. You have to be aged 16 or
over. You’re asked to “please stay clothed”. And you can alert the
management by clicking F2 “if you don’t like what you see”. Click ‘New
Game’ to start a game, give the service access to to your camera and
microphone and you begin a video conversation with a random stranger.

That’s it.

Chatroulette uses Adobe Flash to turn on the camera and microphone on
a visitor’s computer and register their IP address with the site. It
then connects that user with another, random IP address and opens up a
connection between the two, so you can start to chat.

Even though it’s getting millions of users, Chatroulette is very
scalable because, like the original Napster, the data doesn’t actually
go through the Chatroulette site itself.

Instead it uses Flash’s peer-to-peer streaming service to make a
direct link between the two computers and only has to keep track of
the IP addresses and “next” calls.

It is also causing an enormous fuss, largely because it is unmediated,
requires no registration or verification and is open to every
exhibitionist, deviant and random stranger online.

My son reckons he is getting a ratio of 14 naked men to one worthwhile
conversation, which sounds about right for a service that is intended
to do for video chat what Twitter has done for communication in 140
characters or less, and show us the real potential of the unfettered
connectivity that the internet makes possible.

Of course it’s a scandal, and of course it is potentially corrupting
and dangerous, though the random nature of the connection and the lack
of any way to choose who you talk to mean that the chances of coming
across someone in the same country never mind the same city or town
are vanishingly small.

Yes, someone could use it to make contact by writing their email
address or phone number on a card or calling it out as soon as a
connection is made, but you’d have to be pretty stupid to think of
this as a reliable way to make new friends or find victims.

The point about Chatroulette is that is has no point, that it strips
away the wooden panelling from this finely modelled room we call the
internet to reveal all the workings beneath and show that in the end
it’s just a space for making connections between people.

It reminds me of the day in 1977 when I went into the sixth form
common room at Southwood Comprehensive School in Corby and my mate
Dougie Gordon played me his newly-arrived copy of God Save The Queen
and everything I thought I knew about politics, music and revolution
coalesced around the Sex Pistols into a punk sensibility that has
stayed with me ever since.

Chatroulette is a pure expression of that punk spirit, delivered
through the tools available to today’s teenagers rather than the
electric guitar and seven-inch single of my childhood, and the anger
with which it has been received by the establishment is a testament to
its disruptive potential.

The kids have arrived online – Chatroulette creator Andrey Ternovskiy
is the same age as the Mosaic browser – and they want to shape it in
their image.

I hope they pull it off, though in another echo of punk history
Ternovskiy is already being wooed by the majors to sign up and sell
out, and the temptation to turn his rebellion into money must be
intense. Rather like Jimmy, the punk-precursor hero of The Who’s
Quadrophenia, he is under pressure to conform from his parents as his
mother doesn’t like the way Chatroulette can be used.

Perhaps he will stay true to punk, like Joe Strummer of The Clash or
Siouxsie Sioux. Perhaps he’ll sell out like Johnny Rotten and we’ll
see Chatroulette used to advertise butter.

But whatever may happen to his site the impact will be felt as other
kids realise that they can pick up a keyboard and become punk
programmers, just as my generation picked up a guitar and learned
three chords. Chatroulette’s launch was the day the net turned
day-glo, and Poly Styrene and X Ray Spex would be so proud.

Posted via email from billt’s posterous