privacy, and other lost concepts

During my postgraduate study last semester I had to use an online collaboration tool. No big deal, right? But as soon as I signed up, this system asked me to answer a personality profile; then followed up by asking for my phone number and residential postcode.

I resisted the urge to answer the personality profile with entirely neutral responses (or by channeling a nutcase), but drew the line at giving out my phone number. Frankly, the postcode was more than I am comfortable with and that only narrows things down to a couple of suburbs.

It made me ponder the Doug Bowman presentation I re-watched around the same time: Zooming Out From the Trenches (I read the notes and listened to the podcast). During the presentation he said kids today are far less bothered than adults about giving up their privacy, if it means a system works better - particularly a fun, cool system. Not that a university's course reading database really qualifies as fun and cool... but it makes me realise I'm already a generation behind!

The IT world moves so fast, it's stimulating but it can be absolutely terrifying. A sort of technical vertigo can strike if you ponder the speed of development.

internet can change the world

Bowman's presentation was a defining moment for WE05 and certainly a presentation that caught the audience by surprise. After a day of technical splendour we were suddenly presented with some really Big Picture questions. After talking about the incredible rate of growth of the internet and the rise of accessible technology, he reminded us of a huge aspect of the web's "universality" (in the words of Tim Berners-Lee).

Universal access means access for everyone.

We talk about equity of access to the internet, yet we have no real idea how to bring information access to the world's poor. One of the most tangible efforts is the $100 laptop project (One Laptop per Child), in the spirit of the wind-up radio. As Doug says during his presentation... if we could give blogs to children in the third world, what would they have to say? How would it change their lives if they could communicate with other children across their country... or even just the next village? How would that empower them?

Occassionally, we have to dare to say that yes, the internet can change the world. Not just in the obvious ways like banking online and chatting about our hobbies; but in the powerful ways summarised by the hacker adage knowledge is power. Getting information to people who need it can create massive social change. Decentralising news outlets makes it harder for regimes to control the media.

If children in the third world gain access to the internet, what will happen? To a great extent I think it's a question we can't answer and shouldn't answer. How can we possible imagine what these children want to do? Why should we try to guess? The greatest reward might actually be to find out - to watch it happen.

It's also a little scary. Not all governments want their citizens to have unfettered access to information (consider the great firewall of China). It's almost the ultimate form of content management - massive control over information flow. Giving internet access to children in the third world may have consequences beyond the caring, sharing thoughts of building a global community. It could start wars. We don't know.

So just how important is the internet, really? Here in Australia we frequently trivialise it as the domain of nerds, porn and inane chatter. We forget what it really means to have open, global communication.

Email, the web, chat... these are powerful tools. We should remember that.

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