A partial index of discussion notes is in http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/misc/AREADME.html
[Some thoughts about the Facebook float and information-suction engines: the powerful new privacy invaders.] Facebook had an initial public offering on the Nasdaq stock exchange on 19th May 2012, at an astounding price of $104 billion dollars. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-18115914 This is a modified version of my response to a comment about the facebook flotation posted on the ComputingAtSchool discussion forum: I've been pondering this since the float was announced. Two to three decades ago (even before the world wide web) it became clear that the internet had the potential to be the most powerful educational, communal learning and teaching, mutually supporting, human connecting tool ever developed. To some extent that potential has been realised, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee and others, and is still being extended (witness the excellent online courses and teaching materials on computing, mathematics, biology, philosophy, and much else). [Note 1] But the dark side is the role of the internet as a host for powerful suction machines, offering to meet the needs of users, and in the process transferring large amounts of personal information and personal wealth (mostly in myriad small dollops) to vendors of large amounts of junk and allegedly"must-have" items, in addition to vendors of useful life-supporting or life-enriching goods; while rewarding the consumers of junk with the spurious gratification of "keeping up", "keeping in touch", new shinier toys, and micro-nuggets of fame, or in some cases just the empty promise of fame -- all alongside some truly useful services. (I appreciate that 'junk' is a loaded and debatable label. On another day I'll try to suggest objective criteria for junk-hood.)[Note 2] The charges levied by the suction engines per transaction are minute, but so many of the charges are channelled through a small number of those engines that they add up to many billions of dollars divided between a few giants fighting to keep their users by providing new services which are not only useful to their users (you and me) but but also increase their own suction power, in comparison with rivals (e.g. facebook). Google is outstanding at doing both. It oozes value at both ends, like nectar and pollen truly serving bees and other pollinators. I've benefited a lot from it, despite my growing concerns about what it is trying to do to me in order to pay for the services it gives me free of charge. I don't know much about facebook, but I expect all the same issues arise: it provides something people want, or think they want, and in return takes information which, after appropriate transmogrification, it can sell to others, or use to help others sell their wares. For example: At one time google rated each web site on the basis of other web sites referring to it. Now every time you click on the output of the search engine, your selection is noted by google -- sucking another tiny fragment of information: helping them help you in future, but also adding to their power to deliver information to their paying customers who want your money, or or your attention, or... Your personal details don't need to be passed on for that to work. Meanwhile, they have your details, and will still have them if ever their management changes, with new ethics. And typically the people you choose to buy from also get some of your details, which may be more valuable to them than the product you've paid for is to you. While the number of internet users with money to spend continues growing, the space for highly profitable giant suction engines grows, enabling them all to do ever more matching of customers and providers. During such growth, the development of yet another suction machine just means that larger rewards from more users are shared between more information-suckers. Limits to growth? However, as the growth in number of users world wide, especially users with money to spend, flattens out, the advent of a new, powerful, information-sucker able to attract paying vendors to its suction power, will reduce the rewards available to the older suction engines. Sometimes that change can be handled by an old one consuming a newer one (e.g. google buying youtube?). But not always: no existing giant managed to buy facebook. And facebook may not be able to buy the next young giant successful information-sucker. Humans, the witting and unwitting information providers, are notoriously susceptible to new fashions. Draw your own conclusions about the real value of facebook shares. Maybe things will change. When the uses of labels like "must have" "must see", "must read" as adjectives drop out of our language, and the use of complete grammatical sentences returns, that may be an indicator that we have begun to extricate ourselves from the mind-numbing gunk that flows in and out of the suction-engines, via the mutually rewarding/titillating (not only sexually titillating) interfaces they provide. If we start to escape the grip of vendors of attention-grabbing products the information-sucking engines will start to collapse. I can't help feeling it would be better for us simply to pay more for services and give away less information. Then we'll be targeted less by successful advertisements, and overall spend less. Perhaps more people will then discuss philosophy, study mathematics, play outdoor games, play music, compose poetry, talk to their children, read books, write books, grow vegetables, cook real food, study computer science, take up orienteering, and/or have serious email discussions that would have been impossible without the internet. Nothing could have persuaded me to use any savings to buy shares in Facebook, even if some clever, or lucky, fast moving, well-resourced speculators manage to make money out of the short term fluctuations, at the expense of -- guess who? Feel free to pass this on to Mark Zuckerberg, if you are one of his buddies. ==== Does anyone teach CS or ICT students about information-suction power? I could not find that phrase via google. Presumably there's another label for it.[Note3]NOTES
Note 1: I presented a partial view of this in my 1978 book: "The Computer Revolution in Philosophy: Philosophy Science and Models of Mind" http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/crp/ especially in The Preface and the introduction to Chapter 1 (Several parts of the book need to be updated.) Others had had similar thoughts about the importance of computing before me -- e.g. Alan Kay and Seymour Papert.
Note 2: The general idea of getting useful information about customers in the process of providing a service is not new. E.g. many consumer product guarantee schemes require the purchaser to answer a detailed questionnaire, most of which has nothing to do with the item purchase. What has changed is the speed, power, and scale of the information-suction engineers. (My thanks to Ciaran McHale for reminding me that attaching information-sucking functions to services is not new.)
Note 3: The day after I posted the first draft of this note to the ComputingAtSchool list, the Monday morning BBC Radio 4 Programme "Start the Week" had a discussion closely related to this.
Monday 21 May 2012 On Start the Week Andrew Marr discusses the relationship between markets and morals with the political philosopher Michael Sandel. In his latest book, What Money Can't Buy, Sandel questions the dominance of the financial markets in our daily lives, in which everything has a price. But the economist Diane Coyle stands up for her much maligned profession, and points to the many benefits of a market economy. The Russian economist Grigory Yavlinksy argues against viewing the world of money as separate from culture and society: he believes the financial crisis was merely a symptom of a wider moral collapse, and that it is time to examine the way we live.
I heard only part of it but I felt that the discussion did not bring out two important relevant points:
The changing role of increasingly powerful information-suction engines in the world economy, discussed above.
The fact that all the governments striving to increase growth and all the economic commentators discussing lack of, and the need for, growth fail (as far as I can see) to address the problem of international trade having to be a zero-sum game, unless there are ways of pouring new value into the system to be distributed or increasing the value of resources already in the system. The former process used to be done either by exploiting the planet's resources (minerals, land, water, edible animals and plants, etc.), or by reducing the cost of acquiring and using those resource by use of new technology, or by sucking those resources from groups who were not part of the market system, often with their labour added -- i.e. exploiting "under-developed" people. All of these opportunities are diminishing as untapped resources become scarce (or are destroyed as a side-effect of the various processes described), and as resistance to exploitation of some human-populations by others grows, along with resistance to harming the prospects of precious non-human life. (A crucial question for humanity: How many potential future human babies is it worth keeping unborn to allow one orangutan, or whale, or tiger or polar bear, to live its full, natural life?) A possible exception to the zero-sum game is the possibility of sharing information: if newly acquired information (e.g. scientific, medical, artistic, historical, mathematical, or philosophical information, or information about computer algorithms) is shared with others then the sharing process can increase value for recipients without decreasing value for donors (except where being the unique possessor of such information provides opportunities for financial gain). (When I was a first year university student in 1954 I justified my choice of a research career by claiming knowledge was the only thing one could give away without losing anything.) Information can be used to increase the value of other goods: e.g. information about better ways to use scarce resources, or information about new uses of old medicines. However, when governments stress the need for economic growth they normally refer to types of growth that come at someone else's expense, e.g. acquiring more funds to purchase food, materials, machinery, land, etc.
Forget tax bills, here's how Google is really taking us all for a ride What's that saying about knowing the price of everything? By Andrew Orlowski, 28th May 2013
I have learnt much about these issues from colleagues in The School of Computer Science especially Mark Ryan, whose professorial inaugural lecture is here: http://markryan.eu/inaugural/