A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Issue 2

The social implications of technology
The person next to me on the train will at some point in the near future suffer from repetitive strain caused by smsing [sic]. Someone six seats towards the front of the carriage is already deaf, otherwise there would be no reason for me to be able to listen clearly to the music that is plugged directly into his ears. What is more, no one else on the train seems to mind. Most people have their own mini headphones on, or are texting or are deep in their blackberries and assorted portable devices including laptops and 1,2, 2 1/2 and 3G phones. In the dyslexic new world of instant response, text messaging accounts for more conversations between teenagers than actual face to face communication. People find it ok to slaughter spelling and syntax on the altar of a fast text. The level at which people communicate has fallen dramatically in the past twenty years, in directly reverse trend to the ways available for us to talk to each other. All the new gadgets available to an affluent western market are geared towards interacting with the machine rather than concentrating on the substance of the message communicated. Even places like blogs are full of bad taste designs, put together by users who have a very limited knowledge of the tools they use, and/or are using them without any rules. Much as this anarchy is refreshing, the bottomline remains the same. You can type away in chat rooms all day long, you can write text messages and download (or even make your own) “music” on your mobile phone, but unless you acquire social skills you simply create a problem both in your private life and within the environment where you live. Everything is easy and indicative of the isolation technology imposes on us, especially on the younger people, who (unthinkable thirty years ago), spend hours in front of a computer sometimes completely identifying themselves with the character of the video game they are playing online.

(Still on the same train, two teenagers are singing along their favourite tune from an iPod they share. These two young ladies have a complete disregard of the people around them, and even when someone suggests that they could be a bit more quiet, then my theory of teenage limited vocabulary evaporates before the eloquence with which a vast gamut of expletives is delivered to the hapless person who wanted to read his newspaper in some relative peace).

These may not be typical examples of the uses of technology in an inconsiderate way, and the solution would not be to ban technology; like anything, it can be used and abused. However, the indications of isolation and degradation of social skills, that are observed more and more in the younger people are increasingly so because of the unilateral use of technology as an end in itself. As a result, language, history and culture are flattened or discarded in favour of “computers”. It would be a good idea to engage people by providing them with commercial calibre video games that would be internet enabled and which would force them to study -- through the video game – history, language, literature, and all the unpopular subjects. In other words, to let them use technology as the means, not the end. As a start, perhaps, we could stop using Yahoo messenger, sms and email to talk to the person sitting next to us at the office, and go to the cafe without our "wireless" laptop.

Google that again Sam (Try finding this on the net)
There is an illuminating piece of information about the hijack bug that can change the url of a reference in Google at this link. Because of the volatility of the internet as a medium for storage of information, sometimes, information that used to be at a specific address (and one may have duly made a bookmark of) is no longer available. It may be that the page has moved or that the server has been relocated, or that someone made some space by deleting “old stuff”. It is then up to us to actually save the information we have found on the net somewhere safe. An example is this link to an article in the Independent, referring to a dispute over the Simms. The link was perfectly ok when the article was recent, but it no longer applies now. A search in Google turned up a lot of similar stories but not this one. Moral of the story: do not trust any reference unless you have saved it in a place you control.

What's in a name?
Url suffixes make all the difference on the net. Have a look at the following web sites:

PLoS vs Scientific American (and Harvard Business Review, and Nature)
The Public Library of Science (www.plos.org) is a web space where all scientific information is free and available to all. This is a model which has been developed so that scientific papers are not kept locked behind expensive specialist publications that require payment per article, or a subscription to their online or printed editions. This very important step ahead works on the premise that the scientist who wants to publish an article will pay a small fee to the web site. The advantage, apart from the work being available to everybody is that it facilitates peer reviews and takes the burden of very expensive multiple subscriptions away from academic departments, freeing in the process money for research. HBR, Scientific American, Nature etc on the contrary are built on the traditional model. This is not a war, but an attitude shift where the publisher/middle man (who has limited printed pages per issue anyway) is removed. Have a look. The site is constantly updated and populated with new material, at the moment mainly on biology and medicine, but will expand.

Hot off the Press!
Why Linux should not be used by large enterprises
The readers’ comments after the article are also worth a look.

We have decided not to die
All the web-sites are inundating us with gimmicks to attract our attention. This is slightly different, it is architectural and artistic and certainly very far away from the dry, neat and off-putting design of limited (corporate) imagination. The concept of the website menu as well as the buildings shown are quite original. Explore at Reversible Destiny/Architecture against death.

More next week
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