Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘internet’

JT_TREE_TIGHTSQUARE_BLUE

I’ve been involved in a new Catholic website called Jericho Tree.

You can visit the site here. Do subscribe to the email list in the right-hand side-bar.

You can visit the Facebook page here. Please do publicise the site by liking the page.

And you can follow the Twitter feed here @jerichotree.

If you’ve got any feedback it’s most helpful to leave it on the site itself - on the feedback page here.

Logo-LARGE1

Here is the blurb from the ABOUT page.

Jericho Tree is a magazine-style website bringing together articles and videos about faith, culture, lifestyle and news – from a Catholic perspective.

The title ‘Jericho Tree’ refers to the meeting between Zacchaeus and Jesus in Chapter 19 of the Gospel of St Luke. As Jesus enters Jericho, Zacchaeus longs to see him, but he is too short, and the crowds are too big. So he climbs a tree in order to get a better view.

“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.

“When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.

“All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’”

The idea is to create a forum for great Catholic writing, mainly from a UK perspective, but with some international contributors as well; and to link to other articles and videos that take a fresh look at the world from a Catholic perspective. Quiet a few people have promised to write, and a few have already started. We’ll see how it develops over the next few months!

Read Full Post »

I learnt a new word for the new year: Disintermediation. It means cutting out the middle man through the use of new digital technology and business models.

Piggy in the middle

Piggy in the middle

Here is John Naughton’s explanation:

But disintermediation is now the mot de jour. It means wiping out the intermediary and that is what the internet does. Remember travel agents? Record shops? Bookshops? Book publishers?

For a long time, publishers maintained that, while the internet was certainly destroying the business models of other industries, book publishing was such a special business that it wouldn’t happen to them. After all, in the end, every author needs a publisher – doesn’t s/he? Only sad people go in for self-publication.

Er, not necessarily. The arrival and widespread acceptance of ebooks, together with on-demand printing and Amazon’s ebook publishing engine have transformed self-publishing from a dream to a reality. If you’ve written something and it’s in Microsoft Word format, then upload it to Amazon’s publishing engine, upload an image for the cover, choose a price and in about four hours it’ll be for sale on the web.

So it’s an important idea, which we have all bought into, even if we haven’t reflected on it very much.

But surely, on a dictionary aside, there is a better word for this? You can see the root: they have taken the word ‘intermediary’ and ‘dissed’ it to create the negative. But the word ‘immediate’ already means ‘with nothing in between, with nothing in the middle’. So I propose the word immediation instead. Let’s see if this takes off and gets me into the Best of 2013 lists at the end of the year.

Read Full Post »

With the Leveson Report just out, and the Year of Faith ongoing, I went back to the document Inter Mirifica, the Decree on the Media of Social Communications from the Second Vatican Council, promulgated on 4 December 1963.

Double Octuple Newspaper Press  by Sue Clarke

It has to be said that this is not the most celebrated of the documents from Vatican II. Many commentators think that it was not creative enough, not sensitive to the moment, not aware of the need for the Church to open out to the world. But it’s interesting to read – fifty years later – the two main paragraphs that concern what we would now call ‘media ethics’ (see paragraphs 5 and 12 copied below).

The primary concern is to protect the freedom of the press, and to highlight the importance of a free media for the common good. I don’t know the background to the document well, but one of the defining features of the political landscape will have been the Cold War, and the multiple threats to freedom that were emerging in Eastern Bloc countries. The main worry for the Council fathers was not press intrusion but state intrusion. So they assert the ‘right to information’.

Nevertheless, this right is not absolute. It requires truth, justice, charity; respect for the laws of morality and the rights and dignity of individuals; and the manner of communication should be ‘proper and decent’. Public authority should protect this freedom of information, but it is also obliged ‘to exercise a fitting and careful watch lest grave damage befall public morals and the welfare of society through the base use of these media’. The language is almost archaic; the meaning is clear.

So you can’t move from Inter Mirifica to a concrete conclusion about which recommendations in the Leveson report to implement, but there are some helpful principles here which seem as relevant as they were fifty years ago.

Here are the relevant paragraphs:

5. It is, however, especially necessary that all parties concerned should adopt for themselves a proper moral outlook on the use of these media, especially with respect to certain questions that have been vigorously aired in our day.

The first question has to do with “information,” as it is called, or the search for and reporting of the news. Now clearly this has become most useful and very often necessary for the progress of contemporary society and for achieving closer links among men. The prompt publication of affairs and events provides every individual with a fuller, continuing acquaintance with them, and thus all can contribute more effectively to the common good and more readily promote and advance the welfare of the entire civil society. Therefore, in society men have a right to information, in accord with the circumstances in each case, about matters concerning individuals or the community. The proper exercise of this right demands, however, that the news itself that is communicated should always be true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity. In addition, the manner in which the news is communicated should be proper and decent. This means that in both the search for news and in reporting it, there must be full respect for the laws of morality and for the legitimate rights and dignity of the individual. For not all knowledge is helpful, but “it is charity that edifies.”

12. The public authority, in these matters, is bound by special responsibilities in view of the common good, to which these media are ordered. The same authority has, in virtue of its office, the duty of protecting and safeguarding true and just freedom of information, a freedom that is totally necessary for the welfare of contemporary society, especially when it is a question of freedom of the press. It ought also to encourage spiritual values, culture and the fine arts and guarantee the rights of those who wish to use the media. Moreover, public authority has the duty of helping those projects which, though they are certainly most beneficial for young people, cannot otherwise be undertaken.

Lastly, the same public authority, which legitimately concerns itself with the health of the citizenry, is obliged, through the promulgation and careful enforcement of laws, to exercise a fitting and careful watch lest grave damage befall public morals and the welfare of society through the base use of these media. Such vigilance in no wise restricts the freedom of individuals or groups, especially where there is a lack of adequate precaution on the part of those who are professionally engaged in using these media.

Read Full Post »

I was using this book a lot in a recent talk I gave: Brandon Vogt’s The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activitsts, and Bishops who Tweet.

Vogt himself writes a helpful introduction (about the way the Church has used different media at the service of the gospel over many centuries) and conclusion (about where it’s all going: some of the possibilities, and some of the dangers).

But most of the book consists of short articles and reflections by cutting-edge practitioners, people who have taken the plunge and got stuck in – perhaps making many mistakes along the way, but learning to see the huge value of using the new media.

There are four main sections that deal with evangelisation, Christian formation, building community, and serving the common good. So it’s not a narrow discussion about blogging and tweeting, but a rich and broad presentation of the multifarious ways that people are using new media to good effect.

There are huge and well-known projects that have already had an international influence, like Fr Robert Barron’s Word on Fire and Shaun Carney’s online pro-life work. But there are also lots of stories about how ordinary parishes can improve their use of digital media by getting involved in social networking or simply learning to connect with their parishioners better through websites and texting. So there are small and practical tips for ordinary Christians as well as big flashes of inspiration for those sensing a call to step out as evangelists.

Lots of information for the uninformed; lots of ideas for those who feel they should be doing something. It’s well worth getting a copy.

See Vogt’s website here. Which has this blurb - full of links if you have nothing else to do for the next hour!

The Church finds herself in the midst of a technological revolution, the biggest communication shift since the advent of the printing press.

The printing press created an information explosion, allowing people to absorb tremendous amounts of knowledge. But this modern, digital revolution brings a new type of communication. It pairs content with dialogue, discussion, and relationship, moving beyond a one-way flow of information.

New tools have burst onto the scene to provide this dual-offering of knowledge and community. Nicknamed “New Media”, these tools include social media, blogs, podcasts, video-casts, mobile media, and interactive websites.

Finding herself in a world that has dramatically embraced these tools, the Church is at a crossroad. If her missions of evangelization, formation, community-building, and social-justice are to continue in future generations, she must harness these tools and utilize them now. Thankfully, many Catholics are doing just that.

The Church and New Media brings together innovators, visionaries, and experts on the relationship between faith and technology, packaging their wisdom into the definitive book on New Media and the Church. It shows not only how the Church can exist in the digital age, but how she can effectively proclaim the Gospel today.

In addition to profiling many New Media innovators and relevant Church teachings, the book features chapters by the following New Media experts:

Foreword
*Cardinal Seán O’Malley*

Introduction / The Digital Continent
*Brandon Vogt*

Part One / Put Out Into the Deep: New Media & Evangelization
Chapter One / The Virtual Areopagus: Digital Dialogue with the Unchurched
*Fr. Robert Barron*
Chapter Two / Into the Light: Sharing the Spiritual Journey
*Jennifer Fulwiler*
Chapter Three / Speaking Their Language: Connecting with Young Adults
*Marcel LeJeune*

Part Two / That the World May Know: New Media & Formation
Chapter Four / Modern Epistles: Blogging the Faith
*Mark Shea*
Chapter Five / New Wineskins: Fresh Presentations of Ancient Tradition
*Taylor Marshall*
Chapter Six / Digital Discourse: The New Apologetics
*Fr. Dwight Longenecker*

Part Three / Fostering the Flock: New Media & Community
Chapter Seven / Innovative Shepherding: New Media in the Diocese
*Scot Landry*
Chapter Eight / High-Tech Community: New Media in the Parish
*Matthew Warner*
Chapter Nine / That They May Be One: Cultivating Online Community
*Lisa Hendey*

Part Four / To the Ends of the Earth: New Media & Mission
Chapter Ten / Changing the World: New Media Activism
*Thomas Peters*
Chapter Eleven / Moving Mountains: Building a Digital Movement
*Shawn Carney (40 Days for Life)*

Conclusion / To Infinity and Beyond: The Future of the Church and New Media
*Brandon Vogt*

Afterword
*Archbishop Timothy Dolan*

Read Full Post »

Fascinating figures recently out from Ofcom. For the first time ever, despite the fact that mobile phone sales are still surging, the time we spend talking on the mobile has actually dropped. So this isn’t just the decline of the landline conversation, which has been happening for a long time. It’s the decline of conversation full-stop, even though it is cheaper and easier than ever before.

Tiffany Jenkins gives the facts:

Have you noticed how little we talk on the telephone, compared to how much we used to? That’s talk; not text. Speak; not message. I rarely pick up the land-line, or my mobile, to dial those with whom I work.

Admittedly, I occasionally call a select group of friends and family, but even these have been filtered down to leave only a few on the line.

More often than not we e-mail each other instead of speaking to one another, or we text and instant message, contacting people through social networking sites. The answerphone is redundant, quiet in the corner. The landline retained only for its internet connection.

These observations are not confined to personal experience. Figures released by Ofcom, earlier this year, showed that the volume of landline calls have gone down dramatically. Last year, they fell by 10 percent. Today, it is surprising when it rings, and when – if ever it does, you are more likely find a salesperson at the end of the line than someone you actually know.

Fixed-line voice calls have been in decline for some time, but what is significant is that there has also been a drop in mobile voice calls.

The figures published by Ofcom show they are on the wane – the overall time spent talking on mobile phones dropped by over 1 per cent in 2011, for the first time ever. My mobile constantly bleeps and buzzes at the sound of new activity, but I hear the ring tone less and less.

People are still communicating, they just don’t do it directly. Instead we are switching to texts, e-mails and online communication of various sorts.

The average UK consumer now sends 50 texts per week which has more than doubled in four years.

What does it all mean? Jenkins reflects:

Developments in technology allow us to get in touch whenever, quickly, cheaply, and apparently efficiently, but separated at a distance. It isn’t face to face, nor on an open line. Walking into a once noisy office recently, where I used to work, I found that everyone was silently typing away. They were interacting with each other – and others – but though the internet. Text based communications and the computer are acting as a chaperone [...].

This connection at a distance concerns me. Why does it feel too intimate to call someone without an arrangement? What is so scary about an open line? And why do we need to be constantly in touch, but with technology coming between us, putting us at arms – or rather text – length?

And she writes about Sherry Turkle, professor of social sciences at Massachusetes Institute of Technology, who makes some pertinent points in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (which I haven’t yet read).

Her central point is that we are turning to technology to fill an emotional void and desire for intimacy, but that it in fact creates a new solitude. “Connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”, she says.

That we seek intimacy in technology, and not with each other, suggests that we are too fearful of real-life connections, relying on technology as a shield. We are turning away from one another, typing away in isolation, and developing virtual connections, because it feels safer than speaking in person. But we cannot make friends, or sustain relationships without commitment, without exposing our true selves.

Social media will not be truly “social” if it is a crutch that we use in place of communicating with each other in real-time. It strikes me that we should pick up the telephone and speak to one another. Go on, take a risk and give someone a call. It is good to talk.

Do you talk less than you used to? Here is a tip/experiment: Instead of checking your email or Facebook or internet news at the end of the day, try calling someone just for a ten minute catch-up. Try it for a week. See if it has made a difference…

Read Full Post »

This is a couple of weeks old now, but it didn’t get as much traction in the news as I expected. Isn’t it an absolutely astonishing historical landmark, that over one billion people are now voluntarily connected on a social networking site?

Yes, there are more people in China, in India and in the Catholic Church; but these ‘groupings’ (I can’t find a good generic term that covers a nation-state and the Catholic Church) have taken a few years to get going, and a large number of their members were born into them.

Facebook doubled it’s size from a half billion users to one billion in just three years and two months!

See this report by Jemima Kiss.

And watch this very clever promotional video, entitled “The Things that Connect Us”, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose film credits include Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Notice the beautiful bridge images, very close to my blogging heart.

And remember Susan Maushart’s warning in her book The Winter of Our Disconnect (p6):

So… how connected, I found myself wondering, is connected enough? Like many other parents, I’d noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family… I started considering a scenario E. M. Forster never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become.

Read Full Post »

I’ve had great fun experimenting with “Logos 4″, the latest edition of the Logos Bible Software. It does everything you’d expect, and much more.

Just take my last search as an example. I wanted to look up Hebrews Chapter 12, so I just typed “Heb 12″ into the search box on the home page. Immediately, as a default setting, it opens up a set of windows displaying a vast array of tools and information to help you make sense of the scriptural passage: the English text in five different translations (there are many more to choose from), the Greek text together with all its variants (with an option of transliteration if your Greek is getting rusty), links from every Greek and English word to a set of dictionaries and concordances, numerous cross-references, biblical commentaries on the passage, handouts to photocopy for bible study groups, illustrations, and even a Wordle-style word-cloud to highlight which themes are coming up most consistently in these chosen lines. This is all before you have customised the page or used the drop down menus to link the scripture with your own preferred theological resources.

The danger, of course, is that you spend all your time racing down every exegetical rabbit hole you discover instead of reflecting on the Word of God itself, just as you can get lost in the footnotes and cross-referencing system of any printed bible. But this is a risk with any tool: that we become fascinated by what it is in itself rather than what purpose it is built to serve.

Here is the demo:

There is a profusion of bible software available today – some of it online, some of it downloadable. I can’t give an honest comparison of Logos with all the other packages, simply because I haven’t used many of them. My ordinary practice of bible study and sermon preparation still involves sitting down with pen and paper, an interlinear bible, and a pile of printed dictionaries and commentaries. It’s very old-school and pre-internet. But from my limited time spent with Logos I can say that it is attractively designed, easy to use, and delivers a huge amount in terms of everyday bible study and exegesis.

The other plus is that there is now a set of Catholic texts to supplement the largely Protestant cross-referencing system that Logos was designed for. So you can call up Catholic bible commentaries and Catholic translations (e.g. the Catholic edition of the RSV) to link with the scriptural texts, and you can also explore these texts in their own right using the same software. So you have a library of Catholic theology and some very sophisticated tools to explore it with.

The best example here is the Catechism. Open this and you have the text itself. Click on a scripture reference in the footnotes, and it opens a set of windows at the side with all the biblical tools to study that passage in context. Click on another quotation in the footnote, and it gives you the whole passage (and usually the whole sermon or book) from which the quotation is taken. It links to patristic sources, magisterial documents, writings of the saints, etc. – all there in front of you without having to go to the bookshelf or search the net. Just as one example: I was reading paragraph 1371 of the Catechism about how one aspect of the Eucharistic sacrifice is that it is offered for the souls of the faithful departed, and it quotes St Monica’s request to her son St Augustine that he remember her at the Lord’s altar after her death. And with a single click you open up in the box below Book 9 Chapter 11 of Augustine’s confessions with the whole quotation in context.

I am sure there is a lot more here that I haven’t discovered, but this gives you a feel for what the software can do. The downside is the price. I’m lucky enough to be using a review copy, but the basic Catholic software package is $249.95 (see exactly what’s included here) – which must be about £150 at the moment. It’s a lot for an individual user. But if you think of what it costs to buy a decent set of biblical texts and commentaries over a number of years, then it sounds a lot less. You are buying a library rather than just a piece of software. (The other plus is that you can use it on your iPad or mobile. This doesn’t help me much because – despite my high-tech credentials – I am still getting used to texting…)

Read Full Post »

Bridges and Tangents is on the shortlist for the ‘Most Inspiring Leadership Blog’ (!!) at the Christian New Media Awards.

Why not take a look at the other nominees in the various categories below. I know that many of the readers of this blog are Catholic, so it might interest people to see the fascinating things that go on in the largely non-Catholic (I think) new media world represented by these awards.

People’s Choice

- Free Bible Images
- The Light Project
- Christian Medical Comment
- Busbridge and Hambledon Church
- CSW – Take Action

Best Christian Blog

- Emma Scrivener
- Missing Generation
- Threads
- What You Think Matters
- God and Politics in the UK
- EpilogueTV

Best Christian Blog by someone under 25

- Dean Roberts
- Miriam’s Fusion Blog
- Blogging with Tom
- Arianne Winslow
- Becca is Learning

Most Inspiring Leadership Blog

- benleney
- Learning and Growing
- Biblical Preaching
- Bridges and Tangents
- Rev’d Matthew Porter

Best Newcomer Blog

- Flame Creative Children’s Ministry
- Believer’s Brain
- Ed’s Slipper
- Blogging with Tom
- God and Politics in the UK

Micro-Blogger of the Year

- OneVoice
- Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove
- Restored
- Richard Littledale
- The Church Mouse

Best Christian Organisation Website

- Sunday Night Live
- Wazala
- SGM Lifewords
- Relationship Central
- Green Pastures Housing

I hope to go to the Christian New Media Conference which takes place the day after the awards on 20 Oct 2012, and try to do some serious (and fun) thinking about faith and the new media. It looks as though it will be a good day. Details copied here:

The Christian New Media Conference 2012

Date: 20th October 2012
Time: 9.15am Registration, 10am Start and 5.20pm Finish
Venue: King’s College London, Waterloo Campus, Franklin-Wilkins Building, Stamford Street, London SE1 8WA Directions
Tickets:   £30   Book Now!

If you want to make a greater impact in the digital world, to get to grips with new media technologies, or simply tweet, pin and post better, then the Christian New Media Conference 2012 is the place to be. It will inspire you, equip you and connect you with like-minded people – whatever your level of experience.

Now in its third year, the conference has moved to a new venue with more space, four new seminar streams and 25 expert speakers ready to give practical help and an opportunity to delve deeper.

Whether you come as an individual, a church, charity or business, you’ll be spoilt for choice with 20 breakout sessions available.

The Theme for 2012

The digital revolution has transformed the art of story-telling, bringing it once more to the fore. If you think about it, much of what we are engaged with online is story-telling. We might be telling our story, our church or organisation’s story – but ultimately, as Christians, we are telling God’s story. This will be the theme of the main sessions this year and will have a dedicated seminar stream.

This year’s Theology stream will look at the concept of ‘Depixelating God’ – exploring how we as Christians can help make the image of God clearer to people in the online space.

Read Full Post »

I’ve just given a study day about the internet and new media, and it forced me to get my head around some of the jargon and the ideas. Here is my summary of what these terms mean and where the digital world is going.

Web 1.0: The first generation of internet technology. You call up pages of text and images with incredible speed and facility. It’s no different from strolling through a library, only much quicker. The operative verb is I LOOK. I look at pages on the screen just as I look at pages in a book. All content is provided for you – it’s a form of publishing. It may be updated in a way that is impossible when a solid book is sitting on your shelf, but you can’t change the content yourself.

Web 2.0: The second generation of internet technology allows for user-generated content. You don’t just look at the pages, you alter them. You write your own blog; you comment on someone else’s article in the comment boxes; you edit an entry on Wikipedia. And then, by extension, with basically the same technology, you share your thoughts on a social networking site, which means you are commenting not on a static site, but on something that is itself in flux. You have moved from action to interaction; from connection to interconnection. If Web 1.0 is like a digital library, Web 2.0 is like a digital ‘Letter to the Editor’, a digital conference call, a digital group discussion. The verb here is I PARTICIPATE.

Web 3.0: People disagree about the meaning of Web 3.0, about where the web is now going. I like John Smart‘s idea of an emerging Metaverse, where there is a convergence of the virtual and physical world. In the world of Web 2.0, of user-generated content and social networking, you stand in the physical/natural/real world and use the new media to help you around that world – the new media are tools. You talk to friends, you share ideas, you buy things that have been suggested and reviewed by others. But in Web 3.0 the new media become an essential part of the world in which you are living, they help to create the world, and you live within them.

The border between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 is not tidy here, because Web 3.0 is partly about Web 2.0 becoming all-pervasive and continuous, so that your connection with the web and your social network is an essential part of every experience – it doesn’t get switched off. The mobile earpiece is always open to the chatter of others; the texts and status updates of your friends are projected into the corner of your Google Glasses (like those speedometers that are projected onto the car windscreen) so that they accompany what you are doing at every moment – the connection between real and virtual, between here and there, is seamless; the attention you give to every shop or product or street or person is digitally noted, through the head and eye movement sensors built into your glasses and the GPS in your phone, and simultaneously you are fed (into the corner of your glasses, or into your earpiece) layers of information about what is in front of you – reviews of the product, reminders of what you need to buy from the shop, warnings about the crime rate on this street, a note about the birthday and the names of the children of the person you are about to pass, etc. This is augmented reality or enhanced reality or layered reality.

It’s no different, in essence, from going for a stroll in the mid-70s with your first Walkman – creating for the first time your own soundtrack as you wander through the real world; or having the natural landscape around you altered by neon lights and billboards. But it is this experience a thousand times over, so that it is no longer possible to live in a non-virtual world, because every aspect of the real world is already augmented by some aspect of virtual reality. The verb here is I EXIST. I don’t just look at the virtual world, or use it to participate in real relationships; now I exist within this world.

Web 4.0: Some people say this is the Semantic Web (‘semantics’ is the science of meaning), when various programmes, machines, and the web itself becomes ‘intelligent’, and starts to create new meanings that were not programmed into it, and interact with us in ways that were not predicted or predictable beforehand. It doesn’t actually require some strict definition of ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘consciousness’ for the computers; it just means that they start doing new things themselves – whatever the philosophers judge is or is not going on in their ‘minds’.

Another aspect of Web 4.0, or another definition, concerns plugging us directly into the web: when the boundary between us and the virtual world disappears. This is when the virtual world becomes physically/biologically part of us, or when we become physically/biologically part of the virtual world. When, in other words, the data is not communicated by phones or earpieces or glasses, but is implanted into us, so that the virtual data is part of our consciousness directly, and not just part of our visual or aural experience (the films Total Recall, eXistenZ, and the Matrix); and/or, when we control the real and virtual world by some kind of brain or neural interface, so that – in both cases – there really is a seamless integration of the real and the virtual, the personal/biological and the digital.

If this seems like science fiction, remember that it is already happening in smaller ways. See previous posts on Transhumanism, and the MindSpeller project at Leuven which can read the minds of stroke victims, and this MIT review of brain-computer interfaces. In this version of Web 4.0 the verb is not I exist (within a seamless real/virtual world), it is rather I AM this world and this world is me.

Watch this fascinating video of someone’s brainwaves controlling a robotic arm:

And this which has someone controlling first a signal on a screen, and then another robotic arm:

So this is someone making things happen in the real world just by thinking! (Which, come to think of it, is actually the miracle that takes place whenever we doing anything consciously!)

Any comments? Are you already living in Web 3.0 or 3.5? Do you like the idea of your children growing up in Web 4.0? What will Web 5.0 be?

Read Full Post »

Jonathan Watts has been reporting from China for the Guardian for nearly a decade. He has been there officially to report on the environment and development issues, but his journalism has ended up touching on most aspects of Chinese life over these last few years. He gives a summary of his experiences here, which ends up being a reflection on how China has changed over the period, and where it is going.

There are lots of positives; lots of unknowns; and one of the continuing negatives is the lack of freedom for journalists like himself, the authoritarianism, and the inability of the Chinese government to take criticism – both internal and external.

Criticism has rarely been appreciated. All too often, there have been flare-ups of anti-foreign media hostility. Some of my colleagues in other media organisations have received death threats. I never expected China to be an easy place to work as a journalist. For political and cultural reasons, there is a huge difference in expectations of the media. For historical and geo-strategic reasons, there is a lingering distrust of foreign reporters.

Run-ins with the police, local authorities or thugs are depressingly common. I have been detained five times, turned back six times at roadblocks (including during several efforts to visit Tibetan areas) and physically manhandled on a couple of occasions. Members of state security have sometimes followed interviewees and invited my assistants “out for tea”, to question them on who I was meeting and where I planned to visit. Censors have shut down a partner website that translated Guardian articles into Mandarin. Police have twice seized my journalist credentials, most recently on this year’s World Press Freedom Day after I tried to interview the blind human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng in hospital. When that happened, I debated with another British newspaper reporter who was in the same position about whether to report on the confiscation. He argued that it was against his principles for journalists to become part of the story. I used to believe the same, but after nine years in China, I have seen how coverage is influenced by a lack of access, intimidation of sources and official harassment. I now believe reporters are doing a disservice to their readers if they fail to reveal these limitations on their ability to gather information.

Yes, there is often negative coverage and yes, many of the positive developments in China are underemphasised. But I don’t think it does the country’s international image any favours to clumsily choke access to what is happening on the ground.

Treated like a spy, I have sometimes had to behave like one. At various times, I’ve concealed myself under blankets in a car, hidden in a toilet, waited until dark in a safe house and met sources in the middle of the night to avoid detection.

At other times, it is Chinese journalists and officials who pull the screen of secrecy aside. Take the foot-and-mouth outbreak on the outskirts of Beijing in 2005. I was first alerted to this by a Chinese reporter, who was frustrated that the propaganda department had ordered the domestic media not to run the story.

Foreign ministry officials often tell me China is becoming more open and, indeed, there have been steps in that direction. But restrictions create fertile ground for rumour-mongering. One of the biggest changes in this period has been the spread of ideas through mobile phones and social networks. The 513 million netizens in China (up from 68 million in 2003) have incomparably greater access to information than any previous generation and huge numbers now speak out in ways that might have got them threatened or detained in 2003. Microblogs are perhaps nowhere more influential than in China because there is so little trust of the communist-controlled official media.

It has been fun watching netizens create an ingenious new language to evade restrictions. In this anti-authoritarian world, the heroes are the “grass mud horses” (which, in Chinese, sounds the same as a core banned phrase: “Fuck your mother!”) while the villains are the river crabs (which is pronounced like “harmony” – the favourite excuse of the authorities when they crack down on dissent). But ultimately, a journalist wants to see things for him or herself. I will never forget the epic road trips – across the Tibetan plateau, along the silk road, through the Three Gorges and most memorably from Shangri-la to Xanadu. Along the way, I met remarkable people with extraordinary stories. True to the oft-heard criticism of the foreign media, many were from the “dark side”: a young man in Shaoguan who confessed – as the shadows lengthened on the building site where we had our interview – to killing Uighur co-workers at his toy factory because of a rumour they had raped Han women; a gynaecologist in Yunnan who argued with great conviction that it had once been necessary to tie pregnant women up to carry out abortions; the young boy who found the body of his dead grandmother who killed herself a year after his father – an illegal migrant – phoned her to say he was about to drown in what became known as the Morecambe Bay disaster.

Another thing that struck me in Watts’s report is the total lack of references to religion – absolutely nothing about religion, faith, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc (I did the word-search on the article). I know he is focussing on the environment, but he writes about many other aspects of Chinese life that catch his interest or come to find him as a journalist. Is this a Guardian blind-spot? Maybe I’m being unfair, and he was briefed not to write about religion because someone else in the office is on the case. It’s just striking that someone gives their impressions of a decade of change in China, and the growth in interest in religion isn’t mentioned.

Read Full Post »

I had a vague idea of what/who a troll was on the internet, but Sam Leith gives some definitions:

Two pieces of wisdom today preoccupy me. One, whose originator is unknown, is: “Don’t feed the trolls.” The other—which I’ve heard plausibly attributed to the Guardian columnist Grace Dent—is: “Never read the bottom half of the internet.” The latter—a warning, essentially, against plunging into the foaming cauldron of madness in online comment threads—is a sort of preventative measure. If you don’t read the bottom half of the internet—the bit under the bridge—you stand that much less chance of finding yourself looking down on a hungry troll, with a billy-goat in your arms, and being overcome by temptation.

A troll, in internet terms, is someone who sails into a discussion just to mess things up. He is the poker of sticks into ants’ nests: the commenter who gatecrashes a rape survivor’s messageboard with a collection of Frankie Boyle jokes, or posts fake news stories about stock in forums for investors. The idea is not to contribute to the discussion, but to derail it. Online trolls thrive on rage, hurt and confusion. What they are after is a rise. Hence: don’t feed the trolls. It only encourages them.

Leith goes on to use trolling/trolliness as a key to interpreting contemporary culture.

You can see trolliness in the Twitter feeds of drunken students. But you can also see it in entertainment: the “new nastiness” in stand-up comedy – using offensive material to generate buzz – is troll-work. And you can see it in national newspapers… Provocation has always been a function of journalism, but it’s becoming an ever more central one.

There is a decipherable reason for this. Eyes on a page are eyes on a page. Retweets, whether in outrage or endorsement, are retweets. The currency of the internet is not agreement but attention. So trolling – whose only raison d’être is the gaining of attention – is a central dynamic of modern media. It could, arguably, be seen as the characteristic communicative gesture of the internet era. We live in the age of the troll.

But the currency of all entertainment and journalism has always been, to some extent, not agreement but attention. I don’t think there was some kind of pre-internet purity about ‘communicative gestures’ – editors have always wanted to sell papers; journalists have always wanted their stories to be popular. The only difference now is that Joe-punter can get his oar in to stir things up and grab everyone’s attention, whereas before if was just the professionals who had the tools and the power to enter the fray.

But maybe a fundamental difference between editors seeking attention and sales, and commentators trying to provoke a deluge of re-tweets, is that the editors were at some level accountable. You can’t call a troll to account – they just slip off into cyberspace and create another login name, another avatar. Perhaps trolling has more in common with graffiti that anything else – be it the day-glo tags on the side of a train, or the scrawl on the toilet door. It’s there to be seen and to provoke you – and you’ll never know the face of the person who put it there.

Read Full Post »

We had a visit to Stonor Park recently. This is the house near Henley where St Edmund Campion was finally caught. It’s full of intricately constructed priest holes and escape routes. It’s also set in a valley of exquisite beauty in the Oxfordshire countryside, and worth a visit even if you are not into the martyrs or recusant history. See their website here for information about visiting.

St Edmund Campion, St Nicholas Owen and St Ralph Sherwin

The highlight for me, with all my interest in media and communication, was to visit the room on the second floor above the front door. This is where the famous printing press stood, on which Campion’s Decem Rationes was printed. It was wonderful to imagine them hidden up there, working without enough type, wondering whether they would even manage to finish and distribute the work. What faith it must have taken, and courage.

Forgive me copying some words from a previous post about Campion and the text, just in case you don’t know the story:

In the Spring of 1581, Edmund Campion had been in England as a Jesuit missionary for just over a year. Fifteen years earlier he had preached before Queen Elizabeth in Oxford, and now he was in Lancashire on the run from government spies. Between illicit sermons and undercover Masses Campion was writing a Latin treatise called Decem Rationes, Ten Reasons, in which he set forth the Catholic faith and challenged his compatriots to debate with him.

Kathleen Jones describes what happened when the manuscript was finished: “It was extremely difficult to get this work printed. Eventually the work was carried out on a secret press at the house of Dame Cecilia Stonor in Stonor Park, Berkshire. Lady Stonor was later to die in prison for her part in this enterprise. Owing to a shortage of type, the treatise had to be set one page at a time, and it took half a dozen typesetters (dressed as gentlemen to disarm suspicion) nine weeks to set it. On Oxford’s Commemoration Sunday, 27 June 1581, four hundred copies were found distributed on the benches of the university church. The publication of Decem Rationes caused a tremendous sensation, and efforts to capture Campion were redoubled” (Butler’s Lives of the Saints, New Full Edition, Liturgical Press, 2000, 12:3).

You can guess why I wanted to re-tell this well-known story today. We’ve come here to celebrate World Communications Day, and by chance we are doing this on the feast of the Martyrs of England and Wales. It provides a wonderful opportunity to connect these two themes of Christian witness and social communication.

The story of Edmund Campion shows us that any Christian who wants to witness to their faith beyond their immediate circle of family and friends will need to use the communications media. Not just to use them reluctantly, but to embrace them with a passion. For Campion, this meant the printing press. I love the historical detail that they didn’t have enough movable type to set the whole book. Can you imagine the frustration, and the consequent dedication that was required: to set one page, to print it; then to reshuffle type, and print the next page. Six men holed away in a Berkshire manor house for two months. And then the audacity of smuggling the printed texts into Oxford.

Are we, as the Church today, completely engaged with the communications media? Are we realising its potential for good? Are we putting our energy and intelligence into using the media effectively? Our time and people and money? What would Edmund Campion be doing today to communicate his Ten Reasons?

[Andrew Webb adds: I think Campion was arrested at Lyford Grange, not Stonor]

Read Full Post »

Jenny McCartney “celebrates” the life of Eugene J Polley, the inventor of the TV remote control, who has recently died. Without him, there would be no such thing as channel-hopping. And who knows, if we hadn’t made the leap from watching to hopping, perhaps we wouldn’t have been psychologically or culturally ready for the next leap from hopping channels to surfing the web.

Polley was an engineer at Zenith, where he worked for 47 years. I put “celebrates” in inverted commas, because McCartney thinks he leaves a dubious legacy.

I am old enough to remember what viewing life was like before the remote control hit the UK, in the days when there were only three channels and you had to make the active decision to haul yourself up from the sofa and press a button to alter them. It was better. If someone wanted to change the channel, etiquette usually demanded that they consult the other people in the room, only moving towards the television once agreement was reached. As a result, you stuck with programmes for longer: since it took a modicum of effort to abandon them, and people are naturally lazy, even slow-burning shows were granted the necessary time to draw you in.

With the arrival of the remote control, the power passed to whoever held the magic gadget in his or her hot little hands. Automatically, the holder of the remote was created king of the living room, and everyone else became either a helpless captive, or an angry dissenter. As the number of channels steadily grew, so did the remote-holder’s temptation to flick between the channels with the compulsively restless air of one seeking an elusive televisual fulfilment that could never be found.

Channel-surfing is a guilty pleasure that should only be practised alone. There is nothing worse than sitting in the same room while someone else relentlessly channel-surfs. It makes you feel as if you are going mad. You hear – in rapid succession – a snatch of song, a scrap of dialogue, a woman trying to sell you a cut-price emerald ring, half a news headline, and an advertising jingle. The moment that something sounds like it might interest you, it disappears. Worse, when you yourself are squeezing the remote, you find that you have now developed the tiny attention span of a hyperactive gnat. Is it any surprise that, now that alternative amusements to the television have emerged, family members are challenging the remote-holder’s solitary rule and decamping to the four corners of the family home with their iPads and laptops?

I know that lamenting the invention of the remote control will – in the eyes of some – put me in the same risibly fuddy-duddy camp as those who once preferred the horse and cart to the motor car, yearned for the days when “we made our own fun”, and said that this email nonsense would never catch on. I don’t care. Listen to me, those of you who cannot imagine life without the zapper: it really was better before.

I think the phrase ‘surfing the web’ is misleading and actually disguises the fragmentary nature of the typical internet experience. If you go surfing (I went once!) you wait patiently and let a lot of inadequate waves pass underneath your board, but as soon as you spot the right wave, ‘your’ wave, you paddle with all your might to meet it properly, leap onto the board, and then ride that wave for as long as you can.

When you find a wave, in other words, you stay with it. You are so with it and trying not to fall off it that it’s inconceivable that you would be looking out of the corner of your eye for a better one. That’s the joy of surfing – the waiting, the finding, and then the 100% commitment to the wave that comes.

That’s why the phrase ‘surfing the web’ doesn’t work for me. The joy of the web, and the danger, is that you can hop off the page at any time, as soon as you see anything else vaguely interesting or distracting. You are half-surfing a particular page, but without any physical or emotional commitment. You can move away to something better or more interesting – that’s the miracle of the web, what it can throw up unexpectedly. But it means that one part of you is always looking over the horizon, into the other field, where to go next; as if non-commitment to the present moment, a kind of existential disengagement, is a psychological precondition of using the internet.

As you know, I am not against the internet. I just wonder what long-term effects it has on us and on our culture. On the internet, everything is provisional. So if we see everything else through the lens of our internet experience, then it all becomes provisional – including, perhaps, even our relationships.

Maybe that’s the word to ponder: ‘provisionality’.

Read Full Post »

OK, you are not narcissistic (see Saturday’s post about Facebook and narcissism). You are at ease in your own virtual skin; you love yourself just the right amount but not too much; and your Facebook updates are an uncomplicated and unselfconscious way of sharing your life with others. You are terrifyingly undysfunctional!

But it still begs the question: how much do you use the internet each week? That’s not a loaded question, just a factual enquiry.

Paul Revoir reports that adults in Britain now spend on average over 15 hours online each week. That’s five hours more than six years ago.

Eight out of ten adults go online through a different array of devices, an increase of 20 per cent on 2005, a survey by media regulator Ofcom reveals.

A combination of older generations getting online, the continuing rise of social networking sites and new technologies such as smartphones are being credited for the rise.

Research showed that 59 per cent of adult internet users have a profile on a social networking site. Of those, two-thirds visit the sites every day, up from a third in 2007.

The report suggests that while the take-up of the internet has slowed among younger generations, as most are now already online, growth is being driven by older age groups such as 45 to 54-year-olds, part of the ‘silver surfer’ phenomenon.

Internet access for this group has shot up by 10 percentage points in a year to 87 per cent.

Experts said older people were increasingly  buying smartphones. The research found the overall estimated weekly internet use had increased from an  average of 14.2 hours in 2010 to 15.1 hours last year.

Despite the array of portable devices available to access the internet, home usage also increased, from 9.4 to 10.5 hours.

The report did reveal that the most elderly members of society were being left behind in the online revolution.

Nearly nine in ten of over-75s do not use the internet on any device and these are thought to make up a large number of the more than 20 per cent of the population which has no internet.

What about you?

Read Full Post »

Those of you who are not on Facebook can ignore this post and luxuriate in your non-dysfunctional psychological maturity and in your general being-at-ease-with-yourself-and-your-neighbour-and-your-world-ness.

For the rest of us, the hard question is: how often do we fiddle around on our Facebook page, not through an uncomplicated desire to share and communicate, but because we are subconsciously desperate to put ourselves at the centre of everyone else’s attention, to receive some kind of social networking version of approval, to be liked, and if not at least to be noticed?

Put more simply: is Facebook making us more narcissistic? Or – because we don’t know what is the cause and what is the effect – is our increasing narcissism finding a ready-made outlet in Facebook and other forms of social media?

Narcissus falling in love with his own image. Detail from a painting by John Waterhouse.

Damien Pearse writes about some recent research on the links between narcissism and social networking.

Researchers have established a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a “socially disruptive” narcissist, confirming the conclusions of many social media sceptics.

People who score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often and updated their newsfeeds more regularly.

The research comes amid increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.

The latest study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, also found that narcissists responded more aggressively to derogatory comments made about them on the social networking site’s public walls and changed their profile pictures more often.

Researchers concentrated on the two socially disruptive forms of narcissism: ‘grandiose exhibitionism’ (self-absorption, vanity, superiority, exhibitionistic tendencies, a need to be constantly at the centre of attention), and ‘entitlement/exploitativeness’ (which includes “a sense of deserving respect and a willingness to manipulate and take advantage of others”).

Carol Craig, a social scientist and chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being, said young people in Britain were becoming increasingly narcissistic and Facebook provided a platform for the disorder.

“The way that children are being educated is focussing more and more on the importance of self esteem – on how you are seen in the eyes of others. This method of teaching has been imported from the US and is ‘all about me’.

“Facebook provides a platform for people to self-promote by changing profile pictures and showing how many hundreds of friends you have. I know of some who have more than 1,000.”

Dr Viv Vignoles, senior lecturer in social psychology at Sussex University, said there was “clear evidence” from studies in America that college students were becoming increasingly narcissistic.

But he added: “Whether the same is true of non-college students or of young people in other countries, such as the UK, remains an open question, as far as I know.

“Without understanding the causes underlying the historical change in US college students, we do not know whether these causes are factors that are relatively specific to American culture, such as the political focus on increasing self-esteem in the late 80s and early 90s or whether they are factors that are more general, for example new technologies such as mobile phones and Facebook.”

What is cause and what is effect?

Vignoles said the correlational nature of the latest study meant it was difficult to be certain whether individual differences in narcissism led to certain patterns of Facebook behaviour, whether patterns of Facebook behaviour led to individual differences in narcissism, or a bit of both.

But don’t worry – it’s not all negative. This is just one study, and the researchers are not denying that there are real benefits of social networking.

Christopher Carpenter, who ran the study, said: “In general, the ‘dark side’ of Facebook requires more research in order to better understand Facebook’s socially beneficial and harmful aspects in order to enhance the former and curtail the latter.

“If Facebook is to be a place where people go to repair their damaged ego and seek social support, it is vitally important to discover the potentially negative communication one might find on Facebook and the kinds of people likely to engage in them. Ideally, people will engage in pro-social Facebooking rather than anti-social me-booking.”

I suppose the most narcissistic response to this article would be to terminate your Facebook account in a blaze of online soul-searching and self-publicity, a final fire-storm of frantic pre-termination reflections, posts, de-tagging and emotional farewells. But that leaves you with a problem: what will you do to feed the narcissism tomorrow?

(And do you notice how silent I am on the links between Facebook narcissism and blogging narcissism! Perhaps that needs another post…)

Read Full Post »

After my talk at St Andrews Catholic Chaplaincy last week we all went to the pub round the corner, and inevitably the conversation turned to the topic of what people could give up for Lent. It goes without saying that Lent is about much more than just ‘giving up something’; but it was interesting to throw around some ideas about what forms of digital fasting and penance could be fruitful over the 40 days of Lent.

Here are the broad categories that came up:

(1) RADICAL DETOX: Just dump it all for the next 40 days. Computers; internet; email; mobile; texting; tweeting; blogging; Facebook; all forms of social media; iPods and mp3 players. Do you include TV in here as well, which is now digital? This is the shock and awe strategy. Total blackout. Everyone said this would be impossible, unrealistic, unwise, not living in the real world, asking for trouble!

(2) SELECTIVE SWITCH-OFF: Choose one form of digital media or communication and let go of that for the whole period of Lent. E.g. No Facebook, or no internet use at all, or no texting. Nearly everyone said this would be impossible, but one or two were open to it.

(3) TARGETED TIME-OUTS: Take all forms of digital media, or choose just one form of digital media, and fast from using them for a pre-determined period. E.g Fridays of Lent; or every day after work, or after 6pm, or after 9pm; or Sundays of Lent. E.g. I need to use the internet at work, but I’ll try not using it in the evenings. E.g. I won’t use Facebook on Fridays, or on Sundays. E.g. one hour a day, perhaps the morning, perhaps the evening, when everything electrical and digital is switched off. E.g. I won’t listen to music on the iPod while travelling but I’ll read instead.

(4) GEOGRAPHICAL SAFE-ZONES: Deciding not to use some or all forms of digital media in certain designated geographical areas; creating ‘safe-zones’, sanctuaries of silence and stillness. E.g. I have enough internet at work, so I don’t need to use it at home. E.g. I’ll use the internet at the desk, but I don’t need to be using it on the mobile constantly. E.g. I switch the phone off for twenty minutes when I sit down to eat at table.

For most people, the third idea of having some kind of digital time-out, on a Friday or a Sunday, will probably be the most realistic – just an hour each week, or an evening or a day, when they are not at the mercy of digital information overload, when they are brave enough to experience being unconnected or just slightly underconnected.

What’s interesting is how much people protest even at the suggestion that one of these options might be possible: the arguments that people throw up, the resistance shown (much of it very rational and reasonable) – it shows how attached we are to this stuff. And just raising the question about how we use digital media, and how they use us, is part of what a prayerful reflection on fasting and penance is meant to cultivate. The important thing is not just to adopt a rule suggested by someone else for the sake of it, but to think of something that could really make a small but significant difference in one’s own life – and see what comes from it.

It’s important to put all the qualifications in here: You don’t take on any of these disciplines because you despise digital media or think they are inherently evil – any more than you fast from food or abstain from meat or chocolate or alcohol because you think these things are bad in themselves.

On the contrary, you recognise that these are good things that can be used for good purposes; but you also recognise that you can become over-attached to them, that they can become idols or addictions, that they can be occasions for sin as well as for good, that their over-use can dull or extinguish the joy they are meant to give, that letting go for a little while can deepen your appreciation for them, that having a discipline and a restriction in place can sometimes make you more free in your approach to something, that there are other good things in life that get crowded out and forgotten in the digital onslaught, that digital noise can make stillness, silence, prayer and even ordinary relationships more difficult, that you are so locked in you don’t know who you really are any more, that it’s important to share in the digital poverty that many people experience as a normal part of life, etc.

All I’m saying is: you don’t need to be anti-digital technology to recognise that there is some value in stepping back and letting go for a while each year – and this is one part of the meaning of fasting and penance for Catholics each Lent.

I like these terms: iFasting, iPenance, and iLent. Of course I thought I invented them, but so far on Google I’ve managed to find this iLent site. I’m still hoping to copyright the first two terms, but you can shatter my illusion of originality by sharing any previous examples of their use you have come across in the comments below.

Or will I get sued by Apple for even mentioning an iWord?

Read Full Post »

To procrastinate:

to defer action; to put off what should be done immediately [Chambers]

It’s exam time in Allen Hall, so I’m guessing (without judging our seminarians at all!) that the demon of ‘procrastination’ is in the air.

Rebecca Ratcliffe writes about the daily struggle as a student to actually get down to things, especially with the internet staring you in the face. Some of the tips are useful for the rest of us non-students as well.

The spectre of the second term, with its attendant horrors of essay deadlines and January exams, is looming. But as we reflect on the negligible amount of work we completed over the Christmas break, let’s soberly consider our new year’s resolutions.

Pledges not to run up astronomical library fines or drink any more cans of Relentless have probably been sworn by students up and down the country. But this year’s promises will be dominated by the mother of all academic resolutions – to stop procrastinating.

The irresistible desire to put off until tomorrow what should be done today afflicts ooh, I don’t know, 99% of students? What I do know is that it’s by no means a new phenomenon – the term “procrastination” was first used in the 1500s. But it’s reached new heights among those battling the distractions of Facebook, Twitter and instant messaging.

If procrastination is the thief of time, the internet is its most insidious accomplice, delaying work one small click at a time.

But fear not, dawdling scholars, there is help out there. Firefox extensions are an easy way to curb stray clicking: LeechBlock can block distracting websites from loading during specified time periods – you could set it to make Facebook available only between 6 and 7pm. And the desktop program RescueTime can provide a breakdown of how you have spent your time online.

Here are some tips she has plucked from the seasonal crop of self-help books:

Remind yourself of past successes.

You will procrastinate less if you boost your belief in the relevance of your work and your ability to succeed, according to Dr Piers Steel’s book The Procrastination Equation.

Shut out the world with some noise reduction headphones.

Perfect for anyone distracted by noise, say Pamela Dodd and Doug Sundheim’s in The 25 Best Time Management Tools and Techniques. And if your flatmates are still refusing to turn the heating on, they can double up as ear warmers.

Don’t miss out on a good night’s sleep.

A clear head is the key to a better memory and academic success, says Lynn Rowe in How to Beat Procrastination – and you’ll save money by cutting down on cans of the aforementioned Relentless.

Move.

If you feel yourself getting distracted, do something physical like standing up and stepping away from your computer screen, Michael Heppel advises in How to Save an Hour Every Day.

Just get started.

“A job begun is a job half done,” Timothy A Pychyl reminds us in The Procrastinator’s Digest.

Well go on then.

I haven’t looked at all these sites yet. RescueTime sounds terrifying – let us know in the comments if you have tried it…

Read Full Post »

I met someone recently who is involved in ‘ethical hacking’, where a company pays another company to test its cyber defences by attempting to hack into the system and expose its vulnerabilities. We have heard so many stories recently about hacking and how fragile the security systems are of some of the biggest and most trusted online companies.

This report from the BBC describes what the US government is doing to create a ‘scale model’ of the internet to carry out cyber war games:

Several organisations, including the defence company Lockheed Martin, are working on prototypes of the “virtual firing range”.

The system will allow researchers to simulate attacks by foreign powers and from hackers based inside the US.

More than $500m (£309m) has been allocated by the Department of Defense to develop “cyber technologies”.

The National Cyber Range project is being overseen by the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (Darpa), which was also involved in early network research that led to the internet.

When ready, it will function as a test-bed for defensive and possibly offensive technologies such as network protection systems.

Having a controllable mini-internet would allow researchers to carry-out experiments “in days rather than the weeks it currently takes,” Darpa spokesman Eric Mazzacone told the Reuters news agency.

The United States has been gradually increasing funding for internet security-related projects.

US defence secretary Robert Gates said that the country was under almost constant cyber attacks

In 2008, the US military was the subject of a serious cyber attack when part of its network became infected by a worm known as agent.btz.

President Obama, in May 2009, declared the cyber threat to be one of the “most serious” challenges facing the country.

Read Full Post »

He doesn’t have the official title (that belongs to St Isidore), but I think Father James Alberione could well be considered as the patron saint of the internet. He never lived to see it develop (Arpanet began in 1969, two years before he died), but as founder of the Pauline family he probably did more for the Catholic Church’s commitment to social communications and the media than anyone else in history.

St Paul - not Fr Alberione!

Here is one quote:

The future will be won with an army of well-formed vocations and with the most modern and rapid means of communication placed at the service of the apostolate. It is a known characteristic of our times that an extensive array of publications opposes the Church… A counter organisation is needed, large, strong, of ancient spirit and modern form; it means the apostolate of publishing exercised not through a single undertaking but by an undertaking of universal character with an army of persons as its service…multiplying its fruits in time and space.

Think of what he would have done with the internet!

The magazine Famiglia Christiana is one of the best known Pauline publications. One of its recent directors reflects on the spirit of Fr Alberione.

The intuition of Father Alberione lies in having the fastest and most effective means of social communication as instruments of the apostolate. He also developed industrial methods which demand continuous updating and the complementarity of many sectors of the work. It is industry at the service of the Church; it is the definitive renunciation of a certain type of craftsman. More than this, it is the rejection of a managing-to-get-alone attitude. Books, newspapers, films and recordings must be produced and marketed professionally to be effective; it is not enough simply to want them to do good.

That last sentence could be applied to many aspects of the Church’s pastoral life.

[Quotes are from a little pamphlet I've just read called James Alberione by Valentino Gambi, published by St Pauls.]

Read Full Post »

I’m reading Susan Maushart’s The Winter of Our Disconnect, about ‘How three totally wired teenagers (and a mother who slept with her iPhone) pulled the plug on their technology and lived to tell the tale’.

First, Maushart describes the extent to which electronic media were an inescapable part of their family life:

At ages fourteen, fifteen, and eighteen, my daughters and my son don’t use media. They inhabit media. And they do so exactly as fish inhabit a pond. Gracefully. Unblinkingly. And utterly without consciousness or curiosity as to how they got there [...]

For Generation M, as the Kaiser report dubbed these eight- to eighteen-year-olds, media use is not an activity – like exercise, or playing Monopoly, or bickering with your brother in the back seat. It’s an environment: pervasive, invisible, shrink-wrapped around pretty much everything kids do and say and think.

Then why did she have so many doubts and uncertainties?

“Only connect”, implored E.M. Forster in his acclaimed novel Howards End

So… How connected, I found myself wondering, is connected enough? As a social scientist, journalist, and mother, I’ve always been an enthusiastic user of information technology (and I’m awfully fond of my dryer too). But I was also growing sceptical of the redemptive power of media to improve our lives – let alone to make them ‘easier’ or simplify them. Like many other parents, I’d noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family. (Talk about a disconnect!)

There were contradictions on a broader scale too – and they have been widely noted. That the more facts we have at our fingertips, the less we seem to know. That the ‘convenience’ of messaging media (e-mail, SMS, IM) consumes ever larger and more indigestable chunks of our time and headspace. That as a culture we are practically swimming in entertainment, yet remain more depressed than any people who have ever lived. Basically, I started considering a scenario E.M. Forster never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become.

What’s your experience? Has all this connectivity made us more connected? Happy? Freer? Less alone? More alive? More at peace with ourselves and one with each other?

Read Full Post »

James Delingpole started blogging about two years ago. He has come to the conclusion that it is:

far more addictive, expensive, energy-sapping and injurious to health than crack cocaine.

Part of the problem is that his Telegraph blog has been enormously successful:

I’m not boasting. It really is popular. Obviously I don’t always get the 1.5 million hits I had when the Climategate story broke. But in an average week the number of hits I get is roughly twice the circulation of The Spectator, and in a good one bigger than those of the Guardian and the Independent put together.

And the reason for this is that… I have a talent for blogging. Admittedly I’m no use for gossip or inside-track Westminster analysis. What I can do though, better than most, is that mix of concentrated rage, flippant wit, irreverence, bile and snarkiness which many blog readers seem to think defines the art.

Again, I say this not at all in order to boast. Discovering in middle age that you have a rare gift for deriding idiocies on the internet is like suddenly finding you’re the world’s most accurate lichen-spotter or first-rate squirrel-juggler or that you can identify aircraft just by looking at the contrails. It’s not something that makes you go, ‘Thanks, God!’

Some may think this ungrateful of me. After all, thanks to my blog, I’m at least ten times more famous than I used to be — with readers all over the world who think I’m just great. But what most people don’t understand (only bloggers do, in fact) is the terrible emotional, physical and financial price you pay for this privilege.

In Delingpole’s eyes, the success and the likelihood of burnout seem to be inseparable, because of the compulsive nature of the effective blogger.

There are only so many really first-class bloggers out there and unless they’re being paid to do it as a full-time job (which only a handful are) then they’re almost bound, as I just have, to retire hurt.

When I looked back at the last 18 months and wondered why I’d got so ill, the answer became pretty self-evident: it’s because every spare scrap of time that had hitherto gone on stuff like pottering in the garden, having the odd game of tennis, taking the kids to school, listening to music, reading, walking and relaxing, had been almost entirely swallowed up by blogging.

And I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy doing it: that’s the problem — it’s an addiction. As a blogger you can’t read a news story without wanting to comment on it. You’re constantly trawling your other favourite blogs to see whose story is worth following up. And when you’re not doing that, you’re busy catching up with the hundreds of comments below your latest post, trying not to be cut up by the hateful ones, while trying to respond encouragingly to the sympathetic ones. I love it. I love my readers (the nice ones anyway). But for the moment I love slightly more the idea of not driving myself to an early grave.

I don’t think I’m at the burnout stage yet.

You can see Delingpole’s website here, and his old Telegraph posts here.

There is a quick online test you can take to see how addicted to blogging you are – try it here. It only takes 30 seconds. The last question, for any blogger, is very funny indeed. I came out at an unimpressive 64%.

Read Full Post »

If you are in a Cold War, worried that your enemy is going to destroy your military headquarters, including your main information hub, what do you do? Design an alternative information technology in which knowledge is diffused around the whole system and accessed through many different portals.

Paul Baran, who died a fortnight ago, was one of the two inventors of packet switching, without which we wouldn’t have the internet. Martin Campbell-Kelly explains:

In 1959 he joined Rand, which had been established in 1946 to do military research for the US Air Force. By the late 1950s, it was at the centre of nuclear politics and strategy. An issue of great concern at this time was the vulnerability of US military communications to a nuclear strike from Russia. If the command-and-control network was destroyed, the ability of the US to retaliate would be threatened.

Baran invented a futuristic solution to this problem in the form of a network held together by scores of small computers. Messages would be passed (“like a hot potato”) from one computer to the next towards its destination. Even if the network was massively damaged, the message would still get through. Another innovation was to chop all messages into small blocks so that they would not be delayed by long messages clogging the network. The blocks would arrive at their destination in a random order via different routes, and the computer at the destination end would reconstitute the original messages from the individual blocks.

Baran’s digital network proposal was at the cutting edge of computer technology and would have been hugely expensive to build. Numerous technical objections were raised by senior engineers steeped in the old analogue technology. In order to answer his critics, over the next few years Baran compiled a series of 11 reports. These were never secret, because it was believed that resilient networks were needed by friend and foe alike to resolve an escalating nuclear standoff. In the end, Baran failed to gain support for his proposal and, in 1968, with two other Rand alumni, he established the non-profit Institute for the Future, where he became an authority on the emerging digital networks.

Around this time Arpa was designing the Arpanet, the prototype of the internet, and their attention was drawn to the work of both Baran and the British computer scientist Donald Davies, who had developed similar ideas at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex. Davies (who was unaware of Baran’s work) called his system “packet switching”, and that name stuck, although the underlying concepts were the same in both proposals. Most importantly, both Baran and Davies had conducted and published detailed studies which established packet switching as a viable technology rather than just a bright idea. This enabled Arpa to commit to the system, and it remains the underlying technology of the internet.

It makes one reflect on how knowledge is stored and shared in other systems – in academia, in politics, in family life, in religions, etc.

Baran seems to have been very humble about his achievements, and keen to acknowledge the work of many others in building the internet. Katie Hafner writes:

In recent years, the origins of the Internet have been subject to claims and counterclaims of precedence, and Mr. Baran was an outspoken proponent of distributing credit widely.

“The Internet is really the work of a thousand people,” he said in an interview in 2001.

“The process of technological developments is like building a cathedral,” he said in an interview in 1990. “Over the course of several hundred years, new people come along and each lays down a block on top of the old foundations, each saying, ‘I built a cathedral.’

“Next month another block is placed atop the previous one. Then comes along an historian who asks, ‘Well, who built the cathedral?’ Peter added some stones here, and Paul added a few more. If you are not careful you can con yourself into believing that you did the most important part. But the reality is that each contribution has to follow onto previous work. Everything is tied to everything else.”

Read Full Post »

With a title like ‘Plagiarism and the internet’, you are expecting me to write about how plagiarism is infinitely easier and infinitely more common than it was before the advent of the internet. Well it is. But it’s also true that the internet has made it a lot easier to discover whether someone is plagiarising, and where they are getting their materials from.

Jimmy Wales, one of the Wikipedia founders, explains all.

The German defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has announced his resignation after admitting that he had plagiarised parts of his PhD from the University of Bayreuth. Online tools played a big role in exposing his methods: for almost two weeks a group worked to identify the specific sections from his thesis that were lifted straight from other sources. When they realised that Google Docs – although a useful tool for small group collaboration – wasn’t the right platform for mass participation in the project, they created a “wiki” (a site for collaborative works) named PlagiPedia to handle the effort.

In just a few days the wiki went into overdrive: from no page views on 16 February to nearly 2m on 18 February. A university investigation – culminating in a decision described by Debora Weber–Wulff, a professor of media and computing at Berlin university, as the fastest by a German academic institution in 400 years – resulted in the revocation of Zu Guttenberg’s doctorate. To date, the wiki has received 40,000 comments and 15,000 Facebook “likes”, and there are 1,224 pages on it exploring the details of the accusations of plagiarism against him.

Last week a second wiki was launched to explore whether Saif Gaddafi’s PhD thesis from the London School of Economics included plagiarism. A few days later Britain’s Media Standards Trust unveiled a website called churnalism.com which helps expose plagiarism in the media. By pasting press releases into a “churn engine” readers can discover the extent to which they have been recycled, verbatim, in online news articles. The internet is thought to have fostered a cut-and-paste culture of uncritical plagiarism: schoolteachers and university lecturers in particular regularly complain about coursework lifted straight off the site that I run, Wikipedia. But, if nothing else, sites like Plagipedia and churnalism.com show us that the internet is perfectly capable of correcting its own follies.

Of course Saif Gaddafi is guilty of far worse than plagiarism. But his history with the LSE is a black mark for the institution, and in particular for the examiners, such as Lord Desai, who approved his thesis. We may be able to forgive them some aspects of this – plagiarism is sometimes notoriously difficult to detect, particularly when you have only a small committee of experts doing the examining.

In the open-source software world we have a saying: “Many eyeballs make all bugs shallow.” Similarly, many people working together to look for plagiarism can be dramatically more effective than only a few.

The key internet rule now is not to avoid copying, but to admit it when you do.

The text on the image reads:

You go on YouTube for example and you post a video clip…within hours you’ll have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people doing variations of your act….It used to be that if you were in the realm of popular culture, you would be inspired by an earlier performance, by an earlier style, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, for example. But that would really be incumbent upon you to create an original style, a trademark style. That’s what you were known by. Now the important thing is to copy. It’s a copy culture. [Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob]

Read Full Post »

Fr Ronald Rolheiser writes about our addiction to being digitally connected:

And so we are, daily, becoming more enslaved to and more compulsive in our use of mobile phones and the Internet. For many of us it is now existentially impossible to take off a day, let alone several weeks, and be on a genuine holiday. Rather, the pressure is on us to constantly check for texts, e-mails, phone messages and the like. The expectation from our families, friends, and colleagues is precisely that we are checking these regularly. The sin du jour is to be, at any time, unavailable, unreachable or non-communicative.

He quotes some friends who work in Christian ministry on Sunday mornings, but then begin to celebrate their own digital sabbath in the late afternoon on Sunday:

We start our celebration of the Sabbath at 4 PM on Sunday and we begin it symbolically by unplugging our computers, turning of our mobile phones, disconnecting our hour phone and turning off every information gadget that we own. For the next 29 hours we don’t receive any calls and we don’t make any. We are on a cyber-fast, non-contactable, of the wheel, unavailable.

At 9 PM on Monday night we end our Sabbath as we began it, symbolically. We break our cyber-fast and fire up again our phones and our computers and begin answering our messages. We get back on the wheel for another week.

Sometimes making ourselves unavailable like this irritates our families and friends, but if we are to celebrate Sabbath, given our pressured lives, this pulling away is the most important single thing that we have to do.

He ends the article with this wonderful quotation from the mystic poet Rumi:

I have lived too long where I can be reached!

[The Catholic Herald, 18 Feb, p 20]

Read Full Post »

This story, from Andrew McLaughlin, illustrates both the political power of the internet to discomfort governments, and the enduring power of governments to shut down the internet when it suits them.

As recently as a week ago, Egypt‘s internet was extraordinary in the Arab world for its freedom. For more than a decade, the regime has adhered to a hands-off policy, leaving unblocked everything from rumours about President Hosni Mubarak’s health to videos of police beatings. Unlike most of its regional neighbours and other authoritarian regimes, Egypt’s government never built or required sophisticated technical infrastructures of censorship. (Of course, the country has hardly been a paradise of free expression: the state security forces have vigorously suppressed dissent through surveillance, arbitrary detentions and relentless intimidation of writers and editors.)

Partly as a result of its liberal policies, Egypt became a hub for internet and mobile network investment, home to a thriving and competitive communications sector that pioneered free dial-up services, achieved impressive rates of access and use, and offered speedy wireless and broadband networks at relatively low prices. Indeed, Egypt is today one of the major crossing points for the underwater fibre-optic cables that interconnect the regions of the globe.

But last Thursday, the Mubarak regime shattered a decade’s worth of accomplishment by issuing the order to shut down the mobile networks and internet links. Since the internet age dawned in the early 90s, no widely connected country had disconnected itself entirely. The starkness and suddenness of Egypt’s reversal – from unrestricted to unreachable – marks one of the many tragedies of the Mubarak regime’s brutal and hamfisted response to last week’s emergence of citizen protests.

The internet cutoff shows how the details of infrastructure matter. Despite having no large-scale or centralised censorship apparatus, Egypt was still able to shut down its communications in a matter of minutes. This was possible because Egypt permitted only three wireless carriers to operate, and required all internet service providers (ISPs) to funnel their traffic through a handful of international links. Confronted with mass demonstrations and fearful about a populace able to organise itself, the government had to order fewer than a dozen companies to shut down their networks and disconnect their routers from the global internet.

The blackout has proved increasingly ineffective. A handful of networks have remained connected, including one independent ISP, the country’s academic and research network, and a few major banks, businesses and government institutions. Whether these reflect deliberate defiance, privileged connections, or tactical exceptions –one might imagine, for example, that members of Mubarak’s family and inner circle would want to have Internet access to move money, buy tickets, or make hotel reservations abroad — is as yet unknown.

Moreover, innovative Egyptians are finding ways to overcome the block. They are relaying information by voice, exploiting small and unnoticed openings in the digital firewall, and dusting off old modems to tap foreign dial-up services.

For democracies, one lesson here is clear: diversity and complexity in our network architectures is a very good thing. Likewise, enforcement of public policies such as network neutrality – the principle that access providers should not be permitted to control what their customers can do online – are important to prevent networks from installing tools and capabilities that could be abused in moments of crisis. For dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, however, the lesson will be quite the opposite.

Read Full Post »

Lots of end-of-year internet usage stats are coming in. For the first time, in the US at least, Facebook surpassed Google as the most visited website.

This is from Reuters (by Jennifer Saba):

The social network site edged out Google.com (GOOG.O) with 8.9 percent of all U.S. visits between January and November 2010, while Google.com ranked second with about 7.2 percent of all visits, according to online measurement service Experian Hitwise.

Facebook’s move to the top spot shows just how quickly the site has grown in popularity. Within the span of six years, Facebook has become the world’s largest Web social network with roughly half a billion users worldwide.

Google.com dominated the top spot as the most visited website in the United States in 2009 and 2008. News Corp’s (NWSA.O) MySpace was the No. 1 visited website in 2007. It is ranked No. 7.

However, when all of Google’s properties are considered — such as YouTube and email, for instance — Google still reigns as the most visited site at 9.9 percent between January and November 2010. Facebook follows at 8.9 percent. Yahoo (YHOO.O) and all of its properties ranked third at 8.1 percent.

So connecting with others has become more important than finding things for oneself. In the language of my previous post about basic human needs and self-determination theory, the need for ‘relatedness’ has triumphed over the need for ‘autonomy’. That’s my vastly over-simplified way of looking at these huge cultural shifts!

Read Full Post »

What’s the place of religion on the internet, and the significance of the internet for religion? Pope Benedict comes back to these themes in his latest document Verbum Domini about the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church.

Spot the relevant app...

He encourages Catholics to make serious efforts to be more present in the world of the mass media. But he also warns that virtual relationships will only become meaningful if they are a means to some kind of personal contact between those using them.

Here are the relevant paragraphs.

Linked to the relationship between the word of God and culture is the need for a careful and intelligent use of the communications media, both old and new. The Synod Fathers called for a proper knowledge of these media; they noted their rapid development and different levels of interaction, and asked for greater efforts to be made in gaining expertise in the various sectors involved, particularly in the new media, such as the internet.

The Church already has a significant presence in the world of mass communications, and her magisterium has frequently intervened on the subject, beginning with the Second Vatican Council.[360] Discovering new methods of transmitting the Gospel message is part of the continuing evangelizing outreach of those who believe. Communications today take place through a worldwide network, and thus give new meaning to Christ’s words: “What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops” (Mt 10:27).

God’s word should resound not only in the print media, but in other forms of communication as well.[361] For this reason, together with the Synod Fathers, I express gratitude to those Catholics who are making serious efforts to promote a significant presence in the world of the media, and I ask for an ever wider and more qualified commitment in this regard.[362]

Among the new forms of mass communication, nowadays we need to recognize the increased role of the internet, which represents a new forum for making the Gospel heard. Yet we also need to be aware that the virtual world will never be able to replace the real world, and that evangelization will be able to make use of the virtual world offered by the new media in order to create meaningful relationships only if it is able to offer the personal contact which remains indispensable.

In the world of the internet, which enables billions of images to appear on millions of screens throughout the world, the face of Christ needs to be seen and his voice heard, for “if there is no room for Christ, there is no room for man”.[363]

Read Full Post »

I’ve just discovered a new word: “Globish”. This is the simplified form of English used today as a means of global communication, often learnt as a third or fourth language.

Does the rise and rise of Globish mean that English will continue to be the lingua franca of the technological age?  

Perhaps it’s not true to say that English is dying out, but it may have a much shorter shelf life than many expect. This is what Nicolas Ostler argues in an interview with Robert McCrum, talking about his latest book The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel.

English is on an up at the moment, an up that is probably unprecedented in world history. But world history is full of languages that have dominated for a time, yet there aren’t too many of them around now. So the essential idea is to see what happened to them and see if this could possibly be relevant to the situation of English, which is the world’s lingua franca today.

The main point is simply that linguistic empires rise and fall. But two other arguments are made. The first is about technology:

It’s been the received wisdom in language technology that machine translation isn’t good enough. But all that’s preventing it from being good enough is just a problem of scale. The way that machine translation is now being pushed forward simply involves being able to process more and more data in order to find the significant patterns. The power and cheapness of computers is increasing all the time. There’s no way that the little problem of incompatibility between languages is going to stand in the way of it for long.

And because it’s being done in a data-based way, the techniques which will solve the problem will solve it for all languages, not just the big important ones. So even remote Aboriginal groups will benefit – maybe a generation later, maybe sooner. And when that happens, people will be able to fulfil themselves through their own language, which is what they always wanted to do anyway.

The second argument is that however widely spoken English may be as a lingua franca today, for many people it doesn’t go very deep as a living language:

I want to draw a distinction between a language which is spread through nurture, a mother tongue, and a language that is spread through recruitment, which is a lingua franca. A lingua franca is a language that you consciously learn because you need to, because you want to. A mother tongue is a language that you learn because you can’t help it. The reason English is spreading around the world at the moment is because of its utility as a lingua franca. Globish – a simplified version of English that’s used around the world – will be there as long as it is needed, but since it’s not being picked up as a mother tongue, it’s not typically being spoken by people to their children. It is not getting effectively to first base, the most crucial first base for long-term survival of a language.

Ostler is the chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. You can see the website here.

Read Full Post »

Yesterday, entranced by Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook moment,  I was searching for the next Really Big Idea. But someone sent me a link to this interview with Steven Johnson who writes: ‘Eureka moments are very, very rare’.Johnson is the author of the book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. He talks to Oliver Burkeman about how collaboration, rather than a sudden flash of genius, is usually at the root of our most innovative ideas.

“It’s very, very rare to find cases where somebody on their own, working alone, in a moment of sudden clarity has a great breakthrough that changes the world. And yet there seems to be this bizarre desire to tell the story that way.”

At the core of his alternative history is the notion of the “adjacent possible”, one of those ideas that seems, at first, like common sense, then gradually reveals itself as an entirely new way of looking at almost everything. Coined by the biologist Stuart Kauffman, it refers to the fact that at any given time – in science and technology, but perhaps also in culture and politics – only certain kinds of next steps are feasible. “The history of cultural progress,” Johnson writes, “is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.”

Think of playing chess: at any point in the game, several ingenious moves may be possible, but countless others won’t be. Likewise with inventions: the printing press was only possible – and perhaps only thinkable – once moveable type, paper and ink all existed. YouTube, when it was launched in 2005, was a brilliant idea; had it been launched in 1995, before broadband and cheap video cameras were widespread, it would have been a terrible one. Or take culture: to 1950s viewers, Johnson argues, complex TV shows such as Lost or The Wire would have been borderline incomprehensible, like some kind of avant-garde art, because certain ways of engaging with the medium hadn’t yet been learned. And all this applies, too, to the most basic innovation: life itself. At some point, back in the primordial soup, a bunch of fatty acids gave rise to a cell membrane, which made possible the simplest organisms, and so on. What those acids couldn’t do was spontaneously form into a fish, or a mouse: it wasn’t part of their adjacent possible.

What does all this mean in practical terms?

The best way to encourage (or to have) new ideas isn’t to fetishise the “spark of genius”, to retreat to a mountain cabin in order to “be creative”, or to blabber interminably about “blue-sky”, “out-of-the-box” thinking. Rather, it’s to expand the range of your possible next moves – the perimeter of your potential – by exposing yourself to as much serendipity, as much argument and conversation, as many rival and related ideas as possible; to borrow, to repurpose, to recombine. This is one way of explaining the creativity generated by cities, by Europe’s 17th-century coffee-houses, and by the internet. Good ideas happen in networks; in one rather brain-bending sense, you could even say that “good ideas are networks”. Or as Johnson also puts it: “Chance favours the connected mind.”

Another surprising truth about big ideas: even when they seem to be individual flashes of genius, they don’t happen in a flash – though the people who have them often subsequently claim that they did. Charles Darwin always said that the theory of natural selection occurred to him on 28 September 1838 while he was reading Thomas Malthus’s essay on population; suddenly, the mechanism of evolution seemed blindingly straightforward. (“How incredibly stupid not to think of that,” Darwin’s great supporter Thomas Huxley was supposed to have said on first hearing the news.) Yet Darwin’s own notebooks reveal that the theory was forming clearly in his mind more than a year beforehand: it wasn’t a flash of insight, but what Johnson calls a “slow hunch”. And on the morning after his alleged eureka moment, was Darwin feverishly contemplating the implications of his breakthrough? Nope: he busied himself with some largely unconnected ruminations on the sexual curiosity of primates.

A certain kind of businessperson, I suspect, will buy Where Good Ideas Come From in order to learn to how to come up with a killer business idea, bring it to market, and clean up financially. They may find themselves slightly alarmed, therefore, by a sequence of striking graphics in which Johnson demonstrates that the vast majority of major innovations since 1800 have come from outside the free market – from universities and other environments where profit wasn’t the overwhelming motivation. The urge to hoard, protect and directly profit from good ideas can work against the sharing-and-recombining ethos that the adjacent possible demands. And it’s often the case that those who do attain vast wealth have done so by finding ways to exploit the creativity of the non-market world. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is so rich today only because Tim Berners-Lee developed the web as a non-profit venture. (And a non-profit venture, incidentally, that had no eureka moment either. Johnson quotes Berners-Lee as saying that interviewers are always frustrated when he admits he never experienced one.)

I think this means I can come down from my mountain cabin, withdraw all my patent applications, return the billions of dollars my investors have sent me, and start talking to people again. It seems as if I am going to be poorer but much better connected.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,200 other followers

%d bloggers like this: