Tag Archives: Zimbabwe

The Inanities of the Visionary

I have a lot of respect for Doris Lessing but her recent remarks about the Internet reveal an ignorance and lack of understanding that is depressing and unbecoming of such a literary giant. Here’s what she said in her acceptance speech for the Nobel prize for literature:

We never thought to ask how will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging.

Frankly, I’m not sure Ms. Lessing knows what blogging is. And I am also one of those people who are concerned that the Internet is changing our society in ways we haven’t thought through. But it’s certainly not killing reading, learning and writing. In fact the opposite: the Internet is actually offering us so much information, and so much knowledge, the problem now is being able to judge what is important and what is not, and to retain a sense of mystery about the world.

If we can look down from heaven on any point of the globe via Google Earth, if we can look up any fact on Wikipedia, if we can communicate with any person in any country via voice for free via Skype, if we can listen to any radio station on the planet (and watch 100s of different tv channels) or read more or less any newspaper, if we can read tens of thousands of different books for free via Project Gutenberg, not to mention hundreds of thousands of excellent blogs, I can’t really see what is “inane” about the Internet.

Ms. Lessing is concerned that amidst all this online inanity, books will die. Of course books won’t die. Books as books (pbooks) won’t die. They come in a form that has proved perfect for their content. They will also be available as ebooks, too, and in forms we can’t yet imagine or create.

The point is that writing will continue. Online it may be shorter — but not always — and it may be interspersed with other media. But I would say that there are more people reading and writing now than any time in history. As Ms. Lessing herself says, according to The Guardian’s Maev Kennedy:

She contrasted her experiences in Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa, where people were hungry and clamouring for books even though they might have no food, where schools might not have a single book and a library might be a plank seat under a tree.

In a way the Internet is the solution to this kind of problem; in some ways it’s easier to bring knowledge to people and institutions via the Internet than by bringing them books. Or, failing that, bringing them the single biggest repository of free, community-based knowledge in the world: Wikipedia — printed out, or put on a CD-Rom and given via a refurbished $100 PC. I don’t think that the One Laptop Per Child idea is necessarily the correct way to go about it, but I do believe on the whole the Internet has brought people in the developing world closer to knowledge than any physical library ever has.

I’m sad that Ms. Lessing, who has been considered a social radical and has written some great science fiction, has not seen the Internet for what it is: a great leveller, redistributor and repository of information and knowledge.

( PS I just looked up dorislessing.com and dorislessing.co.uk: the first is up for auction (and sports a picture of a young woman in white with a white laptop in a white chair; definitely not Doris Lessing) and the second redirects to a radio and TV tuning website where you can tune in to dozens of radio and TV stations. Meanwhile anyone online wanting to know about her can find it on Wikipedia. It all seems somehow fitting.)

Nobel prize winner Lessing warns against ‘inane’ internet | Special Reports | Guardian Unlimited Books

Yahoo’s Sleazy 360°Turn?

All my posts these days seem to be rants. Phishing toolbars that don’t work. PR people peddling the same old tired story line. Sorry about that. I’m not really an angry person. But anyway, here’s another: Yahoo!, I fear, is playing fast and loose again with my privacy and the truth.

As have other folk recently, I received this morning an email from Yahoo! 360 Alerts saying

Jeremy W,
Your Yahoo! Messenger contact wants to add you as a Friend in Yahoo! 360°. As Yahoo! 360° friends, you and can stay in touch through blogs, photos and much more.
On Yahoo! 360°, you always control who sees your content. If you do not accept the invitation, nothing happens, and can only see your public content.
Accept or decline the invitation by going to:
http://360.yahoo.com/friends/waiting_room.html

Click on the link and you find a list of your Yahoo! messenger buddies who are using the Yahoo! 360° service (a sort of community thang.) You’re encouraged to add the person as a friend (although to its credit Yahoo! has the default option as ‘decide later.’ Click ‘submit’ and you’re taken to another page of content from some of your buddies who are using the service. There is no ‘Messenger contact’. There is no ‘invitation’. (Unless you think Yahoo is your buddy. My argument is that it ain’t.)  

Needless to say, it’s all a ruse to draw you further into the Yahoo! realm. Nothing wrong with that, except that

  • the original email is misleading. It makes it sound as if some specific person has invited you to join a specific service. The etiquette in such cases is to accept, or at least to see what the invitation is all about. So it’s deliberately misleading in that it’s leveraging a social aspect of the Internet to suck users further into a service. It’s not too much to call this spam.
  • I received this email because I supposedly subscribed to Yahoo! alerts. I can find no evidence for this despite an hour’s digging around the Yahoo universe.

Actually, this is just a thin end of a large wedge. Yahoo!, I fear, and others are moving back into the personal information harvesting business.

Here’s the sorry tale of what seems to be  happening: The email tells me I got the email because “You received this email because you subscribed to Yahoo! Alerts”, something I wasn’t aware of. I’m able to click on a link which allows me to ‘unsubscribe’ from this alert but that doesn’t tell me how I ended up on this alerts list and whether I’m going to get any more. The ‘alerts’ homepage doesn’t look familiar and it’s a tad suspicious that the alert was the only I ever signed up for. This all sounds very spammy to me: the illusion of being able to unsubscribe from something you never subscribed to, with no guarantee you won’t be subscribed to something else whenever the spammer, sorry, Yahoo, feels like it. 

So I tried to take a more structural approach, accepting the offer in the email

To change your communications preferences for other Yahoo! business lines, please visit your Marketing Preferences.

This link to Marketing Preferences in the email — and on pages such as the privacy page and the Marketing help page — isn’t a link to that page at all but a link to a page that, as it puts it:

Please visit your Yahoo! Account Information pages to view or edit your marketing communication preference.

(It may not mean anything, but the Web Archive, which archives much of the Internet, has no record of the Marketing Preferences page in question, http://subscribe.yahoo.com/showaccount, since April 28 2006. Could it be that Yahoo changed its policy then, and has not updated its own internal links since? )

If I click on the Account Information link I’m taken to a page of personal details where I’m asked to enter my postcode. In fact, if I enter no postcode I cannot go any further unless I choose an obscure country which Yahoo doesn’t know or care about:

Needless to say, the account information page is no help, and is in fact an effort to prise further data from you.

Once you’ve been forced to hoodwink Yahoo! into thinking you live in Zimbabwe, you’re taken to another account information page, nowhere in which is there any link to Marketing Preferences or anything else that sounds like it could let you opt out of the spurious 360 degree thang. By then I’m beginning to perspire from frustration.

Click on ‘Finished’ and, while half wishing it meant either you or the whole Yahoo! website was sucked into a black hole, you’re taken to your personalized homepage, which once again has no mention of marketing preferences. ( Digging around for help is no help, since there are only a bunch of questions there and no option to search for more.) Realizing children were born in less time than it was taking me to opt out of more Yahoo! alerts I gave up; I never could find the marketing preferences page.

In the end I find all this a bit misleading and unworthy of an institution like Yahoo!. Of course, this is nothing new: Back in 2002 users fumed over unilateral changes to Yahoo!’s marketing preferences page which reset the default for all users to opt in for spam. Seems like Yahoo might be again playing fast and loose in a bid to bolster sagging consumer interest.

The bottom line: Is what they’re doing in accordance with their privacy policy? I fear not. In their privacy page they say:

We reserve the right to send you certain communications relating to the Yahoo! service, such as service announcements, administrative messages and the Yahoo! Newsletter, that are considered part of your Yahoo! account, without offering you the opportunity to opt-out of receiving them.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think any of these cover getting spurious invitations from Yahoo! messenger buddies. I’m going to ask Yahoo to comment once the Thanksgiving turkey is done. Yahoo has some great services, but misleading me into signing up for another one is not the way to my heart.

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The Tilted Software Piracy Debate

Software piracy is a tricky topic, that requires some skepticism on the part of the reporter, though the media rarely show signs of that in their coverage. Here’s another example from last week’s Microsoft press conference in Indonesia, one of the prime culprits when it comes to counterfeit software:

JAKARTA (AFP) – Software piracy is costing the Indonesian economy billions of dollars each year and is stymieing the creation of a local information technology industry, a Microsoft representative said.

There is some truth to these statements, but it’s not really what Microsoft is interested in. First off, is it really the Indonesian economy that’s suffering because of piracy? One could argue the Indonesian economy is largely built on pirated software, as a kind of subsidy (like gasoline, which was until recently heavily subsidized.)

Secondly, when did Microsoft ever support the creation of a “local information technology industry”? That’s not their job — and I don’t blame them — but why hide behind this kind of argument? (Interestingly, there’s a lively Linux development community in Indonesia, but I’m not sure that’s what Microsoft is talking about here).

Some 87 percent of computer software on the market in Indonesia in 2005 was pirated, Microsoft Indonesia’s Irwan Tirtariyadi said citing a study from the Business Software Alliance, an organisation representing manufacturers.

That’s probably about right. It’s huge. It’s hard to find a company that doesn’t use pirated software. You can buy pretty much every program ever written, and I don’t know of a single person who uses a computer and who doesn’t buy pirated software. This is not to condone it, but I also only know of about half a dozen shops in a city of 12 million people which actually sell legal software. And forget buying online: Most companies won’t ship to Indonesia.

Lax law enforcement and widespread corruption contributed to Indonesia clocking in with the fifth highest rate of software counterfeiting in the world, he said, after Vietnam, Ukraine, China and Zimbabwe. “I’ve heard when police come to a shop (selling pirated software) it is closed. Basically information is leaking and this is an indication of the quality of law enforcement in action,” Tirtariyadi said.

This is part of the problem, it’s true. The malls are full of shops openly selling pirated software, often on the ground floor near the entrance, with policemen patrolling by. When a raid is planned, everyone knows about it, the shops quietly shut, cover their wares in tarpaulins and keep their heads down for a day or two. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the imminent raid is from the police or some Islamic group cracking down on the counterfeit DVD stores, which often sell software too.)

Tirtariyadi told a gathering of foreign reporters that if piracy dropped by just 10 percent, it would add 3.4 billion dollars to the economy, according to figures cited by the International Data Corporation.

Could someone please explain to me how that figure came about? To me it sounds suspiciously as if the argument is based on a false premise: That everyone who buys pirate software would pay full price for legitimate software if there was no alternative. Let me think about that: $3 for brand new software — often a collection of software — against $50–500 for the same thing, in a country where half the population earn less than $2 a day. I don’t think so.

Counterfeiting also inhibited an “inventive culture” and the development of a strong local information technology (IT) industry here, he said. “Some students like to create new software but three months later they find it’s pirated,” he said.

True, there is definitely an inhibiting factor. I wrote a year or so ago about a guy developing a machine translation program which wasn’t bad, but which required him to spend at least half his time developing anti-piracy features in the software. But I still think this is a disingenuous argument. Let’s face it: Microsoft (and Adobe, and all the other BSA big boys) are mainly interested in quashing piracy of their products and building up their market share; I don’t see much sign of Microsoft actually nurturing this “local IT industry”.

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, has less than 100 IT companies, whereas neighboring Singapore, with a far lower rate of piracy, has between 400 to 800 such companies, he added.

This is not a useful comparison. Singapore is a highly developed country and one of the world’s technology hub. Though, interestingly, it’s not really a locally creative industry, with the exception of a couple of big names.

All this makes me realise that Microsoft et al still don’t get it. Piracy is massive; they’re right. But you don’t deal with it by sponsoring misleading press conferences and well-telegraphed police raids.