Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

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23 February 2017

As an media scholar and journalist with an interest in the digital divide, I have long believed that one of the things that media outlets could do a lot better is using their higher profile to give a voice to ‘ordinary people’ who have something to say. I also believe that one of the things that Facebook like other news intermediaries should be trying to do is increase ideological diversity in their feeds. Lastly, I am aware that it is not right to judge what people say online just because it is poorly written technically. And then this happens.

This is my top Facebook recommended story on Facebook’s top trending issue. The story’s summary suggests it is from the Huffington Post, which has some journalistic credibility, but if you visit the story itself and look carefully you will see that it is an un-edited, un-curated self published blog posting.

It is also badly written, bigoted, and dismayingly lacking in concrete, citable facts.

There was a riot of violence and destructions by immigrants in the capitol of Sweden, Stockholm. The police was forced to shoot with ammunition to put and end to it. In Malmö, another city south in Sweden they have struggle with gang violence and lawlessness for years. So when Trump talk about that Sweden have an immigration problem he [Trump] is actually spot on.
It’s well known for Scandinavians and other Europeans that liberal immigration comes with drugs, rapes, gang wars, robbery and violence

(For a more nuanced view of recent events in Sweden, read this.)

In the end, I think that what this underlines is another of my personal tech policy prescriptions – we need to ensure that when technology companies are doing socially important work like influencing what news we see, they do not offload this role onto an unaccountable algorithm. Instead, they should ensure that the algorithms are overseen adequately by humans and that those humans are in turn accountable to the public for their actions.

28 March 2013

Like many a tech-savvy parent I am trying to divert my kid’s gaming attention towards Minecraft – and with some success. There’s a ‘legacy’ iBook G4 he can use but getting the program to run at all was difficult and now that it is running, I have found it runs unusably slowly, even with all the graphical options I could find turned down (and with non-working sound). This to run a game that is deliberately designed to look ‘retro’ and which I imagine could have worked on a Mac LC c. 1990 if suitably coded! Since it’s a very popular game with a hyperactive development community I thought there was bound to be a way to make things work better. Alas, nothing I tried (Magic Launcher launching Optifine Light mainly) seemed to work and it took me several hours of forum reading, installation and tweaking to get this far.

It’s not a new observation but what makes older machines like my nine-year-old macbook obsolete does not actually seem to be the speed or capability of the underlying hardware but the steady ratcheting up of the assumptions that software makes. Somewhere (presumably in Java, which is Minecraft’s ‘environment’) I’m guessing there’s a whole load of un-necessary code that has been added in the last nine years which has dragged what should be a perfectly usable game down to a useless speed.

Just to drag this back to academic relevance for a moment, this is to my mind a good example of how the structure of the computer industry aggravates digital divides by gradually demanding users ‘upgrade’ their software to the point that their machines stop working, well before the end of their ‘natural’ lives.

PS If anyone has managed to get Minecraft working adequately on a Mac of similar vintage please share any tips…

12 September 2012

I’m all in favour of attempts like that of the World Wide Web Foundation to make in their words “multi-dimensional measures of the Web’s growth, utility and impact on people and nations” but to call it the “first” such attempt would seem to be overlooking the strikingly similar ITU “Measuring the Information Society” programme or The World Economic Forum’s “Network Readiness Index” (there are and have been probably others too). There’s plenty of room for all though and each group of scholars has something to contribute (indeed the Web Index draws from ITU figures among others). If you are interested in the digital divide, check them all out!

28 November 2008

Just one good reason to learn to love the European Union:

BBC NEWS | Technology | Europe backs mobile roaming cap.

The rules put a retail price cap of 11 euro cents (9p) on texts sent while roaming – a substantial cut on the European average of 29 euro cents (24p). The ministers backed a cap of 1 euro per megabyte (83p) on the price of downloading data – though this applies only to the charges operators levy on each other.

11 November 2006

Thanks to a house move I have been trapped on dialup at home – at least for the next week or so – and I have been reminded about just how painful using the Internet is when you have to do it at less than 10Kb/s. All Internet users are definitely not equal in their ability to get things done. It has taken me 20 minutes just to check my email and read a minimal number of pages very slowly. By contrast once my broadband is installed, £5/$10 a month will get me a scorching fast (up to) 8Mbps (because it is bundled with my satellite TV). I can hardly wait!

18 August 2005

The American consumer advocacy group Consumer Reports recently published a online hazards survey which found:

  • 33% of those surveyed said a virus or spyware caused serious problems with their computer systems and/or financial losses within the past two years.
  • 50% reported a spyware infection in the past six months. Of those, 18% said the infection was so bad they had to erase their hard drives.

    To avoid spyware, 51% of all online users reported being more careful visiting Web sites, and 38 % said they download free programs less frequently.

  • 64% of survey respondents said they had detected viruses on their computer in the past two years. 4% found them at least 50 times.
  • Macs are safer than Windows PCs for some online hazards. Only 20% of Mac owners surveyed reported detecting a virus in the past two years, compared with 66% of Windows PC owners. Just 8% of Mac users reported a spyware infection in the last six months vs. 54% of Windows PC users.

To this I would add that my guess is that a fair amount of the virus reporting by Mac owners is probably "false positives" – people whose Macs stopped working for some unrelated reason and they blamed it on viruses. Ditto for spyware. I don’t think viruses or spyware aimed at current Macs are still around outside of the labs of anti-virus software companies.

There are some good recommendations linked alongside the report but interestingly it fails to mention one of the best ways to reduce the incidence of viruses and spyware – don’t use Microsoft Outlook and Internet Explorer. It’s not that they are bad in themselves (though I would argue the free alternatives like Eudora and Firefox are better) – it’s that virus and spyware writers tailor their programs to work with the most popular email and web browsing programs out there.

A note about computer literacy – 17% of respondents weren’t using antivirus software and 10% of those with high-speed broadband access–prime targets for hackers–said they didn’t have firewall protection.

Also see two recent reports from the excellent Pew Internet and American Life project:
Spam & Phishing (April)
Spyware (July)

14 September 2004

If you are based in the UK and have a personal home page (this includes weblogs and journals), please visit this home page creation survey and fill it in – it should only take you ten minutes.

If you are an academic I would also be interested to know what you think of it as a survey and how I might improve it (bearing in mind it is only a very rough pilot at the moment!), and if you have a weblog or home pages (anywhere but particularly one that might be seen by Brits) please publicise this survey on your site. The survey will only be up for a month (or less, if I get enough respondents before then).

I don’t expect to publish anything from it as the sample size will be too small and it is very open-ended at the moment so I can get some idea of the kinds of answers people give, but if anything interesting comes out you will hear about it here.

P.S. I am using “QuestionPro”:http://www.questionpro.com/ to do this survey, which from what I have found appears to be one of the best options around for serious surveys (I did some earlier “investigation of survey software options”:http://blog.org/archives/001183.html). If you want to try it out too, please “contact me”:http://davidbrake.org/contact.htm so I can invite you (I would get $10 if you end up using it).

20 July 2004

A European pundit, Thierry Chervel, complains that key European newspapers and ‘cultural journals’ are not available online and suggests this impoverishes Europe’s public sphere. To prove his point he cites the failure of an initiative by Jurgen Habermas, who wanted to launch his “Kerneuropa -initiative” against the Iraq war and the “new Europe” via various European newspapers:

He published his own article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and assigned his colleagues to the Suddeutsche Zeitung , to the El Pais and in the Corriere della Serra. None of these papers however published the articles online. An interested intellectual in Madrid, Paris or Berlin would have had to go the main train station and purchase four newspapers from three different countries. A few days later, the debate was quickly forgotten.

Had Habermas invested a few thousand Euros to build his small website, had he published his article and those of his colleagues simultaneously in English, the sensation would have been big.

Well, it is not clear that this would have happened (and it seems that Habermas’ statement “actually is available online”:http://www.faz.net/s/Rub117C535CDF414415BB243B181B8B60AE/Doc~ECBE3F8FCE2D049AE808A3C8DBD3B2763~ATpl~Ecommon~Scontent.html), but the general point is an interesting one. It would certainly be nice if the major non-English=language European newspapers and magazines published their articles online for free and translated them into English – it would give a much broader perspective to the online audience but is unlikely to happen, alas.

Mark Liberman “posted”:http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001168.html his own interesting comment and critique about this article asserting (correctly I suspect) that the root cause of this problem is not so much economic conservatism on the part of European newspapers but a larger “Internet illiteracy” on the part of many mainstream European intellectuals (including Thierry Chervel who does not have a website of his own). Hopefully this will change over time…

16 July 2004

My supervisors have been active in the “CRIS”:http://www.crisinfo.org/ ( Communication Rights in the Information Society) programme and have called my attention to its work. On this year’s CRIS agenda is:

The CRIS Global Governance Project, sponsored by the Ford Foundation. The project’s aim is to support the emergence at national level of the concept of communication rights … advocacy on governance issues including civil society participation in governance structures… and in various global governance fora.

If you’re an academic interested in the connection between media participation and civil society take a look and join in!

16 June 2004

“David Wilcox”:http://partnerships.typepad.com/civic/2003/02/about_david_wil.html, consultant on ICT use by the community and voluntary sector, talks about a new review of the literature on community informatics in the UK by veteran UK academics Barry Loader and Leigh Keeble.

It makes disturbing (though not surprising) reading, indicating that despite the Government’s best efforts these programmes often don’t reach the most excluded and rarely increase civic engagement (except among the already engaged). Take a look at the “summary of the report”:http://www.jrf.org.uk/knowledge/findings/socialpolicy/584.asp or “download it as a PDF”:http://www.jrf.org.uk/bookshop/eBooks/1859351980.pdf

In amongst the gloom and doom there are some suggestions for better practice in future – siting internet access centres in the community rather than in libraries or colleges and organizing training around people’s perceived needs rather than forcing them into formal courses for example – both designed to attract people who have had negative experiences with formal education.

Underlying my own research is a belief that ICT can have an emancipatory effect – for some at least – but that mere provision of the technology (closing the ‘access divide’) is not enough. Community informatics programmes must lean much more heavily towards the ‘community’ in their titles if they are to succeed.

Also see “this earlier blog posting”:http://blog.org/archives/000990.html on similar research. Some there suggest that while library access may not be a good way for new people to access online resources long term it may have a useful role in introducing people to online resources. I still have my doubts but take a look at the two reports cited there and let me know what you think…

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