Safety on ‘Smart’ Motorways is no laughing matter…

The Badger has laughed a lot recently; not due to being stir crazy because of the pandemic, but because nearly everything he read online has shown that the world is fast becoming just a comic book! One item that caused a guffaw, and which illustrates just how ridiculous things are becoming, was a complaint to the BBC about the use of the phrase nitty-gritty’ by their political commentator Laura Kuenssberg. Surely no one’s cause is ever going to be furthered by complaining about the inoffensive use of phrases which our forefathers contributed to any language decades ago?  The complaint was rejected by the BBC.  Hip, hip, hurray! Someone has pushed back in a small way on the stupidities that are pervading society. Err, no offence intended, but the Badger also laughed when he saw that common phrases like ‘blacklist’, ‘master-slave’, ‘uppity’, ‘black mark’, ‘sold down the river’, ‘long time no see’, ‘no can do’ and ‘Hip, hip, hurray’ may also in the sights of the hand-wringing brigade.     

Another thing that made the Badger laugh was the kerfuffle around the language used in the 1971 ‘Dad’s Army’ film, some of its TV series episodes, and even old TV favourites of ‘Little Britain’ and John Cleese’s ‘Fawlty Towers’. The biggest laugh, however, happened on seeing that eBay banned the sale of an old Dad’s Army board game for inciting racial hatred.  The world has gone truly mad! The Badger also laughed at Google threatening to withdraw its search engine from Australia. For all Google’s bombast about liberty and freedom, this fracas shows that the company has no respect for the democratic processes and interests of nations.  Good on you Australia, give them both barrels!

There was one topic, however, that stopped the Badger’s laughter in its tracks, namely that of safety on Smart Motorways. A coroner’s finding that Smart Motorways pose an ongoing risk of future deaths  and a Police Chief’s view that Smart Motorways are inherently unsafe mean that drivers should be worried. The UK’s first motorways opened between 1958 and the early 1960s when there were ~5 million cars on UK roads. They were built with a hard-shoulder lane to act as a refuge for broken-down vehicles and to assist emergency vehicles in getting to the scene of an accident. Today there are ~33 million cars on UK roads, which begs just one obvious question.  If a hard shoulder lane was required for safety reasons with 5 million cars,  why isn’t it required for safety reasons with today’s 33 million?

Road deaths have progressively declined since the 1960s primarily due to things like better education, speed limits, car design (better reliability, seat belts, ABS, and air bags etc), improved barrier technology, and so on. Smart Motorways have not contributed to the lowering death rate, so without a hard shoulder lane they must be considered unsafe and addressing the issue with even more ‘smart’ technology is not the answer.   This is most definitely not a laughing matter.

Five years…

David Bowie passed away five years ago on the 10th January 2016. His legacy is a portfolio of great music and it was while listening to some of his songs that the Badger mused on some of the things that have happened  since his demise.

The UK Brexit referendum on 23rd June 2016 upended British politics, changed Europe for ever, and caused widespread public frustration with the shenanigans of politicians in handling the exit process. The whole process exposed the dysfunctionality of politics and politicians across the UK and across the EU, more so than ever before.   

In 2016 Donald Trump – a businessman rather than a career politician – was elected the President of the USA. His term in office, including his impending departure, has been a tsunami of controversy. Mr Trump’s election was founded on a ticket that gave voice to millions of voters frustrated with their career politicians. His enemies would, and did, throw everything at him during his term in office. The pendulum has now swung against him, and the USA seems, to an outsider at least, to be exhibiting the polarisation and in-fighting typical of a failing empire, which does not augur well for the future.

During the last five years, the EU struggled with a humanitarian and political crisis caused by the influx of more than a million refugees, Greta Thunberg brought global focus on climate issues, the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements made a mark, and the Cambridge Analytica affair exposed some truth about social media platforms and their use of your data. And then, of course, there is the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Badger, however, thinks the biggest happening over the last five years pervaded all of the above, namely the fact that the social media platforms have an uncontrollable influence on our lives and democracy. These platforms claim to be a bastion of free speech but they give voice to extremes, fake news, disinformation, the darker side of the human psyche, attention seekers and faceless disrupters of all kinds. So much so that Western democracy is threatened. The tech giants have resisted regulation by politicians for years, but – regardless of your views on Mr Trump – they now appear to be regulating elected politicians!  It appears from the happenings of the last five years that social media giants wield more unaccountable power than is sensible for the preservation of Western democracy, and that our elected leaders need to take these tigers by the tail and regulate them.   Alternative views, of course, exist.   

There is a great Bowie song that is as pertinent today as it was when released in 1972. That song is Five years, a great version of which was recently released by Duran Duran.   The Badger thinks its line ‘Five years, that’s all we’ve got’  sums up how long elected leaders have to sort themselves and the giant tech companies out if  Western democracy is to thrive through the rest of this century.

Information pollution…

After months of abstinence, the Badger treated himself to fish and chips  while visiting Crawley, a town which has seen sizeable unemployment during the Covid-19 pandemic due to its proximity to Gatwick Airport. The chip shop was open, all the appropriate virus protection measures were in place, and a rumbling stomach made it impossible to resist! 

The Badger placed his order and the counter assistant, a lady in late middle-age, made conversation while she waited for a fresh batch of chips to complete frying. ‘Will you have the new vaccine?’, she enquired. ‘Yes. What about you?’, the Badger replied. What followed was a torrent of reasons for why she would not have the vaccine.  The lady said the government could not be trusted, the vaccine had been rushed, short-cuts had been taken, pharmaceutical giants were only doing it to make big profits, and that everything she saw in newspapers, on television, on the internet and on social media had made her very wary. Looking at her smartphone as she spoke, the lady went on to say that she wasn’t going to take the risk of getting ill from the vaccine because her elderly mother and her children depended on her.  The Badger listened and inwardly sighed,  but at that point the fresh chips became available and the conversation went no further.

Mulling over the lady’s words while eating the food a few minutes later, the Badger decided  that her view provided an illustration of  how ‘information pollution’ influences many in the modern world. According to widely available statistics, we  look at our smartphones at least  every 10 minutes during waking hours, much of it to watch  attention grabbing, instantaneous social media feeds like Twitter and Facebook. As the thought provoking article here points out, speed of information availability eclipses accuracy, and so misinformation, distortion, selectivism, and falsities easily become the norm pushing fact into the background.

‘Information pollution’ is rife and it is one of the biggest ‘man-made’ challenges for digital-native generations to deal with if we want society to avoid descending into anarchy. Regulation and legislation are necessary and inevitable to ensure media and social media platforms genuinely tackle the issue rather than just pay lip service to it.  Pollution, after all,  comes in many forms. The chemical, oil, manufacturing, farming, and pharmaceutical industries have to comply with laws covering poisons and pollution, so why should  ‘information pollution’ be treated differently?

So, there you have it. A conversation in a fish and chip shop can make you think!  As the Badger finished the last chip, he resolved to maintain the healthy analysis of information to get at the facts that has stood him in good stead in his work and private life for years. Accordingly, even with ‘information pollution’ still rising, having the vaccine is clearly the rational  and common-sense thing to do. Life, after all, is full of dealing with risk of one form or another.

Tech regulation; learn the lessons of the past…

The Badger has just arranged for a headstone to be erected at the grave of a relative who passed-away some years ago. The process started with using Google to research the different types of  headstone, suppliers, pricing, and graveyard regulations. Having done the research, the Badger engaged a provider and arrangements were made using to the providers preferred business methods, namely good old fashioned telephone calls, letters and forms by post, and cheques for payments. Everything went smoothly and the headstone is now in place.

There was only one thing that was an irritant in the whole process – the flood of content, adverts, and unsolicited marketing that appeared in the Badger’s news, email, and social media feeds following the Google search queries!  Receiving unsolicited and unwanted suggestions about funeral plans, care homes, equity release, life insurance, will writing, and donating to charity via a will was just tiresome and a reminder that the big  tech giants track and use our behavioural data. If there was a single, simple, ‘Big Red Button’ that turned all that stuff off, then the Badger would have pushed it!  

Recent news that a Digital Markets Unit is being formed under the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) (see here, here and here) to start limiting the power of big tech firms in the UK seemed like welcome news and a sign that politicians are starting to wake up.  In the USA, of course, Google is already in the cross-hairs of the US government for alleged anticompetitive abuses. At long last, governments around the world seem to be very slowly addressing regulation of the big tech giants which, let’s face it, are enormously powerful as well as being at the heart of the functioning of today’s modern society.

Sceptical about the need for regulation? Read the Financial Times article here. It points out that the 2008 banking crisis showed that careful oversight is needed when the public interest depends on businesses that exist to meet the needs of private capital providers. Before 2008, the approach of regulators to the way banks behaved was ‘principles based’, i.e. deliberately light touch. This relied too much on the banks’ abilities to govern themselves, and it failed. Similarities with the current approach with big tech are striking.  We should learn the lessons from the past! After all, isn’t that what the leaders of all corporations and governmental institutions are forever telling their employees and everyone else to do?

When speaking to the headstone provider, the Badger asked why – apart from a basic website – they hadn’t fully embraced the digital world. Simple, they answered. ‘We’ve stayed in business for over a century because we learn our lessons, one of which has been to always steer a cautious path through periods of innovation and change’. How very refreshing!     

Dubious data or dubious analysis leads to dubious decisions and distrust…

Data makes the modern world function. It’s at the heart of decision making by companies, governments, politicians, advisers, and experts of all kinds – and if it isn’t, then it should be!  Data, a valuable global resource, attracts a swarm of interest from those wishing to use it for purposes ranging from commercial gain to disinformation and propaganda. Whenever it’s presented to us, therefore, we should always wonder if the data itself is dubious, if the analysis of it is dubious, and if decisions based on these items are themselves dubious. Why? Because if we feel decisions are dubious, then disillusionment and distrust sets in and this is a really difficult trend to turn around.

A friend with a knack for uncovering ‘dodgy data’,  ‘dodgy analysis’, and hence ‘dodgy decisions’  on IT projects emailed recently lamenting how politicians and the scientists at their side could present some erroneous data in explaining the decision for England to enter a 2nd COVID lockdown.  They questioned whether the data, and the analysis of its consequences, ever got independently challenged or verified before being presented to the public? One would hope so, but it doesn’t feel like it, so we can hardly blame the media for making hay on the topic, or the public for becoming increasingly sceptical and distrustful.    

Dubious data, dubious analysis and dubious decisions are manifest everywhere in our modern, globally connected world.  The item here about a COVID-relevant study regarding Hydroxychloroquine just emphasises that ‘verification and assurance’ isn’t as strong as it should be with a last sentence saying ‘Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of it all is that the WHO and two entire countries halted trials of a potentially life-saving drug following the results of a single study that they failed to independently verify’.

Of course, honest mistakes happen, but the Badger senses that ‘verification and assurance’ is getting ever weaker, which is worrisome when every institution or corporation is becoming more creative in using data to push their own agenda, ideology, or bias.  Whenever information is presented to the general public making the case for an important decision, therefore, it has to be right that we can trust its efficacy and that it has been subjected to challenge using robust independent processes before being presented. 

In a world where misunderstanding, despondency, disillusionment, and distrust develops in seconds, we deserve to know that decisions conveyed by leaders are underpinned by sound data and analysis.  If excellent ‘verification and assurance’ functions are not embedded or truly effective in our institutions and corporations then distrust, disillusionment, and cynicism will become the baseline for our day to day lives. Surely we don’t want that? Perhaps it’s time that ‘verification and assurance functions’ got more attention from the media before, rather than after, key announcements?  Oh dear, perhaps bias has crept in here, after all the Badger turned from being an expert poacher into an expert ‘verification and assurance’ gamekeeper a number of times in his career…

An Epic battle…

An acquaintance who is just a few years away from becoming a pensioner has just started work in an old-fashioned, small town hardware store, after 18 months being unemployed due to physical injury.  They were surprised to get the job given their age, until, that is, the boss explained that he was ‘fed up with employing youngsters who can barely tear themselves away from games on their smartphones whenever a customer comes into the shop’. Hmm. An interesting insight to life in the modern world for many!

Games on digital devices are a fact of life and readily available from the app stores in the Apple, Google, and Microsoft ecosystems. If you are younger than about 40 years old  then it’s likely that playing games on your smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop is part of how you get your fun, which means you should take an interest in the acrimonious legal dispute between Epic – makers of Fortnite and other popular games – and Apple.  Events have been unfolding fast – as you can see, for example, here,  here, here and here – and they provide an insight into the attitudes and dynamics of major corporations when they have a serious spat.

What appears to have triggered events is a Fortnite update that allowed players to buy in-game currency direct from Epic at a lower rate, bypassing Apple’s compulsory payment system which takes a 30% cut of every purchase.  The lawyers are now having a field day.  Apple have essentially removed Epic’s games from their app store, and the associated media coverage gives us all a ready insight into how a 2 trillion-dollar corporation (Apple) and 20 billion-dollar corporation (Epic) are locking horns in the dispute.  

The courts will, of course, rightly decide the legal rights and wrongs, probably in late September. However, on cogitating about the situation, and notwithstanding what the courts decide, the Badger felt that Apple comes over in what’s been written as just an arrogant, monopolistic, mega-corporate bully whose 30% take on in-app revenues smacks of profiteering. It’s sad that Apple, once an upstart and disrupter itself, has inevitably turned into the kind of corporation that it once challenged. Harsh? Perhaps, but when you’re next playing a game on your Apple device just remember that it’s you that’s paying the 30%.

The Badger has a feeling that the outcome of the EPIC v Apple spat in the courts – regardless of who ‘wins’ – will ultimately start the ball rolling to force changes to the likes of Apple and Google. Given Microsoft was accused of being a monopoly 20 years ago, it’s plausible that we’ll see the likes of Apple similarly challenged at some stage.

So, there you have it. There’s a David versus Goliath fight underway, and it’s a brave person that bets on either David being squashed, or Goliath coming out of the fray without injury… 

Your privacy? Look before you leap…

The Badger was paying little attention to a dialogue between two experts on the radio until one said, ‘What the lockdowns have made us appreciate is that the world before the pandemic was not what it ought to be’.  The Badger’s ears pricked up. Why? Because this chimed with a recent debate the Badger participated in. It centred on whether people take enough personal responsibility for their privacy in today’s world and the Badger had stirred the pot with the following.

Pandemic or no pandemic, today’s world is dominated by the conduct of business, personal, and official affairs online.  Recent lockdowns just reinforce how over the last 20 to 25 years, since personal internet banking started to gain real traction, ‘online’ has become critical infrastructure for daily life. Most of us use online services to operate and administer bank accounts, investments, pensions, utilities, to search and apply for jobs, to interact with government departments (e.g. for vehicle licencing, benefit claims, taxation, health, passports, etc), to search for information, to buy things from Amazon, eBay, Uber, Deliveroo, supermarkets and retailers, for maps and directions on journeys, and – of course – to use various types of social media platforms.

Compare this with how we functioned 20 to 25 years ago and you’ll realise just how much of our personal data, likes, and life habits are now held somewhere in cyber space.  But ask yourself the following. Do you really know how the organisations or platforms you interact with use what they hold about you and your habits? Do you really know how they share your information with others and for what purposes? Do you really know if they sell your information, and if so to whom?

You will probably not answer with a crisp Yes. Why? Because you are unlikely to have really read the Terms & Conditions and Privacy statements presented to you, and if you have, then it’s doubtful you really absorbed what they said. Your privacy is not what it was 20 years ago, and we all bear some responsibility for that! Your information is a valuable commodity.  Others will use it to generate profits or influence the way you think and behave  and so we all need to be aware of good guidance and take more personal responsibility for preserving our privacy.

From the sheepish looks of others, the Badger had struck a chord.  The debate ultimately agreed that ‘technology has eroded personal privacy and governments must act to counter this’, and that ‘everyone must accept they have a personal responsibility for how they use online services’. The latter is crucial, even though it’s a challenge in a world where blaming someone else for our own failings is commonplace. However, one thing is certain, there’s truth in the saying ‘look before you leap’. If you value your privacy, always read and understand the Terms & Conditions and Privacy statements presented to you when you do anything ‘online’.

 

With every generation comes change…

With every generation comes change! Society evolves. Every new generation grows up in different conditions to those when their parents  were young.  Every new generation rails against the actions and decisions of older generations. Every new generation thinks they know best and wants to change the world, and every older generation thinks younger generations are feckless, frustrating, and irritating – just look here, for example. These may be sweeping generalisations, but they convey a truth and an uncomfortable reality.

Every new generation grows up in a society whose norms are challenged or changed by new technologies of one kind or another. It’s been the same for centuries. Anyone born in the last 40 years, however, has grown up in one of the most disruptive periods for society ever.  Just in the last 20 or so years our global population has exploded, increasing by around 30%, the population of urban centres has risen by ~60%,  the internet has changed the way everything is done, mobile phones have become a necessity and nearly everyone has one, and social media has taken over.  Every generation thinks it’s making society better, so is society better for those born since the 1980s who have been riding the Information and Digital wave?

The Badger’s found that when people are asked this question, No is the dominant answer!  Ostensibly because of a perception that two vital commodities in society – trust and privacy – have declined, with broadcast and online news media, and the social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter being mentioned as to blame. News organisations with a reputation for unbiased reporting are seen as being thin on the ground, and social media platforms are seen as an uncontrollable digital wild-west.

One person bravely claimed that the behaviour of those born since the 1980s and social media had already put society into a downward spiral. Their justification? Simply that anyone whose first reaction to anything was to reach for their smartphone, create a video, and immediately upload it to social media had lost the plot. A brave view indeed in these turbulent days.  The person is, of course, from the older generation and perhaps resonates with the first paragraph above.

The Badger’s view is simple. Change driven by disruptive technologies is painful and produces downsides as well as benefits. There’s little doubt that distrust is rife in society today, that privacy is fast becoming an alien concept even with GDPR, and that a finger must point to the media, the internet, and social media for some of this.  Just as in life, however, there are no magic bullets and no one has a monopoly on being right. One thing, however, is certain. The attitude, behaviour, and use of digital tools and platforms by our younger generations is creating the society that their kids will definitely rail against!

An 88 year-old’s take on tech during pandemic lockdown…

It’s been tough for the elderly during the pandemic, especially if they live alone in their own homes and relatives live a long way away. Good neighbours, community volunteers, and some of the tech that younger people take for granted have been a big help, provided, of course, the elder in question wants to embrace the support.

A local acquaintance is 88 years old and has lived in the same house since the 1960s. They have lived there alone since their partner died 25 years ago. They suffer from arthritis which is progressively limiting what they can do. They are proudly independent, stoic, and keep their old house spotless. Before the pandemic, they frequently used public transport, did their own shopping, met friends for coffee at a local daycentre, and regularly attended their church. None of this now happens but they don’t complain about how difficult it is for elders who are not in care homes, don’t get visits from carers, and who have families that live too far away to provide anything other than telephone contact. Television is their primary source of company. They do not have a mobile phone, broadband, or social media. Their landline telephone – with a 30-year-old handset – is their lifeline to the outside world.

The Badger’s been keeping a watchful eye and doing their shopping, just like many citizens everywhere during the pandemic. Once a week we have a long, face to face, socially distanced chat that clearly lifts their spirits. This week they asked the Badger about video calls because they had heard about them on television, and their distant family wants them to accept having an easy to use video facility for the elderly put in their home. The Badger promptly used his smartphone and WhatsApp to show them  how easy video are to make in practice.

They marvelled at what’s possible, but immediately said they didn’t want ‘that kind of technology’ in the house or in their life! Asked why not, they gave two reasons. The first was ‘it’s too complicated to learn at my age’, but the second really took the Badger by surprise. From watching television and listening to the radio, they have decided that the internet, social media, and smart tech are responsible for most of the strife in the world. They don’t want anything that causes strife in their life!

They elaborated by saying that every generation has a nemesis, and that the impact of rampant smart tech will be the younger generation’s nemesis in times to come. The Badger was quietly impressed! How many of us will be able to formulate and articulate such an insightful view on reaching the ripe old age of 88? Will tech have overtaken our capacity for independent thought by then? Hmm…

Being educated and aware of ‘Fake News’ leads to intellectual stimulation and entertainment…

Lots of things the Badger reads online and in social media feeds appear to be true but often aren’t. That’s not really a great surprise because misinformation, propaganda, hoaxes, and stories created deliberately to deceive or manipulate have been around since ancient times. In modern day parlance, ‘Fake News’ has reached epidemic proportions because modern technology and social media have made it so easy to create and disseminate without the controls that normally apply to traditional print and broadcast media. Today, neither traditional print or broadcast media or ‘always on’ online social media is free from claims of ‘Fake News’. Historically we have tended to believe information provided by organisations or people we trusted, but when reading items on his smartphone the other day the Badger found himself wondering if you can actually trust anything anymore!

The Badger ended up asking himself two questions, namely ‘Do you really know what Fake News is?’, and ‘What’s the best way of dealing with Fake News?’. The answer to the first question was an emphatic Yes. There’s many explanations of ‘Fake News’, but one the Badger likes for its laudable simplicity is ‘What is Fake News’ from WEBWISE. Answering the second question was more difficult. Governments have explored the subject and a UK Parliamentary Select Committee report on ‘Disinformation and fake news’ published in February 2019, for example, provides a fascinating read. The Summary – page 5 and 6 of the report – and especially the last two paragraphs, signals that more regulation and regulatory oversight of the digital world is inevitable with the big tech companies very much in the cross-wires. Change will happen but the wheels of governments turn very slowly! However, the question the Badger really asked was what’s the best way for himself to deal with ‘Fake News’ today? Well, the Badger thought for a moment and decided the answer’s very simple. There isn’t a best way!

One of the sentences in the Summary of the report noted above struck a particular chord:

‘In a democracy, we need to experience a plurality of voices and, critically, to have the skills, experience and knowledge to gauge the veracity of those voices.’

The Badger thinks being educated and aware is the most powerful weapon to counter the foibles of today’s digital world. We should all learn to be suspicious of anything we see, hear or read on our connected devices. So how does the Badger deal with ‘Fake News’ today? Easy. By having that education and awareness, by thinking, not taking things at face value, and by being objective and not following the crowd. So, strive to be more educated and aware of ‘Fake News’. You will quickly realise that it provides more intellectual stimulation and entertainment than most of the comedy shows and soap operas available on your digital TV!