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

Archive forJanuary, 2004 | back to home

20 January 2004
Filed under:Academia,Current Affairs (World) at8:42 am

A professor of African Studies, Gavin Kitching, wrote a contentious piece back in 2000 explaining why left studying Africa to study SE Asians instead – he “found African Studies too depressing”:http://www.arts.uwa.edu.au/MotsPluriels/MP1600gk.html.

(From the mid-70s onward) …the African ship of state was ploughing through heavy international seas, yes. But that only strengthened the need for an excellent captain and navigator at the helm and a well disciplined crew. But as it was, the captain and all his officers seemed to be drunk or absent from the bridge and the crew engaged in various forms of mutiny. No wonder the ship had run aground.

Three years later, African Studies Quarterly published a series of responses. Another author – Timothy Burke – “added”:http://www.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v7/v7i2a12.htm,

The moral outrage, which suffused most Africanist historical and anthropological writing about the apartheid state, is largely absent when it comes to postcolonial African misrule. The genocide in Rwanda passed without anything even remotely resembling that outrage: it was left to a journalist, Philip Gourevitch, to write a clear (and intellectually satisfying) indictment. Africanists have followed Gourevitch either by redirecting the force of causal explanation back to the colonial era or by insisting that the genocide was irremediably complex in ways that Gourevitch failed to appreciate.

Similarly, the disasters of high modernist state socialism in postcolonial Africa have fallen to a non-Africanist, James Scott, to explicate and condemn: there are few Africanist works that echo Scott’s clarity about the follies of ujaama villages and similar high modernist and statist blunders.

Several other authors wrote in the “same issue”:http://www.africa.ufl.edu/asq/ and Kitchin penned an interesting “response”:http://www.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v7/v7i2a17.htm to those responses and other critics.

19 January 2004

Corbis was one of the few sites that offered E-Cards (photographs) on a wide variety of subjects that you might actually not mind sending to people. Now it seems the only Corbis sites will be aimed at “business presenters”:http://bizpresenter.corbis.com/default.asp and “professional users”:http://pro.corbis.com/ (eg magazines). Oh well – back to “Hallmark”:http://www.hallmark.com/hmk/Website/pass_ecards.jsp?CONTENT_KEY=&CONTENT_TYPE=None&fromPage=%2fWebsite%2fISE%2ftp_section.jsp&nav=CARDS&lid=BPF1 which is just about bearable I guess – or for those with patience and a broadband connection the “Historic Tale Construction Kit”:http://www.adgame-wonderland.de/type/bayeux.php

Can anyone recommend free birthday and holiday-related ecard services that are actually tasteful?

18 January 2004
Filed under:Weblogs at6:12 pm

Clay Shirky has posted about the inequalities of popularity in weblogs and provides a useful analysis of possible solutions (all of which involve costs and would require a lot of cooperation and altruistic behaviour among bloggers or blog software designers). This has sparked a lot of discussion in the posts following. Nothing may come of it but at least the issue is being talked about.

I don’t have a firm view on this myself except to observe that a) perhaps being seen by the most possible people is not necessarily the objective of most bloggers anyway and b) it appears that there is some data to suggest the power law doesn’t necessarily hold “for individual interest sub-groups”:http://modelingtheweb.com/ within the whole ‘blogosphere’.

17 January 2004

“Fernanda Viegas”:http://web.media.mit.edu/~fviegas/ at MIT’s Media Lab has produced a Blog survey on the interesting subject of, “how bloggers think about issues of privacy and liability as they publish online”. I am not sure how representative a sample the respondents will be but it is certainly an interesting subject – one with some relevance to my own research – and I look forward to the results. Do fill it in if you run your own weblog and have a minute…

15 January 2004

The BBC reports a boom in Fake universities on the web. Of course there are lots of fakes which are only meant to deceive employers, but these seems to be designed to try to rip off hapless punters who don’t realise that they aren’t properly academically accredited. Check out Greater Manchester University from the Internet archive – “April 2003”:http://web.archive.org/web/20030404133454/www.gm-edu.co.uk/index.htm – and compare with the “current site”:http://www.gm-edu.co.uk/ for example… Here’s a hint for the University-seeker – if it doesn’t have .ac.uk at the end (in the UK) or .edu at the end (in the US) it isn’t a proper university!

14 January 2004

One of the more draconian ways to prevent spam is only to allow into your mailbox email that either comes from a “whitelist” of people you know or submits to a human-designed test. I recently emailed a blog notable and got back an automated message from Mailblocks that asked me to fill in a web form before my email was forwarded to him. First of all, if I was on dialup I would have to connect to the Internet just in order to ssend him his message but more annoying still the request for confirmation email took more than 20 hours to arrive! Imagine if I had actually needed to reach him urgently about something.

Nonetheless this kind of technology may be the only reasonably sure-fire way to protect your email from a mountain of incoming spam once the spammers get ahold of it. That’s why I have always taken care that my own email address isn’t out on the Internet in a machine readable form anywhere. And you can try it out for yourself for free (with a 5Mb mailbox) and see how you like it.

12 January 2004

Prof “Lessig”:http://www.lessig.org/ gave another barnstorming performance in a visit to a small, packed room full of LSE media and regulation students. I had heard much of his presentation before last year at a presentation he made in Oxford but there were some interesting new factoids in the latest version – notably:

* The average time a book remains in print is about one year.
* There are 100k titles “alive” in Amazon but 26m titles that have been printed and are available in the Library of Congress.
* Products from one part of a big corporation tend to get used in movies and other programmes made by that company not necessarily because of straightforward plugging but simply because the process of copyright clearance is easier with products from inside those corporations than outside.
* Before the 1976 copyright act in the US, copyright holders had to re-assert their copyright periodically. Only 10-20% of them did so.
* Whoever managed the ebook distribution of his book “The Future of Ideas”:http://the-future-of-ideas.com/ set the DRM flag in Acrobat not to allow anyone to copy text from, print or even have the book read aloud. Talk about an own goal!

11 January 2004

The “Bush in 30 Seconds”:http://www.bushin30seconds.org campaign sponsored by “moveon.org”:moveon.org has bought broadcast slots around the State of the Union address for an anti-Bush ad created by and to be chosen by visitors to the site. The final 15 have been selected for voting – which one do you like?
Myself I probably liked Wake up America “[hi bandwidth]”:http://www.bushin30seconds.org/view/09_large.shtml or “[lo bandwidth]”:http://www.bushin30seconds.org/view/09_small.shtml the best but I also quite like ‘Desktop’ [hi] “[lo]”:http://www.bushin30seconds.org/view/10_small.shtml and “Hood Robbin’ [hi]”:http://www.bushin30seconds.org/view/13_large.shtml or “[lo]”:http://www.bushin30seconds.org/view/13_large.shtml as well. “Billionaires for Bush [hi]”:http://www.bushin30seconds.org/view/14_large.shtml or “[lo]”:http://www.bushin30seconds.org/view/14_small.shtml only hits one issue in little detail but is well-made and punchy.

What these ads showed me above all is just how difficult it is to put across any kind of meaningful message in 30 seconds. Hopefully when they run they will excite editorial comment around the country which will in turn give Americans who haven’t been paying attention the chance to find out more details about what is being said. I was also very impressed at the technical skill shown in the finalists’ ads – I suspect that several of them have been done by moonlighting professionals.

10 January 2004
Filed under:Academia at5:38 pm

If you want to see the abstracts of the essays I’ve written so far and the bibliographies I have used, check “this page”:http://davidbrake.org/papers.html out – it now includes the abstract and bibliography of my dissertation on UK activists’ use of the Internet as well. If you would like to see any of the papers I have asked that you contact me by email so I know who they are going to. I hope to get one or more of them published at some point so I don’t want to put them into wide circulation.

Incidentally, has anyone written anything useful about how journals treat papers that are available in their raw form on the Internet? I am nervous that if I publish them online publicly I may not be able to get a journal to accept them later because they want first publishing rights. Am I right to be nervous?

9 January 2004

David Wilcox “blogs here in detail”:http://partnerships.typepad.com/civic/2004/01/nonprofit_tech_.html about a research report from Jeremy Wyatt at a regeneration consultancy, “Hall Aitken”:http://www.hallaitken.co.uk/. It suggests UK Online centres should be less in libraries and more in community centres and integrated with the voluntary and community sector, but says nonetheless that they are largely successful in reaching those they target (disadvantaged people who wouldn’t have Internet access elsewhere).

By sheer coincidence on the same day I came across a paper by “Dr Neil Selwyn”:http://www.cf.ac.uk/socsi/selwyn/ in the September 2003 edition of the journal “Information, Communication & Society”:http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/1369118x.html – unfortunately not publicly accessible (unless you are an academic with a subscription – if so look “here”:http://www.ingenta.com/isis/searching/ExpandTOC/ingenta;jsessionid=3ok9ubgqnr53e.circus?issue=infobike://routledg/rics/2003/00000006/00000003&index=5)
The paper seems to be largely based on “a report Dr Selwyn did for BECTA”:http://www.becta.org.uk/page_documents/research/digidiv_selwyn.pdf in any case (which is publicly accessible).

Anyway here are some key findings:

…The survey data suggest that, in terms of people’s effective access to ICT, public access sites have a relatively slight profile when compared with household and wider family access – perceived to offer ready access to ICT by only a minority of respondents. Moreover, when the use of these public ICT sites is examined, there is little evidence of public ICT sites attracting those social groups who may otherwise be excluded or marginalized from the information age.”

Update:Jeremy Wyatt himself was good enough to comment on this post. He said:

“I can see where you have seen a contradiction in the two reports but actually they don’t conflict in any way. As as researcher you’ll forgive me for suggesting you read the whole of both reports…we actually quote the work Neil and his colleagues did in our report.

One of the thrusts of Neil’s report is that people don’t use public internet access points much. The thrust of ours is that UK online centres have helped to introduce the internet to many new users and helped many gain skills and confidence. Our report stresses the introduction and skills services. It does not confirm or deny that public internet access once you have these skills is a viable approach. It refers to Neil’s work to suggest that there is data to suggest the opposite.

But, and its a big but, things change fast in this field and maybe public internet access has a big future once its ubiquitous.”

Mea culpa! I don’t have time to go more into this at the moment but I do encourage people to read both reports. The Hall Aitken report is “here”:http://www.dfes.gov.uk/research/programmeofresearch/index.cfm?type=5&keywordlist1=0&keywordlist2=0&keywordlist3=0&andor=or&keyword=CMF+funded+uk+online+centres&x=94&y=15.

Like Wyatt, Selwyn suggests that siting UK Online centres out of libraries, schools, colleges and museums would help and suggests

“another alternative strategy would be to develop a shift in emphasis away from community sites towards developing systems of community resources, which can then be loaned into people’s houses, thus building upon and augmenting people’s existing access to and use of ICT in friends’ and relatives’ houses.”

However he concludes pessimistically, “Although proving useful for those that use them, it appears likely that such sites will only ever fulfil a limited social role and are certainly not a panacea to the perceived inequalities of the information age.”

I share his pessimism because I feel not enough is being done to explain to disadvantaged people how what is on the Internet is relevant to their needs (and particularly not enough is done to encourage them to contribute themselves – which would help in turn to narrow the relevance gap).

I hope at least that the common recommendation of both reports – moving public access closer to where the public actually likes to hang out – will be listened to. To its credit the Office of the e-Envoy in its “annual report”:http://www.e-envoy.gov.uk/assetRoot/04/00/60/69/04006069.pdf seems to be taking this on board to some extent. The Government is funding ‘get online’ initiatives with the voluntary and community sector and spending around £3m (not a lot admittedly!) through Culture Online to, “engage hard-to-reach audiences, encouraging them to discover the potential of new digital technologies (p. 11)

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