The Unrealised Potential of Online

One of the things that makes me stick with digital technology is how little of it’s potential I think we’ve realised so far. We don’t seem to have got our head around the ability to reduce the infrastructure required to connect, communicate and share and the internets ability to reduce distance down to zero. We have the ability to send digital signals around the globe today at such an astounding speed that it essentially removes the distance. We are all in a way proximal to everyone on the planet. We can speak and listen to each other from around the other side of the world. We can tune in and watch live events as they unfold and we no longer need a traditional broadcast infrastructure. No towers or wires or cameras or relays – just a smart phone and a connection to the internet. The world is no longer out of our reach.

These connections however have led to an abundance of information that we are really struggling to understand. We are struggling at the moment to understand how we adapt to it because this explosion of information has exponentially increased the level of noise. As individuals what we need is more signal. But how do we go about that? The latest trend is with a digital detox – turning off our devices and the social networks. I understand that is one way of dealing with things, it doesn’t seem to deal with the problem. This is not a failure of the individual but a failure of the technology itself. It’s a failure of the massification of technology being driven by a profit. Put simply, more users equal more profit. It has never been the aim of digital technologies to improve our lives, it’s been to sell us more stuff, create new markets, new consumers, new ways of profiteering and fuck the consequences. Social Media is a prime example. Rather than work on ways to connect and enrich peoples lives, the focus of all the platforms has been about how to monetise and make profits. It’s led to the development of the biggest surveillance and intelligence tool ever developed and the dumpster fire we see today filled with hatred, bigotry and propaganda. This is Troll Country.

These platforms have scaled up without any care for their users. They have become places where we dwell and spend enormous amounts of time doing meaningless and trivial tasks. Often not because we choose, but because we are being manipulated. Actively and constantly experimented on, not for our benefit but in order to make more money. The “news” is unmediated and unedited and this total free for all doesn’t actually work. The reality is that as humans we actually require customs and rules, because that’s how you function as a species that is by necessity social. We have evolved not to be solitary, that we cannot exist in a solitary way, so we need each other. We need to work together, so we need some kind of order. We need order to actually communicate to each other – without them we just talk past each other or simply yell and scream. Sound familiar? As a species we actually need to have dialogue and to do so we need conventions, and that’s what is missing from digital technology.

In many ways this seems odd because conventions are just procedures, and the thing we build our digital technologies with is code, which is procedural. What are the the conventions and the procedures that would allow us to communicate and filter out the signal from the noise? This isn’t a people problem, I think there is a technical solution, but we don’t need another platform or application, we need another business model too. The investment driven business models utilised by the big tech companies have bought us to this point. Profit is now the driving force of success. They’ve written code and applications that simply aim to increase profit with very little thought of their effect on individuals and society.

When Twitter and Facebook claimed an active role in the Arab Spring, in effect a revolution that they helped facilitate, it must have caused huge ripples in espionage and intelligence circles. If social media can help a band of unorganised, unfunded and oppressed people facilitate a revolution, just imagine what an organised, state supported and well funded agency could achieve! The tech world seems to have been oblivious and naive to what has been going on within their midst and on their platforms. While they’ve sort to automate more and more of their operations in order to increase profits, forces have been hard at work gaming and manipulating the algorithms for their own ends. As the tech world has sort to dehumanise their operations state organisations have been using these platforms to interact directly (and indirectly) with those humans. Rather than platforms for collective improvement they’ve become tools of propaganda, surveillance and foreign influence. By removing the human elements and actively ignoring the conventions that allow us to socialise and have dialogue, the system has been corrupted. And dare I say, irreparably.

I think what is needed is for technology to comes back to information theory itself, that idea of being able to divine the signal from the noise. We need our tools to be capable of communicating effectively the message. At the moment we don’t have that and Trump is a great example of just how broken things are. There is inability for the signal to actually penetrate the noise at the moment. Social Media has become a set of Noise Systems and there is a dire need of tools that create spaces for real dialogue and conversation. Necessity is the mother of invention, and there is no time where there is a greater need for more civic and civil technologies.

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Online doesn’t replace offline — they are now one and the same

“This idea that we are trading the offline for the online, though it dominates how we think of the digital and the physical, is myopic. It fails to capture the plain fact that our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline.”

– Nathan Jurgenson

Online doesn’t replace offline — they are now one and the same. Our new reality is augmented, and there is no going back.

From The End of the Offline World as We Know It? 28 August 2012

We need to start at digital

I came across Tom Johnson’s posts Structured Authoring By For And Or Nor With In the Web and Structured Authoring (like DITA) a Good Fit for Publishing on a Website? this weekend. It came at a good time for me seeing as I’m thinking about publishing, authoring and content. I missed the publication of the original post – and I only came across it because of the great work from the Zite recommendations engine – but I’m quite taken aback at the response to the post, and intrigued by many of the amendments since made to the original. It seems Tom is quite embedded in the documentation area and they have some pretty strong views on publishing.

This also coincides with a referral to a post via @CathStyles by Paul Rowe on the Create Once Publish Everywhere (COPE) concept. Paul gives a really great overview of COPE in a really fair and balanced view. He also offered me a different perspective with his work with museums and a better understanding of yet another specific context with specific needs.

Given my own work in education I feel I am getting a better picture of the state of play.

What I’ve picked up is that what we are all attempting to deal with analogue systems and processes shoehorned into digital spaces. The current state of our systems, processes and software are tied to an analogue way of thinking, of developing and of working. There is nothing inherently wrong with those systems – the structure of DITA, the individual museum catalogues or the tome of the study guide – they all work in their own contexts, but they have reached their limits because they are no longer existing in a single context. The culture, society and technology around them has changed substantially but these systems hold onto legacy vestiges.

I agree we need something new, and Tom’s discussions around what the Web offers are really interesting. Why? Because the web is digital and always has been. It has evolved much faster than our other publishing systems and it has embraced its digital nature. The line from Tom’s article that resonated the most with me was this, “web platforms are built on a database model of dynamically pulling out the content you want and rendering it in a view“. This to me highlights the contrast with the analogue model where content was just stored in the database – content was never developed with the database in mind, it’s just where the finished product ended up. It gives the illusion of being digital – but without any of the inherent benefits of being native.

While I didn’t come to my conclusion the same way, the Adaptive Media Element concept is about applying the content to the database. Using it’s richness and ability to apply logic, to call dynamically and to change as required makes the AME adaptable. It provides the strength of the digital object while retaining the detail and richness of the content itself.

I agree with Paul, and I’ve quoted Bill Hick’s before, but the line about the need to evolve ideas rings true to me. Evolution doesn’t mean starting from scratch, in fact in most cases it just means making small changes that make life easier, more adapted to the current climate. I think we need to take the ideas of structured authoring, illustrated so well by the COPE concept, and move them forward. We need to leave behind some of the analogue baggage. We need to start at digital.