Big problem

October 31, 2012

In an editorial entitled “Why we can’t solve big problems” in the MIT Technology Review Jason Pontin does more than consider ‘big problems’, his piece leads to broader thinking as to what are ‘big problems’, and what problems science can actually deal with. With a background of the billions of dollars and the hundreds of thousands of people employed in the US space programme as an example of an earlier ‘big problem’, and transfers into the contrasting role of the relatively trivial developments funded by venture capitalism in today’s world. The conclusion is that there isn’t the political will, supported by the wider public,to solve these ‘big problems’ or even to attack some of the smaller ones that make them up. As Pontin accepts many of the problems are resolvable in technological terms but the harder problems are the social and political background ones that will allow us to direct resources at their solution.

Whilst I accept much of what Pontin says I do not believe problem resolution is anywhere near that straightforward. Even small problems that appear resolvable through the technological lens suddenly create other issues when attacked. Curing diseases brings more mouths to feed, which brings famine, sorting out famine increases the population and land and water requirements, and no amount of technology can control the elemental forces of the weather, earthquakes and unknown disasters to come. Yes, politicians and policy are an answer to some ‘big problems’ but we cannot entirely control planetary destiny.


Social voting

July 21, 2012

Two different stories bring together how Facebook is becoming used more in public life. The first is from the MIT Technology Review dated 12 July 2012 by David Zax and is entitled “Facebook, CNN, and the Rise of Social Voting“, the second appears on The Register of 18 July 2012 and is written by Neil McAllister and headed “Washington State to allow voter registration via Facebook“. The first piece with its subtitle of “Can technology disrupt democracy” is possibly the scariest, although it mainly concerns the development of a Facebook app by CNN that permits endorsement of candidates and issues, along with a commitment to vote, by Facebook users. The piece also names a few related applications: ElectNext, Votizen and PopVox. What is perhaps concerning in the first case is that due to the ‘now’ factor involved in social media voting might be reflecting journalistic leads from CNN.

The second piece is a much simpler use of Facebook with Washington State (not DC!) harvesting names and dates-of-birth from Facebook into their voter registration system. This will obviously require the originating user to be real and the data to be accurate. I recall attempts in the UK to register Mickey Mouse and the pet hamster on more than one occasion!

In general it does indicate a general look to social media to increase democratic input. However, if someone can’t fill out a registration form occasionally and turn up at a polling station every so often, representative democracy is dead and we need to be looking at a new way of delivering it – as Marshall Ganz has said “the chance for people to become actors and not just spectators in the drama of life”. [New Statesman, 16 July 2012, p.54].

Social media mischief

July 3, 2012

As has been reported on this blog before social media can be used for good and bad. The latest example of the mischief making variety to appear on my horizon is from the MIT Technology Review where they report on how a spamming war has been taking place in the Mexican presidential elections. The piece ‘Twitter Mischief Plagues Mexico’s Election’ by Mike Orcutt describes how ‘bots’ were being used by candidates to denigrate their opposition.

Given the human inclination to employ any tool developed for good purposes for an alternative, less ethically sound one, this is should probably come as no surprise. However, as with the development of software viruses, spam and the other potential deterrents such misuse is only likely to deter those fence-sitting potential users of new technology or the younger, potentially apathetic voters, both of whom will disengage physically or mentally from that type of social media to avoid issues.

Digital entitlement

June 19, 2012

A blog piece from the MIT Technology Review dated 31 May 2012 entitled ‘There is No Digital Divide’ may generate some thinking. Mims exemplifies a lack of iPad or broadband being a block on social mobility as current examples of being on the wrong side of the current ‘digital divide’. He picks up on a piece in the New York Times by Gawker – “Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era” purporting that the lower social orders waste their time on the Internet, along with a response by Jessie Daniels that claimed he’d missed the point.

Daniels argues that the term ‘digital divide’ hasn’t what the social sciences describe as suitable current ‘frame’ or set of references or definition. Once upon a time it meant no desktop computer but these days we have mobile phones capable of much more. We’re using ‘affluent white men’ as a standard, whilst other communities, which may be seen as poor or different in racial or sexuality terms employ technology but in a different manner. These communities still need ‘digital fluency’ or ‘digital entitlement’ but it shouldn’t necessarily be approached in the same angle as a ‘affluent white man’ would employ the medium.

A key example is that adolescents need assistance in discerning ‘cloaked’ sites from reliable ones, and good information sources from bad ones, and Daniels believes this is quite easy to teach, but is different from the skill set a more affluent grouping might require. She then goes on to promote Howard Rheingold’s new book ‘Net Smart’, and suggests it should be included in training plans for schools.

I suspect there is some truth here but a lack of broadband in some areas is still creating a massive separation when it comes to potential economic development or even people just doing their homework. Framing is necessary, but so is infrastructure.

IBM take on BYOD

June 2, 2012

A really insightful piece in the MIT Technology Review of 21 May 2012 entitled ‘IBM Faces the Perils of “Bring Your Own Device”‘ by Brian Bergstein should be compulsory reading for all those considering a BYOD approach. Encouraging staff to use their own PC’s or ‘phones was originally seen by some beancounters and bosses as a way of reducing capital expenditure. It also permitted those same bosses to play with the latest toys without being seen to be affect the procurement policy. IBM have recognised the potential pitfalls.

To prevent issues many organizations allowing BYOD install a ‘sandbox’ to prevent incursion into their secure networks. IBM has gone a little further and some of the measures include:

  • barring various apps including Dropbox
  • configuring devices so that they can be wiped remotely if lost
  • disable public file transfer apps

Unfortunately. as those in government immediately identified, it caused problems with the security policy. If, as in the UK, one had to pay regard to the CESG guidelines, one was immediately contravening them. In the private sector there is less compulsion to honour the ‘spooks’ but there are still best practice guidelines to adhere to. IBM’s CIO feels they are being conservative in theeir measures, I believe they are just taking care of IBM’s data.

If this was the public sector, these should be average measures, especially when one considers the size of the Information Commissioner’s fines these days. So, taking into account the costs of securing personal devices, is it any cheaper to permit them and lock them down?