Online Culture – Part 1: Unicorns and Doom

There is a lot of commentating, hypothesising and general navel-gazing around the topic of “online culture” and how the Internet is changing society. Some believe we are ascending into a euphoric utopia where we will all be free and ride unicorns over double rainbows! Some bemoan our descent into ego driven fickleness that is undermining the very foundations of a civil society!

The reality is far simpler.

It is also, though it seems odd for many to hear, rooted in the actual technology of the Internet and history of geek culture.

I was originally going to do four blog posts looking at:

  1. Unicorns and doom: online culture and the impact on mainstream society
  2. Live free or dial: public vs private, some new challenges for our society online
  3. The geek will inherit the earth: the history and lessons of online culture
  4. Who is responsible: some thoughts on the relationship between citizens, corporates and governments

I will continue this series mid 2013 as my contribution to an important discussion we are starting to have as a society, as well as useful in providing some context for those unaware of geek culture (and their own inevitable geeky metamorphasis).

Unicorns and doom: online culture and the impact on mainstream society

It is certainly true that we are seeing a shift in society that is profound, but it is a shift that really boils down to two key aspects:

  1. a change in mainstream society expectations, &
  2. a transfer in power (and increased capacity for greatness) to the individual and thus the community.

Great Expectations

When you use the Internet, it changes you. I don’t mean sending emails and the occasional Google search. I mean when you spend many hours every week or day going online, engaging in discussions, cross-checking official statements with on the ground bloggers, actively seeking out people you like (or dislike) online to see what they are up to, and clicking through interesting links until you inevitably find yourself rickrolled.

Using the Internet changes your expectations of the world around you, and importantly your expectations of how you can interact with the world.

There are four expectations that we develop, consciously or not, by engaging online:

1) Route around damage

At a technical level the Internet was designed so that there was always a way around a problem in the communications. Any damage or blockage becomes just something to work around. Internet users naturally adopt this idea of assumed access and expect to be able to find and do whatever they want online.

This becomes an extraordinary and profound expectation when “damage” is interpreted at a social level, and individuals assume they can “route around” any form of artificial interference such as censorship or manipulation. The expectation develops in individuals that they can work around obstacles in their life, and they are less likely to put up with ideas thrust upon them or agendas they do not subscribe to.

2) Healthy skepticism

Anyone can publish their thoughts online and there are many cases where the official media reporting of an issue does not gel with the online accounts of people on the ground. Projects like Wikipedia demonstrate clearly that for many issues there is more than one “truth”.

Wikipedia, to its credit, manages to present the most generally accepted version of issues whilst also archiving edits and discussion pages to present to the inquisitive reader some of the conflicting ideas around the topic.

Contrast both of these situations to the past where the local newspaper was the only news and Encyclopedia Brittanica or an equivalent was the authoritative source for students and casual research. The variety and ease of access to different opinions and knowledge is an easy trap in the first instance, but rapidly teaches us the importance of cross referencing, of looking for why someone might think or say something, of being skeptical of official information.

3) Transparency and accountability

When we want to know about something, we automatically look it up online. We expect to be able to get information on any subject we choose and when information is not forthcoming we ask why. Anyone is accessible online and we can follow (and in some cases get responses) from our leaders, music stars, favourite authors, peers, pretty much anybody.

This experience fuels an expectation of access and engagement which is a challenge for many, particularly in older established institutions. It is the accountability with which we can hold people, organisations and institutions to account that is making it easier for us to make informed choices.

Of course the flip side of this is that individual privacy has become far more public and people are sharing more and more of their lives online and then dealing with the consequences. Such as sharing that you are going away for the weekend along with your address through geocoded tweets and then finding your house broken into.

We are currently going through a transition period where the old and the new are caught in a frenetic push and pull of negotiating expectations, and we have not yet really defined our expectations of online privacy. See part two of this blog where I go into the ramifications of public vs private online.

4) Do-ocracy

When we meet people in the physical world, we engage in a complex dance of communication. There are protocols (in every culture), we use a number of mechanisms such as voice and body language to establish rapport, there is a negotiation of expectations and limitations and often an interesting conversation will result.

By comparison, when we meet someone online, we can immediately compare what they are saying to us to what they are saying to others, or what they’ve said before and importantly, what they’ve done. We can google their name/nick and get an indication of what they are like and their contributions to the world. We have an immediate capacity to establish for ourselves at least a small amount of context around this person, far more so than we could hope to establish in person over a significant period of time.

Even without a person’s real name you can establish a trusted, constructive dialogue and collaborate online. Establishing networks of trust is obviously not new, but the ease with which we can do so online with people from all across the world, even with pseudonyms or anonymously, creates an expectation that we can achieve great things in great numbers, very rapidly, without necessarily having to know exactly who they are.

It also creates an expectation that fits very well with Australian culture. That is, we start to treat people according to their actions, their efforts, their contributions, as opposed to their status, relatives or finances. Even famous people become judged by their actions as opposed to their past.

All of these changes in societal expectations has a profound impact on how people engage with the world around them, with governments and organisations, and interestingly with power constructs.

People Power

Like every other significant shift in society, we will see most people adopt the new tools as a matter of convenience, but we will also see some people embrace the opportunity for their personal beliefs or freedoms.

The opportunities for personal and community empowerment are enormous online.

The Internet has democratised both access to and “publishing” of knowledge. The control of knowledge has always been a power mechanism, and we are now seeing a significant struggle as traditional knowledge and power brokers find themselves continually flanked by individuals and communities.

Technology gives us an immediate, global reach both for information dissemination, but also significantly for distributed grassroots coordination. And we can engage with other people under our own names, psuedonyms or indeed anonymously, all of which are important in different ways. Also, as most people are online in some capacity (and certainly every power broker), anyone is able to be engaged with or affected online.

So armed with information from many sources, a virtual megaphone, the ability to connect with like minded people anywhere and coordinate, and the ability to do so from the relative safety of a psuedonym or anonymity, we really can achieve anything. Sometimes this power is used constructive, sometimes just for the lulz, but the Internet has changed all of us fundamentally.

In Conclusion

There will always be people being fickle, thoughtful, noble, underhanded, overreaching, argumentative, complacent and all the rest. The Internet has not changed any of this but it has acted as an amplifier. People will always be people (and we don’t have a plan ;)).

To assume social media (for example) is changing society because people are putting random tidbits about their life and thoughts in the public domain is a shift is not only a mistake, but a gross underestimation of what is actually transpiring. People have always used the tools they have to hand to express themselves, it just so happens the current tool of choice is quite public.

However, the Internet has had a profound impact on mainstream society. It has changed our expectations, how we engage with the world around us, and has created new opportunities for power for all people (and organisations). It has become an extension of our everyday life and mind, a meritocratic demonstrator of community empowerment and hyperconnectivity, and yet we are only just getting started.

My next post will look at some of the new challenges we are facing online, such as our definition of freedom, rights, and the interesting dynamic between private and “public” spaces online.

Air traffic control and Somalia

I was moved to blog this evening by two inspiring conversations I had whilst travelling to Melbourne. Both fascinating for very different reasons!

Firstly, on the plane from Canberra to Melbourne I sat next to a guy who works in the air traffic control systems industry. It was fascinating because it is an industry with only a few major players (about 4 or 5) who over the years have absorbed most of the small players. As a result most people in the industry know each other and because as he put it “a lot of the crap tech was discarded”. There is a lot of standing on the shoulders of giants, of building upon existing awesomeness rather than reinventing the wheel. It was interesting to hear as a person who has been in the tech industry for years to observe the consequences of less, large, quality players in a niche industry.

He also talked about the tech. It was interesting to learn that pretty much all air traffic control systems have become Linux based over the last few years (usually a forked and heavily modified Red Hat distro apparently), and that they take the Battlestar Galactica approach to security whereby they don’t have the systems networked or easily accessible and hence massively reduce the risks of cracking. Simple, low tech and extremely effective ๐Ÿ™‚ A nice reminder that security doesn’t have to be overly complex, just well considered andย  thought through.

The second conversation was with a cab driver in Melbourne, a lovely guy from Somalia with whom I got into a conversation about what is happening in Egypt and throughout the Middle East and Africa. He was happy for Egypt, but he was concerned because he thought the people’s uprising in Somalia didn’t result in a system that represented the needs of Somalians but rather split the country and rendered the government less capable. It was an interesting personal insight and I’m going to go and do some more research of the political histories of African countries. We also chatted about aid vs investment, and the challenge of generating wealth in a country vs just bringing external wealth in.

Lots of food for thought. I’m going to try to start blogging more again, even if it is just short pieces every week or two. It’s been far too long and I know I owe a few blogs I promised to do months ago! ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ll be doing a blog about data vis later this week, and a long overdue one about linux.conf.au 2011 next week.

Cloud computing: finding the silver lining

Working in a political office means I am privy to the sorts of sales pitches that lobbyists, industry and community groups are constantly pushing on politicians. It can be weird, informative, amusing and at times plain scary, and I’m really valuing the critical thinking subject I took at University to help me better assess everything that comes my way ๐Ÿ™‚

Anyway, seeing my passion and expertise is around technology, I do try to keep across what is happening as much as I can. Most of the big ICT companies are pushing the cloud computing pitch extremely hard, but I’ve found the moment you ask many of them questions about privacy, data portability, data export & archival, open standards, interoperability and issues of jurisdiction, just to name a few, they seem to baulk.

I think there are certainly a lot of opportunities in ‘the cloud’, but I think there is a lot of hype around this topic and I wanted to jot down a few thoughts that I think people should take into consideration when looking into cloud computing strategies. This is not a highly technical overview, but rather a bit of a mythbuster for those without a technical background to help in navigating the hype.

Sam Johnston pointed out to me earlier tonight a useful basic approach to ensuring you get an open cloud service which provides for the interoperability, portability and strategic control you want to maintain when moving to the cloud. If you have any good resources about cloud computing, please add it to the comments ๐Ÿ™‚

I also strongly recommend you read the Open Cloud Manifesto which talks about this issue in greater depth, and touches upon other elements to consider when moving to the cloud.

Where is the cloud?

The term cloud computing came from the idea of services being delivered over the Internet, because the Internet has traditionally been representedย  on network diagrams as, you guessed it, a cloud. Some people use the term as the new SOA (and for all those who had to deal with the onslaught of SOA hype, you may enjoy http://soafacts.com/) and cloud can mean pretty much anything, which is why it is important to clarify what your vendor is trying to sell you. After all, services running in the cloud are still running on servers somewhere, so moving stuff to the cloud is moving stuff to someone else’s infrastructure and hoping they do a better, cheaper job.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t use cloud computing, but you should be very careful to understand exactly what you are getting, and you should be strategic. Charles Stross fans will already be familiar with the idea of the separation of data and processing power, and the cloud can provide enormous processing power without you having to necessarily hand over the reins to your data or your technology strategy. Cloud computing is not an all or nothing option.

Personally I believe you should always choose the best of breed tool for the job, committing to open standards and interoperability, and then you can mash tech together for your exact best needs rather than shifting to and away from cumbersome large solutions that try to be everything, and end up doing nothing particularly well, but I’ll leave that for another blog post ๐Ÿ™‚

Saving the environment?

Whilst there is certainly an argument to consolidating old and largely unused hardware to reduce your carbon footprint and electricity bills, moving things into the cloud does not magically reduce your carbon footprint to zero. As mentioned, there are still servers out there, so the environmental benefits can be calculated by how much better the vendor is at efficiently using their infrastructure, than you. Again, it is just worth investigating the detail to understand the actual environmental impact, if this is important to you. Remember, refrigeration is a big contributor to carbon emissions, so it isn’t just about the hardware ๐Ÿ™‚

How much money can I save?

There are certainly some great opportunities to save money by using cloud computing for some of your systems. Often you can get online services that can be cheaper than the cost of maintaining and running your own systems. It might be worthwhile to consider the cost against that of shared services under your control though rather than looking straight to the “cloud”. For instance, in Australia there is a large amount of projects around government data centre consolidation, where some costs savings can be found but the data, software, infrastructure and strategy stays under their control.

It is also worth considering the exit cost of any new solutions. Can you get access to export your data at any time, is it safely archived somewhere you can access in the unlikely but possible case of your cloud provider folding, or a contract disagreement? Can you migrate your data/service from the cloud vendor to another vendor/solution relatively easily? These are all important considerations when faced with “the cloud will save you money”.

What about my data?

What format is your data stored in within the cloud? Physically where is the data and what are you legal obligations in relation to data? This is an important concern for government where you shouldn’t store particular data sets outside of your legal jurisdiction, and government departments and agencies often have quite stringent privacy and other obligations.

Can you get immediate access to the most recent data if the “cloud” dissipates (had to make a joke like this sometime, sorry)? Where is the data archived? If you can export your data, is it available in a format that other applications can use?

All these are important considerations, because if your data is being updated in the cloud, but is not truly retrievable, you have a real problem.

The silver lining

There are a lot of opportunities to be found in cloud computing and you will find many, many blogs and presentations espousing the benefits of cloud computing. I wanted to write a short blog post to help people consider some of the issues. If you choose to move some stuff into the cloud, you are choosing to hand over the keys to your most treasured possession, so you need to make sure you aren’t locking yourself out.

You aren’t powerless in this transaction. You need to know what you want, know your exit strategy, be sure that your cloud solution is open enough to be flexible and interoperable, be comfortable with how much control you are giving up, and be sure you retain enough control to meet your obligations.

If you are comfortable with all of this, you can engage confidently with cloud vendors and demand what you need rather than being content with what you are offered ๐Ÿ™‚

US Air Force Web Posting Response Assessment

This is pretty interesting. The US Air Force have a methodology to deal with online responses like comments. I like it how trolls and “ragers” require HQ be notified ๐Ÿ™‚

I think it helps people not used to communicating online think about different sorts of negative feedback, and how it is important to engage with some, and possibly not with others. Also the “response considerations” were quite good too to encourage transparency and accountability in online communications.

Click on the image for the larger more readable version.

Diagram of US Air Force diagram for dealing with trolls