The Art of the Possible

The Art of the Possible

By Ric Parkin

Overload, 18(97):, June 2010

In polite company you should never talk about religion or politics. Ric Parkin makes an exception.

I've started to write this on the evening of The Queen's Speech at the opening of the new parliament, where she announces the priorities and the legislation that the government will bring forward over the next eighteen months (traditionally this happens after the summer recess, so is a bit longer than the usual year, due to the change of government). Normally you shouldn't talk politics as it tends to generate more heat than light, and it's one of the few off-topic subjects on accu-general, that otherwise free 'pub conversation', but this has been a very interesting campaign from a technology point of view, and the consequences of the change of government will affect certain IT sectors quite heavily, so I think I can safely make some comments without stepping over the line into controversy.

The first Internet election?

One thing that seemed very different this year compared to the last general election was the role the Internet, and in particular the new social networking sites and services. This shouldn't have been too much of a surprise after the US presidential elections of 18 months ago which also saw a big change. Instead of faintly laughable party websites of five years ago, there were much slicker campaigns, with much more 'community' blogs and sites, Facebook to find interested groups and show symbolic support, Twitter to quickly disseminate news, opinion, and rebuttal.

So what sort of things did, and didn't, make much of an impact? Well, I think it depended an awful lot on who you were and what sort of media you consumed! For myself, I tended to watch some TV news, read some online news sites of both television stations and newspapers, and noticed what Facebook friends were saying. I'm not on Twitter, but some friends have theirs hooked up to Facebook, so I got some of that. I don't tend to read political blogs either, although this time I do admit to obsessively reading about the vast number of polls that were being taken, such as the UK Polling Report [ UK ], and the attempt to predict the final outcome by people like Nate Silver, who had so successfully predicted the result of the US elections [ 538 ].

But oddly enough, the main places I found out about what was happening on FB, Twitter, or many of the more partisan blogs, was from the 'traditional' media, who seemed to fill the chasms of 24-hour rolling news with up-to-the-minute posts of not just what the official campaigns were doing, but also what the online army of bloggers, tweeters and commentators, whether they were partisan insiders or interested observers, opinionated or objective, professional or amateur, the man on the Clapham omnibus [ clapham ], or sometimes the downright unnerving one-issue fanatics.

Sometimes these sources of information broke major events, but overall I found them to be remarkably poor despite the mainstream media's obsession with them. Sometimes the event would be a major story one minute, only to be forgotten about a few hours later. And I wondered why this should be so.

So here's my wild ideas on why this was the first UK Internet election, and why this was not necessarily a good thing.

The first is, there's now so much pressure to get any story out there or someone else will scoop you, and there's so much air time or web space to be filled (and yet it's so cheap to do), that taking your time and getting the quality control right has pretty much gone. In the past, a news story would have to get past a stern editor who'd make sure it was at least plausible, vaguely accurate, and ideally being reasonably non-partisan. That works fine for a main news bulletin or a daily or Sunday newspaper, but the Internet and 24 hour news means you can get the story out fast without pausing for thought. In particular the more 'opinion' media, such as blogs, Facebook statuses and Twitter - you just type and press a button, and it's out there. If you regret it five minutes later, then it's too late. If it turns out to be wrong but it's already been copied and forwarded and commented on by others, then it's too late. If it's merely hearsay (or you want to start a rumour) then there's often no one else to ask 'are you sure?'. It's very hard to bolt that stable door, and it's even harder to get the horse back. It can be especially hard to get people to abandon a story when they have an emotional attachment to a position that it reinforces, even when the story can be shown to be false. This is why the main parties now have 'rapid rebuttal units' to spot when something damaging is reported, and get out a neutralising counter-story before it gets very far (or at least onto that night's main news).

I think this led a lot of the 'new' media reporting to be remarkably trivial, or stories that only last a short amount of time: the time delay and bandwidth limitations used to allow quality control to hone or outright reject the second-rate stories, but now they're published immediately, and the fixes come afterwards.

Another insidious effect of the social networks was a ratcheting up of 'group think', where your ideas and opinions are confirmed and strengthened by them being agreed with by the people around you. The trouble is that you tend to surround yourself with similar people with similar ideas, so you get into a circle that reinforces your ideas and preconceptions. It is possible to get outside viewpoints, but you have to try harder and it is never comforting to challenge yourself. This sort of thing is not limited to politics - the Internet has allowed a wide range of social interactions with such a huge scope to meet people with similar opinions you'd otherwise have never have come across. This is most noticeable in the more 'fringe' groups, where all sorts of strange ideas can be shared without having to check them, and where any counter-evidence merely confirms how hard the conspiracy is trying to suppress The Truth. But while these are obvious examples of Group-Think (at least to those outside) we should always be aware that we too are going to be prone to such distorting self-selection. This is why self-correction mechanisms such as peer-review are so important. By setting up a system where proving an idea wrong leads to success we create incentives to detect and discard faulty ideas, and those that remain tend to be the best supported (so far).

But it isn't all bad. Despite their flaws, social media have allowed many more people to feel like they were involved (one of the criticisms of our First-Past-The-Post electoral system is that most elections are decided by a relatively small number of floating voters in marginal constituencies - if you're not one of them then you are pretty much ignored as the parties concentrate their efforts on those key people). Also the speed that news can be broken and spread can be a terrifically powerful force. Perhaps my fears are just that we're still learning about how these media are best used, after all it was only a few months ago that Twitter was just a pointless way of getting mundane information about friends and celebrities, until it became a vital way of spreading information during social unrest where it could bypass and outmanoeuvre state controlled systems. We haven't needed to use it for that, and yet it still is a remarkably fast way of communication. A possible explanation came to light recently, as it was suggested that Twitter in particular has many properties of a Small World network, like many social groupings, yet is more tightly interconnected, so news can travel very quickly [ Sysomos ].

It wasn't just the new online world that was shaken up during this election: for the first time we had TV debates involving the party leaders. This really shook things up for a while, although perhaps ultimately not as much as people thought at the start. Again, these are early days and we're learning fast, although some of the attempts at 'instant feedback' were delightfully rubbish, my personal favourite was the company trying to gauge sentiment by analysing traffic on Twitter, which found high levels of dissatisfaction with the Liberal Democrats because the computer couldn't understand the joke meme of blaming Nick Clegg for all sorts of bizarre things [ NickClegg ].

And now what?

So what are the new government going to do? There's quite a lot of IT related promises, so it is worth having a think about them. The most high-profile announcement and one of the ones to have a quick impact, is the announcement to cancel ID cards, dismantle the National ID Register behind it, and reform or scrap other 'big databases' such as Contact Point and the DNA database. That's going to have a profound change of emphasis on what should be done with data generated by you, which will mean that there will be far fewer large IT contracts for building and running such things. This is already having an effect, as can be seen by a quick look at the share prices around the election of outsourcing companies such as Capita.

Two other effects - there looks to be a change in Capital Gains Tax to be announced soon. Details are still being decided as I write, but there could be great implications for people in small start-up companies who use share options as a major incentive, in particular if the rate is increased and taper relief changed. The other one is a bit more subtle - there was mention about making a level playing field for open-source software [ Programme ]. It is not clear yet what this actually means, but it seemed odd as earlier both Labour and the Conservatives were also talking about open source standards [ Register ]. I think the difference is important - open standards mean that anyone could write a system to use some data, and you would not be restricted to the original supplier. I hope this was just an oversight during the frantic negotiations that were happening at the time, but time will tell.

A couple of anniversaries

And finally, a couple of notable anniversaries. It is a decade ago that the first 'rough draft' of the human genome was publish to great acclaim [ Observer ]. A great achievement that was particularly reliant on computing power - the sheer number of bases involved are staggering, and many of the techniques used involved breaking the genome in short pieces, sequencing those pieces, then reassembling them (a so-called Shotgun approach). Working out where to place each of those pieces was a massive computing problem in its own right - think of it as a jigsaw puzzle with several billion pieces. Since then computing power, the storage required, and the tricks used to solve problems specific to genetics, have progressed massively. Similar to other great data-producing experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider, much of modern science relies on massive computing power to process swathes of data, or model fantastically complex systems to gain insights beyond our ancestors dreams.

The other anniversary is more mundane - I've been Overload editor for two years now. It's been great fun, but I have to give kudos to the many people who do the real work - I just coordinate and write the editorial. But is always good to get feedback, and I'm pleased to say the last couple of issues have really got things going. Richard Harris' article on the Countdown Numbers Game seems to have struck a chord, resulting in two readers to offer very different solutions which makes for some fascinating compare and contrast. And my last editorial on recruitment also inspired an article in this issue on Socially Responsible Recruitment, and a couple of long threads on accu-general on the changed role of job-centres (I'm pleased to report they have improved tremendously since I last used one), and how to set quizzes to get the right sort of applicant which really showed that there is not one true answer, and that it all depends on your own situation. As a consultant would say: 'It depends'.




[NickClegg] search for #nickcleggsfault or #iblamenickclegg






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