Tag Archives: telecommunications

The End of Boorish Intrusion

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

One of the ironies about this new era of communications is that we’re a lot less communicative than we used to be.

Cellphones, laptops, iPhones, netbooks, smartphones, tablets, all put us in touching distance of each other. And yet, perversely, we use them as barriers to keep each other out.

Take the cellphone for example. Previously, not receiving a phone call was not really an option.

The phone would ring from down the hall, echoing through the corridors until dusty lights would go on, and the butler would shuffle his way towards it.

Of course, we were asked by the switchboard operator whether we’d take a call from Romford 230, but unless you were a crotchety old earl, or the person was calling during Gardener’s Question Time, you’d usually accept it.

Nowadays we generally know who it is who’s calling us: It tells us, on the screen of the phone. It’s called Caller ID. This enables us to decide whether or not to receive the call. And that’s where the rot sets in.

Some of us refuse to accept a call from a number we don’t recognize. It could be some weirdo, we think. Some of us will only take a call from a number we don’t recognize. We’re adventurous, or journalists sensing a scoop, or worried it may be grandma calling on the lam from Belize.

Some of us see a number from someone we know, and even then don’t take the call. Maybe we’re busy, or asleep, or watching Gardener’s Question Time.

The phone has changed from being a bit like the postman—a connection with the outside world, and not someone you usually turn away—to being just one of a dozen threads in our social web.

And, as with the other threads, we’ve been forced to develop a way to keep it from throttling us. Whereas offices would once be a constant buzz of ringing phones, now they’re more likely to be quieter places, interrupted only by the notification bells of SMS, twitter alerts or disconnecting peripherals.

I actually think this is a good thing.

I, for one, have long since rejected the phone as an unwelcome intrusion. I won’t take calls from people who haven’t texted me first to see whether I can talk, and those people who do insist on phoning me are either my mother or someone I don’t really care for.

What has happened is that all these communications devices have erased an era that will in the future seem very odd: I call it the first telecommunications age. It was when telephones were so unique that they dominated our world and forced us to adapt to them. We allowed them to intrude because most of us had no choice.

There was no other way to reach someone else instantaneously. Telegram was the only competitor.

Now we have a choice: We can choose to communicate by text, twitter, Facebook, Skype, instant message, email. Or not actually communicate directly at all: We can set up meetings via Outlook or Google Calendar, or share information without any preamble via delicious bookmarks or Google Reader.

Our age has decoupled the idea of communicating with the idea of sharing information. This is probably why we have such trouble knowing how to start a conversation in this new medium. When the communication channel between us is so permanent, when we know our friends are online because we can see them online, then communicating with them is not so much beginning a new conversation as picking up a new thread on one long one.

We have all come to understand this. We see each other online, we know everyone we’ll ever need to communicate with is just an @ sign away, so we all appreciate the tacit agreement that we don’t bother each other unless we really need to.

And then it’s with a short text message, or an instant message that pops up in a unobtrusive window.

In this world a ringing phone is a jarring intrusion, because it disrupts our flow, it ignores the social niceties we’ve built up to protect our permanent accessibility. It’s rude, boorish and inconsiderate.

Which was probably what people said about the introduction of the telephone. It’s only now that we realize they were right.

The Real, Sad Lesson of Burma 2007

Reuters

I fear another myth is in the offing: that Burma’s brief uprising last month was a tipping point in citizen journalism. Take this from Seth Mydans’ (an excellent journalist, by the way; I’m just choosing his piece because it’s in front of me) article in today’s IHT:

“For those of us who study the history of communication technology, this is of equal importance to the telegraph, which was the first medium that separated communications and transportation,” said Frank Moretti, executive director of the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University.

or this, from Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, quoted in the same piece:

“By shutting down the Internet they show themselves to be in the wrong, that they have something to hide,” he said. “On this front, even a closed-down blog is a powerful blog. Even silence on the Internet is a powerful message.”

There are a couple of things here. None convinces me either of the above is true.

First off, the first Burma uprising, back in 1988, was not conducted or repressed in a media blackout. Journalists were able to get in, and get out extraordinary, iconic images. One still sticks in my mind, and I wish I could find it: a photo splashed across the cover of Newsweek of an impossibly beautiful female demonstrator, blood soaking her longyi and her face a mask, as she was carried by comrades through the wet streets of Rangoon. The junta took its time in closing down the media, but 1988 was no different to 2007: when they did pull down the shutters, they did it completely.

It’s true that there have been a lot of images, videos and information finding its way out via both the Internet and sympathetic agencies and embassies. This is not greatly different to 1988. People had cameras back then, and were extremely inventive in how they got information out. I would get calls all the time in Bangkok from people smuggling out cassettes, photos and other material. When I visited Rangoon in 1990 the NLD headquarters was a mine of printed and other information of strikingly high quality.

Burma’s generals are cleverer than the image they portray. Back in 1988 they bided their time, allowing all those who opposed them to show themselves, from students and monks to government departments and even soldiers. Their parading in the streets, watched by spies and plain clothes officers, made it easy for them to purged later. The same thing, it seems, is happening today: As another story in the IHT on the same day by Thomas Fuller wrote, loudspeakers on trucks and helicopters are telling terrified citizens

“We have your pictures. We’re going to come and get you.”

They may lack the sophistication of a more civilized form of repression, but Burmese leaders understand the importance of photographs and videos as evidence, and I fear all those pictures posted on blogs, on YouTube, on television, in emails sent out of the country, will all resurface in show trials in months to come.

Xiao Qiang’s point about the blackout showing the world who these generals really are is to me naive. No one, I believe, was under any illusion about what these people were like, or the lengths they were prepared to go to preserve their position. The ‘democratic’ process that was underway was a fig-leaf as old as 1990, when the NLD won the election I witnessed. In other words, 17 years old.

More importantly, as far as technology is concerned, I don’t think that silence on the Internet is any different to a news blackout. It’s the most effective way for people to stop paying attention. Initially there’s outrage, then people shrug and move on. Soon Burma will be back to what it has been for the past 19 years — a peripheral story, a sad but forgotten piece of living history. Soon the Facebook groups and red-shirt days will fade.

I would love to think it was and will be different. I would love to think that technology could somehow pry open a regime whether it pulls the plug or not. But Burma has, in recent weeks and in recent years, actually shown the opposite: that it’s quite possible to seal a country off and to commit whatever atrocities you like and no amount of technology can prevent it.

By holding the recent uprising as an example of citizen journalism and a turning point in the age of telecommunications we not only risk misunderstanding its true lesson, but we also risk playing down the real story here: the individual bravery and longtime suffering of the Burmese people who had, for a few heady days, a flickering of hope that their nightmare was over.

IVR Cheat Sheets, And Dirty Tricks?

The IVR debate rumbles on. Could automated voice phone systems be better than just having a human answering the phone? Is it better to cheat the system? Paul English’s cheat sheet has appeared more than 100 TV and radio stations in a month. One company, Angel.com, has been fighting back, first with a pretty harsh broadside, but now appears to have replaced it (the page redirects) with a more measured ‘IVR Cheat Sheet for Businesses’, figuring, I guess, that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Anyway, I got an interesting take on it this morning as a comment appended to my blog from someone who identified herself as Kate, with a believable-looking email address. ‘She’ wrote:

Paul English makes some great points. I saw his piece on ABC World News Tonight and he’s bringing to light that most companies operating in the IVR space have shoddy systems. In my opinion, Angel.com is one of the few companies in the IVR industry trying to change things, however, with web-based next generation systems that link to CRM systems. Small businesses are finally able to create IVR systems (using a self service model if they wish) that are even more sophisticated than what large industry is using. My Dad uses the system for his online ebay store selling vintage posters and autographed baseballs. He’s able to provide far better customer service using Angel.com’s system than he would ever be able to provide on his own. The boon to small business of using these inexpensive, next generation IVR systems is getting lost in the debate.

That’s one well-written comment. I was impressed (as I imagine, would be Angel.com. Not only can they be linked with the little guy (and who wants to bash the little guy?) but they get to bash some of their competitors too). But not being cynical about the posting, I allowed it through and emailed ‘Kate’ with a request to interview her father. If true, it’s a valid point and one to explore.

What I didn’t expect was for the email to bounce. Not that unusual, especially with comment spam, but not when the given name (‘Kate’) jibes with the email address (‘katerobins@yahoo.com’). Why go to the trouble of putting a believable fake email address, especially when you presumably would be quite happy if someone followed up and got a bit of publicity for your eBay-selling dad? Baffled, I checked the IP address where the comment came from: a Verizon address in Washington DC. Not, coincidentally, that far from Angel.com HQ in McLean, Virginia.

I wish I could say my sleuthing took me further. But I could find no Kate Robins in the phone book, no sign of someone with that Yahoo address on Google, or anyone on eBay who might be her dad (not that surprising; it’s a big place). I’ll keep looking, but if anyone knows Kate Robins, her dad, or could shed any light on this, I’d love to hear from them. I’d hate to think that my blog is being used by anonymous shills to do damage limitation exercises for the IVR/CRM industry. On the other hand, if Kate does exist and just mistyped her email address, I’d love to follow up the angle she suggests.

Spanish Mules

Four Spanish ‘mules’ have apparently been arrested in Valladolid, according to an AFP report: Four face charges over phishing fraud :

Four people face charges in Spain after police uncovered an internet banking fraud believed to be conducted by computer experts in Eastern Europe.

However, the four who face charges in Valladolid, in northern Spain, were seen as merely pawns in the scam.

They had been recruited via the internet for “work at home” by “employers” protected by the anonymity of the internet and living in countries “with a weak level of international police and judicial cooperation”, Spanish police said on Wednesday.

The scam was conducted by “people from different countries, mainly Eastern Europe” who were well qualified in computer science and foreign languages, they said.

The recruits were offered jobs as intermediaries in “international money transfers” with remuneration in the form of a percentage of the transfers.

Nothing much surprising in there, but shows the same tactics are being used.
 

VoIP and 911

An interesting case in Texas that highlights the weak spot in the whole VoIP thing:  Net Phone Firm Vonage Sued Over 911 Access, reports the LA Times:

As two gunmen forced their way into her Houston home Feb. 2, Sosamma John yelled to her daughter, Joyce, to call the police. Joyce ran upstairs, grabbed the phone and dialed 911. Instead of getting a police dispatcher, the frantic teen got a recording telling her that 911 wasn’t available from the family’s phone.
Joyce escaped the house to call from a neighbor’s — but not before the gunmen had shot her parents and fled.

On Tuesday, the state of Texas sued Vonage Holdings Corp., the nation’s largest Internet-based phone service provider, for allegedly failing to make clear that 911 calls weren’t included in a basic subscription.

The lawsuit highlights a challenge for the exploding business of Internet-based telephone service: Consumers attracted by the cheap rates may be giving up full access to emergency operators.

It also shows Internet phone companies and federal regulators, who are taking a hands-off approach to so-called voice over Internet protocol service, that state authorities are willing to step in with consumer-protection laws at their disposal.

It’s hard to imagine that VoIP services couldn’t provide some sort of emergency access, so perhaps this might be a blip. Or else it’s the thin end of a regulatory wedge that makes the whole cheap phone call thing a flash in the pan.

BT Brings Broadband To ‘Remote’ Milton Keynes

I couldn’t help passing this one on, though I don’t mean to mock either Milton Keynes, a charming artificial town in England, or Online Journalism, a very worthy project of the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review.

Online Journalism today picks up a piece from the BBC about how British Telecom is trying to extend broadband connections across the country. (I’ve written about this before after visiting a village in Northamptonshire, which got around the problem of BT’s glacial broadband program by building their own Wifi network.)

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the BBC article talked about extending ADSL reach from its present range from a broadband-enabled exchange from 6 km to 10. Testing site: Milton Keynes, a town that could not be more in the middle of England since that was why it was built there a few decades back. It’s a garden city, and its sprawling layout and majestic avenues make it the butt of jokes, and more importantly, broadband a hotbutton issue. not But remote it’s not: An hour from London, an hour from Birmingham, an hour from more or less everywhere.

Unfortunately Online Journalism got the wrong end of the stick and wrote about “Remote towns in U.K. to get broadband service: Soon, remote areas in the U.K. will have broadband Internet access, reports the BBC News. BT, the leading ISP in the U.K., is currently running a test in the remote town of Milton Keynes in hopes of establishing broadband service for the area. The town was chosen because 18% of residents experience great frustration over Internet access, a higher percentage than in most U.K. towns due to the city’s remote location.”

I don’t know whether Milton Keynesians are going to be happy about this. The Shetlands are remote. The Scilly Isles, maybe. Milton Keynes? No.

This week’s column – Snarf

This week’s Loose Wire column is about Bluetooth security:

 Next time you’re carrying your whiz-bang Bluetooth phone watch out: Serious flaws mean your contact numbers and other info stored in the phone could be stolen without you even knowing it. This latest threat is called Bluesnarfing.  

Full text at the Far Eastern Economic Review (subscription required, trial available) or at WSJ.com (subscription required). Old columns at feer.com here.

For readers looking for more resources on snarfing, check out the snarf page on Loose Wire Cache.

What Will Keep The Wi-Fi Customer Satisfied?

Wi-Fi Networking News talks about hotspots, and how providers are having to fight to keep their customers in a competitive market. Hotspot operators who charge, they say, are going to have to offer something unique beside Internet access if they want to attract customers. “Higher bandwidth than business-DSL or T-1 may have to be part of it.”

I guess so. Most Wi-Fi spots are mere loss-leaders, ways to get people into your establishment and keep them there. Folk who charge may have provide other services to go with it: nice work environments, free coffee, printers — or else be in places where there’s no competition, like truckstops.

News: Broadband Isn’t About Speed

 British users are finding broadband isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, if it means confronting spam and other detritus of the Internet. According to a report by the iSociety project at The Work Foundation to be launched today:  ”Ordinary people are promised that broadband makes the internet better; in fact it sometimes leads to a disaster on the desktop which makes people consider stopping using the net altogether.”
 
Broadband providers and the industry as a whole must, the report says, “stop pouring hundreds of millions of pounds down the drain developing “rich media content” which doesn’t excite their customers” and start providing support. The report also makes another interesting point: the always-on Internet is not about ‘adoption’ — how many people get online — it’s about ‘absorption’ — about how people online actually get into the whole thing and find useful things online to read or do, or to communicate with others.