Category Archives: Observations

Requiem for Networks: Ken Hollings on BBC Radio 3 every night this week

I’ve just finished listening to the first in a series of five audio essays by writer and broadcaster Ken Hollings being aired this week on BBC Radio 3, collectively entitled “Requiem for Networks”. Ken is truly one of the most thought-provoking, out-there thinkers on technology and the human condition I have ever come across. He makes Clay Shirky look like a broken automaton.

Minotaur and labyrinth, courtesy of Wikipedia

The fifteen minute essays are being broadcast at 11pm every night this week. Last night’s was “Welcome to the Labyrinth“, a theme Ken and I discussed in June last year on his regular Resonance 104.4 show, Hollingsville. Go listen.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Spotted! Me on Resonance 104.4 FM tonight, interviewing Evgeny Morozov

Image of radio studio Update: The interview is now available for download.


For the next three months, I’ll be filling in for Rebecca Watson, hosting one of my favourite radio shows, Little Atoms on Resonance 104.4FM. This evening at 7pm the first of my co-hosting efforts will be broadcast. You can listen online or download the podcast (I’ll update this post when that goes out, or subscribe via iTunes here) .

Little Atoms rocks. Ever since Neil Denny asked me to fill in for Rebecca at the end of last year, I’ve been really excited about this first show, interviewing author of The Net Delusion Evgeny Morozov. Evgeny is a sharp thinker with a great sense of humour, he writes brilliantly about all the issues I care about, and his accent (Evgeny was born in Belarus) is radio heaven. We pre-recorded the interview on Wednesday this week, ready to go live tonight. But all did not go to plan.

Picture the scene. It’s half an hour before the recording is due to start and I’m standing outside the gates to the Resonance studios. It’s cold. Nobody inside the studios is answering the doorbell. Perhaps, I think, nobody is inside the studios. I get a text from my co-host Padraig Reidy saying he’s running late – very late – thanks to a Tube fail on the Northern line. I may have to do this one on my own. It’s at this moment that Evgeny pulls up in a taxi with his publicist.

Evgeny MorozovIf I sound a little shaken at the beginning of the recording, then that’s my excuse. Of course it all worked out in the end, thanks partly to Annie the producer (thanks, Annie!) and mostly to Evgeny’s patience and kindness.

I’m not sure Evgeny would welcome me outing him as a thoroughly nice chap given his public image as the scourge of cyber-utopians. In the 30 minute interview, we discuss the flawed metaphors, shoddy evidence and general naivety that has contributed to the US State Department’s Internet Freedom agenda, the hypocrisy of that agenda as revealed by Wikileaks, and the danger that agenda poses to citizens of autocratic regimes everywhere. Go listen.

Image credits: Ross Murray@Flickr (radio studio) oso@Flickr (Evgeny)

Help raise £20K in 20 days for Just Do It, an exciting new CC film about climate change activism

One of the last things I did before I quit being ED of ORG was to visit Brussels to implore MEPs not to extend copyright term in sound recordings. The hearing was dominated by members of the Green grouping. I remember one of them commenting after the speech that the various extensions to copyright law – both in term and in scope – that Brussels has been asked to consider over the years were contributing to a sort of pollution that would eventually damage the cultural landscape irrevocably. It was a powerful metaphor, and one which has stuck with me.

For the past year I’ve been helping, in a very modest way, to advise the talented team behind Just Do It, a documentary about climate change activists, their cause and the way they go about advocating for it. Emily James, the Director of the film, is a passionate and inspiring film-maker, whose past credits include (as writer/producer/director) The Luckiest Nut in the World, (as producer/director) The Battle for Broadway Market and (as Executive Producer) The Age of Stupid. Just Do It is currently in post-production: once finished it will be released Creative Commons NC ND. Which, of course, is excellent news.

Emily tells me that as she’s gone around the country explaining what she’s up to (this woman is seriously tireless), she’s often had to give her climate-conscious audience a primer in Creative Commons, because they’ve never heard of it. She says that once they hear about Creative Commons, though, they love the idea, and I have to say I’m not surprised. Like the planet, the sum of human knowledge is a common resource, a public good, and yet much like free market capitalism does for natural resources, the copyright system is getting worse and worse at protecting the public good aspects of human knowledge. Libraries find it increasingly difficult to archive our cultural heritage, creators find it increasingly difficult to use the signs and symbols around them to tell stories to the rest of us without bumping into a grumpy lawyer from a global media corporation.

Given this similarity, what’s even more interesting is the way that the establishment goes into lockdown when IP reform campaigners and climate change advocates alike try and voice their concerns. We’ve just seen the final round of the secret Anit-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement wind down in Tokyo. The result is less worrying than everybody feared – thanks to the excellent work of KEI and La Quadrature du Net at smoking out those rats. But what’s really frightening is that democratic governments ever thought it was okay to make law like this, given that last time I checked institutions like WIPO, that have worked hard to establish a voice for civil society in the small matter of the enclosure of the mind, are still alive, well, and providing excellent meeting facilities in Geneva. Similarly, part of the story of Just Do It is about the measures law enforcement have taken to silence those activists willing to devote their lives to saving the planet for all of us, often using legislation meant to combat terrorism.

So three cheers for Just Do It. Although I thought my begging days were over once I’d left ORG, it seems that I’ve got one last puff left in me, so here goes. The team are trying to raise £20,000 towards finishing the film and Lush cosmetics will match anything you donate in the next 20 days. So I’m coming over all Charles Satchi and donating £150 today. I hope you will too – visit this page to find out why they’re crowdsourcing funding, what they’ll spend the money on and what privileges you get when you become such an esteemed patron of the arts. Go on, get off your arse and change the world!

Echoes of Phorm in mobile phone hacking story

Back when the Open Rights Group was campaigning against the targeted advertising company Phorm, one of the discoveries we made was that UK citizens had very few avenues of redress when private companies intercept their communications illegally. The Information Commissioner only regulates data processing (and of course, FOI), and not communications interception. And the Interception of Communications Commissioner is only set up to regulate the interception activities of public authorities, (law enforcement, etc). If you suspect your communications are being intercepted by someone on the make, you either have to put up with it, or persuade the CPS to prosecute.

So I’ve been following the current storm around the illegal “hacking” of MPs’ and others’ mobile phones with some interest. Although it’s not clear to me what this hacking actually consisted of, and whether it could be classed as an interception, it certainly isn’t a matter for the Information Commissioner. Which might explain why invocations of the ICO have gradually disappeared from the rhetoric surrounding possible avenues of redress for those affected.

Of course, if you’re an MP and your communications get intercepted by a private company, you have it in your power to change the law so that private individuals such as yourself can be better protected in the future. Then again, it’s probably much more expedient to the use the resources bestowed on you by the tax-paying public to cover your own arse and leave it at that.

Hacks and hacking

I’m saving up the third book in Stieg Larsson’s Milennium Trilogy for my beach holiday in Ibiza next week. It’s difficult. The first two were so compelling that I can hardly wait to pick up the third – and last (Larsson died in 2004, before he saw the strange fruits of his imagination garner international acclaim). In being addicted to his characters, I’m not special. On my journey to Boston last week there was a person reading one of the series sitting next to me on the airplane on both flights. But I think the books have an even bigger hold on me because their two main characters are a computer hacker and an investigative journalist.

Here’s the trailer for the film:

When I return from Ibiza, I’ll be joining the good folk at the UK Online News Association for a conversation about “hacks and hacking”. The hacks we’ll be talking about are not computer exploits performed by script kiddies, but living, breathing hacks, ie journalists. And the hackers we’ll be discussing are not the blackhat/grayhat masters of subterfuge cut from Lisbeth Salander’s cloth, but the data mashers and techie geeks who get their thrills from analysing and visualising official information. That’s right, folks, we’ll be talking data-driven journalism.

Rufus Pollock, co-founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation and the man without whom no journalist could have made sense of the recently released Treasury database on government spending COINS, will also be there. Here’s the blurb:

UK MPs expenses was one of the biggest stories of 2009 that has continued to be felt well into 2010. It was at its heart a story of detail, data and piecing information together and is just one example of how developers and journalists are working together.

What does this mean for the future of journalism and news gathering? ONA UK invites you to an evening exploring Hacks & Hacking with:

Dr. Rufus Pollock – Mead Fellow in Economics at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge and a Director of the Open Knowledge Foundation which he co-founded in 2004. He has worked extensively, as a scholar, coder and activist on the technological, social and legal issues surrounding access and sharing of knowledge. Under his lead Open Knowledge Foundation recently launched Where Does My Money Go to analyse and visualise UK public spending.

Becky Hogge – journalist and writer on information politics, human rights and technology. Becky is former managing editor of OpenDemocracy during which time she helped establish the China environment website chinadialogue.net. Becky sits on the Advisory Councils of the Foundation for Information Policy Research and the Open Rights Group.

Chaired by Kathryn Corrick

Reserve your place here.

Networks: Welcome to the Labyrinth

Me at the Resonance studios

Nervous, moi?

Last month, as the nation went to the polls, I went to the Resonance 104.4 FM studios to record an hour’s worth of live, unscripted chat with the marvelous Ken Hollings. Each week, Hollings gathers ne’er-do-wells like myself to discuss the future viewed from the past, analysing the techno-dreams of our ancestors from the safety of a lost pavilion in “Hollingsville” – his putative abandoned and overgrown World Fair.

The show can be streamed or downloaded, and it includes musical interludes from Richard H. Kirk.

The week I went in the topic was Networks. We talked about Norbert Wiener, about Skinnerism, about labyrinths, and about the balls of string that guide us through them. We discussed utopias and dystopias, and wondered whether Facebook made us “compete as slaves” as Wiener warned we must if we entered into the wrong relationship with our machines. We talked about “Homesteading the Noosphere”, about Stewart Brand and John Perry Barlow’s Wild West fantasies, and about the FBI, 9/11 and the Saudi Arabian telephone network the day the first Gulf War started.

All in all, it was as far away from my appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme as a piece of radio could ever get, and although I was nervous when I went into the studio (not least because our fellow interlocutor, Alfie Dennen, had been laid low at the last minute by a ravaging tooth complaint), I ended up truly loving it.

And if you listen carefully, you should be able to guess the details of the project I’m working on at the moment. Of which more anon…

Google in China, Pt. 3

I’m enjoying some of the early comment on Google’s announcement that it no longer intends to censor google.cn. When Google first went into China back in 2006, I predicted that both Chinese-sponsored cybercrime and user privacy were likely to feature in future twists in the tale of Google in China. The company appears to be performing much better than the subtext of this piece implied it would. So hats off, I guess.

One thing I’d like to know is what’s happened to Google’s 2.4% stake in Baidu – the search engine with majority market share in China – in the intervening years since I wrote this piece. Answers sent over https to my gmail account, please!