Category: Articles (page 1 of 3)

Using WhatsApp is a (poor) choice that you make

People often ask me about my stance on Facebook products. They can understand that I don’t use Facebook itself, but what about Instagram? And surely I use WhatsApp? Nope.

Given that I don’t usually have a single place to point people who want to read about the problems with WhatsApp, I thought I’d create one.


WhatsApp is a messaging app that was acquired by Facebook for the eye-watering amount of $19 billion in 2014. Interestingly, a BuzzFeed News article from 2018 cites documents confidential documents from the time leading up to the acquisition that were acquired by the UK’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. They show the threat WhatsApp posed to Facebook at the time.

US mobile messenger apps (iPhone) graph from August 2012 to March 2013
A document obtained by the DCMS as part of their investigations

As you can see from the above chart, Facebook executives were shown in 2013 that WhatsApp (8.6% reach) was growing rapidly and posed a huge threat to Facebook Messenger (13.7% reach).

So Facebook bought WhatsApp. But what did they buy? If, as we’re led to believe, WhatsApp is ‘end-to-end encrypted’ then Facebook don’t have access to the messages of users. So what’s so valuable?


Brian Acton, one of the founders of WhatsApp (and a man who got very rich through its sale) has gone on record saying that he feels like he sold his users’ privacy to Facebook.

Facebook, Acton says, had decided to pursue two ways of making money from WhatsApp. First, by showing targeted ads in WhatsApp’s new Status feature, which Acton felt broke a social compact with its users. “Targeted advertising is what makes me unhappy,” he says. His motto at WhatsApp had been “No ads, no games, no gimmicks”—a direct contrast with a parent company that derived 98% of its revenue from advertising. Another motto had been “Take the time to get it right,” a stark contrast to “Move fast and break things.”

Facebook also wanted to sell businesses tools to chat with WhatsApp users. Once businesses were on board, Facebook hoped to sell them analytics tools, too. The challenge was WhatsApp’s watertight end-to-end encryption, which stopped both WhatsApp and Facebook from reading messages. While Facebook didn’t plan to break the encryption, Acton says, its managers did question and “probe” ways to offer businesses analytical insights on WhatsApp users in an encrypted environment.

Parmy Olson (Forbes)

The other way Facebook wanted to make money was to sell tools to businesses allowing them to chat with WhatsApp users. These tools would also give “analytical insights” on how users interacted with WhatsApp.

Facebook was allowed to acquire WhatsApp (and Instagram) despite fears around monopolistic practices. This was because they made a promise not to combine data from various platforms. But, guess what happened next?

In 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19b, and promised users that it wouldn’t harvest their data and mix it with the surveillance troves it got from Facebook and Instagram. It lied. Years later, Facebook mixes data from all of its properties, mining it for data that ultimately helps advertisers, political campaigns and fraudsters find prospects for whatever they’re peddling. Today, Facebook is in the process of acquiring Giphy, and while Giphy currently doesn’t track users when they embed GIFs in messages, Facebook could start doing that anytime.

Cory Doctorow (EFF)

So Facebook is harvesting metadata from its various platforms, tracking people around the web (even if they don’t have an account), and buying up data about offline activities.

All of this creates a profile. So yes, because of end-ot-end encryption, Facebook might not know the exact details of your messages. But they know that you’ve started messaging a particular user account around midnight every night. They know that you’ve started interacting with a bunch of stuff around anxiety. They know how the people you message most tend to vote.


Do I have to connect the dots here? This is a company that sells targeted adverts, the kind of adverts that can influence the outcome of elections. Of course, Facebook will never admit that its platforms are the problem, it’s always the responsibility of the user to be ‘vigilant’.

Man reading a newspaper
A WhatsApp advert aiming to ‘fighting false information’ (via The Guardian)

So you might think that you’re just messaging your friend or colleague on a platform that ‘everyone’ uses. But your decision to go with the flow has consequences. It has implications for democracy. It has implications on creating a de facto monopoly for our digital information. And it has implications around the dissemination of false information.

The features that would later allow WhatsApp to become a conduit for conspiracy theory and political conflict were ones never integral to SMS, and have more in common with email: the creation of groups and the ability to forward messages. The ability to forward messages from one group to another – recently limited in response to Covid-19-related misinformation – makes for a potent informational weapon. Groups were initially limited in size to 100 people, but this was later increased to 256. That’s small enough to feel exclusive, but if 256 people forward a message on to another 256 people, 65,536 will have received it.

[…]

A communication medium that connects groups of up to 256 people, without any public visibility, operating via the phones in their pockets, is by its very nature, well-suited to supporting secrecy. Obviously not every group chat counts as a “conspiracy”. But it makes the question of how society coheres, who is associated with whom, into a matter of speculation – something that involves a trace of conspiracy theory. In that sense, WhatsApp is not just a channel for the circulation of conspiracy theories, but offers content for them as well. The medium is the message.

William Davies (The Guardian)

I cannot control the decisions others make, nor have I forced my opinions on my two children, who (despite my warnings) both use WhatsApp to message their friends. But, for me, the risk to myself and society of using WhatsApp is not one I’m happy with taking.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Header image by Rachit Tank

The highest ambition of the integrated spectacle is to turn secret agents into revolutionaries and revolutionaries into secret agents

This article is about, and quotes heavily from Guy Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle published twenty years after his 1967 Society of the Spectacle. I wanted to share all of the bits that I highlighted, as I think it speaks directly into our currently times, so buckle-up.


Debord never gives a single definition of ‘the spectacle’ but rather alludes to it in such a way that the reader is left in no doubt as to what it is. Here’s one such section:

Rather than talk of the spectacle, people often prefer to use to the term ‘media’. And by this they mean to describe a mere instrument, a kind of public service which with impartial ‘professionalism’ would facilitate the new wealth of mass communication through mass media – a form of communication which has at last attained a unilateral purity, whereby decisions already taken are presented for passive admiration. For what is communicated are orders; and with perfect harmony, those who give them are also those who tell us what they think of them.

p.6

There are three kinds of spectacle, the ‘concentrated’ spectacle and ‘diffuse’ spectacle that Debord discusses in his earlier work, and then the ‘integrated’ spectacle that he introduces in Comments. Briefly, the concentrated spectacle can be seen in totalitarian regimes, whereas the diffuse spectacle is in evidence in democracies such as the United States.

The integrated spectacle shows itself to be simultaneously concentrated and diffuse…

For the final sense of the integrated spectacle is this – that it has integrated itself into reality to the same extent as it was describing it. As a result, this reality no longer confronts the integrated spectacle as something alien. When the spectacle was concentrated, the grater part of surrounding society escaped it; when diffuse, a small part; today, no part.

p.9

One way of thinking about this in 2020 is the extent to which we carry around the media (a.k.a. the integrated spectacle) in our pockets. It permeates and mediates our reality, and we conform ourselves to its whims and ideas – for example, on social media platforms for likes and follows. We spend our time pointing out the falsity of media reports contrary to our beliefs, always within the construct of the spectacle.

Often enough society’s bosses declare themselves ill-served by their media employees: more often they blame the spectators for the common, almost bestial manner in which they indulge in the media’s delights. A virtually infinite number of supposed differences within the media thus serve to screen what is in fact the result of a spectacular convergence, pursued with remarkable tenacity.

p.7

Experts are dead in the traditional sense, all that remain are media professionals who help explain the spectacle and serve to perpetuate its existence.

With the destruction of history, contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning. For every imbecility presented by the spectacle, there are only the media’s professionals to give an answer, with a few respectful rectifications or remonstrations.

p.16

What can one do about this? Choose to live outside the grip of the spectacle? Debord says this is practically impossible, as to do so is to be a pariah.

An anti-spectacular notoriety has become something extremely rare. I myself am one of the last people to retain one, having never had any other. But it has also become extraordinarily suspect. Society has officially declared itself to be spectacular. To be known outside spectacular relations is already to be known as an enemy of society.

p.18

This is part of the problem that people are up against when trying to do things that are counter-cultural. The counter-culture is part of the spectacle, and has been commodified; packaged up to be sold at low prices to everyone via t-shirts, mugs, and other trinkets.

The spectacle requires a fleetness of foot imparted to it by everyone’s acquiescence to maintain velocity. This is achieved partly through news cycles that produce outrage but then move on quickly to the next target.

When the spectacle stops talking about something for three days, it is as if it did not exist. For it has then gone on to talk about something else, and it is that which henceforth, in short, exists. The practical consequences, as we see, are enormous.

p.20

The spectacular machinery of our age is therefore ill-suited for the kind of messaging required during, say, a global pandemic. The spectacle feeds on our emotions, on our base fears, on our need for safety. It ‘others’ people, ensuring that there is always a them vs us.

Such a perfect democracy constructs its own inconceivable foe, terrorism. Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive. The spectators must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.

p.24

This explains why COVID-19 cannot possibly, so the conspiracy theorists say, come from bats but instead must surely be the ‘weaponised’ product of an enemy laboratory. It’s the reason why two and two are put together to make five, with 5G masts and George Soros and Bill Gates and a ‘plandemic’ serving to fill the role of terrorist.

Making connections between seemingly disparate people, technologies, and ideas is easier in a world where the spectacle provides a never-ending supply of memetic imagery, designed to resonate on an emotional leve.

At the technological level, when images chosen and constructed by someone else have everywhere become the individual’s principle connection to the world he formerly observed for himself, it has certainly not been forgotten that these images can tolerate anything and everything; because within the same image all things can be juxtaposed without contradiction. The flow of images carries everything before it, and it is similarly someone else who controls at will this simplified summary of the sensible world; who decides where the flow will lead as well as the rhythm of what should be shown, like some perpetual, arbitrary surprise, leaving no time for reflection, and entirely independent of what the spectator might understand or think of it.

p.27-28

Today, algorithms used by social media platforms dictate what we as users see and do not see. Baby photos precede photos of protesters which are followed by an advert for a new soft drink. No wonder we’re not sure what to think.

The only response is submission to the spectacle, of the reduction of the self to a pawn in a game played by someone, or something, else.

Paradoxically, permanent self-denial is the price the individual pays for the tiniest bit of social status. Such an existence demands a fluid fidelity, a succession of continually disappointing commitments to false products. It is a matter of running hard to keep up with the inflation of devalued signs of life.

p.32

All of this is depressing enough without adding in deliberate attempts to reduce our agency by means of feeding false information with the aim to leave us confused, apathetic, and less inclined to vote in democratic elections. After all, what’s the point when there is no coherent narrative?

Unlike the straightforward lie, disinformation must inevitably contain a degree of truth but one deliberately manipulated by an artful enemy. That is what makes it so attractive to the defenders of the dominant society. The power which speaks of disinformation does not believe itself to be absolutely faultless, but knows that it can attribute to any precise criticism the excessive insignificance which characterises disinformation; with the result that it will never have to admit to any particular fault.

p.45

So we get false flag campaigns, deflection, no-apology apologies, until things, as they always do with the spectacle, move on. As Debord points out, we live in a world “without room for verification” (p.48), so we might as well share that headline that confirms our existing beliefs by retweeting (without reading) as it passes us by.

In the 19th century, it made sense for Ludwig Feuerbach, a thinker who greatly influenced Karl Marx, to point to an emerging preference for the imaginary over the real.

Today, however, the tendency to replace the real with the artificial is ubiquitous. In this regard, it is fortuitous that traffic pollution has necessitated the replacement of the Marly Horses in place de la Concorde, or the Roman statues in the doorway of Saint-Trophime in Arles, by plastic replicas. Everything will be more beautiful than before, for the tourists’ cameras.

p.51

Here is the problem for the person, or group of people, wishing to smash the spectacle, to dismantle it, to take it apart. It must be done in one go, rather than piecemeal. Otherwise, the spectacle has too much capacity to self-repair.

In a certain sense the coherence of spectacular society proves revolutionaries right, since it is evident that one cannot reform the most trifling detail without taking the whole thing apart. But at the same time this coherence has eliminated every organised revolutionary tendency by eliminating those social terrains where it had more or less effectively been able to find expression: from trade unions to newspapers, towns to books.

p.80

So there can be no conclusion, only awareness. We live in completely different times to our forebears. I’ll leave the last word to Debord.

Old prejudices everywhere belied, precautions now useless, and even the residues of scruples from an earlier age, still clog up the thinking of quite a number of rulers, preventing them from recognising something which practice demonstrates and proves every single day. Not only are the subjected led to believe that to all intents and purposes they are still living in a world which in fact has been eliminated, but the rulers themselves sometimes suffer from the absurd belief that in some respects they do too.

p.87-88

Header image by elCarito

Everyone has a mob self and an individual self, in varying proportions

Digital mediation, decentralisation, and context collapse

Is social media ‘real life’? A recent Op-Ed in The New York Times certainly things so:

An argument about Twitter — or any part of the internet — as “real life” is frequently an argument about what voices “matter” in our national conversation. Not just which arguments are in the bounds of acceptable public discourse, but also which ideas are considered as legitimate for mass adoption. It is a conversation about the politics of the possible. That conversation has many gatekeepers — politicians, the press, institutions of all kinds. And frequently they lack creativity.

Charlie Warzel (The New York Times)

I’ve certainly been a proponent over the years for the view that digital interactions are no less ‘real’ than analogue ones. Yes, you’re reading a book when you do so on an e-reader. That’s right, you’re meeting someone when doing so over video conference. And correct, engaging in a Twitter thread counts as a conversation.

Now that everyone’s interacting via digital devices during the pandemic, things that some parts of the population refused to count as ‘normal’ have at least been normalised. It’s been great to see so much IRL mobilisation due to protests that started online, for example with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.


With this very welcome normalisation, however, I’m not sure there’s a general understanding about how digital spaces mediate our interactions. Offline, our conversations are mediated by the context in which we find ourselves: we speak differently at home, on the street, and in the pub. Meanwhile, online, we experience context collapse as we take our smartphones everywhere.

We forget that we interact in algorithmically-curated environments that favour certain kinds of interactions over others. Sometimes these algorithms can be fairly blunt instruments, for example when ‘Dominic Cummings’ didn’t trend on Twitter despite him being all over the news. Why? Because of anti-porn filters.

Other times, things are quite subtle. I’ve spoken on numerous occasions why I don’t use Facebook products. Part of the reason for this is that I don’t trust their privacy practices or algorithms. For example, a recent study showed that Instagram (which, of course, is owned by Facebook) actively encourages users to show some skin.

While Instagram claims that the newsfeed is organized according to what a given user “cares about most”, the company’s patent explains that it could actually be ranked according to what it thinks all users care about. Whether or not users see the pictures posted by the accounts they follow depends not only on their past behavior, but also on what Instagram believes is most engaging for other users of the platform.

Judith Duportail, Nicolas Kayser-Bril, Kira Schacht and Édouard Richard (Algorithm Watch)

I think I must have linked back to this post of mine from six years ago more than any other one I’ve written: Curate or Be Curated: Why Our Information Environment is Crucial to a Flourishing Democracy, Civil Society. To quote myself:

The problem with social networks as news platforms is that they are not neutral spaces. Perhaps the easiest way to get quickly to the nub of the issue is to ask how they are funded. The answer is clear and unequivocal: through advertising. The two biggest social networks, Twitter and Facebook (which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp), are effectively “services with shareholders.” Your interactions with other people, with media, and with adverts, are what provide shareholder value. Lest we forget, CEOs of publicly-listed companies have a legal obligation to provide shareholder value. In an advertising-fueled online world this means continually increasing the number of eyeballs looking at (and fingers clicking on) content. 

Doug Belshaw (Connected learning Alliance)

Herein lies the difficulty. We can’t rely on platforms backed by venture capital as they end up incentivised to do the wrong kinds of things. Equally, no-one is going to want to use a platform provided by a government.

This is why really do still believe that decentralisation is the answer here. Local moderation by people you know and/or trust that can happen on an individual or instance level. Algorithmic curation for the benefit of users which can be turned on or off by the user. Scaling both vertically and horizontally.

At the moment it’s not the tech that’s holding people back from such decentralisation but rather two things. The first is the mental model of decentralisation. I think that’s easy to overcome, as back in 2007 people didn’t really ‘get’ Twitter, etc. The second one is much more difficult, and is around the dopamine hit you get from posting something on social media and becoming a minor celebrity. Although it’s possible to replicate this in decentralised environments, I’m not sure we’d necessarily want to?


Slightly modified quotation-as-title by D.H. Lawrence. Header image by Prateek Katyal

The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases

Twitter, the Fediverse, and MoodleNet

In a recent blog post, Twitter made a big deal of the fact that they are testing new conversation settings.

While some people don’t necessarily think this is a good idea, I think it’s a step forward. In fact, I’ve actually already tried out this functionality… on the Fediverse.

The Fediverse (a portmanteau of “federation” and “universe”) is the ensemble of federated (i.e. interconnected) servers that are used for web publishing (i.e. social networking, microblogging, blogging, or websites) and file hosting, but which, while independently hosted, can intercommunicate with each other.

Wikipedia

That’s a mouthful. Let’s get to the details of that in a moment and deal with a concrete example instead. Here is a screenshot showing what Twitter has learned from Mastodon (and other federated social networks) in terms of how to make conversations better.

Composing a ‘toot’ in Mastodon and choosing who can see it

The Fediverse feels like a very different place to Twitter. There’s a reason why you will find the marginalised, the oppressed, and very niche interests here: it’s a safe space. And, despite macho right-leaning posturing, we all need spaces online where we can be ourselves.


Of course ‘federation’ and ‘decentralisation’ aren’t words that most of us tend to use on a day-to-day basis. So it’s important to define terms here so you can see the inherent difference between using something like Twitter and something like Mastodon.

Note: I can pretty much guarantee by 2030 you’ll be using a federated social network of some description. After all, in 2007 people told me Twitter would never catch on, yet a few years later pretty much everyone was using it.)

Taken from docs.joinmastodon.org

Check out the diagram above. On the left, is the representation of a centralised platform. An example of that would be Facebook. You’re either on Facebook, or you’re not on Facebook. I don’t use any of Facebook’s products out of a concern for privacy, civil liberties, and the threat they pose to democracy. As a result, my ethical stance means that anything posted to Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp is inaccessible to me.It’s either have an account on their servers, or you don’t.

On the right of the diagram, you can the representation of a distributed social network. Here, every server has a copy of what is on every other server. This is how bittorrent works, and is great for resilience and ensuring things are fault-tolerant. There are a couple of examples of social networks that use this approach (e.g. Scuttlebutt), but they’re primarily used for situations where users have intermittent internet access.

Then, in the middle is a federated social network. This is what I’m focusing on in this article. It’s kind of how email works; you can email anyone else in the world no matter which email platform they use. GMail users email Outlook users email Fastmail users. Only the data you send and receive with the person you are communicating with resides on each email server; you don’t have a copy of everyone in the whole network’s email!

So, just as with email, federated social networks have an underlying protocol to ensure that messages from one platform can be understood, displayed, and replied to by another. Those making the platform, of course, have to bake that functionality in; Facebook, Twitter, and the like choose not to do so.

What does this mean in practice? Well, let’s take three examples. The first is around 10 years ago when I decided to delete my Facebook account. That means I haven’t had an account there, or been able to access any non-public information on that social network for a decade.

On the other hand, about five years ago, I ditched GMail for Protonmail because I wanted to improve the privacy and security of my personal email account. Leaving GMail didn’t mean giving up having an email account.

Likewise, a couple of years ago, I decided to leave my Mastodon-powered social.coop account as I was getting some hassle. Instead of quitting the social network, as I would have had to do if this had happened on Facebook, I could quickly and easily move my account to mastodon.social. All of my settings were imported, including all of the people I was following!


An aside about moderation. What Twitter is doing with its new functionality is giving its users tools to do some of their own moderation. Other than that, the only moderation possible within the Twitter network is to ‘report’ tweets for spam or abuse. Moderators, acting on a network-wide scale then need to figure out whether the tweet contravened their guidelines. Having reported tweets before, this can take days and is often not resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.

Contrast that with the Fediverse, where people join instances depending on a range of factors including their geographic location, languages spoken, political and religious beliefs, tolerance for profanity, and so on. Fediverse users are accessing the wider network through a server that is moderated by people they trust. If they stop trusting those moderators they can move their account elsewhere, or even host their own server.

This leads to much faster, more local, and more effective moderation. Instance-level blocking is common, as it should be. After all, you have the right to discuss with other people things I find hateful, but it doesn’t mean I have to see them on my timeline.


Post using PixelFed
Post using PixelFed

You may be wondering about what how this looks and feels in practice. The above screenshot is from PixelFed, a federated social network that is a bit like Instagram. The difference, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, is that it’s federated!

Mastodon timeline showing update from PixelFed

Check out the two posts on my Mastodon timeline above.

The top post is an example of someone on Mastodon ‘republishing’ the same thing they’ve posted on Twitter. They’ve literally had to do the manual work of separately uploading the image and entering the text on each social network, and have to maintain two separate accounts.

The bottom post, on the other hand, is my PixelFed post showing up in my Mastodon feed. No extra work was involved here: anyone’s Mastodon account can follow anyone’s PixelFed account, and it’s all down to the magic of open, federated protocols. In this case, ActivityPub.

There are many federated social networks ⁠— many more, in fact, than are listed on the Wikipedia page for Fediverse. One of my favourites is Misskey just because it’s so… Japanese. You can choose whatever suits you, and everything works together.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation said back in 2011 when writing about federated social networks:

The best way for online social networking to become safer, more flexible, and more innovative is to distribute the ability and authority to the world’s users and developers, whose various needs and imaginations can do far more than what any single company could achieve.

Richard Esguerra (EFF)

As many people reading this will be aware, I have skin in this game, a dog in this fight, a horse in this race because of MoodleNet. The difference is that MoodleNet is not only a federated social network, but a decentralised digital commons. Educators join communities to curate collections of openly-licensed resources.

This poses additional design challenges to those faced by existing federated social networks. We’re pretty close now to v1.0 beta and have built upon the fantastic thinking and approaches of other federated social networks. In addition, we’ve added functionality that is specific (at the moment, at least) to MoodleNet, and suits our target audience.

No video above? Try this!

So not so much as a ‘conclusion’ to this particular piece of writing as a screencast video to show you what I mean with MoodleNet, as well as the judicious use of this emoji: 🤔


Quotation-as-title from Carl Jung. Header image by Md. Zahid Hasan Joy

Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say

Post-pandemic surveillance culture

Today’s title comes from Edward Snowden, and is a pithy overview of the ‘nothing to hide’ argument that I guess I’ve struggled to answer over the years. I’m usually so shocked that an intelligent person would say something to that effect, that I’m not sure how to reply.

When you say, ‘I have nothing to hide,’ you’re saying, ‘I don’t care about this right.’ You’re saying, ‘I don’t have this right, because I’ve got to the point where I have to justify it.’ The way rights work is, the government has to justify its intrusion into your rights.

Edward Snowden

This, then, is the fifth article in my ongoing blogchain about post-pandemic society, which already includes:

  1. People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character
  2. We have it in our power to begin the world over again
  3. There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it
  4. The old is dying and the new cannot be born

It does not surprise me that those with either a loose grip on how the world works, or those who need to believe that someone, somewhere has ‘a plan’, believe in conspiracy theories around the pandemic.

What is true, and what can easily be mistaken for ‘planning’ is the preparedness of those with a strong ideology to double-down on it during a crisis. People and organisations reveal their true colours under stress. What was previously a long game now becomes a short-term priority.

For example, this week, the US Senate “voted to give law enforcement agencies access to web browsing data without a warrant”, reports VICE. What’s interesting, and concerning to me, is that Big Tech and governments are acting like they’ve already won the war on harvesting our online life, and now they’re after our offline life, too.


I have huge reservations about the speed in which Covid-19 apps for contact tracing are being launched when, ultimately, they’re likely to be largely ineffective.

We already know how to do contact tracing well and to train people how to do it. But, of course, it costs money and is an investment in people instead of technology, and privacy instead of surveillance.

There are plenty of articles out there on the difference between the types of contact tracing apps that are being developed, and this BBC News article has a useful diagram showing the differences between the two.

TL;DR: there is no way that kind of app is going on my phone. I can’t imagine anyone who I know who understands tech even a little bit installing it either.


Whatever the mechanics of how it goes about doing it happen to be, the whole point of a contact tracing app is to alert you and the authorities when you have been in contact with someone with the virus. Depending on the wider context, that may or may not be useful to you and society.

However, such apps are more widely applicable. One of the things about technology is to think about the effects it could have. What else could an app like this have, especially if it’s baked into the operating systems of devices used by 99% of smartphone users worldwide?

CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The above diagram is Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects, which is a useful frame for thinking about the impact of technology on society.

Big Tech and governments have our online social graphs, a global map of how everyone relates to everyone else in digital spaces. Now they’re going after our offline social graphs too.


Exhibit A

The general reaction to this seemed to be one of eye-rolling and expressing some kind of Chinese exceptionalism when this was reported back in January.

Exhibit B

Today, this Boston Dynamics robot is trotting around parks in Singapore reminding everyone about social distancing. What are these robots doing in five years’ time?

Exhibit C

Drones in different countries are disinfecting the streets. What’s their role by 2030?


I think it’s drones that concern me most of all. Places like Baltimore were already planning overhead surveillance pre-pandemic, and our current situation has only accelerated and exacerbated that trend.

In that case, it’s US Predator drones that have previously been used to monitor and bomb places in the Middle East that are being deployed on the civilian population. These drones operate from a great height, unlike the kind of consumer drones that anyone can buy.

However, as was reported last year, we’re on the cusp of photovoltaic drones that can fly for days at a time:

This breakthrough has big implications for technologies that currently rely on heavy batteries for power. Thermophotovoltaics are an ultralight alternative power source that could allow drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles to operate continuously for days. It could also be used to power deep space probes for centuries and eventually an entire house with a generator the size of an envelope.

Linda Vu (TechXplore)

Not only will the government be able to fly thousands of low-cost drones to monitor the population, but they can buy technology, like this example from DefendTex, to take down other drones.

That is, of course, if civilian drones continue to be allowed, especially given the ‘security risk’ of Chinese-made drones flying around.

It’s interesting times for those who keep a watchful eye on their civil liberties and government invasion of privacy. Bear that in mind when tech bros tell you not to fear robots because they’re dumb. The people behind them aren’t, and they have an agenda.


Header image via Pixabay

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony

If we’re looking for silver linings around the pandemic, then one startlingly big one is the time people have had to reflect on their lives. When we’re busy, we’re forced to be pragmatic, and unfortunately that pragmatism can conflict with our core values.

This pragmatism has, certainly in my life, led to there being (small) disconnects between what I feel to be my values on the one hand, and my actions on the other. One thing I’ve been meaning to do for a while is to take the time to write down what I believe, in the style of Buster Benson’s Codex Vitae.

He divides his beliefs into the following areas:

  • Aliens
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Cognitive biases
  • Consciousness
  • Critical thinking
  • Dialogue
  • Ecosystems
  • Game theory
  • Government
  • Health
  • Internal mental space
  • Mindfulness
  • Nature of reality
  • Policy
  • Purpose
  • Rules to live by
  • Spirituality
  • Technology
  • Vulnerability

…which may seem a little bit random, and reminds me somewhat of Jorge Luis Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge (“those that from afar look like flies”). Having said that, starting with one’s inner ontology is probably the best place to start.

Why do all this? Well, if you know what you believe then it’s easier to draw lines, ‘red’ or otherwise, and know what you will and will not stand for. It’s a guide to life, which of course can change over time, but at least serves as a guide.


The reason I’ve never managed to get around to writing down my beliefs in a way similar to Buster is, I would say, twofold. First, I’m unwilling to write down my religious beliefs, such as they are. Second, all of this looks like a rather large undertaking.

Instead, I’m going to use the rather helpful time horizon that the pandemic provides to think about what I’d like the ‘new normal’ to look like, about what I’m going to accept and what I am not. These take the form of aphorisms or reminders to myself.


  1. Life is too short to deal with adults who display little in the way of emotional intelligence.
  2. Organisations are groups of people that can have a positive or negative effect on the world. Do not work with or for the latter.
  3. Technology can free people or it can enslave them, so work to give as many people as much freedom as possible.
  4. Removing ego from the equation gets things done.
  5. Education is not the same as learning, nor are qualifications the same as real-world knowledge, skills and experience.
  6. Happiness is not something that you can find, but rather it is something that you discover once you stop looking for it.
  7. How you say or do something is as important as what you say or what you do.
  8. We all will die and don’t know when, so act today in a way whereby people will remember you well.
  9. You cannot control what other people say, do, or think.
  10. Money can only buy choices, not happiness, time, or anything else that constitutes human flourishing.

Yours may be different, and these are just want came tumbling out this time around, but these are the ten that I’ve printed out and stuck to the back of my home office door.


Quotation-as-title by Mahatma Gandhi. Photo by Ishant Mishra.

The old is dying and the new cannot be born

Education for a post-pandemic future


Welcome to the fourth instalment in this blog chain about post-pandemic society:

  1. People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character
  2. We have it in our power to begin the world over again
  3. There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it

This time, I want to talk about education. It’s been a decade since I left the classroom as a school teacher and senior leader but, just after doing so, I co-kickstarted a project called Purpos/ed: what’s the purpose of education? While the original website has long since gone the way of all digital bits and bytes, it can still be accessed via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (which may take significantly longer to load than most websites, so be patient!)

There were some fantastic contributions to that project, each of which were 500 words long. We followed that up with image remixes, audio contributions, and even a one-day unconference at Sheffield Hallam university! All of the written contributions were compiled into a book that was published by Scholastic (I’ve still got a few copies if anyone wants one) and the campaign ended up being featured on the front page of the TES.


My reason for returning to this project is that it seems that many people, especially parents and educators, are once again thinking about the purpose of education. There is even a UNESCO Commission on the Futures of Education to which you can add your voice.

Below are some of my favourite responses to the Purpos/ed campaign, right after a video clip from Prof. Keri Facer, whose work (especially Learning Futures) served as our inspiration.


Before the first Purpos/ed post was written, I jotted down my own off-the-cuff answer: “the purpose of education is to aid our meditation on purposes — what should we do, why and how?”. I know that’s a bit glib, but it adds a reflexive twist to this debate: how sophisticated and sensitive to changing context are our education systems and discourse? I worry we may be in for a rude awakening when the education squabbles of the Easy Times are shown up as an irrelevant sideshow when the Hard Times bite.

David Jennings

Education should not be just be about the ‘system’ or the schools, it should be about the community and drawing on the skills and knowledge that is within our local communities.  Enabling our children to learn from what has gone before to ensure that they enhance their own future. For many education provides an escape, a way out that broadens their horizons and provides them with opportunities that they did not realize existed, that can ultimately provide them with richness and most importantly happiness.

Dawn Hallybone

The internet provides us with rich and free spaces for expansive learning. The institutions only have left their monopoly on funding and on certification. And so capitalism has begun a new project. The first aim is to strike out at democratization of learning by privatizing education, by deepening barriers to equality and access. And the second more audacious aim is to privatize knowledge itself, to turn knowledge and learning into a commodity to be bought and sold like any other consumer good.

Thus we find ourselves at a turning point for the future of education. The contradictions inherent in the different views of the purpose of education do not allow any simple compromise or reform minded tinkering with the system. For those that believe in education as the practice of freedom there are two challenges: to develop a societal discourse around the purpose of education and secondly to develop transformative practice, as teacher students and student teachers.

Graham Attwell

"Education should disrupt as much as it builds" (David White)
CC BY-NC-SA Josie Fraser

Education should critically ensure children, young people and adults are equipped to be unsettled, to be confronted by difference, to be changed, and to effect change. Education is a conduit to different cultures, different places, different times – to different ways of thinking about things and doing things. Education provides us with an introduction to things unimagined and unencountered. It should provide the critical challenge to examine our beliefs, interpretations and horizons, the ability to reexamining ourselves in new contexts, to develop new interests, to review the ways in which we understand ourselves and our place in the world. The purpose of education should be to expand expectations, not to confine them – to support our learners in understanding the impact they can and do have on their world. We cannot expect education built upon, and educators who model, a fixation with certainty and inflexibility to meet the urgent and ongoing needs of pressing social, economic and political change.

Josie Fraser

For me, the purpose of education is to become a better human being; recognising that we share a commonality with others around us and that we are bound to the ones who walked before and the ones to come. It allows us to draw on the experiences of the past and help prepare us to face the future (with all its attendant opportunities and issues). Conceived in this sense, it allows us to remove the primacy of the veneer (worker, teacher, student, friend) and reinstates these (important) roles within the context that they form part of a larger whole. Doing so would also allow us to rethink the relationship of means and ends and unlock the powerful impact this reconfiguration can have for the lives of people around us when we do treat them as they should be.

Nick Dennis

The desire to learn is woven into the concept of contentment and that, for me at least, is the basic purpose of any education system. Contentment can flourish into happiness, riches, recognition or any other myriad of emotional and material gain. But without a content society, with an ambition to continually discover and question the world around them throughout life, we end up with society’s biggest enemies: complacency, stagnancy, apathy and ambivalence.

Ewan mcintosh

CC BY-NC-SA ianguest

An educated population is probably the least governable, the most likely to rebel, the most stubborn and the most critical. But it is a population capable of the most extraordinary things, because each person strides purposefully forward, and of their own volition, together, they seek a common destiny.

Stephen Downes

Education, it seems, is the method by which we attempt to make the world come out the way we want it to. It is about using our power to shape and control the world to come so that it comes into line with our own hopes and dreams. In any way we move it, even towards chaos and anarchy, we are still using our power to shape and control the future.

Dave Cormier

It is make or break time for humanity and we have a responsibility to draw a line in the sand, admit our mistakes and create a system of education that can begin to undo the harm that we have done to the world. For all the talk over the last twenty years of the ‘global village’, it has not stopped us continuing to destroy our planet, to wage wars and to continue to ignore the inequalities in society. What is the purpose of education? Surely, it is to create unity by helping future generation to recognise the values that humanity share.

James mIchie

As Purpos/ed was a non-partisan campaign, Andy Stewart and I didn’t give our views on the purpose of education. But perhaps, in a follow-up post, it’s time to explicitly state what, for me, it’s all about? I’d certainly like to read what others are thinking…


Quotation-as-title from Antonio Gramsci. Header image via Pixabay.

Thus each man ever flees himself

There are some days during this current pandemic when, coccooned in my little bubble, I can forget for a few hours that the world has changed. Conversely, I encounter other days when my baseline existential angst spikes to a level just below “rocking backwards-and-forwards in the corner of the room”.

There are a range of ways for obtaining help in such situations, including professional (therapy!), spiritual (religion!) and medical (drugs!) However, while I’ve dabbled with all three, perhaps my greatest solace comes from bunch of balding white dudes who lived a couple of thousand years ago.

Yes, I’m talking about the Stoics. Having re-read the Seneca’s On the Tranquility of the Mind this week, I thought there were whole sections worth sharing for anyone in a similar predicament to me.


In this dialogue, Serenus explains to Seneca his problem. The details may have changed over the years (no slaves, and we tend not to be so envious about other people’s crockery) but the gist is, at least for me, immediately recognisable:

The nature of this mental weakness which hovers between two alternatives, inclining strongly neither to the right nor to the wrong, I can better show you one part at a time than all at once; I will tell you my experience, you will find a name for my sickness. I am completely devoted, I admit, to frugality: I do not like a couch made up for show, or clothing produced from a chest or pressed by weights and a thousand mangles to make it shiny, but rather something homely and inexpensive that has not been kept specially or needs to be put on with anxious care; I like food that a household of slaves has not pr pared, watching it with envy, that has not been ordered many days in advance or served up by many hands, but is easy to fetch and in ample supply; it has nothing outlandish or expensive about it, and will be readily available everywhere, it will not put a strain on one’s purse or body, or return by the way it entered; I like for my servant a young house-bred slave without training or polish, for silverware my country-bred father’s heavy plate that bears no maker’s stamp, and for a table one that is not remarkable for the variety of its markings or known to Rome for having passed through the hands of many stylish owners, but one that is there to be used, that makes no guest stare at it in endless pleasure or burning envy. Then, after finding perfect satisfaction in all such things, I find my mind is dazzled by the splendour of some training-school for pages, by the sight of slaves decked out in gold and more scrupulously dressed than bearers in a procession, and a whole troop of brilliant attendants; by the sight of a house where even the floor one treads is precious and riches are strewn in every corner, where the roofs themselves shine out, and the citizen body waits in attendance and dutifully accompanies an inheritance whose days are numbered; need I mention the waters, transparent to the bottom and flowing round the guests even as they dine, or the banquets that in no way disgrace their setting? Emerging from a long time of dedication to thrift, luxury has enveloped me in the riches of its splendour, filling my ears with all its sounds: my vision falters a little, for it is easier for me to raise my mind to it than my eyes; and so I come back, not a worse man, but a sadder one, I no longer walk with head so high among those worthless possessions of mine, and I feel the sharpness of a secret pain as the doubt arises whether that life is not the better one. None of these things alters me, but none fails to unsettle me.

‘Serenus’ (in Seneca’s ‘On The Tranquility of the Mind’)

As a result, Serenus asks Seneca for help, as he feels stuck between two stools: asceticism and luxury:

I ask you, therefore, if you possess any cure by which you can check this fluctuation of mine, to consider me worthy of being indebted to you for tranquillity. I am aware that these mental disturbances I suffer from are not dangerous and bring no threat of a storm; to express to you in a true analogy the source of my complaint, it is not a storm I labour under but seasickness: relieve me, then, of this malady, whatever it be, and hurry to aid one who struggles with land in his sight.

‘Serenus’ (in seneca’s ‘On The Tranquility of the Mind’)

For me, Serenus’ description of his ‘mental disturbances’ as being like seasickness really resonate with me. As a friend said earlier this week, we’re both a little tired of the “constant up and down”.

Seneca restates Serenus’ problem, first stating what he doesn’t require:

Accordingly, you have no need of those harsher measures that we have already passed over, that of sometimes opposing yourself, of sometimes getting angry with yourself, of sometimes fiercely driving yourself on, but rather of the one that comes last, having confidence in yourself and believing that you are on the right path and have not been sidetracked by the footprints crossing over, left by many rushing in different directions, some of them wandering close to the path itself.

seneca, ‘On The Tranquility of the Mind’

Another useful metaphor, of being sidetracked by other people’s, and perhaps your own, footprints. Instead what Seneca explains that Serenus needs to have “confidence” in himself, and believe that he is “on the right path”.

Don’t we all need that?

Seneca continues by saying that everyone is in the same boat, which might as well be named The Human Condition. What he diagnoses as the nub of the problem, which is think is particularly insightful, is our attempts to keep changing things. Ultimately, this simply means we live in a constant state of suspense and dissatisfaction.

Everyone is in the same predicament, both those who are tormented by inconstancy and boredom and an unending change of purpose, constantly taking more pleasure in what they have just abandoned, and those who idle away their time, yawning. Add to them those who twist and turn like insomniacs, trying all manner of positions until in their weariness they find repose: by altering the condition of their life repeatedly, they end up finally in the state that they are caught, not by dislike of change, but by old age that is reluctant to embrace anything new. Add also those who through the fault, not of determination but of idleness, are too constant in their ways, and live their lives not as they wish, but as they began. The sickness has countless characteristics but only one effect, dissatisfaction with oneself. This arises from a lack of mental balance and desires that are nervous or unfulfilled, when men’s daring or attainment falls short of their desires and they depend entirely on hope; such are always lacking in stability and changeable, the inevitable consequence of living in a state of suspense.

seneca, ‘On The Tranquility of the Mind’

Next, Seneca seemingly reaches through the ages to drive his point home with sentences which, despite being aimed at his interlocutor, seem targeted at me.

All these feelings are aggravated when disgust at the effort they have spent on becoming unsuccessful drives men to leisure, to solitary studies, which are unendurable for a mind intent on a public career, eager for employment, and by nature restless, since without doubt it possesses few enough resources for consolation; for this reason, once it has been deprived of those delights that business itself affords to active participants, the mind does not tolerate home, solitude, or the walls of a room, and does not enjoy seeing that it has been left to itself. This is the source of that boredom and dissatisfaction, of the wavering of a mind that finds no rest anywhere, and the sad and spiritless endurance of one’s leisure; and particularly when one is ashamed to confess the reasons for these feelings, and diffidence drives its torments inwards, the desires, confined in a narrow space from which there is no escape, choke one-another; hence come grief and melancholy and the thousand fluctuations of an uncertain mind, held in suspense by early hopes and then reduced to sadness once they fail to materialize; this causes that feeling which makes men loathe their own leisure and complain that they themselves have nothing to keep them occupied, and also the bitterest feelings of jealousy of other men’s successes.

Seneca, ‘On The Tranquility of the Mind’

Seneca continues to give Serenus more advice in the dialogue, but, every time I read these opening few pages, I feel like he has diagnosed not only my condition, and that of all humankind.

While some people are always on the lookout for the new and the novel, I’m realising that the best way to spend the second half of my life might well be to spend a good amount of time wringing out as much value from things I’ve already discovered.


The quotations in this post are from the Oxford World’s Classics version of Seneca’s Dialogues and Essays. If you can’t find it in your local library, try here.

If you’re new to the Stoics, may I suggest starting with The Enchiridion by Epictetus? I’d follow that with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (buy a decent quality dead-tree version; you’ll thank me in years to come) and then dip into Seneca’s somewhat voluminous works.


Header image by Simon Migaj. Quotation-as-title from Lucretius, who Seneca quotes in ‘On the Tranquility of the Mind’.

Creating and seeding your own torrents using archive.org and Transmission

Update: fixed video!

(no video above? click here!)

I’ve been experimenting this Easter weekend, and today did an impromptu livestream via Periscope. My focus was on using the Internet Archive and Transmission to create and seed torrents.

As I stated back when I was much, much younger(!) and I’ve blogged about recently, I think bittorrent is massively under-used in education, especially thinking about sharing entire courses or certainly lots of resources at a time.

For those interested, I downloaded the Periscope video via pscp.download.

3 apps to help avoid post-pandemic surveillance culture [VIDEO]

This is an experiment using a green screen and OBS. Let me know what you think!

Briar
Tor
LibreTorrent
F-Droid
Get a Thought Shrapnel digest in your inbox every Sunday (free!)
Holler Box