Should ‘information’ be thought of as a poison?

A couple of weeks ago, BBC News unveiled BBC Verify, a new brand to counter disinformation and reinforce audience trust by showing how its journalists check the veracity of what’s reported. Inevitably, Verify has been frequently featured in the broadcaster’s radio and television news programmes since the announcement. Surveys (like the one here, for example) show there’s been a significant drop in trust in the UK news media over the last five years. With BBC News having suffered one of the biggest drops, it’ll be interesting to see if Verify helps to stem their downward trend.

The advent of BBC Verify, plus recent social media and online clamour surrounding a number of human tragedies, triggered childhood memories of the Badger’s father reading his newspaper at the breakfast table. He would regularly say ‘Don’t believe everything you read in newspapers, lad. Most of the information is just poison’. In today’s world we access and consume news and information in a very different way, primarily via our televisions and internet enabled laptops, tablets, and smartphones on a 24 by 7 basis. This fatherly advice, however, seems even more relevant than ever today. These days, being sceptical about the content  you consume and wondering if it contains something poisonous likely to harm you, is definitely no bad thing.

In biochemistry, a poison is a natural or synthetic substance that causes damage to living tissue and has a harmful or fatal effect on our body. The act of poisoning involves a cause (the poison), a subject (the entity being poisoned), an effect (symptoms), and a consequence (debilitation or death). Awareness that things like insect and snake bites, drugs, dodgy food, pesticides, radiation, and biological/chemical agents can poison us is good, but our awareness that ‘information’ can poison our minds and change behaviour is still too low, especially in youngsters whose lives are dominated by social media and the virtual world. It’s no surprise that evidence for harm to young people’s mental health through their use of social media continues to grow.

The Badger’s found himself wondering if there’s merit in thinking of ‘information’ as a poison giving the synergy with the act of poisoning noted above. Just like a medical drug, ‘information’ consumed in an appropriate context from a trusted source can do much good. But also like a drug, ‘information’ in high quantity glibly absorbed and accepted from anywhere can cause an individual great harm. Categorizing ‘information’ as a poison might, perhaps, simplify and embed greater understanding of its potential impact on wellbeing, especially in youngsters.

The Badger tested this musing with his teenage nephew, only to be told that age had clearly affected his mental faculties! If that’s true, then it’s down to the ‘information poison’ he’s consumed over the years and the fact that there’s no real antidote in sight…


This item contains nothing generated by Bing Chat…

The Badger’s been experimenting for some time with Bing Chat, an integration of the GPT model developed by OpenAI with Microsoft’s search engine. It’s been both fun and thought-provoking. The capability is impressive, which is why there’s been massive interest in the technology in the 6 months since the public release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Many of the Badger’s interactions have made him chuckle, roll his eyes in annoyance, or better appreciate its use for good or evil, but every interaction has, in truth, reinforced why Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, calls on US lawmakers to regulate AI. This capability  has enormous scope to develop further. It’s already engaging the public and changing the way things are done, and it will continue to do so in the future. The Badger, like many, sees many pros and cons, but the primary outcome of his experimentation has been to crystalize the realisation that he must deal with how this impacts his content-producing activities like the writing of the blog you are reading now.

AI is destined to affect the activities and jobs of white-collar workers across a wide variety of industries (see here and here, for example). Indeed, the Badger can think of many functions and jobs that could be impacted by AI-centred automation in the IT industry alone. With perpetual improvement to make the profits stakeholders expect at the core of any business’s survivability, it’s inevitable that AI will speed up the drive for organisations to do more with less people, especially as employing people is expensive. Working in IT or tech industries doesn’t provide immunity from this impact, as BT’s recent announcement highlights. BT is cutting more than 10,000 jobs due to new technology and AI over the next 6 years. For employees in any organisation, therefore, this isn’t a time to stick your head in the sand; it’s a time to scan the horizon, think about how your livelihood might be impacted, and assess your options for countering the threat. All is not completely bleak, however, because AI seems unlikely to replace jobs requiring human skills such as creativity, judgement, physical dexterity and emotional intelligence. If these dominate your job, then the immediate threat is limited.

Experimenting with Bing Chat brings much of the media debate and commentary on AI to life. It’s made the Badger think seriously about intellectual property, ethics, and things like the transparency of content origination in a world where services like Bing Chat cannot be ignored. The Badger believes people deserve to know if any of the content they read online has been generated using a service like Bing Chat or Google Bard. Well, if you’ve read this far, then you can be confident that what you’ve read has been created entirely by a human being. It contains nothing generated by Bing Chat or any other similar capability.

Science and technology change lives for the better…

In a phone call with the Badger last week, his cousin spoke proudly about their career in oceanographic science and engineering, and of how grateful they were for the science and technology advances of recent decades. His cousin specialised in producing and operating submersibles, and he expressed a little regret that his children had no interest in science and engineering because it was too difficult. We laughed, reminisced about science and technological advances during our lifetime, and jovially agreed that these advances underpinned everything that is good in the world. The conversation subsequently played on the Badger’s mind as he watched the coronation of King Charles III, the first coronation for 70 years, over the weekend.

Life was very different in 1953 when the last coronation took place. Rock and roll was in its infancy, music was listened to on radios or gramophones playing 78rpm discs, and only 10% of UK households had telephones. Central heating was a rarity and coal was the dominant fuel for heating homes. The rationing of petrol and sugar following World War II had just been lifted, the first commercial jet airliner service was barely a year old, and the USA announced it had a thermonuclear weapon. The only way of looking inside the human body was by X-rays, the first vaccine for polio became available, and Crick and Watson announced they had discovered the structure of DNA. In 1953 there was virtually no vandalism, swearing in public was an offence, men gave up their seats for women on buses and trains, and there was only 53 Kilobytes of high-speed random-access memory on the whole planet!

Roll forward 70 years to King Charles’ coronation and life is different due to the dramatic science and technology advances of the intervening decades. As the Badger watched the coronation events, his cousin’s words about being grateful for these advances echoed in his head, ostensibly for two reasons. The first was that advanced science and technology quietly underpinned everything associated with the coronation. The second was that his cousin sadly passed away the day before the event.

The Badger’s cousin was diagnosed with prostate cancer 14 years ago and given only months to live, but he took the opportunity to engage with a scientific research programme using experimental treatments which gave him many more years with his family, the satisfaction of knowing he was helping others, and validation of his belief that science and technology was a force for good. He felt that a good STEM education not only meant that the world was your oyster, but also that it enabled the ability to create things that change lives for the better. He wanted our younger generation to share his belief and overcome any fear that science and technology is too difficult. He was inspirational and will be sadly missed.

‘You are the weakest link’…

An email from British Telecom (BT) arrived in the Badger’s inbox last week. It communicated the ‘inflation plus 3.9%’ price rise of the Badger’s broadband in line with a  clause in his package contract. This was expected, but it was hard to take seriously BT’s accompanying narrative for the increase when the Badger can renew today with their promise of a free upgrade to fibre to the premises (FTTP) – if it becomes available during the new contract term – for 30% less than he’s currently paying!  BT, by the way,  appear unable to provide any date for when FTTP might be available in the area, and so the Badger considers their free upgrade promise as simply a marketing ploy of little tangible value.

As you might expect, the Badger’s started exploring the options for when his current broadband is out of contract in the summer. Last weekend, a mobile comms provider’s TV advert triggered the Badger to visit their website to look at their broadband offerings. The Badger didn’t dwell there long, but obviously long enough for their systems to kick into overdrive because over the following three days, there were a series of unsolicited calls from the same telephone number to the Badger’s landline. The Badger, as part of a long-embedded security and privacy discipline, never picks up landline calls from numbers that aren’t in his address book. A quick check of the caller’s number on who called me  revealed a ‘negative’ rating and that callers were, or purported to be, from the mobile comms provider whose website the Badger had visited. The number was blocked and after a couple of days the calls stopped.

There’s nothing particularly unusual about this because it’s a dynamic that many people will have experienced. However, it reminded the Badger to be conscious of the ‘smoke and mirrors’ of marketing, to carefully consider inflation-linked price clauses when shopping for broadband, and not to be complacent because everything you do online provides data that others, reputable or otherwise, will use for their own purposes. It’s easy to become complacent, and there are always consequences from your internet searches and website visits!

The Badger’s wife always blames today’s technology when nuisances like that described above occur. The Badger, however, always tactfully disagrees and highlights that its human behaviour and human complacency in interacting with technology, rather than the technology itself, that is a root cause. He always points out that it’s rarely the technology per se that leaks information to feed the perpetual media frenzies that are a feature of modern life, its people! On this occasion, however, the Badger made a tactical error by reminding his wife that she should be careful when online because ‘you are the weakest link’.  As true and generally pertinent as the phrase might be, it didn’t go down well…

Communications networks; one day the unthinkable will happen…

Almost two years ago the Badger wrote an item entitled ‘Connection lost, please move your unit closer to the meter, text which appeared on his home energy monitor when wireless connectivity to his domestic smart meter was lost. Today, the energy monitor and smart meter are in the same locations, the energy suppliers are the same, but energy has become a precious and expensive commodity due to world events. The Badger, like many, has been using his monitor in recent months to influence his energy usage, and he’s noticed that the ‘connection lost’ message has been slowly rising in frequency.    

Is the monitor faulty? Investigation suggests not. After eliminating possible sources of wireless interference, the Badger thinks the message might be triggered as a consequence of remote update activity associated with the smart meter and its communication network. It’s no big deal in the scheme of things, because powering the monitor off and on after the message appears usually re-establishes normal function. The message, however, has prompted the Badger to wonder more expansively about the wisdom of life that has digital communication networks at the heart of everything we do.  These days we seem to take things labelled ‘smart, ‘online’, ‘live’, ‘digital’, ‘streaming’, ‘driverless’, ‘cashless’, and ‘AI’ for granted and forget that they are all critically dependent on unseen communication networks.  What if catastrophe befell these networks? It’ll never happen, you might say, but have you given any thought to the impact on yourself or your family if it did? Probably not.

Our dependence on such networks is ever rising. Today, for example, the Badger cannot just turn up at his local community swimming pool, pay cash, have a swim, and pay cash for a post-swim coffee. A visit must be booked and paid for online in advance, and all refreshment and retail services at the pool are cashless. The Badger and the pool operator are thus already completely reliant on the unseen communication networks that are the ‘critical infrastructure’ of modern life. Most people assume that a truly catastrophic failure of this infrastructure is unthinkable because governments and enterprises know their importance and have policies, processes, and plans in place to mitigate the risks.  However, this assumption may be erroneous because, as events in recent years show, the unthinkable happens and plans may never be quite what they seem.

So, if you have a few minutes spare then give some thought to what you would do if a catastrophic network failure rendered everything ‘smart’, ‘online’, ‘live’,  ‘digital’, ‘streaming’, ‘driverless’, or ‘cashless’ unusable for weeks or more.  The Badger’s no doomster, but a life totally reliant on digitally connected services feels akin to placing all your eggs in one basket. That’s never a good idea because, as sure as eggs are eggs, one day the unthinkable will happen and we will all have to cope.    

Better Days…

As a New Year beckons, our thoughts naturally turn to what the future holds. Normally there’s a modicum of optimism that things will be better in the year ahead. The Badger’s found, however, that peering into the future is more challenging than usual given the prevailing uncertain and difficult times.  While he listened to a favourite music playlist and scratched his head as he read various online commentaries about tech trends for 2023 (here, here, and here, for example), the Badger found himself deciding that what most people wanted in the year ahead could be summed up in just three words, namely:

  • Trust that online information and news is trustworthy, that social media giants are held to account, and that our digital world is safe, secure, and lawful.
  • Stability in a day-to-day life that is sensibly protected against the downsides of globalisation, global supply chains, fractious geopolitics, and the weaponization of commodities and information. 
  • Confidence that public and commercial entities are not playing fast and loose with our personal data, and that they respect, value, and preserve individual privacy while using digital technology to make life better.  

Sadly, the Badger found that he’s not optimistic there’ll be much progress on these ‘wants’ in the year ahead. This created a dilemma! How could he write something at the end of the year that captured hope and a tinge of optimism? The eureka moment was provided by the playing music and the opening lyrics of the next song from the playlist:  

And you ask me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days
‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings
And desire and love and empty things
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

So take these words
And sing out loud
‘Cause everyone is forgiven now
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again

The Goo Goo Dolls melodic song ‘Better Days’  captures what the Badger feels that he and many others hope for in the year ahead, simply better days. So, if you make new year resolutions – and this applies regardless of whether you’re an ordinary citizen, a politician, an entrepreneur, a business executive, a scientist or engineer, self-employed, or economically inactive – then please shape them to make tomorrow a better day than today. Finally, just remember this; go forward with optimism – because the world can be a better place than it is today!

Exploding batteries…

A note in a Christmas card this week was not only a reminder that the imminent festive and New Year holidays aren’t always jolly occasions for some people, but also that our modern lives depend on rechargeable batteries. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, household devices, DIY tools, gardening equipment, and electric cars all have a battery at their heart, but do we fully appreciate the risks of having battery powered devices in our households? Probably not. We tend to take their safety for granted because they are certified to comply with requisite safety standards.

The Christmas card and the note therein was from a cousin. It conveyed Christmas greetings, and also information that the battery in their mobility scooter had recently exploded causing a fire and attendance by the fire brigade. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but smoke damage has rendered their home uninhabitable for the next six months.  The Badger phoned his cousin, who has poor mobility due to advanced cancer, and was impressed by their insistence on looking forward with positivity rather than dwelling on events and their new circumstances. The first thing they said was a line from the movie Forrest Gump, namely ‘My mama always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’’  Their objectivity and optimism was remarkable given their health and the stress of having their life turned upside down before Christmas.

A security video shows the mobility scooter, unplugged, not being charged, unused for a number of days, and covered by its standard weather-proof cover, simply burst into flames when the battery exploded! The fire brigade are now using this as part of their campaign to raise awareness of the potential fire hazards associated with rechargeable batteries in, for example, e-bikes, e-scooters, and …mobility scooters used by the infirm.

As we approach Christmas, the Badger’s intent here is not be alarmist,  but simply to make three points. The first is to not only encourage you to be aware of the risk that comes with the use and storage of equipment with rechargeable batteries, but also to raise the profile of related fire brigade safety campaigns. The second is to reinforce a point the cousin made in our conversation, namely that Christmas is not really about material things, it’s about people, community, and looking forward rather than dwelling too much on past tribulations. The third is simply to wish all readers a happy and safe Christmas and New Year, and to encourage optimistic thoughts whatever your personal circumstances. Oh, and there’s one final thing. After the Badger finished talking to his cousin, he felt overwhelmingly relieved that Santa’s sleigh for delivering Christmas presents to children across the world is powered by magical forces, and not by batteries that could explode!!!

There’s more to getting a smart education than ever-smarter technology…

With a bleak Winter on the horizon, Pink Floyd’s ‘We don’t need no education…’ grumbling from the radio, and Remembrance Day a few days away, thoughts about the grip that tech has on our lives have been a trifle melancholic. Remembrance Day is always poignant for the Badger. His grandfathers, who he never knew, served in the Army during WW1, and his father rarely spoke of his childhood, his life during WW2, or his post-war Army service. The poignancy is heightened this year because the horrors and hardships they endured are evident today in a Ukrainian family currently being hosted by a family member. Sadly, the tech-dominated ‘progress’ of the 21st century has done little to change the propensity for humans to inflict harm on other humans.  

Research has expanded the Badger’s knowledge of his forefathers’ lives, producing enormous pride, and admiration for their resilience in the face of adversity. One grandfather won two Military Medals for bravery in WW1. The other was invalided out of the Army after being gassed in the trenches, a primary factor in his death in early middle-age. The Badger’s father was a child evacuee from London when WW2 started in 1939. He was orphaned in 1942 and joined the Army in 1946 serving in a decimated post-war Germany, and then in Egypt. When pressed, he would only say that these experiences were ‘character-building’ and had influenced his three favourite sayings, namely ‘There’s no such thing as can’t, try’, ‘If you’ve got a problem, don’t bleat about it, deal with it’, and ‘Every day is a day for learning’. When the Badger was growing up, these were part of the parental soundtrack of life and became embedded attitudes. It was his father’s way of passing on lessons learned from difficult life experiences. 1

The Pink Floyd rendition here reminds the Badger that education has not only changed dramatically over the decades, but also that today’s Tech makes it easier, in some respects, to adopt an ‘Every day is a day for learning’ attitude. The days of blackboard and chalk, and throwing chalk at a pupil not paying attention, are gone! The smartest of educations, however, comes from complementing learning delivered by ever-smarter technology with face to face, non-virtual, cross-generational discussions with people sharing their experiences and life lessons. Part of the Badger’s melancholic tinge is due to a feeling that ever-smarter technology is progressively diluting this kind of learning. Another part is a feeling that whilst today’s world is different to that of his forefathers, it isn’t really any better. The melancholic tinge will no doubt fade in a few days. On Remembrance Day, the Badger will be paying tribute to his forefathers, and their values, with great pride. ‘Every day is a day for learning’ is very much part of their legacy. Make it part of yours too.

There’s no such thing as a grouchy old person…

The Badger has noted a rise recently in the ‘suggested for you’ items pushed to him on Facebook. Normally these items are simply ignored, but the other day when ‘Dumfries and Galloway! What’s going on?’ appeared as ‘suggested for you’ the Badger was intrigued. What had he been doing online recently that could make the algorithms behind the scenes conclude this might be of interest? After wracking his brain for a minute, the answer didn’t materialise. May be Facebook is desperately pushing anything to increase the time users stay on the platform? Perhaps, because user stickiness is, after all, core to social media business models, and Facebook will, no doubt, use whatever techniques it can to make money and counter waning user popularity.

The attention-grabber with the ‘Dumfries & Galloway’ item was simply the following headline text:   

‘There’s no such thing as a grouchy old person. The truth is, once you get old you stop being polite and start being honest.’

It made the Badger – who strives to be polite, honest, and never grouchy (although some may disagree) – chuckle, reflect, and realise that the sentiment conveyed by this text applies throughout our working lives and not just in our dotage.

Think back to when you left school, college, or university and entered the workforce. No matter how full of enthusiasm you were, you probably deferred to the views and decisions of colleagues ten or more years older than yourself because they were ‘old’ and more experienced. Now roll forward ten years to when you had married, acquired a large house mortgage, and perhaps a couple of young children. You were now part of the ranks at work that you once considered ‘old’, but you were still probably careful of openly disagreeing with ten-year older colleagues in senior positions to avoid putting your employment and salary income at risk.

Roll forward yet another ten years to when your mortgage is no longer a millstone, you have some financial security, and the children are finding their own way in life. You realise your career has plateaued, those ten-years older are retiring, that leaving the workforce is the next big personal milestone, and that you have nothing to fear from saying what you really think. Directness, impatience, and frustration come to the surface, and younger colleagues think you are just a grouchy ‘old’ person, which isn’t the case. You’ve just reached the part of the lifecycle where you realise that you can be completely true to yourself, and that politeness and saluting the corporate mast have their limits.

Always remember that throughout your career and whatever the role you have in your organisation, you are always ‘old’ to some. The ‘Dumfries and Galloway; What’s going?’ attention-grabber is a progressive truth, because there is no predefined age when you become ‘old’. It’s worth remembering that.

The ‘Decade of Great Correction’…

The Badger chuckled after chatting to an elderly lady going to the shops on a mobility scooter. They had commented on not only the state of the world and the impact it was having on them personally, but also on the puritanism and woke culture that’s made them cautious about talking to strangers in case they say something that causes offence. They also complained that people are too ready to accept what they read in the press and on social media, and that this meant we are all doomed before the decade is out! This prompted the Badger to cogitate on how historians might ultimately label our current decade.

Thoughts were consolidated over an americano in a local coffee shop. The Badger concluded two things. Firstly, that the online world hasn’t changed the basic fact that fretting about the state of the real world and its personal impact is an inherent part of both life and the human psyche. Online facilities have merely expanded the universe of what we can worry about! Secondly, that historians will label the 2020’s as the ‘Decade of Great Correction’ because the enormous breadth of difficult circumstances is fundamentally changing behaviours.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered seismic waves of change across social, economic, and political fronts. Personal attitudes, values, behaviours, and habits are changing as a result, and the ramifications will reverberate through the rest of the decade. The tech sector is not immune to these changes. Peloton and Zoom, for example, are already encountering tougher times, streaming services are worried about subscriber levels, social media platforms are coming under increasing regulatory scrutiny and geo-political influence, and consumers are savvier about the online world.

The Russia/Ukraine conflict has caused multidimensional disruption contributing to a dramatic rise in inflation everywhere. Individuals and businesses alike are struggling to survive with soaring energy prices, something that’s likely to persist given superpower relationships do not seem conducive to stability in the world. Overlaid on this is an unfolding global recession, an unwinding of the quantitative easing that has damaged people’s prudency regarding personal savings since the 2009 financial crash, and rising interest rates that will stress those who borrowed heavily during the era of cheap money. And then there’s climate change…

A correction in most people’s lifestyles is afoot (see an unusual sign here, for example). Many will retrench from consumerism and materialism to the same core priorities as our ancestors, namely shelter, putting food on the table, and protecting loved ones. This will impact industrial, social, and political dynamics for years to come. The ‘Decade of Great Correction’ thus seems an apt descriptor for the 2020s!

The Badger finished his coffee. He left the shop wondering if it would still be there once their next utility bill arrived.