Category Archives: Technology

Interactivity Vs Freedom

‘Bzzzz’

That’s the sound of yet another social networking site crashing into the online community. Google Buzz was released earlier this month as the latest attempt by the San Franciscan technology giant to saturate the market. What originally started as a search engine has spawned a map service, a phone, a web browser, email and countless other gadgets to negotiate the internet. But the way in which Google has constructed Buzz is a fundamental misunderstanding of the unwritten rules of the web.

In early February, Gmail users were given the option to get the Google Buzz add on with minimum hassle. Those who clicked to accept were immediately directed to a screen showing their “followers” and contacts. Google say that the system aggregates information from who we email most, and instantly designates these people followers.

Scroll down to see a stream of posts by your followers, a la Twitter.

Startlingly, you have no memory of asking to follow these people. And you’d be right, because Google made that choice for you. “Big Deal” I see you shrug. The web has created a laissez-faire attitude towards privacy, but in this case Google has cut you out of the agreement. When we put personal information on Facebook or Twitter, for better or for worse, it’s at our own behest. Google taking email contacts and making them public is something altogether more sinister. For example, imagine you’re conducting some potentially controversial research via your Gmail account. Sign up to Buzz, and suddenly your contacts are laid bare for millions to see, with the possibility of undermining and even endangering your reputation. After waves of complaints, Google have now changed their policy, and quickly redesigned Buzz to stop this from happening.

I am loathe to sound like a luddite on this topic. I think Twitter is fantastic, the idea of convergence intriguing and blogging the perfect platform for free thought and expression. But is the web really free? Why is there so little competition amongst social media? No one uses MySpace anymore, a smattering use Twitter, with the majority of the herd plumping for Facebook.

If social networking is to be truly taken seriously then competition must be encouraged. Car manufacture, mobile phones and high street stores all compete for the consumer, so why not online? Because the main social media platforms hold a monopoly, it means that progress and improvements are at the discretion of a handful of CEO’s, dictating how we communicate with each other online.

Much is made of the so-called democracy of the web. In a column last year, I waxed lyrical about “an army of bloggers”, willing to blow apart the structures of traditional media. Now I’m not so sure. Much of the web still focuses on the marketing of a product. That product is you. When you tap in a phrase to Google, it automatically throws up a list of suggested search terms, based on the most popular results.

This auto suggestion not only restricts your own searches, but is telling you what’s best to search for, instead of vice versa. An advertising technique called Behavioural Targeting also plays a huge role in this. As you skip merrily around the internet, visiting a range of sites, data is collected regarding what you’ve been looking at. Consequently, future web advertising is targeted with you in mind, matching with a unique set of searches on your computer.

This targeted marketing simply goes against any notions of a democratic web. We are stratified into types of customer stemming from our likes, dislikes and hobbies. Advertising and marketing is based on selling a product to a particular demographic.

If you don’t fit with a particular type, you’ll be shunted into one. Love the Coen Brothers and books by J.D Salinger? Well, take a look at these novels, Amazon proclaim. Companies who work on this idea of targeting argue that by providing these suggestions, the customer is empowered, being directed toward the films that make them laugh most, and reading the books that entertain them. Instead, it restricts free choice. We end up consuming only a very small range of information, based on our supposed wants and needs.

So why aren’t we concerned about this? Because the reward is greater than the risk. We’re prepared to sacrifice individual power over convenience, take the good with the bad. Yes, the web can be a playground for extremist views, vicious scamming and other unsavoury material. But it’s also a global network, where people can communicate like never before.

That, I think, is good enough for most.

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iSlate … you mean you haven’t heard?

After months of bloggers foaming at the mouth, Apple have finally scheduled a press conference for January 27th, to unveil their “latest creation”. The iSlate, as it’s rumoured to be called, at it’s best could revolutionise the way we read newspapers and books, the way we interact with social media, and simultaneously save the dying newspaper industry.

While all this is unlikely, the iSlate still poses intriguing questions about where the future of publishing and media is headed. We’re increasingly dependent on having access to news 24 hours a day. The news and media junkies amongst us aren’t content with reading what happened yesterday in the morning paper. We want to get updates on world events as they unfold, with live analysis and documentation. The emergence of smartphones (see previous blog post) has further enabled us to have access to news wherever we are.
So, what can we expect from the iSlate? My estimate is a mix of ingenious social networking applications, the ability to read newspapers and books with remarkable clarity, a wide range of TV, music and film applications, as well as all the normal iPhone perks. The New York Times is currently on the cusp of announcing an online paywall akin to the Financial Times’, and there’s speculation that the announcement will coincide with Apple’s own unveiling. If publishers and newspapers sign deals with Apple, it’s sure to bring in some extra revenue to keep news corporations afloat for awhile longer as they try to figure out how to make journalism pay.
It’s interesting how Apple’s marketing team approach all upcoming releases. Everything is clandestine until the very last minute, with only select bits of information leaked to the public. As a result the rumour-mill goes into overdrive, pre-release hype reaches a zenith and Apple clean up at the sales. For all the abuse hurled Apple’s way (smug, overpriced, style over substance) they have a loyalty in their fanbase that other companies only dream of. One can’t imagine the same amount of column inches and middle-class chatter dedicated to the release of the latest version of Windows.
At the moment, Apple are reported to be in talks with several mobile phone operators in the UK to close a contract deal. It’s expected to offer the same kind of service that mobile networks offer for mobile broadband deals, offering discounted products at the expense of a long term contract. Price speculations are wavering around the $1000 mark, which means that we’re likely to get a price close to the basic Macbook here in the UK. Currently, I don’t see any point in owning a smartphone, a powerful laptop, and the iSlate. Nonetheless if you just like using your phone to just phone people (what a bizarre idea!) then I think the iSlate would be a worthwhile investment.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter what I think. We’ve got a week to go until the announcement, after which Steve Jobs’ plan on world domination will be complete. 

Still, better him than Simon Cowell.

Shiny Happy Phones

Currently, I’m looking for a new phone. My present mobile phone is languishing an inch away from suicide, much like John Travolta I imagine, it’s best days definitely in the past. So I’ve started feverishly researching, because frankly, any option that isn’t covered in the world of technology scares me.

Until a couple of years ago this would’ve been all academic to me. Technology enthusiasts seem to operate in a strange little world reserved also for the likes of model army fanatics. A trip to the Carphone Warehouse is equivalent to treading along the alleys of a rough part of town. I just want to get out as soon as possible. The veneer of the displays and the shiny nature of the employees both dampens and numbs my spirit. Any encroachment into this world both baffles and pressurises me, the outsider.

This all changed with the iPhone, and latterly, the newfound consumer popularity of Blackberry. The iPhone, far from being the best phone on offer now, certainly allowed us who weren’t knowledgeable about megapixels and social networking (otherwise known as talking, in the old tongue) to feel confident we had something in the palm of our hand that was both usable and powerful.

I’m enthusiastic about the iPhone. It’s an exquisite piece of design and put simply, it works. Blackberry’s popularity I’m not so sure of. Blackberry’s appeal with the business client was that it pushed email directly to the phone, on the move. Work emails could be addressed there and then, without the need for manually checking back to a web browser every so often. Add to that improved internet use, 3G, etc, and you have the makings of a smartphone. However, Blackberrys do none of the aforementioned better than any competitor. Web browsing is unimaginative, screens are small, and menus often cluttered. Take away the email and you’re left with an average, or at best “decent” phone. Why it’s taken flight amongst students and the under 25’s I have no idea. Do you really get any emails more important than “Uni Qlo sale now on! Viagra Pills Available Now! Your Amazon order has been dispatched”? The answer for must of us is no, and therefore negates the need for a Blackberry. My suspicion is that more and more people buy them as they see peers getting them, and so the popularity snowballs…

So back to my predicament. I’ll keep looking for a phone, now that there’s less trepidation in my step when approaching the mobile phone store. I’ll try not to stare blankly as a salesperson offers me the benefit of “3 months half price”. I’ll listen to his or hers dulcet tones. And eventually I’ll depart from said emporium with a shiny bit of plastic, which will be obsolete in 6 months. This is progress.