Archives for posts with tag: Politics

When a debate rages in the press and online, it can often be difficult to get hold of the bare facts and the basic arguments. Wranglr is a simple response to this problem.

Wranglr lets you see both the arguments for and the arguments against an idea side by side. Lines connect primary arguments to counter arguments so you can easily follow the flow of an idea. When you click on an argument you can see the point in more detail and click through to a link with further information. By logging in with your social network credentials, you can start a debate and contribute arguments to existing debates.

The current debate is on the alternative voting system, and the graphical representation of the arguments really helps someone gain a quick overview and familiarity with the arguments. The scope for debates is pretty large – I would like to see a debate asking if bankers are responsible for the financial crisis, or even an argument as epic as the existence of God! A quick scan through Quora would offer some interesting ideas.

I imagine the site will face some problems as it develops – particularly separating good arguments from rubbish opinions – and may require some form of moderator. But for people that want a quick digest of the facts, without any interfering noise, the site will probably be a success – and I’m sure the feature list will expand (although I hope the core simplicity remains).

For an introduction and some background by the creator click here.

The Egyptian government has taken a ‘shotgun approach’ and severed almost all of the countries internet connections, following massive protests over the governments rule.

You are unable to access 22 out of the 25 top Egyptian websites,  meaning that every school, internet cafe and home is without web access.

This is the first time that a country has turned off the internet. That a country with a major internet economy could take this action was previously ‘unthinkable’, according to major technologists.

An internet ‘off-switch’ is unthinkable in this country, or the US. However, American law makers are apparently becoming seduced by the idea of being able to pull the plug on the web in times of national security.

The fear is, with further protests expected around the world, this will set a precedent amongst other countries that have centralised control over the internet.

This year has seen crowdsourcing rapidly evolve. The advent of the Web 2.0 (or the social web) has made the possibility of mass collaboration easier than ever before.

The web is populated by people that will willing give their time and expertise to any idea that can motivate and inspire them. The wisdom of the crowd has never been more easily harnessed, and this year has already seen some exciting and inventive crowdsourcing methods.

Of course, crowdsourcing has been around for a while. It is engrained in the way the internet has develop – Wikipedia is created and edited by members of the public, software develops through the collaboration of programmers in an open source environment, and businesses have been using the internet to headhunt the right people for the job since the start.

But now, as the social web spreads across all areas of life, we are seeing an explosion in crowdsourcing experimentation. This is a lowdown of some of this years notable examples and recent developments.

Crowdsourced Government

The most popular recent example is the new UK coalition governments initiative to give the people a voice. Your Freedom and Spending Challenge are both websites designed to allow people to  shape government policy by both suggesting ideas and rating others. Whether it is finding areas to cut spending, or asking people what silly laws they would like repealed – the government seem to be going with the flow and using the web to communicate with the people.

However, these exercises seem to be more of a gimmick then a serious attempt to give the crowd a role in government. These sites don’t appear to have had any effect yet – and The Guardian has reported that none of the government departments involved in the project are willing to amend any of their policies – despite over 9500 responses.

It has always been possible to ask the population what they want (and how much they want it) through established research companies. These websites, although exciting,  seem to be nothing more than a PR exercise by a governement wanting to project an image that they are digitally savvy and care about the peoples opinion.

Although, some of the suggestions do make for interesting reading…

TellYouGov – Real Time Reaction

Online polling company YouGov have introduced a new service that allows members to express opinion and comment on any topic that they want.

TellYouGov is simple to use – you enter either  a brand, name, concept etc into one box, choose whether you feel positively or negatively about it and then leave a comment. This real-time public sentiment allows people to express their views on anything, and makes people feel heard and valued.

The results are recorded and YouGov have a search bar that allows you to find a brand/celebrity and track their popularity (or lack of) over time. They provide a simple volume/score graph  and a long list of all the comments users have left.

It is even utilising Twitter – a member can post “Avatar + amazing special effects #tellyougov” to indicate a positive sentiment about the film.

This service has massive potential if it grows. It already has quite a few users all regularly registering their sentiment – and YouGov also offer a regular prize for members to keep the service buliding momentum.

Crowdsolving – NetFlix and the Oil Spill

Of course, the crowd won’t always have something interesting to say. When DVD rental website NetFlix wanted to improve its film recomendation service they needed a unique programmer.

But instead of hiring an expensive agency, NetFlix chose to run an incentivised competition with an award of $1,000,000 to the best solution. It worked – by using the crowd as a communication mechanism they had solved their problem.

Crowdsolving is also being used to combat the environmental damage caused by the oil leak. As BP struggled to contain the leak, websites began appearing that allowed experts, and non experts, to post suggestions to cap the leak. More recently the Schmidt Family Foundation has announced a competition with a prize of $1.4 million to anyone that can develop a way to help clear up the spill.

This competetion is also keeping people aware of the long term damage the leak will cause – rather than allowing the story to fizzle away from the media. Both examples show how using the crowd to communicate a message can be extremely effective – either to get the message heard or keep it alive.

Foldit – Gaming and Crowdsourcing

One problem that any potential crowdsourcing project faces is the question of how to get people to take part. A financial incentive is not always the most effective way to increase participation, especially if the funding is limited and the task is massive!

The solution is to look at what encourages humans to take part – gaming. One recent crodsourcing success has been the combination of online multiplayer competition with scientific research – Foldit.

As anyone that has been hooked to Tetris will know – simple games can be furiously addictive. Foldit transforms the boring and long task of understanding proteins into a game where you are scored on how well you put a protein structure together. This is a task that a computer doesn’t perform very effectively and can only be effectively done by human input.

This is just one of many recent examples of gaming being applied to help solve problems in the real world. Jane McGonigal is a passionate believer in the power of games to aid progress. She recently delivered an excellent speech at TED that is well worth a watch!

Her most recent work is the game Evoke which has recruited a team of players to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. Focusing on a problem a week – it intends to teach people through simulated environments. The game has recieved funding from the world Bank Institute and looks set to make a large splash when it picks up momentum.


HelpMeInvestigate is a collaborative investigative reporting website that encourages people to get involved with  investigations that capture their interest. It looks like it will become particularly effective when a large amount of regional reporting is needed  - such as checking local MP’s election campaign expenses.

I have blogged about this website before. In my opinion it is truly leading the way in next generation investigation methods. It is using all aspects of social media to powerfully communicate with members and is allowing people to feel part of something big!

And one not so useful example

HeinzRocket is an agency that provides advertising solutions to companies by using a crowd of over 1000 artists. Their most recent endeavour has been to crowdsource a new name for crowdsourcing by offering a £1000 prize. With stupid examples ranging from “Grapes of Wrathing” to ‘Massideation” – this perhaps shows how crowdsourcing can go a bit too far.

The other day, whilst watching the BBC news, I was surprised that the Raoul Moat story was still rumbling on – almost 2 weeks after the man murdered one person and shot another.

It was slotted into the second place of the days main bulletin, narrowly being beaten by the oil spill. It seems that a few idiots had decided to declare Moat a legend and celebrate his stupid actions.

But what made this story even more sensational, and newsworthy, was the “Facebook angle”. Because this wave of public support was aided and abetted by the notorious Facebook (that website that lures foxes into your house and gives babies anthrax) the social networking site was pictured throughout the news bulletin – flashing up between pictures of misery and woe.

The website gets this all the time.

I just thought I’d whack “Facebook” into Google news and – hey presto – there it is. This time it’s the Guardian website (you see – they don’t know better) reporting that Raoul Moat’s brother is opposed to the Facebook fan page (great – I really needed to know that).

I also happened to flick through today’s Daily Mirror and found a whole page covering a horrific and brutal attack on some poor guy following an argument.

Of course – the description of the attack is not enough for the newspaper (this stuff, unfortunately, happens all the time). The argument had occured on Facebook – Bang! The Facebook angle! The evil social network even features in the headline.

The Sun is especially thorough in it’s campaign to smear Facebook with as much scandal as possible. In a quick search of the newspapers website -Facebook is connected to terrorism, child kidnap, murder, rape, harassment, child cruelty, infidelity and much much more.

In fairness I did find one story with a positive angle, about someone finding their father. But it really was just the one!

Of course, because the owner of the Sun is Rupert Murdoch – who owns rival social networking site MySpace – it would appear that the paper has a business agenda to push. And it doesn’t even try to disguise it!

A search for “Myspace” yields nothing but positive stories. Everything from the great music it hosts to it’s enormous growth and powerful campiagns for justice. My favourite is the story that runs ‘MYSPACE has banned 90,000 sex offenders from its site – but the pervs may be turning to rival Facebook.’

I’m not really surprised that Murdoch owned papers continually attack Facebook. But the fact that news organizations like the Guardian and the BBC seem to have followed the trend worries me. It is really no longer news that EVERYONE uses Facebook for hundreds of different things – even naughty things. Maybe we should give Facebook a break?

Is the novel dead? According to the American critic Lee Siegel the answer is a clear yes. People are just not interested in fiction anymore.

According to Siegel, the novel does not fit into the fabric of todays world – it is “culturally irrelevant”.

However, non-fiction is booming! It is the new top source for creative, perceptive and provocative reading.

Apparently the novel has fallen victim to the commercial world – it is  a commodity that must be created only to serve the publishing industry. Consumers have tired of the elite position literary fiction once held and refuse to hold it with such high regard.

This is not the first time the novel has recieved a death sentence. It seems to be a bit of a recurring theme.

In the later part of the 20th century the British novel was diagnosed as dying for several reasons.

All the novelty of the novel had been explored by the great modernist masters, the scale and inhumanity of the second world war had rendered the world unrepresentable and more people were turning to the entertainment of radio and television.

But the novel responded – British novelists found a new post-modern way of representing reality. Fiction began to interrogate old ideas of history, toying with values which had long carried strong authority.

Voices began shouting from the old British colonies, and the idea of Britishness and identity were looked at through new lenses.

The result has been an abundance of great contemporary British novels.

So the question now is – how will the novel escape the hangman’s noose this time around?

One particular response of the British novel during the end of last century was to investigate the previously neglected genres of fiction. Detective stories and action adventure tales were reassessed and valued as new tools to explore the world.

Today, one genre of fiction that deserves particular attention is science-fiction. There is no form of fiction better suited to help us make sense of this world of accelerating change.

We live in a world of genetic experimentation, artificial reality and instant communication. What was previously in the imagination of science fiction is now all around us.

We are also surrounded by new forms of power. Covert cameras register our every move; privacy is intruded upon by internet corporations; vast databases categorise every aspect of our life.

The science fiction novel is the perfect cauldron to experiment with new forms of expression in our internet age. It can help us to look at the advances of our civilisation through a literary lens.

Only then can we truly make sense of our environment and ask the question – is the internet a revolutionary new freedom – or is it a new mind forged manacle.

Investigative journalism is no longer the domain of newspapers.

Newspaper sales are declining drastically and so (inevitably) are the staff. The Mirror group have recently announced one of the largest redundancy programmes of any news group, axing 200 jobs. As the number of reporters and journalists decrease there are greater time pressures on those that remain to fill up a paper with content. The result is usually an abundance of PR stories and a increasing dependence on news-wire stories that are often unchecked and sent straight to press.

The blame for these job cuts is normally focused on a loss of newspaper revenue caused by the free content available on the internet. But if the internet is the culprit for a decline in traditional investigative journalism, it is also breeding a new form of investigation.

For those that don’t know, crowdsourcing is the process of harnessing the power of the masses to accomplish tasks. By calling out to an interested crowd you can get tasks accomplished, ideas generated and develop the kind of insights never before possible. When this technique is applied to investigative journalism you end up with a massive team of investigators. The most popular example is the use of crowdsourcing to investigate MP’s expenses – the Guardian has so far recruited 26,763 people to review MP’s expense documents.

Developments in collaborative online investigations are being pioneered by Paul Bradshaw on his website Help Me Investigate. Designed to connect, mobilise and uncover – it allows users to investigate “things”. These things can be anything from how much donation websites take from charities to issues surrounding the digital economy bill.

Anyone can suggest an investigation – an activist, journalist or a member of the public. The investigation then becomes a series of tasks. For example, one investigation asks “How orchestrated or organised was the #janmoir campaign?” and the tasks are:

  • To provide background information
  • Analyse tweets
  • Suggest ways to test “organisation” and “orchestration”
  • Compare it to other “outrages”
  • Follow the source that led to the outrage
  • Invite experts to take part

Other investigations can involve writing freedom of information requests, contacting local councils and identifying possible contributors.

Although this project has proved its worth on a local level – it is clear the vision of this site is for national (and maybe international) investigations. It currently only has a few members and is still in development – but I think it will become the next big thing in journalism.

A key feature which will aid its growth is the addition of a user profile. When you take part you give yourself tags to indicate your interests and skills, meaning you are easy to find when needed. Also, whenever you contribute to or start an investigation your profile is updated to reflect your increased participation. It is almost like collecting points or badges. This game like strategy will increase user engagement and provide a level of recognition that could be lost with other forms of crowdsourced collaborative investigation.

I imagine the model of the website will get its first good test now that the government have begun the Coins data release. With such an abundance of government data ripe for investigation, Help Me Investigate can begin setting challenges to root out details from what has now been exposed.

I’m confident that this website will grow and will alter as it develops. I imagine that similar sites will start to appear – but they won’t be aet themselves up as competition because, after all, this is collaboration at its strongest.

Do we need to break free of the fish-bowl? Is it better to have a world of a million choices or a world with limited choice? This is a question posed by Barry Schwartz – and to which he concludes that, in western society, we all have too many choices and this has made us ill. Of course, the official dogma of our civilisation is that the more choice we have the better things are. However, Schwartz argues that when people have too many choices they find it very difficult to choose at all.

Choice makes people procrastinate, it can paralyse them into inactivity, they are baffled by an incomprehensible list of possible choices. Also – more choices lead to regret. You think about the joy you are missing out on if you had made a different choice. We start to have high expectations from all these choices – and with high expectations comes low depression.

The talk made me think about the book I am currently reading. The Commissariat of Enlightenment is about a guy called Astapov working for Stalin in Communist Russia during the early 1920′s. Astapov makes films to spread Communist ideology across the masses – he is a master of the new film making technology and loyal to the Communist cause.

With a complete understanding of the relationship between image and power he looks over to western society and compares the two cultures different use of the camera:

“[T]he west was creating an image-ruled empire of its own, a shimmering electrified web of pictures, unarticulated meaning, and passionate associations forged between unrelated ideas. This was how to do it: either starve the masses of meaning or expose them to so much that the sum of it would be unintelligible.”

In his talk, Barry Schwartz tries to get people away from the ideology that more is better. This idea is so engrained into our culture that it leads to clinical depression and suicide. Astapov, looking out from Communist Russia, admires the western use of images to baffle, confuse and perplex the minds of the population. He commends the creation of a society of people who would be “unable to complete a thought without making reference to some image manufactured for his persuasion”.

Confused, bewildered and exhausted – western society longs for thoughtlessness, and that is where political power and commercial gain creep in. It is important to liberate ourselves from these forces – and maybe it is better to stay in a fish-bowl than flounder in a world without constraint.

The latest statistics from the UK Online Measurement Company show an explosion in internet use amongst Britons. The average surfer spends over 22hrs browsing the web each month – a figure up 65% from three years ago. I doubt it will be long before the press pick up on this and churn up fears about the spread of internet addiction. Excessive internet use is often portrayed as an ill of society demanding treatment in rehab. A quick search of the Daily Mail finds reports that internet addiction makes people depressed, Blackberry users are compared to crack heads, and there has apparently been an epidemic of on-line “friend addiction” amongst women.

Of course, there are genuine and important concerns. Consider South Korea – with ubiquitous, super fast internet connection it is considered the most wired country in the world. Pretty much every child is connected to the web and the country enjoys the highest levels of academic achievement. However, terrifying incidents of neglect and violence have highlighted the dangers of excessive internet use. According to one report three out of ten adults are addicted to online games. This has led the government to start imposing gaming curfews to block access to this internet drug.

As we become more wired are we headed towards the same fate? Are we going to become hooked to instant gratification? Are we destined to become socially inept in the real world? Are we destroying our attention span and memory? Unfortunately there will be victims of all the above, and hopefully we will be able to help those that do injure themselves or others through excessive internet use (ideally without restrictions and punishments).

But to talk of an “internet addicition” is to disguise the fact that there are actually many different types of “addiction” allowed by the internet- addiction to fast paced multiplayer games (such as Call of Duty) , to massively multiplayer games and worlds (World of Warcraft, Second Life); social network addiction (Twitter, Facebook), addiction to surfing, to receiving the latest news, to forum communities – the list grows as the internet grows. What will be the next drug?

The problem is that the internet is so irresistible – pretty much anyone can find something to get hooked to. So isn’t using the word addiction too casual a use of the term when used in this context? When you casually consider what addiction is you begin to see that anything can be considered addictive – shopping, exercise, socialising, writing, watching TV. Even the act of speaking and thinking can be considered addictive if we go far enough.

The world wide web is becoming part of us. A quick look at the future of internet technology will show you a world where we are constantly connected. Digital eye-wear that tracks our retina is just around the corner – soon this will be replaced by retinal implants. In the next decade everything will have an IP address – from your light switch to your shoe. There is now a massive demand for innovation and technological advancement, meaning the pace of change will continually accelerate .The predictions about our online future are endless – but it is pretty certain that the digital world will totally surround us in unimaginable ways.

Addiction is, according to one expert, a “primary and universal form of motivation”. It impels us forward and can be considered a force for good as well as something that can lead to social and mental debilitation. I would never suggest there aren’t dangers – the rise in internet gambling and the damage to childrens development to name two. There is also a fear that we are heading towards a matrix type scenario – a world where the body becomes redundant – useless baggage we would love to shed as we enter into a digital euphoria. This cyberpunk disdain for the body (predicted in science fiction as far back as 1984 with William Gibson’s Neuromancer) is a world where only the eyes and ears matter as we constantly demand to consume media and information – this is something to start considering more seriously, especially in the study of literature.

But I don’t think we have anything to worry about quite yet. The internet is an extension of our brain and a tool we are impelled towards – we are like eager children playing with a new toy. I hope the fascination with the web diminishes as it becomes ingrained into everyday life. Or will we see a surge in net junkies and face a public health scare like never before? I think, and hope, we are too sensible for that.

Google has begun the withdrawal of services from China. A bad time for the Chinese citizens, academics and the students who use the search engine. A bad time too for the company that will lose influence in the world’s fastest growing major economy. But for Microsoft, the times couldn’t be better.

Google have always given the impression that money isn’t their motive. The young idealistic founders insist that they are focused more towards improving the user experience of the internet, democratizing the web and sticking to their famous slogan “Don’t be evil”.

So now the non-suit wearing San Francisco based media giant has had to make good on its ethos and stop operating a censored service in China. This is a move that seems totally in line with the history of the web. Google are sharing the “nerd norms” of the enthusiastic programmers and engineers who freely shared information in the 60’s and 70’s to develop the internet. Johnny Ryan and Stefan Halper have suggested that this clash between China and Google indicates that the “information-technology sector may be moving beyond an amoral, bottom-line form of capitalism towards something more principled.”

However, these principles weren’t so strongly felt in 2006, when  Google had initially agreed to stay in China under censure, declaring it was in for the “long haul” of creating a productive presence in the country. They state on their blog that “Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission. Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world’s population, however, does so far more severely.” But now they have decided to depart; after four years! The reasons for this departure are unclear.

The most likely reason is because of the cyber attacks against Google’s infrastructure and the attacks against human rights activists Gmail accounts. As Danny Sullivan states on “An attack on ideas — that’s what the Chinese censorship was — that was tolerable. But an attack on Google’s own property? We’re outta here”

Whatever the reasons and motivations behind the move, the one thing we can be sure of is that it will all be kept secret. Google love their secrecy. When talking of strategy, Google co-founder Larry Page states “I would rather have people think we’re confused than let our competitors know what we’re going to do.”

But if we believe the hype, and Google are making a moral stand for freedom of speech, then I still cannot see what the outcome of this move would be. It’s great that the idealistic young entrepreneurs are taking a stand against internet censorship. But what will this achieve? It is reinvigorating the image of Google as a liberal media giant; it is also helping the inhabitants of China become more aware that the web is restricted; it is highlighting the moral issues the internet is facing. But how long will the effects of this statement last? After the media are bored of this story, and people switch their attention, Google will be left with less power to change China.

And now Microsoft have stepped in. A company rooted in profit. A company who used unethical business tactics to monopolise desktop computing and are a danger to internet freedom and free software (read more here)According to the Wall Street Journal they have already aggressively snapped up Chinese members of Google’s staff following the initial threat of withdrawal. And it is the perfect opportunity for Microsoft, who have just spent $100 million on marketing rival search engine

I don’t buy into Google as a moral crusader, and I agree that if business had been better in China then they would have stayed. But I would prefer it if Google had a stronger stake in China than Microsoft. Google leaving China seems arrogant, ignorant, irresponsible and plain stupid. Whilst they go about bashing Microsoft in a “holier than thou” public relations campaign all they have really done is responded to censorship with further censorship.

I strongly oppose China’s censorship of the internet. But it is idiotic for a company that has been around for little over ten years to wage war with a superpower as mighty as China. I fear the consequences will be dire…


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