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February 2011


Every year when I teach our first years (Year 9) about ICT it’s often surprising what stands out as having changed. It’s life-as-we-once-knew-it, Jim, but now more or less of a piece with this digital stuff. We’ve made a new thing. Lots of new things.

But quick! Look after them! They’re vanishing even as we look.

Recent lessons have developed a focus around the web-and-culture, the web-as-culture. So, lesson 15 is all about the stuff James talked about at dConstruct last year: history, historiography, memory; archiving the internet; time, growth, loss, decay … hope. James’s talk is the focus.

Last Thursday, in the discussion about all that, I found other things suggested themselves and fell satisfyingly into place. I’ve added some of these to the lesson as a supplementary page: Lee’s deeply affecting talk at Reboot 9 about Kozarac; the Long Now’s Rosetta Project. But also things I haven’t put on that supplementary page: Yahoo! and Geocities (already in the original lesson 15) led on to Yahoo! and Delicious (I showed them Pinboard and we talked about backing up locally as well as in the cloud), and Yahoo! and Flickr (which Yahoo!’s CEO doesn’t use: ‘One of the most highly visible and trafficked Yahoo properties and you don’t even have an account there’).

That led on to a look at cloud-computing and the ways in which the Wikileaks story has made people readjust their view of providers (see my last post). It got me scrambling around to find this photo that I knew I’d squirrelled away on Tumblr a while back:

Jerry Yang at Congress

Gao Qin Sheng, mother of Shi Tao, a Chinese reporter sentenced to 10 years in prison for leaking state secrets, cries as Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang (left) testifies before a congressional committee hearing. (Photo: Reuters) — The Sydney Morning Herald (2007)

Wikileaks, Egypt … let’s not forget these lessons about cloud-computing and the responsibilities of global communications and cloud-computing providers.

And, as I find myself thinking more and more about archiving, memory and the digital, I really enjoyed Euan’s recent pieces: One small step (‘Goodness - a usenet search just stumbled upon my first ever experience, in 1995, of the power of the internet to make things easier’) and My first blog post. I hope Euan is happy if I re-blog the latter here (it’s so pertinent):

I knew I started blogging around this time of year in 2001 but thanks to a server crash in December 2001 I had no record of my first blog post. I tried The Wayback Machine but couldn’t remember the original url. I had tried various searches on Google and using Devon Agent but with no success but then I remembered that Ev Williams, who started Blogger and now Twitter, had made me a “Blog of Note” on the front page of Blogger in 2002. A search for that got me my old url and The Wayback Machine then came up with the goods.

So my first ever blog posts are preserved here and I began on the 3rd of March 2001. On day three I said:

“I started feeling a bit uneasy about this blog today. Who will ever read it and what will those who do think?”

Ten years later I am still wondering …..

URLs, permalinks, archives … preservation. It all matters so very much.

I’ve been pointing out to my Year 9 pupils the Facebook setting that lets you download your material to a local drive (thanks to Michael for pointing it out to me) — Account > Account settings > Download your information:

This tool lets you download a copy of your information, including your photos and videos, posts on your wall, all of your messages, your friend list and other content you have shared on your profile. Within this zip file, you will have access to your data in a simple, browseable manner. Learn More about downloading a copy of your information.

So many memories are held in Facebook — for now. Will these teenagers be grandparents with few photos of their teenage years to look back on, show and share? Back up, back up, back up.

Wikileaks in 10

I like this mind-map by John Naughton very much and used it recently in an English class when we got talking about some tools and techniques that help us think. It comes from his post, WikiLeaks: two challenges for journalism:

… how to make sense of all this. Most people cope with this problem by, effectively, reducing its variety.

Early last Monday, I gave a 10 minute talk about Wikileaks to our top two years (12 & 13). I hope I managed to keep some of the variety. The way in, stepping stones and some points made:

To end on, to take us away from focusing just on Wikileaks, something about the big picture right now — Paul Mason’s piece which has resonated with so many (and with so many undergraduates and recent graduates I know), Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere:

… the graduate with no future … with access to social media … [which] kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously … They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy - but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. … if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection. … People just know more than they used to. … People have a better understanding of power. … Technology has - in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera - expanded the space and power of the individual.


I gave the talk again mid-week to our Year 10, boiled down and in something more like 6 minutes.

Here are a couple of other pieces which I’ve found good food for thought, neither of which I had time to work in to these talks:

Bill Keller in the NYT (January, 2011):

I’m a little puzzled by the complaint that most of the embassy traffic we disclosed did not profoundly change our understanding of how the world works. Ninety-nine percent of what we read or hear on the news does not profoundly change our understanding of how the world works. News mostly advances by inches and feet, not in great leaps. The value of these documents — and I believe they have immense value — is not that they expose some deep, unsuspected perfidy in high places or that they upend your whole view of the world. For those who pay close attention to foreign policy, these documents provide texture, nuance and drama. They deepen and correct your understanding of how things unfold; they raise or lower your estimation of world leaders. For those who do not follow these subjects as closely, the stories are an opportunity to learn more. If a project like this makes readers pay attention, think harder, understand more clearly what is being done in their name, then we have performed a public service. And that does not count the impact of these revelations on the people most touched by them. WikiLeaks cables in which American diplomats recount the extravagant corruption of Tunisia’s rulers helped fuel a popular uprising that has overthrown the government.

Also from the same:

The government surely cheapens secrecy by deploying it so promiscuously. According to the Pentagon, about 500,000 people have clearance to use the database from which the secret cables were pilfered. Weighing in on the WikiLeaks controversy in The Guardian, Max Frankel remarked that secrets shared with such a legion of “cleared” officials, including low-level army clerks, “are not secret.” Governments, he wrote, “must decide that the random rubber-stamping of millions of papers and computer files each year does not a security system make.”

And this from John Naughton (to whom we owe a lot for his pondering of these recent events) :

For hardcore geeks, the WikiLeaks saga should serve as a stimulant to a new wave of innovation which will lead to a new generation of distributed, secure technologies (like the TOR networking system used by WikiLeaks) which will enable people to support movements and campaigns that are deemed subversive by authoritarian powers. A really good example of this kind of technological innovation was provided last week by Google engineers, who in a few days built a system that enabled protesters in Egypt to send tweets even though the internet in their country had been shut down. “Like many people”, they blogged, “we’ve been glued to the news unfolding in Egypt and thinking of what we can do to help people on the ground. Over the weekend we came up with the idea of a speak-to-tweet service – the ability for anyone to tweet using just a voice connection.”

They worked with a small team of engineers from Twitter and SayNow (a company Google recently acquired) to build the system. It provides three international phone numbers and anyone can tweet by leaving a voicemail. The tweets appear on

What’s exciting about this kind of development is that it harnesses the same kind of irrepressible, irreverent, geeky originality that characterised the early years of the internet, before the web arrived and big corporations started to get a grip on it. Events in Egypt make one realise how badly this kind of innovation is needed.

Auden: aspects of our present Weltanschauung

Looking for something in Auden, I hit another passage, about human nature, art, tradition and originality (below), that I couldn’t put my finger on when I last needed it a few months ago. We’re edging towards the World Brain, but it can’t come fast enough:

It seems possible that in the near future, we shall have microscopic libraries of record, in which a photograph of every important book and document in the world will be stowed away and made easily available for the inspection of the student…. The general public has still to realize how much has been done in this field and how many competent and disinterested men and women are giving themselves to this task. The time is close at hand when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica. — H G Wells, ‘The Brain Organization of the Modern World’ (1937)

Auden. I’ve often referred to this passage and am very happy to make it ready to hand through pinning it here:

3) The loss of belief in a norm of human nature which will always require the same kind of man-fabricated world to be at home in. … until recently, men knew and cared little about cultures far removed from their own in time or space; by human nature, they meant the kind of behaviour exhibited in their own culture. Anthropology and archaeology have destroyed this provincial notion: we know that human nature is so plastic that it can exhibit varieties of behaviour which, in the animal kingdom, could only be exhibited by different species.

The artist, therefore, no longer has any assurance, when he makes something, that even the next generation will find it enjoyable or comprehensible.

He cannot help desiring an immediate success, with all the danger to his integrity which that implies.

Further, the fact that we now have at our disposal the arts of all ages and cultures, has completely changed the meaning of the word tradition. It no longer means a way of working handed down from one generation to the next; a sense of tradition now means a consciousness of the whole of the past as present, yet at the same time as a structured whole the parts of which are related in terms of before and after. Originality no longer means a slight modification in the style of one’s immediate predecessors; it means a capacity to find in any work of any date or place a clue to finding one’s authentic voice. The burden of choice and selection is put squarely upon the shoulders of each individual poet and it is a heavy one.

It’s from ‘The Poet and The City’, which I think appeared first in the Massachusetts Review in 1962 and was then included in The Dyer’s Hand (1963). Lots in this essay. ‘There are four aspects of our present Weltanschauung which have made an artistic vocation more difficult than it used to be.’ The others:

1) The loss of belief in the eternity of the physical universe. … Physics, geology and biology have now replaced this everlasting universe with a picture of nature as a process in which nothing is now what it was or what it will be.

We live now among ‘sketches and improvisations’.

2) The loss of belief in the significance and reality of sensory phenomena. … science has destroyed our faith in the naive observation of our senses: we cannot … ever know what the physical universe is really like; we can only hold whatever subjective notion is appropriate to the particular purpose we have in view. This destroys the traditional conception of art as mimesis …

4) The disappearance of the Public Realm as the sphere of revelatory personal deeds. To the Greeks the Private Realm was the sphere of life ruled by the necessity of sustaining life, and the Public Realm the sphere of freedom where a man could disclose himself to others. Today, the significance of the terms private and public has been reversed; public life is the necessary impersonal life, the place where a man fulfils his social function, and it is in his private life that he is free to be his personal self.