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!

‘Stench’ – a virtual fragrance for the festive season?

If you work for an organisation that takes the development of its people seriously then you’ll have attended courses with elements that sensitise you to the importance of body language when engaging with others. The Badger was first sensitised to this when attending two short courses in quick succession many years ago. The first course covered interviewing and recruiting new graduates, and the second covered leading software and system development teams. Both featured personal interaction sessions that were videoed and critiqued by the trainers and other attendees – a very effective way of learning about the powerful signals our body language conveys. Since then, and with many other courses under the belt, the Badger has been in many situations where controlling one’s body language and watching that of others has helped to convert difficult circumstances into acceptable outcomes.

People have been communicating with each other for millennia. We are conditioned by our heritage to know that the best communication happens when we are physically face to face so that we can hear what’s said and simultaneously see the physical nuances of those in the same room. Modern technology, however, encourages instant communication that is devoid of a contextual body language component. Email’s a good example. How many times have you sent an email that’s been misinterpreted when read by recipients? More times than we all care to admit. The body language component is missing from the words.

Another example is the recent Elon Musk v Vernon Unsworth court case relating to comments made on Twitter. A jury found in favour of Mr Musk. His offending Tweets were judged to be essentially ‘playground insults’ rather than real defamatory insults. The Badger has no opinion on the right or wrong of this finding, that’s a matter for the courts, but isn’t it somewhat sad that the finding seems to legitimise trading hurtful insults using modern social media platforms like Twitter? Surely this isn’t good for society? ‘Playground insults’ normally take place in a real playground where words are said with body language visible. Surely if it’s okay to trade ‘playground insults’ using Twitter, then that’s clear evidence that civilisation is crumbling into an anarchistic morass?

After the Musk ruling, one of the Badger’s friends commented – admittedly after more mulled wine than prudent – that Twitter should invent a virtual fragrance called ‘Stench’ for anyone who wants to make playground insults using its platform over the forthcoming festive season. The Badger laughed, because the amusing and playful intent was clear in their words and body language. We laughed again when we decided that ‘playground insults’ should stay in a real playground and not be traded in the virtual world. Why? Because ‘playground fisticuffs’ are a much cheaper and more effective way of resolving playground disputes than resorting to lawyers. Oh, and finally, in case you’re wondering, for the avoidance of doubt and all that, none of this is intended to insult anyone or any organisation!

Have you been asked to ‘drain the swamp’ to fix a project?

Having a meal with Jack and his wife Jill recently raised the possibility that ‘draining the swamp’ has become a popular mantra within companies when they need to fix project delivery problems. Jack and Jill, by the way, are not their real names. Jack is an old friend and works as a project manager for a large defence contractor. He has just been asked by his line manager and a company executive to fix a seriously underperforming project by ‘draining the swamp’. The project is haemorrhaging money, seriously missing milestones, and has a demoralised and unproductive team. The client no longer believes the project team, or the company, can deliver. Jack ’s the fourth Project Manager appointed to fix things in the last nine months. Sound familiar?

The Badger asked why Jack could fix things when three others couldn’t. Jack said he was confident that he had the full support of line and executive leadership. They wanted him to ‘drain the swamp’ in order to avoid expensive litigation being threatened by the client. Jack wondered if the Badger had any thoughts. After a mouthful of mellow Merlot, the Badger offered three thoughts. Firstly, executives and line managers are just as much part of ‘the swamp’ as you, me, or any project team. Secondly, executives and line managers will support you 100%…until it suits them not to! Thirdly, to ‘drain the swamp’ you need to understand the swamp’s nature, which means understanding people and their behaviours.

Jack grinned and thanked the Badger for reminding him that those who appointed him are just as much part of ‘the swamp’ as his project team. He intended to keep that in mind when trying to ‘drain the swamp’. We chuckled at the thought that life came from a swamp, and while ‘the swamp’ today is different… it’s still a swamp!

Over dessert, Jill – who has dual UK & US nationality – moved our ‘draining the swamp’ conversation into the realms of President Trump, US politics and political turmoil in the UK. She expressed strong views about the abuse politicians get via the internet and social media, and lamented that ‘it wasn’t like this 25 years ago’! Jill wondered what had changed.

A lively debate ensued, but the answer was simple. Politicians are, and have always been, just one of the life forms in ‘the swamp’. Unlike 25 years ago, all life in ‘the swamp’ now has an instant and global voice via the internet and social media. Technology has changed the dynamics of ‘the swamp’, much to the distaste of some of the life forms that live in it!  We ended the meal with a final glass of wine, wishing Jack well with his challenge, and with just one final conclusion – there’s no going back…

‘Techlash’…’Backlash’…An inevitable part of the lifecycle of progress…

A copy of New Scientist from early 2018 caught the Badger’s eye while sitting in a waiting room recently. It looked out of place in the pile of well-thumbed healthy living, home, and gardening magazines, but it was much more interesting to read. As expected, it contained a plethora of interesting snippets on a variety of science and technology topics, but one short piece about ‘techlash’ – the growing disgruntlement with giant technology companies – struck a particular chord. The article may be 20 months old but it’s still relevant, as are similar Economist and Politico items of similar vintage.

Techlash’ continues. Today everyone has more awareness of the ugly side of tech from giants like Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google and Chinese equivalents, and even more snail-paced European and US politicians are demanding tougher regulation and controls. None of this should be a surprise. Why? Because most things that are initially lauded to be good for business, people, or society eventually suffer some kind of ‘backlash’. Fossil fuels, plastics, deforestation, privatisation, globalisation, outsourcing and offshoring are cases in point. All have at some stage over the years been viewed as ‘good for business/society/people’ and have made helped raise living standards, but they’re now all subject to question or a ‘backlash’ of one kind or another.

So, what’s at the heart of this lifecycle of ‘progress’ followed by ‘backlash’? Human psychology. In particular, our herd instinct and desire for social conformity, as this short video neatly illustrates. We tend to go with the herd to stay safe, and when the herd gets spooked and changes direction for whatever reason then we do too!

The Badger returned the New Scientist to the magazine pile and then read a news item about AI and robotics on his smartphone. It made the Badger not only think about the Terminator films and the recent ‘I am Mother’ film, but also conclude that some kind of ‘backlash’ against AI and robots is inevitable in the future!

‘Backlash’ and ‘techlash’ are words that describe antagonistic reactions to problematic trends, developments or events. Such reactions are a response to a problem, and where there’s a problem there must be a wrongdoer to blame! So, who creates the problems that spawn any ‘backlash’ or indeed the current ‘techlash’? Look in the mirror and you’ll see the culprit. If we as individuals took more time to think, resisted the herd by being truer to our own feelings, instincts and beliefs from the outset, then the world will be a better place for everyone. The chances of that happening? Slim – because we are human.

Has ‘Tech’ made life ‘better’ today than it was at the time of 9/11?

9/11 happened 18 years ago. Most people will always remember what they were doing when it happened. The Badger was at work dealing with a major IT programme when the phone rang. It was the Badger’s young son wanting reassurance that his father was safe and not working in a London skyscraper! Reassurance was given, and the Badger then visited the BBC’s news website and was horrified by what he saw.

This year’s 9/11 anniversary and a recent BBC radio interview with Brad Smith from Microsoft triggered some musing on how far digital tech has changed life since that auspicious day in 2001when:

• There was no Facebook, Twitter, or Google News, Gmail, or Google Maps.
• The USA had only just made GPS signals available for civilian use.
• Microsoft XP and the first Apple iPod had just been released.
• There were no Apple iPhones or Android phones and digital cameras were rare.
• Satnavs didn’t exist and there were no Smart Meters or Smart Motorways.
• Drones were the domain of the military and were not available on the High Street for the general public.
• Music and films were purchased mainly as CDs or DVDs.
• The first commercial 3G mobile networks were only just becoming available.
• The dot.com bubble was bursting.
• Widespread IT outsourcing and offshoring was in it’s infancy.
• Our data was very much in our own hands.

How things have changed! Think for a few minutes and it’s apparent that tech and social media proliferation have provided ‘convenience’ for the average person but at the expense of privacy, disruption and perhaps freedom. Are we freer with a better quality of life today than in 2001? Life is certainly different, but it’s difficult to answer ‘yes’ when instant misinformation, manipulation and distortion abounds, and giant organisations know where you are, what you sound like, what you buy, your likes and dislikes, and sell your data for commercial gain. Ethics and regulation have not kept pace and so it’s heartening to now see Microsoft’s President saying sensible things about ‘tech firms stopping their ‘‘if it’s legal, it’s acceptable’ approach’ , AI ethics and weaponization. But will anything really change with such powerful vested interests involved? Let’s see.

It’s sobering to realise that those born at that time of 9/11 are now entering the workforce, or going to University, as fully-fledged digital natives whose life data is already extensively in the hands of others. That wasn’t the case for 18-year-olds in 2001. Tech and social media have made the lives of today’s youngsters ‘different’ to the 18-year-olds of 2001, but are their lives actually any ‘better’? Has tech really made the world a better place than it was in 2001? Try debating that at a dinner party if you want some fun. The most interesting views will emerge after copious amounts of wine…

Quiz night, ‘What 3 Words’, and is tech solving problems that aren’t really problems?

The following questions were asked during a quiz night at the Badger’s local Public House:

Who said ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions’?

What geolocation mechanism can locate you anywhere in the world to a 3mx3m square?

The Badger’s team got the answer to the first one right, Albert Einstein, but we got the second one wrong. Our answer was GPS, but the quiz master said the answer was ‘What 3 Words’ – which you can find out about here and here and a specific example of its use here. The Badger’s team complained loudly, but to no effect. Why? Because it transpired the quiz master is a fan of the ‘What 3 Words’ smartphone app. Although the Badger’s team were not quiz night winners, the Einstein and ‘What 3 Words’ answers triggered a subsequent lively debate over rather more post-quiz beverages than prudent!

The debate centred on ‘Is tech increasingly solving problems that aren’t really problems?’. One team member cited digital number plates on cars (see here and here) as an example of something motivated only by making money. They speculated the ‘solution’ had been invented in 5 minutes and that 55 minutes had then been spent trying to invent the problem it was trying to solve. A reversal of Einstein’s wise words! Another team member was adamant that ‘What 3 Words ‘ is unnecessary given GPS is routinely part of modern smartphones. The Badger’s contribution to the debate was simply this. Entrepreneurs will always have ideas for making money, marketeers will always try to persuade us we need their solution to solve a problem or inconvenience we didn’t know we had, and we should never take tech at face value and always understand what’s happening to our data if we want our private lives to be just that…private.

Oiled by the beverages, the debate boisterously descended into a game that invented amusing word combinations, aka ‘What 3 Words’, for the location of well-known landmarks. For example, orange.ballon.home and wooden.plank.palace were proposed for the entrances to the US White House and UK Houses of Parliament, respectively! Eventually seriousness returned, and we concluded that tech should focus on solving the real problems of life and the planet, and not things that make us lazy or mean we don’t need to learn for ourselves or take personal responsibility for our actions.

At the end of the night all the team got up to leave except for one individual who said they’d stay to be like Einstein and spend 55 minutes thinking about a problem – whether they could actually get up to leave – even though they’d already thought of a solution – to just stay at single.malt.whiskey and have another drink. Did we laugh…just a bit…

What’s more important….Fortnite, or an education?

The Badger’s never played Fortnite and has never really embraced gaming as a natural pastime, so the recent Fortnite World Championships – apparently one of the top 10 ‘eSport’ events of 2019 – have been an education!

Apart from playing an occasional motor racing game on X-Box with younger family members when pestered to do so, the Badger’s gaming experience centres on Space Invaders, Asteroids, Flight Simulator, and Pac-Man from decades ago. Today games are much more sophisticated, addictive money-making machines and gaming is big business. In 2018, for example, consumers apparently spent $43 billion in the USA alone. It’s also yet another reminder of how hardware and software has rapidly developed and changed personal entertainment.

Video and computer gaming have never been part of the Badger’s lifestyle, but it clearly is for many millennials and post-millennials. That’s fine…after all, every generation is different! However, as parents we should always worry if our offspring are seduced into spending many, many hours a day gaming. Responsible parents, of course, always try to inject balance and common sense, even when rebellious offspring may not be receptive. It’s important to persevere now that gaming has morphed into ‘eSport’ with life-changing amounts of prize money winnable by youngsters whose adult life experience is limited.

In the Fortnite World Championships a 16-year old from Pennsylvania won $3m and a 15-year old Brit has pocketed close to £1m. Yesterday morning the Badger listened to a radio interview with the 15-year old and his mother with a mixture of horror and pride. Horror that the youngster spends up to 10 hours a day playing the game, and pride that his mother has fought hard to make sure he concentrates on schoolwork and getting a good education. Even though her son has won a lot of money, his mother didn’t sound as if she’d be backing off from insisting her son concentrates on his education. Good on her!

The interview also triggered a question from the Badger’s wife! The one in the title of this blog item. The Badger’s answer? Education, obviously. Why, she asked, given the speed with which the world and society is changing and you’re a dinosaur? That last bit hurt! The Badger’s answer was this. Because education arms people with the widest set of interests, awareness, skills and tools to help survive the broad rigours of real life in a modern society, and Fortnite doesn’t. With education your life can go in many different directions, as the Badger has found. Without it comes vulnerability, especially in such a fast-changing world.

The Badger’s wife just smiled. She suggested that since the Badger was already educated, he should invent an eSport for ‘the dinosaur generation’! Now there’s a thought…didn’t see that coming.

Social Media; Key for heritage and social history

Some years ago, volunteers in the village where the Badger grew up created a Facebook ‘nostalgia’ group to share heritage information, reminiscences and photographs about the village and its community. It has a large membership and the volunteers do a great job maintaining the site’s focus and content. This week there was a post with a black and white photo the Badger had never seen before but instantly recognised the people in it. The photo, taken in the 1960s, was of a bunch of 8 to 12-year old children, the Badger’s friends and playmates of the time!

Memories came flooding back. Our ‘gang’ had great fun. Our parents let us out in the morning, and we played outdoors in the fresh air all day, only returning at mealtimes. We climbed trees and built dens in the woods, played ‘Cowboys and Indians’, hide and seek, hopscotch, skipping, football and cricket, and rode rickety bikes. Halcyon days! Families eventually moved and we all grew up, losing touch in the process. The photo, however, triggered a spurt of additional posts that showed the ‘gang’ are alive and kicking, all be it widely spread geographically. And most of us are members of the village nostalgia group!

The photo provided an instant reminder of just how different life is for today’s children. The photo’s in black and white because that was the norm for a time when the family camera was used mainly for special occasions or events. Back then television was black and white, a household telephone was a luxury, and roads were not clogged with cars. We made our own fun outdoors and considered the cuts and bruises from our adventures to be badges of honour. Photos like this one tended to be consigned to the family album and were rarely widely shared. They come to light – as this one has – when parents have passed away, and someone shares them using today’s technology so they can become an accessible part of the Badger generation’s social history!

In 50-years’ time, when today’s children look back at their own social history, they’ll have a rich tapestry of text, digital photos, sounds, and videos captured as they happened and readily stored for posterity in the cloud. Their generation’s social history will be comprehensive, much more accessible, and they’ll be able to see, hear, and re-live their own halcyon days at the press of a button. Will they be interested in that strange time immediately before the internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, personal computers, games consoles, smart devices, digital photography, wearable tech, and global communication enabling the instant sharing of opinions, concerns and content? The Badger hopes so, because looking at history and its social artefacts helps to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Finally, a thank you to Facebook – for once. The village’s heritage would be less accessible without it and the Badger’s ‘gang’ would be lost forever.