Covid and the Demise of Distance

My brother and I, 1967

I lost my brother the other day. Less than a month after losing my aunt, it is starting to feel like carelessness. And to be clear, neither of these deaths were down to Covid-19, at least not directly, and this column isn’t about Covid-19, at least not directly. But as I spent some virtual time alone with my brother’s closed casket, I couldn’t help feeling that this was a future that might seem dystopian, but was instead rather comforting.

My brother was my only sibling, so there’s only me now from that family unit. And he lived on the polar opposite side of the world, in DC, and so hard to reach at the best of times from my perch in Singapore. But Covid-19 had somehow rendered that distance meaningless; he could have just as easily been across the causeway in Malaysia, and quarantines would have made it almost impossible to be grave-side.

For me it was deja-vu backing up down the freeway.

When my aunt died in a British nursing home a few weeks ago, I could do nothing but send a few photos of her to a small mailing list of people unconnected to each other except through my aunt. (She wasn’t a real aunt, but as a childhood friend of my mother I had known her better and longer than most of my other relatives, and she had outlived most of those.) Most on the mailing list were not geeks, it’s safe to say, so those photos that did come back were usually upside down or sideways, which could have appeared disrespectful, but which would have amused my aunt. Her funeral was of course a small one, remote and ring-fenced by Covid-19, and I never got to hear what she had meant to others, or even see a photo of where she was buried. I had to sit alone with my grief, and read a few scraps from others on the adhoc mailing list about how the day went.

My brother’s death was quite different. My tech-savvy nephew had arranged for me to to spend some time alone near my brother’s casket via Facetime, which was oddly peaceful. And then, with the help of his friends, he hosted a memorial on Zoom. As the introductory music played over a tasteful drawing, I watched as a list of people signing on flashed up on the screen — by the time it started more than 200 people were aboard. I made it through my own eulogy and then watched dozens of others talk about my brother. Most of the people were those I had never met, but it was moving to hear them talk about him, revealing angles of my brother that were new to me, and refreshing, like uncovering hidden doors in a familiar house.

My brother and I, 2008

The tools aren’t perfect of course. I forgot to turn my video off after I had talked, and so I dread to think what I was doing for the rest of the gathering. And there were the inevitable glitches. But most important for me was that people were there, wherever they were from. Distance was no obstacle, and neither was familiarity. You never know who will turn up at a funeral: that’s what makes them so fascinating. The former lovers, the unacknowledged offspring, estranged spouses and feuding relatives, all may turn up. The wake is a more selective affair. But here in a virtual room were dozens of people who had heard about my brother’s death, and who could join in to share the memory of someone without fear of somehow not being close enough. It was egalitarian in the way that wakes usually aren’t; no one has to fuss over who to invite, and whether there are enough chairs or canapés to go around. Instead it becomes a festival, where anyone can pay tribute. No one was left out because of distance, either physical or familial, and that seemed to me to be something rather beautiful.

I don’t know what will happen when Covid-19 is tamed. I’m sure a lot more things will go back to normal than people predict. But if we take one lesson from the pandemic I feel it should be this: whether it’s a funeral, wedding, wake, birthday party, bluechip annual general meeting or parish council conclave, offer a virtual version too. Don’t let physical distance decide who has a seat and a voice. And don’t just put a camera in a corner of the room and live stream it. Give it some thought, as my nephew did for my brother. It made a world of a difference.

Why Won’t Computers Do What We Want Them To?

Photo by Aubrey, 2014
Tottenham Court Road. Photo by Aubrey, 2014

Computers and the software that runs them have long denied us the basic right of dictating to them — not letters and grocery lists, but of what they should actually do for us – most importantly in the first step of thinking: the art of taking notes.

In the mid 80s I was studying history in London, and the first consumer PC came out: the Amstrad. I was immediately intrigued, though I’m no techie. I remember going into Dixon’s one rainy winter afternoon on Tottenham Court Road and explaining my problem to the salesman. It was simple, I thought: I am a collector of events, and I want a computer which will do exactly what I currently do, but store it so I don’t have to carry around this pile of paper. It was simple, I told him. And I explained how I took my history notes, involving two or three basic steps. He looked at me blankly and tried to change the subject. “It comes with a printer and three spare disks.” I bought it anyway. But oh, how naive was I.

Because the reality is that 35 years on — 35 years! — there is still no way to do this. No app allows you to draw lines on a page and then add pieces to it wherever you want. I should know, I’ve tried hundreds of them (and if anyone does read this, I will get responses like ‘Have you tried OneNote?’ or ‘Aeon Timeline allows you to do just that.’ Yes, and no it doesn’t. No app, in short, is smart enough to just ask you what you have in mind and just evolve into that, to help you shape the app in the way you want.

This is the fundamental failure of computers, and computer software. As a technology it’s failed to really find a place in our lives that we’re comfortable with, and that’s because it has demanded too much change in our behaviours. We are mostly compliant: back in the late 2000s executives at telcos were worried 3G was for nought, because people didn’t show any interest in using their phones for anything more than calls and SMS. It took Steve Jobs to change that, by building a consumer device we craved to hold. The rest came naturally, because of a great UI, but no one is claiming that the smartphone adapted to us; we adapted to it. That’s not to say it’s not useful, it’s just not useful in a way that we might have envisaged, if we ever sat down to think about it.

Indeed, the Apple revolution, which I would date from about 2008 cannot be detached from the broader mobile data revolution, which we’re just emerging from. This was a revolution in interfaces, but it wasn’t a revolution in terms of computing. We have become more productive, in narrow terms — we are online a lot more, we send more messages, we might even finish projects quicker — but no one is claiming that our computers mould themselves to our thinking. It’s apt that movies like Her try to explore what that might mean — that our computers learn our thinking and adapt themselves to it.

So back to me and my history problem. There of course are answers to it, but they all require us understanding the mind of the person or people who developed them. And I’m not ungrateful to these apps; they have long been welcome bedfellows. From TheBrain to Roam, MyInfo to Tinderbox, TiddlyWiki to DEVONthink, they have all rewarded the hours — days, weeks, even — I have invested in trying to understand them. But therein lies the problem. The only reward one can get is if one adapts one’s own mind to that of the creator’s vision, and, however amazing that vision is, this in itself is an admission of failure. I don’t want to have to report everything to someone else’s vision, I have one myself, but there’s no software on this earth in 35 years of looking that I can wrestle into submission to my simple vision.

This is not to say the apps in question are a failure. I love them dearly and still use many of them. I have used my pulpits to promote them, and have gotten to know some of the developers behind them. These people are geniuses, without exception, and it’s not their fault their tools cannot be more than interpretations of that genius. We just lack the tools to tell our computers what to do from scratch.

Such as

‘Take an A4 sheet of paper, turn it horizontally so it’s in landscape, and then draw three perpendicular lines equidistant apart. Allow the user to write anywhere between the lines, and interpret a three-line dash as the end of each nugget. Interpret the digits at the beginning of each nugget as a date, which can be as vague as a decade and as specific as a minute. Order each nugget chronologically, whichever line it sits between, relative to each other, with gaps between according to the dates. etc etc’.

If only.

I still don’t see why I can’t have that software. I don’t see why I couldn’t have it in 1985. I probably could get a developer to whip something up, but then that’s already demonstrated the failure I’m talking about. I want the computer to do it for me, and not being able to, to have to rely on someone else’s coding skills, or even my own, means it’s not doing that.

This feeds into a broader point. Tiago Forte, a young productivity guru, wrote an interesting thread about the serial failure of hypertext, which was a precursor (and loser) to the simpler Web, and the lessons we can draw from it. In the case he describes, Roam. The simple truth: taking notes is a niche area because it’s not taken seriously at any stage of the education process (my history chronology capture was shown to me by the late and excellent Ralph B. Smith, who understood the power of note taking; I can still remember him demonstrating the technique in our first class. It has stuck with me ever since.) Note-taking is the essence of understanding, retaining, collating, connecting and propounding. And yet it’s mostly done in dull notebooks, or monochrome apps, none of which really mould themselves to what we write, take pictures of, record or otherwise store. (And no, Clippy doesn’t count.)

Tiago may well be right: the trajectory of knowledge information management apps (and there you have it; already segmented into what sounds like the most boring cocktail party ever) is that they just aren’t sexy enough to break out of a niche. Evernote was closest, but it got dragged down in part by its dependence on a vocal core of users who pushed it one way and its desperate need to justify its valuation by trying to go value. Truth is, people don’t value collecting information, in part because it’s so easy to recall: even with my 60GB DEVONthink databases, I more often than not Google something because I know I can find the document more quickly that way than in my offline library.

But this doesn’t explain the pre-Google world. Why did we let software go in the wrong direction by not demanding it submit to our will, not the other way around? Well, the truth is probably that computers were basic things, oversized calculators and typewriters for the most part. Sure it helped us write snazzier-looking letters, but heaven forbid us doodling on them, or moving the address around beyond the margins.

We’re still hidebound by our computers, so much so that we don’t realise it. I am rebuilding my life around the new tools, like Roam, and old ones like Tinderbox — a wonderful piece of exotica that is massive for those of us who like to poke around in a piece of software, but which basically means poking around in the head of its developers — and I get a lot out of them. But I am keenly aware that I would rather be just telling a blank computer screen to “take an A4 sheet of paper…”

And perhaps, one day, I will.

The Future of Work Rethought

I recently did two things I hadn’t done before. One was to cancel my membership at a co-working space. The other was to meet, face to face, my virtual assistant of seven years. I belatedly realised the two events were connected: the freelance world, once a parallel universe hidden from view, is fast switching places with the real one, and governments, companies and families should take note.

It’s tempting nowadays to think that technology is redefining work, and not in a good way. AI and robotics are stealing away work from top to bottom, from lawyers to assembly lines. Gig platforms like Uber and Deliveroo are slicing up jobs into ever smaller chunks, making robots of us before the jobs are actually handed over to robots. And technology outsources what can be outsourced.

But I realise this is just one side of things. Who are all these people to whom this work is outsourced? By 2020, the number of self-employed in the U.S. will triple, to 42 million people. Freelancers are the fastest growing labour group in the European Union. Behind these statistics is a story, not just of harried drivers and deliver guys, but of knowledge workers who have chosen their own lifestyle, who have defied the disintermediation of the so-called platform economy. They offer a counter-narrative to the usual technology story of innovative disruption.

Take co-working spaces. On the one hand such spaces have proliferated. I recall looking for a co-working in Singapore space back in 2009 and finding only one, on the campus of one of the universities, and when I turned up one morning there to find the curtains closed, bodies all over the floor and a distinct odour of unwashed students. Now, every other floor in the tower blocks of the business district are co-working spaces, though the business looks nothing like it was originally imagined to be. Just don’t expect to find many freelancers there.

Co-working sounded like a freelancer’s dream — a place for those working alone and from home to find space to work, to mix, to find work, to find comradeship. It may have started out like that, but you won’t find many freelancers in a co-working space nowadays. Respondents to a survey of 99designs freelancers, for example, showed only 4 percent of them used a co-working space.

I asked Patrick Llewelyn, CEO of 99designs, why this was. One reason, he said, was that most of the designers on his platform are primary care givers, looking after either their kids or a family member, and so tend to keep less formal hours. As co-working spaces have become substitute offices, they keep office hours which don’t suit most freelancers, most of whom want to get away from the 9-5 grind.

I also realised there was little that was appealing. I abandoned mine when I realised I didn’t enjoy going there. I had returned to working for myself a year or so ago and long admired co-working spaces as a vibrant, tasteful, colourful alternative to the dour, dusty and downbeat newsroom I worked in. But I realised that co-working spaces were too self-conscious, too brimming with hipness to be genuinely convivial. And expensive.

So freelancers choose their own path, and it doesn’t fall easily into any fancy new disruptive model.

And then there’s the other thing: my virtual assistant. She’s real, but based in a Philippines town far from the madding crowd. I had always imagined that one day I’d make the pilgrimage there to meet her, since when she started working for me, she didn’t have a passport. But by now she, husband and two kids in tow, was the peripatetic one, carving time for me in her hectic tour of Singapore.

This is the other thing that struck me about what Patrick told me. When I asked about how his freelancers find social fulfilment if they’re working from home, he said that’s the point. By staying home, often looking after family, they’re able to retain those physical connections that those working in an office tend to lose. And being able to support themselves gives them a sense of contribution as well as a creative outlet, which in turns give them confidence.

When Patrick recently went to Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia and one of 99designs’ biggest markets, he attended a meet-up of freelancers who clearly knew each other and felt a kinship and warmth you’d be hard pressed to find in a co-working space. Amarit Charoenphan, cofounder of Thailand’s first and largest co-working space Hubba, told me that in the rush to grab market share and protect themselves from competition, many co-working players had lost the human touch, of fostering a community among their members. He sees the future in algorithms, co-working 3.0, where spaces draw on technology to address the emotional benefits of being together.

Freelancers might argue they already have that, using apps to connect to friends and colleagues, while staying or moving to the places they love. My virtual assistant continues to work from her seaside home, bouncing her two-year-old daughter on her knee on conference calls with her main client, a friend of mine based in Texas. She worries about brownouts and the occasional typhoon, but with internet connectivity improving, she’s rarely offline for long.

She’s part of a massive, gradual shift in knowledge work, from the big city to the smaller towns and villages. This shows up in the data: Less than a quarter of the 99designs freelancers live in urban hubs of more than a million people — just as many live in towns or villages of less than 20,000. This is true more or less across the board: In the U.S. and Indonesia the number falls to be low 14% who live in a metropolis. Data from Upwork, a general freelancing site, shows that for a lot of specialised work even those based in remote towns in the developing world can command decent USD rates.

For sure, freelancing isn’t for everyone, and it’s not always easy to get your first client. And platforms that break down basic tasks like delivery and driving will always be a race to the bottom. But for those with skills, or those motivated to acquire them, the freelance economy has grown in the past decade to be a vast continent in the landscape of the future of work, mostly unnoticed by governments and immune to Silicon Valley’s eviscerations. Which reminds me; I have to go, my virtual assistant is reminding me we’re due a virtual brainstorming session.

Why we hate video calls

Good piece in the New Scientist about why we’ve always hated video calls:

When another New York Times reporter went to Pittsburgh in mid-1971, however, he found only 33 Picturephones in operation, with just 12 able to dial outside their own buildings. Aside from impracticalities such as cost, it seemed that, against all predictions, no one actually wanted video calling. Users were more interested in seeing graphics than face-to-face video conversation. At Bell Labs, Lucky recalls that the only person who called his Picturephone was his boss, Arno Penzias. “I found it very awkward because I had to stare at him,” he says.

More than that, I think the enduring non-appeal of video is that it doesn’t start to replace talking face to face. Face to face talking is not about seeing the other person, or looking them in the eyes — it’s about non-verbal communication — gestures, body language, touching, etc. It’s also about allowing other things to intervene — movement, distraction, interaction with objects.

Video calls are exhausting, because you are trying to replace all that with just maintaining eye contact, or at least giving the appearance of remaining engaged. It’s a new form of communication, and we’ve tried and rejected it. Whenever Cisco drag me over to their HQ for some elaborate video conference I always feel it’s a waste of time, and a major overengineering of a flawed medium.

Talking on the phone, meanwhile, suits us perfectly (although I’ve come to hate it almost as much as video calling.) As George Costanza once said, after going through a phone conversation with a blind date:

George: She had to be impressed by that conversation, had to! It was a great performance. I am unbelievable on the phone. On the date they should just have two phones on the table at the restaurant, done.

Phone calls have become useful because we are able to transfer a lot of the body language and non-verbal cues into speech (and silence). We’re still working on text chat, but we’re getting there. It works — it’s not exhausting. It’s communicating what we want to communicate, and filtering out what we don’t — and not reading, at least for the most part, anything into anything else.

The Facebook Experiment: Some Collated Views

A few pieces in the Facebook Experiment. I’m still mulling my view. 

Paul Bernal: The Facebook Experiment: the ‘why’ questions…:

 Perhaps Facebook will look a little bad for a little while – but the potential financial benefit from the new stream of advertising revenue, the ability to squeeze more money from a market that looks increasingly saturated and competitive, outweighs that cost.

Based on the past record, they’re quite likely to be right. People will probably complain about this for a while, and then when the hoo-haa dies down, Facebook will still have over a billion users, and new ways to make money from them. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t mind looking like the bad guy (again) for a little while. Why should he? The money will continue to flow – and whether it impacts upon the privacy and autonomy of the people on Facebook doesn’t matter to Facebook one way or another. It has ever been thus….

(Via Paul Bernal’s Blog)

A contrarian view from Rohan Samarajiva: Confused objections to Facebook emotional contagion research:

I am puzzled by the predominantly negative reaction to the manipulation of Facebook content, in the recent published research article in the mainstream media (MSM), though perhaps less in blogs and such.

It seems to me that MSM’s reaction is hypocritical. They manipulate their content all the time to evoke different emotional responses from their readers/viewers/listeners. The difference is that conducting research on resultant emotional changes on MSM is not as easy as on Facebook. For example, magazines have used different cover images, darkening or lightening faces and so. Their only indicator of success is whether version A sold more than version B. Not very nuanced.

(Via LIRNEasia)

And Ed Felten: Privacy Implications of Social Media Manipulation:

To be clear, I am not concluding that Facebook necessarily learned much of anything about the manipulability of any particular user. Based on what we know I would bet against the experiment having revealed that kind of information about any individual. My point is simpler: experiments that manipulate user experience impact users’ privacy, and that privacy impact needs to be taken into account in evaluating the ethics of such experiments and in determining when users should be informed.

(Via Freedom to Tinker)

And finally from Robin Wilton: Ethical Data Handling and Facebook’s “Emotional Contagion” Study:

Once, in a workshop, while discussing mechanisms for privacy preference expression, I said I would be happier for data subjects to have some means of expressing a preference than none. An older, wiser participant made the following wry remark: “That only brings a benefit if someone is prepared to give weight to their preference. If not… well, ten million times zero is still zero”. And that’s the weight Facebook appears to have given to the legitimate interests of its data subjects.

(Via Internet Society Blog Feed)

BBC: Old Scams Made New

This is a column for a BBC World Service piece. It’s not Reuters content. 

Of all the scams you’d have thought the old ‘I’m a general’s widow and am sitting on a whole pile of cash I want to share with you” one would have gone away by now. But it hasn’t. The scammers are now recruiting church organists. 

Take, for example, LinkedIn, the business networking service. Think Facebook but for suits. People use to flaunt their resume only in the hope of winning contracts, promotions, job offers and to share trade gossip with others. Companies use it to recruit, promote themselves etc. And so do scammers. 

They make a fake profile, add a fake photo, and then start inviting potential victims to connect to them. Once connected, they approach marks with the usual ‘I’ve got lots of money tied up in a bank and i want to share it with you if you’d only send a bit my way to help me grease some bankers’ palms.’ They can also now mine your address book and connect to your contacts and do the same to them. 

I was recently approached, for example, by a lady called Alisha, who claimed to work at a dental clinic (the giveaway there: she called it a detal clinic),by Qatari billionaire Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani (email address sheikfaisalbinalthani at gmail.com) and before her recent troubles by the now deposed prime minister of Thailand — Yingluck Shinawatra, not the other one — who could be reached at angeleena rosa 1967 at yahoo.com

Why do I know these folk are not for real? Well, one red flag is a limited number of connections: 67 in Alisha’s case, 127 in the Sheikh’s and 56 in Ms Yingluck’s. But each was able to reach me because despite the relatively measly number of people they’d persuade to accept their invitation to connect were contacts of mine.

I knew it was getting serious when I was approached by someone claiming to be a manager at Standard Chartered. Let’s call him Mr Christopher to save some blushes. Mr. Christopher claims to have 10 years’ experience in banking and finance management — and, most impressively, more than 500 connections. Among them a colleague, a CEO at a local energy group and the finance director of an Indonesian company. He even has a Facebook page. 

These scammers are putting in the hours. 

 But even then, these scams aren’t really that hard to spot.

Usually a glance at the profile is enough. A guy called Nigel Rozzell, for example, approached me, ostensibly from NatWest Bank. (It turns out there really is a Nigel Rozzell who works for Nat West Bank, but I’m pretty sure his email address isn’t Natwest Nigel at accountant.com, which is what this profile had.) 

And if I still wasn’t sure, I could search google for images that look like his mug shot — it’s actually easier than it sounds. And sure thing, the headshot of fake Nigel Rozzell belongs to an engineer who works on rail projects in Qatar.

And our bank manager friend Mr Christopher, with the 500+ connections and the Facebook page? After I recklessly accepted his LinkedIn invitation he offered me half of 9,649,400 pounds he said he was about to get his hands on. My confidence in him deflated when I discovered via Google that his mug shot belonged to that of the organist at a church near Bristol, who was none too pleased when I told him his visage being used as part of a scam. 

Now, LinkedIn to their credit have taken down all these profiles. And they defend their failure to stop these profiles ever appearing or gathering steam by saying that it’s basically up to users to be careful who they link to and to report anomalies. They also say they see no spike in these kinds of scams. 

But the truth is that scammers like networks and networks don’t police themselves. It took me anything between 10 seconds and two minutes to spot these scams, but I’m a nerd. That vetting process that could easily be automated. LinkedIn should, in my view, try doing that. I’ll miss rubbing shoulders with deposed prime ministers, billionaire sheiks and church organists, but I’ll suffer for the greater good of keeping scammers off my buddy list. 

[Update: Got another scam this morning, from a Douglas Mattes, who once again had 500+ connections and a quite well populated profile. And whom actually I thought might be legit as I hadn’t looked at the image which belongs to one Shaun Goeldner. I’m frankly unclear how these profiles work — are they legitimate accounts hacked or built from scratch?] 

[Update: Is this all part of some Iranian spying scam? ]

From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless

From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless

BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF

(Reuters) – The Internet may feel like it’s everywhere, but large pockets of sky, swathes of land and most of the oceans are still beyond a signal’s reach.

Three decades after the first cellphone went on sale – the $4,000 Motorola DynaTAC 8000X “Brick” – half the world remains unconnected. For some it costs too much, but up to a fifth of the population, or some 1.4 billion people, live where “the basic network infrastructure has yet to be built,” according to a Facebook white paper last month.

Even these figures, says Kurtis Heimerl, whose Berkeley-based start-up Endaga has helped build one of the world’s smallest telecoms networks in an eastern Indonesian village, ignore the many people who have a cellphone but have to travel hours to make a call or send a message. “Everyone in our community has a phone and a SIM card,” he says. “But they’re not covered.”

Heimerl reckons up to 2 billion people live most of their lives without easy access to cellular coverage. “It’s not getting better at the dramatic rate you think.”

The challenge is to find a way to connect those people, at an attractive cost.
And then there’s the frontier beyond that: the oceans.

Improving the range and speed of communications beneath the seas that cover more than two-thirds of the planet is a must for environmental monitoring – climate recording, pollution control, predicting natural disasters like tsunami, monitoring oil and gas fields, and protecting harbours.

There is also interest from oceanographers looking to map the sea bed, marine biologists, deep-sea archaeologists and those hunting for natural resources, or even searching for lost vessels or aircraft. Canadian miner Nautilus Minerals Inc said last week it came to an agreement with Papua New Guinea, allowing it to start work on the world’s first undersea metal mining project, digging for copper, gold and silver 1,500 metres (4,921 feet) beneath the Bismark Sea.

And there’s politics: China recently joined other major powers in deep-sea exploration, partly driven by a need to exploit oil, gas and mineral reserves. This year, Beijing plans to sink a 6-person ‘workstation’ to the sea bed, a potential precursor to a deep-sea ‘space station’ which, researchers say, could be inhabited.

“Our ability to communicate in water is limited,” says Jay Nagarajan, whose Singapore start-up Subnero builds underwater modems. “It’s a blue ocean space – if you’ll forgive the expression.”

BALLOONS, DRONES, SATELLITES
Back on land, the challenge is being taken up by a range of players – from high-minded academics wanting to help lift rural populations out of poverty to internet giants keen to add them to their social networks.

Google, for example, is buying Titan Aerospace, a maker of drones that can stay airborne for years, while Facebook has bought UK-based drone maker Ascenta.

CEO Mark Zuckerburg has said Facebook is working on drones and satellites to help bring the Internet to the nearly two thirds of the world that doesn’t yet have it. As part of its Project Loon, Google last year launched a balloon 20 km (12.4 miles) into the skies above New Zealand, providing wireless speeds of up to 3G quality to an area twice the size of New York City.

But these are experimental technologies, unlikely to be commercially viable for a decade, says Christian Patouraux, CEO of another Singapore start-up, Kacific. Its solution is a satellite network that aims to bring affordable internet to 40 million people in the so-called ‘Blue Continent’ – from eastern Indonesia to the Pacific islands.

A mix of technologies will prevail, says Patouraux – from fiber optic cables, 3G and LTE mobile technologies to satellites like his HTS Ku-band, which he hopes to launch by end-2016. “No single technology will ever solve everything,” he said.

Indeed, satellite technology – the main method of connectivity until submarine cables became faster and cheaper – is enjoying a comeback. While Kacific, O3b and others aim at hard-to-reach markets, satellite internet is having success even in some developed markets. Last year, ViaSat topped a benchmarking study of broadband speeds by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

And today’s airline passengers increasingly expect to be able to go online while flying, with around 40 percent of U.S. jetliners now offering some Wi-Fi. The number of commercial planes worldwide with wireless internet or cellphone service, or both, will triple in the next decade, says research firm IHS.

WHITE SPACE

Densely populated Singapore is experimenting with so-called ‘white space’, using those parts of the wireless spectrum previously set aside for television signals. This year, it has quietly started offering what it calls SuperWifi to deliver wireless signals over 5 km or more to beaches and tourist spots.

This is not just a first-world solution. Endaga”s Heimerl is working with co-founder Shaddi Hasan to use parts of the GSM spectrum to build his village-level telco in the hills of Papua.

That means an ordinary GSM cellphone can connect without any tweaks or hardware. Users can phone anyone on the same network and send SMS messages to the outside world through a deal with a Swedish operator.

Such communities, says Heimerl, will have to come up with such solutions because major telecoms firms just aren’t interested. “The problem is that these communities are small,” says Heimerl, “and even with the price of hardware falling the carriers would rather install 4G in cities than equipment in these communities.”

The notion of breaking free of telecoms companies isn’t just a pipe dream.

MESH

Part of the answer lies in mesh networks, where devices themselves serve as nodes connecting users – not unlike a trucker’s CB radio, says Paul Gardner-Stephen, Rural, Remote & Humanitarian Telecommunications Fellow at Flinders University in South Australia.

Gardner-Stephen has developed a mesh technology called Serval that has been used by activists lobbying against the demolition of slums in Nigeria, and is being tested by the New Zealand Red Cross.

Mesh networks aren’t necessarily small, rural and poor: Athens, Berlin and Vienna have them, too. And Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has called them “the most essential form of digital communication and the cheapest to deploy.”

Even without a balloon and Google’s heft, mesh networks offer a bright future, says Gardner-Stephen. If handset makers were to open up their chips to tweaks so their radios could communicate over long distances, it would be possible to relay messages more than a kilometre.

In any case, he says, the Internet is no longer about instantaneous communication. As long as we know our data will arrive at some point, the possibilities open up to thinking of our devices more as data couriers, storing messages on behalf of one community until they are carried by a villager to another node they can connect to, passing those messages on several times a day.

It’s not our present vision of a network where messages are transmitted in an instant, but more like a digital postal service, which might well be enough for some.

“Is the Internet going to be what it looks like today? The answer is no,” said Gardner-Stephen.

PISTOL SHRIMPS

As the Internet changes, so will its boundaries.

As more devices communicate with other devices – Cisco Systems Inc estimates there will be 2 billion such connections by 2018 – so is interest increasing in connecting those harder-to-reach devices, including those underwater, that are beyond the reach of satellites, balloons and base stations.

Using the same overground wireless methods for underwater communications isn’t possible, because light travels badly in water. Although technologies have improved greatly in recent years, underwater modems still rely on acoustic technologies that limit speeds to a fraction of what we’re now used to.

That’s partly because there are no agreed standards, says Subnero’s Nagarajan, who likens it to the early days of the Internet. Subnero offers underwater modems that look like small torpedoes which, he says, can incorporate competing standards and allow users to configure them.

This is a significant plus, says Mandar Chitre, an academic from the National University of Singapore, who said that off-the-shelf modems don’t work in the region’s shallow waters.

The problem: a crackling noise that sailors have variously attributed to rolling pebbles, surf, volcanoes, and, according to a U.S. submarine commander off Indonesia in 1942, the Japanese navy dropping some “newfangled gadget” into the water.

The actual culprit has since been identified – the so-called pistol shrimp, whose oversized claw snaps a bubble of hot air at its prey. Only recently has Chitre been able to filter out the shrimp’s noise from the sonic pulses an underwater modem sends. His technology is now licensed to Subnero.

There are still problems speeding up transmission and filtering out noise, he says. But the world is opening up to the idea that to understand the ocean means deploying permanent sensors and modems to communicate their data to shore.

And laying submarine cables would cost too much.

“The only way to do this is if you have communications technology. You can’t be wiring the whole ocean,” he told Reuters. “It’s got to be wireless.”

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

Meshing and Stacking Away from Disaster

I’m often haunted by the folk in Wall-E, the movie where humans have abandoned Earth to trash, a small waste-collecting robot and a cockroach. That’s not the bit that scares me: it’s the space-bound humans who are ferried around on pods, their eyes permanently glued to a screen in front of them.

Is this, I ask my worried self, our future? Or has it already happened?
In some ways it has. But for what it’s worth I think it’s a blip. The future won’t in fact look like that at all.

Right now we definitely have a problem. The problem is that screens have gotten smaller, or rather more portable, more convenient, and the content on them has become so compelling that we risk life and limb to watch them as we walk, stand and sit.

But this is just a phase.

I detect the beginnings of a shift. Not of our behaviour – sadly we’ll always be vulnerable to fixating on any screen with bright colours and movement. But the sheer multiplicity of screens is forcing change on us.

Consider the following: Of the seven hours a day spent gazing at a screen, at least two of those hours are actually watching two or more screens. Millward Brown, a brand consultancy, calls it meshing and stacking.

Whereas before we’d pop off to the kitchen to put the kettle on, now we scroll through our tablet to see what people are saying on Twitter about what we’ve just watched. Then there’s shifting, where we start watching something on one screen, and then finish it on a laptop, a smartphone or a tablet.

This may seem like appalling behaviour, slicing our attention into ever thinner chunks. And in some ways it is, but it means that we’re unlikely to be subsumed by any one screen. And that’s good, because we’re dominating the screens, not them dominating us.

There are other things afoot. Screens don’t need to be big to do big things for us: the latest version of Google’s Android operating system allows the user to stitch together separate photos of a view and then relive the panorama by moving the phone around in the air, the image moving as if the scene was in front of the viewer. It’s a extraordinary feeling, recreating a mural on a screen the size of your hand.

Then there’s something called Spritz, an app that allows you to speed read a book in a viewer no larger than 18 letters. The maker of the app says by shuttling words past your vision at speed 80% of your effort is saved for reading and absorbing. I was pretty amazed; it seemed to work, and makes you think about whether you really need a book-sized screen to recreate the experience of reading a tome.

Then there’s something called Snapchat, where users can send photos to each other which can only be viewed for a few seconds before disappearing forever. It’s hard to see the value in this, until someone pointed out that the value lies in the intimacy of the moment. Users don’t open the picture immediately, preferring to find a quiet, private space to enjoy it. Counterintuitively, by making the photo ephemeral, the app makes the process of viewing it special and the memory of it longer lasting.

Some might say I’m grasping at straws. But I see in these examples the beginnings of a new approach to how we relate to our screens. For sure, some of us will remain their slaves. But for others we may find new ways to derive pleasure from them, whether it’s recreating a vista, reading a tome or viewing a photo.

The Rising Noise of Silence

This is a commentary piece for a semi-regular slot on the BBC’s World Service. It’s not content that appears on Reuters, nor does it reflect the views of my employer. 

I’m here to report a new scourge of the public space: folk who watch video on their tablets in public without a headset. Just the other day someone sat next to me in a coffee shop watching a local soap opera on her iPad quite oblivious to the disturbance she was causing me and, well, just me.

Now this may sound like a small thing, but I’ve canvassed friends and it’s clearly a problem that extends far and wide. I’m told ferries in Hong Kong are abuzz with this kind of noise pollution, as are subways and buses in Singapore, as well as flights into and across the Philippines and India.

Putting aside my own tendency to be annoyed by more or less anything these days, I think we have here an example of a counterintuitive trend: what sociologists might call the reclaiming of public space from intrusive technology.

Think about it for a second. Up until a few years ago our biggest bugbear were loudmouths on their cellphones intruding on our reverie in trains, coffee shops and dentists’ waiting rooms.

This is not exactly yet a thing of the past, but it’s beginning to be, because as we’ve embraced the smartphone so have we preferred to occupy our time communicating via text or playing games on our devices. Take mobile phone usage in the UK as an example: the number of minutes most people spend talking on their mobile phone has fallen by 19% between 2007 and 2012. This, I believe, is a global trend whenever phones go from those basic ones that just do voice and SMS to smartphones, where you can do lots of other things.

The trend, therefore, is less time spent talking on phones, which means less time annoying other people in public.

This is a good thing. It basically reverses a trend we thought was irreversible – namely that technology was always going to intrude further into our lives.
So back to the watching video in public without a headset thing.

We’ve gone through an interesting couple of years on mobile. We’ve seen a lot more people buy smartphones, and we’ve seen smartphone screens get bigger. We’ve also seen a lot of carriers deploy faster networks, and in many cases reduce prices. All of this makes video on a portable device possible.

So it’s not surprising that folk are consuming video on their devices in extraordinary quantities. In 2013 video accounted for about a third of global mobile data traffic, according to Ericsson. By 2019, it will account for more than half.

Driving this are deeper phenomena: a lot of the people with these devices and connections don’t have a lot of space to call their own: they live and commute through crowded sites, sleep in cramped flats or dorms. While I do worry about all the neck problems we’re going to see in the years to come, it’s hard to begrudge people carving out a little private space for themselves wherever they can find it.

In a way, I’m amazed that this revolution hasn’t been more intrusive and irksome. For all the folks who aren’t wearing a headset when they immerse themselves in streaming soap, there are thousands, millions of folks who are.

So I’ll desist from decrying these inconsiderate souls, and marvel at how quickly we’ve adopted these new ways of reclaiming some privacy out of public space. What’s astonishing is probably how seamless this transition has been – and how quiet our public lives have become.

The rebirth of RSS?

This is a column written for the BBC World Service (here’s the show.). Views are my own, and do not represent those of my employer, Thomson Reuters. 

I’ve been wrong about a lot of things, but I’ve been particularly wrong about something called RSS. RSS is a simple standard, dreamed up during the halcyon days of the social web when there were enough interesting people writing blogs for it to become somewhat onerous to drop in, as it were, to see whether their website had been updated. In other words, there was a critical mass of bloggers to take blogging into the mainstream, but there was no easy way for the medium to scale from the point of view of readers. It was like everyone printing their own newsletter but asking interested readers to drop by their office every so often on the off-chance that a new edition had been published. 

So RSS, short for really simple syndication, was born. Essentially it wrapped up all the blog posts into a feed, a bit like a wire service, and pumped it out to anyone who wanted to subscribe. It worked brilliantly, but contained within in the seeds of its own — and, I would argue, social media’s — demise. 

The problem was this: As RSS became more popular more blogs used it. And websites. Reuters has a dozen or so; the BBC too. Soon every website was expected to have at least one RSS feed. Software called Readers became the main way to digest and manage all these feeds, and they worked well. So well  that Google got into the game, and soon dominated it. But adding feeds was still a tad awkward, but really RSS’ demise was, in my view, because of something else. 

As social media grew — I’m talking the early years here, when blogging was the preferred medium of expression, and when a certain civility held sway — it contained essential contradictions. Not everyone could be a creator, because then no one would have time to read what everyone else had written. A few kings and queens of social media emerged, and while a long thin tail remained, for the most part blogging simply grew to become like what old media was. Lots of “Talent”, lots of unrecognised talent.

In its place grew a different kind of content that could be more easily commercialised — the breadcrumbs of daily life, the links we share — which we now think of as Facebook, Twitter, Kakaotalk and WhatsApp. Content has become shorter,  and while some of those tools initially used the RSS standard to deliver it, for the most part each became a walled garden, largely fenced off from each other and driven by the value in the data that we shared, wittingly or unwittingly. 

So back to RSS. RSS is still with us, though Google is canning their service soon (eds: July 1). I am a tad upset, having predicted RSS would sweep the world. I was wrong in that, failing to take into account that content, like everything else, will tend to cater to shorter attention spans and the economics of the marketplace. But I do have hope that RSS won’t die off entirely. There are glitzy tablet apps for those who like their reading to come with big pictures and swooshy noises when you turn the digital page. A host of companies, including, ironically the once undisputed kings of the walled garden, AOL, are launching readers for Google refugees. 

I for one still need to fix some problems with my own RSS habits — the tendency to acquire new ones, the failure to read the ones I do subscribe to — but at least some people somewhere thinks there’s life in a daily diet of serious, lengthy reading without lots of eye candy.