Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Opinion: Environmental sustainability and Information Society; a panoramic sweep

Information society and Sustainable Development
It has become widely recognised and ever-increasing attention placed; on human induced planetary problems associated with resource and (fossil) energy depletion, waste and pollution, overpopulation, land-degradation, loss of bio-diversity etc. Associated consequences include (but are not confined to) issues such as; climate change, Starvation and malnutrition (inflicting third world nations), environmental catastrophes, human health issues, economic concerns (need for continual economic growth) and overall ‘quality of life’ concerns for the wider planetary population. A cycle of consequences results from Humanities complex interdependence with the natural environment. As a result of an ever increasing body of evidence recognising this inter-dependent relationship and which directly attributes Man’s (or woman's) impact on the environment with many of the problems and challenges Man faces; a mounting call for ‘sustainable development’ of the human civilisation has been urged by many concerned stakeholders. ‘Sustainable development’ is widely defined as, ‘meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of future generations’.

At the same time, it is now becoming apparent that in terms of societal evolution, we are in the midst of an ‘information revolution’. Society has undergone tremendous changes in the past 30 years, particularly because of technological advancements in ICT’s. Many theorists argue we are, or are approaching; a new ‘epoch’ or ‘age’. Terms include informatised society, information society, information age, knowledge society, network society, post-industrial society. What is clear is that the increased capacity and speed of processing information correlated with the exponential growth of ‘technical/technological/scientific knowledge’, (given the conducive economic/political conditions; democracy and capitalism combined, and favourable quantities of energy and physical resources) has resulted in enormous societal ‘advancement’ or ‘progress’ (seen from a western scientific view of progress).

Benefits of Progress
This ‘advancement’ or ‘progress’ has been associated with a notable rise in western material living standards, the degree and sophistication of the built environment and available technologies, the shift of labour from the agricultural and industrial sectors to the services sector, the advancement and application of scientific knowledge in all fields from medicine to engineering. Many Individuals in western countries now enjoy richer, more diverse livelihoods: They communicate more widely, travel further and more frequently, consume more extensively, are more knowledgeable, live longer lives; with work becoming more mentally challenging and less physically demanding.

Raison d’ĂȘtre pour ‘Progress’
‘Enlightenment’ Progress, delivered principally through capitalism and democracy, concerns emancipating the wider population from the drudgery of life, from misery and suffering and hardship, from control to freedom, from ignorance to literacy, from predetermination to choice. ‘Enlightenment’ progress is a faith in man to change his own condition for the better. Thus accumulating technical and scientific knowledge aids man in directing his own course. However, it is said by many ecologists, that capitalism (which has become the predominant economic model for achieving ‘progress’) is in its current guise creating many of the problems and barriers to achieving such conceptions of ‘progress’. This is because of the many ‘positive feedbacks’ built in to its system, which entails the spiralling and unpredictable consequences of our actions, the invisible ramifications of development which are difficult to identify because of the sheer complexity of our system. The root of the problem lies in neo-classical economics disciplinary isolation. Its failure to recognise the interdependence of our eco-system. It’s reliance on the nation state and global governance to ensure the necessary conditions for growth and to address the evident implications or ‘vicious cycles’ with which it creates. This is aside from the voracious and unapologetic character of capitalism and the values it trumps. Ecologists and some economists see our pre-dominant economic model as deeply flawed. At a more fundamental level, it is the meta-narrative or overarching ideology of western civilisation in the past 200 years, that has led to many of humanities problems and challenges which it faces. In particular, this entails the separation of man and nature in a number of ways; from modes of production, through distance between production to consumption, from the rise of the cosmopolitan cities, and a predominant western technological faith; what some ecologists term the western ‘age of optimism’. This removal of man from his environment has only recently being redressed in terms of a counter-balancing environmental consciousness and a more pro-active governmental attitude. Recently an alternative model; ‘Ecological economics’ or ‘environmental economists’, have been suggested, with aspects of the model beginning to become integrated into government economic policy. This has resulted in changes imposed through government regulation. Within the economic sphere itself, ‘corporate responsibility’ has become a term used to signify a growing recognition of the environmental and social consequences of a company’s actions and a wiliness to change by the companies themselves out of ethical concerns. Amongst the wider population, there have been grass-root movements such as ‘green peace’, political movements such as ‘the green party’ and recognition among sections of the community to be environmentally aware and responsible. This has been a marvellous achievement in itself, and has been facilitated by the information revolution itself. Thus, although the ‘information revolution’ has permitted western development and its associated consequences, it has similarly facilitated a wider awareness and understanding of the impact of these developments.

The principle driver for the breadth and speed of change in the past 30 years has been the evolution of capitalism with features of the information society as its key enabler, as its tools. The principle features of an information society being; 'information flow', ‘knowledge’ and ‘Information Communication Technology (in the form of software, hardware and the internet). ‘Information society’ policy seeks to cultivate ‘human capital’ and ‘knowledge capital’ in accordance with the market, leading to virtuous cycles of innovation, productivity, efficiency etc. Ultimately here, Capitalism is now seen as the only viable economic model for achieving social goals for many nations’ citizens, particularly since the collapse of communism. Wealth creation through continued economic growth is now seen as providing the foundation upon which a nation state ensures equitable ‘quality of life’ for its citizens accompanied with varying degrees of state policy interventions. It has been a combination of factors which has led to this change; the cold war leading to military technological innovations eventually being exploited by the market, the oil embargo of the 70s restraining growth and leading capitalism down a new path, a quickening pace of development subsequent to the second world war, the formation of regional economic alliances such as the European coal and steel alliance eventually evolving into the EU. In particular though, it was the technological revolution as a result of ICT’s which has been recognised as the principle tool for change.

Recent Changes
Thus far, it can be seen that the speed and breadth of change associated with ‘infomatised global Capitalism’ of the past 30 years (term coined by social theorist ‘Manuel Castells’) has resulted similarly in the speed and breadth of change in the physical environment. Rampant; population growth, urban development and ‘material consumption per capita’ has accompanied economic growth. This has resulted in a planet under environmental pressure and becoming resource depleted in important areas. The beneficiaries primarily being 20 percent of the world’s population who consume 80 percent of the world’s resources, while much of the negative environmental consequences being bore by underdeveloped nations in more extreme climates. Many of these resources are now approaching exhaustion or becoming less economically feasible to extract. However, it is the character of this new infomatised capitalism, which has ensured continued economic growth regardless of these limits in resources (dictated through price in a market economy). Knowledge has become the key to further growth through allocating a percentage of wealth to ‘research and development’; leading to innovations which translate to efficiency and productivity gains. These gains lead to products becoming less materially intensive to produce and resources becoming available to create more products. Accumulated Knowledge has led to efficiencies throughout the socio/economic sphere (not just in products) whether in production and management, or in transport and logistics. Efficiencies have led to time/space compression resulting in a quickening pace of change, as we can do more with less time; life has sped up. Another recent feature has been the emergence of the ‘digital economy’ which can be seen to be founded upon and reliant upon the material economy but which does not rely directly on material resources for its growth (but which operates in the same financial market, thus diverting capital from the material economy.)

The globalised economy has resulted in increased cross border trade of goods and services as well as companies becoming organized horizontally across national borders. It has resulted in reduced friction or barriers to trade and the emergence of ‘footloose companies’. This has taken place under the belief in ‘comparative advantage’. The benefit lies in each nation producing goods and services which are economically advantageous to its environmental/social/political climate while importing goods and services which are more suited to another nation’s climate. Thus, goods that are cheaper to import than produce internally are sourced elsewhere. The removal of barriers to trade and capital flow, results in goods and capital more easily flowing to where they are needed. For example; the environmental climate of Spain is more suited to farming ‘Oranges’ than the cooler climate of Ireland and can be done so at lower cost. The manufacturing of textiles is more suited to Taiwan because of abundance of cheap labour. Thus, given economically viable transport and logistics; we import oranges and textiles. However, ecologists may argue that we in Ireland shouldn’t be eating oranges anyway. That we should produce and consume largely products which are suited to our climate while reducing production and consumption which are not. Ecologists principally argue that international transport and logistics has enormous environmental consequences, which in turn results in invisible costs filtering into the economic/social sphere. They point to our dependence on Fossil fuels which account for 85% of the international energy market in subsiding global trade which would otherwise be economically un-viable for 2 reasons: Firstly, there is simply not enough alternative energy available to power the global economy and secondly, oil and gas are incredibly rich and versatile sources of energy unparalleled to any other energy source. However, what some ecologists fail to consider is that the leaps and bounds in technological progress, creates the possibility of alternative sources of energy as well as addressing limits in available resources. Through the information society, we create the conditions for technological innovation at a speed and scale unparalleled in human history, which in turn are applied to all conceivable limits to growth. But the future is uncertain, we do not know as to what extent technological innovation can address the aforementioned problems of energy and resource dependencies. Furthermore, technological progress does not by itself address disparities and inequalities in our global society.

The majority of the planets resources are being imported to western nations for consumption. For example; according to a ‘New Economic Foundation’ Report, Europe consumes twice its own level of bio-capacity, which effectively means purchasing the resources of other nations. Many of these resources include fossil fuels, iron ore and various minerals which are non renewable and will have to be purchased in to a nation in future at a considerably higher cost. The free market is advantageous to developed nations now but there should be no going back. Any closure of markets in the future will essentially entail hording of resources by developed nations. What ecologists refer to as ‘scope enlargement’ and ‘drawdown’ entails the market operating at ever increased scope (becoming viable as a result of a sufficient transport and sophisticated ICT infrastructure). This benefits the market as resources and labour etc become sourced at the lowest price for the producer. New markets of consumers become available and nations must compete by providing a suitable political/social/economic climate for footloose transnational companies to operate in. ‘Peer Polity’ ensues, causing nations to competitively invest in infrastructure, education and ‘research and development’ in order to maintain and attract footloose companies. This proceeds at a spiralling rate, resulting in diminishing marginal returns on development for nations. Increased scope of the market results in increased competition that drives innovation and productivity, but which results in companies always seeking to externalise negative environmental costs in order to stay competitive. Overall, the system requires ever-increasing rationalisation of the socio/economic sphere at every level in order to maintain economic growth, particularly as resource and regulatory limits arise.

New Economy
It has been argued that the character of the infomatised economy has managed to sizably decouple economic growth from growth of energy and resource consumption and so; (assuming wealth creation from economic growth continues to be seen as the best means of delivering societal goals) the continued development of the information society will provide the conditions under which there can be continuous growth and ensure a nations competitiveness in the global economy. Although economic growth over the past 30 years hasn’t resulted in a net decline in resource use (in fact the reverse has been seen), approaching limits in available physical resources means that future growth may rely almost entirely on mans innovation and ingenuity and not on increasing resource consumption. Not only must western economies continue to grow but developing economies must be allowed to grow also. The emergence of powerful economies such as China (with annual GDP growth of 9 percent and a population in the region of 1.2 billion) highlights this need for expansion and growth of the global economy. The human population is expected to increase from 6.4 billion at present to a figure of up to 9 billion in the next 50 years. Yet, even today, the entire material resources of the planet could only support up to 1.8 billion people at western material standards of living. The availability of cheap fossil fuels has become a thing of the past. Peak supplies of oil and gas only a short period ahead with annual declines in extraction expected henceforth. Available land for agricultural production becoming limited with salination, desertification and degradation on existing lands as a result of over production. Added to this, we must consider the environmental implications from the global economy (as it stands) in terms of ‘sources’: resources’ and ‘sinks: pollution and waste’. Here, enormous international focus has been given to the environmental consequences associated with economic development in recent years. Thus in a market economy, these limits in natural resources and on natures ability to sustain, represent increased costs for what is available.

Not only must companies in future produce products which are sufficiently economically viable (given the increasing cost of physical and energy resources), they may increasingly be required by regulation to produce products in a less environmentally burdensome way; from production, through to product use, and in disposal. An area of research known as ‘Life Cycle assessment’. In Europe, such initiatives include the WEEE directive and the implementation of the ‘Kyoto Protocol’ (resulting in carbon trading etc.) These policy measures are consistent with calls from ecologists and many ecological economists to reintegrate the disciplines of economics with ecology and recognise that the price of products should better reflect the imposed environmental and social costs.

The economy itself may increasingly become a closed system, relying less on the ecosystem upon which it currently depends. This argument lies on the idea of the recycling economy. The economy may become such that it manages its resources and wastes rather than rely on the environment and state to provide resources and deal with its waste. This expansion of rationalisation into ‘waste’ is a requirement for the continued growth of the material economy. It does raise questions of the proliferation of ICT’s and the plethora of electronic devices such as RFID’s in the year ahead in terms of their viable disposal. A good example of the growth of trade in ‘second hand’ or ‘used products’ is e-bay, originally begun in the USA during the dot-com boom, it is now an international operation handling thousands of used goods daily. A system as versatile and user-friendly as this has only being possible thanks to the internet. It also represents a cultural change, an acceptance of bartering or auctioning, and the growth of individuals becoming accepting of purchasing second hand goods and moving away from a ‘throw away culture’

Character of the information society
Overall, there is currently and will need to be; enormous structural and behavioural changes in the economic/social sphere in order to cope with these grim environmental and physical realities. What is equally true is that there are enormous behavioural and structural changes in the economic/social sphere as we transcend to an ‘information age’. Not only will the 'information society' be crucial for the economy to continue to grow through efficiency and productivity gains etc, it also offers the alternative of providing lifestyle choices which are less materialistically dependent, Etc. Importantly, the networking characteristics of new ICT's allow a reconfiguring of social and economic relations with the prospect of negative to positve consequences for the environmental prolematique. The very character of the ‘information age’ may be one which is more eco-friendly, where lifestyles are less materialistic. The ‘information society also heralds the ability to address many environmental challenges. However, the ‘information age’ is also one which is irrevocably coupled within a predominantly capitalist system. Thus, the many faults and failings of this system can be attributed to its utilisation of ‘knowledge capital’ and ‘information society technologies’.

Age of Limits?
Many ecologists believe we have approached the ‘age of limits’. Modernity and faith in ‘Progress’ has served only a fraction of the human population well but at the detriment to the wider population and to future generations. The ecological cost of modernity has been colossal. Some ecologists referring to man as ‘homo-colossus’. We have now reached a threshold, our planet reaching environmental breaking point. But, we continue to have faith in the modern project, on the ability of science, technology and the market to address our troubles given more time. Our experience of both past and present continues to bolster this faith. New innovations in wind-energy technology increasing efficiency by 50% (announced by China), Intelligent Vehicles being able to substantially reduce their energy consumption by utilising geographical information on the gradient of the roads in which they travel to regulate their engines RPM’s whilst en-route. ‘Composite materials’ replacing ‘aluminium’ and ‘wing design’ mimicking those of birds in new Boeing commercial jets. ‘Knowledge capital’ and ICT’s can and does make significant differences. Substantial investment is being pumped into experimental technologies such as the ITER facility in France, which hopes to test the viability of commercial Nuclear Fusion reactors. Nation States seek to increase their percentage of GDP upwards of 3 percent to R&D seeking important innovations in return and ensuring nations competitiveness. Thus, the ‘information society’, seems to enbue the essence of the idea of ‘enlightenment’ progress. One which many ecologists seem to neglect in painting bleak pictures of the future. For example, Grossmann (2005) points out ‘that often people in the area of sustainability are unaware of the ongoing evolution of the information society’ (Grossmann, 2005, p180) However, it is uncertain as to what extent the transition to an ‘information society’ can positively affect ‘environmental sustainability’. Much empirical research highlights many negative as well as positive contributions of the ‘Information society’. The architecture of the ‘information society’ in terms of ICT’s has many negative environmental aspects. It is uncertain as to what extent people will attain a ‘quality of life’ through digital leisure activities etc. What is clear is that the current ecosystem has suffered tremendously as a result of ‘global infomatised capitalism’. What is hoped is that the current self-transformation and induced transformation of the ‘global infomatised’ economy will result in one which is less environmentally burdensome and which is conducive to sustainable objectives.

In conclusion, it becomes clear that changes taking place from a transition to an ‘information age’ will affect the imperative to achieving 'environmental sustainability'. Thus far, arguments that increasing resource efficiency will reduce the environmental burden, have not been empirically shown (Spangenberg, 2001) as increased mobility and the ‘rebound effect’ or ‘boomerang’ effect offsets any possible overall environmental gains. Widespread ‘environmental consciousness’ has not been felt in OECD countries, as the impetus behind various awareness campaigns quickly dissipates and western societal norms prevail. The onset of a digital economy hasn’t appeared to substitute material consumption but has tended to accompany it.

Finally, this discussion points out that systematically understanding the linkages must be seen as an important and valuable area of research looking ahead. To understand the relationship between the ‘information society’ (in terms of Information Communication technology and theoretical and codified information and knowledge) and ‘environmental sustainability, one must recognise that ‘global infomatised capitalism’ lies at the heart of the issue. Economy is a crucial link between both fields of research and should be the focus of future research. As mentioned earlier, ‘the information society’ is irrevocably coupled within our economic system and the transition to an ‘information age’ may in some respects be seen as a necessary response of capitalism to the physical limits of the planet and not just a stage in economic/societal evolution. In many respects the information revolution permitted capitalism to get us into this mess, equally, it will take the ‘information revolution’ to get us out of it. Perhaps the age we are moving towards is infact the”eco-information age”.

CASTELLS, M., 1996. The rise of the network society. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers.

GROSSMANN, W.D., 2000. Realising sustainable development with the information society - the holistic Double Gain-Link approach, H. PALAN, U. MANDER and Z. NAVEH, eds. In: 1999 Aug : Snowmass, CO, 2000, Elsevier; 2000 pp179-193.

SPANGENBERG, J.H., 2005. Will the information society be sustainable? Towards criteria and indicators for a sustainable knowledge society. International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, 1(1/2), pp. 85-102.Copyright ©

2009 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Who is monitoring who in a world of online social networking?

This article is the first in a three part series raising issues arising from the proliferation and increasing usage of online social media. Recently Nielson research reported a tripling of the time Internet users spend on social networking sites in the space of a year, with social networking now accounting for 17% of time spent online. Similarly, based on the statistics from, the combined daily reach of 3 popular social network websites (, and is 24% of daily internet consumption with accounting for 17%. This magnitude of growth alone, suggests a significant impact of these networks on the lives of individual members.

Recent reports by both Comscore and Nielson appear to show that social networking and social networking sites are now the most popular online activities;

"social networking was the second most popular online activity in the U.K. based on average time spent per user (4.6 hours), trailing only instant messaging (8.6 hours)" (Comscore, 2009).

Recently released research for the US by Nielson (2009) found that americans spend over 4 1/2 hours (on average per month) on facebook, more than any other site (of the top 10 brands) on the Internet. Thus, both the Nielson and Comscore reports say that Social networking, in particular facebook, is the most popular online activity in both the UK and the States. There is some difference though with Nielson and Comscore regarding time spent on these with Nielson quoting 6 hours for Facebook and Comscore quoting 4.6 hours for social networking sites in aggregate. But if you look at the nielson figures, its shows only facebook manages 6 hours with myspace, bebo hovering around 2 hours. Thus, in reality, the figures for both studies would seem to correlate. And, it seems to indicate that UK users of facebook spend more time on facebook than those in the US.

These figures demonstrate the need for substantive social research on the emerging role of social networking and social media on individuals and society. The next article entitled 'symbolic violence on facebook', will look at facebook through the lens of social capital and cultural capital theories. To begin with though, this article will briefly raise some possible issues and concerns regarding the phenomenon of individuals having increased available 'evidence' of their social network and it's activity.

There are a host of new capabilities emerging with the social web. What technology may now be facilitating is a nation of procumers (granted the figure still ranges between 1 and 5%). For the majority however, what we are now mostly seeing is a nation of monitors. This may even go beyond monitoring the 'background noise' of ones social network, seen as vital in sustaining virtual communities and enhancing offline social relations (Komito, Bates, 2009). What I wish to highlight at the extreme or 'ideal type', are a group of users in surveillance and gathering explicit analytical data; on those interested in their online identity or 'ego', often unbeknownst to the users interested (granted this is not the case for the vast majority of users). It has historically been the case that companies with an online presence should monitor and analyse traffic to their sites for pragmatic instrumental goals of optimising service, targeting users for products. However, now even beyond bloggers catching on to the practice of analysing site traffic, personal users with an online presence are now analysing traffic emerging from within their; 'personal networks' (see Wellman, 2001, 2002, 2003) or 'networks of sociability' (see Castells, 2004). This inevitably opens up questions as to how technologies (imbued with social and cultural values etc.) are in tandem with users; changing the nature of social relations?, changing privacy? and changing the nature of mind, consciousness and identity?. There is indeed a significant and growing body of academic research and literature addressing such questions as the 'impact' of technology on society from a macro to micro level. What I specifically wish to tackle in this article concerns the ability for individuals to explicitly, quantitatively and continuously survey and analyse their social position, social relations and those of others within personal networks. This may go beyond the traditional social monitoring, reflecting and theorising which individuals have (to various degrees) practiced on ones social network. Individuals for the first time in history, now have recorded evidence of their social networks activity, right there in front of them.

For instance, social network sites, now mean individuals can monitor online the relations that one's alters (ties such as friends, acquaintances etc) have with each other. McGuinness (2009) suggests that perhaps this provides an alternative to gathering information on ones ties, through hearsay and gossip. Could this in-turn reduce tainted or biased information that would come from alters? This would indicate increased information certainty. On the other hand, having exposure to tie communications that one isn't a part of, may increase uncertainty about ones importance and stature in one's social network? The issue here is that online social networks may have consequences for social relations on a level previously unseen in society and could make redundant sociological understandings about the dynamics of social relations. But this can go even further:

To take the case of twitter. Users now have several means of monitoring traffic to one's profile and the impact of their tweets. For instance, one can set up an account with one of the tinyurl companies and track traffic to ones posted links. Secondly, individuals can track whether status updates affects the number of people following them. Individuals can watch the diffusion of popular tweets through 'Retweets'. Users can monitor and use analytic tools to analyse their follower count and the demographic data etc. on those followers. This kind of activity by some users on twitter, is likely strongly correlated with their particular use of twitter. For instance, those who take the time to analyse and monitor activity to their profile, likely do so, because there is some value to them beyond mere curiosity. Nontheless, we can see trends emerging, such as programs on facebook that can sidestep privacy rules, by using apps to analyse available data for; 'popularity', 'friends interest in your profile' etc. Such statistics are based on who has posted on each others walls and commented on photos etc.

A larger and larger proportion of Internet users are becoming techno-savy and adept at using available Internet services. The increased interconnectedness of individuals disparate data on the web, and a crop of advancements in online technologies facilitating this, means that individuals can have easy access to information on individuals not in their everyday lives ( etc.). It is not uncommon for individuals to google a first date, or to monitor those they no-longer see. The past may importantly ground the present, but there may be times when its more helpful to leave past physical relationships in the past. Individuals may diminish consciousness of their present situations, their immediate experience. Here, the consciousness of place gives way to the 'space of flows' (see; Castells, 1998). Individual's attention can be more easily stretched across time and space.

Beyond recorded evidence of ones social relations and alters, we are now seeing software such as twitanalyser emerging that allows individuals analyse online identities. There is the potential for psychological traits, truth, consistency etc. to be gaged based on available information on the web. For the moment, the phenomenon of analysing online identities has been mainly confined to micro-blogging sites 'status updates', but there is no reason why it will stop there. Such information might be of interest to recruiters, workplace managers, schoolground bullies and prospective friends and colleagues. Previously, this kind of analytic data was available on website traffic of interest to those managing websites, whereby e-commerce sites and others found value in having data on traffic locations, referrals etc. Now, everyone can 'know' this kind of information 'if' one wishes.

Questions of the possible consequences of monitoring and quantitatively analysing our ego-centric networks arise:
-Curtails our own intuition and imagination?
-Makes us more instrumental in our social relations?
-Makes us more instrumental to ensuring social presence online?
-Addiction to checking our social network's 'background noise'?
-Reduces the expressive and affective nature of communication?
-Adds complexity to managing our social lives?
-Adds the potentiality of paranoia and uncertainty with ones close ties?
-Means we become grounded in the reality of our social position, reputation and social capital rather than our perceived or imagined position and reputation?

These are just a few of the myriad of possible questions which arise and which can be seen as perhaps positive or negative. We are principally dealing with the potentiality of users having more explicit hard information on others, and ones relations with others. Furthermore, we can now observe how ones action affects those relations in new and altered ways. This seems to point to the notion of a more individualised atomised person, with perhaps greater attentiveness and 'sense' of control(ing) of their relation with 'their' world, inline with trends theorised by Wellman and with observations by Putnam.
references to follow shortly...

Copyright © 2009 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Online Collaboration Tools

The breadth of online collaborative tools that are emerging today is quite simply staggering! A number of websites have appeared offering specific product offerings, or hosting a multitude of collaborative tools (wiki's, blogs, forums, repositories, communication tools etc.) from which to work. What is so promising is the versatility and sophistication of products such as Thinkfold and Mindmeister, with niche products serving every kind of need imaginable. Crucially, many of these tools now offer real-time co-editing of documents (changes appear in real-time for all users), multiple user capability, rich timeline of changes and additional communication tools etc.

In the near future, we will likely see some consolidation and more compatibility amongst these products, as well as platforms which (on the fly) integrate tools into a single collaborative online environment from which to work.

In the meantime, Robin good , a social media guru, has put together a continually updated mindmap of online collaborative tools currently available at; . The map offers an impressive list broken down by category of sites offering collaborative tools. They really are worth checking out!!

Copyright © 2006-2008 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Searching on the web; the new breed of search engines

There has been alot of talk recently (on the web and elsewhere) about the next generation of "smarter" search engines. Below are examples of search engines which have recently gained coverage over their ability to either (1) structure and present data pulled from the web, (2) assign semantic filtering by quality, (3) search structured data on the web, (4) search the 'real-time' web or (5) search the 'deep web':

(1) Structure and present data pulled from the web

Wolfram Alpha
'We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything. Our goal is to build on the achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries.' (Wolfram, 2009)

Google Squared
'Google Squared doesn't find webpages about your topic — instead, it automatically fetches and organizes facts from across the Internet.' (Google, 2009) It extracts data from relevant webpages and presents them in squared frames on a results page.

Bing is built to 'go beyond today's search experience' through recognising content and adapting to your query types, providing results which are "decision driven". According to the company; "we set out to create a new type of search experience with improvements in three key areas: (1) Delivering great search results and one-click access to relevant information, (2) Creating a more organized search experience, (3) Simplifying tasks and providing tools that enable insight about key decisions." (Microsoft, 2009)

'SenseBot delivers a summary in response to your search query instead of a collection of links to Web pages. SenseBot parses results from the Web and prepares a text summary of them. The summary serves as a digest on the topic of your query, blending together the most significant and relevant aspects of the search results. The summary itself becomes the main result of your search...Sensebot attempts to understand what the result pages are about. It uses text mining to parse Web pages and identify their key semantic concepts. It then performs multidocument summarization of content to produce a coherent summary' (Sensebot, 2008)

(2) Provide more semantic filtering of information by quality

'Hakia’s semantic technology provides a new search experience that is focused on quality, not popularity. hakia’s quality search results satisfy three criteria simultaneously: They (1) come from credible Web sites recommended by librarians, (2) represent the most recent information available, and (3) remain absolutely relevant to the query' (Hakia, 2009)

(3) Search structured data on the web

' There is already a lot of data out there which conforms to the proposed SW standards (e.g. RDF and OWL). Small vertical vocabularies and ontologies have emerged, and the community of people using these is growing daily. People publish descriptions about themselves using FOAF (Friend of a Friend), news providers publish newsfeeds in RSS (RDF Site Summary), and pictures are being annotated using various RDF vocabularies. [SWSE is] service which continuously explores and indexes the Semantic Web and provides an easy-to-use interface through which users can find the data they are looking for. We are therefore developing a Semantic Web Search Engine' (SWSE, 2009)
'Swoogle is a search engine for the Semantic Web on the Web. Swoogle crawl the World Wide Web for a special class of web documents called Semantic Web documents, which are written in RDF' (Swoogle, 2007)
Similar offering is;

(4) Search the 'real-time' web

One Riot
'OneRiot crawls the links people share on Twitter, Digg and other social sharing services, then indexes the content on those pages in seconds. The end result is a search experience that allows users to find the freshest, most socially-relevant content from across the realtime web....we index our search results according to their current relevance and popularity' (Oneriot, 2009)
'Scoopler is a real-time search engine. We aggregate and organize content being shared on the internet as it happens, like eye-witness reports of breaking news, photos and videos from big events, and links to the hottest memes of the day. We do this by constantly indexing live updates from services including Twitter, Flickr, Digg, Delicious and more.' (Scoopler, 2009)
'Collecta monitors the update streams of news sites, popular blogs and social media, and Flickr, so we can show you results as they happen' (Collecta. 2009).

(5) Search the 'deep web'

'The DeepDyve research engine uses proprietary search and indexing technology to cull rich, relevant content from thousands of journals, millions of documents, and billions of untapped Deep Web pages.' 'Researchers, students, technical professionals, business users, and other information consumers can access a wealth of untapped information that resides on the "Deep Web" – the vast majority of the Internet that is not indexed by traditional, consumer-based search engines. The DeepDyve research engine unlocks this in-depth, professional content and returns results that are not cluttered by opinion sites and irrelevant content.... The KeyPhrase™ algorithm, applies indexing techniques from the field of genomics. The algorithm matches patterns and symbols on a scale that traditional search engines cannot match, and it is perfectly suited for complex data found on the Deep Web' (Deepdyve, 2009)

Copyright © 2006-2008 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.

Monday, May 18, 2009

How to personalise images for illuminous desktop wallpaper

Here is my 'how to' for personalising the winning shot of the 'International Garden photo' competition over at Igpoty . The results should make some illuminous desktop wallpaper for your computer.

1. Open the following image (available at Igpoty ) in Photoshop :

2. Use the lasso tool to mark out and highlight the sky (3 pieces). You'll need to copy each piece separately, then paste to a new layer
3. When all layers are copied. Merge them them until you have 1 piece.
4. Next use the lasso tool to mark out and copy the girl. Paste to a new layer. Do the same for the rock.
5. You should now have 3 additional layers on top of the original. If you hide the original layer, you should see the following;

6. You can now very lightly feather these new layers (1px or 2px max) so that they will eventually blend better with the original layer.
7. Use the 'Gradient Map' in 'Adjustments' to create a gradient of colours for both the original layer and the 'sky' layer. Below are example's of the finished product:

8. Finally, if you like, you can add additional effects such as rendering a 'Lens flare':

9. You may want to enlarge the original image to the resolution of your desktop before saving.
10. Choose 'save for web' and save as a Jpeg image.
11. And thats it, you should have a terrific personalised desktop wallpaper or screensaver.

Here is a link to download 1200x1800 resolution images of the examples above;

Copyright © 2009 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Twitter and it's data free for all....

The rise of Twitter
Twitter is expanding and expanding fast. A flurry of news coverage and hype about the product, particularly in the last 3 months, has seen users flock to the service. Twitter is seen to offer enormous potential, information can be filtered by content, location, keyword etc., opening up the realms of how data is used online in real time. This is in tandem with the numerous benefits of openness discussed below. However, Twitter still has some way to go. It has yet to come to terms with its own potential and how those possibilities should be steered and constrained. The service recently made some small developments to its site, with a 'trend' and 'search' facility added. However, the sophistication of its privacy and account settings is still limited. Thus, it has yet to put more control back in users hand, with regard to how their data is used and by whom. At present, it is an all or nothing affair, you're "open" or you're "private"!!. This begs the following questions, should account holders have more control over their data? If so, why should this be the case? Is openness itself constraining what people will say? Finally, If users have more control, will this stifle the success of the service?

Why openness?
The Twitter model is built largely around individuals posting short 140 character status updates, replies or retweets on any range of topic imaginable. Individuals can find and follow any other user on the service, ranging from friends to common interests, to celebrities etc. The great thing about twitter is its 'openness'. Most individuals choose to keep their profile public to ensure that they can be found by like-minded individuals, or that ongoing conversations can be picked up by interested parties etc. It means individuals have that feeling that someone out there is listening, even if it is just the possibility of feeling part of something. It is a forum for expression of the mind, even if expression is mundane. It is also a means to 'contribute' one's time, knowledge and experience and is thus an avenue of 'meaning' for individuals.

Openness ensures that those with something to offer others can more easily be heard. It engenders the possibility for more connection, collaboration, relationship and even community formation 'without' boundaries. By focusing on the content of messages and less on the full personality, it provides a different kind of social formation. The loud, influential and dominant personality may not make for interesting dialogue. Too many annoying tweets from a user and one can easily unfollow with the click of the mouse. This levels the playing field for users in many respects, as well as increasing the possibility of connection based on interest and not by persuasion. However, not everyone wishes for this openness. There is the option to set your profile 'private' in order to close your information to only those with whom you've allowed follow you.

Interpreting your past online
Full openness has its price though, Twitter first launched in March 2006, and since then, an archive of user data has slowly being amounting for all to access. Hundreds of your messages may (or may not) be carefully vetted by you, but one thoughtless twitter update may be enough to get you in to trouble at any point in the future. This may be nothing more than friends misinterpreting and taking offence to an update. But it could be something more: Recently a US cop had his status updates on Facebook and Myspace used as evidence against him in a gun trial on grounds of the accused acquittal. What was interesting about this case is how status updates became utilised and crucially 'interpreted' by the Jury. This highlights how information may be interpreted and placed into multiple contexts by whoever reads the information. Employers, even potential collaborators, may selectively choose just one suspect twitter update among hundreds as 'proof' of character, or misintrepret one's online ego as holistically representative of the individual. Twitter means your online past and identity will always be there online, waiting to be interpreted and analysed.

Analyse this!
You may think that with hundreds of recorded messages, it would be uncumbersome for anyone to want to thrall through your past data. But with twitter, software by third parties is springing up to offer just that: Twitter analyzer is just one of the free online applications available that allows you to analyse the data of "any" twitter user with an open account (hence the majority of twitter user). The bounds of what can be achieved with Twitter analyzer is limited. But it opens numerous possibilities. For beyond harmless apps like Twitscoop, which scrape status updates in order to form twitter 'trending topics' and 'buzz words', your data can be analysed in isolation or in tandem with others, in any number of ways, for any number of purposes, and by ANYONE. Twitter apps may emerge (if they don't already exist) to 'profile' individuals; to elucidate personality, truth and inconsistency, track record, literacy, interests etc. etc. etc. This is alongside the likely emergence of targeted advertising etc, and data mining of information, in order to make twitter a viable business model.

Openness on whose terms?
At present twitter has a very lax attitude to its data. If you have your profile public, your data is a free for all. If it's private, its between you, your vetted followers and twitter. This means that Twitter's so called openness may not be so open. People are constantly vetting and reflecting on what information they post on twitter. They may do it out of shyness, cautiousness, personal branding, or foresight etc. Twitter is open for many, but not too open. It's very openness curtails what dialogue does occur online. As users become aware of the ways in which their data can be used, this may further curtail individual expression. Thus, should Twitter not increase the range of choices with regard 'openness' and 'privacy'. What I would like to see is the possibility of users having the choice to make private their archive of data. For instance, what if only your recent updates were set as public? What if twitter made it difficult for those updates to be scraped by third party offerings? What if you could make replies only visible to who you follow? What if you could automatically make messages with certain 'keywords' private? What if you could make certain messages time sensitive and private after a certain period? What if you could make some status updates private to yourself? Thus, the bounds of privacy can be opened up. Will it constrain the services success however? I do not believe so, if too much openness is stifling expression and conversation on twitter, than increasing the scope of openness versus privacy, and doing it in an uncumbersome way; would perhaps increase use of the service. This choice may be the business model Twitter hopes for...

Copyright © 2009 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.

Monday, February 16, 2009

It's my data not yours!

Like many of you, I've been using 'web 2.0' sites for some time now. My use of them seems to be increasing and expanding of late. They allow someone like myself, who spends alot of time stuck in front of a computer, to maintain some degree of social interaction, express my interests and thus hold my sanity at bay.

In fact, I've come to like these new online offerings so much, that I want to do more!! For instance, I've been playing around with the idea of keeping an online journal for some time now. Having chosen a service that I liked; 'Penzu' , I realised that after keeping entries for more than a week, I had no assurance as to the integrity and access to data in the event of this service ceasing. The site gave no assurance about data portability or policy with regard to cessation of service. Then, I came across this interesting article by Bill Thompson over at the BBC See article:

He rightly raised the issue of data portability concluding that web site developers should do more. (Data Portability concerns the ability for user data to be transferred to another service, or downloaded by the user.) However I think he failed to fully argue what should be done about this issue. For example, if your data and/or intellectual property resides on a free online site, and that service changes its offering; is it made transparent and simple if you decide to jump ship to another offering? If your data and/or intellectual property resides on an online website and that website goes bust, will your data be kept safe and retrievable?

We already have some national government policies in place concerning the protection, control and privacy of data to individuals. However, I feel it should also be up to government to protect citizens with regard to movement, ownership and integrity of user data. For instance, more needs to be done to ensure that website owners have a required responsibility from the outset; to provide data portability and maintain this ability even after termination of service. Perhaps, this would require that the government step in and provide servers to back up user data in the event of a company ceasing. This could be in tandem with services (new or old) being required to ensure data integrity in the case of termination of service etc. Issues like ownership of data also needs to be addressed.

It is often argued that government should not inhibit the market, but I argue that the government should steer the market, maximising the longterm interests of it's citizens. Thus, I don't see a problem with positive interference in the market. The role of government is afterall to balance the realms of life. This is in view of citizens becoming increasingly reliant on the market, and thus, on online commercial offerings to function and stay abreast of modern society. Of course the supra national nature of the web, will require the need for supranational cooperation on any kind of intervention. Political intervention may quicken the pace of progress on these issues, it could also ensure that data rights and opt-out facilities are apparent and transparent to citizens. Finally, certain government measures may benefit both users and service offerings in the long term, by instilling confidence. For instance, a service like Penzu would perhaps better thrive if minimum requirements were in place, granted the details of any technical standards is a messy and arduous business. This kind of confidence, that individuals have certain assurances; would in aggregate serve to speed up adoption of existing and emerging services. It would also assure vigilance, in the face of further encroachment of the market into everyday life.

Copyright © 2006-2009 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.

See; Facebook retain right to user data after account deletion

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Response to; I haz a Nom

A friend of mine; 'Victoria MacArthur' over at 'Propositional Structure' , today wrote an interesting muse about personal writings on blogs. In it, she put forward the question; as to how personal one should get in a blog? How much does one 'feel comfortable' with sharing on the web? And, what are the ramifications in terms of employers vetting candidates for jobs etc. ?

She seemed to raise 2 fundamental issues:
1. The question of instinctually or more cognitively wanting to protect and control one's identity.
2. The pragmatic issues around needing to negotiate one's privacy on the web.

This got me thinking about some of the key issues at stake which I've layed out as follows:

First off, there is the problem of ‘identity crime’. This is a type of crime which is on the increase and one further enabled by the web. This can occur whereby you leave enough breadcrumbs on the internet for someone to cross-correlate that information and build up a profile on you. This profile can then be used to create a false identity for another person, or even worse; to 'steal' someones identity. Outside of crime though, it may be a case that you unknowingly have left the jig-saw for an online profile of you, which can be pieced together by employers and others. Thus, you may incremently and unknowingly lose your privacy online.

Second off, identity in the 21st century has increasingly become ‘individuated’, whereby individuals construct the ’self’ through-out their lives. (Note: This construction can be conscious, unconconscious and indeed shaped with social structure at micro, meso, macro level) What’s important about posting information on the internet, is that it can leave relics of your previous ’selves’. Thus, your past can constrain your identity ‘construction’, particularly when it cannot be erased from the past. For example, has been archiving web pages on the internet for nearly 10 years now. Fragments of your past identities on the internet can be seen as both positive and negative. One positive, is that it means you have to face all of your past realities (and integrate them). On a negative, it can give people (such as employers) a false sense of who you are ‘now’; your past may constrain you in the eyes of others. It may also constrain your own sense of identity and your ability to construct.

Third Point. There is an issue with social networking sites etc., whereby individuals can have too much ‘control’ of their online identities. Individuals can now put themselves in a position to be able to package their life online, and this online construction may not be ‘holistically’ representative of the integrated identity. It may represent a planned and controlled fragment of your identity, or even an entirely consciously manufactured identity. At the other extreme, the fragments of identity that do lie on the internet, may result in people constructing a narrow and perhaps even false sense of who you are as an integrated identity.

Final point. The solution to all this seems 3 fold. (1)Government policy with regards to data protection etc. (2)Some responsibility and forsight with regard to website owners and content managers (3)Individual responsiblity, in terms of managing your online identity and maintaining a degree of foresight.

Overall, it seems like there isn’t a polarising solution. A balanced attitude to your identity and privacy on the internet seems the best approach. Individuals need to be vigilant and maintain foresight when posting information on the web. On the other-hand, individuals need to be attentive to how, ‘controlled’ and ‘representative’ that information on the web is of their ‘integrated identity’.

To see the original article, go to;
Copyright © 2006-2008 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Letting the cat back out of the bag; towards an accepted view of emancipation

Next article on emancipation, whenever I get the chance to write it, it'll be more theoretically informed than the last!!

Have a great 09!!!!


Copyright © 2006-2008 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.