dispatches from the digital revolution – part one

In 1999 I wrote this for Mute Magazine, its not very good but I am posting it here because I feel that I can now progress and hopefully tell part of a tale that is more complex and mature. This is just a simple thing, early in my career thinking about what the internet means to us, as a place to be and as a contested space. That issue was about Tactical Media.

ICBM vs PING
Mark simpkins

The current war in the Balkans is being called the first Internet war. Previously, the Gulf war was hailed as the first information war. That is, information war in the terms set out by Bruce Sterling, Alvin Toffler, Jean Baudrillard et al – fought by a war machine using the latest information technology to strike at the enemy accurately, quickly and, notionally, ‘without risk to human life’.

Of course, the main front in this information conflict was back at home, packaging and selling the war to the general public. The information war was fought in our living rooms – by each side against it’s own populace. In information conflict, missiles and bombs go on destroying; civilians and soldiers go on being killed, but politicians require at least the illusion of a public mandate to sanction military attacks.

Now, eight years later, we have a similar situation, although this time part of the conflict is taking place online: both war machines involved in the conflict are using websites and newsgroups to spin their media hype.

At the same time, the NATO website was supposedly hit by a denial of service attack, a flood of pings requesting a response from the server and reducing it’s response time to a crawl. In America at least one person took it upon himself to do the same to a pro-Serbian website, using an off-the-shelf spam package.

All of these actions fit wonderfully into the new-speak of military action: ‘SYN Flooding’, ‘Denial of Service Attack’, etc – technical terms that generals would love to be able to use to describe aspects of their bombing campaigns.

Information war has to be constructive, not destructive. Instead of flooding the Net with SYN packets, we should be listening to it’s flood of voices. Away from the electronic toys of crackers and wannabe hackers, the information war is being fought with dialogue, conversation and the broadcast of ideas.
In media terms, the Internet is not quite up there with the televisions, but it’s getting closer to the living room corner. When it does, will we visit the site of consent, as we did before, or will we search out genuinely alternative sources of information? Instead of listening to the news about government sites being brought down by hackers, will we instead find sites built and emails sent by those on both sides of the conflict?

April 1999

This was a time spent reading Sterlings ‘The Hacker Crackdown‘ as well as the work of Toffler, Baudrillard and Virillio. It was also more importantly the time when Radio B92 broadcast online as it was continually silenced over the airwaves. This was thanks to XS4ALL. This ISP’s name appears in at least two recent books, Heather Brooke’s ‘The Revolution Will Be Digitised‘ and Becky Hogge’s ‘Barefoot in Cyberspace‘.

Both these books cover some similar ground, as at there core is the rise of Wikileaks but both also start to examine two areas of contest in our digital space. Heather speaks to the Cypherpunks, the people that broke encryption free from the bounds of being proscribed munitions. What is important here is the realisation from these very same people that they won a battle but ‘lost the war.’ Whilst we can all use encryption, design wise it is not baked into our software and systems. The default has not been to design in privacy but instead allow an open transfer of personal information.

Becky touches on the fact that most digital spaces are now, (arguably were they ever), commons type places. They are owned by corporations, they are beholden to the rules of capitalism. Google has shareholders, whilst for now they may not ‘Do evil’ in the future who is to say that whomever is put in charge by the shareholder decides to do what they want with the information that Google (and many, many other companies) has collected on you.

Information that has been transferred and given up without privacy designed in.

Both of these takes are about control, Adam Curtis touched on this in his recent documentaries ‘All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace.’ I wrote briefly about the first episode and mentioned that this was discussed by the work of Lawrence Lessig in his book Code, and also in the recent work of Douglas Rushkoff.

And I am going to write more about control, of the media, your space online and in the real world next time…

because at 10 the whole world should be an inspiration

I have been to school open days recently, doing research because in a couple of years our eldest needs to leave his beloved primary school and move onto secondary. To that end we are trying to work out where would be best for him to go, even if we have to move.

Doing this though gets me thinking about learning and teaching though and how both can be so much fun and interesting. I know I have tweeted semi-facetiously about ‘starting my own school’ but a part of me would like to do that.

An idea that has better legs though is this, ‘Curate a set of TED talks that you can show a hall or class full of 9 and 10 year olds’ TEDxPrimary possibly?

What talks do you think you could show a bunch of kids at that age, what talks are not going to go over their heads but are going to inspire and excite them. Get them talking about ideas, and thinking about the future and how they are going to shape it.

I actually think this would be quite exciting,

What talks would you show though, what topics would you want to convey?

Maybe this one:

Or maybe

(The link to the site on how to make the play doh for the squishy circuits is here. I would expect that if we showed this at a TEDxPrimary that the play doh and electrical bits were to hand for a real hands on experience.

Clifford Stoll is always interesting

and of course Brian Cox on why we need the explorers

I’m sure you could think and find more just in the wonderful TED Talks archive, if you reached out across the web to the likes of pop!tech and even our own geekyoto I am sure you could start to pull together an exciting set of talks that a group of 10 year olds could watch and get excited about.

Maybe they’ll get so excited they will make something.

[If you think of an interesting talk then add a link in the comments.]

a cirriculum for Journalists in geek

Geek training for Journalists, that is how I have been describing it.

In July 2011 I ran a one day course at The Frontline Club, a basic introduction to the web, how it basically works, what HTML, CSS, JavaScript and PHP are and how to recognise them. How to look at, say an HTML document and begin to take it apart to understand what it was doing.

It was very basic level but for the audience that was what they needed. At the end of the day the feedback was that they were no longer afraid of looking at said pages, or even with experimenting with mark-up. To me that was a success.

I am now planning the next course, again one day this time August 20th (they are both Saturday courses). This time, based on further feedback we are going to go through how to get up and running with WordPress, hosted versions as well as install your own. How to use plugins and how to change the look and feel of the site.  Hopefully it will be as well received as the last course.

In the meantime though, it is time to pull this together, what is the cirriculum for training Journalists in the tools and medium of the internet?

There are fundamentals, how the Internet works, smarts at each end and a relatively ‘dumb’ network inbetween. How anyone can write a client, how you do not have full control over the use/consumption of material on the internet.

There are the basic building blocks, HTML/CSS are vital but so is some understanding of code. You don’t need to be able to code in C/C++ or similar but being able to use a scripting language is going to be of great use.

You can then get into areas of interest I guess. Are you interested in publishing / curation? Then CMS/Blogging platforms might be the tool set you are interested in. Maybe you want to exlpore large data sets or produce visualisations. Maybe its how to make, edit and publish video onto online platforms or maybe its how to work with community sourced leads and information.

Each of these areas can lead you off into a whole rabbit hole of new learning and experimenting and exploring.

So, for both the Frontline Club and Hacks/Hackers London I thought I would try and compile this starting point, I think we need to make a resource, probably helped by both communities that we can point to. Some will be taught courses but I can’t teach everything and some of it is stuff I want to learn about.

To start though we can look at the work that is being done for the two new MA/MSc courses at Goldsmiths, in Digital Journalism and Creating Social Media. They have created a Digital Boot Camp run over three weeks to get all students up to speed on the key digital tools and building blocks that they are going to need for their courses.

All new students of journalism are going to be using these, to be taught some of these but for those already working in the industry its another set of skills to acquire or at least understand.

So let us begin:

The Building Blocks:

  • How the Internet works – TCP/IP, Packets, DNS, Server / Client model
  • Web Servers & Web Browsers
  • HTML / CSS
  • Programming
  • JavaScript / DOM / AJAX
  • Server Side Scripting PHP, Python, Perl
  • Databases SQL

Tools and Services:

  • WordPress
  • CMS / Publishing platforms
  • Video publishing Vimeo/YouTube
  • Social Media Tools
  • Data Tools
  • Mapping Tools

Other Topics

  • Security
  • TOR
  • Encryption
  • System design
  • Community development

We could look at tools out there like the tools built by mySociety.org, platforms such as Ushahidi and SwiftRiver, ScraperWiki and DocumentCloud.

There are many other tools that can be used to drill down further into these subject areas, specific tools for manipulating large data sets or even just gathering them, tools for analysing documents or tools to markup video and audio with extra metadata. If you know of something that you think should be included in such a curriculum, or some resource that would be good to point someone too as a way to learn more about it then please add it to the comments.

Africa Gathering & Light

Africa Gathering is just around the corner, the latest in this series of events.
At the last minute I was pointed towards http://www.illuminationhq.com/, a company that is making and selling a small solar powered LED based lamp. Designed to be cheap, the aim is to get the lamp into areas like Africa, India, Pakistan etc, places where most lighting is still based on the burning fuel.
The lamp is bright enough to light a room, two lamps and you can consider the average room in Tanzania to be fully lit. Each lamp is sold for around $8 and the batteries are good for around 500 charges which should last about a year and a half or so. The replacement batteries are a couple of dollars.
The costs for the kerosene would be $2 – $3 per week, so you can see how these lamps will quickly pay for themselves and also allow people to save a significant amount of money over the lifetime of the initial lamp purchase.
The initial lamp is continually being worked on, improvements to the design to increase the light output are already planned and the company plan to further increase their product range, to sell accessories for the lamps (mounts etc.) as well as investigate the solar technology in chargers for mobile devices, radios etc.
The background for the company is also interesting, they work with NGO’s to get the lamps into countries but they themselves are not a non-profit but operate as a for-profit company. They feel that running in this way actually improves efficiencies.
Someone from Illumination can’t be at Africa Gathering this time, but I have one of the lamps and some presentation material and will be able to show it on the day. Also when the next geekyoto event comes around there is a good chance that someone will be there. The chances are though before that you will hear much more about this small lamp and a small company’s goal of weening whole countries off kerosene.

Africa Gathering is just around the corner, the latest in this series of events.

At the last minute I was pointed towards http://www.illuminationhq.com/, a company that is making and selling a small solar powered LED based lamp. Designed to be cheap, the aim is to get the lamp into areas like Africa, India, Pakistan etc, places where most lighting is still based on the burning fuel.

The lamp is bright enough to light a room, two lamps and you can consider the average room in Tanzania to be fully lit. Each lamp is sold for around $8 and the batteries are good for around 500 charges which should last about a year and a half or so. The replacement batteries are a couple of dollars.

The costs for the kerosene would be $2 – $3 per week, so you can see how these lamps will quickly pay for themselves and also allow people to save a significant amount of money over the lifetime of the initial lamp purchase.

The initial lamp is continually being worked on, improvements to the design to increase the light output are already planned and the company plan to further increase their product range, to sell accessories for the lamps (mounts etc.) as well as investigate the solar technology in chargers for mobile devices, radios etc.

The background for the company is also interesting, they work with NGO’s to get the lamps into countries but they themselves are not a non-profit but operate as a for-profit company. They feel that running in this way actually improves efficiencies.

Someone from Illumination can’t be at Africa Gathering this time, but I have one of the lamps and some presentation material and will be able to show it on the day. Also when the next geekyoto event comes around there is a good chance that someone will be there. The chances are though before that you will hear much more about this small lamp and a small company who have the single goal of

the elimination of kerosene as a domestic fuel source in the developing world.


xskool and emergeAgency

John Thackara has planted the seeds for a new idea, XSkool aims to be a development programme for design professionals to quip them with the ideas and skills to enable them and their organisations to work in the newly emerging world.

The idea reminds me of something that has been in the back of my mind for a while, I have been using the term emergeAgency for a number of ideas recently, trying to link up emerging technology and ideas and giving them immediate agency in the world, often in response to large sudden change.

One was to do a conference, the new Etech with a slightly different focus but the other idea was to set up a ‘pop up agency’ to work on a specific problem. The staff of the agency would be students and professionals from across disciplines. To allow people to work on problems that might not normally fall into their organisations remit, to allow them to stretch their creative muscles in new directions.

The business model is still to be formed, would it be sponsored by the agencies or would we find sponsorship for specific problems?

All these ideas are exciting, opportunities to think in new ways and the opportunities to try to address problems which before would not have fallen into your remit can be exciting.

I hope XSkool does well.

all watched over by machines of loving grace

Adam Curtis’ new series is here (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b011lvb9) and so far, from the first episode it feels more confused than the previous outings.

Lets start:

The real problem was, what was it really about. It was about Power and how the new ideas of the digirati have not replaced the traditional points of power in the global system. This is just a quick response, but I would urge you to read Lessig’s Code and Douglas Rushkoff about the commodification of social media.

I expect the next episode will include Buckminster Fuller and James Lovelock, also have a look at this project by Christian Nold.

I want to write more about this, the idea of our reliance on models and simulation is part of the cause of the economic crash, allowing an out of touchness. The commodification of our online selves continues appace. Every month I see a tweet about ‘If you are not paying then you are the product’ or some variation.

We need new ways of thinking about organisations, structures of power. Although confused in some ways I think Curtis was right, the old hierarchical power structures have continued to manipulate and keep themselves in power. Small cracks might be appearing.

more when I can focus my thoughts.

Hang (art) Westminster!

Apparently the Government Art Collection has been allocated £104,000 for buying new pieces of art in 2011/2012, according to this article from the Telegraph.

This figure is down on last year’s spend, which, again according to the article quoting Ed Vaizey was £194,000.

The art is displayed in Government offices and other public buildings. Some of it is in storage.

Now, in line with the Big Society, I suggest that we supply them with some new art. We should submit our art in the same way as submissions are made to the Summer Exhibition. The art on the walls should not show the state of the nation, the creation of us the people.

This could be a new public art collection, we can gift it to the Nation, as long as we know that on the offices of Whitehall, Ministers and their advisors have to walk past the images that represent our current state of soul!

I propose to post a regular brief, create an artwork about… and invite submissions. All submissions will be a part of the collection, though of course all rights are your’s the creators to do with as you will.

If you own a gallery and want to show the peoples art then let us know :)

and submit your art via hangwestminster@geekyoto.com

Cool news ideas

Whilst thinking about the new news idea of course I have been influenced by many other ideas, projects already out there and posts.

  • Demotix – a new news wire. Feeds from citizen journalists, a new route for photojournalism. Demotix is really exciting.
  • Contextify – This was an entrant in the 2011 Knight News Challenge, an idea around a service to help put stories in context, something that is missing in most regular news stories but something that using online we could and should do much more of. Our ability to go deep into a story, not just be superficial should be celebrated and vital. This plays into my wish for something slower, more considered. Important things take time to understand.
  • Richard Pope – Is always doing interesting, cool and amazing things especially around local news and information.
  • Wikileaks – It is causing some interesting discussions right now and whether you think its right or wrong it is making waves.
  • Heather Brooke – Amazing work, Freedom of Information requests and broke the MP’s expenses scandal.
  • Adam Curtis – His work on the BBC is always interesting. His blog has continued this, its never what you expect, its strongly his voice. It is a must read / watch, always.
  • James Bridle’s Historiography – James’ talk at dConstruct in 2010 was amazing, vibrant, angry and just the thing to make my mind whirl. This, this is important.

None of these sites, projects or people are involved in the new news idea but they are there in my cognitive space that helped form what it is that I wanted to imagine and would wish to build.

A news idea

I am sure some of you have noticed me on twitter going on about news startups, my own new newspaper etc.

It stems from the impending launch of The Daily, reading Mediactive as well as Clay Shirky’s latest.

What I have wanted to do was reimagine what the digital news service of the twenty first century would be, not encumbered with the weight of existing news rooms, proprietors etc.

I know what I am imagining, what I want. Reading Mediactive I realise that it’s not a thousand miles from other peoples ideas as well.

  • I don’t mind a news service, or a journalist who wears their biases and leanings on their sleeves.
  • I happen to love devices, I want my news, information across them. I want the service to know what have been reading / watching / commenting / annotating regardless of which screen I use.
  • I want context, background, I want to understand the story and it’s path not just the story itself (I know that does not make sense fully, I know what I mean I just have not worked out how to articulate it yet).
  • I want new journalism, as well as being pointed to stories across the reporting field.
  • words, pictures, video, audio are all equally valid and important,
  • the archive is important.
  • a daily astronomy section, no astrology anywhere. For Carl.
  • histiography. Keeping a track on how the entries in wikipedia are changing because of news reporting.

That’s just a start.

So I quickly realise that I am not going to build that myself.

Last night I was showing some friends McSweenys. The newspaper from last year especially. They spent months imagining and creating what their ideal daily paper might be like. It is a beautiful thing and an interesting experiment. It got me thinking.

I don’t have the cognitive space to do my new news service, in fact I shouldn’t. A news service is a communal thing, as much the internal organisational structures as external pressures.

So here is the idea:

1. Let’s all imagine our ideal news service. Server space etc is not the problem, discussion space is available.

2. A hack week to build ‘it’. It being an idea of what the dream is. Why a week, well I am just tired of weekend events that I don’t attend because of family. I also work during the week but if the event was spread, the people will be able to find some time to take part.

3. Commercialisation, monetization and all that. The tricky bit. So here I hope to involve some clever entrepreneurs who might like to help work out any new models for this but the key needs to be this:

A trust fund to run the service.

In the end everybody’s work would be theirs, to use, commercialise etc as they will, but can a model be made that the whole, a true rich vibrant news service be created that can develop a self funding model ? Maybe not but it’s got to be fun trying.

So, who’s in? My next steps are to gauge some response, set up a google group or two and see if I can find any support for the hack event. I might also think about a pledgebank to seed the trustfund, but.

This might all result in nothing more than a one off site that reports the news for a single day in a way that some of us find beautiful, or it may become one of the first true C21 news service.

All I can say now is, remember what Dennis Potter named his cancer…