Describe the dynamics of today’s digital world in one word…

Would you find it easy or hard to describe the dynamics of our modern digital world in one word? Would one word immediately come to mind, or would you need time to think before deciding? Rather than decide yourself, would you prefer to converge on a word via a group discussion? What would your word be? An ex senior civil servant, in their eighties with a razor-sharp mind, asked these questions in a recent conversation. The Badger took the easy option, answered ‘don’t know’, and we moved on to other things. The questions, however, have bugged the Badger ever since, and so as Storm Eunice buffeted the windows, he settled in his study listening to a playlist of favourite music to decide his answers.

The answer for the first question was ‘it’s hard’. In fact, it took much longer than expected to decide on one word to answer the last question. The answers to the second and third questions came quick and were straightforward. They were, respectively, time to think rather than spontaneity, and deciding for himself rather than potentially succumbing to  groupthink’. The word the Badger ultimately converged on as the answer to the last question was ‘Creep’.

The word has enormous breadth. In materials technology, ‘creep’ is the movement and permanent deformation of a solid under persistent load ultimately leading to failure. Glaciers and lead on church roofs are simple illustrations of the phenomenon. ‘Scope creep’, when requirements drift away from agreed baselines due to client pressure and poor controls, is well-known to those running businesses, projects, programmes, or service delivery. This kind of ‘creep’ often leads to financial problems, commercial disputes, and serious delays. And then, of course, ‘creep’ is sometimes used to describe people who are unpleasant, untrustworthy, insincere, or are just plain odd in their habits, interests, and behaviours.

Creep’ seems a more realistic descriptor for the dynamics of our modern digital world than the word ‘change’. For example, our insatiable demand for resources and fossil fuels is producing creep deformation of aspects of our planet to the point of crisis and questions about our sustainability on it. Additionally, digital innovation and fast technological advancement represents a persistent stress on businesses, governments, and the public producing the erosive creep of personal privacy to the point where societal rupture is a risk. Similarly, the need for social media platforms to keep people engaged and active is causing the creep of fact, news, and sensible debate into just disinformation, misinformation, abuse, and entertainment fuelling growing distrust and antipathy. ‘Creep’, of course, can still be used to describe some people, and it seems particularly apt today for politicians and so-called elites!

Oh, and ‘Creep’, by the way, is a great song by Radiohead! What would your one word to describe the dynamics of today’s world be?

Meta matters and madness…

The spectacular drop in Meta’s (Facebook) share price last week has attracted much comment in the media. The drop, which shows up impressively on share price charts like the 1-year one available here, was triggered by a fall in active daily users for the first time in 18 years. It came as little surprise to the Badger who’s long thought a) that Richard Holway at TechMarketView is right in saying that Facebook’s been a toxic brand for some time, and b) that this behemoth is past its prime and way too big and arrogant for its boots!

In the world of business, of course, there’s always ups and downs, crises, and negotiations of all kinds, but when Meta threatens to shutdown Facebook and Instagram in Europe over transatlantic data transfer regulations, then it’s arrogance is plain to see especially when it’s our data that’s at the heart of the matter.  This sabre rattling  received a  ‘Life would be very good without Facebookriposte from the EU. Together with the impact of Apple’s ad-tracking change, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the failure of its Libra crypto currency ambitions, and its risky bet on the ‘Metaverse’, it’s hardly surprising that a wobble in active daily users in core geographies triggered worry about the future and impacted the share price, especially when the company’s already a bête noire amongst the tech giants. The Badger senses that Meta’s future doesn’t look rosy unless there’s huge change.

Having had a presence on Facebook for more than a decade, changes in the way the Badger and his Facebook friends have used the platform perhaps illustrates why a drop in usage should be no surprise. A decade ago, we regularly uploaded and shared photos, registered our location when travelling, shared life events, plans, thoughts, highs and lows, interests, and funny experiences. Today, however, none of us do this. We just post something minimal very occasionally, monitor a few items of ‘followed’ content, and ignore sponsored items or adverts that the platform pushes at us. As one friend put it, ‘Facebook’s a disease we’ve learned that we have to manage to protect ourselves’. If this sentiment is widespread, then more bad news will emerge because it isn’t just younger people deserting the platform, it’s older ones reducing their usage too!

Finally, there’s a madness in society whereby Meta has the power to resist all attempts at having content and media laws that apply in the real world applied to it in the virtual world. There’s little sign of this madness soon dissipating, but at least the fall in share price is a timely warning for Meta and everyone else that no company is too big to fail. The future’s never certain, but with Meta there is a certainty. It’s unlikely to be out of the news anytime soon.

The Web at 30, and getting cancelled…

There’s an interesting article entitled ‘Going global: the world the Web has wrought’ in this month’s edition of Physicsworld, the member magazine of the Institute of Physics. It covers how the Web has taken over the world in the last 30 years and the role of physicists and programmers in enabling this to happen. The article points out that the benefits of the Web have not come without tremendous economic and social dislocations, and its last sentence – ‘The world has indeed been transformed by the Web, but not entirely for the better’ – captures a truth that resonates with those whose careers spanned the Web’s progression.

The Badger made this ‘not entirely for the better’ point to a neighbour’s daughter, home from university for the weekend, and got a lecture in response! The Badger is a fuddy-duddy, apparently, whose opinions are irrelevant because his generation are responsible for everything that’s wrong and the Web has brought people nothing but good. Hmm! Resisting the urge to argue, the Badger just smiled and calmly suggested the young lady’s view might change on gaining more life experience after university. With a stare that could kill, she stormed off!

At the local supermarket later, the Badger bumped into her mother who apologetically mentioned that her daughter had ‘cancelled’ the Badger. She then said, ‘Join the club; last week she told me that I was cancelled too’. We laughed. The youngster’s mum theatrically rolled her eyes and then wryly bemoaned the amount of time her daughter spent surfing the Web. Being told you’re cancelled was a new experience, but not a bothersome one because it’s an absurdity that just illustrates the ‘not entirely for the better’ point about the transformational impact of the Web.

Many in our younger generations today seem intent on banning, reinterpreting, or cancelling anyone or anything from earlier times because it might offend. Enabling the growth of a sentiment which redefines the truth and facts of earlier eras stands out as one of the Web’s ‘not entirely for the better’ transformational impacts. Microsoft’s new ‘inclusivity checker’ in Word, see here and here,  is a simple example of the sentiment’s pervasiveness. In the Badger’s view, the words actually written by authors, songsters, and spoken by famous people in earlier times are the facts of their era and suggesting ‘inclusivity’ modifications for them just promotes the breeding of a denial and dishonesty in society that future generations will regret.

From the Badger’s experience above, it seems that all you must do to be cancelled is point out that the Web is ‘not entirely for the better’, be of an older generation, and stand up for the preservation of the language and facts of history, no matter how uncomfortable they may be in a modern setting. If that’s the case, the Web is facilitating the slide to a cultural oblivion that future generations don’t deserve.

Notable events, Weather & Sport – News

The Badger spent most of last week hospitalised in a (non-covid) ward bay with five others from various backgrounds and with a range of ailments. With everyone laid up without family visits, a ‘Band of Brothers’ spirit and strong camaraderie quickly developed. There was lots of time for personal observation, contemplation, and collective discussion on a myriad of topics. One of the key things we all quickly realised, however, was not only the huge benefit that having a smartphone or tablet provided, but also the corrosive effect of the perpetual information that’s a feature of the modern world.

Everyone had a smartphone or a tablet computer with them on admission. The devices, connected to free NHS Wi-Fi, were our personal critical infrastructure for regular voice and video contact with family, browsing the internet, streaming music, and listening to podcasts, radio, and TV. They were our sole conduit to the outside world. However, while everyone in the bay had different interests, internet browsing patterns, and different affinities with social media, it was quickly evident that every one of our ‘Band of Brothers’ distrusted anything they saw or heard via their devices that purported to be news-related!

As one of our illustrious band pointed out, we’re bombarded today by stuff  that  purports to be news, but which is really just a stream of mania, ignorance, babble, bile, character assassination, vendetta, and envy, all of which just spreads confusion, fear and anxiety throughout society. It’s hard to disagree! The reporting of a  truly ‘notable event’ in news is no longer crisp, clear and factual because it’s intertwined with misinformation, speculation, and distorted gossip polluted by social media, celebrity,  and hidden agendas. The internet and the smart devices in our hands have rendered traditional purveyors of news old hat. Even institutions like the BBC struggle to separate fact from fiction and to be impartial. The BBC TV News Channel has been in decline since 2012, and in 2019 Facebook was the third most used news source in England.  OFCOM’s 2020-21 annual report on the BBC also shows that audiences continue to question the BBC’s impartiality.  

The Badger’s hospital stay starkly brought home that news has become a mishmash of skewed information, sound bites, dubious analysis, gossip, celebrity, and organisational agenda rather than fact. Harsh, perhaps, but that’s what all in our ‘Band of Brothers’  felt! The ‘Band of Brothers’ are now all at home and looking forward to Christmas, thankful for the benefit their personal tech provided in hospital, but defiantly against  the babble and unproductive mania that confronts us every day. We made a pact! If  Santa Clause comes under threat, then we’ll start a revolution! And on that note, the Badger thanks you for reading his musings in 2021 and wishes you and your families a happy Christmas and a productive 2022.

Digital pollution

The High Street, closed to traffic, was crowded with people for the  annual Christmas Street Market. The numerous stalls selling craft items, festive decorations, food, and drink were doing good business. A group of ladies from Rock Choir sang songs and the smell of mulled wine hung enticingly in the air. Turnout was impressive. Everyone was enjoying themselves, especially after covid forced the market’s cancellation last year. Amongst the stalls there some booths where charities and campaign groups were drumming up support for their cause. One of these was manned by a millennial climate change campaigner who radiated enthusiasm. The  crowd moved unexpectedly, and before he could take evasive action the campaigner engaged the Badger in conversation!

Their spiel was well-practiced. Fossil fuels are bad, the oil, plastics, and chemical industries are all irresponsible polluters driven by corporate greed, and people who travel by plane or car are killing the planet. The Badger had no appetite for a prolonged debate, so he pointed to the campaigner’s iPad and to heir colleague listening to music on a smartphone and politely said, ‘You should be looking at your own digital pollution’. Movement of the crowd enabled the Badger to move on before the campaigner, slightly taken aback, could respond.

The Badger’s interest in digital pollution was heightened recently by both reading some articles (e.g. here, here, and here) and getting frustrated at a recent surge in irrelevant emails and ‘you might like’ social media content all of which just got ignored and deleted.  Every email, every interaction with the cloud, every search of the internet, every stream of a song or film, every social media post, every piece of online commentary, argument, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda, and every piece of digital advertising and marketing, not only comes with an emissions price, but also pollutes our well-being – as neatly articulated here.  Digital pollution is real; it has an emissions footprint and an insidious effect on our psychological well-being by affecting our emotional and intellectual capacity. On both counts this is worrying because emissions from building, delivering, and using digital technology already make up 4% of global emissions  and some are predicting an eight-fold rise in data traffic by 2030.

Our digital world has many benefits, but it comes with a form of pollution that’s much less obvious than the oil slicks and plastic flotsam we can readily see. Every interaction with data and online content comes with an emissions price and an insidious impact on how we think, feel, and behave. Just keep this in mind every time you use email, search the internet, and use online services and social media. Young campaigners at Christmas Markets should have digital pollution higher on their agenda. If it’s ignored, then in years to come their children and grandchildren will inevitably blame them for inaction on all of its polluting effects.

Nothing lasts forever…

Facebook Inc and Mr Zuckerberg, Founder, Chairman, and CEO  and largest shareholder by far,  haven’t had a good few weeks.  The recent outage of its platforms irritated users globally and it seriously embarrassed the company, especially when it emerged that its internal systems were impacted too. A sizeable chunk of 3 billion users were affected leading to much press comment on what happened – see here, for example. In addition, a whistle-blower interviewed on US TV, by the Wall Street Journal, and questioned by a US congressional committee  provided an insight to the company that was both damaging and a reinforcement of the widespread perception that the company’s  overwhelming focus is on capturing users and monetising their data over anything else.

At two o’clock in the morning recently, the Badger found himself cogitating on Facebook’s woes while listening in the dark to an unrelated BBC World Service programme during which a professor frequently made the point that ‘nothing lasts forever’.  The professor’s truism struck a chord that felt relevant to the social media giant whose dominance has grown progressively since it floated publicly in 2012.    Now, just a decade since it floated and with recent events reinforcing concerns about its power, the clamour for regulation and even break-up is gaining real momentum in politicians of all persuasions. It feels like Facebook is now truly facing ‘nothing is forever’ headwinds. As pointed out here, it’s not technology that’s at the root of the company’s problems and negative perceptions, it’s the business model.  

Cogitations in the dark about the outage and whistle-blower claims crystalised into raised eyebrows that Facebook could have internal and external facing systems impacted by the same single point of failure, and ambivalence about the whistle-blower’s assertions given that truth is rarely as purported by one party in an argument.  Thoughts moved on to how the Badger’s use of the company’s social media platforms has significantly waned over the years as a greater appreciation of how the company uses and monetises content developed. Then there was a moment of clarity in the darkness. ‘Nothing lasts forever’ applies directly to Mr Zuckerberg’s roles as Founder, Chairman, and Chief Executive too!

Mr Zuckerberg holds both the Chairman and CEO roles, which many will argue provides a clear line of command through the whole company. However, it places a disproportionate authority in the hands of one individual.  The two roles are different, and the best corporate governance principles hold that they shouldn’t be held by the same individual. Facebook floated almost 10 years ago and so perhaps it’s time for Mr Zuckerberg to realise that ‘nothing lasts forever’ and that the time is right for him to step back and let others navigate the choppy waters of the company’s future?  With this thought in mind, the Badger turned the radio off and went to sleep.  

Welcome to the metaverse…

As the Badger walked to the local High Street to meet friends, the heavens opened dumping lots of rain on anyone without a coat or an umbrella. Luckily, the local train station was just along the road and a quick sprint for its shelter meant a complete soaking was avoided. Sheltering with others in the station’s ticket hall, the Badger messaged his friends to say he’d be late, and then browsed his smartphone’s news feeds until the rain stopped. Everyone in the ticket hall was doing something similar. In fact, the bedraggled crowd looked like something from a zombie apocalypse, but without any blood.  

A news item entitled ‘PC, internet, smartphone: what’s the next big technological epoch?’ caught the Badger’s eye. Its content answered the question by building on a core 2014 suggestion that the tech/IT industry has evolved through three ‘epochs’, each defined by a core technology and a killer app. The three epochs, in time order, were the advent of the PC, the internet, and mobile computing now epitomised by today’s smartphone. If this last epoch is now peaking, then what’s the next epoch technology for the industry? One possibility suggested is metaverses, a term covering a range of virtual realities covering the workplace, entertainment, and community platforms.  Facebook, apparently, wants to become an online metaverse, but that, in itself, is enough to be wary about a metaverse future.   

As the rain eased, the Badger decided it’s unlikely that metaverses, a word that sounds like marketing technobabble, are the next epoch technology. If they are, then we will have to let companies use even more of our data and also accept a further erosion of personal privacy. Many of us will be reticent about doing this given experiences with social media over the last decade. It also seems unlikely that most of us would want to live our personal and professional lives in virtual worlds when, as the pandemic has shown, we crave the touch, smells, textures, physical interactions with friends and colleagues, and the normal rhythms of the real world that we inhabit.   

The rain stopped, and the Badger resumed his journey, walking briskly and dodging the puddles. Just as the destination came into sight, the heavens opened again.  With mother nature exercising its power with another climate change cloudburst, wondering about the next big epoch in the tech industry felt like an irrelevance. A damp Badger finally arrived and chatted with his friends over coffee. None of them are in the least bit interested in metaverses. One, who’s proud of being ‘a digital native and a digital dinosaur’, pointed out that real life is about much, much, more than bits and bytes manipulated by clever hardware and software. They are so right. It’s very hard to see how metaverses can be an epoch technology that will make real life much better.  

Indelible memories of 9/11…

Saturday is the 20th anniversary of the atrocity that killed thousands of innocent people at the World Trade Centre in New York.  If you weren’t there then it’s almost certain that you watched the harrowing event play out on television screens on that fateful Tuesday, 11th September 2001. It was a heinous crime, horrifying to watch on TV in a different country, and it left people with indelible memories wherever they were in the world on that day. These memories are often specific and deeply personal, and two of the Badger’s, for example, are as follows.

The first is of how the Badger became aware of the tragedy at work in a building outside London, some 3,500 miles from New York. Sitting in his office pouring over project documents relating to a 200-strong development team resident in the same building, the Badger was oblivious to the unfolding horror until his concentration was broken by a telephone call from his teenage son. In a voice dripping with concern, his son’s first words were ‘Where are you? Are you okay and somewhere safe? Have you seen the news?’.  The Badger was surprised by his son’s unexpected, anxiety-laden, words. It quickly transpired that he thought his father was in London and that ‘London would be the next target’. The profound relief of his son when the Badger answered reassuringly has proved unforgettable. After the call, the Badger went to a news website, saw a picture of a blazing tower, and knew that the world would be changing.   

The second is of a meeting the following day in London. It involved two people from the company’s Lexington-based subsidiary, 10 miles from downtown Boston. The pallor, demeanour, and body language of two shocked people who had travelled to London the previous Sunday for a week of business meetings with UK-based leaders was unforgettable.  The Badger’s boss, who chaired the meeting, set the original agenda aside to concentrate on their well-being and needs. They were grateful because all they really wanted to do was get back to Boston as quickly as possible to be with their families.  Their professionalism and patriotism while highly stressed, emotionally vulnerable, stuck in a foreign country due to the grounding of planes, and concerned for their loved ones, was hauntingly memorable.   

We should remember that at the time of 9/11 the internet was pedestrian by today’s standards.  It didn’t dominate our lives then, and the likes of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iPhones, Android phones, and tablet computers didn’t exist.  If today’s smartphones, social media platforms, and streaming had existed in 2001 then the trauma and immediate personal suffering of those caught up inside the towers would have been horrifyingly at our fingertips in real-time. Today’s tech means life is different to 20 years ago, but we should perhaps be thankful that it didn’t exist at the time of 9/11 because the trauma experienced by everyone everywhere would have been worse by orders of magnitude.    

Never take media content at face value…

The media industry is a powerful force in today’s world, ‘news’ is never quite what it seems, and youngsters should have better awareness of how it works by dipping into the BBC’s Bitesize on Media Studies, a free online resource that helps children in secondary education study for a GCSE in the subject. A key point this resource makes is that ‘organisations in the media industry produce content with the aim of making money from our consumption’.  It also makes the point that media producers are always seeking to grab our attention and to influence the way we think, our opinions, and the way we live our lives. Content, which we now tend to consume individually using computers, tablets, and smartphones, includes news which often triggers instantaneous, ill-considered, social media outcries.   

There’s always been a love-hate relationship between the media and businesses, governments, and politicians.  This latter group use the media when it suits them, and the media often challenges this group when it’s commercially attractive to do so. During his career, the Badger had some training and subsequent experience interfacing with the media, and he learned that there’s always a hunt for an angle and a story in every interaction.  The Badger often giggles when consuming today’s news because it’s easy to see what he was taught in media training played out by others. 

ITV’s  recent report about Amazon destroying unsold stock in one of its UK warehouses and sending things to landfill generated a giggle.  Their report was quickly repeated in, for example, the USA and Australia.  The Badger’s giggle was because Amazon’s response to ITV’s report, which rather predictably involved undercover filming and an ex-Amazon employee, was robust and played with a straight bat. It’s doing nothing illegal.  Its policy and priority is to resell, donate, recycle, or send items to energy recovery, and it says it’s untrue that unused stock is sent to landfill. Who do you believe? ITV, after all, is a commercial organisation with commercial motives, and the instant global spread of their story is likely to have generated income.

The Badger found himself wondering whether ITV – just another commercial organisation seeking profits for shareholders – is a valid scrutineer. He then giggled at the thought of the situation being reversed with Amazon doing undercover filming and investigations within ITV.  It would be fun to see not only social media predictably explode with ill-considered outrage, but also Amazon use the result to produce content distributable to consumers through its own services.  More seriously, however, given the pervasiveness of the media in every facet of life in our digital world, perhaps it’s time to make how the media industry really works a mandatory part of the educational curriculum. Our youngsters might then learn never to take the media content they consume at face value.  

Every generation blames the one before…

Last Sunday was Father’s Day, an occasion for children to acknowledge the contribution of their father to their lives. On Sunday, the Badger spent a few moments in contemplation at his father’s graveside before having lunch with his children and grandson. There were no gifts, just the company of loved ones, lively chat, and an amusing moment when the Badger was described as a ‘Dinosaur Dadasaurous – which is like a normal Dad but more awesome!’

The song ‘The Living Years’ by Mike and the Mechanics sounded out from the playlist providing the background music for the meal. It’s opening line of ‘Every generation blames the one before…’, and the rest of the lyrics seemed not only apt for Father’s Day itself, but also for a world in which the younger generation seems eager to blame the older generation for all of its woes.  This latter point became central to light-hearted discussion over lunch. Everyone had the same view, all be it expressed in different ways, that what’s wrong with today’s world is indeed the fault of an older generation! Why? Because it’s a truism and it’s been that way for millennia! Everyone felt that the question of whether today’s older generation really deserves the blame it currently gets will only really be answered decades hence when it can be seen whether the youngsters have screwed up any less than their predecessors!

Solutions to today’s economic, environmental, technological, and cultural problems will never be found by blaming the past and chastising those who happened to live through those times.  There’s nothing to be gained from inter-generational conflict, especially when there are always winners and losers in the real world. At this point, the Badger emphasises that it really was a light-hearted discussion over the lunch rather than a deeply serious and philosophical debate. Nevertheless, there was, however, unity in  feeling that the mob dynamic so often evident throughout social media is divisive for inter-generational relationships and also one of the world’s current problems that the younger generation need to face up to.  

As lunch finished, the Badger wondered what his own father would have made of a generation born this century who know more about the World of Warcraft or Call of Duty than they do about World War 2 and the austere, non-digital life that his generation endured.  Having lived through the war and its aftermath, he wanted subsequent generations to be free, to have better education than he had, and to face life’s problems with resolve, fortitude, and action rather than complaint because, as he would often say, ‘that’s life’!  A shudder went up the Badger’s spine. The playlist had moved on playing Frank Sinatra singing ‘That’s Life’!  It appears that fathers wield a special power on Father’s Day that transcends today’s technology. If only it could be harnessed to stop inter-generational blame games so that we concentrate on the future and not the past…