Tuesday, 28 February 2012


'Formationsflug' by loop_oh
under a CC license
I've been tempted many times to write on the current financial mess the world is in. I am by no means an expert on financial issues, let alone world financial issues, but I sort of feel part of the equation. To be frank, living in Greece today and having spent the last decade or so in the country, I believe that most people in the world think that finances are merely stand alone - but of extreme importance - math formulas, with a vague, not necessarily clear connection to the real world.
Well, yes, there is math involved but - here is the catch - not only. And, yes, they have a huge impact on how the real world works.

I won't go on with this topic, though. Too many people, professionals of all sorts, as well as individuals have reported, analysed, commented, reviewed and - at any rate - written too many words on the issue from many different vantage points. The chances are that they will continue doing that and, also, that I will continue following them up. However, I need to express a question: Do we (mankind) know how wealth and society interact with each other?


I don't mean whether we have socio-economic theories and models available and in practice. That, we do. (and, currently, it is clear that they need a bit of tweaking to keep us on a sustainable path).  I'm wondering whether we know how the various societal elements interact with the wealth-generating mechanisms. I do understand that this is no easy thing; in my mind it sounds a bit like asking for the single, all-inclusive math model that is capable of correlating the reduction in the production of feta-cheese in Greece to the change of the rate of oil exploration in the Arctic circle and quantify the effect of that correlation to the (im)migration of early-career civil engineers from south Chile to Norway. [btw., this is a purely fictitious example!]

I am sure that, as you read these lines, there are scholars around the world that are trying to connect the dots, refining formulas, adapting theories, etc. By the way, immigration is a topic that has been receiving a lot of attention the last few decades. Mathematical models do exist and work on those still continues.

For societal stakeholders the challenge goes above and beyond merely producing a formula that manages to model the phenomena we witness. In fact, with or without such formula the critical question is how to manage change in the most "productive", "civilized" and "sustainable" way. I used quotation marks because, really, those three words have been assigned a wide range of meanings so far. What I'm trying to say is that we need to find out how to use the advantages of any change, regardless of how minor those may be, in order to mitigate, completely negate or even exceed the associated disadvantages.

Immigration is a nice example. Whenever we hear the word, we tend of thinking of working hands with no or little qualifications. Often, the word is associated with discussions on unemployment, violence and crime, burden to the social system, etc. Sometimes, brain-drain gets attention, as well. But, as you imagine, there is an other side, too: increase of the available workforce, widening of the tax-basis, cultural (and other) diversity, strengthening of the intra-societal dialogue potential, expansion of the internal market, enrichment of the skills pool, transfer of innovation, etc. The rule of thumb is that you can't have all the pros without any cons but there have been plenty of examples of countries that managed quite well by receiving and integrating immigrants (the US, Germany and Australia being just a few strong examples), both with low and high skills and qualifications.

Going a bit beyond that, mobility is strongly explored as a way to boost innovation. The Marie Curie Actions (implemented by the European Commission) have led to numerous success stories. Of course, researcher mobility and immigration of the general population are neither synonyms nor equivalents but they do share some common elements.

Some express views where immigration contributes to local communities in the same way that genetic diversity contributes to the survival and expansion of a species (similar thinking has been expressed for cultural diversity). I wouldn't go that far, though. To what I perceive, migration, be it within borders or cross-border, has led to variety in life and has come hand-in-hand with internationalisation (again, a word with more than one faces). If I stick to simple things, the languages with speak, the way we think, the foods we taste, the way we work, the fashion we follow, have been shaped through numerous "exchanges" with groups of people from "somewhere else". That doesn't mean that immigration shouldn't be carefully thought of by the states. But, nevertheless, it can also lead to better thinking, which sometimes is really, really needed...

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Pitch Black

'Natural Satellites' by Pedro
Moura Pinheiro under
a CC license
(this first 2012 post of mine is a bit off my usual fields - please bear with me until the 2nd one :-)

The Internet is a strange world. We ofter forget is the the result of adding up diverse creations of human beings. Be it like that, the internet is no perfect thing and - for sure - not a being, itself, at least not one with any of the human qualities.

Back in the '60s, when ARPANET was being expanded one network at a time, I doubt that anyone of those involved could ever have imagined that they were adding the first small bits of what we now know as "the web" (or "the internet" - although the two are not really the same thing). Back then, exchanging data and perhaps exchanging a few words with colleagues was a big step forward and that was, really, all it mattered. Now, especially for the newer generations, google, youtube, facebook and their likes are facts of life. Seriously, I bet that in big cities kids see and use google/ youtube/ facebook/ etc. years before they actually come across a living cow...

Don't get me wrong. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Those services and many, many, many others have completely transformed our lives, enabling us to do (often for free) things that would have been tedious or even technically challenging. Call them tools of creativity, business infrastructure, fun or whatever else.... Being around with the internet of today is cool and that is in-large because of those things.


With all good things, high expectations come, too. Think of content, for instance. There's a lot of stuff around the web. Is it of good quality? Let's - for the shake of the argument - say it is. Who maintains it? Mostly people (and in some cases, scripted robots - but that's another story). Some, because they make a living out of it, others because it is associated with their job, others because they feel it as a way to create or offer something to the masses, others because it happens to be what their circle does and others simply because they find it fun. To put it in other words, there is a huge diversity of agendas and - thus - of commitment behind each content item available on the web.

Within the last 4-5 months, 4 of the blogs I normally visited at least a few times a week have stayed inactive. Myself, I have been unable to put together a half-descent post for quite a while now...

What's the big deal, you 'll ask? Well, there is no big deal, unless you actually start counting on such small things or things affected start being not-so-small. You see, in my case with those 4 blogs I used to visit, they were something like the Sunday newspaper: It was not so much what they wrote, it was the ritual of reading them; the power of Habit! No huge loss but, plainly, an unnecessary change :( And, please, don't get me wrong, but I'll avoid describing questions, such as, "what may have happened to the people behind those blogs; are they all right?", not because such questions are invalid or irrelevant but because they are something I'd prefer to handle in a future post....

Now take the example a bit further. Imagine that something you really rely on (on the Web) vanishes. Take Gmail out the equation for a second or - even better - take Gmail AND Yahoo Mail AND Hotmail out of the equation. How does this feel? "It's not the same" you 'll reply. True! It's not exactly the same because many, many people rely on those services to run businesses or at least facilitate business tasks. But on top of those people there are others, who have their entire digital lives somewhere on those services. And in such cases, the loss wouldn't just be a question of money....

So here are the questions for you:
  • How do we stop the part of the Web we like/ use/ ... from turning pitch black?
  • If not (and I suspect we can't), how to we take the minimum possible loss/ frustration?
  • How can we improve stability on the Web, without hindering progress?
The Internet Archive is a modest such effort of preserving content in a fashion very similar to a library. Is it a useful thing? Well, maybe. For sure it may prove useful to historians at some point, regardless of the fact that most of the content it salvages is of little practical use.

From the practical side of things, at least when it comes to our personal content on the web, the only practical solution is mirroring across different service providers or devices. It's no small feat if you have a couple of decades of digital luggage there but it's a feasible and low cost (or no cost) thing to do.

At times, there are visionaries putting together new tools to manage our digital presence and preserve it across the decades of our lives. But I can't see any solution to having the digital universe around us stay as stable as possible.

Experience suggests that digital neighbourhoods are volatile. Evolving, if you prefer. As are our real neighbourhoods, although at a much slower rate. Unlike reality, which we have learned to process, the digital change feels harder handle - especially for those old enough to have their fixed points of reference in life :)

So how about I change those questions above to something like this:
  • How do we make change in the internet manageable? In what way should technologies evolve so that facing the novel we feel we experience continuity instead of the unfriendly pitch black void?
It is not a question with a single answer, I'm sure. User interfaces, functionality,  devices, education, business models, the law, personal finances, etc., they all are pieces of the same jigsaw puzzle. So, let's see if evolution will take us that way....