mountain peaks and the future of education

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.

Andreas atop a mountain

A Reiter in the mountains

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!


A new Hope – travelling to Tansania

Last weekend I’ve abandoned my comfort zone yet again. I’d been given the opportunity to go and work with the lovely folks in the Taarifa Project. This blog post is aimed at letting you participate in the first day of my journey to Africa.

Room with a view

Dar es Salaam, as seen from our first Hotel room

My first steps on non-european soil were loaded with new impressions, and the thing I found most interesting in the beginning, even more than the warmth at 10pm, was this very different smell of everything.
It was sweetish sensation that massaged my nostrils and filled my lungs with anticipation and excitement. Even though I had gotten up at 3am, I was wide awake, to an extent I probably couldn’t even reach through coffee. Everyone else had left the plane before me, because I didn’t realize the people that were still staying in were actually flying onwards, back to Amsterdam where I had just come from. It was a solitary experience, the walk to the (immigration?) point, where you handed in the forms saying you were entering greater Africa, but it also was my first encounter with a very different culture.

When I finally did catch up with the folks who were on the plane with me, I realised that I really should have filled out those forms they gave to us on the plane already too –  leading to a frantic exercise in filling out forms that clearly were not made to contain a place of birth with 12 letters. But eventually I made it through, and it turns out I was too nervous to even notice what my fellow traveller Jeremy Morley pointed out how different everyone began to act when I answered the question of where I would be staying – the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dar es Salaam, where a room was ~USD120, and a single breakfast USD45.

We were picked up by a cab driver who, in a very friendly tone told us he had someone else to pick up at the airport in 15 minutes time, which was clearly not doable. I didn’t pay too much attention, too astonished by how subtly different everything outside was. a huge billboard in a language I had never seen before, next to a small but brightly lit ad for my former employer, Bosch. The roads were good, at least the vast stretches between the potholes wider than a witches cauldron, and probably just as deep. The product of short but wall-density-like rainfalls in the weeks before, as I was told.

“So if you’ve only ever seen the mediterranean once, then this is probably the first time you see the indian ocean too, right?”, Jeremy said,  pulling me out of my pondering and gazing. “Where is it?” “Just over there, on the right” – and I saw it and what I presumed to be city lights in the distance turned out to be reflections of the stars on the water. (OK, this might sound a bit cheesy, but I swear I’m only making a third of it up 😉 )

After 20 more minutes of traffic that had me noticing how different the license plates were, marvelling at the traffic lights (that for some seemed to be of a rather suggestive than imperative nature) the cab dodging cauldrons, being honked at and honking at others (It seems like almost a social thing, people simply using the various communication facilites of their cars a bit more than back home) we arrive at an indian restaurant where the rest of the party had been waiting for a while already.

So first contact with food in Africa was made, and while the food itself was very good, the experience itself was as if we had entered another world. It was very clear that some of the group had gotten used to how we were treated, I however was not at all. The restaurant, apart from two other tables was empty and in my memory had what felt like the size of a quarter of a football field. Five staffers made sure we had everything we needed, without it being intrusive – just incredibly friendly.

After finishing the dinner, we left for our Hotel, which didn’t turn out to be the Hyatt after all, but the Rainbow Inn, substantially cheaper, and, as it turns out, still a bit overpriced. “They really saw you coming”, as it was put. Our vehicle on the journey, a tuk-tuk sporting three of us in the back, plus my overzealously packed big piece of luggage, braved the very calm roads, and we arrived in the city center, in a scene that could have been out of a movie. Well, actually, it’s probably just that that’s the only means I have to compare the two.

The hotel wasn’t as bad as everyone told me hotels in africa would be, but that could be just because they did so beforehands. The duvet sported a few faded stains, and when I saw the bathroom wet cell I realised what they were going for when they designed Mos Eisley in Star Wars: A New Hope (yes, that was the movie I was talking about earlier 😉 ). But it was fit for the job, I washed my feet and felt good. After brushing my teeth with water out of the bottle – good practice in africa, as the tap water doesn’t have drinking quality.

I went to bed, tired, excited, and most of all happy that after a long time of thinking about whether or not I should do it, I overcame my initial doubt and made the decision to work with the Taarifa Project.

Rooftop view of Dar es Salaam

Rooftop view of Dar es Salaam


Meeting maker researchers – the DENs DIY researchers colloquium

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.

checking out @ShrimpingIt's self-made Arduino during the break

checking out @ShrimpingIt’s make-your-own-Arduino kit during the break

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]

PhD advice

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!

WWW – world wide web, or wild wild west?

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 [6]. 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 [20] 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 [23], 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 [20] 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. [5], 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 [19]. The positive effect of being surrounded by peers when learning is also emphasized by Rosenthal [24]: 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 [12] 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 [25]. Someone who is able to use a search engine interface like Googles will also be able to use others like (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 [13] 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.

However, as some of the challenges of those eras have not been experienced on a world-wide scale yet, different populations might react differently to technological developments. It can be argued that the German experiences with Stasi surveillance in East Germany is one, if not the, source of European privacy policy – which is considerably tighter than the stance towards online privacy in other western countries. To the average layperson that is lacking deeper knowledge about how the Internet is and was built, negative and non-reflected news coverage of the Snowden revelations might foster or reinforce negative attitudes. This is especially true in regards to trust towards computer and ICT use in older people. However, since older people are to continually pushed towards engagement with the World Wide Web, how can the learning process be made easier for them?

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 [26], for instance in elderly care homes, and the European Union’s interest in tackling the demographic challenge [8] 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 [21]. 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 ( 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 [22], 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 [4]. 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 [18].

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 [17] 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 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 [7].

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 [2] 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 [14], 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 [15].

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 [9].

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 [3]. 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 [16]. 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 [10] – 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 [1], 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 [11] 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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