A dear friend of mine told me one day after the recent Terror attacks in Paris that a friend of her brother has just died, by doing nothing else but going to see a concert. When she told, me I felt that cold grip of terror. I was mortified, and I’m only slowly finding words right now, none of which are suitable to describe that feeling. And first and foremost, such terror has to be condemned, such heinous acts of hatred can never be tolerated. My heart sank, for worry about my friend – and for fear of what might be to come. I think that it is paramount now to not draw what I see as the wrong conclusions – sometimes, the acts of a very very few decide the lives of the many, and I think those very few should be those chosen by the people to represent them. A state should not be held hostage by terrorists, and it should not hold it’s people hostage because of terrorists either. This post, then, is about #refugeeswelcome, why I think it makes sense and what I see as our role within a democratic system.
Preservation vs. Integration
If we as Europeans want to preserve what is good about our culture we should probably show how and why it is worthy of such preservation, as there are a great many good things about it. Preservation, from my point of view, is about keeping things with no regard whether that something is good or can become better if changed, no matter what the cost of preserving it is. I think that, much like at every other moment of our lives we now again have a chance to do things better, to make our own lives and those of the people we care about better. But this can only happen when we do not give in to fear.
But why #refugeeswelcome still?
Slamming doors into people’s faces might lead to them not wanting to enter the house, but one has to presume that it could just as well also make them hate not just the door, but also the house and quite possibly everyone in it. This then, quite comprehensibly, becomes a fertile ground for the desire to terrorise those who, to the person wanting to get in, will be seen as “hating them in the first place. This is a hatred for no reason obvious to those who are fleeing a place where losing those they love is not a faraway thing but cold reality or even just aspiring a better life. This is why I think presenting oneself as “harsh” and “unattractive” (which is the current strategy of Austrians Minister for internal affairs) seems to me like a fairly short-sighted approach. Building fences, creating walls and slamming doors into faces probably won’t do much to create a desire to get to know and appropriate a culture that in some respects will certainly be different to that the refugee (or, if you want to talk about two separate issues at the same time, migrant-for-whatever-reason). I personally often find it rather hard to follow procedures that seem to me arbitrary and unnecessary, but generally once I understand the why and the how of doing something differently, it always became much easier to do in that different way: this is then where I see the leverage point leading to successful Integration, and in turn, the continuing development of our European Culture and Values.
of course you might now say,
“well roared, lion, but how do we do that?”
I’ve recently seen the political discourse in Austria become quite a bit more like the one I encounter here in the UK – where often, the political “enemy” is dehumanised, demonised even, and insulted. Rather than having a discussion using facts and information about issues, it seems viable to attack the persons representing these issues, rather than talking about what they stand for. This, in turn, might then lead to the people going away (but does it really?) but the issue still persists, thus in the end it might only be the face that is changing.
I myself have found it rather hard to change someone’s mind after intentionally insulting them and their intellect, hence I try not to do so – we all make our own decisions, judgements and conclusions based on what information we have at our disposal at particular, situated points. I therefore like to think of the world as consisting of resonable actors with much the same ability to think and reflect as I do. And since I’ve found it hard to reflect and think “rationally” when emotions come into play, I think it is probably the same for others. So why, when I want other people to change their behaviours, would I think I’ll change their mind by insulting them? This is something I don’t really understand: Any discussion becomes charged with emotion, and a critical reflection of one’s personal stance becomes impossible from the get-go. I think there is very little to be gained in walking this path.
“You never know till you try to reach them how accessible men are; but you must approach each man by the right door.”- Henry Ward Beecher
In this way, I think a better approach is to try and assume that we are all reasonable people, after all the person we are talking to came to her or his conclusion and perspective in much the same ways as we did: by talking about things with other people, by reading and watching media (newspapers, TV series, movies), by going to school. Let’s think about occasions that made us change our minds, and then have a chat on that basis. Let’s try and find what we can agree on, and build from there – this, I’ve found, works the best. And you don’t have to do this every single time, I mean obviously the more the better, but every little bit helps. This might be what Tolkien meant when he let Gandalf say “I’ve found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.”
Because it can be you who starts changing the world, in the things you do and in the ways you do them. And carry them over into how we talk to each other, carry them onto the streets, into the pubs, onto Facebook and into the Wirtshaus. It is there where we have to start – Austria and the European Union both are democracies, and as such every single citizen has a way to influence that power, and that is not just done by voting: you can send messages to those representing you, those you agree with and those you disagree with, and you might be surprised to find them actually responding! I mean, after all, they’re people just like you, like me, like any other human being. A little kindness when they did something you think is worth supporting or a polite notice telling them why what they’re doing is uncool and maybe even how you think it could be done better might go a long way. And alternatively, if you don’t like what is available at all, then you can go and create your own alternative and gather support for that. You can do that.
Post Scriptum – a few thoughts that crossed my mind during and after writing this post:
Judging from my own experience as an Austrian living in the UK, I think that by now I’ve come to realise quite a lot about the UK, and how it works, what I deem its good and its bad sides to be. But, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier, possibly a bit confusing post, I’m also now quite a bit more sensitive to what I like about my own home country and its people – but also how it could be different, and how it could be better for everyone.
Different organisations serve different purpose, that is a good thing and should be preserved: nations, states and religions are of course intermingled, and every one of us is part of a great many such categories. I think we would not be doing ourselves a favour by making one into the other (when a company fails, the people can find other companies to work in – but virtually all scenarios of when states failed seem much more grim…)
much along the same line of thought, I think it would be a treacherous mistake to think that any organisation attaching a religious label to itself (such as IS) is interchangeably representative of what that faith and belief is as a practical matter – after all, for us humans, the symbols we use (such as words in everyday language, or langue) get their meaning through human action and interaction. This leads to two effects: 1) the meaning everyone of us attaches to a symbol changes ever so slightly whenever we use it and 2) the symbol’s meaning is thus influenced by when, where, how, by whom and to who the symbol is summoned. (for lack of an actual example in data publishable on my blog, I had to resort to theory – in case you’re interested, I recommend reading the following: Blumer, Herbert (1969): Symbolic Interactionism. Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.)
We’ve recently been asked to write about our research highlights as part of the Nottingham University’s Horizon CDT (Centre for Doctoral Training) process, which I took as an opportunity to explain in simple words what I’ve done so far, what I’m doing now and what I aim to do in the future!
If you’re curious about all these questions, click here!
And if you have more questions, contact me 🙂
Ryan Ackroyd, a member of LulzSec who has done time in prison for his hacking activities, held a talk yesterday at Sheffield Hallam University – and it was a good talk indeed!
What follows here now is what me and a friend of of mine discussed on the way back to Nottingham afterwards, and the TL;DR (too long, didn’t read, so this is the summary:) can be subsumed in a quote from the talk (but knowingly taken out of context here): “Data Security is non-existent.”
Ryan was part of the LulzSec team, a Hacktivist splinter group of Anonymous most well known for attacking and downing major websites, such as Paypal etc. in the wake of Private Manning’s leaks to WikiLeaks.
One of the main points of Ryan’s Talk was focussed on how simple some of the vulnerabilities found in today’s software are – especially SQL Injection attacks (where web applications and web sites don’t check the text (or other content) that users are feeding them, which allows attackers to run their own programs on your computer).
Protecting yourself from this kind of attack is actually very simple, and it’s really surprising how many of the sites we use daily don’t actually check for it.
Why don’t they do it, you ask? Well, there’s a great many excuses not to program in a safe way, the most common one is “this needs to work, and it needs to be working soon”.
And this is what I wanted to talk about. In industry, data security is sometimes seen as something of a “necessary evil”, because it is something that will not earn you money, but protects you from losing it. Start-ups in the digital economy are usually focussed on getting something demonstrable (it’s even called the “minimum viable product”) running quickly, deploy it early, then keeping their ears to the ground to find out what users like and dislike about the product, and using that to improve the idea you started off with. And that is one thing of concern here: when someone manages to infiltrate your digital home (a.k.a. Server, or Facebook account, or Google search history), you usually don’t see shards of broken glass on the floor, and all of your assets will (usually) still be there – it’s just that they’re somewhere else as well.
Data Security, as well as privacy then, is sometimes a conscious decision in the trade-off between how much it costs to keep something safe versus the “worst-case scenario/prediction” of how much it would cost if data was to be stolen.
Now, something I find quite interesting in this topic is the original meaning of the word “data” – it stems form the Latin word “datum”, and means “something given”.
And in my opinion, this is how data should be treated: as something that is given to us who develop and maintain platforms – a present from someone else. However mundane, presents like these hold meaning, and also, hopefully, instill a sense of responsibility for that which you were given. In other words, leaning on Voltaire’s (and also, later on, Peter Parker’s uncle Ben): “With Big Data comes Big Responsibility”. And that responsibility is, inevitably, on us, the developers and those designing and creating systems.
Now, that is somewhat of a bombshell, and I know that to some this kind of radical stance might seem a bit overzealous, but I’m trying to be honest here. I think everyone using computer systems deserves to know this is the case right now, and most importantly software developers need to be aware that they need to keep their windows closed (as in: do at least some security proofing of your own servers -developers, please sanitise all your input interfaces, try to make the easy attacks harder (as in “use penetration-testing tools on your own services” and “get friendly others to try and penetrate your services”) and, for god’s sake: everyone, please use (and don’t re-use) safe passwords.)
This way, even though it still is the wild, wild west out there, we at least get to live!
And as always, please let me know what you think about this by leaving a comment below.
good thing it was summer.
school was having a break, students enjoyed the weather (if and when it indeed was enjoyable) and farmers were busy bringing in this year’s harvest.
somewhere in between all these, I was doing bits of everything – helping out at my parents farm, hiking up lots of mountains and slowly getting my research on the way. and do even more hiking in the beautiful alps.
However, something has caught my eye recently:
Open schools, forest kindergartens, waldorf and montessori schools are examples for this change in the school world. they allow kids to discover the world guided by their interests, with or without control, but with full responsibility for their progress. models like these naturally depend a lot on the teacher (this is not unique to this model, but true for all forms of education), which brings us to the next quote in this post: “there is no need to educate our kids. these idiots just follow our example anyway”.
So one important fact to keep in mind is that the best way to lead is to lead by example. After all, this is how humans learn: we see how something works and then we repeat it… Or do we? I remember a paper that concluded in stating that if we learn from experts, we are able to apply the more abstract concepts in different but similar situations – so-called transferable knowledge/skills.
If learnings happen amongst peers (communities of practice? i really need to read more about those..), or if you gather people who face a certain challenge and let them learn from each other, they quickly become capable of solving this exact problem all in the same way; however, if the challenge is altered slightly, success rates are dropping.
I wonder whether this also extends to self-help groups (possibly even groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous). Furthermore, how does this apply to Maker Communities? Is it experts vs. novices, or is it communities of peers? I guess it’s probably bits of both…
So a few weeks ago I attended a public discussion on the future of art, culture and science in rural areas. The people invited to the podium included Xenia Hausner, a distinguished artist and one of the organisers of the summer academy in traunkirchen, Anton Zeilinger, distinguished physicist, internationally known for his discovery of instantaneus transmission of information, or “beaming”, and Martin Hollinetz, the founder of the open technology labs OTELO.
The OTELO educational workshop types and the Traunkirchen summer academies share some characteristics (though they are aimed at different audiences, and the processes of their inception worked very differently), in OTELO being a bottom-up approach based on individual interests of local community members, and the others taking a rather classical seminar style. Both of these apoproaches in combination would, in my opinion, work very well together…
OTELO and frag den freak
The reason why I’m thinking about these things is because of my own work in the open technology labs OTELO.
My role as the organiser of workshops at the open technology enabled me to create a format called “Frag den Freak” (no, not first-person-shooter fragging, it just means ask-a-freak). The goal here is to bring experts together with complete newbies and have questions answered that laypeople do ask themselves but usually can’t find answers to themselves.
This has been received exceptionally well and has expanded to topics such as bakery, acoustics in the household, to the design of functional clothing – and many more to come!
Find anything in here you don’t agree with?
Want to know more about the OTELOs?
let me know!
I’ve organised a RCUK Digital Economy CDT Network- funded workshop leaning on the principles of a barCamp for researchers across the UK who are interested in making/crafts/hacking and maker culture on the day before MakerFaire UK 2014 last weekend (if you want more information about it, either ask me or check out the webpage), and the feedback I’ve received was quite good – My aim for this workshop was to get a feel of what “maker research” in the UK is focussing on and what the topics of interest from an academic perspective are, and I do think that goal has been achieved, thanks to everyone who participated and shared their thoughts on the subject!
We’ve had quite a lively mix of participants, from hardware hackers to documentary makers, creative communities such as the comic maker scene to crowdsourcing topics, textile crafters and many many more.
The entire event was organised in a very ad-hoc manner, with only two weeks time from registration opening to the event happening, the turnout turned out to be very good, and we’re going to keep the conversations we’ve started alive, so I’m as happy as I can possibly be!
MakerFaire itself was awesome too, had good chats with awesome folks, among those the EPIK project, who are enabling kids to learn programming in Java by developing mods for Minecraft, and the always-inspiring Nottingham Hackspace as well as the Hackspace Foundation folks, who are trying to connect all hackspaces across the UK to share knowledge within these.
A big thank you for everyone involved in making this happen, especially David Green and the Digital Interaction Group at Newcastle University’s Culture Lab, who provided us with their workshop area to set the proper scene for our gathering!
[edit: the RCUK Digital Economy Network now has its own website, therefore I updated the link]
I’ve received and read a lot of advice on what is important when doing a PhD since I’m here at Nottingham University, which is why I’ve compiled it into a list to maybe help you in case you’re struggling with your PhD (if you don’t know what a PhD is, here’s a good explanation).
Some of it is conflicting with one another, and the most important thing to remember is probably that every PhD is unique, so not all of the advice on it applies to everyone.
It’s not ordered in any way, at most it is grouped – but most importantly, some advice is missing, and this is why I’ve put it up here to discuss about it – I’d really appreciate your feedback and thoughts about how to extend this list!
Here’s the link to the document: the (probably never complete) list of PhD advice I’ve received
Let me hear your opinion!
Is it ethical to push older people into an unsafe environment?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I think the internet can often be compared to another era in history, where humans have gone into a world where laws and, really, societal norms, were not fully established or in the process of forming themselves. I’ve compiled my thoughts in the following essay, and I would be very interested in what you, dear reader, think about this!
world wide web
wild, wild, west?
Many of the strategies people use and problems they face through the Internet today can be compared to the challenges of the settlers in the North American Wild West Era from the early 17th century onwards, where a vast new continent lured explorers with the promise of gold and immense riches, just there for the taking – but reality turned out to be quite different. This age will serve as the backdrop against which we will undertake our own exploration of the state of the Internet and we will attempt to find out what enables older people to learn its’ ways.
The main goal of this essay is therefore to reflect on the question of how we can support the transition of the people on the borders of society, and of those especially the elderly, into the (to them) new and potentially hostile Internet environment. In order to do this effectively, we have to take a multitude of involved factors into account. This includes the people themselves, including their motivation, their abilities, the way that they learn and environments that could support them on their trek to settle in the great plains of the internet. Then we will move towards what the Internet actually is, and the factors that make it such a dangerous place to be in, as everyone leaves a trace of data that could be misused – whether one actually knows what one is doing or not.
Introduction: leaving the old world
The 21st century has witnessed the spectacular rise of internetworked machinery, spreading through and disrupting every single aspect of human life. The great information railway of the late 20th century ventures into the virtual world. Very few things compare to the grand journey into this ever-connected virtual space – where every single person with access can become your instant neighbour and almost every single question can be answered by providing the right keywords to a search engine. The gold-rush-like enthusiasm and optimism can fade within seconds though, when bandits are out to heist the Google Mail post wagon to steal your credit card data and read your love letters, or tricksters scam you out of your money using technologies you might have never even heard of – because, as Arthur C. Clarke puts it, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
One of the first few big examples of where this digital revolution becomes tangible is for instance the rise of social networks from 2004 onwards and arguably the biggest success story so far, Facebook. But the revolution happens on a far more subtle level too – the physical bank cheque system now has an expiry date, forcing older people with no prior interest in using the Internet’s affordances into an environment where laws and law enforcement have not yet been fully established. What is physically the World Wide Web is from a perspective of law and societal order actually the Wild Wild West – everyone participating in it is only as safe as they can make themselves be, and tremendous conscious effort has to be spent to stay safe and protected. It is the people at the fringes of the digital society that are popular targets for scammers, fraudsters and the shadier parts of the internet. There is a huge and ever growing need for proper education to effectively and safely use the tools the Internet is made of, and this need is not very likely to decline with younger generations growing old – digital natives are native only to the technologies that exist already, and by far not all processes of daily life have been converted yet to fit the digital age.
Almost every aspect of human life will be affected by the shift towards an internet-centred society – digital and physical content distribution and trade are just a few examples. Effective lifelong learning has become even more of a key factor in the chase for making the best of the brief time humans spend on earth. This extends further than the obvious need for finding and keeping a job, or maintaining and developing expertise.
The old and the new
Age is not only accompanied by wisdom – it also comes with a decline in bodily and cognitive abilities . This does not mean, however, that older people can or do not want to use new technologies. Research into diffusion of innovations and technology adoption amongst older people  has brought to light that there is no age-related difference in the motivation to learn new skills – it is just that it takes longer to do so, as people are more and more set into their ways. Everett Rogers in his Diffusion of Innovation , very much the classical text on technology adoption in society, identifies different types of personalities in the process: innovators, early adopters, early and late majority and, of course, the laggards. Innovators are the ones who come up with a specific technology and initiate the change. The innovation is then picked up by the early adopters, a part of the population that is willing to invest in things that have not yet established themselves in societal discourse – that is, for instance, the state smart watches are at now. Eventually, when all these different roles of adopters have taken up the new technology, the market for this type of innovation is saturated. A very popular mistake that is being made when interpreting this model is to think that it is absolute, so to say that if someone is an early adopter in one particular case, they will be early adopters every time. There is no evidence for this to be the case, but this stance or school of thought is still very much present in popular culture. This is also one of the main reasons why, when we are thinking about old people, we tend to put them all into the “laggards drawer”. They are in fact no different to the general population – paraphrasing how Olson  has put it: if they see a benefit in a new technology, they are just as keen to learn how to use it.
What is an existing problem for them though is to find the right ways to support them in their learning process. They might not have access to more knowledgeable or experienced people in their social networks, making the task more daunting. And even if they have someone, that particular person might not be suited with the right skills to effectively transfer their knowledge. According to Cornwell et al. , older people experience a general decline in social connections the older they get –but one of the best ways to learn is to surround yourself with others who are in the same position or at the same level of knowledge – interested in doing something and trying to acquire a new set of skills, but not yet a “specialist” or expert in that field – one very popular example for this is 2013’s TED prize winner Sugata Mitras SOLE (Self Organizing Learning Environment) experiment, building on findings from his “hole in the wall” project, where poor children in slums in India were given undirected access to the Internet through a computer terminal . The positive effect of being surrounded by peers when learning is also emphasized by Rosenthal : Expertise often leads to a change in the vocabulary used, and laypeople find it hard to participate in discussions on the topic for that sole purpose. Drawing from the author’s personal experience when doing close user support with farmers who have bought automated cattle feeding systems, it is vital to adopt the vocabulary the users are using in order to be able to effectively help them.
Mental models – how do we tick?
Adding on to these insights, another important factor for technology adoption in older people is to draw in their motivations for learning a new technology. Often, a specific goal or use case can be identified, such as “I want to be able to send emails to my friends” or “I want to be able to check the weather reports and the local news on the Internet”. These defined and fairly isolated activities often serve as the jumping boards into richer interactions, as they are the vessels to teach the most basic interaction methods like using the mouse, single- and double-clicking, typing on the keyboard, all of which are necessary to achieve the previously defined higher goals. Kieras & Bovair  found that these mental models, knowledge and skills acquired can speed up and ease knowledge transferred and used in other domains, with the motor skills of older people being no exception, according to Seidler . Someone who is able to use a search engine interface like Googles will also be able to use others like www.duckduckgo.com (which does not track users). They might even be able, since the mental model of search in software systems is already in place, to recognize it in other contexts as well – one very successful example for this is the search field in the top right corner of most Internet browsers. It was so successful and ubiquitous amongst all popular web browsers that Microsoft decided to implement their Windows Explorer search feature like that, starting with Windows Vista. Reusing these types of common interfacing methods and refraining from reinventing the wheel makes the process of learning how to use new technologies easier – not only for older people, but for all of us.
Technology generation effect – reusing what is already there
Christopher Lim  has posed an interesting concept he calls the “technology generation effect”. Its essence is that the rapid development of technology over time has left us with a fragmented society, split up in age generations and technology generations, according to which technologies have been available or widely used during the formative years from 10 to 25 of a person’s development. People’s experiences and the mental models acquired in these years tend stay with them over their lifetime and therefore influence learning and uptake of new skills. Familiarity with technological concepts, Lim argues, should be used to inform more inclusive design approaches that would cater for the needs of older people too.
More than just steam
One big impact of the shift towards the digital is that with most old technological or mechanical artefacts, the inner workings and mechanical parts were either directly visible (think wall clocks) or easily accessible for maintenance. Users were therefore able to directly see how sturdy or fragile something was built and how careful they would have to be when using the tool. There was therefore a good chance of being able to tell which part of a machine was broken – and the possibility to repair and fix things yourself. Digital Technologies usually do not provide these affordances – due to devices getting smaller and smaller they indeed are becoming less and less repairable. This leads to further problems for older people when interacting with physical devices – there is no way to tell how it works from the outside, or how hard or soft you have to push to start a certain process.
The lack of these visual and tangible feedbacks often leads older people to overly careful and cautious handling of devices they have not yet had as much exposure to – for instance, tablet PCs and smartphones. The fear of “breaking something” and not being able to fix it without the help of someone else impedes a playful approach to interacting with technology, and therefore prevents serendipitous learning experiences that are vital to success in learning how to use technological artefacts to the full extent of their possibilities.
New saloons in old schools
A key challenge is how is this trust regained or, if it does not exist in the first place, established? Social Cognitive Theory states that people’s attitudes are formed by the persons themselves, their behaviour and their environment. For the purpose of this essay, we will be focussing on the environment. Literature suggests that older people do not have access to computers in the same multitude of ways the younger generations do – this is where the environment factors in. While there have been some initiatives focussing on enabling older people with access , for instance in elderly care homes, and the European Union’s interest in tackling the demographic challenge  focusses on older people and introducing them to the WWW. Still, much headway remains to be made – how will this best be done?
One increasingly popular answer to this question is to provide Word Wide Web access to ICT for groups of older people through hack spaces, charities and volunteer organisations. A novel approach to hack spaces implementing this has developed in Austria over the last four years – they are called open technology labs and go by the moniker of OTELO . Hack spaces generally provide people with ideas with the space and support needed to work on them and make them reality. But how is OTELO different from hack spaces? For one thing, OTELOs are usually supported by the councils they are placed in, meaning they are provided with spare rooms or houses owned by municipalities, free heating and Internet access, and a kitchen. They are used from people at all ages and from the most diverse professional backgrounds, whereas hack spaces are usually populated by a more IT-affine audience. The only thing that is being asked of OTELO for in return for the use of the space is to do workshops or equivalent activities to make the personal talents and knowledge gained available to the general public, typically once a year. This can happen in a variety of ways, some of which are laid out below:
Take it to the blacksmith – learning by repairing
One very popular workshop format commonly hosted by the different regional OTELOs is repair cafes (http://repaircafe.org). The main idea of those is to get people who know how to fix things together with people who need things fixed – and add in coffee (or tea). The atmosphere created through this inclusive approach promotes the exchange and transfer of knowledge, so people who want to learn how to exchange a broken screen on a smartphone can do so hands-on under the supervision of experts. As important as the getting broken things repaired is that attendees get to know experts they can later ask for help as well – this could eventually lead to the development of more effective social networks of knowledge for older people, which are of special importance in more rural areas.
Another, more knowledge-transfer-focused OTELO workshop format is called “ask a freak”. They are Q&A sessions with subject experts in the community to answer questions relevant to their fields of expertise. Topics covered this way have ranged from industrial food processing to vegan lifestyles, from smart phones and mobile computers to functional or “breathing” clothes. These events serve two purposes: From the perspective of the participant, people who have questions about certain topics are provided with the opportunity but have no one to go to in order to get them answered in person and in a relaxed atmosphere, without the need to travel far. For the specialist hosting it, they have a chance to receive the recognition they otherwise might only get in their work context, and to “set things straight” – citing the industrial food professional when talking about the recent shift and public outcry when Stevia, a new and supposedly natural sugar substitute was introduced in the Austrian market.
It is groups and events like these that could profoundly change older people’s perception of and attitudes towards technology, soothe any uninformed fear of change or at least replace it with the warranted respect. Metaphorically, they are the call to circle the wagons in the great journey through cyberspace. But what exactly is the cyberspace, and where did it come from?
The uncharted lands – the west
The rolling stone that is the development of the Internet was kicked loose by military interests. Building on the second-world-war pioneering work of Claude E. Shannon, who developed information theory and cryptography as a by-product of working on aircraft flight path prediction in order to build missile guidance systems , to the invention of the Internet itself as a remnant of the cold-war military development with its fear of a global nuclear war, it was designed as a fault-tolerant, scalable communication infrastructure for US military bases in close cooperation with research institutes. The ARPANET was designed in a way that even if one of its nodes was to be wiped out by a nuclear strike, the network itself would be able to operate and transmit messages and commands. Such networks always profit from having as many nodes as possible, so in hindsight its growth seems inevitable – but the extent of its global success and impact on the everyday life of the world’s inhabitants is unprecedented.
The first settlers in these previously unknown virtual lands were researchers. Tim Berners Lee, while working at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva proposed in 1989 what would later become the World Wide Web with a system of hyperlinked text documents. In 1993, the Acceptable Use Policy which originally prohibited commercial use of the Internet was reinterpreted to allow exactly that . Envisioned as a two-way communication tool between web servers and clients, it took more than five years for what was coined “web 2.0” by the publishing company O’Reilly (who are also the company that inspired the emerging “maker movement” through its make magazine) to emerge – a Internet whose content was not only consumed, but also created by its users. This development also paved the way for the abundance of social media websites. Social media primarily works through providing humans with what they crave most – social connectedness with and (quantifiable) recognition from their peers. The information gathered from people feeding this basic human need is, comparable to the gold rush in the Wild West era, the current rush that drives and fuels the development of social media right now. The social connectedness provided by the Internet is also the main factor for older people, who might experience feelings of loneliness, isolation and “being left out”, to venture into the web .
The wild in the west
But the Internet is not a friendly place, as the following examples shall prove. It came with new types of crime previously not possible, and the global nature of the Internet has brought with it the possibility to very quickly affect a huge and growing percentage of humanity. Examples of these types of crime are computer viruses, Trojans loaded with key-logging and spy software which subsequently enable “old” types of crime. Another factor on the rise according to the October 2013 UK Home Office Cyber-crime Research Report  is what is known in the Internet security community as “Black Hat” hacking, which refers to hacking with malicious intent, as opposed to “White Hat” hacking done by security professionals to identify security holes in services with the intent to make the operators and administrators aware of the weaknesses of their systems, so they are then able to fix those.
Accompanying them are old forms of crime. Examples of these include non-delivery fraud, advanced fee fraud (commonly known amongst the community as “419 Scams”, referring to article 419 of the Nigerian Criminal Code, dealing with fraud), phishing (directing users to a fake website in order to attain their login credentials or personal data), as well as cyber-grooming of kids.
When privacy settings are not set consciously, users are running the risk of unintentionally sharing their location and telling the world that they are not at home – a very welcome piece of information for robbers and thieves, which in turn inspired the creators of www.pleaserobme.com to create a simplified search interface supposedly “enabling robbers to find empty homes” – but actually raising awareness about the issue. With the rapid decline in price and huge increase in numbers of GPS microchips built into a multitude of devices, comprehensive data gathering is reality today, leading to the situation that car manufacturers (and quite possibly Google or Apple too, depending on which smartphone you choose to use) know exactly when and how you break the law .
Outside the domain of unlawful behaviour, the immediacy of social media opens doors for the more unpleasant patterns of human behaviour too – instances of cyberbullying are increasingly appearing across popular media, leading to personal insults for quotes that might have been taken out of context or were taken from childhood. In the case of the 17-year-old Kent youth police and crime commissioner Paris Brown the discovery of racist and homophobic tweets from when she was 14  and the public outcry over these subsequently led to her resignation. Events like these are called Shit-storms in Germany, a term coined by “Der Spiegel Online” journalist Sascha Lobo , and can be directed at social Media Presences of both individuals and companies. These digital witch hunts do not need any education to be unleashed and it is a popular but not necessarily warranted for theme amongst journalists and the mass-media to blame cyberbullying for recent cases of youth suicides .
From non-delivery and advanced-fee fraud, virus- and Trojan-ridden email attachments and phishing websites, bandits and hate mobs are always just one unwanted click away – and intentional malice is not the only challenge to be faced in the virtual West.
Unfinished business in strange lands
The technological artefacts that make up the Internet including the software that is running on them, as well as the social constructs around these systems are prone to errors and failure. As almost all programmers would agree upon, writing fault-free code while still being productive is close to impossible, and gets even more difficult and therefore less economically viable. Even the best and most proficient programmers cannot write perfect code. An often-cited example for this ideal, an environment where bug-free code is essential because lives (and incidentally, huge investments) are at stake, is the NASA shuttle program – but even there, each of the last 3 software versions contained a bug .
On top of these more “mechanical” issues sits human nature. System operators and administrators, the lone sheriffs in our metaphor, are frequently treated as those parts of the business that bite away profits. Their strategic priorities, as well as the power structures in the companies, are set towards not interfering, but only enabling other departments. Safety and cybersecurity often take the back seat in those considerations as the number of company secrets not stolen due to effective security management cannot be quantified. Departments are also understaffed and underqualified, and the all-present commitment to “never change a running system” leads to further security issues and unattended vulnerabilities in the multitude of software used.
Leaving scores to settle
This is well known across the industry – and might be the reason why so many of the successful players in the digital economy have adopted the philosophy of “moving fast and breaking things”, as Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook puts it . The un-reflected speed of this movement also happened in the Wild West – settlers looking to acquire and farm new land had to move further and further into the west to find it. In the rise of the Internet however, much more is at stake, as very little programming bugs can and frequently do expose millions of private datasets, beginning with credit card data, but ranging to the exposure of entire genealogies through web services . It is frightening to think of a world where sensible data of such importance (remember the hunt for jewish and part-jewish families in Nazi Germany?) is handled with the “shoot (roll-out) first, think later” mind-set necessary to survive in the current digital economy. The depence of almost all facets of society on digital services in combination with its error-prone nature can be called the biggest challenge of the 21st century.
With pervasive Internet access on the customers side and the possibility of instant updates, software and code quality have received less focus. A vivid example is the market of game consoles. With what used to be stand-alone devices playing un-patchable games delivered on read-only memory cartridges, software testing was one of the most important tasks of game development as software changes after the launch of a product were technically very hard to do and substantially affected the business’s performance. Nowadays games and consoles alike are launched in what feels like an unfinished state and receive a multitude of updates over their lifetime. Both Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One require a 300MB (Sony) or 2GB (Microsoft) Software update to be downloaded and installed after the console is bought, before the consoles themselves can be used to their full extent  – and almost every game bought to play on them will need to receive individual updates as well. This development goes even further – Sony, when they released the PlayStation 4, announced that one of its core features, the live streaming of games from an online platform, would only be made available more than half a year after the console has been launched. While this updateability is mostly used to bring additional features or fix bugs, it can also be used to withdraw facilities. A recent update to the Sony PlayStation 3 removed the possibility to install and run the free and open operating System Linux on it , before Hackers could find a way to exploit a bug in it that allowed illegally copied games to be run. Behaviour like this is not only seen in the gaming market, but extends to other examples as well. Amazon, market leader in the e-book market with its Kindle e-reader, retains the possibility to delete books that were legally bought through its own store from customer devices; Apple Inc. employs the same policy with iOS Applications bought through their App Store.
All of these examples emphasize the amount of adaptation needed by older people who are still used to a world where when you bought something, you simply went to the store, and you owned what you got.
Conclusion – riding on into the sunset
Looking at the web today from a European student’s perspective, it has already become almost pervasive and ubiquitous and has long left its virtual nature behind to reach out into reality. This shift into the future is accompanied by a disruption to almost every aspect of human life. Some of these have been accompanied by a widespread public discussion, one instance of which is what was commonly perceived as the failure of the media industry to develop viable long-term business models for the internetworked age; another is the recent uncovering of the unprecedented intelligence surveillance of private public discourse through Edward Snowden’s leaks. These were the first few revolutions in an ever-connected society, and it is highly doubtful that they will be the last. Today’s society is undergoing a fundamental voyage into the unknown, and the formation of new policies and norms for social interaction suitable for this time is not yet viable, as the generation in power right now has little grasp of what it is like to live in a world where washing machines, fridges and even light bulbs  have Internet access, babies are monitored through Skype and your routine appendix surgery is performed by a robot. The children of this brave new world are just about old enough to vote, and are guaranteed to cause a disruption in the fundamentals of how society works.
This essay has presented a selection of the ways with which it is possible to effectively help those at the fringes of society and enable them to reap the benefits of the Internet. In fact, many of them such as the older visitors to the OTELOs are bravely stepping forward to learn the new ways and are meeting the challenges head-on. The lessons they learn will diffuse into their communities through them, will allow them to stay connected to those they hold dear and will continue to enable them to find the information they desire and will keep them away from the dark tar pits than can lurk on the Internet. With new modes of interaction that do not require as precise motor skills, like the voice control modes of Apple’s Siri or Google Voice Search, they can participate just like everyone else. And with enough experience gathered in the Internet, they will know which of the many smoke signals they encounter can be safely ignored, but also when it is time to draw the guns.
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