Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “social networking”

Is life without Facebook even possible?

There have been lots of “social media” sites on the web, but Facebook has undoubtedly been the most successful. Some years ago Yahoo made my account inaccessible for 6 months. They hosted my web pages (because they had taken over Geocities), they stopped me managing my mailing lists because they had taken over a mailing list host, and so  to be contactable on the web I registered for MySpace, but MySpace was clunky, its pages were cluttered and it was difficult to navigate. Then I found Facebook, which was clean, simple and easy — but it was only for current students at tertiary institutions. So when Facebook opened for everyone I joined.

Soon afterwards Yahoo! let me back in, but I still found Facebook useful, because Yahoo closed down most of the services I found most useful, including Geocities, MyBlogLog and WebRing. The only useful service they still provide is their mailing-list host, YahooGroups, and they’ve tried pretty hard to make even that less attractive and more user hostile.

Facebook, however, has succeeded in making itself almost indispensable, as this article shows I tried leaving Facebook. I couldn’t – The Verge:

Facebook had replaced much of the emotional labor of social networking that consumed previous generations. We have forgotten (or perhaps never noticed) how many hours our parents spent keeping their address books up to date, knocking on doors to make sure everyone in the neighborhood was invited to the weekend BBQ, doing the rounds of phone calls with relatives, clipping out interesting newspaper articles and mailing them to a friend, putting together the cards for Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas, and more. We don’t think about what it’s like to carefully file business cards alphabetically in a Rolodex. People spent a lot of time on these sorts of things, once, because the less of that work you did, the less of a social network you had.

And, as the article also points out, everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook.

Facebook took over from MySpace because they did what MySpace was doing, but they did it better, making it less clunky and cluttered (they’ve cluttered it up now, but after eliminating rivals they don’t need to make it better).

Someone recently invited me to an alternative called MeWe, but they kept sending me e-mail  saying “Please read this message in an HTML capable reader”. I replied to the first couple saying “Please send me this message in plain text format”, but they didn’t, and I got tired of those identical messages, so just filtered them off to the spam bin. If they deliberately choose to make their messages unreadable, then the rest of what they are doing isn’t worth bothering about.

For a while Google had a better alternative to Facebook. It was called Orkut. It retained the simplicity of the early Facebook when Facebook began to get clunky, but it somehow only caught on in South America and South-East Asia, and Google dropped it.

So even though I sometimes find Facebook frustrating, especially when they come up with stupid ideas that make it more difficult to use, I haven’t tried to leave it, because in what it does, even when it tries to place obstacles in the way of doing what it does, it’s the only game in town.

One of the problems with Facebook is that it tries to make itself the only game in town even for the things that it doesn’t do, or doesn’t do well. One of the most egregious examples of that was when they changed everyone’s e-mail addresses in their profile to a Facebook one, and didn’t tell users that they had done so, and also didn’t tell them how to find mail that was sent to the address that they provided. So they tried to force all their users into using an e-mail service without telling them how it worked or even that it was there.

Many people are wary of Facebook because they are concerned about “privacy”. The people at Facebook are aware of these concerns, and they keep nagging me about them. My concern is the opposite — there’s too much privacy. If I want to keep something private, I don’t put it on Facebook. But Facebook doesn’t want that. Facebook wants me to use Facebook for everything. They want Facebook to be the whole Web, and even the whole Internet (as the linked article above shows).

Facebook keeps asking me “Who can read this?” and when I click on it, it tells me that anybody can read this. I’m more interested in knowing who can’t read this. I post links on Facebook thinking that some friends may be interested, but very often Facebook doesn’t show it to those people, but rather shows it to other people who find it boring or irrelevant, who then sometimes make silly or incomprehensible comments on them.

So I sometimes think of leaving Facebook, but I don’t. Why? Because, again as the linked article points out, I would lose contact with friends and relatives that I’ve found through Facebook. The contact is intermittent, scratchy and broken, like an old shortwave radio in a thunderstorm. But at least is there, and if I left Facebook I would lose it.

A couple of days ago we had lunch with Jim Corrigall, an old friend I had last seen more than 40 years ago. He told me by e-mail that he was going to be on Joburg last weekend, and we arranged to meet by phone, but it was through Facebook that we found each other, and without Facebook I would have have had no idea how to get in touch with him.

Jim Corrigall with Steve & Val Hayes, 28 April 2018

Most of my “friends” on Facebook are people like that — old friends who live far away, and in the past, if I stayed in touch with them at all, I might have sent a Christmas card, or a duplicated newsletter once or twice a year. In the days before duplicating, people would send “round robin” letters — write to one member of the family, and ask them to pass the letter on to another member of the family, and so on. Facebook has replaced those functions with something more immediate.

Facebook makes it possible, but Facebook also tries very hard to make it extremely difficult because of the obsession with “privacy”. You might write something in a round robin letter that you think will interest Aunt Joan, but Cousin Pete has fallen out with Aunt Joan and sends it to Uncle Bob instead. And Facebook often behaves like that.

Thirty years ago people use to talk about the “information superhighway”. Facebook built one, but then puts concrete blocks across all but one lane, so you have to negotiate an obstacle course.

Facebook’s “privacy” precautions are just that: obstacles to communication. If you are concerned about privacy and information leaks, then you won’t solve them by leaving Facebook. Disconnect your phone line. Get rid of all your mobile phones. Disconnect from the Internet, and build a high wall so that nosy neighbours can’t see what you are doing. Don’t go out of doors, lest a passing satellite spot you.

You used to be able to go to websites like Zoominfo, where you could find an amazing amount of information about you trawled from the Web.  At one time they used to let you edit it, and identify which applied to you and which didn’t. Now they don’t, so there’s no way of checking for accuracy, but they still sell it. You don’t need to subscribe to it or have ever logged into the site. So worrying about privacy leaks from Facebook is a bit like children playing at damming a stream when a flash flood is on its way.

And everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook.

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In defence of Facebook

I’ve often been critical of Facebook in the past, and since the recent Cambridge Analytica affair many people have been deleting their Facebook accounts and challenging others to do so.

Some speak of Facebook addiction, and suggest that failure to delete your Facebook account may be a sign of addiction. But that makes about as much sense as saying that if you don’t get rid of all your telephones, you must have a telephone addiction.

For all its faults, Facebook has its uses and I use it, like a telephone and other media of communication, to communicate with people that I want to communicate with. Sometimes one has to devise workarounds for the obstacles that Facebook puts in the way of communication, often in the name of utterly bogus “privacy” concerns, but in spite of this, I think the advantages of using Facebook outweigh the disadvantages.  As one of the critics acknowledges Facebook: is it time we all deleted our accounts?:

In many ways, being able to distance yourself from Facebook these days is a privilege. As Safiya Noble, an assistant professor of information studies at the University of Southern California and the author of Algorithms of Oppression, notes: “For many people, Facebook is an important gateway to the internet. In fact, it is the only version of the internet that some know, and it plays a central role in communicating, creating community and participating in society online.”

Even if you’ve got multiple ways to communicate and participate in society online, there is not really a good replacement for Facebook. There’s no one portal that reminds you of your friends’ birthdays, connects you to relatives across the world and stores photos from 10 years ago. Deleting Facebook inevitably means missing out on certain things and having to make more of an effort to connect with people in other ways.

Deleting your Facebook account is like locking the garage after the car has been stolen. You data is already out there, and deleting your Facebook account won’t recall it.

I mentioned Facebook’s totally bogus concern for privacy. For example, it keeps warning me about “Who can see this post?” when I make posts public. But it does not warn me when I don’t make them public. I posted something recently for friends only, and Facebook failed to warn me that the next five posts were also marked for friends only.

If there is something I don’t want people to see, I don’t put it on Facebook. If I put it on Facebook, I think it’s OK for people to see it. If I make it “friends only” it’s not because I don’t want people to see it, but because I think people might find it boring. I’ve no doubt that many people out there do find stuff I post boring, and one of my biggest gripes with Facebook is that its algorithm seems to show people things that will bore them, and not show them things that will interest them. For example “Top Stories”, which has recently become the default, is what Facebook thinks are the top stories, not what I think are the top stories.

But the other day I saw a very ominous invitation from Facebook with no privacy warning. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something to the effect of “Tell people something about yourself that they don’t know?” According to my bullshit detectors, that has BIG DATA written all over it, rather than the “Who can see this?” nonsense.

Most third-party apps, quizzes and games, especially the ones that say stupid stuff like “Which of your friends will spring you from jail?” serve no other purpose than to get access to your data and that of your Facebook friends. They do warn you that the app or quiz or whatever will give access to your friends list, but true addicts won’t care about that.

 

 

Early Social Media

It was 30 years ago this month that I first encountered online social media.

I borrowed a modem from a friend and used it to access Beltel, which was run by Telkom. The modem was a Saron (perhaps made in Saron in the Western Cape, perhaps not). It is so far lost in the mists of history that a Google search produced no information. A few months later I bought one. There were two gadgets we wanted back then — a modem and a microwave oven. We could not afford both, so we got the microwave oven. But then someone who had upgraded their modem to a faster one advertised a Saron modem second hand, and so I bought it.

Ceefax screen display from the UK. The Beltel display was similar.

Beltel was accessed by a 300/75 baud modem. It would download data at 300 baud, and upload it at 75 baud. “Baud” for those who don’t know, was roughly equivalent to bits per second. The Beltel system was similar to the Prestel and Ceefax system in the UK, and lasted until 1999, when it closed because the software was not Y2K compatible.

The Beltel system produced a 40 character screen display.

One of the features of Beltel was Comnet, which was like a bulletin board, with sections for discussing various topics. It worked a lot like Facebook, except that it had very crude graphics, it was much slower, and because it used 40 characters across the screen, it was easier to read.

There was also a more sophisticated version of Comnet called “The Network” for which one had to pay extra.

Most of the discussion was about computers. The main exception was a couple of right-wing white racists Adrian and Karen Maritz, who used it for racist propaganda. The were supported by someone using the pseudonym “Computer Advisory”, whom I suspect was Henry Martin, who later also posted racist propaganda under his own name. Most of the other users were white middle-class computer geeks, who whatever they may have thought about people of other races, reacted against the very crude racism of the propagandists.

A few years later Adrian Maritz and Henry Martin booby trapped a computer, which they sent to Durban, where it blew up and killed some poor innocent computer tech who was trying to compare it. They were arrested, and made it on to the news when they had a hunger strike in prison. An investigative journalist, Jacques Paauw, followed up the story, and 30 years later he’s still around, still digging up the dirt on politicians and the like. Henry Martin and Adrian Marits scarpered overseas to the UK. Perhaps they are still involved in right-wing politics over there.

Through Beltel I discovered BBSs — Bulletin Board Systems. These could be set up by anyone with a computer, a modem and a telephone line, and could both transmit and receive data at 300 Baud, and quite soon 1200 Baud. Then Baud as a measurement became obsolete, and new modems could transmit and receive at 2400 bits per second, which could not be measured in Baud. But even at 300 Baud, seeing characters appear on my screen and realising that they were coming from another computer 150 km away was an amazing thing. Now I’m typing this and it’s being saved on a computer on the other side of the world and I think nothing of it.

One of the first BBSs I used was Capital ComTech, run by Geoff Dellow from Centurion, which was only a local call away. I visited him one day, and also met the notorious Adrian and Karen Maritz, who were visiting at the same time. Most BBSs were run by computer geeks, and the main thing most of them wanted to talk about was computers. They would make their systems available to those who wanted to talk about other things, but regarded those as irrelevant fluff, and not the really important stuff. That seemed weird to me — like people only wanting to use telephones to talk about telephones (well, since the introduction of cell phones I think many people do want to use telephones to talk about telephones, but back in the 1980s it did seem to be ridiculous). Nevertheless, most BBSs had about 10-20 sections, called “conferences”, for discussing various aspects of computers, and perhaps one or two for non-computer stuff, which most sysops (BBS system operators) regarded as an unnecessary luxury, needed only to keep off-topic stuff out of the computer conferences.

So I wonder how many people are around who remember those early days of social media, who participated in ComNet and The Network on Beltel. Somewhere on my hard disk I’ve still got some conversations saved from those days.

Facebook hacked, distributing malware?

I got a very weird message on Facebook, saying that my last post was spam and I should check it.

I was curious to know what that was, so went to look at it.

I then got this message:

Let’s check your device for malicious software
Hi Steve, we’re continuously working to keep your account secure. We’ve noticed that this device may be infected with malicious software. To continue to use Facebook, you can either use other devices or clean this device by downloading the scanner provided by Facebook and Trend Micro.

Note, no information about the alleged “spam” message, but an invitation to download an unknown program and run it.

So I suspect that the initial message was a ruse to grab my Facebook password and hack my account.

I advise anyone receiving such a message to ignore it, and warn others about it as well, and try to find out from “Facebook Site Governance” what is going on.

Tweet and retweet this, and share a link to this post on Facebook before you too are locked out.

Appendix

I thought it might be useful to others to describe exactly what happened, in case they encounter the same thing.

  1. I got a “notification” that something I posted was suspected spam. It wasn’t clear if it was a post or a comment on someone else’s post.  It said I could click on the notification to see the suspicious post.
  2. I wanted to see the suspicious post, because I wanted to see if it was something I had posted, or if it was someone else impersonating me. Several of my friends have had people impersonating them on Facebook in the past.
  3. I clicked on the notification, and was asked to log in to Facebook. That made sense. If someone was impersonating me, they would want to make sure it was actually me, rather than the impostor.
  4. But when I logged in, I was not shown the offending post, but the message shown above. That sounded all the alarm buzzers, like the terrain warning alarm on an aircraft flying too low “Terrain! Terrain! Pull up! Pull up!”
  5. This was not showing me a post that was suspected spam — it was asking me to download something to my computer.
  6. I copied the message displayed, and saved it, and then went out of Facebook, and tried to go in again afresh.
  7. It asked me to log in and then displayed the same message I had copied.
  8. I concluded that when I had logged in, expecting to see the spam message, they had stolen my password, and changed it, so I could no longer log in to Facebook.
  9. It was at that point that I thought I should warn others of this.
  10. I’m pretty sure that whatever it is they asking me to download is malware of some kind. So if you see a “notification” that something you’ve posted is suspected spam, whatever you do, don’t click on it!

 

Guptas’ troll armies trying to infiltrate Orthodoxy?

Some time ago I started a Facebook group for Orthodox Christians in South Africa to share news of events and happenings, so that people could learn about things that were happening in parishes other than their own.

Last week there was a flurry of requests from people wanting to join the group. Most of them were from outside South Africa, though they appeared to belong to several other Orthodox groups on Facebook.

Eventually I posted a request in some of those other groups asking that people not ask to join the Orthodoxy in South Africa group unless they had personal connections with the Church in South Africa, otherwise the South Africans in the group would soon be outnumbered by people from other places. There are plenty of worldwide groups they could join.

Some people from other places have joined the Orthodoxy in South Africa group and then post little devotional articles, which you then see several times a day, so that every Orthodox group on Facebook looks just the same, and you can’t see the real news for the padding, and eventually no one bothers to put any real news up at all.

For example, I heard rumours of a monastery being started in South Africa, but nobody said anything, even though several members of the group probably knew about it. That was real news, so why did no one in the group see fit fit to mention it? Why didn’t anyone post photos of it? Yet people post photos of monasteries on the other side of the world.

But something more sinister than devotional spammers has come up. On one of the groups where I pleaded with people not to ask to join the South African group unless they had real South African connections someone suggested that I Google “Putin’s troll army”

I Googled it and this came up — Invasion of the troll armies: ‘Social media where the war goes on’ | Media | The Guardian:

You can hire your own troll army if you have the cash. In 2011 the PR firm Bell Pottinger told undercover journalists that they could “create and maintain third-party blogs”, and spruce up Wikipedia profiles and Google search rankings. Indeed marketing has a rich history of so-called “astroturfing”, which is laying down fake grassroots. Take Forest, “the voice and friend of the smoker”, which at least admits in nearly invisible small print that it is paid for by the tobacco industry.

It’s that ubiquitous PR firm of Bell Pottinger again. PR firm Bell Pottinger ‘exposed’ as masterminding Gupta plots | The Citizen:

The extraordinary emails released on Sunday by both the Sunday Times and City Press have once again cast a light on the role played by British PR firm Bell Pottinger.

The firm dropped the family as clients last month in the wake of protests against their company for allegedly driving the attempt to repair the Gupta family’s image in South Africa.

Could it be that Gupta’s troll armies are trying to infiltrate our Orthodoxy in South Africa group? You’ve got to wonder when someone who asks to join says they live in Venezuela and come from Arizona, and belong to several Orthodox groups and 679 other groups on Facebook.

No one who joins that many Facebook groups can be legit, and I’m sure they don’t want to join the Orthodoxy in South Africa group- because they want to know about Benoni parish’s panigyri or the open day at Saheti School. It does make me wonder why they are members of all those other Orthodox groups as well.

Remember the 1990s TV series Pinky and the Brain, where in every episode they were planning to take over the world? Maybe Bell Pottinger have already taken over the world. Maybe they planted these trolls in all those other Orthodox groups on Facebook as well.

In South Africa Bell Pottinger came up with the phrase “white monopoly capital” as a diversionary tactic to try to take people’s minds off the dangers of Indian monopoly capital, where the Gupta family had their fingers in every pie. The ran a campaign of promoting naked racism, deliberately trying to stir up racial hatred in South Africa because they were paid by the Guptas to do so.

Maybe all this is turning me into a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but never forget the old adage: just because you’re paranoid it doesn’r mean that they aren’t out to get you.

Twitter, antisocial media, and the zombie apocalypse

Yesterday Twitter said it was going to send me more “relevant” stuff, and said I could go to me “Settings” page and change it, but without much explanation.

I looked at the settings and clicked on “Disable All”, and got warned that I would be seeing less “relevant” tweets and ads. They also claimed that enabling it would give me “more control” over what I saw on Twitter — a bit disingenuous, that, because as far as I can see, it gives me less control, and completes Twitter’s exodus from the social media fold; it has now become an antisocial medium, because enabling those options means that they get to choose what they will show you.

In the old Twitter, you could choose who to follow and who not to follow. If you followed someone, you would see their tweets, and if you unfollowed them you would no longer see their tweets. That’s maximum control in your hands, and that is the essence of social media — interacting with other people.

The new Twitter, however, limits social interaction. You become an isolated individual, and they feed you what they want you to see, based on what web sites you visit, and other things that indicate your preferences. That means that Twitter becomes a kind of narcissistic ego trip, reinforcing your prejudices, isolating you from people who think differently from you, and thus reinforcing the trend for the Internet to lose whatever potential it had for being a global village, and isolating you in a kind of cyber-ghetto where you never have to move out of your comfort zone.

It also makes it rather pointless to post stuff on Twitter, because you can’t assume that your followers will be able to see it. Twitter might not find it “relevant” enough for them. It might be outside their comfort zone. So if you interact on Twitter, you’ll end up talking to yourself. And Twitter will then have completed the transition from a social medium to an antisocial medium, isolating us in little cocoons. You’ve heard of the “nanny state”, welcome to the Nanny Internet..

As it is, when I go to Twitter, I see if there are any notifications. If there are, I read my Twitter feed, but if there are not, I don’t bother, and go to another site, and look for stuff that I find relevant, and not stuff that Twitter has chosen for me. Because if there are no notifications, it means that no one has been reading anything I’ve posted, so why bother?

Now comes the test: if my tweet announcing this post gets at least 10 retweets on Twitter (that’s 0,86% of my Twitter followers), I’ll know that there’s still life on Twitter, and that there’s still some hope for it as a social medium. And if it gets no retweets, then the zombie apocalypse has already overtaken us, because Twitter will have turned us all into zombies.

An Orthodox hipster?

A few weeks ago I came across a Facebook group called Ask an Orthodox Hipster.

I’ve always had a yen to be a hipster, but I don’t think I’ve ever made it. I suppose the closest I got was a wannabe.

What is a Hipster?

My Concise Oxford Dictionary c1964 doesn’t have it, though I’d been using the word for at least four years before I bought the thing.

But my Collins English Dictionary (Millennium Edition) has:

  • hipster n 1 slang, now rare 1a an enthusiast of modern jazz 1b an outmoded word for hippy
  • hippy or hippie n, pl -pies (esp. during the 1960s) a person whose behaviour, dress, use of drugs etc., implied a rejection of conventional values.

It also gives hippy as meaning having large hips, which is why I prefer the spelling hippie for the other meaning.

Nowadays, however, hipster seems to have come back into fashion and is no longer outmoded, but probably about ten times as common as hippie.

I suppose the term hipster was first popularised with that meaning by Allen Ginsberg in his poem Howl:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

And after a few weeks as a member of the Ask an Orthodox Hipster group I can see that yes, it is a place for those burning for the ancient heavenly connection to ask questions.

Christian World Liberation Front, Berkeley, California, 1970

And even before the Internet took off, other Orthodox Christians have had a kind of hipster missionary outreach, or started a hipster ministry and then were drawn to Orthodoxy, such as Fr Jack Sparks of the Christian World Liberation Front.

From here on, this gets personal, so quit now if that’s not your thing.

I discovered that the Ask an Orthodox Hipster group differs from other Orthodox groups on Facebook, in that people do not seem to be angry, or attacking each other. If someone asks a question that people can’t answer, they don’t denounce the question as stupid and the questioner as stupid for asking it, they just pass on to the next thing.

I’ve also found that quite a lot of the questions are ones that I have already answered, at least to some extent, in blog posts I’ve written over the last 10-12 years, and if they aren’t, the question is also sometimes a good prompt for a new blog post.

And this perhaps can provide me with a useful occupation for retirement.

Before retiring one thinks of all the things one could do if one had the time, but one does not have time to do when one is working. Many of the things I hoped to do when I retired had to do with Orthodox mission and evangelism, and visiting Orthodox mission congregations and helping them along by teaching and training their leaders and so on. But they are fairly widely scattered, and visiting them costs money. And I think well, I can’t afford to get the car serviced this month, because I have to pay the doctor, or the dentist, so maybe next month. But next month the car not only needs a service, but also a new battery. And the month after that something else is broken, and the price of petrol keeps going up.

But helping people with answers to questions asked on the Internet requires no physical travel, and can actually reach much further, all over the world, in fact. So I think this Orthodox hipster business could be quite fruitful.

We still continue to visit the mission congregations at Atteridgeville (35km west) and Mamelodi (18km East) on alternate Sundays, but travel farther afield will be much more rare physically, but not necessarily electronically.

 

 

Twitter vs Facebook and blog stats

This blog got the biggest number of hits over the last 30 days on 21 February, when I re-announced an old post on Home Schooling and Bigotry on both Facebook and Twitter.

I just checked the blog stats for that day, and the home schooling post was the most popular. It was interesting, though, that 45 visitors were referred from Facebook, and only 2 from Twitter.

I’m not a great one for stats, and don’t often look at them, though I have noticed that since I moved this blog from Blogger to WordPress the number of visitors dropped drastically and still hasn’t recovered. I moved it because the Blogger editor became more difficult to use.

But another blog I read, A Pilgrim in Narnia, had an article on blogging stats, and so I thought I’d take a closer look at them. And it seems that that blog, too, gets far more hits from Facebook than from Twitter.

Perhaps as a result of this, Twitter has started trying to imitate the Facebook way of doing things, and I suspect that that will cause them to lose a lot more ground a lot more quickly. Instead of doing what Twitter did well, the people at Twitter are trying to do what Facebook does, and doing it badly.

To start with, Twitter was a quick and concise way of sharing information, if necessary with links to where one could get more detail (so great for announcing blog posts). The 140 character limit ensured that. But then they added pictures, which made nonsense of the 140-character limit. Now, like Facebook, they are deciding what to show people, which means that big organisations get more exposure than individuals, and eventually the individuals will leave Twitter to the big organisations to tweet to each other.

There were other tools that enabled one to fine related material on blogs, but they’ve all killed themselves off, perhaps by trying, like Twitter, to emulate the Facebook model instead of doing something useful and unique. There were Technorati and BlogCatalog, which killed themselves off in that way.

So statistically, at any rate, Facebook seems to be one of the best ways of announcing blog posts at the moment

 

 

Technology addiction?

This morning at TGIF Dr Marlena Kruger spoke on the impact of our technology addiction.

I think she made some useful points, for example that young children learn more from playing with hands-on toys that from playing with simulations of them on a computer screen.

Shape sorting toy

Shape sorting toy

When our kids were small, they had one of these shape sorting toys. It would be possible to design a computer app to match the same shapes to spaces on the screen, but kids learn a lot more by handling the shapes, coordinating their sense of sight with the sense of touch by feeling it, and yes, putting it in their mouths.

So playing with computer apps is no substitute for playing with actual things in the real world.

But the problem with this kind of talk about “technology” is that people seem to get locked into a narrow two-dimensional world like a computer screen. What do we mean by words like “technology”?

Consider, for example, this article, which seems to be making a similar point to that made by Dr Kruger — 10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12 | The Huffington Post:

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatrics state infants aged 0-2 years should not have any exposure to technology, 3-5 years be restricted to one hour per day, and 6-18 years restricted to 2 hours per day (AAP 2001/13, CPS 2010). Children and youth use 4-5 times the recommended amount of technology, with serious and often life threatening consequences (Kaiser Foundation 2010, Active Healthy Kids Canada 2012).

Think about it for a while, especially the heading, because it is an example of tunnel vision — like limiting yourself to the number of pixels on a computer screen, and seeing nothing outside that.

What is a “handheld device”? A pen, a pencil, a crayon, a pair of scissors — all these are handheld devices. All these are technology. Specialists in early childhood education have been saying that children should learn to handle such things long before they start school.

Ah, you say, but those are mechanical devices, and we are talking about electronic devices.

But experts in early childhood education say that listening to music is important for the development of young children. Does that mean you are going to take your toddlers to symphony concerts? No recordings, because playing recordings nowadays usually requires electronic devices — when last did you hear a wind-up gramophone played? No discos, because there they use electronic devices to amplify the music.

I’m not simply being pedantic here. Before making huge generalisations about “technology” and “hand-held devices” we need to see the three-dimensio0nal world beyond the computer screen. When you dig in a garden you are using a hand-held device and a spade is technology. Technology is part of what makes us human. Saying that children under 2 should have no exposure to technology is insane. No cooked food, because cooking uses technology.

huntgathEven hunter-gatherer societies use technology, at least for the “hunter” part. Without technology we would just be gatherers.

So when we talk about being “addicted” to technology, we need to think about the wider meaning of technology, and the extent to which technology has made us human.

And when we speak of a remedy for addiction to technology, we need to think about whether the addiction is to technology, or to something else that the technology is used for.

When television was invented, people learnt how to send images to a cathode-ray screen (later LCD) in a remote location. At first, in television, the image was controlled by the sender. The receivers were passive. They could perhaps choose between images sent by different senders, but they had no control over the content of the images received.

Technophobes lamented the bad influence on children — “the flickering blue parent” was one phrase bandied about.

But it was not the TV that was generating the images. They were being sent by people who decided on what was sent, to serve their own purposes. It was one-way communication, yes, but it was one-communication from one group of people to another. The technology facilitated the communication, and to some extent determined it (yes, I’m old enough to have been influenced by Marshall McLuhan, and maybe I’ll say more about him some other time) but it was still communication from people to people.

For me it was a huge liberation when personal computers came along.

Yes, there I was looking at images on a cathode ray tube (CRT), but they were images that I put there. They were things I could control. For a while the rest of the family thought I was opting out of family life. I was “playing with the computer” instead of being sociable and watching TV with the family. That was tantamount to being accused of being addicted to technology. But it wasn’t. If I wrote a letter on the computer, I was no more addicted to the computer as technology than I was addicted to the typewriter before I had a computer, or addicted to a fountain pen before I had a typewriter.

In every case I was “using technology” to communicate with other people, and what I was doing was not “playing with the computer” any more than a handwritten letter is “playing with a pen”. Yes, I do sometimes play with a pen. I twiddle it, I idly click a ballpoint pen so the tip comes in and out.  But using it for a task is not “playing with it”. Is doodling “playing with” a pen? Idly and absentmindedly drawing little pictures? Is sketching fellow participants at a meeting playing with a pen? Perhaps great art exists because some people were addicted to playing with the technology of paint and paintbrushes.

One of the things Marlena Kruger said was coming home and putting your cell phone down and not touching it. Abstain from using the cellphone, because people are more important than the device.

But on Wednesday night we went to church in Brixton, Johannesburg. On the way home at 9:30 pm, on a badly lit road, with cars with bright lights coming the other way, we hit a pothole which dented the wheel rim so the tyre went flat. It was the first time in 11 years and 250000 km that we had had a flat tyre. Where is the jack? We’ve never had to use it before.

So I phone my son, who is a Toyota mechanic and knows these things. And ask where is the jack (it’s dark, you see). It’s under a plastic cover under the front passenger seat. You’d never find it by feeling for it. And how do you remove the cover, and how do you get it out?

But if he switches off his phone, because he’s not going to be addicted to it, it’s not a mere device. There is a person at the other end of the device. So by switching off the phone, you are switching off the person.

So speaking of “technology addiction” can be a bit simplistic. Your addiction can be to the device, like a cell phone, but more often it is addiction to what you do with the device. A cell phone is mainly used to communicate with other people. And you have the stereotype of a group of people all sitting together, all using their cell phones. Are they addicted to their phones? Not necessarily. What it means is that they prefer to communicate with people elsewhere than communicate with the people they are close to at that moment. The problem is not so much with the device used to communicate, but with human relations, that you would rather communicate with someone other than the people you happen to be with.

I said personal computers were a liberation, and its true. I can store information on my computer and find it much more quickly than if I had written it down on bits of paper. I’m writing an essay or an academic paper or even a blog post, and I need to verify the date of a historical event. Google leads me to that information much more quickly than trying to see if I have a reference book that has it.

E-mail was a liberation too.

I used to hate phoning people, and still do. I don’t know if I will be interrupting them when they are doing something important. If I send them e-mail, then they can read it and reply to it at their convenience.

But the people who liked the one-way, one-to-many model of broadcasting did not like this liberation. They wanted their captive audience. And Microsoft developed Windows 98 which was the first version of Windows to be integrated with the Internet, and the developed “push” technology for it. It was an attempt to re-enslave people that personal computers had liberated — by networking those computers and then pushing stuff at them.

And now cell phones use “push” technology too. My smartphone had “push” notifications for Facebook and Twitter, which drove me mad until I found how to switch them off (they don’t give you a manual, so it’s not easy to find out how to do that). So yes, cell phones are useful, but they can drive you mad. And there’s even a cell phone advertising itself with the slogan “Never miss a moment” — you’ll be so busy not missing moments that you’ll never have a moment to do anything.

But even though this is labelled “push technology”, it is not the technology that is doing the pushing. It is people doing the pushing. Yesterday I downloaded 90 emails and 85 of them were spam, sent to my “junk and suspicious mail” folder and deleted in bulk. They may have been sent by bots, but it was people who programmed the bots to send them.

Then back to TGIF, where technology, even electronic technology, was not absent.

TGIF: technology addiction. Two laptops and a projector

TGIF: technology addiction. Two laptops and a projector

I’m not against using educational technology. At one time I used some quite complicated gadgets to improve students’ reading skills, or at least show them how they could improve their won reading skills. But there is also this: Universities should ban PowerPoint — It makes students stupid and professors boring – Business Insider:

Overreliance on slides has contributed to the absurd belief that expecting and requiring students to read books, attend classes, take notes and do homework is unreasonable.

Courses designed around slides therefore propagate the myth that students can become skilled and knowledgeable without working through dozens of books, hundreds of articles and thousands of problems.

I’m not sure I agree with that article either. A lot depends on the content of what is being taught. Some topics can be enhanced by the use of slides, and others not. I must say that in this morning’s presentation I paid very little attention to the slides, and can remember little of what was on them

Social networking and social media

Over the last 30 years or so we’ve seen a tremendous increase in electronic communication by computer networking. Thirty years ago I mainly communicated with distant friends and family by snail mail. Now I mainly use email, if I have their email address. And there are social networking web sites like Facebook and Twitter where you can find friends and family even if you’ve lost touch with them.

But though the internet in general, and social networking sites in particular, make communication easier, the owners of the sites seem to go to great lengths to place obstacles in the way, so that the potential of the internet for communication is never fully realised. One of the most notorious examples was when Facebook, without telling its users, changed every user’s email address in its directory to a Facebook address, and hid mail sent to that address in a place where no one could find it.

I’d like to make some suggestions for improving the utility of social networking to the users. They probably won’t be tried, because there is a huge clash of interests, so Facebook is perpetually fighting its users in order to manipulate them and sell them, offering them the minimum of what they want in order to keep stringing them along.

Other social networking sites have been less successful at this. They start offering something that people find useful, and gain a lot of users. They then sell the site to a big company that announces that they are going to improve the site, and remove the very thing that attracted users in the first place. Yahoo! was notorious for buying up such sites and killing them — for example Geocities, BlogLog and WebRing.

When BlogLog went, there was another similar site called BlogCatalog, but they tried making “improvements” that crippled the main thing that attracted users.

Yet another was Technorati, which was a very useful tool for finding blog posts on similar subjects by means of tags. It also showed a list of trending topics in blog posts, some of which I did not understand at all, but curiosity made me investigate some of them, and so I leant something about popular culture, and the meaning of words like Beyonce, Pokemon and Paris Hilton (no, not the hotel, the daughter of its owner). And one of the things that trended was Twitter. I didn’t see much point in Twitter at first, but when Technorati abandoned its main function, Twitter became a less satisfactory substitute.

friendsWhenever I link to a new blog from one of my WordPress blogs, there is a kind of social networking questionnaire. It’s an idea that’s been around for a long time, and I’ve filled in the information in the hope that someone will find a use for it one day. It’s called XFN, or the XHTML friends network, and you can read more about it here.

The rationale behind XFN’s categories of relationship is given here. While I don’t agree with all their decisions and categories, I think that it is a pretty good starting point, and that social networking sites like Facebook would be immensely improved if they instituted something like that.

In terms of XFN categories, all these are obviously "met". But otherwise, from left to right -- (1) friend kin colleague; (2) kin, friend; (3) me; (4) acquaintance (5) friend, colleague.

In terms of XFN categories, all these are obviously “met”. But otherwise, from left to right — (1) friend kin colleague; (2) kin, friend; (3) me; (4) acquaintance (5) friend, colleague.

The only thing I would add for a site like Facebook would be the time dimension — the “met” category can mean last week or 40 years ago. I find Facebook most useful for contacting old friends and far-away friends.

But the use of categories like the XFN ones could enable Facebook to improve their algorithms of what they show to users. At the moment Facebook shows me lots of stuff from some people in the “contact” category, people I have never met.

Allowing users to categorise posts would also help. Some categories might be family news, general news, professional news, humour, trivia, etc. And possibly an importance rating — I don’t want to learn of a death in the family after the funeral has taken place (as happened in a couple of cases recently), while a new bird seen in the garden might be of less importance.

Does anyone else think any of this would be useful if implemented by Facebook or some other social networking sites?

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